Friday, April 06, 2007

We Generous: Sebastian Matthews Chronicles His Own Flight

A small world. You know how it works: You're walking up the stairs to Notre Dame in Paris, and you bump into your college roommate. Or you're in the check out line at the super market, and there she is, the woman you lived with when you were twenty-five. A friend put it so: there are really only a hundred people in the world, and you already know ninety-five of them. Sometimes that seems just right. Certainly, there are just a hundred people, give or take, who matter, whom one is given, for whatever reason, as companions for one's lifetime on the planet. And as you age and so gain deeper history (take my word for it) there are even more opportunities to re-encounter the past, or at least those who moved through it.

I first met Sebastian Matthews when he was quite young; when we talked over those early days a couple of years ago, we decided he must have been all of three. We didn't have much to say to one another at the time, of course. I was then working with his dad, Bill Matthews, and others, including Russell Banks, now a well-known, highly-regarded novelist, but then a graduate student at UNC in Chapel Hill, to put together a little magazine that was named for a song in Tristram Shandy, "Lillabulero". We actually met at a party, I think, celebrating the publication of an early issue, probably sometime in 1968, and he was likely in the arms of his mother. How time flies.

Sebastian's certainly flown miles and miles since then. Sunday, March 11th, he celebrated the publication of his first book of poems, We Generous, with a 3:00 reading at Malaprops. The book was ten years in the making, Sebastian says:
I wrote one of the jazz poems in 1997. The poem that opens the book, "Walking with Walter," was written soon after my father died, somewhere in early 1998. I jotted it in a journal during a teaching gig in New England. On the other side, I also have a few poems written in early summer of 2006.

I didn't set out to do this. An early incarnation of the book, titled The Green Man Walks Across America, was accepted for publication then held three years before being dropped. I worked on the book for a year before showing it to Red Hen. Then I had a year to rewrite the book again, and another year to tinker and add to and shuffle the thing. It's almost as if there are two books in there.
Perhaps that's why it's a large first book, tilting the scales at a substantial 108 pages.

The children of poets don't often grow up to be poets (Franz Wright, son of the late James Wright, is the sole exception who comes to mind), but in Sebastian's case, both of his parents were poets, so he probably had no chance otherwise. His father, William Matthews, went from Chapel Hill to a career in teaching and writing that included publication of a dozen books and recognition in many forms, including a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995. His mother, Marie Harris, was Poet Laureate of New Hampshire from 1999-2004. So how did he come to a life in poetry, I asked him a few weeks ago?
I grew up around [my parents'] books, peeking into their parties, sitting in on their classes and workshops, reading their work, listening to their records. If that doesn't prepare one for the life, I don't know what does.

But there were a few courses in college, and a teacher in particular, who turned me onto literature, both fiction and poetry. And attending Bread Loaf Writers Conference first as my father's guest (he was on faculty) then as a partial participant, then a full participant, etc.--that really opened me up to the writing life. I fell in love with it.

I remember once, as a teen, sitting in on a talk by John Gardner. I came out with my head in the clouds, even higher up there than usual.
As he has worked to become a poet, he's found that writing is integral to his life, and he can stay in touch with the voice of his imagination even amid the quotidian events of life:
Writing (and teaching) is my life. I try to find a balance. For the last 12 years, I have been teaching a lot to make money and learn the diverse skills it takes to teach writing.

Lately, I have been pulling back from teaching and focusing more on collaborative projects. I try to write every morning. But writing always weaves into my daily life.I walk the dog, get the boy off to school, read some student work, revise an essay, wash the dishes, visit a friend for lunch, tinker on a poem, etc. It all blends together.
And now the blend he's made of life rises into view, and he's ready to celebrate the collection that's emerged from his decade of work. Doing so, he'll afford us an opportunity to look back with him at his own past, and the occasions that have spoken to him - and through him - as poet.

Having gotten to know him and his work over the past few years, I count the fact that he's proved a recurrent fact of my own life a happy circumstance indeed. That he's taken wing on another stage of the long flight, one that's already seen an extraordinary ascent, is an occasion to celebrate.


This post first appeared, in somewhat different form, in Rapid River for March, 2007. The photo was taken by Sebastian's wife, Allison Climo.

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