Allegheny Front is a severe book. It’s a book that doesn’t trouble itself to protect the reader. “An animal has just enough brains to cure its own hide,” muses a man who is pages away from having just enough brains to see his own hide opened by a shotgun blast. In this collection of stories, his second book after the novel Honey from the Lion, Matthew Neill Null gives us a near-journalistic depiction of the violence men have wrought on nature and on themselves. But Null is shifty, prone to sliding into a different kind of honesty, a shelter-in-the-storm tenderness made all the more seductive due to its relative scarcity in the collection. Null is from West Virginia, and most of the literary press surrounding Null’s work lays the West Virginia on pretty thick — this interview is no exception. The insistence on the West Virginia narrative is not without good reason, though; Null is in possession of a ranging, encyclopedic knowledge of the Mountain State that is every bit as deep as it is wide. Over the course of a few emails, I had the pleasure of speaking with Null about a variety of topics from the efficacy of spoken stories to the forgotten work of Wendy Brenner.
The Millions: West Virginia is all over your work. In Lydia Millet’s introduction to this collection, she admits to knowing “almost as little of hardscrabble country life in West Virginia as it’s possible to know.” I know about the Wild and Wonderful Whites and prescription pills. I’ve heard the lazy, ridiculous incest jokes since I was a kid. I suspect most of your readers will be bringing a similar patchwork of misinformation regarding West Virginia to the table — do you see Allegheny Front and Honey from the Lion as an attempt to complicate — or at least augment — this bizarrely pervasive cultural perception in any way?
Matthew Neill Null: There are so many different people in a place like West Virginia, but we bear down on the most lurid aspects. The pill-eaters certainly exist — some are my pals! — but this vision leaves out the county surveyor, the deacon, the forester, the nurse raising kids on her own. But the world has certain expectations, and you’ll never go broke on stereotype. Writers like Daniel Woodrell have parleyed this into good, long careers. I think of it as meth-lab trailer porn.
I give a fuller spectrum of life because that is my experience of the place; my family has lived there for generations, since a time before the United States existed. My mom, who came from a modest background to say the least (her toy was an empty guitar case, and the house had no indoor plumbing), went to nursing school and climbed the ladder. My dad was a lawyer, from a family that has risen and fallen and risen again. One grandfather was a union pipefitter, the other a mechanic for Columbia Gas — though his father had been a state senator. I was blessed because we had friends from the entire expanse. It was a small place. Everyone was necessary. This is rare, I now know. We are stratified on the level of class. You walk into a party and find out everyone went to Bard together.
TM: In an interview with American Short Fiction, you bring up Breece Pancake as being generally accepted as the best writer to have come out of West Virginia. You go on to say that with Allegheny Front you wanted to “do something different, because if you’re a writer from West Virginia, particularly a white male, you’ll be compared to [Pancake].” It’s strange to imagine writing in the shadow of a 26-year-old man who died some 30-plus years ago whose name still might not ring a bell with many readers. Is this indicative of a shortage of West Virginia literature in general? Or is it just not getting the attention it deserves? Are there West Virginia writers we are woefully unaware of?
MNN: Oh man, I’m not the best person to ask. I’ve consciously avoided writers from my territory, because I wanted to engage the place totally, with my own language, own vision. I’m sure there are woefully overlooked writers of skill, as there are everywhere. My favorite West Virginia books are Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips and Lord of Misrule by my pal Jaimy Gordon, as well as Muriel Rukeyser’s U.S. 1, with its long section on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster.
If people have encountered any writing from West Virginia, it’s likely The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, which has had a cult revival, thanks to many champions such as John Casey, Andre Dubus III, and Kurt Vonnegut. In my grad program, people were obsessed with it.
Pancake killed himself at 26 in a bizarre episode, so his slender oeuvre is frozen like a fly in amber. Certainly the book of a troubled young man, confused, hurt, haunted by the land and history and class, still coming to terms with women and rejection. I wanted a more expansive world. We prize the human perspective too much. I mean my book to be a corrective to a certain understandable chauvinism.
