portrait Matthew Lippman

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 81 ~ February, 2004

Matthew Lippman’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including the American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, Massachusetts Review Seneca Review and Black Warrior Review.

A graduate with an MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa, Lippman’s poem “Hallelujah Terrible” was included in The Best American Poetry 1997. He earned his BA
in psychology, with a minor in English, from Hobart College in 1987, and also has a Masters in English Education from Columbia University.

In addition to receiving the James Michener/Paul Engle Prize for Poetry from the University of Iowa, Lippman received the Honorable Mention Award for his poem “Thataboy” in the Los Angeles Poetry Competition and has also been nominated
for a Pushcart Prize.

He has taught at Columbia University, the University of Iowa, Westchester Community College, and currently teaches poetry at the Gotham Writers Workshop in Manhattan. Lippman also teaches English and creative writing at Roslyn High School on Long Island, and has twice won an award from Adelphi University for “Excellence in the Teaching of Poetry to High School Students.”

Derek Alger: Congratulations on your nomination for a Pushcart Prize, that’s quite an honor.

Matthew Lippman: Yeah, thanks. It’s not a big deal. Rene Steinke, editor of The Literary Review, nominated me for the translation I did of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s poem “Stabat Nuda Aestas” (The Naked Summer Stood). It was a lot of fun listening to the Italian in my brain. That was the best part. Translations are funny. I found what happens is that I wrote a poem. My translation is not D’Annunzio’s poem. It’s my poem. I stole it — his sensuality — and made a new poem. I wonder if he’d like it. Doesn’t matter. I like it. Glad it was nominated for a Pushcart.

DA: Did you always have a love of language and poetry?

ML: Yes. I remember sitting in first grade and reading out loud. It felt very easy to me. I was always writing after that. I have scraps from way back. When I became a teenager I used to hunker down in my room after 11 p.m., put on the headphones — Rust Never Sleeps, Dark Side of the Moon — and write poems. I don’t know why I was attracted to poetry initially. I think it’s a practical thing. Poems are fast and didn’t take long for me to write. I don’t have the greatest attention span and so I could write quick, have something complete, and be done with it. On to the next poem. Also, language was also something that was mine, you know, that no one could take away from me. When I was younger, things were always being taken away from me. But I had language. Over time, that feeling has subsided but the language, the love of language has stayed, transformed, become something else. It’s just a love now.

DA: Attending the MFA poetry program at Iowa seems like it was a turning

ML: Yeah, it was. I was living in Boston, working for $7 an hour at a day care center at McClean Hospital in Belmont by day and writing poems whenever I could. I had no direction then, nowhere to go, nothing really to do. I didn’t want to be a grown up and I saw an ad about the MFA program at Boston University and remembered that a professor of mine in college, James Crenner, had gone to Iowa. So I applied, on a whim, to both. I didn’t get into BU but did get into Iowa. It changed my life because I began to see myself differently. As a real writer, a poet. Maybe that’s sick, that an MFA program had to make me see myself as such, but it was good. I was around all these other people who were in poetry and some of them had a profound impact on my work. Marvin Bell, for one, and Juan Felipe Herrera. I remember sitting in a workshop early on, and reading one of Juan Felipe Herrera’s poems. The thing just exploded. I wanted that. I wanted to do that. I was close to him, you know, and close to other writers, and we had this language and we were
competitive and sometimes cutthroat, and it was all around, everywhere.

DA: So Iowa was a positive experience?

ML: Extremely positive.

DA: How did you get into teaching poetry and literature to high school students?

ML: In the Spring of 1990, a couple months before graduating Iowa, my grandmother told me she knew this guy, Alan Ziegler, the Director of Undergraduate Writing at Columbia University. He, as part of the larger program, founded by Paul McNeil, was also in charge of the Writing Division in the Summer Program for High School Students. My grandmother mentioned to him that I was a poet, graduating from Iowa, and we got connected. He hired me on the phone because he liked that I liked Bob Dylan. Isn’t that how it always works? Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan was my introduction to teaching high school kids.

DA: Seems like an appropriate link.

ML: I taught workshops and seminars. I had no idea what I was doing but we had a blast those first years. I remember getting it, teaching kids poetry, in my second year. I created this lesson, on the spot, that had to do with the difference between figurative and descriptive writing. I use that lesson to this day. That lesson got me my job teaching full time at Roslyn High School. Not Bob Dylan. Probably a good thing. In any case, what I found out is that I love kids and I love poetry and language and so the match was and continues to be a good one.

