Sarah Matthes’s collection transforms itself into a bowl for you to turn over and drink from. In an exquisite excavation of grief, love, and loss, Matthes finds herself a leading contemporary voice in American poetry. As deeply funny as it is moving and sad, Matthes balances the comedy/tragedy masks with powerful hands in this collection dedicated to and intrinsically informed by her friendship with the late poet Max Ritvo.
Matthes and I spent a lovely afternoon discussing Town Crier‘s themes and imminent legacy, which includes but is by no means limited to Ritvo, Jewish tradition, theatre, the art of organizing a manuscript, and squirrels.
What is the significance of the title? Why Town Crier?
That’s a great question. I wondered if people were going to go hunting for it in the book, because as you might have noticed it doesn’t actually appear anywhere. Those words don’t come up. They did have a poem associated with them at the time — there was a poem called “Town Crier” in which I envisioned a city role of the town crier as contemporary grief-holder, whose job it was to weep for the tragedies of the town. Which is an idea that I think is fun, and the poem is alright, but ultimately it felt like pigeonholing to what that phrase actually meant for the greater implications in the book. I think it’s funny to people who know me, because I was a huge crybaby growing up and I’m also a big townie, so in a very literal sense people who know me would say, “Oh, Sarah Matthes, absolutely crying through the town.” Titles in that way can have that personal tie — I don’t care that anyone knows this, but it’ll be fun for people to find that out about me. But more than that, I just think that the language really is simple, and evokes the environment in which this book takes place. It feels like it happens, for me, in a nostalgic home. A home that you visit but maybe don’t live in anymore. It carries that sense of grief that is present throughout the book, but in a way that feels snappy and “winky,” which I also hope comes across through the book. It started with a more legitimate foothold in the Table of Contents, and when I realized that poem wasn’t doing it for me, I felt lucky that the title still felt relevant to the collection as a whole.
I think that’s a cool move to make, being really attached to this concept but understanding the poem itself is not part of this collection while still being able to take from it what the collection needs.
I wonder if it’ll show up in a later book. I love it when books talk to each other, and I like the idea that one day, years in the future, a much better version of it will come up and create that tie across that gap of time. Like they say in Project Runway, you have to make it cohesive as a collection.
How has your process been writing this book? How has it been finishing / publishing it?
I didn’t intend for this to be the book that I wrote. It’s hard to talk about the creation of this book without talking about my friend Max Ritvo. A lot of these poems are written for him, toward him, about him. Some of them came about in the earlier part of his final sickness, and some of them were written right after he died, and then many of them were written in the following months. A lot of them I never intended to see the light of day. When I first wrote them, I felt very much that they were therapy — I wasn’t happy with the lack of transformation that I saw on the page. I knew I was having this feeling, and I felt this real urge to scratch it into the paper and leave it there, put it somewhere else. But that didn’t feel like I was transforming anything, and he was such a transformative poet. One of the things I loved about his writing was that he had this transitive property way of thinking, this “A is B and B is C, so A is C, haha, you didn’t know that, now you do.” And I love following that kind of logical thinking in his writing, and I felt so moored to the reality of my grief and his passing, and I was very disappointed in the work I was making. Then, you revisit work, and you see the little glimmering thing inside of it that you are able to pull out and cultivate. You cut yourself some slack, hopefully, and that’s what happened with me. What I saw inside a lot of those poems was not necessarily the fact of the pain, but I saw the voice, and the voice for me was what created this central thread that allowed this to be a collection. This does feel to me like a voice-driven collection, so centering that callout in the title felt appropriate. A lot of the process of writing this book was looking back over poems that I thought didn’t necessarily have to do with each other and finding the voice that was speaking out from this place of grief. Sometimes when you’re talking through grief, you’re talking about potatoes or The Bachelor, sometimes you’re talking about the crushing devastation of your day. One voice is able to talk about many kinds of things, so the process had a lot to do with re-centering, looking through the things I had made and finding poems that were speaking through the same voice and letting them come together into a whole body.
I think that’s important to pay attention to. We write so much, but we don’t always write what we want to be writing. I like what you say about the idea that you just need to write your feelings down, but the work is not “transformative” in the way you want it to be, so feeling a need to make a more conscious effort towards that.