TM: In “The Slow Lean of Time,” one of the characters dies and another is reassured by the fact that the drowned man “would live on on their tongues, not forever, but for a while, the nearest thing to forever.” Your stories often flirt with this collision of past and future, of old ways which eventually must submit to new. In “The Second District,” one of the hunters (who, rather primitively, has just used a dog to cave a bear) is prideful of owning “the first phone I encountered that could take pictures.” My question is this: why are these “stories that live on the tongue” still so vital when we live in a world where everyone has a phone that takes a picture?
MNN: If you look at social media, you see this leveling of American culture. Everyone has the same photo of the same beach, the same blue water, same wedding party, same slang, same songs, same movies. We have one lingua franca. We curate ourselves for mass consumption. But real speech, in the moment, in groups of two or three, tears at the veil. What we say that is not recorded. Drunken confession. Botched jokes. The rejected advance. Campfire at a deer camp. The novel as village gossip. The writer must rescue the whispered and the regrettable. I’m from a place totally shaped by talk, by verbal facility. All that silence, space, and privation gave people that gift, like the Irish, like Southerners. It was our currency, in lieu of any other. If you went to buy cigarettes, you weren’t getting out of there without a 20-minute conversation with the cashier and a couple sheep jokes.
The uneasy relationship between a past and an uncertain future is the major pivot of my work. It is impossible to shear my family’s identity from the West Virginia landscape. But I came of age at a time that was hyper-conscious of the fact that the place was dying. Free land brought us; we were broken on the rock of global capitalism. My world is gone, but we lived rich, particular lives there.
The fiction I’m writing now has a new focus: how to live in a world where there is no future. I find myself going back to beloved writers from Eastern Europe under communist regimes: Tadeusz Konwicki, György Konrád, Danilo Kiš. In absence of hope, their gaze is forced backwards. This may be a dead road, but I’m looking for a hint.
TM: I have to ask about the dedication. Your first book, Honey from the Lion, was dedicated, “For the land and the people.” The dedication in this book, however, reads, “For the animals.” At one point during my reading, I joked with myself that I might reread the collection to tally up how many gruesome (or at least very fully realized) animal deaths I came across. Animals — human and otherwise — are not treated particularly well in this collection that dedicates itself to them. What gives?
MNN: Interactions between humans and animals fascinate me. People in West Virginia live close to the bone — I hunted and fished for the table, like most. But if you look at the greatest swath of contemporary America, people encounter animals bloodlessly shrink-wrapped in the grocery aisle, or they keep pets and fetishize them. (I say this as a dog-lover. You take a young thing from its natural mother, inflict Stockholm Syndrome on it, and convince yourself that this is true love.) So I wanted interactions that are not filtered through sentiment or the factory slaughter-house. Force the issue. As Joy Williams says, “Good writing never soothes or comforts.” Look hard at the brutality people inflict on the landscape, the animals, and one another.
I’m from a place with a thin population. Animals filled out my world. In bed at night, I would wonder what the deer were doing up on the ridge. How the trout lived under the ice. So it was important for me to have a story like “Natural Resources” that is partly told from the perspective of animals. For me, the land, humans, and other forms of life are equally balanced; my work explores what happens when the balance is nudged, be it by capriciousness, bureaucracy, or extractive industry.
The poet Rebecca Gayle Howell is from eastern Kentucky, from a farm family, so we became fast friends. In her collection Render / An Apocalypse, she has poems like, “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Kill a Hen.” We’ve both noticed that, at our readings, no one objects to the violence that people do to each other, or that people do to the landscape, but sometimes a person will flip over the death of an animal. I’m not sure what this means. I’m still thinking on it. Perhaps because we project an innocence upon animals — they cannot speak, like very young children. But then, I’ve seen a mink kill a hen and not bother to eat it. It killed for play or for spite.
When I was rattling around for my novel, sometimes I would read a passage set on this howling winter mountainside — a lion attacks a team of horses, a teamster is mortally hurt, a horse has its foot sheared off when a log pins it against a stump. I worried to Rebecca about that, and she said, “You must get comfortable with discomfort.” With inflicting discomfort. That’s the difference between art and wallpaper.
