The Whole Megillah (TWM): Matthew, how do you get your ideas for your poems?
Matthew Lippman (ML): The best way to answer this is to say that they really come out of nothing, or, what is seemingly nothing. For instance, when I drove into my school this morning, early, there was a policeman, a traffic cop, in neon yellow, standing in his neon yellow vest. It was way too early for him to be there but he was there. I wondered about why he had arrived so early in his neon yellow vest, standing in the rain. So, I wrote a poem about him. It’s always the littlest things.
TWM: How much does your Jewish culture figure into your poetry? Your submissions?
ML: It figures in and it does not figure in at all. I did, once, write a whole series of poems about being a Jew that turned into a collection called Salami Jew. But, I have strayed from the topic. My wife is in rabbinical school. My kids go to Jewish day school, and I am very secular. I suppose, unconsciously, it’s there but I don’t focus on it too much. In terms of submissions, not too much.
TWM: How do you find time to write since you teach at a day job and then also teach online and in private consultations?
ML: I write every day. I get to school early and write. It’s the blessed time. No one is here. I have huge windows in my classroom and things are quiet. I also write in the evening, after the kids have gone to sleep. Its just part of my day like all the other things—going to the market, making dinner. I don’t consider writing to be lofty in any sense. It’s very mundane and dirty like everything else.
TWM: What poem do you wish you had written?
ML: When I was a kid I wanted to have written “America” by Ginsberg. Now, in my later life, I wish I had written Danez Smith’s “Dinosaurs In The Hood,” or Kerrin McCadden’s, “The Mother Talks To Her Son About Her Heart.”
TWM: What characterizes a good poem to you?
ML: The integration of imagery, internal pressure, voice, attitude, funkiness.
TWM: When did you start writing poetry? Who inspires you?
ML: I started really young, in 1st grade. I was always drawn to it because of the quickness of a poem. I think I probably have some sort of attention deficit situation. I can’t focus too long on a piece of writing and I love language. Poetry was the perfect medium for me, especially as I got older, to indulge in my love of language and to appease my inability to stay focused.
Inspirational folks are Juan Felipe Herrera, Michael Morse, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Murray, Frida Kahlo, Gerald Stern, Chris Burden, Annie Leibovitz, Diane Arbus, Toni Morrison, Matthew Dickman, Jay Nebel, and Tracy K. Smith, oh, and Daniel Nester.
TWM: Great list! What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
ML: Write everyday. Read a lot. Steal from poems and poets that you love. Incorporate imagery and surprise in poems. Write everyday. Oh, I said that. But, it’s true.