DA: I wish I had a teacher like you in high school, I imagine you bring a lot
of energy to the classroom.

ML: Thanks, that’s nice of you to say. I just like to get it all in there. The language, the literature, the vibe. Mostly though, I’m concerned with creating a safe space for every student. I like to think that I do, but you never know.

DA: With all you do, how do you make time for your writing?

ML: I’m up pretty early. I get to school between 6:15 and 6:30 during the year and carve out some time to write. It’s very quiet out there in suburbia and that’s always good to write on weekends sometimes. Take a walk in my neighborhood, come home and bang out a poem.

DA: And, of course, you have the summers off.

ML: Yeah, but the summers are weird. Sometimes there is too much time. The thing about me and writing is this, I have to be living. I have got to be active and involved and working. If I have got a week of unstructured time, most of the stuff I write is trash and I am a bit nuts. I like being extremely engaged in my life, pounding nails so to speak, not thinking about the work and then bam, have it just find itself out of me in a quick burst. If there is too much time, there is too much time and I don’t operate well with wide open expansive worlds of space vis-√†-vis my work.

DA: What could you tell aspiring poets about publication?

ML: A lot of things. Have the desire, that’s a good thing. Desire to publish, to get your name out, to have the world hear you. But don’t get all caught up in it. When I was in my twenties, that’s all I wanted. It was an ego thing. It still is, of course, but my investments are different. I wanted to survive first and foremost. Get married, have a family, pay bills on time, have a little cash to take my fianc√© out to dinner. That said, I am still glad
when it happens. It’s like candy.

DA: Can you elaborate a bit on what you mean by evolution of a voice?

ML: Ah, voice. Well, it’s pretty simple, really. Everyone has their own voice. You open your mouth, I open my mouth, two different things come out. Some of it is based on how we see the world, our vision of the world, and some of it is based on how we speak, musically, in time. So, it’s two things. Vision and music and how that all gets expressed in language. As a writer, from my perspective as a writer, it is one of the most important and influential aspects of the craft. And it takes time to evolve. Because regular everyday speech is, for the most part, boring. But this is where voice is buried, takes root, musically. I think one has to listen very carefully to how one speaks, thinks, and to the rhythms one is attracted to in speech and language and then couple that with vision, which is, of course, the world, the objects in the world that are also attractive. Right now, I like red brick walls, broken guitars and the word acumen . Ten years ago, I liked dogs, fire hydrants and knees. One has to cultivate these things constantly and it takes a long time. That’s why, sometimes, I think waiting to publish is more beneficial, because if you are constantly writing then hopefully your voice will be stronger, later.

DA: At a poetry reading once your poems were described as “Very Matthew
Lippman.” What does that mean?
ML: You just have to read the poems. I just write what I write about. I get a thing going in my head, a motion and then go with it. It’s a groove, you know, a vibe. Then I just put all these things in and hopefully get a piece of poetry. it’s fun.

DA: That must have been special having a poem selected for inclusion in The
Best American Poetry

ML: Yeah, that too was cool. The poem happened very quickly, not many revisions. I’ll tell you this, I still have no idea what the hell the thing is about. But it’s got a strong sense of voice. At least, that’s what some folks say. My friend Michael Morse, the poet, says that. I also was flattered that James Tate chose it because I love his work. It was nice to be included in something with a relatively large exposure. It’s always nice when the work is recognized, in any way, shape or form. Some poets believe that poetry can change the world. I don’t know about that. I think love can change the world. Today, that’s what I think about my poem being selected for The Best American Poetry 1997, that it was a nice thing for me but I don’t know if it has any impact on people.

I think teaching is more about changing the world, or having an impact on people.
That’s why I do it . . . And that is really important to me. Important in a
way that poetry is not important. Sometimes I wonder if teaching is a political act. but I don’t really care if it is political or not. I’m not much of a political guy. I do care about that students are influenced by what I bring to the class. And when they are moved by language, by poetry, oh man, then I am a pig in shit. So in that way, I feel, poetry can change people’s lives because it is really just a connection that they find and feel with language that gives them something. But a poem? I don’t know. Ginsberg’s “America” changed my life, “Prufrock” and Anne Sexton’s “45 Mercy Street.” And of course Juan Herrera’s poem back in that workshop that we had together with Marvin Bell in 1988. What was the question? Oh yeah, The Best American. It’s special, yes, because James Tate and some other people thought that of all the poems that they saw that were published in 1997 in America, mine was one of the best. And that, is definitely special.