TM: “Unsentimental” is a word I’ve seen stamped all over reviews of your work, usually always intended as complimentary; for whatever reason, “sentiment” has become a pejorative. That said, one of the stories from this collection, “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” elicited more of an emotional response from me than anything I’ve read recently. I think perhaps my reaction had something to do with the relative lack of obviously emotional points of reference in your work — a sort of supply/demand relationship. Is this a balance you’re conscious of striking or is it something that happens on its own?
MNN: In “The Island in the Gorge of the Great River,” I wanted to summon that sharp, bone-deep desire most of us feel toward someone when we’re young — it’s so immediate and annihilating there’s no way to resist. Well, okay, we feel it when we’re older, too, but if fate has blessed us with wisdom, we manage it better. (I’ve not been blessed.)
My tendency is to withhold emotion for as long as possible, then release it at certain, charged moments. I noticed this early on as a symptom of my writing, then began to use it more consciously as a tactic. That said, now that I’ve written two books, I want to tear down my practice and find a new syntax. I’m a couple hundred pages into a novel, part of which follows the dissolution of a long and disastrous marriage, so the exploration of the characters’ interior emotional landscape must be more a part of it. But even then, I don’t think I’m capable of going too far in the other direction. Sentimentality (not sentiment) is the enemy and the destroyer. Evan S. Connell is impressive in Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge. A master of restraint. Even if the characters cannot articulate it to themselves, you always know what they feel. Connell is the forgotten American stylist of the 20th century. Such an elegant writer. His nonfiction works are just as startling, if not more so.
TM: You’re something of a compendium of “writers I should have heard of by now.” Who else should I be embarrassed not to know about?
MNN: Wendy Brenner is a fabulously talented short story and essay writer. She hits a sweet spot between Joy Williams and Padgett Powell, though she has a voice all her own, often more poignant. Begin with her essays for the Oxford American, specifically “Love and Death in the Cape Fear Serpentarium” and “Strange Beads,” then read her story collection Large Animals in Everyday Life.
Paula Nangle’s woefully-overlooked novel The Leper Compound follows a young girl into adulthood as Rhodesia is becoming Zimbabwe. A poet’s novel, in a way. I’ve met precisely one other human being who has read it.
Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy is a moving dream. I don’t even want to talk about it.
Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard is a prison novel, written while the author was incarcerated in San Quentin. But this isn’t the rough diamond you expect from prison lit. This novel is technically flawless. His memoir False Starts is out-of-print, once again proving the world is unjust.
TM: You’ve mentioned a world where there is no future, Eastern European communist regimes, and intentionally inflicting discomfort — this “dissolution of a marriage” novel is shaping up to be a real hoot! I’m having a difficult time imagining your work taking place under a roof. Are we still in West Virginia? Can you spill the beans?
MNN: In The Rumpus, the reviewer Micah Stack actually counted up what percentage of Allegheny Front takes place inside — he said it was less than two percent! I love it.
I don’t want to lift the lid off the pot, but the next novel takes place in the early-1960s, mostly in West Virginia but with interludes elsewhere. It traces political corruption, the rise and fall of the Great Society, and the tension between Marxists and anti-communist liberals in the American labor movement. The story of rural life is thought to be incoherent. It is not. Global political forces shape the private lives and social crises of characters who live in distant, even isolated areas, seemingly far from the main stage of history and the centers of power, commerce, and media. Susan Howe displays this to great effect in My Emily Dickinson and The Birth-Mark.
TM: I noticed a conspicuous lack of mining throughout this collection. It’s almost always there, but you keep it out of the foreground. Was this a deliberate move to avoid another of those tired West Virginia tropes, or is that just one more of the ways in which the state has been misrepresented?
MNN: My friend Phyllis says that the quintessential West Virginia story features a laid-off coal miner whose wife has just left him. He broodily gets whiskey-drunk (okay, meth-addled if the story was written in the last decade), goes deer-hunting (preferably with his dead father’s rifle), and accidentally shoots his beloved hound dog. The trailer door slams. He is now truly and forever alone.
