Our assistant editor, Uchenna Emelife, posed five questions to all the authors shortlisted for the 2023 edition of the Isele Prizes. The questions stretch from their writing processes, to the themes they are most drawn to, their inspirations, and more.

See Matt Hart’s responses below. Also, read his poem, “At Night I Sing My Heads to Sleep”.

Uchenna Emelife: Could you talk about your shortlisted poem, its writing process, and what informed it? 

Matt Hart: I’ve been making these texts that I call “obliterations” for several years now. It’s a process that begins with literal translation, but then uses the results as a jumping-off point to make new works. Ultimately, these new pieces (sometimes) resemble their original source texts, but they also (always) diverge wildly from them—so wildly, in fact, that what one winds up with (as much or more than anything else) is the echo of (the process of) translation in a whole new work. The idea is to get as far away from the original as possible while nevertheless keeping it close.

Beyond the literal translation (which I do more as a means of generating material than to create any actual correspondence), the obliteration process is various and unpredictable. I try not to think too much. Association and digression are the primary engines—my mind in a swound as I work (which “sounds” both wounded and wound up). I want the original text to reverberate (and self-oscillate infinitely) through the new work without getting in the way of whatever else emerges. At some point, the new text begins to assert its independence and becomes central—that is, becomes the thing that I’m actually working on—while the source text remains only as atmosphere, a glimmer, a murmur, a shadow text of sparks and noise. If this sounds abstract or mysterious or just weird, that’s because it is, even to me. Once I have the rough translation, I begin to sabotage and subvert it, while also allowing it to sabotage and subvert my own poetic inclinations (the choices I would make if it were “my” piece to begin with). Certainly, I often emerge as the speaker in these works, but they themselves (the various “I”s) are also speakers, i.e. devices for amplifying and projecting sound.

“At Night I Sing My Heads to Sleep,” which became my latest book FAMILIAR (Pickpocket Books, 2022), is an obliteration of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” back into English from the Spanish of the 20th Century anti-fascist poet and critic León Felipe. I found a copy of Felipe’s “Canto a mi mismo” tucked away in a used bookshop in Portland, OR back in January of 2019, and I was immediately struck by the idea of obliterating it back into English to make an entirely new poem. Doing this over the last few years, I was delighted, blown away, and sometimes even frustrated to have this conversation with Whitman via Felipe. “Song of Myself” is a mystical, ecstatic, and wildly meaning/full poem. However, it is problematic, too. There’s no lack of material to wrestle with and even reject in what it sings. I didn’t make Whitman’s poem better; I smeared it around and argued with it, was humbled and scorched by it. However, I tried in the process of obliterating it to find something new in what it points to—something which is, in spite of the original’s (and my own) shortcomings both inclusive and full of possibility—maybe even useful to someone (besides me)—in the present.

To be sure, I am always searching for eternity in poems. Poetry is a language made noisy with god… Of course, I failed to find eternity in “At Night I Sing My Heads to Sleep” and  Familiar, and I’ve never experienced god, but in the noise of the process I have felt (and feel) a little less alone. Poems may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but they can sometimes make us better people, and thus, at least potentially, capable of solving the world’s problems in all the other contexts where problems need solving.  

UE: How do you tell a work is ready to meet the world?

MH: I’m not sure I ever know—at least not in some epistemologically sound way, where I feel certain that I’ve come to an end or mastered something. In general, the work tells me when it’s ready, and that’s fairly mysterious. I’m also desirous of making something ALIVE, so very often that means the work has some loose ends as part of its make-up. Another answer might be: when I’m surprised and the work opens its eyes and starts talking, reminding me that my intentions are far less important than my attention(s). The thing is I keep revising and tweaking things long after they’ve been published. I hope someday that I’m fortunate enough to do a “selected poems” so that I can re-publish things in perhaps radically (and not so radically) different versions. 

UE: What does writing mean to you?

