Aesthetic Frottage: PJ Grace in Conversation with Matthew Tierney

Matthew Tierney

Matthew Tierney's poem "Re the Individual Wellbeing" was chosen by judge Barry Dempster to win our 2013 P. K. Page Founders' Award for Poetry. Malahat volunteer PJ Grace speaks with Matthew about poetry, and the prize.

Congratulations on winning this year’s P. K. Page Founders’ Award for your poem, “Re the Individual Being.” Judge Barry Dempster called it “a risk of a poem written with hurtling grace,” and I would have to agree. There’s an interesting fusion of scientific nomenclature with poetic cores of musicality—a melding of two generally separate worlds. How does science influence your poetry? At what extent do your other poems deal with this same fusion?

Poetry is a big tent. There’s no body of knowledge that’s off limits, and if one is perceived as a “separate world,” it’s an inherited bias about what subject is worthy of a poem. High finance? Urban planning? Extremophile bacteria? Why not?

The cat’s out of the bag with science, anyway, and there’s a burlap sack of poets these days who fuse the two worlds. What is it about science that’s drawing all this poetic attention? Other than it being a cultural juggernaut, that is. Can you avoid even a passing knowledge of neuroscience, cosmology, quantum mechanics, etc., if you want to come to terms with our world? I’d say no. But there’s also science’s claim to certainty that chafes agreeably with poetry’s peddling of ambiguity. Aesthetic frottage, if you will.

Oh, and thanks. It was a great surprise to win. I’m flattered.

When reading your poem, I was immediately struck by the (perhaps intentionally misleading) sense of completion rendered through the use of quatrains. And yet, the half-tabs of each second line propel the poem forward and evoke a disjointed effect when reading. Can you talk a little about how structure ties in with the content of this piece?

The quick answer? A patient being prepped for surgery is disjointed too, and form embodies content. The jaggedness of that indent needs to work against something uniform to be judged jagged, hence the quatrain…

The more interesting answer is Ken Babstock. I’d been reading and rereading Methodist Hatchet around the composition of this poem, and found myself two stanzas deep and thinking, “This sounds like Ken. Shit.” Does anybody set out to dedicate a poem to someone? I don’t. But typing in the dedication allowed me to hijack Babstock with impunity—and the Babstockian soundscape demands those jarring indents. Stewart Cole over at The Urge says Babstock is a master of varying line lengths and indentations to create complexity. So, um, what he said.

(Impunity? To quote Dean Young, as I do once per interview, originality comes from an “inability to copy well,” and really, who could truly catch everything that makes a Babstock poem? Not me. There are a few sentimental reasons for dedicating the poem to Ken; one is that his work always been a yardstick for my own.)

How do you feel about line integrity? Poetry students are always taught in workshops to end their lines on strong verbs, powerful images, and interesting enjambments. I notice that a lot of your lines break on prepositions or conjunctions, and I can almost hear the workshop students crying out in protest. How do your enjambment choices work toward the energy of this poem?

Ha. I can hear them from here.

No seriously, is that a thing? I’m thinking of the phrasal nature of the English sentence—wouldn’t that necessitate beginning the line on those same prepositions, etc.? Is that less an affront?

For me, it’s about kick-starting the poem and maintaining that momentum throughout. End-stopping the lines is more trot than gallop. I wanted Revere flying over cobblestones, not Mr. Darcy coming for tea.

I’m always interested in this idea of west versus east coast writing. As a writer who has studied and currently lives in eastern Canada, do you feel your poems are ever inspired by place? How might your work be altered if you were to pack your bags and take up residence on, say, the Oregon Coast?

You can never anticipate how a place will affect your work. Which sounds like me ducking the question. I’m sure it does have an effect, but in ways one can’t even articulate. Which is me ducking the backswing.

I wonder if the people and the writing community have a greater influence. What are my peers reading? What’s the literary history of a place, and how does that inform the present-day poem-making? And why is everyone wearing those funny hats?

What’s next in terms of poetry for you? Are you currently reading anyone whose work is influencing your own?

My “next” is in neutral. So I’m reading Kant, natch. There’s an interesting nexus between Kant’s transcendental idealism and what’s called the “weak anthropic principle” in scientific discourse. Maybe this gets my “next” into gear. Or maybe I start parsing hedge-fund strategies…

And as for poetry, I’m always on alert for that new influence that so subsumes me I must fight against it.

PJ Grace

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