(This interview was conducted in person on April 25th, 2015, in Iowa City)
LW:I know Null Set pretty well at this point, but can you walk me through it a little bit, as if I didn’t? Like, how are you thinking and talking about the book in context of your other books?
TM:I guess I think of this book as both the most expansive and most compressed work that I’ve done. In terms of the engagement with the world and the life that I experienced during the years that it was written, and the reckoning with emotional topographies, I felt like I really opened up. I think the book is more vulnerable and some of the themes of family and family history and spirituality and all of that—it feels like this massive book to me, but on the formal level, the construction of the book as object, its the most formally precise and whittled down and lapidary and short book that I’ve written.
LW:Yeah, it’s interesting that you would say “more vulnerable” because at first glance—well, it’s like you’re using these mathematical procedures and applying them to that emotional topography right?
TM:Right. So, the title, in set theory—the mathematical branch that deals with sets—the null set is the empty set or the set of objects that contains no elements. In some sense it’s the baseline from which all other things proceed, and/or this kind of impossibility that the whole other system of language of set theory is dependent upon. It’s not the same as nothing, but rather it’s the set that contains no elements. It’s often notated with two brackets or a glyph with a circle and a line through it. And so I think of it in two ways, one as a metaphor for pure form, and also I liked the valence of the nullifying effects, the negativity in it, because a lot of the poems try to approach an authenticity through negation and failures of thought and failures of form. As much as they’re trying to, you know, find the perfect word or express directly.
LW:“To routinize failure into form” is a line that comes early in the book and teaches you how to proceed.
TM:And the end of that line is “To routinize failure into a form of hoping” right?
LW:Right. Excised it on the spot.
TM:Well, I liked the idea … since Plato kicked the poets out of the Republic we’ve had this division, in some sense, between rationality and irrationality, the head and the heart, the body and soul, that um—those are obviously silly and unfortunate divisions that most people now don’t fully adhere to. But poetry—and magic and the occult and so forth—have been places where ceremonial irrationality is celebrated. Poets have reacted against and have actively written against traditional, logical, analytical, rational ways of knowing. So, the experiment of the book was not to break the rules of logic but to see what happens when you obsessively follow the rules of logic until they break themselves, to find new energies in those moments of breakage.
LW:But did it really work out like that? Were you really in the exploratory mode in those forms or were decisions made in advance or how did you manage it? It just seems like it would be easy to become an algorithm and die on the page.
TM:I mean it’s messy, as all writing is, but many of the poems did explore either logic puzzles, or analytical problems that have surfaced in the language of analytic philosophy or mathematical conceits or whatever—and followed them until they yielded something. Occasionally they wouldn’t. Most often they wouldn’t. The poem “Hypotenuse” for example, began as an exploration of the relationship between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world and triangles, and so forth, and turned out to be about my father. But the final series of images I only arrived at through these triangles… He was a mason and when you make a foundation for a house you have to make sure the foundation is not off tilt, it has to be perfectly square. So, you know, getting the forms ready to pour the concrete in the footer—literally the base that your house is going to sit on—he would have to do all this back-of-the-envelope math, and using orange mason twine, he’d actually make a hypotenuse… and I’d help him do this as a kid.
LW:Crude trigonometry, right?
TM:Crude trigonometry. Right.
I arrived at that image through the exploration of triangles and then I remembered a specific house we were working on. The poem is more about that visual memory than it is about triangles. So, in some senses I did just explore—
But an opposite process happened in some poems too, when I was aware that I wanted to write about specific circumstances and thematic unity would sort of organically develop…
My daughter was born during the time the book was written. I spent a lot of time with her sleeping in a room, and me in the next room, or playing with her. A lot of weird, time-warped, half-awake half-asleep time. And a lot of time before she was communicable—language didn’t seem to matter as much as being present in the world. I’d find mathematical things emerge, as I was looking at the refrigerator and see the rectangle of the refrigerator, because you’re in that sense of hyper awareness of things that are not your kid’s diaper.
LW:Was it a relief to be outside of language like that?
