Staff reader Nick Bertelson talks to Matthew Olzmann about his poem “Commencement Speech, Delivered at the Buncombe County Institute for Elevator Inspectors” (42.2), touching on obsession, defamiliarization, and how you have to “work with what you’ve got.”
Nick Bertelson: When I came across your poem, I instantly thought of the tragic condominium collapse in Surfside, Florida—how it is the job of inspectors like those referenced in your piece to keep the residents of that building safe. These jobs are often overlooked, taken for granted, and tragically ignored. As you put it, “Your vocation is difficult and unglamorous.” Was it initially these “blue-collar” types that propelled this piece, or is it the idea of ascension and the “haze across the firmament” that drives the poem?
Matthew Olzmann: I wrote this a couple of years ago and wasn’t considering any type of inspector other than elevator inspectors. And while I’m acutely aware of how that type of job can be overlooked, and how the work is always unseen, I wasn’t really thinking about the consequences of an elevator inspector being ignored or failing at their job. It’s actually quite the opposite. I was operating under the assumption that they essentially perform at a near-perfect level all the time. I read somewhere that in the US elevators are considered the “safest form of transportation”; they transport something like 100 billion passengers several billion miles per year. And based on the near-zero fatality rate, they’re safer than planes, cars, trains, or even walking. Can’t remember where I read that. It was probably on the Internet, but my understanding is that everything on the Internet is always 100 percent true, so I’m running with it. Whatever the numbers are, that level of efficiency is astonishing. And there was part of me that wanted to celebrate that miraculous, invisible work. As for what propelled the poem into existence? Like many of my poems, this one didn’t begin with a destination in mind. I was initially working with a type of voice and trying to develop that voice while working with the constraint of speaking to a “collective” audience. The poem began to take shape when the possibility of an overarching, figurative exploration came into view.
NB: I love that this poem is primarily voice-driven. Your previous books incorporate imagery and ideas ranging from Mountain Dew commercials to antiquated physics to “Dead Beetles Stuffed with Cocaine” (the actual title of a poem). Do you assemble these longer collections based on voice or is there a theme that may not be at first evident?
MO: Usually, I write poems one at a time, individually, without thinking much about how they connect or speak to one another. I think of the Poem as its own, self-contained art form. Until I’m actually working on a book, I tend to value the poem over the book. Because of that, the challenge in putting my first two books together was the thing you’re noticing: the subject matter is quite disparate. I very much think of those books as “collections” of poems, rather than singular projects orbiting any particular predetermined narrative, idea, or event. Putting a book like that together brings up all sorts of questions. How do these things fit together? What kind of order makes sense? Since anything could be included, what actually should be included? Sometimes, what might bind the material is, in fact, “voice.” Other times, it might be a few parallel, thematic currents. But after sitting with a pile of my poems for long enough, I actually start to see them having more in common with one another than I originally believed. Obsessions quickly make themselves known, and while the poems’ exteriors might appear dissimilar, they’re often are asking similar questions over and over beneath those surfaces.
My new book, Constellation Route, is a little different. Nearly all the poems are epistolary poems or related to the epistolary mode. So, I was thinking about how some of these poems were related to each other as I wrote them, and I thought this manuscript would be a thousand times easier to put together; the poems all have this common approach, meaning there’s at least some governing logic for why they belong in the same book. Should be easy, right? And also, stupid me for thinking that. Once I started thinking in terms of a “book,” I felt a new obstacle developing: how do you create variation when so many poems use the same approach? If you have several poems repeating the same gesture, or orbiting the same conceptual core, you run the risk of tedium. Once I figured out how to work through that issue (after maybe another three years of writing), I also then realized that even though the poems have a similar approach, the subject matter is still every bit as disparate as those in my earlier collections. They’re letters, yes. But those letters are all written to different people or things, and they’re all “about” different things as well. So, every challenge I had with my first two books, I also had with this one, and then a few more just to make it interesting, fun, and a pain in the ass.
That’s probably how it should be, though. I suppose you have to constantly be trying to figure out something that feels new and mysterious and strange to you. If you find that you already have all the answers or you’re not struggling with some new problem in your art, it’s probably because you’re not moving forward. I’ve been there as well. Stuck in the same place, doing the same thing. There’s nothing more frustrating. Those are the moments that feel like you’re walking onto a stage believing you’re going to be David Bowie, then you suddenly realize you’re actually in a cover band—and not a particularly good one at that—badly imitating the thing you thought you were.
NB: To my mind, you’ve perfectly aligned the content with the form here since the poem moves fluidly, much like an elevator, referencing huge names and public figures who’ve recently passed, then funneling it down through more personal acquaintances, until finally landing on a singular man about to have an important medical procedure. Of course, he must first take an elevator to do so. So how did you arrive at that powerful scene? Was it one of those moments that sort of writes itself, or did you struggle to get at it?
