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What the Poetry Wants: A Review of Monkey Bars & an Interview with Matthew Lippman & Jen Woods

Part I: Overview / Review

I treat my mailbox like a little kid, my inanimate child, the son I see when I come home from a long day of work, the first person I stop by to say hello to before dinner & bedtimes & all the et cetera. & sometimes I chastise him for being obnoxious or annoying (not delivering anything except ads & bullshit) & sometimes I open his little metal lid & hug his cold red-flagged body. & the day that Typecast Publishing’s first book Monkey Bars was inside his hollow body, I immediately smiled. & then I opened the envelope, & then I was more proud of my little mailbox-kid than I have perhaps ever been. 

Monkey Bars is one of those books that you take from the packaging & simply hold in your hands. I held Monkey Bars for a long time before reading a single page. It is enormously beautiful in its design: A hardcover of startlingly lucid yet surreal black & white art strapped with a colorful letterpress addendum. The pages are a gloss, the typography thick & well-exposed. & while design can never cover for a poorly-written book, can never eradicate the errors of meager poetry, Typecast’s design is merely a fantastic complement to Lippman’s writing:

from ‘Daffodils in the Head’:

The mouse’s eye was a small black marble

when I looked to see if it was dead

with my five-pound MagLite

the ones policemen in Los Angeles use

to beat poor white boys into submission

when they’ve smoked too much Dragon

and won’t put their shaky hands

in the cuffs.

He wasn’t dead,

and five minutes later

I heard the trap scrape against the wood floor.

I froze on the couch and thought,

if I had to face death in a man’s eye

I would throw up five times.

So I bit my nails and turned the sound up loud enough

to hear three linemen break the bone of a running back

before the snow came.

I find it particularly difficult to capture the wonderful design of Monkey Bars here in photographs or jpgs, & I find it equally challenging to capture Lippman’s bravado in one or two short samples from the book. But even in that short excerpt above, what I love about Lippman’s writing comes through: He has a smart & savvy way of combining elements of humor, clever writing, with stark & unexpected phrases, those that jar the poem back to a reality of violence or bruises. Monkey Bars is the taste of salted caramel, a best of both worlds that set head on end. It is a joy to read, & you should.


Part II: Interview with the editor of Typecast Publishing, Jen Woods:

Talk to us a little about the design of Monkey Bars: How did you decide on hardcover v. paperback & was it always an intention do a full cover in black & white with an added color letterpress strip atop that?

I felt like Monkey Bars was a very special book when it was in manuscript stage, and I wanted to make a book that reflects and honors how special it is. I wanted readers to feel as excited to pick the book up as kids are when they get a new book, like it was a gift, a source of joy. It was hard to find a printer/binder who could really execute most of the ideas we had, so after months of research and brainstorming, we came up with the version you see now.

Also, I see that the fantastic exterior / interior artwork comes from Eric Woods, is that a relation to you? & was the art ‘found’ or created exclusively for Monkey Bars?

Yes, Eric Woods is my big brother and owner of the design studio and letterpress shop The Firecracker Press. Firecracker has been our partner in creating our art magazine, The Lumberyard, and so it made sense to stick with them in creating Monkey Bars. The design work was created in reaction to Lippman’s poems. I’m lucky to have a designer in the family who understands my aesthetic and who creates some pretty hot design work to boot. That’s a huge key to why our projects look like they do—we’ve had a fantastic collaborative thing going for five years now; we work well together.

In terms of print publishing, Monkey Bars is the first book beyond Typecast’s The Lumberyard, which is currently six issues deep. How did the decision come about to publish your first poetry collection? & was it always with Lippman in mind, or did that come later?

The decision to grow the company beyond just the magazine came in late 2009. We had a record year for Lumberyard, including a write up by New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner, who called the magazine the most physically beautiful journal of the year. We were putting poetry in new places, going on XM Radio’s Road Dog Trucking Show, for example, talking about poetry and asking people of all walks of life, with some success, to reconsider poetry as a source of entertainment. We never expected people to react so strongly to the project, but all of a sudden new opportunities were possible. We’re a for-profit company that believes in debt-free, sustainable growth, and now we had means to do more. Matthew Lippman is a poet I’ve found fascinating since reading his first book. On the one hand, his poetry is a funny, accessible read that speaks to every day concerns and joys; on the other hand, the work is multi-layered and profound. You could read his poems over and over and find new things within them each time. I knew he had a manuscript available, but I never thought Typecast could just go out and publish it. When we talked about where my company was headed, Lippman gave me what I considered the opportunity of a lifetime—a chance to publish a book that I honestly love.