MH: Whenever I write a poem (which is literally every day), I feel like I’m getting away with something—and certainly I feel that way when I think about the fact that I am a poet. “You can be a poet?” Apparently, you can do whatever you want… in art. Poetry is the end of all authority, if only temporarily, because it is an art of imaginative possibility. It dismantles the security cameras and guard towers of language—the grammar, the expectations, the rules—in favor of pressing one’s face up against the limits (whatever they are and wherever you roam)—and sometimes, breaking through. Sometimes. What matters is the process. What’s the process? Mostly, I am a bird against a window again. I am a crash site. But, or So: I get up off the soft feathery grass and brush myself off. The sun is shining, or the moon says, “Two people wearing ice skates walk into a bar…”. That’s weird. I take to the sky again, and then I crash hard or harder or hardest. Sometimes a bit of barbed wire catches a wing. Sometimes I get to the abandoned toll station (which I first typed as “tool station”) and just drive right through. If the gate is down, I break it. It’s a revolutionary act to write a poem. There is no toll required—other than the bells. Music is important. And people may think you’re weird or wasting your time, because you’ve dedicated yourself to something which produces no capital, “How do you pay your tolls?” I don’t. So many things in this life do in fact take a toll, but poetry breathes a little life into it, even when crashing repeatedly. So yes (and to circle back), as a poet, I am always “getting away with something,” but I’m also being taken away by it, taken with it, written into the fabric of the concrete grass, the plastic sky, the alluvial, the azure, the colossal living hum. There are billions of connections that only need making. Suddenly a spark. Everything explodes. Cuff links. Squid ink. A pink German Shepherd on a neon-green leash. Or it’s a Siberian Husky. The bartender asks the people wearing ice skates what they’d like and they say “Anything as long as it’s on ice!” Apparently, their ankles are “killing them”. With me, it’s my angles. Or my angels, which aren’t better, they grrrrr. They syllogism. But I am skeptical of all logic, all narrative, all claims to knowledge. If I could grow a beard like an interstate, I would.

UE: If you could only write about one thing, what would you write and why?

MH: I rarely write about anything. I write toward something—probably my end. The poet A.R. Ammons, noted in his book-length long poem Tape for the Turn of a Year that “Poetry has/ one subject, impermanence,/ which it presents/ with as much permanence as/ possible.” My poems often leap from image to image, idea to idea, impression to impression, because the house is changing all around me as I write them, and the rug is being pulled out from under me where I walk, and everything is just a little off-kilter in the gloaming, so what I see is only what I think I see. And given that there are (according to Burnett via Coleridge) more invisible things in the world than visible ones, I am recording what I can in the way that makes the most sense, which isn’t sensible. It’s a demonstration of a particular way of paying attention—my way of paying attention—which I hope is recognizable to you and also baffling (to you as it is to me) in the ways that make us the most permanent versions of ourselves that we can be to each other, despite the endless shifting and the changing of the light. Every inkling has some ink in it. I call and call and call for your response. Are you out there? Do you read me?

UE: Whose works speak to you? Why? And how do they do that?

MH: I understand this question, of course, but my initial inclination is very gently to remind myself that works don’t speak, they write. We use words to mean things or to undermine/conceal meaning. Other people’s work writes me. Everything I read is an instance of being (myself) re-written in someone else’s image. I like that—the idea of being in a constant state of shift and drift. So everyone’s works speak me. Someone reading this may be wondering, okay but who are the poets you read? It’s the ones who use the world as a way to jump into the word to get us to something infinite, impossible, unsayable. Coleridge did this sometimes. So did Whitman. Emily Dickinson. Arthur Rimbaud, Guillaume Apollinaire. Gertrude Stein. Aime Cesaire. Adelia Prado. Anne Waldman. Ted Berrigan. John Ashbery. Bernadette Mayer. Ariana Reines… Speaking of the latter, there’re, in fact, a lot of really good (by my lights) contemporary poetry, but I’m often not sure what it’s actually doing in the Vast and the Void. Someone else will know in a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years, so we’ll ask them then. For now, we just need to keep doing the work—because we love doing the work and because, as Apollinaire wrote, “I know nothing anymore/and I can only love.”

About the Authors:

Uchenna Emelife: Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, a bookseller, and a human rights advocate. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. Uchenna Emelife is as well an advocate for Child Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and anti-Sexual and Gender-based Violence. As a fellow of the African Youth Adolescent Network (AfriYAN), he has been contracted for various virtual campaigns to support the cause by Education as a Vaccine and United Nations Population Fund (UNPA).

Matt Hart is the author of FAMILIAR (Pickpocket Books 2022) and nine other books of poems. Additionally, his poems, reviews, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous print and online journals, including American Poetry ReviewBig Bell, Conduit, jubilatKenyon ReviewLungfull!, and POETRY, among others. He was a co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety from 1993-2019. Currently, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band NEVERNEW: www.nevernew.net.