For Cleaver’s five year anniversary, we are celebrating with one-on-one interviews of our Senior Editor staff. Since 2013, Matthew Girolami has worked with Cleaver Magazine as our Senior Poetry Editor. Currently, he is a Teaching and Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There, he is an MFA candidate in poetry. His recent work includes publication with Horsethief, Two Peach, and an interview with Poetry International.
This interview was completed by phone and then transcribed.
Natalie Kawam: When did you join Cleaver?
Matthew Girolami: Spring, 2013. My senior year of college.
N: And how did you find out about Cleaver?
M: At my undergraduate college, Frankin & Marshall, there’s a writer’s house that hosts events on campus, and the woman who was in charge of it at the time, Kerry Sherin Wright, is friends with Karen. I guess they worked together in some capacity at the Kelly Writers House. She put a few people in touch with Karen for the opportunity to work at a literary magazine. So I took advantage of that and started out writing book reviews.
N: What sets Cleaver apart from other publications for you?
M: We’re publishing emerging poets and writers alongside established ones. You don’t see that very often. And, I think there’s something wonderful about the breadth of poets we get. For me, I like juxtaposing the new and the established.
N: How has Cleaver changed since it began in 2012?
M: We have several different projects going on now. The scope has changed. We’ve made room for experimental poetry; we’re receiving more experimental submissions. Now, we have radio plays and an advice column. Now, we do interviews with our writers. We take on so many different literary projects through so many mediums.
N: What sparked your interest in writing poetry?
M: Oh, God. Well, I started writing poetry when I was very young. When I was in middle school, actually, and I had no idea of knowing what to do with it. I think it’s one of those things a lot of us probably do when we’re young, in that Poetry is not something necessarily nurtured in the same way other activities are, like athletics are for example. So for me, it was always in the background. I played a lot of music. I played in a lot of bands. Writing was always a part of that, but it wasn’t until college where it actually showed itself as a path.
I took my first poetry course in my senior year. Until that time, I was writing a lot but I didn’t know what a workshop was; I didn’t know what MFAs were. There was a lot I didn’t know. But, I was trying.
My professor that year was Katie Ford. I suppose she saw something in my writing, and she took the time to tell me that it was worth pursuing. I think that’s important when you’re a young writer—who doesn’t exactly know what you’re doing but you know you love doing it—and someone steps in and guides you. So she was the first person to formally talk to me about poetry, and she told me about career opportunities. She basically said, “you’ve got to do this,” which was a huge deal for me after writing quietly for a long time.
N: And now you’re an MFA student at Iowa Writers Workshop! How is that shaping you?
M: It’s going really well! One of the greatest things about it is that I get to teach. After college, I worked office jobs, so being able to teach now is the best job I’ve ever done. I taught literature last year. This year I’m teaching poetry writing. It’s been an incredible opportunity to do so.
For my writing, in the workshop I get to work with an incredible breadth of talent. I mean, you’re never at a loss for only getting one opinion. You’re exposed to so much. The reading recommendations alone are something I’ve never gotten, or would have been able to get otherwise. There are so many people from so many wildly different intellectual spaces and backgrounds. On top of that, we get amazing visiting faculty. I’m currently in a workshop with Simone White, and I’m just thrilled. Being in this community takes you out of the solitude of writing. You’re able to see how your writing on the page matters to someone.
N: Are you working on anything recently?
M: I’ve published in a few magazines in the past year, and I have a few submissions out. I’m working on two books at the moment. One book is really close to being done. It’s a collection of singular poems. It’s my thesis. I’m at the point where I’m finalizing the sequencing. It’s one of those things where you feel like it’s done, but I want to take time to sit with it, edit it. I think that’s a good thing to do.
The second book I’m working on is a book-length poem, which involves growing up between Philadelphia and the Pine Barrens.
N: Who are you reading recently? Or, who are you teaching? What are your go-to journals?
