Interview With Poet Matthew Thorburn

Poet Matthew Thorburn

This month at the Poetry Blog of 32 Poems Magazine my interview with poet Matthew Thorburn was posted. He’s a contributor to the magazine and was a delight to interview, especially given his passionate recommendations for books and art.

First, let me tantalize you with a bit from the interview, and then you can go on over and check the rest out for yourself.

Without further ado, here’s the interview.

Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I think the most powerful poems are those that really work in both mediums – as words arranged on a page and as words spoken or read aloud. As a reader/listener, I want both! After reading someone’s poems in a book or journal, I want to hear her or him read them. It almost always gives the poems an extra depth. I love to hear poems in the poet’s own voice – to see where she puts the stress, where she pauses, and so forth.

I agree that writing can help people feel more equal or become more tolerant, but the kinds of writing I see doing that are speeches and sermons, or op-eds and letters to the editor, not poems. In my experience, poems work on a smaller scale: one curious person opening a book or journal to see what’s inside.

Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

I do have a few. I’m fascinated by Vermeer’s paintings, the way he paints the light. Just recently I’ve gone to see those in The Frick Collection, in New York, and the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. I’d love to make the rounds and see all of his paintings eventually. (It’s probably do-able; there are only about 30.) I also love jazz, especially the recordings of Thelonious Monk, which I keep in more or less constant rotation on my iPod. And when it comes to fiction, I find myself doing more and more rereading of old favorites. I revisit Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels – The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land – every couple years. And I’ll never get tired of Penelope Fitzgerald’s nine perfect little novels – “little” in terms of their page counts, not their ambitions or accomplishments, which are tremendous. (Poets can learn a lot from the work of both of these fiction writers.)

Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott).

I participated in workshops as an undergrad and later attended an MFA program. One of the biggest benefits of these experiences was developing a feeling of community – getting to know other poets at a similar point in their writing lives, people I could talk to about poetry, and share poems and books with. The actual work of writing is solitary, of course, but it helps to feel like you’re not in it alone – even though you are, when it comes down to it.

I’ve also participated in the occasional class or workshop at the 92nd Street Y. A one-on-one poetry tutorial with Grace Schulman was especially helpful. She offered close critical readings and gave me very astute, specific advice on the poems I was writing then. A workshop at the Y on writing book reviews, taught by Ben Downing, was also very good, and helped me become a regular reviewer of poetry.

I’ve read my fair share of how-to books and collections of writing prompts and advice. But what I recommend is to read collections of essays by the poets whose work you love, to learn more about how they read and write poetry, and see what you can take away from that for your own work. I’d especially recommend Marianne Boruch’s collection, In the Blue Pharmacy.

When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?

I used to listen to a lot of instrumental music (mostly jazz,  sometimes classical) when writing, but over the past couple of years  I’ve come to find it too distracting. Now I go for quiet.

As far as routines, I like to have my desk cleared off so I have room  to work. And I like to have a cup of tea (or a glass of iced tea)  within reach. Basically, my routine, such as it is, is about keeping it  simple and focusing in on the writing at hand.

He also included a poem for readers to check out:

Just Like That

God, I never felt lonelier
than when the shinkansen would pull in
and I heard that electronic chime—
the one to tell us passengers
here comes the next stop announcement
in Japanese. It almost sounded like
someone’s phone, because no one’s phone
sounds like a phone anymore,
or a ringtone version of a Milt Jackson line,
a vibraphone riff from somewhere
in the middle of one of Milt’s ten thousand runs
through “Django” or “Bags’ Groove”
or “Two Bass Hit.” I missed hearing him
twice back in Michigan, years ago
at the Serengeti Ballroom and the Bird
of Paradise, and now missed him all over again—
missed my cds and headphones, the live
and studio versions, the alternate
takes and outtakes, but especially his solos
that strayed beyond what I’d given up
precious brain cells to store away
so I could replay at will. My dream job,
back when Milt was still alive, would have been
to be John Lewis in his tuxedo at the piano.
To play like that, of course. To play at all.
But also to be so close I could listen
to Milt every night, every night—
those ten thousand sweet transactions
between the mallets and the vibes.
This string of four or five notes, not quite
a melody, not close to a song, might’ve been
a little something Milt threw in for flavor
or to egg John on, something to go back to
throughout his solo, like an inside joke
or an old lover’s name you can never
really let go of, just the way I keep hearing it
now, lonelier each time, as we slide
into Shinjuku, Shiojiri, Nara, Shin-Osaka.

Originally published in Brilliant Corners

Please check out the rest of the interview on 32 Poems Blog.

About the Poet:

Matthew Thorburn is the author of a book of poems, Subject to Change(New Issues, 2004), and a chapbook, the long poem Disappears in the Rain (Parlor City, 2009). His writing has been recognized with fellowships from the Library of Congress, the Bronx Council on the Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He lives and works in New York City.

Also check out today’s tour stop on the National Poetry Month Blog Tour at Necromancy Never Pays.


  1. Interesting poem. I like how it starts in one place, with a concrete image, then shifts to other things.