Interview: 90 year old poet of the Northwest USA William Matchett talks of his new work, ‘Airplants’

 

Poet William Matchett

Poet William Matchett

 

 

Interview and article by Peter Menkin

Quakers do not have a set of beliefs they adopt when they become Quakers. We have four testimonies we try to live out: Community, simplicity, equality, and peace. In poems you would find a number of things referring to (the testimony). We try to live for it. We believe in continuing revelation. Which means we feel there are new truths emerging in the Universe all the time and we need to use discernment and the help of each other to find these truths. To find if they are truly true.

–Judy Brown, Quaker

She introduced me to Poet Matchett and is an editor of poetry (Friends Journal)

 

 

An interview with poet William H. Matchett, Quaker, done by phone, but mostly answers typed on his typewriter from the 90 year old’s home in the remote area of Seabeck, Washington in the United States’ great Northwest where he lives with his wife in the Summer (this done 2013 from September 12, 2013 through the end of October, 2013). Correspondence by U.S. Mail was our method of sending manuscripts. This took a few days as poet Matchett has neither computer nor internet for one. He retired as a teacher from The University of Washington in 1982 (Shakespeare).

In this interview we focus somewhat on his new book described by W.S. Merwin as poems gathered over a lifetime and published by Antrim House in Simsbury, Connecticut, “Airplants: Selected Poems.” There is a short interview by Antrim House publisher Robert Rennie McQuilkin following the interview with poet William H. Matchett.

An older statement by The University of Washington on the internet says of him, in part:

William Matchett, professor emeritus of English and former longtime editor of the journal Modern Language Quarterly…Matchett retired from the UW in 1982 but continued teaching and writing after that. He is the author of two other books of poetry, Water Ouzel and Fireweed as well as the work Shakespeare and Forgiveness. He also has written stories, articles and other criticism, and his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, include The New Yorker, Saturday Review of Literature, Harper’s and The New Republic.

Antrim House says this of the poet: “William Matchett was born in Chicago and educated in its public schools until his final two years of high school at Westtown, a Quaker boarding school, where his commencement essay was a long poem. During World War II he was assigned, as a conscientious objector, first to a Civilian Public Service camp and then, as a guinea pig, to the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass. After graduating from Swarthmore with highest honors in 1949, he married and returned to Cambridge to pursue a PhD at Harvard. While there, he had a teaching assistantship in Archibald MacLeish’s popular poetry course, and was one of the founders of the Poets’ Theatre, remaining active with it until 1954. Matchett’s entire teaching career since then has been at the University of Washington, where he is now an Emeritus Professor.”

 

INTERVIEW WITH POET WILLIAM MATCHETT WITH RELIGION WRITER PETER MENKIN

 

 

  1. Of your poems, many give a taste of being close to the land. Which of those speak to you of God, if you will, and give an example of one that is special to you–if only a few lines. Has your Quaker faith influenced you in your appreciation of the land and its environment?

 

I think it is true that the only time the word ‘God’ appears in these poems is in the third section of the Accademia poem where it clearly refers to the Old Testament God of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis as he appears in those glorious tapestries. I don’t use the word otherwise since it means so many different things to different people and would get in the way of the experiences I am trying to create. I don’t think of poems as sermons but as creating experiences for others to consider.

After I completed “Water Ouzel,” I recognized that it was one-sided, only part of the story. The poem ends most dangerously with the word “sweet”—dangerous because, as Shakespeare makes clear in a scene in Troilus and Cressida, it easily cloys. I didn’t know Troilus and Cressida that well when I wrote it. I did realize that it was a poem expressing a very optimistic view of the world, and I knew there was another side to the picture. So I wrote “The Petrel” to indicate a darker side of the balance. Still, I let “Water Oruzel” have the last word in that volume.

Many Quakers differ in the language they use to express their deepest convictions. But we are tolerant of each other and try to hear what the others are saying even though their words may not be ones we would use.

I don’t think of myself as a “Quaker Poet.” Though I am a Quaker who writes poetry, I don’t speak for Quakers. Many of my earliest poems were about birds. I then consciously ruled them out as a subject, not wanting to be thought of as a Bird Poet, wanting to avoid such cataloguing. Only two poems in this collection are Quaker in subject matter, “Quaker Funeral” and “Jordans Meeting.”  However, a friend did once say she thought of Antinightmare” as a quintessential Quaker poem since (mistakenly as it turned out) I gave George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt, seeing that of God in him.

