Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Your Name Here: The Matt Sradeja Interview

I met Matt Sradeja several years ago at a poetry workshop held at Brewed Awakenings, a coffee shop that was for a long time a fixture of Toledo’s poetry scene. Matt and I were still cutting our teeth on the words in those days. Since that time we’ve featured together at a few readings in Toledo, read at a million open mics, performed in Back to Jack, and had poems printed in the same anthology of local poets.
Matt’s poetry heroes, as you’ll soon learn, are Gregory Corso and Walt Whitman. He carries on their legacies like a champ. Matt’s poems are frank and sincere, funny, unexpected, and playful. He plays with pop culture references, makes jokes, and tender, sometimes heartbreaking overtures to the world.
Above all, Matt really believes in poetry. For him it’s been a life saving balm, a creative outlet that protects him from demons of the past and the despair of a sometimes uncertain future. Poetry gives Matt the strength to face every day, with their work requirements, legacies bad presidencies have left behind, and also the immeasurable joy of daily sunrises, the love of a good woman, and the sense of accomplishment he feels in his life as a poet and provider.
If you enjoy Matt’s interview and the poems that follow, you can find more of his work and a sampling of more of Toledo’s poets in the anthology Broadway Bards Firsts. Buy it here:
You can also find a few of Matt's poems here:, and at The Rusty Truck

Enjoy the interview. Thanks for reading!

What was the first poem you read? Do you remember? 

I can’t remember the first poem I ever read. This question brings several things to mind though and I want everyone to know some things about my childhood. I can clearly remember going to the Golden Jade restaurant on Navarre Ave., in Oregon, OH, with my parents a million times, and on our way there we would sing together, “ching, ching, Chinamen eat dead rats, don’t save none for the poor little cats”. This little song is just one of a dozen examples of how strange we were. My parents encouraged me to read and I began reading quite young. I can recall reading Pete the Parakeet aloud to anyone who would listen, and my family was kind enough to listen often. The first poetry I recall seeking out was John Lennon’s In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works.

Where were you when you read this poem, and how old were you?

I found John Lennon’s poetry at the Locke branch library. I read it there and at home and never actually returned the book. I was nine or ten I guess.

Is that when you decided you wanted to write? Or did a different poem or occasion inspire you to start making your own poems?

I wish I could remember the first poem I wrote, why I decided to write more, and whatever happened to those first scraps of paper. I do recall writing a poem for a girl I liked in grade school, I had to be eleven or even older. It was a poem that described flowers as fireworks. I had recently seen a bouquet of flowers that I wanted to give to her but the flowers cost like fifty bucks or something, and I came up with this idea to write about them instead. Maybe I was twelve or thirteen. She liked the poem, but decided to go out with this other guy. My sisters found something I wrote and they both told me I had to keep writing. The way women make us do things is pretty amazing, heh!

I wonder who your first favorite poets were? Are you still reading those writers now, or have your tastes changed? To that end, who do you read now? Where do you turn when you need a poem that has the answers you're looking for?

Well, just to mix it up a bit and keep things progressing in some kind of time line, I received two books when I was a freshman in high school, I still have them: Jim Carroll’s Fear of Dreaming, and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. It took me awhile to dig Jim Carroll. I just wasn’t ready for it. Also, I think everyone would agree that Langston Hughes is much more entertaining for a kid than Jim Carroll. I think Langston Hughes was my first favorite poet and I still read his poetry in the summer. “Langston Hughes/ is like coffee/ in the morning/ when it is too hot/ and coffee is out of the question/”, one of the best lines I have ever written.

I was always aware that Walt Whitman was the poet to read if you really wanted to find out how magical poetry can be. I cannot recall the first time I read his poetry, but I clearly recall spending three days in jail and finding a copy of Leaves of Grass on a book shelf. I read most of the three days I was there and really that was when I went down the yellow brick road and spotted a worm hole between two of the bricks, popped a mushroom in my mouth to shrink in size to slither down, and I have not looked back since. Walt Whitman is my hero, Leaves of Grass the Bible, The Second Coming was Gregory Corso, and I know this because my heart tells me so.

I'd like to talk about Whitman. When you and I chat on-line we never fail to mention Uncle Walt. On more than one occasion you've told me Walt Whitman saved your life. Can you elaborate? Was reading Leaves of Grass in jail a life-saving turn of events?

