I’ve known Matthew Lippman since about 2008 when I took some poetry classes at Gotham Writing Workshops. I was immediately impressed with his dedication to the craft and to teaching. I thought The Whole Megillah readers should get to know him.
Here’s a bit of bio:
Matthew Lippman is the author of Monkey Bars, released by Typecast Publishing in October 2010. His previous book, The New Year of Yellow, won the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize and was published by Sarabande Books in 2007. He is the recipient of a Michener Poetry Fellowship and a New York Fine Arts Grant.
Matthew teaches English and Creative Writing to high school students at Beaver Country Day School in the greater Boston area, where he lives with his wife and two daughters.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): When did you first start writing poetry and what attracted you to it?
Matthew Lippman (ML): When I was fourteen. I always loved to write but had serious attention issues. Oh, not serious, but I loved the fact that it was a quick thing. I could sit down, put the headphones, turn on some Jefferson Airplane, and write a poem. Twenty minutes later, I had something that I had made. In a way, the whole thing was like prayer or meditation. From a physiological perspective, writing poetry at a young age calmed me down.
TWM: You’ve won the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize and received a Michener Poetry Fellowship and a New York Fine Arts Grant. Please comment on the value of entering contests and applying for fellowships and grants.
ML: If you win it’s fun. You get some money. People pay attention. It fuels the fire of acknowledgement, praise, identity and acceptance. It feeds the ego. That’s fun stuff. If you have an idea of yourself as a Poet it helps to reinforce that notion in some outside way. Which, if you ask me, is a good thing.
TWM: When did you first write about Jewish identity?
ML: In college. I think the first ‘real’ poem I ever wrote was about watching some Italian boys playing soccer in what used to the Jewish “ghetto” in Venice. I was 21. They were being boys. I had been thinking about Marc Chagall a lot in those days, really fascinated by his paintings and I figured out that you could put two very very disparate things together and get some beauty. It was like a door opened up and it was centered around my passion and connection to my Jewishness, or, what I thought was Jewishness. Chagall, Italian boys playing soccer, the Jewish ghetto in Venice that, of course, was no longer a ghetto.
Really, though, it’s about how you identify yourself. In some Westernized manner, though, and it’s unfortunate, I think, one has to be published, has to have a certain amount of acclaim. My grandmother, though, got one or two poems in her life published. She had volumes of poems. She considered herself a poet, more so than I do, even now, and I would guess that maybe 100 people over the course of her life read her work. She died a Poet because she was completely engaged in writing poems. I think a Poet is someone who loves writing poems because he/she loves to play and experiment with language.
TWM: What are the best ways for a fledgling poet to get published?
ML: Perseverance. Send stuff out all the time, simultaneously.
TWM: You teach poetry at Gotham Writing Workshops. What challenges do you see your students deal with? How do you suggest they overcome them?
ML: Not many challenges. Most of the folks who take the Gotham courses are just happy to be writing, in a writing space, sharing work, getting and giving feedback. It’s a good space.
TWM: Have you been inspired by any poets? If so, who and how?
ML: My biggest influences have been Juan Felipe Herrera, Gerald Stern, Adrian Blevins. Each one of these poets pushed me over a little cliff and I started flying in a different direction. Juan and Jerry really messed me up in that beautiful way when I was in my twenties. Adrian, later in my life, in my 40s. Stern’s ecstatic/Jewish/worldly notion spoke to me. Herrera’s work is all about a certain kind of open/love/magically real mindful chili-lox reverie that spoke to me. Blevins’ work showed me something about family and bad language, that you could write about both, with both, and say something special.
TWM: You have an MFA from Iowa. Is an MFA a necessary ingredient to the craft? To publishing success?
ML: No. I don’t think the MFA helps with publishing. So, no, it’s not necessary. There is a big argument now about whether MFAs are viable because there are so many of them. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s become a business but it also gives people who fancy themselves Poets a place to be with other Poets. That can’t be bad. Personally, going to Iowa was great. It helped me with exposure more than craft. It gave me the time and space to write and be around other Poets. That was its gift to me.
TWM: How has teaching helped you as a poet?
ML: It has kept me in touch with young people.
TWM: Is there a market for Jewish-themed poetry? Secular? Religious?
ML: A “market,” I don’t think so. It’s such a niche. Within the niche, the community, especially the secular community, I think it can be marketable but, realistically, poetry is not a marketable commodity regardless of ethnicity, regionality, religiosity. The orthodox community is so insular, you know, so I have no idea. Most of the secular Jewish Poets I know are not really writing about being Jewish. I don’t think “popular” literary journals are much interested in publishing that kind of work. Yes, the more secular, Jewish journals like Poetica and Jewish Currents and even Tikkun publish poetry but think about the readership. It’s Jews writing for Jews.
TWM: What advice would you give fledgling poets?
ML: Just write every day and follow the nose.