TM:Yeah, yeah, I mean, strange things happened in the first few months after my child was born, because sleep is so erratic and moments when you can feel active and vibrant in the world evaporate really quickly. And there are different kinds of languages that take over. The languages of scheduling naps and washing diapers—
LW:You mean, you don’t just throw them in the garbage?
TM:I’m a modern man!
That was a circuitous way of saying it happens in both directions. Sometimes the poems were discovering the emotional core through these conceits, but like most poets, I think I’m attracted to the discovery of new patterns so you’ll search and you’ll search but if you do discover a pattern, you want to retain unity throughout a book but also work back against it.
LW:To that end, how does the final breakage occur? Because the book’s undoing itself. The poems are getting bigger and more unstitched. Then there’s this final sequence that’s radically different than the rest of the book—still contained by its form, but it starts to put objects in the brackets, right?
TM:Raymond Queneau had that wonderful phrase referring to the Oulipo poets that they are like rats that construct the labyrinths from which they try to escape. Right? So, the final sequence is a prose poem series, and this idea of form purposefully constructed to make yourself a rat running a labyrinth—I think is a good way to think about what I wanted from this sequence.
In hindsight, it’s an experiment in a kind of refracted confessionalism. I had been reading Lyn Hejinian’s My Life again after having read it several years ago and was thinking about the choices that go into writing about one’s life. We make them every day as poets, all of our poems are inflected with daily life and the people we know and love and the objects around us and so forth. But I almost wanted to take away the possibility for choice. So the form is essentially a kind of crude set theory. Which is also partially why the book is called Null Set. Each of the poems is a set of physical objects, intellectual objects, or elements from my life, but the creation of the category, or the set before the catalog is undertaken, is in many ways the generative act of the poem and the rest is being the rat that has get out of what I’ve created.
The sets are like, the set of all of the jobs I’ve ever had, the set of the strongest impressions of the color red that I could remember, the set of all of my uncles—I have a huge family with lots of uncles. The set of all of my fears, the set of all of these fuzzy chicken peeps that I remember and sitting with them in the backseat of the car. Radically different types of sets. Once that construct was established the only rules that I gave myself were: I was going to vary the types of sets as widely as possible, and that once I decided to write about one I would work as hard as possible to actually complete it. So, for example, if I asked you to write down a set of all of your fears—
LW:How long do you have?
TM:Right! You know, it feels like a five finger exercise at first but then all of a sudden you’re at this point where you have impulses to write things you’re not actually afraid of, then have to excise those. You work and work through each of the sets to realize—depending on how you put that cookie cutter into the massive dough that is conscious experience, you can basically build a life, a life in language, looking at anything.
LW:I remember being struck by your fear set because sure, like, needles, who isn’t afraid of getting STDs? But then it just explodes into, “that the law’s thin film – behind which my shadow has been stripped of futurity and personal effects and left to pace – will tear open,” semi colon. It’s explosive and lyrical and there are a lot of moments where that happens. I’m assuming those are springing up organically.
TM:Yeah. They’re occurring organically in terms of pace and modulation and so forth, they’re not simply catalogs, which would be boring. The catalogs were, I think, a way to constrain myself into being more authentic in my relationship to language. Some of them are super short, some of the lists have elements that are super short and some are longer—
LW:—One of the shortest sections of the final sequence is “Of the essential questions” which is interesting because the book itself is a series of questions.
TM:The essential questions are actually—
I don’t know what the essential questions are, but during the time of writing this book the questions that seemed essential for my daughter were repeated in these classic children’s books. That section, “All of the essential questions,” is just a cut up of different children’s book questions that I found to be very resonant. Rereading The Velveteen Rabbit is kind of a mind-splode.
LW:So, what were the moments that were ‘mind-sploding’– where you really learned something about yourself that was surprising? Or about your process?
TM:Hmm. Well, in terms of process. (silence)
Yeah, I don’t know.
In terms of process, I was scared. I’ve never written a book like this—no one that reads it would think of it this way—but my previous work was much more architecturally conceived at the outset. The institutional requirements of being in an MFA program while some of this was written made it such that I wasn’t inclined to write in larger conceptual, 25 to 30 page chapbook length architectures that I had worked in, in both of my previous books, in which I would stew for a year and think and write and then have this big thing. I produced a lot of individual poems for this book, and that was useful for me, but it was also uncomfortable because I didn’t know what they were adding up to.