Three days in jail is not a lengthy sentence. I suppose most people would barely remember it, like a case of the flu that struck years ago. I was in a terrible downward spiral at the time. I drank like a fish. Anyway, I was familiar with Walt Whitman’s writing and I asked to go to the prison library. I was informed that the library was closed on weekends but there was a shelf inside my cell block. I went to the shelf and found Leaves of Grass. I read for like, fourteen hours, fell asleep and read more and more. After that I did continue drinking for another year or so, but I knew, because Uncle Walt told me over and over again, that I was supposed to be doing something better with my life than just drinking it away.

Do you think Walt Whitman has influenced your writing?

Yes! Walt influenced my writing, my lifestyle, my sense of self worth, everything. I would also say that Langston Hughes and Gregory Corso influenced me very much as well. I believe my writing craft is still not completely settled, I have not settled into a style or fashion I am still hoping to find other influences.

I want to talk about your process next. I wonder what your poems look like when you're making them. Does a poem come out of your mind fully formed? Do you revise a lot? Do you take notes and periodically revisit a poem until it's done?

I write a variety of ways. Occasionally I am aware of a process, but most of the time I am just writing any old thing. I have written poems in one sitting start to finish and never changed them. I am a notebook poet, I always type my poems out later, after they’re done. My poems look like chicken scratch in the beginning. I do set up many line breaks and pauses within the writing immediately. I can hardly even explain my process because I am not educated to do so. I can give you a couple of examples, but I am not certain that I can formulate the examples properly. The poem Shortly After the Longacre Lane Nightmare, the title is a line of sorts from an article in the newspaper, not an entire sentence. In the newspaper it looked something like this:

Something something so shortly after somesomething something
somethingSomething the Longacre Lane something something

SomeSomething Nightmare?

I saw those words in that order in a sort of pyramid and something just clicked. That particular poem came out just so, the very first time I wrote it.

Another poem that many people would probably not accept as a poem is Three Little Birds (all very different). I consider it one poem because I sat down at Brewed Awakenings one day and that was the way it just poured out of my head, I couldn’t believe it and I have never changed it or separated the parts or anything. I Think About War, that is like the third version of that poem. I did change some lines and the first rough draft is different in length, but what I did between the first draft to the third draft is tighten it up, dropped some words that I thought were to weak for the power in the poem.

I revise some and what I tend to do is build poems out of little fragments very often. The Eloquence is an example of that. I first wrote:

The smell of banana bread
Baking makes the cut up

More recently I wrote:

It seems so simple
The idea illuminated
In the mind
Like dust fluttering
In the waning sunbeams
Stretched across the dining room
At the end of the day

Real long thoughts
But, I have to pause
I begin to wonder
Do I have the
To put the idea out there

And after I heard a poem performed by Michael Hackney in which he said, “the mosaic sky“, I thought of a line like the mosaic air, and most recently wrote this:

In the mosaic air

Some will see sky colored mortar and cloud colored stones
While others will see cloud colored mortar and sky colored stones
And I might never know

I guess it is revision and realignment of lines. I did not really change any of the words just built a poem out of little blocks of inspiration. Maybe this is a bit much for an answer.

Matt, you have a great sense of humor, and it shows in your poems and your performances. I think humor is difficult to convey in poetry, yet you use it to good effect. What's the trick to it? How do you make a poem funny and not silly at the same time?

When I was in the third grade my parents were going through a messy divorce. My mother, sister and I went to live at my grandparents house for like three months while my parents were fighting in court. I had to change schools and then change back. When I came back to Sacred Heart after being in public school for three months I was given the opportunity to talk in front of the entire class about the difference between public school and Catholic school. I can remember standing in front of my classmates and doing like a fifteen minute comedy routine about the way public schools were different. All my classmates laughed at all my jokes and I can remember at one particular moment I realized in my little boy mind that this was really cool to get up in front of everybody and just say whatever funny thing I wanted to say.

I honestly don’t think I can answer this in a normal way. I write what I want to. I share the poems I think might be interesting or enjoyable to others, and I have notebooks filled with garbage. My sense of humor is my father’s sense of humor. I guess if I had an agenda or something it might include the idea that laughter is the best medicine.

There's a good nature in your poetry, too. And I know that's your good nature, because I've known you for a long time. Can you explain where that positive attitude comes from? Are you an optimist?

I am an optimist. When I was a teen and in my early twenties I did a lot of drinking; because I picked up some bad habits early in life I feel I have a lot of catching up to do. I guess I have always had dreams that I wanted to accomplish, and I want to be helpful to others in some way. I am actually very shy and reclusive now, and the weird thing is that getting up in front of people to read poetry cuts through all of that in a very bold way. I barely understand myself at all. I am glad that a great man such as yourself finds me to be so worthy of your precious time. My optimism is very much attached to my belief in the American dream, my dreams are very much attached to simple joys of life and (finding or believing) that this whole world and our lives upon it are miracles.