M: What I’m teaching happens to be who I’m reading. We get to design the syllabus, and we’re given wonderful freedom. So I’m teaching some of my favorite writers. Starting with Gertrude Stein, Stanzas in Meditation. I’ll move on to Shane McCrae, Bernadette Mayer, Mule, and Buret Mayer’s sonnets. I’m rereading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life. Someone who I’m not teaching, who I think is really great, is Srikanth Reddy’s book, Voyager. Trilogy, by H.D. Culture of One, by Alice Notley. Tether by Carl Phillips. I’ve also been reading some fiction and essays. I was reading Robert Hass’ What Light Can Do, which is a collection of really beautiful short essays that I’ll pick up in the mornings.
N: How has reading different genres influenced you?
M: I’ve always been a fiction reader. Before I ever took a poetry workshop, I took a fiction workshop, for some reason. It’s funny because, in this class, I learned why I was having trouble writing fiction. When I read fiction, I’m reminded of what poetry does. It’s so often that people ask what a poem does that’s different from fiction or essay. I actually can see, on a sentence level, the difference between the two. The concern, the way of writing, the attention that poetry gives to language. Essay I love because I see an opportunity for poetry there, and I do see a lot of essays taking on poetic form. I think of that book everyone loves by Maggie Nelson, Bluets. It’s a bunch of little essays. Yet, you can read it with the same kind of investment that you give poetry. There’s a lyric pull: lyrically, sonically, formally. It’s helped me recognize what I want out of poetry; what I gravitate towards in my own writing. Essay definitely influences my poetry more than fiction, but I definitely read a lot of fiction because I enjoy it.
N: What are your favorite journals?
M: It’s funny, but I read a lot of stuff that’s opposite of my writing. Flag + Void, American Chordata, Prelude, American Poetry Review, Boston Review. I like Boaat, as a smaller journal. I would say these are some of the biggest ones. And Fence! I love Fence. Fence is a dream journal for me.
N: How do you think American writing has changed or developed in the past 5 years? How has it changed communities, on a small scale and a large scale?
M: In the past five years, people talk about the Trump presidency as a surprise, but it actually just shows our face. I think the thing about Trump especially is that he is the most brutish, despicable, bald-faced man. With Pence, he’s the polite, evil conservative. But Trump, he has racist policies and he has over twenty accusations of sexual assault. It’s mind boggling that he can be elected to the highest office in America.
If anything has changed, it’s that we have seen a resurgence in poetry that’s more interested in social activism. We might not have seen this in a time where people remained complacent. Right now we have Ocean Vuong and Danez Smith, who tell us that the personal is political. Through them we get critiques of politics and we get personal narratives. If poetry has changed, I see more people writing and mobilizing their work.
No one can ignore it anymore. Everyone should be asking what more they can do. No one that is sensible, no one that considers themselves progressive can ignore this. We’re going through an awful time right now. Even talking against it is a form of protest.
N: What is your stance on writers having a social responsibility to affect societal change?
M: When Trump was elected, I was in a workshop talking to my friend who is also a poet. We were wondering what the hell we were doing in an MFA program, in a bubble during a time like this. And he said, “in a country that doesn’t value intellectual labor, any type of intellectual labor is an act of resistance.” I think that’s true.
I think Carl Phillips was recently quoted saying that in a time of great pain it’s okay to write about flowers. It’s okay to write about beauty. It’s important to recognize the role of the writer. They have the same responsibility as anyone. Everything is inherently politically charged. Nothing should stop us from writing about a flower. I guess it’s just being informed like anyone else. In anyone’s writing you can find a critique of the norm. It’s unavoidable.
N: And what is unavoidable in your writing? Why do you write what you write?
M: Well, it’s interesting because I’m working on my thesis. I think have certain ideas that pop up, and others that manifest formally. What’s unavoidable for me is writing about the fragment of memory and writing into family, trauma, death; writing into the conditions and class of these things. I’m often very interested in the aesthetics of how someone is portrayed, and how that portrayal fails. It’s always involved in the conditions of the fragment. How do you represent pain? How do you actually do it? Does it actually honor the pain?
Social Media Maven Natalie Kawam is an undergraduate poet at Bryn Mawr College. In May, 2016, she received the Academy of American Poets Prize at Bryn Mawr, and was published in September 2016 through the Academy. See her poetry here. Natalie is also a poetry staff reader for Glass Kite Anthology.