I feel like, for most small presses, their first stand-alone book is (& perhaps must be) a labor of love. If this is true of Monkey Bars & Typecast, what do you love most about Lippman’s work?

Oh, it’s beyond a labor of love. Making Monkey Bars into a book is the work of my life. While there were many difficult moments that tested my will and sanity, I feel certain the work of Typecast Publishing is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. We aren’t just trying to make beautiful books at Typecast; we are trying to change the way independent publishers work, to make them more efficient and sustainable. My biggest challenge has been forging ahead when everyone around me is telling me what we want to do isn’t possible (it is possible). Having a manuscript like Monkey Bars makes you want to push forward, to keep going, because if we didn’t we would never get to share this book with the rest of the world. I love Lippman’s work because he’s honest, warts and all. His narrator doesn’t talk to you like an ass; he talks to you like you’re both real people with real lives. But Lippman also doesn’t treat you like you’re an idiot. You may think a line in a poem is there for a good laugh, but if you look closer, he’s often trying to challenge your ideas about the current state of affairs. We need more of that kind of honesty, that kind of fearlessness to “say a thing” that he represents. I think he’s a real voice for the early 21st century, what we endure, what we love, what we fear.

Lastly, as we are always eager for futures, where is Typecast headed? How many more issues of The Lumberyard can we expect? How many more solo-author books? Are there any already in the pipeline? Or will a submissions window open at some point?

Our next big project drops at the end of November. The book is called Oil + Water and it’s a collaborative project between Typecast, Tuesday: An Art Project, and Holland Brown Books in an effort to use literature to increase our understanding of the elements, and in the process raise some funds for Gulf Coast restoration. It will include poems from some of today’s most exciting poets, including Matthea Harvey, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Robert Pinsky, Tony Hoagland, and others. Firecracker is designing and letterpressing nearly every element of the book, and it’s going to be GORGEOUS—and just in time for all your holiday gift-giving needs! Early next year we will publish our first fiction book, Barking Mad by Jamieson Ridenhour, which is a thrilling departure from “the usual” for us—we can’t wait! We aren’t taking manuscripts right now as we continue to slowly grow our business model, but hopefully down the road, yes. Meanwhile, poets can submit single works to the magazine, which we will continue to put out twice a year until the people tell us they don’t want it anymore. We have a rule here that you’re not supposed to talk about what you’re going to do, only what you’ve done, so I generally avoid speculation on where we’ll be in five years, etc. All I can say is that we’re working hard with a prize in mind, so stay tuned!


Part III: Interview with the author, Matthew Lippman:

Though we have already asked some questions of Typecast Publishing’s Jen Woods, we’d like your take on how Monkey Bars came to be – what was its genesis as a book (in the acknowledgements you make reference to a conversation over ‘a couple of beers’ that started many of the poems) & how did it come to be Typecast’s first standalone book?

I used to live in upstate New York.  One evening I met a good friend of mine, Geoff Sanborn, at a bar, The Black Swan, in Tivoli.  He’s a professor of English Lit at Bard.  Our conversation turned to voice—we were talking about Melville, maybe, I can’t remember.  I can’t even remember exactly what the gist of the “voice talk” was.  All I remember was that I drove home feeling as if something had been opened up in me.  For a few years my writing had shut down.  I had been producing poems but, because of the birth of our first daughter, my energies had been elsewhere.  Talking to Geoff allowed me to flip some switch, to shift a bit in my relationship to the language.  It’s not even that big, you know.  It was actually a tiny moment, our conversation, that had big results.  The next day I took a walk to get some ice cream at a soft serve joint on Route 9H and came home and wrote, “At Keelers” with a frenzied abandon that I had not experienced in a long time.  From there, the poems just came, for about two years.  Actually, they are still coming.  So, when Jen called me up and asked me if I would get on this big, beautiful, endless flume with her, I was honored and glad because there were these poems that I thought well enough of to put out there into the world.  Geoff was like that stuff they put on your chest when you are about to given a shock, to get the heart going—the conduit to get the charge really happening. 