I'm asking because you've said to me hundreds of times that poetry has saved your life, and that poetry can save other lives, as well. Do you really think that's true? And how can poetry save lives?

I don’t know. I think that there is just something that gets me out of my shell and makes me feel like I have to do something positive for myself and for others. I think there is just too much expensive electronic gadgetry at play in the world and that if people simplified their lives it would be for the better. I think poetry calmed me down on one hand and on the other hand it woke me up and got me going in a good direction. I often find myself thinking of the difference between poetry and NASCAR, I have no idea why? But, look at all of the precious resources wasted on watching cars go round and round and thousands of people put money into NASCAR all the time. Almost no money need be put into poetry. I guess the more I think of it the comparison is just too wildly different to put a sensible argument together. I don’t always want to be sensible though, so to hell with NASCAR and more power to poetry.

Do you revise very much? Or do you find yourself to be more of a first draft and done kind of writer?

I write in different ways at different times. Sometimes, I obsess about a line or two and think there must be some epic poem in here somewhere, and then other times I just write and write and write and later on I edit. I dislike most of what I write in my notebooks. I do like the energy of poetry and sometimes I get the energy presented just right and it is good for me. I share only a fraction of what I write. I do believe the very best poems come right out of the mind on to the paper, no assembly required. I think most of my editing is line breaks and stanza breaks. I edit the pauses and silence of my poems more than I edit the words and sounds.

Why do you write poems? Why not do everything else you normally do except write? How would your life be different?

I write because I love life and I have an awful lot to say. That is the simplest way to say it. I really enjoy reading poetry at home with my glasses off and anytime of the day will do. I read a poem and then I head out and do yard work, I read a poem and sit and breathe and reread the same poem over and over again. I get fixated on a line in a poem, sometimes. I want to live creatively and poetry is sort of my fuel for living creatively. I guess it is just a hobby, but, I think it is a bit different than putting together model airplanes. I have gone months and months without writing anything or attending any poetry readings and it is depressing. I am to the point where I need poetry in and around my life like air and water and loved ones.

You've written several political poems over the years, many dealing with the Bush Administration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I love the way you bring humor to these subjects, but the fact is, they are subjects that are not always easy to talk about, let alone write about.  Why do you think it's important to cover political issues in your poems?

Well, I could probably talk about this all day. I write what I feel like saying and I think my shortcomings and the shortcomings of the war and the mistakes made by our supposedly fearless leaders are extremely funny.

It seems like so many people write poetry, but according to sales statistics, not many people are reading it. Or I should say, not many people are buying it. To whom are you speaking when you write a poem if no one's reading poetry? Your poems feel like they're written for your life, because your life demands it, but do you ever think about an audience when you make a poem? Or is the audience of little concern to you?

I buy poetry, mostly dead poetry by authors long ago departed. The audience is an afterthought for me. I share the poems I think are best and keep the rambling garbage in my notebook where it will not explode into anyone’s ears like so many fingernails across the chalk board. I have most recently begun seeking out living poetry by poets whom are alive and kicking. I have much more to experience in this realm of living breathing poets and so far the adventure has begun on a good foot.

I was remembering the first time I met you. I think it was at John Swaile's workshop at Brewed Awakenings, maybe ten or so years ago by now. I remember you brought Your Name Here to the workshop. So you show up at this workshop full of strangers and now here we are, having been reading together as features and at open-mics for the last several years. What makes Toledo such a special poetry place? Is there something in the water? And I wonder if you'd share a good Toledo Poetry memory with me, too, if you want to. Tell me about a good reading or special interaction with another poet you'll never forget, something like that.

This is how I remember meeting you and John and several others. I heard of a open mic reading at Brewed Awakenings and went, no one was there but these two guys in the back, and they suggested I go to Sam and Andy's. I went to Sam and Andy's the next week, there were tornado-like conditions that night but the place filled up. I think it was the last ,or second-to-last reading at Sam and Andy's. Anyway, I read at Sam and Andy's that night and I mentioned Brewed Awakenings. The next time I went to Brewed Awakenings it was packed and I was shocked.

