Kern Poetry Interview with Matthew Woodman, Kern County Poet Laureate

Interviews by Carla Martin
Photographs by Kern Poetry


Interview by Carla Martin
Here are four poems Matthew Woodman shared with us at Dagny’s on First Friday, April 5th, 2019:

The Fugitive
       “I’d like to settle down, but they won’t let me.”
        –Merle Haggard

Who wouldn’t want to shed
their stripes in the shadow
of Mt. Shasta, the most
voluminous strato-
volcano astride the
Cascade Volcanic Arc?

Of the five essential
features of the phono-
graph, Edison opens
with captivity and
permanent retention
of all manner of sound-

waves previously stamped
“fugitive,” reception
as a correlative
of regulation, San
Quentin California’s
oldest prison and the

state’s only death row. Es-
capes may be divided
into voluntary
or negligent, actual
or constructive, Haggard’s
parole and then pardon

inexorably linked
to his band of Strangers
and the birdseye maple
Fender Telecaster
with the two-tone sun-
burst finish. To listen

is to risk being moved.
We are brief engagements
of time and pressure in
eruptive, ecstatic
song. Who wouldn’t want to
be born in a boxcar?


Day and Night
       (after Rufino Tamayo’s El día y la noche, 1954)

we purchased a family membership
at the california living museum
the aquarium will open
after the new year after the holiday
lights we watched the cougar
sleep we practiced deep soft stuttering
hoots on the great horned owl
we croaked and clacked the ravens
we followed fox tracks through
the powdery soil outside the cages
a turkey vulture spiraled over
head I told my son something dead
might be on the menu soon
his great grandfather recently passed
and dividing classifying diurnal
nocturnal but then why is the owl
awake sometimes things slide
through the night my grandfather
slipped into a coma I saw him
standing in my living room a high-
way away what propellant keeps
us participating in this bilateral
symmetry can modality be new
what happened after they took him
to the funeral home I explained
cremation and a simplified version
of closed systems of conservation
of energy and life cycles what was
your favorite part I asked the snake
house he replied a building seems
to cut into the side of a mountain
or pyramid and he’s always liked
descending mines or caves reading
about ancient monuments studying
the stars can I go out at midnight
he asks and look for ghosts at first
I dumfounded am but then realize he
refers to a game downloaded on his
mother’s phone of I tell him course


The Astronomer (1957)
       (after Rufino Tamayo’s painting El astrónomo, 1957)

The more I look the longer I last
just jump they say right in if you want

to understand but how does one reach
the firmament put oneself into play

amid the fault lines interplanetary
alignments slopes tracing the otherwise

incomprehensible tangle of table
crossed legs and do you want a refill

make of your head an orbital stone
be unafraid to careen and cause

questioning glance if need be at the hole
where the compass would be had you not

ditched it at the border along with your hold
on the pedometer and your corner chair

against the wall where normally you’d watch
the intersections traffic not in what

could happen but rather in fusing
the range your space to the spaces out there


Man with Flower
       (after Rufino Tamayo’s painting Hombre con flor, 1989)

The palette knife shaves seconds clean
into years since I had a full head
of hair the pate a sheen robin egg blue

the sky in spring shorn of the last
wispy tufts I still nick my throat’s right
when the razor’s dulled blade has seen

better days of buttered toast bacon
and eggs beneath a mound of biscuits
and gravy shelled on a handwashed plate

the rest proceeds both too quick too slow
how much has what else will rust
this patina before it all leaches

into the soil and sprouts a spindly
white daisy from which children
weave chains and forge crowns

– – –

Q. When did you first become interested in poetry? What poets have inspired and influenced you?

A. I first became interested in poetry as a child through Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, and I have a “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” tie that I wear on days I am feeling especially nostalgic. In terms of writing poetry, I suppose I would have to blame the writer Jim Dodge, from whom I took three or four creative writing courses at Humboldt State University. His novel Stone Junction is a hallucinogenic quest novel that I highly recommend, Fup is a shorter work about a larger-than-life pet duck, and his collection of poetry Rain on the River: New and Selected Poems and Short Prose contains one of my favorite poems, “Karma Bird.” I am always on the prowl for new poets and poems from whom I can find my own inspiration. Two of my earliest influences were John Berryman (Dream Songs) and Raymond Carver (Ultramarine). More recently, I have been influenced by Charles Simic (Hotel Insomnia), Olena Kalytiak Davis (Shattered Sonnets, Love Cards, and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities), Kay Ryan (The Best of It), A.R. Ammons (Garbage), Homero Aridjis (Solar Poems), and William Carlos Williams (Paterson), and this year I’ve been following Rocío Carlos (the Other House).


Q. What is your greatest desire to accomplish as Poet Laureate of Kern County?

A. I seem my role as Poet Laureate of Kern County as being some sort of catalyst who can inspire other people to read, write, and perform their own poetry. If I can inspire or assist another writer in putting their own words into the world, then I will consider my role a success.


Q. What advice would you give to aspiring poets? What is your modus operandi?

A. To all aspiring poets out there . . . read as much poetry as you can! Read the classics! Read what was published last week! Don’t obsess over finding your voice; instead, try to gather and give breath to all your voices. There are hundreds of literary journals publishing great poetry. Subscribe to a few, or ask your local library to pick up a subscription; many of these journals also have an online component (or are completely online), so there is no financial obstacle to seeing what’s being created now, in the same time and space in which we are living. I particularly enjoy the online journals Mojave Heart Review, Memoir Mixtapes, and Longleaf Review and the print journals Willow Springs, Puerto Del Sol, and Zyzzyva, but each journal has its own voice, so find the journal that publishes work you enjoy, and keep writing (and editing! and rewriting!) and then submit your own work to that journal. And don’t be discouraged by rejection; rejection is all part of the process and is a sign that you’re on the right path (as long as you continue writing and improving). My poems have been rejected a painful number of times, but –to use an analogy– the only way to build muscle is to tear the tissue and let it heal back stronger. Earn those rejections! And then make changes to your poem (or not!) and send it out into the world again. I also recommend finding a community of writers so that you can encourage and support each other through the process. The Writers of Kern is doing great work on this account, and an aspiring poet could also use the local library’s community page to start a writing group at the library. As for my own modus operandi, I like to give myself writing assignments or projects. For example, one of my recent projects involved the painter Rufino Tamayo, whose painting “Dog Howling at the Moon” stunned me when I first saw it. I then sat down to write a collection poems, each of which would be inspired by a different Tamayo painting. This ekphrastic project resulted in nearly 200 poems, and an earlier collection focusing on “moon” poems ended up numbering nearly 80. Each project has a centered focus (paintings or the moon), so part of my process is trying to expand my stylistic range so that I don’t repeat the same “tricks” or literary tropes. This has allowed me to push myself while also keeping an anchor to hold the poems in some sort of bay.