Matt Mitchell on Writing Love Poems for Himself and For Others
Hanif Abdurraqib Talks to the Author of Vampire Burrito
If you have been fortunate, you have gotten to watch Matt Mitchell’s evolution as a poet—one that began with him producing generously. A high rate of work that was, when looked back on now with a full understanding of his catalog, building a sort of universe within which is thematic concerns and pleasures, and interests could operate. Though he operates in text form, it feels best for me to look at his work as that as of a musician. There are musicians, like, say, Johnny Cash. Those who produce a body of work that is filled with distinctly unique individual works, but each of those works sing into a similar set of investments.
I have gotten comfortable calling this the Matt Mitchell Universe, also, for how it expands and how the writer expands alongside it. When I first met Matt, he was a young poet at Hiram College in Ohio, and one of the greatest joys has been being someone who has, up close, gotten to be witness to his risk taking, his evolution, and his bravery. It was a delight to talk to him about Vampire Burrito, out today, love poems, lineage, intersex identity, and reading out loud.
Hanif Abdurraqib: So I guess my first big question is the approach. What I loved about the book is that it’s all these different modes of love poems, or at least it felt like that to me. My central interest was how you came to that, how you approached this desire for the love poem and all these different forms. And if you spent a lot of time kind of immersed in different shapes and sizes of love poems as you were approaching the book-making process.
Matt Mitchell: The first book I spent really trying to figure out how to write a love poem that’s not about another person, that’s just about myself. And I think by the end of that book, I kind of figured out how to do that. But then I had a lot of poems left over that were about my partner at the time, but they just didn’t fit with what I think that book was trying to accomplish. Her place in my life was very important to my own story, but I think the story I needed to tell first and foremost was, what is it like being a young person and finding out that you’re an intersex male?
I thought that that was the first thing that needed to be addressed. And then by the time I finished addressing that, I didn’t have any room left in the book that I wanted to explore. So I had these love poems and I was like, well, these need to go somewhere. And so then I put out them out as a chapbook Grown Ocean later that year. And then I had those poems and I kind of leapfrogged from them into this mode of thinking, like what if I write a book that’s partially about how intersex joy is fueled through the adoration of others and the care that I’ve received from people I love very dearly in my life? What would that look like?
And then of course, I went through a breakup with that person and I had these poems and I’m like, well, the person that these are about is no longer in my life, but the idea of what these poems are supposed to mean is still very important to who I am. And so I was like, well, let’s do something with these poems. Let’s rework these poems into something that’s a little bit more fictional than what I’m living right now but the core ethos or passion is still there.
I thought how can I unlearn the toxic masculine traditions that have been instilled in me through my father and through my grandfather and their grandparents, and these very long lines of lineage that I think about all the time? How can I take all of that and unspool all of it into a future that looks a lot more graceful and a lot nicer? And so that’s what kind of led to me writing about having a child, even though I don’t have a child. I was kind of like, well, if I were to somehow be able to have this kid, what could I do for them that my own family couldn’t do for me when I was growing up?
And so I love what you’re saying about it being one big spectrum of love poems, because I think every way it went, whether it was writing about my partner, using part of our relationship as an idea for what a very symbiotic love can be, or whether it was writing about going through IVF and having a child that way, or trying to better understand how my uncle’s suicide really impacted my dad’s side of the family. I think all of that was a different approach to what kind of love I can extend to someone else, or even to myself.
HA: How was it stepping backwards into a love that doesn’t exist in the way that it existed when the poems were first formed? And what made you decide to, despite the shift in that existence, still kind of create this work partly as an ode to that love?
MM: When I approach a love poem, I really, really don’t want to idealize the person who’s in the poem with me because it comes off, in my opinion, like a very inaccessible, one-sided poem. And I want people to read it and be able to put themselves in it someplace.
And so I think having that mindset of what a love poem can be if you don’t just limit it to the person you’re in love with, I think it gave me the ability to continually rework it and take what’s going on in the present and apply it to that. Because the foundations of all those love films is just I was very deeply grateful to be in the presence of someone who was very kind to me, a person who is chronically ill and undergoing hormone therapy for the rest of my life.
Sometimes my best days are not very great. And so part of that comes from just having a companion who is patient. And that’s something I look for in every person that I meet, whether it’s a romantic partner or a friend. And so I think having that specific foundation and that architecture within the confines of what a romance can be really set me up well for approaching it in the way I did in Vampire Burrito, which it’s definitely inspired by one or two people, but I also feel like every person who’s ever extended me some sort of generosity has a place in those poems too.
HA: With the amount of future-scaping happening in the work, and with how uncertain our futures are, how did you exit these poems? I’m more interested in the exiting of the poems that are dealing with love in the future, because that’s a potential thing, but it’s not promised or expected.
MM: Even today, it’s a pretty good guarantee that if I go home and visit my parents, my father is going to say something about me being the last Mitchell in our bloodline, and he’ll be like, “You know, you got to have a kid. You got to have a son and pass the name down, keep the name going.”
I used to laugh it off when I was younger, but then I got older, and then my endocrinologist was like, you’re probably going to need to see a fertility specialist when you and whoever you’re with at the time are interested in having a family, because there’s a good chance that you’re going to need some help with that. And once you get that news when you’re like 21 years old and you’ve spent the last five or six years hearing from your family, like, “Oh, you got to keep it going. You got to have another one or the Mitchells are done,” it transforms your perspective on it.