MO: The first two parts of the poem that you’re noticing—the public figures followed by a ring of people much closer to the speaker—those parts came very quickly. The part where the focus narrows to the individual was added sometime later in revision. It wasn’t exactly a “struggle,” but there was a lot of trial and error that took a long time to work through. A number of revisions went off in different directions. In trying to think about how a poem gets from point A to point B or point X, there can be a lot of uncertainty and a lot of mystery. It can seem like there are infinite possibilities that are impossible to choose between. But there’s also a logic to it. Each line responds to the previous. Each idea or action is an extension of what came before. Even if line two appears to ignore or reject the preceding material, there’s still a relationship between those moments. Because of this, when you’re revising, a type of governing rationale might make itself known. I could notice the apparent “funneling down” from the public to the personal, and then I might (and in fact I initially did) think that the next move would be to try to return to the more public sphere. And when that doesn’t work I might think, “Maybe it needs to move away from elevators” or “Maybe I should focus on one elevator inspector” or “Maybe I should focus on the machine itself.” What helped me decide on a direction was the question of “Why does this matter to this speaker?” Was it about this speaker trying to understand grief? His own mortality? That arbitrary hand of fate? And once I had a sense of what questions were important to me, I was able to “finish” the poem. (Which I again later revised.)
NB: Speaking of the speaker, there is another layer to this poem in that it’s meant to function like a commencement speech. How do you find these vehicles for expressing universal concerns like death and the afterlife through very specific elements (like a class of elevator inspectors)?
MO: I don’t usually sit down and draft a poem planning to address some “universal” concern. I don’t go in thinking, “Okay. Now it’s time to announce some grand ontological truth.” But I am interested in poems that ask questions or wrestle with our anxieties. If there’s anything “universal” in what I write, that comes from a lot of us having the same questions. What does it mean to feel truly astonished? Are people doomed or redeemable? How do we survive inside of all that we don’t know? Love. Grief. Bewilderment. The destructive behavior of those around us. Whatever the questions or concerns, none of these are exactly unique to me. As for finding the vehicle? Many of these poems don’t have any strong allegiance to realism. So the questions they hold might be real, but the situation might be artifice. If you place any two things next to each other (X and Y, tenor and vehicle, or the imagined world and the real one) there are going to be moments of association between those two points of focus. The challenge is recognizing those moments, but once you sense a type of parallel resonance between two points, you can begin the work of bringing that resonance into greater clarity.
NB: You write, “The work behind the scenes to get them / from here to there is invisible and precise.” It occurred to me that this not only applies to people like elevator inspectors, but also to poets. And like inspectors, poets’ warnings often go unheeded until it is too late. What is the role of the poet in 2021?
MO: Mostly, the role of the poet is to write good poems. Beyond that—I’m not trying to sidestep the question, but I’m reluctant to ascribe a larger social purpose onto all poets everywhere. I don’t think it’s the job of the poet to try to legislate the world (in an unacknowledged manner or otherwise). It’s fine if they do that, I’m just saying that’s not what a poet must do. Most poets I know can barely govern their own daily lives, much less the rest of society. They make bad decisions all the time. You know us, right? We’re kind of a mess. Besides, I don’t think anyone turns to a poem saying, “Teach me how to behave!” Instead, we turn to poems because they express some aspect of our lives that ordinary discursive language and thought simply can’t. They take something intangible—a feeling, an idea—and make it tangible for us. They bring us into our world from a different angle, and in doing that, they make us a little more connected to our world and to each other. That’s not a manifesto. That’s simply me describing what tends to move me the most as a reader of poems. And when a poem does contain some larger political or social intention (which is certainly fine), if I connect with that poem, it’s usually not because it’s telling me something I didn’t know; it’s because the poem has somehow taken an anxiety I already felt, and it then made that anxiety more visible, perceptible, or understandable. These types of poems take the concerns of the day and make us feel them more fully and pointedly.
NB: I love this idea that it’s the poet’s job to elucidate what the reader already knows or feels. In order for me to flesh this out a little bit, though, I’m going to put you on the spot. How does this idea not create a kind of echo chamber among people who read and write poems? I mean, if we only seek out poems that resonate with us as readers, do we risk just fueling our confirmation biases?
MO: I should clarify: it’s not exactly the poet’s job to elucidate what the reader feels. That would be impossible. Obviously, you can’t sit down and think, “I wonder what the reader is feeling today; I should write about that.” Instead, the writer elucidates what the writer feels. And if they do it well enough, it will hopefully make some kind of genuine connection with someone else. My thinking is that if you write a poem about being in a car crash and the dread you felt in that moment, the reader might never have had that experience, but they’ve probably felt fear. They’ve felt panic. They’ve worried about their own mortality. So, they connect with the emotional core of the poem. In a more political context, if you write a poem about how “war is bad,” if it’s a good poem, readers likely connected with it because it brought their own anxieties around the subject into greater focus. But it’s rarely a matter of a writer thinking, “I’ll just say what the reader feels,” nor is it the reader thinking, “I didn’t know war was bad, but now I know.”