I am a little foggy on the workshop, but I think it was shortly after that night. I remember being very hung over the first time I went to John Swaile's workshop. There was a small part of me that thought someone there would write a better version of Your Name Here. I was glad to meet new people, I was in a transition and trying to stay away from all the bad influences from my past.

I have no idea why there is such a fractured and polarized poetry scene in Toledo. I think there are many poets in Toledo who are so busy that they just can’t make it to all the poetry readings around town. I know that for myself I can only make it to the readings that my job and bank account will allow.

I have many great memories of poetry readings in Toledo. Here are two in particular. John Swaile reading a portion Gregory Corso's poem Bomb. That really opened things up in my mind and I thought John was a saint or something for introducing me to Corso's poetry. There were a thousand more things I wanted to talk to John about but, I was too shy and it is really a shame that I did not reach out to him more. Anyway, the other poetry reading interaction or whatever that I want to mention involves you Mr. Kocinski, yes you. I will never forget being at Brewed Awakenings one night and you were reading this poem, and there was some description of a bug, a firefly or a moth, and I was like really in tune to the groove you made with those words, and I started turning into a bug. I even rubbed my belly thinking of like how like armor an exoskeleton might be, or how it was just great to rub my bug belly. Man, I know it probably sounds crazy, but shit man, that experience was dope like the movie “The Fly” or something.

I have some other stories and all but, those two are really popping out at me right now. I have been to many readings where poets have blown me away, I love the open mics and will catch any feature I can as long as my schedule permits.

Here is a generous selection of poems for your pleasure:

Shortly After the Longacre Lane Nightmare…

Shortly after the Longacre Lane massacre
The rabbits and squirrels disappeared
Benny’s koi pond dried up
The clocktower stopped
The silent bells just hung there
A scrap of paper scraped across the pavement
Propelled by a warm summer breeze
Barely noticed under the heavy humid air
That seemed perched on every common shoulder
Like invisible flannel
As if such a fabric could exist
Oh no it could not exist
It seemed as though nothing could exist
Shortly after the Longacre Lane massacre…
The Eloquence

It seems so simple
The idea illuminated
In the mind
Like dust fluttering
In the waning sunbeams
Stretched across the dining room
At the end of the day
Real long thoughts
But, I have to pause
The smell of banana bread
Baking makes the cut up
I begin to wonder
Do I have the
To put the idea out there
In the mosaic air
Some will see sky colored mortar and cloud colored stones
While others will see cloud colored mortar and sky colored stones
And I might never know

Normal Folks

That little chair in the corner tells me I am home.
I love it and I am all emotional now, it is crazy I know.
Normal Folks aren’t like this and I feel that
I am plastered to the rear window because life moves like a fast car.
And I am not at the wheel,
I am not the accelerator
And so many young people have died in this war.
I believe they have saved my life, but I am not certain.
Nothing is certain, not the future, not these wars, not this recession,
Nothing but this empty chair and I want to smash it into the floor;
I want to tear down the wall
And I would do it if it would end the war.

Move Along You Clouds
You blob, you sponge, you dot, you brush stroke, you cloud
Up going up slowly
and with the wind
sending you north-easterly
you puff, you smoke, you mist, you buttered bread breath clouds
I have seen you disperse
or gather rather
you slash, you feather
you herd, or loner
cloud uncrystal
I've parched and wilted
under the summer sun
hoping for your shadow
Where there are no trees
no buildings
you rise like mountains
you linger, you layer
you giant, you spinner
no window
You cloud, you dash, you blush
moving past my view
from the horizon you rose
and having risen you go
And afterward
when it is all dark without stars
I cannot recall what of your shapes
What was it that made clouds memorable
was it that they somehow made a wall
But, was it blue mortar and cloud colored stones
or cloud colored mortar and blue sky colored stones
No beams, no roof, not one drop of rain, just clouds

I Think of War
I think of some little rascals
With nothing better to do
I see clearly the glimmer of sun
on the edge of a shiny new
military issue
the razor’s edge
And the carcass of a water buffalo
Three days dead
bloated and drawing flies
I think of war
Wide-eyed wild boys
filled with blood lust
And a lack of morals
Never say die
Never say no
Never say
that corpse is disgusting
Just whip out that knife
Peel open that over grown pig
Rib cage split wide and insides leaking out
The stench the curdled blood globbing and clotting
Spilling out
And disregard all of that and reach in to that dead
Broken body and carve out the beast’s heart
Gooey, sticky, blackened and oozing
Hold that heart up over your head
You little rascal
While the done giving life force
drips down your arm and stains your shirt
That  dead organ
In all its glory
That heart is war
It never had to come up
Never had to be dragged out
Never should have seen the light of day
Yet here it is and
What the fuck is the point of holding it up
Like a prize like a crown
Like a psychotic killer maniac
This is how children act
Yeah I think about war
Then I just assume it is better
To think about something else

A Work in Progress

I’m sure George W. Bush would know exactly where I’m coming from,
He seems to be in the same predicament as I am.
I had an awful amount of trouble writing this poem.
More trouble than I ever thought I would encounter because,
In the beginning I believed this poem would greet me with open arms and flowers.

