Interview with Matthew Olzmann

Shannon K. Winston: You’ve chosen Wisława Szymborska’s “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition.” Can you introduce the poem and explain why you chose it?

Olzmann AJB 1
Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann: The poem first appeared in Szymborska’s 1957 collection, Calling Out to Yeti. That book was widely considered to be an artistic breakthrough for her. This was the first book of hers published after Poland’s era of Social Realism—an era where censorship was extreme and the arts were supposed to promote the agenda of the State—and this book is where she starts to emerge and develop her own radical approaches to poetry.

The poem itself is highly allegorical. The speaker addresses the Yeti, telling it about the normal things that people do. Many people have read the “Yeti” as Stalin. I’ve heard some suggest the Yeti represents God. Of course, Syzymborska claimed, “The yeti is the yeti.” Regardless of what the yeti “represents,” we see a person trying to explain their world to a mythic being. I first read this poem in my early 20s and was immediately interested in why people would see God or Stalin in the poem as neither appear there. This taught me a lot about how to suggest a figurative moment and how to manage absurdity: Readers inherently search for an analogue; we take the world of the poem—no matter how strange—and connect it to our own, in the parallel between those two worlds, a space for figurative resonances emerge.

Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition

Wisława Szymborska

So these are the Himalayas.
Mountains racing to the moon.
The moment of their start recorded
on the startling, ripped canvas of the sky.
Holes punched in a desert of clouds.
Thrust into nothing.
Echo—a white mute.

Yeti, down there we’ve got Wednesday,
bread and alphabets.
Two times two is four.
Roses are red there,
and violets are blue.

Yeti, crime is not all
we’re up to down there.
Yeti, not every sentence there
means death.

We’ve inherited hope—
the gift of forgetting.
You’ll see how we give
birth among the ruins.

Yeti, we’ve got Shakespeare there.
Yeti, we play solitaire
and violin. At nightfall,
we turn lights on, Yeti.

Up here it’s neither moon nor earth.
Tears freeze.
Oh Yeti, semi-moonman,
turn back think again!

I called this to the Yeti
inside four walls of avalanche,
stomping my feet for warmth
on the everlasting

SKW: You’re interested in the way this poem uses “forms of address.” First, can you explain what you mean by “forms of address?” How is this craft element working in this poem?

Wisława Szymborska, 1980

MO: When I mentioned that interest to you earlier, I could have easily said “direct address” to note my specific interest in that manner of delivery, or modes of address to expand that interest to include different types. I settled on the odd phrase “forms of address” because the address in this poem seems particularly tied to the poem’s shape and structure.

I often hear this poem described as a poem that addresses the Yeti. That does happen in the poem, but that’s not how it begins or ends. As a monologue, the poem has two audiences. In the first stanza, the audience is unspecified; it’s uncertain as the speaker could be talking to anyone. Then there’s a shift, and the speaker is directly addressing a yeti. Then it pivots again, returning to the original mode of delivery. This creates a sense of movement, a zooming in and out. At the beginning, we might presume the speaker is addressing us. When it moves to the addressing of the Yeti, we’re no longer the direct audience; we’re positioned just outside the conversation. We’re hearing what one figure says to another figure. As such, we’re becoming eavesdroppers, overhearing one side of a conversation. Then, with another pivot, the speaker says, “I called this to the Yeti,” thus shifting the focus and the addressee.

That’s why I used the word form. The two types of address are the organizing force behind the poem. With one mode of address becoming a container for the other, a frame is placed around the direct address, thus shaping how we receive and experience the information delivered.

SKW: It seems like there’s a strong relationship between “forms of address” and tone here. Would you agree? Or is the address working closely with another craft element?

MO: Yes, I’d agree. Overall, the tone is very complex. There’s a tonal shift when the poem begins addressing the Yeti. It moves from being flat and objective to something confrontational and urgent. The speaker is trying to convince and persuade, and those elements enter the poem exactly at the point of the direct address.