But more seriously, yes, I wanted it to be in the background, always there, pervasive but rarely noticed, dark clouds on the horizon. In my novel, in their difficult moments the male characters always think of going into the mines. “If my life doesn’t pan out, I can always do this.” They think of it wistfully, as one thinks of suicide.
“Elected silence, sing to me / And beat upon my whorlèd ear, / Pipe me to pastures still and be / The music that I care to hear.”
In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Habit of Perfection,” that “elected silence” becomes spiritual song. A Jesuit whose entire canon reveals the tension between artist and priest, between temptation and temperance, Hopkins found that silence could sing. In “Listening for Silence,” Mark Slouka considers the ubiquity of sounds, how “we’ve grown adept…at blocking them out with sounds of our own, at forcing a privacy where none exists.” He quotes Henry David Thoreau’s soft words of contemplation — “I love a wide margin to my life” — before admitting his own fear of a perfect silence. And yet “if silence is the enemy of art, it is also its motivation and medium: the greatest works not only draw on silence for inspiration but use it, flirt with it, turn it, for a time, against itself.”
Tucked away in a quiet room or hunched in a hushed library, writers crave silence. Silence is an escape from daily noise, from frustrations and obligations and distractions. Silence might equal solitude, a residency of the mind, but often silence is analogous to the sense of control needed for writers to create and craft. These are romantic conceptions of art, but in both practical and creative senses, writers must discover conditions that support focus and production. For poet Catherine Pierce, silence reigns: “I don’t — can’t — listen to any kind of music while writing. I learned long ago that when I listen to music, not only am I unable to focus on language in the way I need to, but — even worse! — I also tend to get a false sense of the work’s quality. If I’m listening to Tom Waits, I think I’m writing a tough, gutted, whiskey-soaked poem; if I’m listening to Joni Mitchell, I think I’m doing something elegant, sad, and strange. Then I read the poems sans soundtrack and am sorely disappointed. I first learned this lesson in high school, when, in full-on angst mode, I churned out what I was pretty sure was a genius short story while listening to the Violent Femmes. When I read the story the next day in the quiet of my bedroom, I recognized that the story was plotless and, worse, toothless — only the songs had any bite. These days I strive for total aural deprivation — silence in my home if at all possible, white noise on headphones in the coffee shop if not. After years of trying to trick myself into believing I could have music while writing, I’ve finally learned my limitations.”
Yet from the days of poems accompanied by lyre, verse has always been wedded to music. Poets have written about music, and they have considered songs that can compliment their art. Some, like Terrance Hayes in “Liner Notes for an Imaginary Playlist,” see songs as locations for the insights of poetic narrative. But I am most interested in how poetry relates to composition; how some poets, like Pierce, require silence, while others are fulfilled by sound. In my own experience, sound complements prose well; in fact, while writing and revising my novella, “Ember Days,” I listened to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” on repeat. I wrote after midnight, and that looping contributed to a somber atmosphere; the story is about atomic bomb testing and opium trafficking, but it also follows how one man’s lust for a woman leads to betrayal. Lightfoot’s guitar opening sets a folk-ominous mood, and the lyrics follow suit. After a few times at the desk, I needed Lightfoot’s music to sustain the story. It was a way to return to the words I’d left during the previous darkness.
Poet Michael Earl Craig has explained to Zachary Schomburg that he is “too engrossed and/or confused for music in the beginning stages of a poem.” Once he gets a “handle” on the work, when he can see a sense of “direction emerging,” he can later return to the poem with music “not distracting but more like a breeze at my back.” He has written with the soundtrack to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me playing, and doesn’t listen to it in “any other context. I don’t put that on while driving, or chopping parsley. The feel of that album just suits me perfectly. Poems should be dipped in it.” I have never written a poem while listening to music, but am curious about the intersection of those artistic worlds. Poetry and music share a word of process — composition — and are linked by negotiations of melody, harmony, rhythm, proportion, and discord. I contacted some of my favorite poets and asked if they listen to music while planning, drafting, revising, or finishing poems.
Here is a poetry playlist: 10 poets offer their composition soundtracks. Enjoy their reflections on craft, and links to the poems and tunes that formed beautiful marriages of word and sound.
