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Literary Prestidigitations on Display

15 Questions: An interview with Carlo Matos


Author:  Carlo Matos


BlazeVOX Books:


Big Bad Asterisk*

Counting Sheep Till Doomsday


Bio:  Carlo Matos is an Azorean-American poet and fiction writer. He has published in various journals and anthologies like Atticus Review, Short, Fast, and Deadly, Paper Darts, BlazeVOX, Arsenic Lobster, 5x5, Ragazine, kill author, DIAGRAM, The Mad Hatters' Review, narrative (dis)continuities and the Gavea Book of Portuguese-American Poetry, among others. He is the author of A School for Fishermen (BrickHouse Books), Counting Sheep Till Doomsday (BlazeVOX Books) and Ibsen's Foreign Contagion (Academica Press). He currently lives in Chicago, IL where he teaches English at the City Colleges of Chicago by day and is a cage fighter by night. After hours he can be found at Chicago’s Poetry Bordello entertaining clients.


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--Tell me about your book.


Big Bad Asterisk* is novella in prose poems.  After finishing Counting Sheep Till Doomsday[BlazeVOX], I was still very much interested in the prose poem.  The poems I was writing after the publication of Doomsday were, however, quite different from the poems I had been writing previously. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the fact that I had started writing short stories and flash fiction had a real impact on my poetry.  There were certain pieces that I was unsure if they were flash pieces or if they were prose poems, but what was clear to me was that the flash pieces and the prose poems were far better, in my mind, than the more conventionally structured short stories.  There were sections of the shorts that I really liked, but it was surrounded by uninteresting or predictable narrative and exposition—however minimal.  I wanted the compression and focus of the prose poems, but I also wanted to tell a larger story.  I was unsure if I could sustain that much story using only prose poems, but it quickly became clear that I could—and so the idea for Asterisk* was born.


--What influenced this book?


I had been working on a collection of linked short stories, but I abandoned it after writing maybe six or seven stories.  It just wasn’t coming together for reasons I mentioned above.  When I came upon the idea of doing a novella in prose poems, I was excited to see if I could tell the same story but in this form.  Asterisk* tells the story of one couple.  The relationship hits the skids when they try to have a baby and fail.  A miscarriage hits them very hard and the relationship wilts under the pressure.  They go their separate ways and try to pursue their individual lives.  However, in one of those whimsies of fate, they end up back together and, in another twist of fate, manage to have a baby.  Of course, now they have a totally new problem.  They have a baby.  LOL.  Formally it is broken down into chapters that tell the reader who the speaker is.  And the other interesting formal quirk of the book is all the asterisks.  It is through the asterisks that the complex matrix of their lives is fleshed out—their interests, their ethnic and cultural background, their pasts; it is a running commentary on what it means to live now, here, in urban America.  Michael Colson, in his review of the book in the Portuguese American Journal, says of the asterisks, “It’s a short distance to conclude that any of our actions or utterances can be asterisked ad nauseam, such that we can easily relate to the paralyzed Hamlet or the Hollow Man.  However, the neurotic in each of us is rather impatient for the next bit of trivia: to witness where it leads and whence it came.”


--Where does this book fit into your career as a writer?


This is my third poetry book (my fourth book overall) and it is a companion to my previous collection of prose poems, Counting Sheep Till Doomsday.  I imagine that Doomsday would go in your left pocket and Asterisk* in the right.  I got the idea from some guy who was handing out those little New Testaments with the green covers.  I thought it was genius.  People love to read the Bible on the bus and on the train, why not make it easy for them to carry around?  And this has been my approach for these two books.  Poetry is meant to be with you, to be carried around until needed—in times of trouble and in times of celebration.  And, of course, when you are bored out of your mind riding the bus.  I want to make it easy for my readers to carry the books with them.  Asterisk* is, on the one hand, the most ambitious of the three poetry books—in terms of scale—but, on the other hand, it is also the most accessible.  You got one couple.  Things get away from them.  They lose courage.  They separate.  They find each other again.  They find renewed hope.  Then their lives really begin.  What’s to get?  Simple.


--If you had to convince a friend or colleague to read this book, what might you tell them?