Yes, I think becoming aware of the incredible balances in the environment, and our need to protect them, has increased my Quaker faith, though I suppose it is circular and my Quaker faith has increased by sense of balances. I want to be on the side of protecting the land, yet I still drive a car. It is a Prius, but still uses gas. Our son will only use public transportation or his bicycle, but there is none of the former where we live and I am too old for the latter, so I remain inconsistent. Yet my Quaker faith is me. As you said, wherever I go, there I am.

I wrote “Fjord Afternoon” some years ago.

FJORD AFTERNOON (Here is text of the poem.)

Our weeks of sun have come to an end, all the colors subdued under a mat grey sky, the surface calm, the maples along the shore patches of dull orange among the yellowing alders, the mountains flat planes of dissolving blues, the still warm air already beginning to turn.

No sound but the paddles stirring slow circles and the occasional loon laughing across the water, yet the fjord is restless with congregations of grebes and scoters extending into the mist; five cormorants crenellating a floating log take off one by one as we drift too close.

What an autumn this has been! A seal, slipping beneath the canoe, comes up on the other side, trying to understand us, keeping its soft periscope aimed in our direction. Its paler-than-usual face magnifies its eyes, its round black eyes, looking through and beyond us.

 

We face that fjord and the Olympic Mountains beyond it, as we have now for more than fifty years. But the fjord is dying. In winter there used to be rafts of many kinds of ducks. Not now. There are no longer the fish to support them. The ecological balance has gone awry. Even then I thought of the seal as looking through and beyond us.

Numbers of poems in this book end with unresolved observations, like “Clearing the View”:

 

 

 

  1. This short interview by phone gives me the opportunity to ask you the retrospective question: As you pause with us, tell us what time in your life as a poet was most fulfilling in your work? And again, will you give us a snippet from a poem from that era to illustrate a work. We’d love to hear from you, even if your answer is not a final one and is only one answer of many possibilities and realities.

 

Only once in my life was I able to give writing poetry uninterrupted attention, day after day: that was in 1962-3 when, on my first sabbatical, I was living in Florence with my family. My main project that year was to finish writing a book entitled Poetry: From Statement to Meaning, a textbook for college use, on which I started with a University of Washington colleague, Jerome Beaty. He meanwhile had moved to Emory University, but we both had sabbaticals that same year, he in London, I in Florence, and we got together in both places and finished that project. This left me with time I could devote to writing poetry, and it was an exciting year.

Among others, I wrote the Accademia poem then, visiting the gallery time and again to look at Michelangelo’s David, his so-called “Prisoners,” unfinished, lining the hall by which one approached the David, and the amazing, tapestries hanging behind the Prisoners. It was a very ambitious poem with an intricate rhyme scheme. I am always fascinated with attempting to maintain intricate patterns without letting them sound artificial, keeping the normal speech-patterns. If one is writing in self-contained stanzas and discovers late in the poem that one needs to add something earlier, it is always possible to insert another stanza. When the stanzas interlock, one can’t just add another, but must take them apart like a watch and try to put them back together.

I was first taken to Florence briefly by my parents, as tourists, when I was 13. I came home with a photograph of the David, which became the subject of a poem originally entitled “Packing a Photograph from Florence.” This raised the obvious question, who was Florence? So I changed the title to “Packing a Photograph from Firenze.” After we had lived there, the Italian name seemed the appropriate one, though I admit I am not consistent. I still say Paris, not Paree, Rome, not Roma. I stayed with Firenze in the two other later poems that have it in their title. “Five Illuminations in Firenze” is a kind of short story allowing me to write of the city I love. Readers object there are only four, but I hope there is a fifth in the coming to understanding of the speaker.

3.

Religion Writer and Poet Matchett are now in Conversation. We begin a kind of memoire and reminiscence of poetic work by the poet.

Rennie was most supportive, but he didn’t do the actual selection. I knew I couldn’t include everything I’ve written, so I tried to select those which seemed to me the more successful and to eliminate those that were weaker. I also wanted to demonstrate a variety of approaches, not all in the same voice. There are a couple I included because they had been well received by readers I respected.  “Old Inn on the Eastern Shore” is one of those. I guess the poem stands up, but it doesn’t really represent me now. Too much influence from T.S. Eliot. I had written my senior thesis at Swarthmore on his Four Quartets, then newly published, but I was writing that “Old Inn” poem as though I were Eliot and I am not.

In contrast, the Hopkins influence in my early poem “Osprey” doesn’t bother me at all because it is an influence of technique, not of philosophy.

