How Strange Is It to Be a Stranger?

Linda Besner interviews Nyla Matuk about her new book of poems


LINDA BESNER
Let's start with the title. The tension between being an individual, with all the loneliness that entails, and being part of a community, with all the frustrations that entails, seems to really animate this book. Do you see feeling estranged from oneself and from others as an inescapable part of human life, or do you see estrangement as in some way a deliberate choice? How strange is it to be a stranger?

NYLA MATUK
It’s definitely strange! The psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillips had explained in his Paris Review interview (2014) that he believed the goal of a long-term analysis was to not know yourself, rather than the opposite, which we commonly believe. He said the point was to arrive at a level of self-estrangement that allowed you to hunger to discover and do and be more in the world—the way children are always curious because they don’t really know themselves or what they want. As individuals we can be lonely yet we can also have an experience of endless unknowing, curiosity, appetite. Regardless, we may willingly or unwillingly—or unwittingly—estrange ourselves from others, too. 

My new poems are about escapism but also the inescapable worldliness of certain aspects of my experience: my ethnic roots, my political consciousness, my intense curiosity. They’re also about the way we live online. How we’re disembodied, distant, estranged from each other yet always ready to be inter-connected, precisely because of the unknowns. It’s as if our interlocutions could be pure negative capability. So there are poems in the book about writing poetry.

Linda Besner. Photo courtesy of author.

Linda Besner. Photo courtesy of author.

BESNER
Ha! I had to look up “negative capability.” So this is what Keats thinks Shakespeare had—“I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason[.]” To me, this seems like one of the reasons why the worldly factors you describe—ethnicity, politics—are so hard to write poetry about; it feels like mystery and doubt are where we live when it comes to these things, and facts and reason are often the things in short supply. Or do you feel like there’s a more productive sense of mystery that we could be inhabiting when we think and write about these aspects of our collective life?

MATUK
I think the entanglement of truth with beauty—though it’s as old as the hills—still preoccupies us. I’ve been reading Solmaz Sharif’s Look and she’s said her poetry is foremost political and documentary, yet there is never a feeling that we are being told any particular truth or being shown right and wrong. Although the moral bankruptcy of America’s wars is documented in the poems, this judgment doesn’t hinge on facts and reason: the poems are only a document of truth, relating incidents and subjective reactions to life-threatening experiences, to destruction and killing. And there is beauty in documenting the truth, especially in a climate of media distortion. So this ‘productive sense of mystery’ you mentioned, maybe it’s in that book by Sharif… 

In my poem “Meditation after Seeing Hannah Arendt,” the speaker tries to find common ground between the conditions Arendt observed that led her to ‘banality of evil’ as an explanation of Nazi murder, and the idea of omnipresent nature as a form of power. One theory of political power includes the notion that it is when power is not predictable—when it’s capriciously applied—that it is the most harmful. 

BESNER
That poem actually brings up something else I wanted to ask you about. The first sentence reads, “I go see Barbara Sukowa as Hannah Arendt in Margarethe von Trotta’s /  Hannah Arendt.” Your book is unusual in that proper names are a prominent feature. What do you think the inclusion of a name—on a visual level, particularly—does to a line?

Nyla Matuk. Photo courtesy of author.

Nyla Matuk. Photo courtesy of author.

MATUK
If I see a proper name in a line of poetry, my interest is piqued. I have a sudden awareness of the poet in a way I don’t about the author of a work of fiction. But a proper name also hurtles me out of the words on the page, and into an embodied, real-time, or historic consciousness of the poet or the conditions of the poet’s life. I don’t believe all readers would find the jolt from text to real life all that pleasant…but I have no idea. It’s visually strange, if I can say that. But if you happen to know the person the name’s attached to, then, it’s familiar—but in a strange place, like a book where you wouldn’t expect to see it the way you might see a name you know on Facebook, or being called out, in a room, in real life…

My poem “Parts of a Whole,” about friends, was an attempt to capture some moment or memory or thought that I felt I would always remember vividly. It was about being vivid with another person, one whom I wanted to name. In “New England” I was playing around with an experience of friends and strangers.

BESNER
You had told me that I was in a poem of yours, but it was still a shock and a weird experience to see my name in “Parts of a Whole”! So just one more question: in the notes to “Synaesthesia-lese (Translaximations)” you mention that you often associate colours, sounds, or tastes with words. Tell me what this is like and how it affects your word-choice? 

Hearing ‘crêpe paper’ had me taste fondant icing, the word ‘Rolodex’ sounded like the taste of Kraft singles, ‘curtain’ is soda water, ‘pillar’ is Aspirin, and ‘journal’ is the Jersey Milk chocolate bar. So, as a kid, the whole world was language, but almost in a 3-D sense, affecting my vision and taste.

MATUK
When I was little, I was exposed to French, English, and Urdu; the sounds in a phrase in one language would often remind me of the words I knew in a different language, or else colours or tastes. So, ‘shalwar kameez,’ in Urdu, meaning a pants and tunic outfit, would correspond to an English definition in my re-imagining. I came up with the associated “planning to wear that chemise some time” that you find in that poem. In this case, it’s as if hearing a foreign language prompted me to guess what it could mean in another, more familiar language, relying only on sounds. I wanted the strange to get familiar. But it doesn’t affect my word choice in general. I remember pairings being about colours with tastes, and sounds with taste, mostly. Some examples: seeing pink made me taste jelly beans; seeing dark green made me taste licorice-flavoured lollipops; the word ‘avenir’, meaning ‘future’ in French, had me tasting roasted, salted cashews; ‘hat,’ mashed potatoes. Hearing ‘crêpe paper’ had me taste fondant icing, the word ‘Rolodex’ sounded like the taste of Kraft singles, ‘curtain’ is soda water, ‘pillar’ is Aspirin, and ‘journal’ is the Jersey Milk chocolate bar. So, as a kid, the whole world was language, but almost in a 3-D sense, affecting my vision and taste. Unfortunately or fortunately, I’ve grown out of a lot of this kind of sensory experience, but it still happens sometimes.

 

LINDA BESNER’s first book of poetry, The Id Kid, was published in 2011 by Véhicule Press and named as one of the National Post’s Best Poetry Books of the Year. In 2015 she was selected as one of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s best emerging artists. She lives in Montreal, where she serves on the editorial board of Icehouse Press. Her second collection, Feel Happier in Nine Seconds, will be published by Coach House Books in Spring 2017.

NYLA MATUK is the author of two books of poetry: Stranger (Véhicule Press, 2016) and Sumptuary Laws (Véhicule Press, 2012), nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Her poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, the New Poetries VI anthology, PN Review, The Manchester Review, and other magazines.

 

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