1254 Interview with Matt Rader

INTERVIEW: Matt Rader with The Ormsby Review

Matt Rader is the author of five volumes of poetry, including Visual Inspection (2019) — reviewed previously by Paul Falardeau– as well as a collection of stories and a book of non-fiction. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) and lives in Kelowna. Ghosthawk (Nightwood Editions, 2021) is Rader’s newest book of poetry, a collection Jan Zwicky calls “a book of profound humility and intense vision.”

Ghosthawk is a guidebook of imagination from grasslands to star fields to the weather of the poet’s body. Where is home in the crises of ecological collapse and mortal illness? Where’s joy with constant pain, a future blurred by smoke? Carrying these questions, Matt Rader wrote down the names of the wildflowers he met in the mountains, canyons and woodlands of his home in the Okanagan Valley. These poems are what he learned, the directions as he can best describe them – Ed.


The Ormsby Review: What was the process for “Winter Suns”? It is the perfect combo of pared down images and personal reflection, in which you riff on Yeats in a slow reveal poem of memory, of self, but the setting seems to almost drown out the human voice and lets the visual natural world bleed through. 

Matt Rader. Photo by Jessica Zais

Matt Rader: Sometimes I hear questions about process with respect to writing as having a certain degree of deliberateness, as if the procedure could be replicated. I was heartbroken. I saw swans. I tried to write to the person who had broken my heart. The swans kept insisting on themselves. After a while, there’s not much to say except look, swans.

The Ormsby Review: In the next poem, “Snow Light,” we’re still in winter but the action has intensified — the stakes seem higher — not that poems need to be related to one another — perhaps they do… Can you speak about sequencing briefly? How conscious are you about it as you put together a collection?

Matt Rader: In “Snow Light” I was just gathering up symbols and images from the poems before and the poems to come. Or rather, the symbols and images just kept falling. Folks often suggest that one shouldn’t repeat words or images too closely together. It’s some kind of poetry manners thing I guess. But what if they’re wrong?

The Ormsby Review: Sticking with ‘Snow Light’, I noticed that again the “I” reveals more personal ingredients about “I”‘s life, and flows into the philosophical, about potential with “a hand that big” and later, “a knife that big” and at the same time, the poem is decorated like a well-shot art film with “children spilling onto the bleach green of snow” and “the halo of the basketball hoop hovering.” Other poets, readers of poetry, may be intrigued to know how you catalogue these images — which appear as though they’ve been there all along. 

Matt Rader: Honestly, I just looked out the window. I wrote down what I saw. Then I went for walks. Looked out the window more. Wrote more things down. Noticed that they were all the same thing, the same shape. A literary critic might call that pattern or motif or symbol. My own experience is more like when you’re with a good friend and you’re trying to remember something but you can’t think of the word and you’re saying things like “You know that thing?” and by some miracle your friend knows exactly what you mean.

The Ormsby Review: What is the story behind the title Ghosthawk?

Matt Rader: A man named Rodney Mitchell looked after my brothers and I when were kids. Later, when we were teenagers he grew terminally ill. Before he moved on, he told us he’d come back as a hawk. That was almost 30 years ago. We’ve been seeing him sitting on fenceposts and floating in the breeze ever since.

The Ormsby Review: How has your environment, particularly in the interiors in B.C. influenced your writing over the last year or so with Covid-19 and forest fires?

Bernard Avenue in downtown Kelona during Covid lockdown, May 2020. Photo by Shawn Talbot

Matt Rader: Ghosthawk is very much about living in Kelowna, the central city of the Okanagan Valley in BC’s southern interior. It’s a place formed and informed by fire. It’s been trashed by colonialism. Which appeals to those who trumpet liberty over care. But the mountains go on. The water flows overhead and it rarely rains. To paraphrase Harold Rhenisch, the grasslands are fire in its low entropy state. We have many fantasies that we live by. Our fantasies about paradise and our fantasies about the end of the world. I like to watch the fantasies dissolve.

The Ormsby Review: Family and place, the world, nature, I mean, are these even truly poetry “themes” anymore? Haven’t we, as international poets, that is, the poets of the world, defined what themes we have explored? I think we’ve set the table, eaten, cleared the table and gone to bed on the issue. Why do we continue to point to identifiers and themes and similarities — beyond the fact that the critic exists to interpret art to the person who has yet to experience said art…. Question….Do you ever feel that the public, the consumer, the casual bookstore loiterer, are never given credit for being able to access the poems on their own. I see it, in a way, that maybe is a unique offering. But in the arts, whether underground or Disney-fied, the song, the painting, the dance performance — all exist without structural signposts along the way, indicating artistic intent, etc. “This is the poetry section, have a seat.” Now read the poem. “See, this is a collection of poems.” Can we now look at the ingredients on the back and make sure we know how to consume it mentally. I mean, when we buy (I don’t mean you and I, I mean society) a U2 album or a Beyonce album or even a Dire Straits album, do we expect to flip it over to see a synopsis? Are we anticipating a blurb from Elvis Costello talking about how Bono’s voice is the most daring it’s ever been? Or that The Edge is Mozart personified?  The drummer is pristine, the bass guy Larry, eternal…

Matt Rader: I was joking with a friend who writes poetry and teaches poetry writing, that the most common phrase associated with poetry is “I don’t understand.” Sometimes I feel like a poem: I think I’m being super clear and the person I’m talking to is saying “I don’t understand.” I know your question is really about blurb culture but this is what it put me in mind of.