Stylistically, I love the mixture of humor & abrupt, & sometimes violent, phrasing. Does it take a heavy-hand of editing to achieve this combination or is it more a straight capturing of your poetic voice?

No.  It’s just like playing the drums.  That’s all it is.  A little Art Blakey, a little Keith Moon, a ton of Shelia E.  This mixture that you talk about is all feel, tone, mood.  At least, that’s where it starts.  I’d like to think that while I am writing a poem I, because I have been doing this for a long time, am in this mixed state where I am writing with a nuttiness and, at the same time, very aware of editing and revising as I am going.  It’s just like playing the drums, though, really, at its core.  Letting go and making the beat.

In terms of content, a wealth of poems in Monkey Bars reference celebrity figures or pop culture, & often in a chastising or aggressive way – can you talk a little about these references in general or their more specific thematic intentions?

So, I was reading this article about Alec Baldwin in The New Yorker, in my tiny apartment, barely can pay the rent, feed the kids, buy clothes, the whole nine yards, and he’s complaining about not getting an Oscar, about his homes, his cars, etc.  I’m thinking, hell, I love Alec Baldwin as an entertainer but Hey, buddy, shut the fuck up you fuckhead. Most of us are out here busting our ass. And there it was, the line, slamming into my head—“Aled fuckhead Baldwin…”  I couldn’t resist. 

Can I be honest?  I write these poems in hopes that maybe, one of these folks will read it and then respond, tell their celebrity friends to buy the book, make me rich, make me a celebrity which will then inspire some poet out there to write about a poem about me.  Really though, I think it’s fun to write about the people who entertain us.  Why not?  Their personas make for such excellent banter and blather that is rich with whimsy.  I love whimsy.  

How is Monkey Bars different & similar to your first book of poems, the Kathryn A. Morton Poetry Prize winning The New Year of Yellow released in 2007 from Sarabande Books?

It’s my sex, drugs and rock n roll book.  The New Year of Yellow was more of a mish-mosh of poems that had been written over a 14 year span.  Monkey Bars has a more consistent tone to it.  It’s much more thematic.  It scares me more than Yellow because it’s not as a tender.  That’s really important—tenderness—in the poems.  The ones I am writing now, the new poems, are much softer.  The two books, though, share a certain love of life, of the world, of humor, of shock, of desire, of food.  But I wasn’t a father, really, when the poems in Yellow were written.  Now I am and Monkey Bars addresses the unbelievable struggle that goes along with being a man with two kids and not enough earth, money, time, space, to give them.  I don’t mean this to sound desperate and depressing—it’s just the difference that I see between the two books.  Monkey Bars is the book that has helped me to get my tenderness back, at least in the poems.  I hope in my day-to-day life, too.  I had to write the  poems in Monkey Bars and now I don’t anymore. 

If you had to pick one small(ish) excerpt from one of the poems in Monkey Bars to share with our audience, to give the best sense of this collection as a whole or simply a taste, a starting place – what would it be?

For some reason the last line in the poem sticks with me, “From God’s Notebook.”  It goes like this:  It is my fault.  It is not my fault.  Also, the poem “The Wolf Store,” which I wrote in one standing (I write standing up) late in the evening after everyone had gone to sleep.  For some reason I think it’s one of my best poems, ever.  It was all there, came out of nowhere, with nothing, and surprised me deeply as I was in the midst of writing it.  Check that one out.  Start there.

from ‘The Wolf Store’:

So I work nineteen hours a day

and get myself down to The Heartbreak Shop

to buy me some heartbreak

but who needs to buy a busted heart

my kid says.

I say, Kid,

what you don’t know now

you already know—

that loneliness is a peach tree

with all its peaches

that has no peaches.

Thanks Matthew & Jen for answering our questions & illuminating more of the stellar Monkey Bars. To buy a copy or to check out what Typecast Publishing is doing, go here.

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