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Matt Robinson Opens Up!

Halifax poet Matt Robinson understands the ages-old adage that artsts are driven to conceal themselves in order to reveal themselves. The young scribe's latest collection is Against the Hard Angle. Previous collections include no cage contains a stare that well and A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking. In this first part of a two-part interview, he opens up about his personal and professional life.

AE: When did you start writing poetry and why?
MR: I don't have a great story here; there's nothing particularly poignant or interesting or cinematic. In the movie of my life they'll never make, there's no one scene a director would demand appears. I did the usual English class bits from grade school onward; I wrote in high school a bit -- and, of course, that was at least somewhat related to girls. I started writing again a bit when doing my undergrad at SMU while working at CFSM (the radio station there) because there were a bunch of other creative folks around. But I suppose I really started writing with an idea of maybe publishing something -- in a real journal or magazine; still no real idea of having a collection or book -- a couple years after that when I was going to MSVU and doing an English methods class for my BEd. The ability to explore creatively there got me going in one way or another. After that I decided to look at MAs in Creative Writing and eventually went to UNB in Fredericton. At UNB I actually started to develop some sort of voice, I suppose. Through working with Ross Leckie (a fine poet himself and an amazing mentor / instructor) as well as all the other poets / writers in the program there, I moved from what in hindsight was probably more playing around with words (as far as I can tell) to beginning the process of writing something like a poem, of putting together what I gradually decided I wanted a poem to be or do. That said, while there was no specific 'eureka' moment, I have always liked, and have always been drawn to, the idea of expressing and exploring ideas and images and arguments through language. There's a charging of the lanaguage, plus an opportunity to be consise or expansive at turns, that really appeals to me. That, and the music and metaphor of it. I love a good novel, and I devour short fiction, but I'm not drawn to create narrative as such. I'm much more interested in metaphor and image and moment, than it storytelling in what I write, despite that fact that I love reading of all kinds.

AE: Who are some of your favourite poets?
MR: This is a dangerous question. It's the one I always read through anxiously when other poets I know are asked the same thing, hoping they'll maybe drop my name. they never do. ;) That said, there are some poets I seem to return to, for any number of reasons, and the folks I've read one recently who strike me in one way or another. If I had to give someone a list of poets to read, of poets whose poems I admire (or have admired) for one reasons or another? A list, sadly incomplete and bound to bother (and/or unintentionally insult) someone whose work I really love, would certainly include: John Thompson, Wallace Stevens, Geoffrey Hill, Karen Solie, Sue Goyette, Goran Simic, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Carmine Starnino, Robert Creeley, Don McKay, Sue Sinclair, Michael deBeyer, Anne Simpson, Zach Wells, Brian Bartlett, George Murray, Paul Vermeersch, Margaret Atwood, Jeramy Dodds, Tomas Transtromer...
I know I'm missing names that will pop back into my head tomorrow and the next day, but that's as good a start as any.

AE: What makes a good poem?
MR: On the most basic of levels, for me, a poem is successful when it manages to engage: engage its lanaguge; engage the reader(s); engage ideas; engage someTHING or someONE. For me poetry needs to be 'active', to be involved in an exchange of energy / energies. Configured another way, perhaps somewhat related, is this: Poetry for me, as a poet, an editor, and a reader is—at its core—about TWO central things. As far as I'm concerned, the 'success' of a poem or series of poems is directly related on how well the work 'scores' on two scales: 1. Idea and 2. Execution. For poetry to be successful the idea or concept that drives it, that's at its core, needs to be solid / interesting / whatever. That, on its own, however, isn't enough. That idea then needs to be put to work and honed. That's the execution side of things. Some poems are good, even great, ideas, but less than ideally executed: they're middling. Others are average ideas, but the execution is good or, perhaps, great. These are also middling, usually. The great poems—for me—score high on both scales. That's what I'm always striving for, what I'm trying to do. At some moments it feels as if you've gotten there; at others, not so much.

SC: What are your thoughts on the state of poetry here?
MR: I think poetry, as usual, is doing just fine here in Halifax and in Canada and across the wide world. There's always a sense that poetry has lost ground or is dying or something of that sort. To me that kind of talk seems silly. People are writing poetry; people are reading it; people are engaed with it in some way. Is poetry a viable 'industry', one that's going to make you rich like the new idea or the next big fashion craze or something Oprah does? probably not, but I don't think that's really the point. at least not for me. See: I'm a hockey fan; an Oilers fan, actually (Question: Do we take the centre or the d-man? Hmmmm... I say we try to trade down and get one of each: maybe Couturier and Hamilton, instead of simply either Nugent-Hopkins or Larsson, but I digress). The point is: I'm not concerned that the NHL isn't the NFL or MLB or the Olympics or whatever. I love hockey -- playing it, watching it, talking about it ad nauseum over beers night after night after night -- and I know a number of other folks who do as well. And that the key. There's a loosely connected community, a critical mass of sorts that will love hockey whether it survives in Atlanta or Phoenix or wherever. And hockey still exists even in the NHL folds TOMORROW. That's way I feel about poetry as well.
Sure: it would be great if more people bought poetry books from current poets and went to readings and such. But really, all I need to feel good about poetry in Halifax or Canada is to know there are poets and readers and listerners out there. And there are: the poerty section in The Bookmark tells me that; reading series like Allan Street or Lilah Kemp do the same; The Fiddlehead chugging right along year after year in Fredericton as a major lit journal certainly tells me that, as does the newfound grass-rootsy success of Open Heart Forgery here in Halifax. There's plenty of room to grow and change and die back and re-bloom, but all in all I think things are OK.

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