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A Poet Among Visual Artists

January 9, 2017
poetry with Matt Hart

By Mark Flanigan

Photo by Hailey Bollinger

Matt in Class

Matt Hart sits for an interview with CityBeat in the small café at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where he currently serves as associate professor in creative writing and the chair of liberal arts, and from where he will soon embark to Ann Arbor, Mich. for a poetry reading later this evening.

It will mark his 34th such engagement in the two months since the simultaneous release of his two newest poetry collections, Radiant Action (H_NGM_N Books) and Radiant Companion (Monster House Press), the former comprised of one 130-page serial poem. Previously, Hart has published six collections of poetry.

If it all seems like a lot, it is also part of his larger point — his books and their poems are bursting at the seams with vitality. “Your aesthetic is really just the ways that your values are manifested in your work and the choices that you made to get them there,” Hart says. “So, here is one of the things that I value: I value inclusion over exclusion, in the extreme.”

Visibly tired, his hands nonetheless begin to punctuate each sentence by pounding on the table as he continues. “(That) is why I want to try to say everything in every single poem,” he says. “I want the poem to be as big as the world. That value of inclusion comes through in the writing — it’s not that I refuse to edit or rewrite, because I do — but that I want every poem to be as much as it can be and activate possibilities. I am deploying language into the world, rather than employing it to do something in particular.”

Hart’s route to poetry and teaching has been circuitous. Born in 1969 in Evansville, Ind., he grew up there and in the nearby Ohio River town of Newburgh, Ind., until he left to attend Muncie’s Ball State University, where he studied philosophy as an undergrad. Immediately afterward, he went into the master’s program at Ohio University, where he chose to study the 20th-century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

He didn’t finish his master’s then, but in hindsight learned a crucial lesson from his studies. “Wittgenstein talked about the possibility of language, what it can and can’t do. It’s where I feel I learned that poetry doesn’t have to be true, it only has to be real; poetry doesn’t have to prove anything.”

Before finding poetry as an outlet, Hart had been singing and playing in Punk Rock bands, with some genuine success. Yet, it wasn’t until he took a poetry workshop in the hope that it would make him a better lyricist that his trajectory changed when he witnessed an elder student read aloud “Feeling Fucked Up,” by the late American contemporary poet Etheridge Knight.

Hart quotes the beginning from memory:

“Lord she’s gone done left me done

    packed / up and split

and I with no way to make her

come back and everywhere the world is bare

bright bone white   crystal sand glistens

dope death dead dying and jiving drove

her away made her take her laughter

    and her smiles and her softness and her midnight sighs—”

“I remember thinking, ‘You can do that in a poem?’ ” Hart says. “You can make a big noise with just your voice and your body? The next day I sat down and tried to write a poem for the first time without a prompt, and I’ve pretty much been doing that every day for 30 years. That was a conversion experience.

“I had been playing in bands since I was 15, but I was changed,” he adds. “That’s why I believe in the power of art to connect us, to challenge us, in really generative ways. I was changed in a moment.”

In 1999, six years after moving to Cincinnati and — with Eric Appleby — starting his own publication Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking and Light Industrial Safety, Hart went to the MFA Program for Writers at North Carolina’s Warren Wilson College’s, in part because he didn’t feel as if he was a legitimate poet without studying the technical aspects of poetry.

He remembers thinking, “If I go to graduate school in poetry and they tell me that I’m not good, I will quit.”

“And I am so grateful that nobody ever did that,” he says.

Teaching at the Art Academy, Hart communicates an overriding sense of compassion, but one coupled with discernment; more than anything, there was excitement, life and engagement, reminiscent of his recent poems.

In a post-interview email, Hart explains the importance of his class to the Art Academy’s curriculum. “We’re trying to get students to do something wildly unpredictable in accordance with their vision,” he says. “But to do that they have to be able to grasp their vision. Articulating it helps give it shape, makes it a thing to be pushed, expanded, exploded. Articulation provides parameters that one can work with or against, and all art is made via this method.”

There’s an overriding, ultimately contagious, exuberance and passion to all of Hart’s work, whether it’s in his teaching, his writing or just in the way he sits in the Art Academy’s café, preparing for a trip to Ann Arbor.

When asked if he ever finds himself self-conscious about that fact, he pounds on the table and says, “I refuse to live in the darkness of this time. I want for people so badly to have the things that they need. I want us to love each other. I want to be a believer, you know? I don’t have a particular faith, in a religious sense, but I do believe in the human spirit and I am going to write that as hard as I can.” ©

Excerpt from Matt Hart’s serial poem “Radiant Action”

I’m wondering about heaven (as a metaphor,

of course, since I don’t believe in heaven,

but I’d like to) and hoping that someday someone will

recognize themselves in this, and it will be as if

a great blast of electric light came into

whatever darkness they possess, and

     as a result

they will be spurred to their own furtherance,

their own thoughts, the discovery

    of their own

sources of energy, their own new works

with beginnings and endings, entwined

    and entwining,

revealing better than I ever will the history

of this life, what it means to be awkward

in awe,

to be human in our time, to love one another

with perfect abandon, with total resolve,

descriptions of descriptions of waves forever

breaking into each other

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