Kern Poetry Interview with Jerry D. Mathes II
Interview by Carla Martin
Photographs by Kern Poetry
Jerry D. Mathes II was the featured poet for Dagny’s First Friday Open Mic Night, last year on May 3, 2019. The event was hosted by local poet and poetry advocate, Julie Jordan Scott.
The interview with Jerry D. Mathes II
by Carla Martin
Q. What inspired you to write your poems? What are their backstories?
A. I am inspired by life to write poems. That thing that drives anyone to tell a story that is as innate as painting on cave walls. In poetry, I write about events that have an underlying transformational moment, an emotional turn that happens. In the poem, “Venus in Retrograde” I was driving out Highway 58 before sunrise between Tehachapi and Boron headed to Las Vegas, Nevada where my father had been hospitalized and was about to undergo heart surgery. My two daughters were asleep and I was alone with the road noise and Venus burning in the light of false dawn. I wrote the poem in my head as I contemplated the gravity of the trip, my rocky relationship with my father, and the drive, the journey itself. This is classic story telling. What is the physical action of the story and what is the emotional action of the story? I had my journal with me, as I always do, so scribbled out the lines as it rested on my thigh. I’d learned how to write on a steno on my thigh as a helicopter manager when I was a wildland firefighter, so it’s something I can do easily.
Venus in Retrograde
The girls and I drive east,
Sunrise like a creamsicle,
spread only the way a desert
can make it, edged between jagged
mountains and the freezer blue
of a sky, failing before day. The half-light
ripples the frost on the dry lake,
and Venus hangs a punch hole in the dark sky.
We travel to see my father, whose heart
is battered with decades of cigarettes,
industry, and the working class diet
designed to keep the body burning
through the long shifts of mining ore,
hauling the nation’s freight, or the rejection
of a first born son. The space around
his heart has filled with fluid like so much
sweat and tears of a lifetime of work,
compressing it until it struggles to beat,
to do its job.
My daughters sleep as I drive and regard
Venus through the windshield, fading
with the sunrise. How the son always
feels the pull of the father, no matter
how far away he travels or long ago
the last civil word.
Venus maybe in retrograde,
but it always returns along its frozen
ellipsis, not to the heart, but close enough
to see its light at its brightest.
Q. Do you like to read poetry? If you do, what poets have influenced you? Who have messages you connect with, or styles you admire?
A. I do like to read poetry. And poets who have influenced me are Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Tennyson, Wilfred Owen, Langston Hughes, Richard Hugo, Jane Kenyon, James Wright, Anna Akhmatova, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Hayden, Phillip Levine, Yusef Komunyakaa, and others. I don’t really look for messages, but how a poet uses words and images and how they connect to the human condition. I like when a poet lets a poem have room to breathe and even if it adds up to a certain way of looking at the world, like in Levine’s “What Work Is” or Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” events within the poem led us there and we aren’t being preached at. Even political poets like Owen and Ginsberg work through imagery and in the end let the readers contemplate how they feel about the subject. You can look at Ginsberg’s “America,” and its litany of injustices, sense of protest, or those people on the fringe, where it seems a rejection of America and its values because “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing,” but in the end turns it upside down when he says “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” The same with Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.” He isn’t saying the war is hell, stop the war. He is showing you the horror of war as it existed for him on the Western Front and the reader can see the horrors and come to their own conclusions, which is much more powerful as he comes to the final line in Latin that works against the idea of glory and honor in war. Poetry can reveal to us injustices, horror, or oppression and it can be celebratory, elegiac, or mythic in searching, but how it wrestles with these things is what is important to me. Aristotle wrote in Poetics, “the ending must be unexpected, yet satisfying.” He was talking about all narratives. It’s what gives us surprise or delight as we finish reading. It’s also important to remember the reader is smart and doesn’t need to be told most things, and it robs a reader of the satisfaction of discovery. For instance, in Whitman’s “The Artilleryman’s Vision,” the artilleryman is hallucinating the battle in his home in bed with his wife and “through the dark, I hear, just hear, the/breath of my infant.” He shows us and we are left to share the experience. You can see this also in “Starlight Scope Myopia” by Yusef Komunyakaa where we are looking through a night vision scope at enemy soldiers who “Gray-blue shadows lift/shadows onto an oxcart.” and what is flat and dark opens out into a larger world of humanity we couldn’t have predicted, and discover a revelatory ending. I think a lot about Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Grays in Phillipsburg” about a trip to a played-out mining town and he shows us the wreckage and hope of life in this trip. It begins, “You might come here Sunday on a whim,” and if that isn’t inviting you into a world laden with meaning to ponder, then I don’t know what is. But for all these authors, it is the imagery that shows us the way, and not the author telling us, and the author trusts we are smart enough to get it. I have no use for preachy poetry. In fact, preachy poetry is more for the writer than the listener. As the poet Richard Hugo said, “I you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
Q. What advice would you give to other folks wanting to create poems? How do you make a poem? Do you have a special place you go to, or music you listen to, etc.? How long does it take you? Do you write in the morning or evening? On the back of envelopes or on your phone? Give us a glimpse into your creative process!
A. The advice I give people who want to be poets is to write and read and write some more. Look at poems you like and figure out how they were constructed. A good thing to do is get a book on forms and learn how to construct formal poems that don’t sound stilted, archaic, or forced, and after that you can break the form and create what you want. Another exercise I learned in college was modeling. Take a poem you love and use it as a blueprint for your own poem. Copy the meter, the line length and the number of lines, but use your own words and imagery.
I don’t have a special place, or music, or a particular time of day and compose poems with whatever is handy. A poem can take years or days to minutes to write, because that’s how it works. My creative process is to look at the world or think about events or things and what questions they raise for and how to work it out. Yeats said, “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.” The poet must be introspective and struggle with her or himself as they confront the world and, most importantly, confront themselves. Poetry, it’s a search for meaning.