Yeah, and I have this habit of wanting every poem to be the scene-stealer. The role I was always typecast in when I did acting was the quirky best friend — I was never the leading lady, I’m always a character actor who comes in and does a little schtick, takes their bow, and skedaddles. I loved that. I loved coming in from left field, and being an element of surprise. I wanted all the poems to be like that. None of the poems are “leading players” in my head, I want them all to have that sense of shock, but that doesn’t make for an interesting or varied collection. Some of them have to be furniture, some of the poems have to be extras in the background, but they still need to be selling it. Sometimes it was hard to say “this poem doesn’t blow me away in that way, it doesn’t belong here,” and the answer is yes! Take a breath, have a quiet moment.
I get that inclination of wanting every poem has to be a “wham bam pow,” but that’s not how it is in a collection. I love that you’re saying you want them all to be the comic relief best friend, but knowing some of them have to be the straight man main character.
It’s hard to cast your poems in that role, for me. I think other people would love that, and for me, it’s not what I’m interested in, that’s not what I’m automatically drawn to.
How do you think someone with that theatrical background has affected you as a poet?
I think it’s all super related. It’s interesting hearing these questions, because both have a lot to do with voice. Particularly the idea of monologue. When I read at readings, for years now, I don’t have pages with me. I read from memory. I wouldn’t say it’s performance poetry or slam, though I love those areas of poetry, but that’s not what I do. It feels more like someone delivering a casual, naturalistic monologue at you. I like it to feel spontaneous, urgent, like it’s happening for all of us at the same time. I also like the little bit of fear that it instills in me to not have the safety net. I used to bring my pages up with me and then I would shake and it would embarrass me, so that’s why I initially stopped bringing the pages. I started leaving them on a stool nearby, and I found that when I did that I always checked them. So I stopped doing it. There have been a couple times where I forget how a poem goes, and no one really cares. It’s kind of funny to be like “I don’t know what this is!”
There’s something I find very nostalgic about monologue — soliloquy really — where I used to make speeches at people in the bathroom mirror, people who had wronged me. At the height of my teenage angst, I would make what I thought were the most cutting takedowns. I took myself so seriously in those times — I would literally speak out loud alone, and then you swivel the camera where you see yourself as a person talking out loud, emoting at the mirror and imagining someone else’s face there. There’s something really sad and really funny about that, which feels exactly like what I’m trying to get at when I’m writing. There’s a kind of self-observation you have as an actor. I’d prepare for auditions, I’d run lines, I’d look in the mirror and watch my face. The simultaneity of that emoting and self-observation feels so aligned with what I’m interested in — a single, spontaneous act of language. That looking back at yourself while you’re creating the thing you’re looking at. It moors you in a present moment and allows you to access both sides of the comedy and tragedy masks.
Hearing you say that makes me realize that connection of poetry to monologue and soliloquy, because in a way, every poem is one of those two things.
A lot of them are. There are definitely poets who take the person out of writing and focus on the surface of language in a way where the monologue of it all is much more abstract. You’re right, in that language is a human technology. There’s implicitly always someone speaking and someone hearing. Be honest with the fact that, when you’re writing, the person hearing it first is always yourself. You can write a poem that’s a letter to someone, you can write an elegy for the dead, you can write a love poem, but your first reader is yourself. I think that my poems are aware of that, and find it a little bit sad, a little bit lonely, and also funny and embarrassing.
That intersection of funny and sad is really prevalent in your poems. Writing about grief, but in a way that doesn’t poke fun at your grief, but says “oh, I’m so ridiculous, I saw a potato and now I’m crying. Isn’t that funny?” But on a deeper level it is really tragic and sad.
Potatoes will devastate. Famously.
My personal favorite poem of yours is “Love Poem,” published first by Voicemail Poems, and in it you say: “Do you remember how you said it, / the very first time you said it? // You answered ‘I love you’ / when I asked ‘What’s wrong.’” How do these lines inform the greater idea of love and loss in your work, and how grief could inform that love?
That’s an interesting poem to start with with that question. I hadn’t thought of it that way. There’s poems in this book where I think “those aren’t grief poems,” so it’s funny when people tell me that to them they are. Then I look and say, “oh yeah, you’re right.” That happened with the first poem in the book. The first poem, “The Basics,” ends with this image of a squirrel over a dead squirrel’s body, and me being unable to tell if the squirrel is mourning his friend or eating him. Even now, as I say “his friend,” that’s the giveaway for the realization that I had. Someone said “that’s a grief poem,” and I was like, “what are you talking about,” and they said, “well, that’s their friend.” I thought the death incident didn’t happen until a few poems into the book, but I realize now it starts off right away. It’s just hidden under this costume of me saying “chipmunk” four times in the first poem. (I can’t believe that I did that).