But there are other tonal qualities as well. If we define tone as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter, what exactly is the subject matter? She’s talking to the Yeti, but the poem is not about the Yeti. What she’s talking about, on the surface, seems utterly commonplace: Wednesday, solitaire, turning the lights on. On one hand, that is the subject matter. On the other hand, because she’s addressing the Yeti, how we understand that subject matter changes. If she were telling the reader that “We’ve got the alphabet and two plus two,” there would definitely be an element of “who cares?” involved. But she’s telling this to the Yeti. Placing the mythic next to the mundane can do one of two things: elevate the mundane or normalize the mythic. In this poem, both effects can be seen. The elevation of the ordinary gives the poem a sense of awe. It allows us to see the speaker’s reverence toward the objects of her world.

Because all this is communicated through a direct address to the Yeti, there’s a secondary tonal charge, an undertone. The primary tone (the speaker’s attitude toward the objects of her world) is one of wonder, but the secondary tone (her attitude toward the Yeti) is more complicated. There’s an aura of exasperation as she tries to persuade, but there’s also a patronizing element. Her reverence is toward the minutia of the world and not to the Yeti. This says, “I’m not really that impressed by you. These things over here are really what amaze me.”

SKW: What do you think the relationship is between repetition and forms of address?

MO: The repetition gives the poem a sense of urgency. There’s an intensity of focus in constantly repeating “Yeti.” Each time she says it, she’s announcing the recipient of the address, calling him out, and refocusing the reader’s attention. Additionally, as you suggest in the previous question, it shapes our experience of tone. Repeating “Yeti” gives the speaker a confrontational edge. It’s an unnatural way of speaking, and the syntactical hammering seems designed to draw a reaction from its recipient (especially when coupled with the statement of such obvious facts). I mean, if someone were to address me this way—Matthew, there are fish. Matthew, 3:00 p.m. happens. Matthew, we have coffee and the number six. Matthew, the moon is a thing—I’d either find it funny or unsettling.

SKW: How has “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition” influenced your own work? What craft lessons have you learned from this poem and from Szymborska’s work in general?

MO: In general, Szymborska might be the poet whose poems I return to most frequently. I usually just read them for pleasure. But from a craft standpoint, there’s a lot to learn from her: tonal control and irony, scale and contrast, how to overthrown a reader’s expectations, humor, the order of a list. Few poets are better at strategically questioning or taking apart received beliefs.

This poem in particular, as mentioned earlier, opened me up to the possibilities of allegory. How a poem might gesture toward one thing as a way to communicate some completely separate idea. In my own writing, I’m interested in the epistolary. Many of my earliest poems were essentially unsent letters: things I wanted to say but couldn’t, things I could have said better, things I should have said but didn’t. Letters always have some element of direct address. Seeing Szymborska talking to the Yeti expanded my idea of what was possible in those addresses, as well as my understanding of who (or what) could actually be addressed in those communications.

SKW: Several of your recent poems are epistolary, especially “To Bruce Wayne” and “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now.” How are “forms of address” working in these poems? Are there ways in which they’re doing something different than Szymborska’s poem?

MO: My next book is almost entirely epistolary. It’s created some challenges as the direct address is the dominant mode. One obstacle is the question of how to create variation among so many poems that use a similar approach.

I’m usually not a poet that thinks in terms of book-length “projects.” I wish I could but, in general, that’s not how I write. My wife (Vievee Francis, also a poet) is able to do that much better. She sees each thing from a dozen angles and writes sequences almost automatically. If she writes a poem about a road, there will also be a poem about the village at end of the road, then a poem about the city at the other end, then one about the guy hitchhiking in the hot sun, then one about a stray dog struck by a car. It’s a way of both seeing and investigating the world. With me, it would be one poem about one road. I write one poem at a time, and they initially might seem unrelated to each other. So, with my first two books, the challenge was how to get many disparate poems to fit together in the same collection.

With this new collection, the poems are varied in terms of subject matter, but all have this common formal element. So while the repeated use of the direct address creates a potential challenge, it also creates an opportunity: a binding agent among the poems, a reason for them to exist together, a point of formal cohesion.

The poems of mine you’ve mentioned are different from Szymborska’s poem in that they use the direct address and only the direct address; they’d don’t shift and begin speaking to someone else.

