July 31–August 6, 2023
Matthew Thorburn’s new book of poems is String, published by Louisiana State University Press. His previous books include The Grace of Distance, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Dear Almost, which won the Lascaux Prize. Originally from Michigan and for many years a New Yorker, he lives with his family near Princeton, New Jersey. On Friday, August 11, Thorburn will be a featured poet along with Kindall Gant at the Brooklyn Poets Friday Night Open.
I saw Rosie suddenly after
looking a long time
into purple irises untouched
beside the burnt wreck
the blackened plane took off
half her house my knees
ached from crouching low
last ribbons of smoke
acrid stink in my throat
days I dreamed green
fingers in the dirt no one
said stop growing no
one said hold your breath
but then I saw her
hair her dress just darker
than irises a bare
shoulder she hunched
purple in the purple-gray
caught the same fading
light in worried folds
at first I could not
see her could’ve stared
hand to brow hand
to brow and never seen
but then the bells
of her sleeves her hands
white stars cut out
everything else was dirt
was broken buried
I looked longer lower long
pale thighs a smear
of blood a handprint
bruised dark she
crouched in flowers
shadow on the torn-up
ground I couldn’t
stop looking she
turned she saw me
run Rosie mouthed run.
—From String, Louisiana State University Press, 2023.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
String is a book-length sequence of poems that tells the story of a teenaged boy’s experiences in a time of war and its aftermath. He loses almost everything, but survives to tell his story. All of the poems are written in his voice. This poem, “Pale Stars,” closes the first section of the book. It describes how he finds his girlfriend Rosie, just before they get separated again by the violence engulfing their town. The first spark for this poem was an illustration I saw maybe fifteen years ago in the New Yorker—a watercolor (I think) of a woman in a crinkly purple dress sitting in a field of purple irises, so that all that stands out at first in this bright swirl of colors is her face and hands. I clipped that picture out and pasted it in a notebook, knowing I wanted to write about it. I just didn’t realize how long that would take. David’s voice is skittery and he tends to talk in fragments and overlapping sentences, so I did a lot of revising here to describe this scene and these events in his voice.
What are you working on right now?
I tend to work on a couple of different projects at the same time. As I was finishing writing the poems in String, I started writing some poems that have to do with family and childhood memories—about being a father and a son, about how everyone we love grows old (or doesn’t) and dies—and I’ve been thinking about how those could fit together as a book. And while working on that, more recently I also started writing poems about people who make things—painters, writers, musicians, different kinds of craftspeople—and the things they make. That feels like it could be a book or chapbook too.
What’s a good day for you?
Most days here are good, if I can find a reasonable balance between the demands of work and the desire to spend time with my wife and son, our dogs, and our chickens. If I can have more of the latter, less of the former, and squeeze in a little time somewhere in between to draft or revise or just think about a poem I’m working on, that’s a very good day.
What brought you to New York?
I moved to New York for a two-year graduate program, then stayed for nearly twenty years.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
A few years ago, we moved from the Bronx to a small town near Princeton, New Jersey. We loved—and still love—New York, but we were outgrowing our apartment, and my wife and I wanted our son to grow up in a greener place, in a house with a yard, and with easier access to things like trails and streams and forests. It’s peaceful here, with a somewhat slower pace to life, and we felt fortunate to live through the pandemic here, where we could easily get outside and visit those trails and streams and forests. It’s also been a great place to write. And of course we still visit New York pretty regularly.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I never lived in Brooklyn, but visited often when I lived in the city. One grad school friend was a bartender in Williamsburg and a group of us MFAers spent many hours hanging out at his bar, talking poetry. There also is, or was, a little art gallery on a side street somewhere in Brooklyn where I once heard an amazing reading by Kate Greenstreet. That was years ago, but I can’t think of Brooklyn without thinking of that.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
To me, it means having friends who are also writers and are going through the same kinds of experiences—writing, revising, submitting poems, trying to get a book put together and published—with whom you can talk, trade advice, commiserate and celebrate successes. In grad school and for some time after, my community was very much centered in New York, but over time it’s changed, spread out and become more long-distance and online.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Well, Walt Whitman, of course. And Marianne Moore’s poems have meant and keep meaning a lot to me. And can we consider Philip Levine a Brooklyn poet? Even though as a native of Michigan I should claim him for my—and his—home state.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I’ve been lucky to have quite a few amazing teachers over the years, but I’ll just mention two. As an undergrad at the University of Michigan, I studied with Keith Taylor, and have kept in touch with him ever since. From Keith and his work I’ve learned a lot about how poems can focus outward, how you can welcome the wider natural world into a poem. And in grad school I got to study with Laurie Sheck for a semester. I was amazed by Laurie’s intense, laser-like focus as a reader and editor of our poems—and I have tried to model that kind of attention as a reviser of my work.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Two books I’ve really loved over the past year or so are Aaron Caycedo-Kimura’s Common Grace and Jennifer Franklin’s If Some God Shakes Your House. Both of these books are so full of life, in all its beauty and its sorrows, and they don’t shy away from the difficult moments and emotions.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I just saw a two-volume Proust on my aunt’s bookshelf and thought, Now that’s something I really need to read one of these days. There’s a newish edition of Dickinson out too, which makes me think I ought to sit down with it and renew an old acquaintance.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I’m someone who gives a lot (maybe too much?) thought and energy to sequencing each collection of poems I publish, so I tend to get frustrated when someone says they dip in and out as they read a book of poems. Though to be honest, I do it too, sometimes, as a way of sampling a book and seeing if I want to read the whole thing. If I do, then I’ll read it cover to cover.
I have a stack of books on my nightstand I’m always working my way through, but generally I just pick whatever in that pile strikes me at the moment as the thing I want to read next. I read most of my news on a screen, but I always want a paper book to read if it’s poetry or fiction. Though I do like to listen to audiobooks of some of my favorites—that’s another way of experiencing certain books I keep coming back to.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
For years I’ve wanted to write and publish a book of prose poems. But I tend to get bored if I do too much of the same thing in one poem or project, so maybe just a chapbook of prose poems. I don’t know if I’d really want to do it myself, but I definitely admire poets who write crowns of sonnets. I think that’s such an elegant way of linking poems together.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I used to be a commuter and did a lot of my reading and writing on buses and trains. And when I worked in Manhattan, I used to love to sit outside on my lunch hour to read and write. There are a couple of plazas along Park Avenue that I have a deep affection for because I wrote so much while sitting there. Now I mostly read and write at home, though whenever I do take a train ride into the city (or anywhere else), I love to pull out a book.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Not the coolest answer, I know, but I love Coney Island because I took my parents out there a couple of times when I first moved to New York, because they wanted to see it. Good memories. I also love the botanic garden and the public library and the art museum.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate this strange work we do,
And what I celebrate in you, I hope you celebrate too,
For every poem you write is good for me, as mine are good for you.
Well, as Robert Frost wrote, “Earth’s the right place for love,” and I think Brooklyn’s the right place for poetry. I’m amazed by Brooklyn Poets and all the good work you do for writers and readers of poems. I’m honored to get to be a part of that.