However, I’m a world of contradictions right now. I wrote my previous answer several days ago. Today, I’ve been thinking about the role of defamiliarization in art. The writer Viktor Shklovsky—who gifted us with this concept—believed we perceive the world in an automatic, unthinking manner. What’s familiar to us is often overlooked. Because of that, it’s very easy for something that is beautiful to be taken for granted, or for something that’s terrible to be accepted as normal. The job of art then is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Shklovsky said, “Art exists in order to restore the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make a stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things…” That is one of my favorite things ever said about art. I read that and say, yes, the poem really is there to make us see things in a new way. And that would suggest art really is changing minds, or at least changing perceptions, all the time. You thought you were looking at a stone, but you didn’t really see the stone, and now you do. The whole world is different.
I actually don’t think these ideas are incompatible with each other, but I assume you’re not wanting an extended essay here. The shortest version of how I feel they intersect: we feel something. The poem shows us that feeling in an unfamiliar way, and that allows us to see it more fully, or understand it more deeply.
And, yes, I absolutely think there’s always a potential echo chamber in art, and we’re constantly fueling our own biases. That’s in every art, not just poetry. And it’s not just a repetition of similar values or world views. A panoramic view of any art at any time might show patterns of aesthetic repetition and conceptual familiarity. Our expectations are rarely challenged. This might be an intensification of what Shklovsky was talking about: not only does familiarity make us numb, preventing us from experiencing what’s right in front of us and warping our perception of the world, but we’re actually (superficially) drawn to that familiarity. And that would make his argument even more essential. Art needs to defamiliarize. This could also be why the art that any one person subjectively feels is extraordinary is actually kind of rare. When it comes to the artists we love, whatever medium—poetry, film, music, making sculptures out of butter, or whatever—we all have our favorites, and those are usually the ones who do something that we feel is somehow different from the rest of the pack. I describe our attraction to familiarity as “superficial” because I do think we want to be surprised. Only when something overthrows our expectations by doing something we haven’t seen do we praise it as “original.”
NB: You’re known for sprinkling humor throughout your work, juxtaposing it against much darker themes to create a sort of bewildering and wonderful roller coaster of a poem. In the Huffington Post, Stacy Parker Le Melle writes, “I’ve seen Olzmann read a few times in our hometown of Detroit, and he is the only poet I’ve ever heard earn big laughs….” Are poets and standups doing the same type of thing these days? Is humor a necessary part of poetry? Do you use it to get yourself motivated about a poem or is it to get others’ ears to perk up?
MO: There are a lot of similarities between poetry and comedy. I think it was Lorna Goodinson who once told me, “The structure of a poem is the same as the structure of a joke.” But I don’t think humor is necessary in poetry. It’s a tool a poet can use, one of many tools, and each poet figures out which ones work for them. Or they figure out which ones they can use best. I didn’t set out intending to use humor as often as I do, but it’s a thing I can do. I don’t think of myself as being especially funny, and there are definitely other types of poetry I wish I could write. But you have to work with what you’ve got. Like in basketball, let’s say you want to be Steph Curry but you’ve got no jump shot. It’s not going to happen no matter how much you want it to. But maybe you can rebound. Maybe you’re a lockdown defender. Maybe you’re a decent facilitator. And if you can develop those things, maybe you can still get on the court.
For me, humor can be a way to present an argument. It can be a defense mechanism. It can disrupt a reader’s ability to anticipate. It can entertain, comfort, or attack. It can be a balm or a type of criticism. But what I’m most drawn to is how it might be used to create a type of emotional turn. When you place one emotion next to a different emotion, the second emotion is often heightened by way of contrast. That tonal movement can be very important in a poem, but it doesn’t need to involve humor. Anger could move toward sorrow. Certainty could move toward doubt. Many love poems worry about losing the beloved. In an elegy, the feeling of grief depends on the understanding of what wonderful thing once was there and no longer is. Absence is understood through what once was present. We feel disappointment only if we can imagine a better outcome. One way to understand relief is that it’s the dissipation of fear; you were worried about something and when those worries turn out to be baseless, you’re relieved. In real life, many emotions are tethered to their opposites. On the page, an emotion that exists somewhat abstractly when viewed in isolation might become more vivid and tangible when placed next to a different emotional current.
Read Matthew Olzmann’s “Commencement Speech, Delivered at the Buncombe County Institute for Elevator Inspectors” (42.2) and visit his website here.
Nick Bertelson, a staff reader in fiction at NER, is a farmer from southwestern Iowa. His work has appeared in multiple journals. He is a James Hearst Poetry Prize finalist and author of Harvest Widows (NDSU Press 2019).