But there’s some obvious points of connection as well. The speakers are addressing entities that aren’t likely to be writing back any time soon. Stephen Dobyns often says “subject is pretext,” meaning that the poem’s initial subject matter is a vehicle we use to get at some other topic; we’re creating a metaphor for some larger human experience. The apparent subject is not the final subject. So Syzmborska’s poem might address the Yeti, but the real concern is finding and elevating value in humanity. If subject is pretext, in “To Bruce Wayne” and “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now,” the addresses name the pretext. The addressee serves as the initial subject matter, but not the figurative subject matter. So the form of address is an entry, a misdirection that initiates the figurative.

SKW: Can you give the readers a prompt that asks them to think about forms of address?

MO: All our favorite poems have “writing prompts” built into them. Any poem you love has something to teach you. If I were to extract one from “Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” I’d suggest telling a story to someone about something you said to someone else. Repeat that entire conversation inside the poem. A more general writing prompt that thinks about direct address would be: write a letter to someone or something that won’t write back. Whatever (or whomever) you write to should not be the subject of the letter; talk to them about something other than them.

To Bruce Wayne

Matthew Olzmann

—After Borges

A good place to hide a drop of water is a stream.

A good place to hide a stream is beneath an ocean.

A good place to hide a man is among thousands
of other men. Watch how they rush
through the city like water through a ravine.

I’ve searched many famous cities for you.
There are three listings for “Bruce Wayne”
in Houston, two in Pittsburgh, one in Miami and one in L.A.

In Tampa, Bruce Wayne is a retired chemistry teacher.
In Flagstaff, he drives a taxi and hopes
to procure a diamond for his soon-to-be fiancée.

A good place to hide a star is a galaxy.
A good place to hide a galaxy is a universe.
Look at the night sky. Justice

used to be a cowl and cape, the flicker
of wings under an etiolated moon. And you,
like a gargoyle, crouched atop some stone edifice.

To conceal a universe, place it in a multiverse—that hypothetical
klatch of alternate realities. The dilemma of the word

“alternate” is how it implies a norm, a progenitor stream
from which the alternate diverges. Which is the alternate?
Which is right here, right now? There is no such thing

as Gotham City, but here is Gotham City and I’ve been
so naïve: believing the truth of the old comics.
How they promised a recognizable villain,
a clown with a ruby-slashed mouth, a lunatic’s laugh.

In the universe where I exist, supervillains
look like everyone else. Give them an old flannel
to wear and a square jawline to smile at the world.

They’re hanging noose in a middle school bathroom.
They’re shouting, Get out of my country
from the window of a passing car. They’re pulling

a revolver in a crowded barroom, or bus stop,
or in the middle of the street, and will never be convicted.
They could be anyone. They could be everywhere.

A good place to hide a sociopath is a full-length mirror.
A good place to hide that mirror is the heart of America.

In the battle of Good versus Evil, I was so sure
Good would win. Now I just hope something Good will survive,
get a job cutting hair or selling cars, and make it home for dinner.

I suspect there’s a parallel dimension where you, Dear Vigilante,
long for this as well. To have a normal life is victory enough.
To remain anonymous and not be spat upon on the subway.

In Boston, Bruce Wayne owns a pawn shop.
In Milwaukee, he plays pinochle and feeds stray cats.
In New Hampshire, he goes fly fishing on the Sugar River,
reels in one brook trout after another.

When he removes the hook from a mouth,
he might place the fish in a cooler. Or he might
set it back into the stream. Watch as it swims far, far away.


Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now

Matthew Olzmann

Most likely, you think we hated the elephant,
the golden toad, the thylacine and all variations
of whale harpooned or hacked into extinction.

It must seem like we sought to leave you nothing
but benzene, mercury, the stomachs
of seagulls rippled with jet fuel and plastic.

You probably doubt that we were capable of joy,
but I assure you we were.

We still had the night sky back then,
and like our ancestors, we admired
its illuminated doodles
of scorpion outlines and upside-down ladles.

Absolutely, there were some forests left!
Absolutely, we still had some lakes!

I’m saying, it wasn’t all lead paint and sulfur dioxide.
There were bees back then, and they pollinated
a euphoria of flowers so we might
contemplate the great mysteries and finally ask,
“Hey guys, what’s transcendence?”

And then all the bees were dead.

“Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition,” by Wisława Szymborska and translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh.

“To Bruce Wayne” and “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years From Now” reprinted by permission of Matthew Olzmann.

Photo credit (for Wisława Szymborska): Wojciech Plewiński.

Matthew Olzmann

Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry,, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.