 

4 and 5.

The Conversation between Religion Writer Menkin and Poet Matchett continues. Their subject ranges from creation of experience by the poet through sense of place, “love” and the fjord. Not in that order.

My interest as a poet is in trying to create experiences, perhaps guiding the reader but leaving conclusions up to him or her. An example of trying to force a response, a simple example, might be in the first poem in the Fireweed section, “The Nature of the Beast.” When the cat brings a mouse, we are in the realm of cliché—cat and mouse, of course, so we hardly respond. When the list continues, however, I hope we find ourselves beyond cliché, so that “clotted feathers” and “half a chipmunk” force a response. Then the end of the poem turns from the cat to use it as a metaphor for the speaker.

In the wedding poem “Go Team” I left out all the punctuation to let the reader experience differing possibilities. Especially, of course, at the end, where “nothing” can be either subject or object. Is it that love holds nothing and changes? Or that love holds and nothing changes? Either can be true or false. It is, of course, quite unfair to the couple for whom the poem was being written, and one wants to read it that love holds and nothing changes, but I was carried away by what became possible as I wrote and left it this way. Either statement may in fact be true—or false. It is up to the reader.

I am perhaps overly interested in technique, having too little to propound. I am as interested in how things are said as I am in what is said. My wife says I read novels for style rather than for plot.

My two well-received books have long been out of print. Several well-meaning friends asked why I didn’t republish them, but it is not that easy. Fortunately Antrim house was interested in my putting together a selected poems and it gave me the chance to make available again Full Cover Wm Matchettworks in which I retained some pride. It is the usual human desire to leave something worthwhile. I suppose this book will also disappear in time, but I am grateful that it exists for now. The first three sections are the best of what was printed in the earlier volumes; the fourth collects poems which had been only in various magazines. Rennie McQuilkin of Antrim House was designer and I think he did a wonderful job in creating a handsome volume.

You asked how I would respond to the question “If I write poetry, will I make money?” I say, No, you won’t. That is, perhaps unfortunately, not the point. Any value a book of poetry—or a poem—has is in what the reader finds in it. Perhaps modern developments are progress, but I still much prefer books as books, the heft of them, the smell of them. I mark up my own books and like to return to them and discover whether I have changed my mind. I have an enormous library and when someone looks at it and asks the inevitable question, “Have you read all these books?” I have learned to answer “Many of them more than once.” At my present age, I enjoy rereading books I remember liking earlier. Of course teaching kept me reading. Trollope is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read all 47 of his novels—most more than once—and prefer him to the other Victorian novelists. But I could list many other “favorites.”

My present plans are just to keep going. My wife and I are slowing down, having been together for 65 years. Daily living takes most of our time now—and doctor’s appointments. I doubt that I will be writing much more poetry. We used to enjoy being snowed in here in the winter, but can’t go on with that and have to retreat to Seattle when snow threatens. We have lots of friends and family helping us out, but we need to think of abandoning this remote spot in winter. I tried to capture what this place means to me in a poem entitled “The Sense of Place:”

 

 

 

 

Our post office is Seabeck, Washington. We are in the woods seven miles south of there with our wonderful view of the fjord and the mountains. We bought this place in 1961 and spent summers here until my retirement, when we came here full time. Now we have to retreat again in the winter.

We are members of the University Friends Meeting in Seattle and attend it regularly when we are there and fairly frequently even from here, two hours away. This is the oldest of the three Seattle Meetings (though there is an older church in the other branch of Friends) and we have been members since we transferred here in 1954. Quakerism itself gradually changes. We believe in continuing revelation, meaning that there is still truth to the be revealed. Each Yearly Meeting has its own Faith and Practice (the very names may differ) and is continually reconsidering it. The most recent example, of course, is the acceptance of, indeed the welcoming of, gay marriage by most Meetings. One might note that the earliest Friends were beer-drinkers—or wine, if they could afford it—and this is again true. There was however, an intervening period when most Quakers were tee-totalers. Moderation is the present standard.

A Meeting is not only a church but a meaningful community of individuals respecting each other even when they differ. The support of our fellow members through Judy’s and my ill health has been most gratifying and almost unbelievable.

 

END INTERVIEW WITH POET WILLIAM MATCHETT BY PETER MENKIN

 

ADDENDUM I

In this interview with Publisher of Antrim House  Robert Rennie McQuilkin talks briefly in his written answers about his work with poets.. He does this for us in an effort to give readers a perspective on the recently released work of William Matchett’s title, “Airplants,” found here: http://antrimhousebooks.com/matchett.html .