Max helped me get my manuscript together to apply for graduate schools, and once he was helping me with the order over the phone. I was sitting in my roommate’s room at the time, and he said something like, “No, Sarah, it can’t go ‘squirrel, dead dad, dead dad, sex, rats, squirrel,’ it has to be chunks. It’s gotta be ‘squirrel, rat, squirrel, dead dad, dead dad, sex.’ That’ll really catch them off guard.” I think the lines you point out are interesting to think about too, because the thing that feels related to grief and love is the way that those strong emotions are separated by such thin membranes. This moment, this first telling of the speech act of love can be corrupted by the framing of the question. I don’t think anyone is intending to insult that speaker, I don’t think the person is saying “what is wrong is that I love you,” I don’t think that’s literally what’s happening. It’s more a matter of language missing itself in the quickness of human communication. The feeling’s already bubbling up in that moment, someone is going to say “I love you,” it’s just that the question phrased happens to be “What’s wrong?” It could’ve been “Why are you moving like that?” or “What are you thinking about?” And the answer would’ve been the same, but the moment would’ve been completely different. There’s something about the mutual responsibility of communication, the way that you create emotion between people. When the person you’re creating emotion with is gone, the collaboration that’s taking place is imaginary. When I write toward Max, I am creating a stand-in for my affection, my frustration, whatever I’m trying to communicate at that time. There’s a version of him that exists, or my dad, or anyone else who you’re writing to that you miss and can’t communicate with. They don’t have to be dead, but it’s particularly when they’re gone. There’s a version of them you create, and it becomes inextricable. You can’t give language of love toward that imagined person without it also being an act of grieving, because there’s nothing for it to ricochet off of and come back to you. That kind of pouring that has trajectory but no destination — that longing feels also like grief, and like love. What makes it feel like love is when it bounces back at you, and when it doesn’t, where does it go?
In “Transitory Mitzvah,” you “prepare yourself for the gift” of a yawn on a subway car that never comes to you, and at the end of the poem you say “it happened… / my life, it did not change—” How do you feel your work may grapple with this question of a life marred by a lack of change — how great, seemingly cataclysmic events can happen to us and yet, in some ways, change our lives so little?
It’s both that great cataclysmic things can happen to us and change our lives so little, and also that the tiniest things can happen to us and change our lives so much. That poem feels so weird now, because it’s about shared breath, and I wrote it before the pandemic. It feels very different now — there’s a line “I thought this must be G-d: air / moving through human bodies.” That was when air moving through human bodies felt like something shared and safe and the most beautiful idea that day to me. And now, obviously, it feels really different. So when I think about that poem, it doesn’t even feel like a big cataclysmic event, it feels like a really small thing. Wanting so much to be a part of the picture. I love being alone among other people, it’s the way I feel the most in touch with whatever poetic voice drives me to write. It’s been something I haven’t been able to do a lot for the last year. That poem really wants to be involved with the things around it, and it feels spiritually important for the poem’s sense of self. It’s trying to come to terms with the fact that there is something very spiritual and beautiful about not being involved, about being next to the thing. That’s still a really important role to fill.
There’s also the reverse of it — the book at large has a real obsession with small moments that mean a lot. There’s a poem that puts a lot of stock in the idea that a paper towel roll could fall over in the kitchen, and that that means a lot. The question of how they make potato skins becomes an issue that takes on a larger social implication in that moment. The book is still, it doesn’t move around a lot — nothing is going to happen tomorrow that’s going to change your life, but actually, everything that happens to you tomorrow is going to change your life. I remember thinking the earrings I wore on any given day could change my life. That kind of stock in small decisions feels teenage to me, and has gone away from me, and I want it back. I want to bring that level of importance and observation to my day-to-day life again, that’s how I want to look at the world.
When it comes to events like grief, the fact of the event isn’t what you experience on a day-to-day basis. It’s when you pick up the phone to make the call, and you can’t. After my dad died, if I saw someone parallel parking I would lose it, because he taught me how to parallel park. That’s a hard way to walk around the world. What I was experiencing was the fact of his passing, but what I was seeing was someone squishing between two sedans. How do you experience both of those things at the same time? How is that one the channel that leads you to the other?
That’s a hard question to answer but an important one to think about. “I know it doesn’t make sense that I saw a koala and now I’m breaking down in a CVS, but let me have this.”
“But why is there a koala in CVS?” Call CVS, Gabbie.
How do you feel religion and Jewish identity plays a character in this book?