Rebecca Gayle Howell
“I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by Stevie Wonder
While I was writing Render /An Apocalypse, I listened to a lot of old Motown — The Supremes, The Jackson 5 — it’s that beat, that drive, that hammer. It doesn’t quit. Doesn’t let you quit. But this Stevie Wonder song is the one. The man rides the climax until he falls off. He’ll scream before he’ll pretend something’s over when it’s not.
Render is a Southern agrarian myth. The protagonist wakes up in a landscape he’s forgotten how to survive, and the poems act as his instruction manual. “How to Kill a Rooster.” “How to Kill a Hog.” “How to Be a Man.” Mostly what the protagonist has forgotten is tenderness, but the animals try to remind him of it, even as he slits their throats. Reviewers have called the poems “brutal,” “gruesome,” “religious.” Maybe so. Unrequited love often is.
“How to Cure,” from Render / An Apocalypse (Cleveland State University)
“The Only Living Boy in New York” by Paul Simon
This song contains the epigraph to my collection of poems, New River Breakdown, and I listened to it a lot while composing the book, a collection of poems dealing with a couple who are, at times, separated by both physical and/or emotional distances during the narrative. We often hear about the difficulties of long-distance relationships, but what really resonates with me in “The Only Living Boy in New York” is the line “half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where” because it also speaks to how we, as people, can be “with” each other but really apart, and not even realize it — like when you come home from work, but you’re really still at the office in your head — making lists, reliving arguments, remembering paperwork you didn’t turn in, etc.
“The Surrendered” from New River Breakdown (Unicorn Press)
“One More Time with Feeling” by Regina Spektor
Regina Spektor was ambient in my new house just after my divorce. My daughter decreed her music the soundtrack of our new life. Spektor’s music was jarring and beautiful at the same time — which was sort of like our lives. I’m serious — whenever music was on, it was Regina Spektor, or the Regina Spektor Pandora station. The tone of her song “One More Time with Feeling” resonated with me, so I stole a line to use as an engine for a new poem, thinking I would later cut the line. “Breathing’s just a rhythm” stuck, however, and appears, slightly altered, in my poem “How to Miss a Man.” Both deal with the loneliness of the other side of something — the slogging. My poem appears in PANK, and in my collection, Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes, with permission of this great artist, who arguably helped my daughter, and me, gain footing.
“How to Miss a Man,” from Landscape with Plywood Silhouettes (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
Tomás Q. Morin
“Christo Redemptor” by Charlie Musselwhite
I usually don’t listen to music when I’m writing or revising. I’m very easily distracted so I prefer silence. However, once I think a piece is done or I’m going over a book manuscript for what feels like it should be the last time, I will listen to Charlie Musselwhite’s “Christo Redemptor.”
I’ve listened to this song so many times that I can enjoy it and yet it can still be the equivalent of background noise that won’t distract me. The interplay between harmonica and piano is fantastic and it feels like the song could go on forever without ever losing any of its potency. One way in which the song helps me during this final, final stage of editing is that if anything seems off in the poem/book then it’ll immediately interrupt the spell of the song and I’ll have to stop the song and examine what’s going on. If I can play the song uninterrupted throughout the whole editing process then I know the piece is done.
“Up to the Mountain” by Patty Griffin
I listened to Patty Griffin’s album Children Running Through — specifically her tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., “Up to the Mountain” — on repeat while writing “Greece Is This Run-Down.” Something about Griffin’s understated lyrics and soaring voice made it possible to confront my own fears at the time, specifically the escalation of the Iraq War and whispers of reinstating the draft. Listening to the same music helped me get back to the same mood each time I worked on the poem, my longest to date.
“Gymnopédies No. 1” by Erik Satie
For me, poems begin as combinations of sounds — words or phrases that are sonically magnetic and eventually attach themselves to some kind of meaning. Erik Satie’s elegant Gymnopédies work the same way. The pieces subvert traditional piano composition by giving preference to individual notes — and the atmosphere created by the order of those notes — over conventional melody. In my poem “Gymnopédies No. 1,” I tried to connect words in narrative and imagistic shapes that emulate Satie’s arresting phrasings in the Gymnopédies.
Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D major,” 1st movement
YouTube compresses some of the sound and splits the first movement into two parts. But my favorite moment occurs at right around 8:17, where you can really hear the sound of the violin and the orchestra hitting the back wall of the concert hall.
When I’m drafting poems, I most often don’t listen to music. But when I do, it can be pretty eclectic: anything from Jay-Z to Beethoven is fair game. When I’m working on prose, I listen to music constantly. Sometimes I play a game where I type bands into YouTube and see what is recommended to me. (That’s how I learned of Kid Koala, a DJ that dresses in a koala suit and spins records: I found him because I was listening to Emily Wells.) However, the piece that I listen to most — because I am obsessed with it, capital O — and that influenced many of the poems of Tongue Lyre (but one in particular) is the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, performed by the 20th century violinist Jascha Heifetz and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Fritz Reiner in April 1957).
I wrote “Performance” when I had a fever: I drafted it in bed, and I remember that in between reading, naps that led to bizarre dreams, drafting this poem, and tea, I listened to this piece. There is a Johnny Cash reference in the poem, so it might be surprising that I wasn’t listening to the Man in Black. But no. “Performance” was influenced by Heifetz’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, the first movement in particular. The poem moves rapidly through constructed spaces: “I would be caught, like now, when I am nowhere but pretending to be / standing in the Pittsburgh Aviary watching flamingos.” When I listen to Heifetz playing Tchaikovsky, I am amazed at how quickly and elegantly he makes and re-makes the landscape of the concerto — as though conjuring it out of nothing. I wanted to try attempting something similar in a poem.
“Performance” from Tongue Lyre (Southern Illinois University Press)
“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” by The Beatles
There’s a recursive quality to the song both in its lyrical and musical motifs that fed into the dialectical structure I was developing in my manuscript overall and that captured for me something specific about being the new mother of a baby girl. The poem “Through the Bathroom Door” is a direct consequence of listening to “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” on repeat and reflects my thoughts about the existence of the child in the adult and the adult in the child, the shifting but omnipresent shadow of the past upon the present, the constant vigilance that is necessary in marriage and parenting to separate the self from the other, and the fact that vigilance is an inadequate safeguard against living. The lines, “Didn’t anybody tell her? / Didn’t anybody see?” just kill me.
“I’m Waiting for the Man” by Velvet Underground
I write about memory and from memories, so I need to listen to music that takes me back. “I’m Waiting for the Man” grabs me by the shoulders and commands me to write a poem, and pushes me into the gritty landscape where poems come from.
At first this poem, “Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man,” might appear to allude to The Pixies, but in fact it is an homage to “I’m Waiting for the Man” by The Velvet Underground, and was written in attempt to imitate the song’s arc and pace, as well as relating to its subject. It also includes the title of a fake Velvet Underground song, as a wink to the reader.
“Risk Management Memo: Here Comes Your Man” from her forthcoming book, Small Enterprise (Black Lawrence Press)
(Fans of this poem will also enjoy Biddinger’s previous books, including O Holy Insurgency — Nick).
Sara Eliza Johnson
Elgar’s Cello Concerto, 1st movement (Jacqueline du Pré’s performance)
I listened to Jacqueline du Pré’s rendition of this piece often while writing the poems that would become the “Archipelago” sequence in my book, Bone Map, which is a group of poems inspired in part by the seafaring pilgrimage Saint Brendan undertook in the 6th century. The atmosphere of the piece is, for me, oceanic, and powerful in that way, like great swells of water rising and falling through the ear, threatening storm, and then shipwreck. In the video, you can see the way Jacqueline throws her whole body into the cello, and I think you can hear that in the intensity of her performance; while writing I tend to listen to music with intensity, with whatever will get me fevered and feeling unreal, and transport me away from thoughts of obligations and deadlines. In that way I suppose the practice is escapist.
Three “Archipelago” poems from Bone Map (Milkweed Editions)
Image Credit: Flickr/MaxiuB