Matthew Tierney’s second book, The Hayflick Limit, came out with Coach House Books in spring 2009. He is a recipient of the K.M. Hunter Award for Literature, and won 1st and 2nd place in This Magazine’s 2005 Great Canadian Literary Hunt. His poems have appeared in journals and magazines across Canada, including Maisonneuve, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead and Eye Weekly, among others. He lives in Toronto.
Alex Boyd interviewed Matthew Tierney in early 2010.
I love lines like “life forms engulfed in never enough.” Can you elaborate on your interest in science, and including elements of it in your poems?
Science is a way of knowing the world. Einstein said something like “What’s most incomprehensible about the universe is its comprehensibility.” It blows my mind that I can pick up a book and within hours get a rough-and-ready outline from the big bang on. If you actually read the book, you learn even more.
I could be a pedant and say that we all include elements of science in our poems. It’s the awareness of laws of nature that I’m after, awareness or awe-ness, and juggling that information while doing what we poets do –observe.
However, the intersection of science and poetry is fraught with laddered steps and potential hairline fractures. It’s tempting to slap some jargon onto the exterior and expect to get away with it because, let’s face it, the typical poetry reader looks back on science class with a fondness reserved for embarrassing sexual encounters.
Nobody wants to go back to high school, of course. But who has time to get a B.Sc.? At some point I have to make a call whether or not I’m confident in my comprehension of a concept. Niels Bohr once remarked that if you’re not dizzied by quantum mechanics, then you haven’t understood it. I take this as a point of reference for all my research. Once I’m sufficiently dizzy, I go with it.
You write about both chess and hockey, one a very mental and the other a very physical activity. What compels you to write these, and where are you exactly, on the scale between an interior mental life and a more outward physical one?
As I age, I’m discovering a rich interior life where I imagine in great detail all the physical things I was once capable of.
Chess and hockey are both big parts of my life. There’s an intuition to both that emerges with years of play: a gut feeling for the right move at time t based on similarly experienced scenarios buried in neural paths. So there’s that.
Another thing: it’s similar to what the writer brings to bear on the poem: this shortcut to brainpower, taking full advantage of an emotional IQ Vulcans seems to regard as superfluous. Coupled with higher cortical reasoning, it’s a full-court press on existence.
We consider our brains our defining feature, even endowing us with grace, or at least significance. But then in 1997, about 100,000 years into full-fledged modern specieshood and feeling pretty good about ourselves, along comes Deep Blue to hand Gary Kasparov his knickers on the battlefield. What is intelligence? It’s a question that intrigues me.
One thing I can say with certainty: A.I. may best us at chess and even write more poems, but it’ll never produce a better hockey player.
“Sedna with the Long Black Hair” is a poem about science class when you were a kid, combining lines about telescopes and microwaves with lines as organic-sounding as “Back then, new discoveries were apples in the orchard.” What’s your feeling about our relationship to technology these days?
Technology is understood by only a few, and that includes really old technology, like agriculture, and really old people, like Larry King. As for modern hi-tech, we’re most of us end-users of heavily marketed electronic devices, med-sci formulations, large-scale machinery, nuclear anything.
This makes it a very lopsided proposition. Technology helps us gain incredible insights into the universe, but because it mediates just about every facet of our lives, as individuals we relinquish some control. As a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer (I’m not really, just hypothesizing), I might be clueless about the big picture, but I’d have a firmer grasp on my day-to-day.
Technological change is exponential. Stone tools survived for hundreds of generations without much variation. Today nanotech bends light waves around invisibility cloaks and tomorrow it’ll turn us all into grey goo.
“A Flash of Merriment” is interesting for having no central image. Is it fair to say your poems want to capture activity that’s more peripheral than central?
I love the energy of language, how it bounces around your head like a superball. Love too the singular image that makes your backbone slide. If “Flash” seesaws one way more than the other, it’s an accident of birth not intelligent design.
It might be fair to say this poem mildly resists the imagist’s “economy of language,” which tends to go glove / hand with a sharp focus on things. It’s arguable whether in such a short poem that’s a good, er, thing; but it may manifest as “peripheral activity,” which is certainly a trend in my new work. I’m pushing away from “less is more” because it doesn’t approximate my interaction with a universe that delivers such varied, mind-shuddering kicks; to pretend otherwise is to idealize my experience in a way that I find specious.
Maybe I’m just in an impatient, cranky phase. But I’m coming to love a tense, maximalist line where accidents of process are made conspicuous.
There’s an impressive video for your poem “Parelasiphobia: Fear of Parades.” What do you think of this trend, does it enhance poetry or is it an absurd but necessary promotional device?
Somewhat absurd though I’m keen on absurdity, and surely not necessary. Poems exist unreliant on anything outside the poem, unlike a script or song lyric, and thus they take on other elements, like music or image, reluctantly. Which makes the good trailer’s existence alone rare and wonderful — the platypus of the poetry phylum. (Thanks to Evan Munday, Coach House publicist extraordinaire, for “Parades.”)
“Standard & Poor’s” is a remarkable prose poem. What do you think makes a poet choose that particular format?
Ha, you might have me there. I should probably say that the poem’s content demands its form, but I’m not sure how to articulate the thought process that goes into the choosing.
Certainly a prose poem triggers different expectations in the reader. There’s illusion involved with those unaltered margins, and (I’m spitballing here) maybe the challenge and compulsion of the prose poem is in part misdirection, a sleight-of-hand. Bunny meet hat. But then you have to get the poetry to come out on cue.
If someone accused me of writing extremely short stories, I wouldn’t be too bothered. I’ve always believed the extremely short story to operate as poetry.
Have I sufficiently dodged the question?
Your poem “Optic Nerve” ends “Topside, empty coffee cups / in fists, like white-lipped howls. / The lightless figures behind them.” Do you see people as a trifle helpless? Do you need a hug?
Free will is an illusion, so yes, we’re helpless. God, do I need a hug.
What’s next for you?
You mean I have to wait for that hug?
I’m writing poems for the next manuscript; they deal with time, specifically the physics of time and time travel.
Time travel (just mistyped a groaningly apposite “tome travel”) is a recognizable fault line in contemporary pop culture, sectioning off entire provinces of movies and literature, a prefab plot device that everyone indulges in, on a personal level, each Monday a.m. I hope to exploit this popularity in some as-yet unvisited future.
I wonder (out loud) if the flow of time impels the lyric poem, and if said poem attempts to apply friction against it. A friend of mine suggested there’s an innate mournfulness to the lyric; maybe it’s so because the poem is fighting an unwinnable battle. Only a pedant would say its failure is unqualified.