It kind of made me a little mad for a little while before I started writing the poems about that in the book. And then I finally got to a point where I was like, well, what if I did have a child? What if I had a son or a daughter or whatever, and they were also an intersex person and that’s just another one of me running around? It affects people to have voices and be heard and be recognized. And I thought about it can’t be too bad of a future if that were to happen. But obviously it would take a lot of miraculous, maybe other worldly factors, to make that happen at this point.
And so I kind of started considering the idea, and trying to deflate all ego possible. I started thinking about, well, kind of what I am and what this body is, it’s kind of miraculous in a way. And so it’s like, what if the potential was limitless and we could do this, me and whoever my partner is at the time, what if we could have a child? And then that’s where all the generational Appalachian history came in, where I was like, well, I don’t think I can really have a child until I come to terms with all of this stuff that has been going on in my life familially for 20 years.I think that putting out a poem that’s very explicitly about some uncomfortable things is a success.
And so I wanted to address that and think about… I couldn’t write about the future until I addressed the past, which my family has a very strong tendency to avoid. Still can’t really get my dad to talk about his brother’s death that much. He’s a pretty closed book about it. So I had to kind of do my own reflection and really think back on the stories I did get and pay a little bit more attention to the details and try to see if there was some light cracking through that maybe I didn’t realize when I was younger.
I know that there’s nuance, and fail and succeed is not a binary, there’s not a real binary approach to that. But since parts of this book orbit concerns of how lineage fails us, or how we fail ourselves, I’m curious how you do the math on failure. How do you do your own personal math on what failure is versus what success is? And how do you reckon with that?
I think that if I’m not writing from an honest place that I’m comfortable with sharing with other people, then I don’t want to be writing at all. I’m not very good speaking in front of other people, so I’ve kind of leaned on writing a lot. But I do think writing is as powerful as talking in a lot of ways. And I think that putting out a poem that’s very explicitly about some uncomfortable things is a success, because I’m extending a foot through the door and I’m trying to show other people what’s going on.
Because I think every perspective is valuable. Maybe not every perspective, that can get muddied in a lot of ways. But perspectives like mine of having generational afflictions in dealing with queerness and being intersex, and where that might fall under something like the trans umbrella, or even on the LGBT spectrum in general. I want to work through these things in a sort of semi-public way, just on the off chance that somebody else is listening.
Because I know when I was working through them when I was younger, there was nobody that I had to turn to for a resource. And so, yeah, I think a success would be being a voice for someone who might not have had a voice before. And that seems really cliched, but I don’t know. I always wanted someone to turn to when I was younger and I didn’t have that. That should have been my parents. So now, or I have written a book about, well, if I’m in their position, how can I be better?
HA: Yeah, you told me before that you weren’t doing readings for this. You’re not that interested in doing reading for it. What’s the thinking behind that? I mean, is this just a stance broadly, like you’re done with the public reading as a forum?
MM: Well, it’s interesting because when I was in college I was writing about the death of my grandmother who died from dementia when I was a freshman in college. I was writing about that, and that was a very hard thing to live through, but I still wanted to write about it and I didn’t want to read about it. And my advisor at the time had said, “You got to get used to it, because writing and reading your poems out loud and performing your work is an essential part of making money doing this.” And I always felt kind of off put by that. ‘Cause money’s nice. I like being able to live, but I felt odd about the necessity and the essentialism of reading. It didn’t feel as necessary as she was proclaiming it to be.
And obviously you can make really good money reading poems if you’ve hit the right audience and you’re in the right spot. But it just felt like, I’ve lived through these poems and I went through a lot of grief and trauma just getting them finished. Why do I need to add an extra layer to what I’ve already done? And then I’ve also gotten into this part of my brain where I’m like, well, poetry readings aren’t necessarily the most accessible things for people. And I’m always trying to make my work accessible, whether that’s putting text on a picture of a poem or putting captions on a video of someone reading a poem. I really work hard to not continue to perpetuate the inaccessibility of readings as well. There’s a lot of layers to doing a reading or not doing a reading that I’ve realized over the years.
And now at this point, I haven’t written a poem in a long time. I haven’t written a poem since probably, I don’t know, May, April or May of 2022. Yeah, it’s been like a year. And if this had happened to me three or four years ago, I’d probably be a little bit paranoid about whether or not I’ve still got it. But right now, I’m actually really comfortable not having written in a long time.
Because with this book, with Vampire Burrito, I do truly feel like I’ve said all I can possibly say at the moment. And instead of forcing myself to sit down and make another book, I am just going to let life happen. Because I think it’s funny. It’s funny to like, well, I can’t write another poem anytime soon because I need to live more life. But I do think it’s true. I’ve written about everything I’ve experienced up until this point, and right now I’m collecting mementos and honestly trying to enjoy those pieces of me more than I have in the past.
And in the process, I’m just not writing about it because I’m trying to live in it a little bit longer. I don’t know if I’ll ever write another poetry book if I’m being honest.
Vampire Burrito by Matt Mitchell is available from Grieveland Poetry Press.