I mean, she’s there. One of the first interviews, someone asked me a question like this and I was so shocked that someone picked up on it. That’s how I used to feel, but then I was like “Well, if you’re going to have two poems about the Jewish folkloric figure the golem, and a poem about Yiddish aphorisms, and one comparing gefilte fish to a penis, people are gonna ask you about Judaism!” This book is super Jewish. It’s not that it was totally shocking to me — I was doing a lot of research on the golem, and was interested in learning more about Kabbalah and the significance of individual letters, understanding them as people with personalities who can get paired up in different ways to create these rhizomatic, complicated dynamics — and that’s just a word! Now you’re making cities out of the characteristics of individual letters. That makes even the most simple poem enormously populated. It felt like such an exciting way to think about language, and even talking about it now, I feel more animated. I remember how focused I felt, discovering so much for the first time.
I love that I could use my culture and — I hesitate to say religion because my relationship with my Jewishness is not observant but it is deferent. I feel a lot of deference for Judaism, especially in how it understands the creative power of language. I love that it could come up in a multitude of ways. I can make historical references, and talk about language, and have a sensibility and kind of questioning and chattiness that feels very Jewish to me. I’m proud of the idea that some of the humor in this is Jewish humor, and that it can feel like a holistically Jewish book in a prismatic approach to different cultural and religious elements I feel passionate about.
A lot about Judaism has to do with study and interpretation. There’s poems in this that try to make their own interpretations. The poem “613 Mitzvot” imagines letters as units that contain quantities, which is a Jewish understanding — letters have numbers associated with them. The idea that you can play around with those quantities as a building block for why you would choose certain words. The numerical implications would have ramifications on the words themselves. It’s a multitude of ways it influences my work, and it’s surprising to me because this is how I talk and think. I don’t walk around thinking of myself as a “Jewish person,” in the same way you don’t walk around with your labels of yourself in the front of your mind. So it’s been fun to have people approach it and ask me questions about this, because it didn’t even occur to me to be one of the more noteworthy things about it.
You write about your own identity not always because you’re trying to make a statement, but because that’s what you’re thinking about, so why would you not include it? It’s like how every love poem I write is gay; I’m not trying to be radical, I’m just gay. I think that’s an interesting thing to think about, and it’s so cool to see how excited you are about it. “I did something and people actually know what I did.”
It feels really good.
What is a question you want someone to ask you about this book?
Something that I’m interested in hearing other people talk about is how the process of actually building it came about. I’ve seen so many different people with aesthetic ordering processes — people hang strings from wall-to-wall and hang their poems on beautiful clothespins, or spread them out on the floor, or hole-punch them to put them in a neat binder. I felt like my process with this was so much messier and still feels imperfect. I think some people can look at their manuscripts and think “That’s the perfect order for these poems to be in,” and that was never going to be attainable for me. This book at one point was in five sections that were separated by Roman numerals and each one had a title. It was very “announcing itself” — this is the section about home, this is the section where someone dies, this is the section where we imagine if we were dead, et cetera. And that pretty much is the structure of the book, but having the faith to take that out and let this book just be a deluge of poems without separation felt like a huge choice to make. It’s the one thing I felt sure of and proud of when it came to putting the manuscript together. There’s something so tempting about sections because it creates natural breaths, like acts in a play — you get these moments of curtain close where people come back to themselves and take stock of how they’ve been affected. Even individual stanzas of different lengths have different engines in them; tercets will rise and fall and give you that rolling beginning, middle, and end. Sections will give you that same implicit energy, so removing them is a deliberate act. I like the reality of that, and how it lacks a neatness that sections suggest. That felt right to the kind of immediacy and sometimes messiness of the book.
Another thing I want to say is it feels very good to me that there are imperfect things in this book. It frees me from the idea of ever making a perfect book. I mean, it doesn’t exist. I imagine there are poems in here that I have memorized “wrong,” and the way that I say them when I perform them, to me, is the “real” version. That’s an example of the way that people’s subjective experience of poetry plays out within myself. I like that I can have two different takes of my same poem. Sometimes I agree with myself and sometimes I don’t.
Where can people find you?
by Sarah Matthes
Gabrielle Grace Hogan is a poet from St. Louis, MO. Currently, she lives in Austin, TX as she pursues her MFA from the University of Texas at Austin as part of the New Writers Project. She is the Poetry Editor of Bat City Review, Co-Editor of the online anthology You Flower / You Feast, and author of the chapbook Soft Obliteration available from Ghost City Press. She is on Twitter @gabrielleghogan.