Mat Wenzel is a PhD student in English/Creative Writing at Florida State University. He writes poetry. His work can be found online and in print. He currently has 36 stamps in his National Parks Passport.
Mat’s poem “Animatronic Armful of Groceries” will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Tuesday, October 2, for special savings and discounts.
The final line of “Animatronic Armful of Groceries” stays with me every time I read this piece. How do you decide when to end a poem?
Thank you so much! Where to end a poem is really difficult for me. I’d much rather start a poem than finish one. Poets I admire have advised me to try to write through an ending. I think that’s good advice—to try to push beyond what might feel like an end. It’s been helpful to think of each line or stanza as a switchback on a mountain or valley trail—a back-and-forth with some kind of elevation change. Each return has a view to admire, or some flora or fauna to note. But a poem should take you to the highest (or lowest) point possible without bereaving you of the pleasure of discovering the very end for yourself.
The poem as a joke is a recurring theme for me these days as well—not in that they are funny or trivial, but that the reader or listener has to make an unspoken connection. If you have to explain a joke, the joke failed. If your last line does too much explaining, the poem has failed. The reader should make that final connection on their own.
What was the impetus for this piece? Or, what kept you coming back to the poem?
This poem had an erotic impetus of sorts. I had used a dry erase marker to write a part of a line on my bathroom mirror and the words stayed up there for a while. Later, there was a party at my house and I thought I should clean the mirror since people would be using the bathroom. But I chose not to erase the words just yet. It was a party full of writers, and it didn’t really bother me that they might see it.
But a few weeks after that, a gentleman caller mentioned the words on the mirror after using my bathroom, and this time I felt mad at myself for not writing it down on paper and cleaning the mirror. What was meant to be private, or semi-private, suddenly seemed spoiled—especially because it was about a loved one who had passed away. But that anger or disappointment gave me a framework in which to place these moments of grief that kept showing up at inopportune times—like at an eye doctor appointment. It became a way that capturing how public and private loss can be.
A “you” appears in “Animatronic Armful of Groceries”—how do you approach the second person in your poetry?
I wrote a lot of letters and notes in high school and college—I even had several pen pals. Whatever it is I sit down to write, there’s still this letter-writing instinct, that everything is some kind of an address. I also spent many years praying a lot, both in private and public. My poems often end up being addressed to a very real physical person, and an unseen personality as well. Even if there is no “you” in the poem, I’m often thinking about how the speaker of my poem might say a thing to a certain person, but also a person that understands exactly what you mean even when you aren’t sure what you mean yourself. The “you” often becomes a beloved—a kind of god/lover.
But that’s about as far as my imagination can stretch. I’m no good at imagining a “you” I haven’t met. I’ve tried to write poems addressed to poets or people I admire, but if I haven’t met them in real life, it just doesn’t seem to work.
What’s your typical writing process?
For a while now, I’ve been obsessed with trying to find ways of writing poems that play with or subvert the alphabet—or more specifically, alphabetic order. So I spend a lot of time just writing down words that start with specific letters, or searching through anything I can get my hands on that might give me new words—field guides, science writing, manuals, this great encyclopedia set I found called Man, Myth, and Magic. Then I make up rules for an invented form, and it ends up being like a sudoku puzzle for people who are bad at math.
Some of this is an attempt to develop a language for experiencing conflicts of reality in my life—mostly what it’s like to be queer in the context of my own past and present experiences, in academia, in a political world, in relation to others, especially those I love or who once loved me. More typically, I sort of mull things over and over—record my thoughts as voice recordings or videos on my phone, talk to friends, write things as they occur to me (hence the bathroom mirror); lately, I also glue into a notebook anything that can be glued into a notebook—and then there comes a moment when I just have to sit down and write it all down. I try to put it all on the page at once, which often ends up being just a big mess. But I save those messes and play around with parts of them until I start to discover something I didn’t see there before—when I’m startled, I guess that’s when I think that what I have might become a poem. I work on it until I’m okay with sharing it with someone out loud. If it flies, great! If not, I put it away for another day.