Nyla Matuk In Conversation

The night was chilly--cold even. The occasion was a reading at The Word Bookstore in Montreal. Nyla's voice held the room like a glass ornament, suspended.

SUSAN GILLIS:  What brought you to poetry in the beginning?

NYLA MATUK: As a child, I learned the usual nursery rhymes and Edward Lear limericks and as a teenager would walk the halls of my high school with a fellow callous sophisticate, both of us having memorized large portions of T.S. Eliot (I knew all of “The Waste Land” and several of the early poems) and feeling the need to drop lines at people randomly, in our adolescent misanthropy. But poetry ended there, for almost 20 years. At 21, while reading Nabokov’s short stories, and early novels, I decided I wanted to be a fiction writer and I won a fiction prize at McGill, although I didn’t write or publish any short fiction for over 10 years after that. Then I realized in my mid-30s that I simply wasn’t all that committed or interested in creating fictional characters and (especially!) figuring out how to get them from A to B.

Sometime around 2002 or 2003 I started writing lines and short poems, and the first poem I wrote, I sent out to Greenboathouse Books, who published it on their website along with one other poem. Around that time, I started to read Elizabeth Bishop, Michael Hofmann, and a few others from the U.K. Grad school and my romance with fiction shut poetry out for a long time; but I could also say it just took me a very long time to figure out the way my creative energy really worked, and to find the confidence to try something new yet strangely familiar. My discovery of Wallace Stevens was a watershed, a few years later. It helped me acknowledge that language has always been such a charged centre of my being in the world: I learned French almost at the same time as I learned English, and I lived with ESL parents who aren’t particularly literary (though my father reading to me as a child was, and is clearly, a very important catalyst for this charged relationship to language, not to mention my hearing foreign languages spoken at home). By the time I was writing what was to be included in my first collection of poems, my writing life had become more about consciousness on the page, and less about using language wholly denotatively.

SG: You're also an excellent prose stylist, as the fascinating "Commentary" section of Sumptuary Laws reminds me, and there is no shortage of characters and stories in the poems. You have also written enjoyable and convincing essays on a variety of subjects. I would like to ask about genre in terms of the relation between thinking and writing. Do you think about genre conventions and differences as you write? How do you think about genre (sorry for the pun) generally?

NM: I’ve noticed an affinity between poetry and essays in my writing, and I consider the two genres to reside at the opposite end of the spectrum from fiction writing, which I’m far less drawn into. Essay and poem are two related aspects of my use of language, while fiction demands some other, thespian register. Often, I’m writing through a persona (not myself) when I write essays/prose, and certainly there was a stylized self behind the Commentary section in Sumptuary Laws, and in many of the essays I wrote for Ryeberg.com. A given persona also speaks in several of the poems in Sumptuary Laws, but as I’ve developed since its publication, I’ve jettisoned the persona and begun to write poems from my own standpoint—not usually a confessional standpoint, but on occasion it might be. This isn’t to say my curiosity hasn’t been satisfied writing through a persona, but it’s possible I’m growing out of relying on her. I think of the essays on Ryeberg as kinds of lazy poetry, I suppose, where I was able to relax some of my aural inclinations—the ones I recruit when I’m writing poems.

A recent essay I wrote was rooted in my own lived experience, and appeared in Partisan magazine earlier this year; in those cases where the inquiry isn’t aesthetic, I would never write from a persona’s voice since I want to elucidate something autobiographically without overt self-irony.

SG: What’s inspiring you these days? And if I can add to that question, where do you look for poetry you haven’t encountered before?

NM: Curiously, I’ve returned to a preoccupation with the strange, which I had explored in my chapbook Oneiric. In those poems, however, it was about the uncanny—the familiar meeting the strange, as in dreams. Now I am mostly curious about self-estrangement and the undiscovered, as catalysts for curiosity and appetite. I think maybe a fitting inquiry for an almost-midlife book, which is what I might write next. It’s this quality of living in embodied space, and the way it’s unpredictable, unlike one’s constant label/identity, so much a part of online living. What happens outside that over-determined identity and audience-focused content? I look for new poetry based on what’s being reviewed in journals and the newspapers, or talked about online. And the recommendations or interests of friends. I must admit I return often to the same poets, or else I seek out books of theirs I haven’t read yet. Other ways I’m inspired just happen from reading, for instance, about art, or being in a certain situation (recently, a VIA train I was on struck and killed a pedestrian; the other day I wrote a poem after looking out my balcony on a July evening).

Nyla Matuk is the author of Sumptuary Laws (Vehicule Press, 2012) and a chapbook of poems, Oneiric (Frog Hollow Press, 2009). Sumptuary Laws was named a National Post best book of poetry in 2012 and nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. Matuk received a Yaddo fellowship in 2014 and was the 2015 Reynolds Atelier Visiting Artist at McGill University. Her poems have appeared recently in PN Review, The Fiddlehead, and the New Poetries VI anthology published by Carcanet Press in 2015. Read her poem Gloriette here.