I had no idea that this poems beginning would be so suicidal and explosive.
See, the main reasons I started writing this poem where simple.
I had information that proclaimed this poem to possess weapons of mass destruction.
And information that associated this poem with the terrorist evil-doers
That masterminded the destructive acts committed to this country on September 11th.

I thought this poem had to be written,
So that it could be obliterated and a democracy could take its place.
When I first sat down to begin the first few words crawled out of the pen.
Man, I was so excited, I set up the greatest three day drinking binge ever
and, in my drunken stupor I proceeded to call the Navy and the Air Force to arrange
a flight out to one of their aircraft carriers in the middle of the Atlantic ocean
just so I could view my poem from 40,000 feet.

Well the Navy and the Air Force both came through,
they were so happy with themselves and I was too.
I suggested to them to put a big old banner on their ship
that announced to the world “Mission Accomplished”
But, even when the mission is accomplished the poem doesn’t end.

I went straight to congress to ask them for eighty billion dollars
So I could finish my poem. By this time congress was confused
They thought the poem was to be obliterated not reconstructed.

But, they voted once, they voted twice, and they voted three times
to hand over the money real nice.
Least I forget there was some oversight, Congress wanted to view my progress
So I turned over a poem with three lines two were explosive and one was regress.
Well, Congress looked the poem over and suggested that I quit or start over
and then went to recess.

The body count rose and the confusion did too.
No civil war broke out in the Middle East
And I was the only one who knew just exactly what to do.
With a wink and a nod a fourth line for this poem fell out of my pen
I was so excited I went right back to congress again

just to see if they had more money to spend.

Congress handed over plenty of more dough
and they didn’t ask for progress they just showed me the door.
Before I wrote another line
I took twenty vacations in a row.
One was cut short by a hurricane, but I didn’t complain
I wrote a completely different poem
That I will never share with congress.

I know that by now some    
of you probably feel dissed
just please don’t forget this is a work in progress.

The Spider

The fat spider September
Right outside my window
Cleans her web
Discarding this little leaf
And that wilted petal of spring
On this muggy evening

The breeze is no good
It comes and goes
Much like the seasons
And there is always work to be done
A repair here and food to gather
I felt the harvest land
I swear
It is a tasty morsel
I think it landed right over there

And the spider’s movements
Remind me of knitting needles
Or chop sticks
Long slender tools
Over warm necessities
Food and shelter from
The coming storm
Summer’s almost gone

These Days

Stability is just around the corner
It is building up

While we are waiting,

Keep the fat cats fat
And give the poor some
Dream some hope some speech
To believe in
The poor are sheep to shear
And bah, bah, bah
No one wants to listen
No one wants to hear

Seek the war
It’s over there
Under construction
Throw more money at it
The pill the band aid
Make it loud make it roar
The hum of drones
The drone of hummers

And it is all unfinished
So easily all undone
Just bang, bang, bang
Aren’t we winning?
Aren’t we having fun?

Your Name Here

I’ve been waiting for
Your name here to walk in
and order something.
I’d ask my waitress,
“I’ll have whatever
Your name here is having.”
I hope that when this happens,
I’m chewing on
mint gum or something
cool, like a toothpick.

I hate James Dean moments
without a cigarette lit.

I’ve been waiting for
Your name here to walk in,
welcome two thousand
one, that’s me
by a wave of his
jacket over a chair,
pointing at the mic
with a Marlboro lit.
He’d ask no one
and everyone “Who’s up?”
I hope I’ve got ketchup pouring or
a salt shaker shaking
when Your name here walks in.

I hate James Dean moments
without a cigarette lit

That Carolina smoke
going like a train
that we all dance with
meeting in this smoked room.
I’ve been waiting for
Your name here to walk in,
grab about fifty napkins,
and do his famous
cookie monster impression.
I hope I’ve got
a noise maker or fireworks
going off when
Your name here walks in.

I hate James Dean moments
without a cigarette lit.

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