TM:Yeah, pun intended. That’s great.
So, I didn’t know what they were adding up to and I didn’t want it to feel haphazard, and so the mind-splode moment was when I realized what some of the overriding concerns were, in these poems that had emerged over two and a half or three years.
LW:Speaking of puns intended, at what point did you realize your name is Math-ys?
TM:You know, I don’t think this book is about math.
TM:In junior high people called me “math man” because I loved math and wanted to be a math major in college. I took collegiate level math when I was young. So, you know. I’m painfully aware of the Math Man reference.
LW:Did it feel like a continuous road, moving into language?
TM:Maybe. One of the intentions that’s clear in the book is that I have a desire for precision and neatness and the kinds of miraculous things that can happen in the world, fitting together and locking in beautiful ways.
I mean, everybody that’s played Tetris knows how gratifying it is to have that piece go in there and just click.
TM:A big part of my personality, I suppose, engages the world like Tetris. Where my gratification comes through completion of a conceptual difficulty or a geometric impossibility. Then, unfortunately, those rub up against the reality that in life nothing’s really that clean. One way to think of the book is trying to reconcile that dialectic and make a new synthesis.
LW:You can shoot that observation back to your description of being with your father. The set has to proceed but the time is warped. When it happens and how it happens still remains to be seen.
TM:Right, that’s a good point.
LW:Actually, I was thinking—because I suck at math but I do have this hobbyist interest in psychology—Piaget and Klein and others talked about this developmental stage among young children where they figure out that they’re separate from the caregiver by rejection. Saying no and throwing things, like, ‘I know I’m not the block by throwing the block away.’ I found that to be really moving in context of your conceits, your daughter Lucy popping up again and again—
TM:That’s a great way to put it. Presence and absence require each other. I know I’m not the block by throwing the block. That “Vikings Did Not Have Horns on Their Helmets” poem is a negation of a lot of these common conceptions in the world, but I was also able to write in personal ligatures that are not negating but true because they had the word not in them and they sort of worked seamlessly. This is not the kind of writer I have been in the past, being that direct and maybe even earnest in my work. Like, the line “I do not enjoy being alone.”
LW:Yeah. Straight up.
TM:On its own it’s a bit trite but in that larger apparatus it seems to work.
LW:One of my favorites is, “I don’t have a handle on the poems or the drinking.”
TM: Moments like that, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to put in a poem if I were not working within the tension between truth and falsehood and negation and positivity.
LW:Now that you have some distance from your first two books—how were those received, etcetera, how does this book fit in the mix?
TM:I’m not sure about reception. And I don’t know if the reception of the first book matches my conception of what it was doing, but I thought of that book as recuperating a kind of rust belt working class construction way of life that I grew up in and my father worked in. And some of the language of construction and of rural upper Midwest is in that book. I thought it was engaging in a conversation about what a poetry of the rural avant-garde would be. Something like that.
I had just read C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining and thought I had found a way of writing that I hadn’t experienced before that felt great to me. And I was reading a lot of Hart Crane who was from Ohio and sort of this weird mix of the lush language of Hart Crane and James Agee and C.D. Wright—these more formally experimental poets engaging with places that were not New York and L.A.
And then my second book was much more directly a political reckoning with the end of the century, not to try to sound too grand, but there was this cycle of poems about the deification of athletes and statesmen, about world cup soccer and Henry Kissinger, and there was a group of poems about ecology and a long poem set on this big road trip that I took through the Deep South. And I think it was a hard book. It was a hard book and it was a long book. It was conceptually hard for people to assimilate.
I still love it. But I knew after that project that what I wanted from this new book was something that felt crisp and immediate and available but vulnerable and short.
LW:Hey, you did it! I’m pronouncing that right now… So, what do you wish you were asked?
TM:I don’t know, I think I spit out enough stuff.
LW:Okay, Ted, thank you.