I think people really don’t understand. I don’t understand either. And I’m sympathetic to the discomfort in such a position. No one likes to feel like folks are whispering behind their backs — which I think casual readers of poetry often feel like the poem is doing: whispering its “real” meaning to those who are more “in the know.” Here’s the rub: that’s exactly what poems are doing!! Not because poetry is elitist though, but because poetry is language’s conversation with the infinite complexity of entanglement and therefore it contains difficulty (I bet some of you feel like that last sentence is whispering behind your back too!).

Let’s be clear though: movies and music and other popular cultural forms use all kinds of paratext to influence the reception of a work. Excerpts from reviews, reviews, taglines, liner notes, monographs, gallery bumpf are all common features. And virtually all commercially published books use paratextual “blurbs;” it’s not unique to poetry.

The question of crediting the reader I take to be your main point though, and I agree: readers are plenty smart enough to access the poems themselves. In fact, you don’t need to be smart at all. You certainly don’t need to understand. Gawd, where would we all be if we had to understand!! Mostly I think it helps to be friendly with poems and to see if they’re friendly back. So, in this sense, I don’t mind folks trying to introduce me to a work, to stand up for their friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

The Ormsby Review: In a previous interview, your work was described as examining the “compression and play with time, and the way that temporalities collapse onto one another throughout the piece.”  Can you comment on how this has or hasn’t changed?

Matt Rader: I read a book about physics by Carlo Rovelli last year where he argued that time is an emergent property and not a fundamental feature of existence. That our experience of time is directly related to thermo-dynamics, having to do with the change from high entropy to low entropy states. I was pretty sure Rovelli was whispering behind my back.

The Ormsby Review:  Do you see a correlation between film and poetry as it relates to cuts, line breaks, etc., and if so, is there anything here we could riff off?

Matt Rader

Matt Rader: I often recommend to my graduate students a book of interviews by Michael Ondaatje and the film editor Walter Murch called The Conversations. Murch was the editor on the film adaptation of The English Patient, as well as many other classic Hollywood movies. Ondaatje is mostly talking to Murch as a novelist but there’s an interesting and clear connection between the editing of film into a story and the creation a literary work. Film editing requires imagining the movement of the work, where people’s minds, ears, hearts are at any moment and how the next line, cut, or scene will track in relationship.

The Ormsby Review: Are you a sentimentalist? Do you think, as a poet, it’s a job requirement?

Matt Rader: I don’t know what I am, though I’m fond of Mary Ruefle’s line, “If they tell you your poems are too sentimental, they mean they’re not sentimental enough.”

The Ormsby Review: The poem “Joyland” ends the collection. (SPOILER ALERT). The word has some meaning — or did. About twenty years ago, Emily Schultz published a novel with this name (and so did Stephen King, years later), and Emily and her husband founded a lit mag with its name shortly after. The title of Emily’s book was referring to an arcade where most of the narrative takes place. Perhaps, as usual, I’m thinking of book mash-ups, you, Emily, and Stephen King’s Joylands, all read at once in some hobgoblin of a Gregorian chant. Anyway, now that I’ve taken care of the Google analytics for the time being, can you tell me what inspired the title of your book’s final poem — and please don’t say it was based on Stephen King’s amusement park horror novel….

Matt Rader: Yes, the term comes to me from Emily’s work. But the title doesn’t really have anything to do with Emily Schultz or the lit mag or Stephen King (though there is a bat in the poem!). It has to do with being in a joyous land.

The Ormsby Review: Keeping with “Joyland,” the beautiful final poem in Ghosthawk, how does a honey locust store energy from outer space? Are you fond of the animal sciences? By studying them and what they are all about, do you find it easier to use them in your work? Or is this another look out the window type thing? (sorry if that sounds jerky, again, I’ve been watching a lot of Norm McDonald lately). Do you read a lot of zebra and dolphin type memoirs?

Matt Rader: Honey locusts are a kind of tree that line a few of the streets around my neighbourhood. Very literally, sunlight comes from outer space and trees turn it into energy that is stored as wood and leaves, etc… The poem is set on one of those streets in autumn when the trees have dropped their leaves.

I don’t really study the plants or animals I encounter any more than I study my neighbours or my family or myself. Sometimes I see my neighbour Karandeep out the window with his son and I just watch them. Other times I open the window and wave. Other times we lean across the fence and talk about weeds and fathers and Jagmeet Singh. On really great days I go over and have tea in the backyard and we talk about the very same things.


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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