Earlier this week, poet, foodie and UIUC graduate Matthew Gavin Frank took some time out of his schedule to exchange a few emails with me about his undergrad and his after-grad experiences. What ensued was a bizarre treatise on local food venues, professorial fistfights, poetry and the Midwest. If he reads half as well as he interviews, we’re all in for a treat when he shares the Illini Union Bookstore’s Author’s Corner with another author-alum Michael Czyzniejewski this Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.
Watch Matt (aka Mil Máscaras) read his poem “Ossification” from his book Sagittarius Agitprop
Smile Politely: Question the first: you attended UIUC for your undergrad. Learn anything?
Matthew Gavin Frank: I learned how to cook, for one thing. There was some kind of revolt growing in me in response to the meals served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while — a very short while — clearing trays and washing dishes. When I quit, I burned my schedule, and the next day, for dinner, the main course was cafeteria Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. That did it. I began studying cookbooks, the Food Network, experimenting in the kitchen, fucking-up royally, until I began fucking-up subtly. Eventually, I found a way to make good food that was cheaper than the meal plan.
I learned that Madonick (pictured right) threatened to kick my ass on a regular basis, that Van Walleghen decked a heckler at a poetry reading, and that Paul Friedman threw a kid (who wanted an A instead of a B) down the stairs in the English Building. I learned that male Creative Writers, if bound to Central Illinois, will inevitably have some kind of violence growing within them.
I learned that Mark Costello (from whom I also learned to piece together a short story about sleep apnea and masturbation) preferred black clothes and white foods.
I learned that the Keats scholar Jack Stillinger — who was quick to point out that when Elizabeth Barrett Browning said paps, she meant tits — died and came back to life twice.
I learned from psycholinguistics professor Howard Maclay that James Dickey was a lot more fun (to Howard at least) as a drunk, and that his favorite spot in the UIUC area was the Jolly Roger. From Maclay, I also learned that, “You’ll go out there, and you’ll find that you are the Midwest.” Having lived in a few different places, I think about that a lot, and am resisting its implications less and less as I age. I (sigh) live in Michigan now…
I learned that after four years in Central Illinois, I needed some topography in my life and, three months after graduating, moved to Alaska. Thank you, UIUC…
I learned from my teachers there — Madonick especially (which may be a common story) — that I really wanted to concentrate on my writing, paycheck be damned. I usually love him, and occasionally curse him, for this.
I learned that one of the best places to spout collegiate pseudo-philosophy was the roof of Topper’s Pizza, accessed via the train tracks that run behind it. I learned that one of the best places to eat a crappy roast beef sandwich with many mugs of coffee after pseudo-philosophizing, was Merry Ann’s diner.
SP: I heard that you’re interested in writing about The Morrow Plots. What interests you about them?
MGF: Last year, I was living in Upstate NY — way, way upstate. 90 miles north of Syracuse, 3 miles south of the Canadian border. Alexandria Bay — a town that, in the winter, had a population of about 300. My wife and I lived in an isolated house surrounded by dairy farms, and the frozen St. Lawrence River. Because the river drew boaters from around the state in the summer, the area, in winter, was rife with defunct tourist traps — Go-Kart rinks and, in our front yard, a massive hedge maze. Very, very Shining.
I went a little crazy that winter, became reflective, sifted through my life. In the sifting, somehow The Morrow Plots stuck to the screen, and I started thinking about them, then researching them. I found that, way back, the Plots were sometimes a site for violent crime — rape, murder — and a body dump. I coupled some of this knowledge with other archival articles from the Urbana Daily Courier, the Plots’ status as a National Historical Landmark, and my undergraduate memories of a campus-wide Morrow Plots fetish. Imaginings of folks huffing from the Plots as if from an old stiletto, and finding, to their surprise, blood.
Maybe it goes back to what Howard Maclay said, “You’ll go out there and you’ll find that you are the Midwest.” In loneliness that winter, I became obsessed with my roots, place-wise. Illinois. I latched onto it until the thaw. I built a really fucking disturbing manuscript around Illinois that winter (tentatively titled THE MORROW PLOTS), and was incredibly happy when it finally reached 65 pages, and I could let it go, move on to something else. My wife was happy too. She didn’t adore listening to various drafts of Illinois murder poems, barely (but insufficiently) tempered with a little folklore. ‘Twas not good foreplay.
SP: You seem very attached to the Midwest but you’ve got the travel bug. Why do you think that is?
MGF: Hmm. Can it be as simple as innate curiosity about the world? As a kid, I always loved finding new shortcuts between places on my bicycle-finding a new park, patch of prairie, backyard, section of train track to cut through. I loved the things that I’d find there. The broken glass and beer cans, sure, but sometimes the discarded pair of pants, the cracked Black Sabbath cassette tape, the tube of lipstick and, as I hit puberty, the occasional abandoned porno magazine. Finding the hidden places and things in the neighborhood. As a kid, this was as close to foreign travel as I could get. I remember my friend Jeff and I wanted to give tours of the neighborhood’s underbelly that we found by this kind of boy-exploring. This was how the wanderlust first manifested. In travel is the ability to snap myself out of my comfort zone, which is exhilarating, informative, hallucinatory sometimes. It’s good for writing – my writing at least.
The weird thing is: I didn’t really consider the Midwest all that much until somewhat recently. I thought I had shucked it for good, that it was that discarded pair of pants by the train tracks, left for someone else to find. I felt I had worn them, outgrew them. I came to find I was wrong. Maybe after having lived in a few places, a little older each time, each move a bit more of a pain in the ass than the one that preceded it, I started thinking about the places, and people, I had left behind-following that rabbit hole all the way back to Illinois.
I think this attachment to the Midwest really only flared up in 2006. My wife and I had just, on a road trip, discovered Montpelier, Vermont, and decided we wanted to do a bit of time there. On the day we were to sign our lease, we received a phone call from my sister in Chicago telling us that my mom was sick. My wife and I abandoned Vermont, and went back to Chicago for a year, lived in my parents’ home, and took care of the family while she battled illness (and won, thankfully). Remember: this was the first time I had lived there since I was seventeen, this time with my wife of five years in tow. It was crazy. Horrible. Amazing. After that year, being confronted with a parent’s mortality, the Midwest, and the people there, just crept in and stayed with me. This complicated things. I found I missed the things I had forgotten about-the smells, the trees, the lightning bugs, the cicadas and their sounds. It’s in my bones, even if I want to fight it sometimes.
Does this mean I want to live in the Midwest for the rest of my life? Not necessarily. Because the wanderlust is still there. It’s a source of beautiful conflict really. Dueling desires. I can see settling in the Midwest as much as I can see heading to Inner Mongolia for a year. It’s just that Illinois — what a surprise! — recently joined the tug-of-war. My wife, who’s from South Africa, whose entire family still lives in South Africa, is dealing with the same conflict on a larger scale, I suppose. I think this conflict is a lucky one-the product of rarely being bored, and wanting to do, and see, many different things.
SP: One last question: Will you be wearing a lucha libre mask for your reading on Wednesday? Please?
MGF: Maybe. For one poem, maybe. I’ll have to read the crowd… But, it’s likely.
So come on by tomorrow at 4:30. And if you’re scheduled to work, go ahead and kill off your third grandmother. Don’t worry, she won’t mind — she’d love nothing more than for you to bear witness to this pure, unadulterated display of poetic energy. I promise.