Interview with Matthew James Babcock

We had the pleasure of talking with Writer Matthew James Babcock ahead of his poetry reading this week.  

Black Rock & Sage (BRS): What was the inspiration for this new poetry collection? Was there a specific theme you were interested in exploring?

Matthew Babcock (MB): I can’t say much about “inspiration”: I think I’m still taking my usual unpremeditated approach to writing, which for me, means writing as an ongoing dialogue, or conversation, with the most intriguing, disarming aspects I encounter in people and the world at large. This is my third poetry collection, and while I don’t see any particular themes in the collection, the four segments reflect distinct stages in my writing over the last fifteen to twenty years. The first section, “Spare Gold,” seems oriented toward free verse that favors an objective, philosophical view of the world.  The second, “Sublime Drift,” feels more serious, reflective, and meditative, and nature-oriented to me.  Clearly, “Rare Measure,” the third veers into buoyant satire, even playful cynicism at times, and the last, “First Echo,” is comprised of language experiments, wherein language, and not necessarily meaning, takes center stage. 

BRS: You have written in many different genres including nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. Do you approach each genre differently? Also, do you have one in which you consider your favorite or strongest?

MB: A colleague of mine once called me a “dabbler,” because I tend to restlessly hopscotch from genre to genre, and I don’t feel I have a strength or favorite. That title, once a criticism, I tend to wear now as a sash of distinction (in my own mind, anyway, perhaps as a means of spinning a fault into some kind of unique form of self-styled methodology). I compose prose at the keyboard, and poetry on my paper writing pad. But in every case, the technique is the same: grappling with language in order to produce meaning and vision, some kind of meaningful vision for the reader, and to make sense of my experience. It’s also a reflection of my teaching: if I’m teaching a semester of nonfiction, I tend to (but not always) write nonfiction with my students.  If it’s a poetry semester, I tend to give full way to poetry writing. Criticism: that’s an entirely different beast, and I’ve written criticism (my years of researching and writing about the life and writing of Robert Francis) only when I’ve felt an obsessive sense of mission. Francis had no book-length critical study, and I wrote that book to rectify that scholarly omission. I’m very proud of the critical scholarship I’ve produced, but it’s an extension of my job as a professor, and resides in a different category completely.

BRS: Your collection “Strange Terrain” is in four segments as well. Since you say your approach is “unpremeditated” it feels that this may be a mere coincidence rather than planned. How do you come up with the titles for your poetry collections? Is this something that takes a lot of thought or does it come easily as you are writing the poems? 

MB: I think the four sections in the two collections are merely coincidence, something I didn’t plan, certainly. The titles for the books and the sections have come, somewhat organically, from phrases in the poems themselves. “Hidden Motion” is taken from the poem titled “Hidden Motion.” I think I liked the general, evocative feel of the phrase: it seems multivalent, suggestive of various aspects of existence to which many people can relate. “Spare Gold” comes from a line in the poem “In Keeping,” in the first section. The second section, “Sublime Drift,” comes from a line in the poem “Cycle,” in that section, and “Rare Measure” was pulled from “I Realized Today.”  The last section, “First Echo,” I harvested from a line in “All Words.”  So basically, I just write the poems and hope, when I’m done, I can find some intriguing phrases to cull from the crop.  At first, I titled the manuscript, “Nameless Rain,” from a line in “On All the Park Benches,” but it sounded too cryptic and obscure, even the phrase was interesting. Ultimately, “Hidden Motion,” won out.

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