Without much more, here we have the publisher and editor Robert McQuilkin answering questions posed by Religion Writer Peter Menkin. McQuilkin can be reached through email: www.antrimhousebooks.com .

THE INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT MCQUILKIN

  1. What is your opinion of the state of poetry publishing today? Yes, this is a broad question. But would you say it is alive and well?

 

 

Editor and Publisher McQuilkin

Editor and Publisher McQuilkin

Poetry publishing is alive and well, not in the greater world of Knopf and Random House, but in the less commercial world of Graywolf, Sarabande, Copper Canyon, and yes, even Antrim House.

 

  1. At Antrim House, is your place in this world of publishing poetry one that has a distinct point of view? Tell us something about it. More specifically, in a few words speak to us of the characteristics of the kind of book of poetry your house likes to publish?

I am going to quote from our website:Antrim House strives to publish the best work by writers from all parts of the country, with a special emphasis on emerging writers. We prefer work that does not cater to the academic establishment but is part of the continuum of work produced by writers the likes of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Richard Wilbur, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, and Jane Kenyon. We also stress the importance of oral presentation, encouraging our authors to perform their work as widely as possible, in part to continue the ancient bardic tradition, making poetry a living, breathing art form; in part to promote an appreciation of poetry in a country where it is denigrated; and in part to inspire young poets. We hope to cultivate wider appreciation of a vibrant literary form that too often goes unnoticed in the midst of pop culture’s noise-making.

While we have no bias toward formal or informal, traditional or innovative work, we do insist that Antrim House writing be both comprehensible and resonant, rewarding multiple readings by revealing itself gradually but also avoiding the sort of inscrutability too much in vogue. When the poetry we publish has a political slant, we like it to abide by Emily Dickinson’s dictum: “Tell all the Truth but tell It slant.” That is, we favor the work of a writer like Martín Espada, whose political poetry is imagistic rather than abstract. We also believe that all good poetry is essentially political. If we publish poetry that might be termed “confessional,” we insist that it be universal and not purely personal. And we believe that high seriousness and high humor can cohabit. We side with Shakespeare against Racine. As noted before, we are also interested in publishing photography, especially when it is joined to the written word, and. memoirs that have universal appeal.

We believe that our emphasis on clarity combined with resonance has led to the promulgation of work that has wide appeal to a general audience. The Antrim House publisher/editor’s experience as the founder and director of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which continues to attract enthusiastic audiences numbering in the hundreds, confirmed his belief that “poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” Both he and the Associate Editor know that that when poetry speaks simply and plainly while at the same time retaining artistic integrity, it can be as popular an art form in this country as it already is in others.

 

 

  1. Is your publishing house in Connecticut a one man venture? Where is it located?

Antrim House has been a one-man operation until recently, when an Associate Editor joined the staff. We operate out of the family homestead, an 18th Century farmhouse in Simsbury, CT.  

 

  1. What of your personal interest in poetry? What is your own taste, that is what have you liked most, especially as a student or young person?

I came to the work/play of publishing poetry as a poet and arts administrator, having directed the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival for ten years. While with the Festival, I came to realize that many relatively unknown poets, ones more interested in writing new work than in promoting themselves, have been overlooked by the poetry establishment. As a result, I contacted one of them (Norah Pollard) to suggest that she should consider publishing her work in book form. The result was a book (Leaning In) that other poets seemed to approve of. I began to receive requests for publication and am currently rather besieged with submissions. I have always been very selective in accepting work for publication, but I am receiving so many interesting manuscripts that Antrim House is turning out about 15 books per year.

 

My own work has been published in journals/magazines such as The Atlantic, Poetry, The Yale Review, The Southern Review, The Hudson Review, and The American Scholar. I came to poetry early on because of the encouragement of grade school teachers and under the influence of writers as disparate as John Keats and Emily Dickinson. More recently I have especially enjoyed the work of Galway Kinnell, Mary Oliver, Richard Wilbur, Robert Cording, and Eamon Grennan.

 

 

One Response to Interview: 90 year old poet of the Northwest USA William Matchett talks of his new work, ‘Airplants’

  1. avatar

    admin

    08/11/2013 at 20:49

    “Fjord Afternoon” is a poem in three six-line stanzas, not in prose paragraphs as it is reproduced in this interview.
    –William H. Matchett