I would tell them that the main female character is an MMA fighter who chokes out her estranged husband as a way of seducing him.  I would mention that book is loaded with Yeti, Grunge rockers, Ghostbusters, Azorean magic and the terrible sadness of a lost baby.  Lastly, if this person were a scholar, I would alert them to the existence of the Presençamovement. Presença is a group for Portuguese-North American writers that formed in Lisbon, Portugal in the summer of 2011 during the first DISQUIET: Dzanc Books International Literary Program. The "Presence" Movement is named after the important Portuguese literary journal Presença (1927-1940), and is an address to the absence or marginalization of Portuguese-North American literary voices in contemporary American letters.


--Tell me about the last literary reading you attended.


The last literary reading I attended was at the famous Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City.  It was a reading of Portuguese-American writers in the Presença movement—myself included.  We were in Iowa City for a conference at the University of Iowa where we would all read from our work to a group of important Portuguese critics, scholars and academics.  Bon Jovi did an acoustic set in the field outside the building where we were doing our reading.  Sadly, I missed it.


--When did you realize you were a writer?


As far back as I can remember, I wanted something profoundly different from what constituted daily existence in my town, and literature and music seemed like the other side of the universe from my parent’s mill jobs.  I didn’t know anyone who loved what they did or who did something they thought meaningful.  I watched the terror seize my father on Sunday afternoons as he slowly collapsed in on himself, already contemplating how to get through another week at the mill.  That despair saturated my house and colors my childhood although he never once talked about it.  Writing seemed like a way, even if I fell into some horrible snare, to keep ahead of the weather or to stay above the waves.  The pursuit of beauty, the creation of wonderful things, seemed to me then, the only antidote to the horrible gray of suburban America.


--Tell us about your process: Pen and Paper, computer, notebooks ... how do you write?


I do most of my writing in notebooks.  In fact, I have been keeping a journal since February of 1995.  I still feel there is something centering about the act of using a pen.  The journal is most important during my gathering phase.  The gathering phase is by far and away the most fun part of my process.  At that point, literally anything could end up being a part of the project.  Because I have a three-hour round trip bus ride every day, I do most of my journaling on the bus.  As hideous as that sounds, it allows me to write nearly every day.  I finished my dissertation on the bus and wrote a good deal of my poetry while riding the bus as well.  Once I start to have an idea what the overall project looks like, I usually switch to the keyboard.  In terms of words, the majority of it is written directly on the computer.  I usually write at coffee shops with music blasting.  I need to have people around me.  For whatever reason, it keeps me motivated.  Ever since college, this has been the way I work.  I have trouble working at home—too quiet, too isolated.  I sometimes—usually when I get a little stuck or I need a change—use a white board as well.  I go from the notebook to the white board to the computer back to the white board, etc.  It is different enough an experience that it helps me get out of my own way.  When I wrote Counting Sheep Till Doomsday and Big Bad Asterisk*, I worked live on Facebook.  Nearly every poem in those two books was once a status update on the Carlo Matos fanpage.  Although people did comment on the pieces, which did influence the poems, the most important part was the medium itself—the way it broke down the poems and the fact that they were always before my eyes—literally live. 


--How do you handle a bad review of your work?


First, I honestly consider throwing the reviewer a beating.  Then, I get very sad.  Then, I come up with all kinds of witty retorts to include in a future essay attacking said reviewer.  Then, I decide I will never write another book again.  A week later I don’t give a shit anymore.  Ok, sometimes it’s two weeks.


--Which writer would you most like to have a drink with, and why?


This is a real challenge.  I really don’t know.  There are so many writers that I admire or envy or worship even, but to meet them for a drink is something else.  This would have to be someone who I could hit it off with, or it would have to be someone who would be a joy to hear talk.  I like the latter idea.  Rather than try and find someone to get really rowdy with, I think I would like to get a drink with one of those polymath guys who could dazzle me with their knowledge of subjects I find fascinating but have only a layman’s understanding of.  I think maybe Richard Powers or Neal Stephenson would be a lot of fun.  Their books are loaded with music, science, math.  That sounds like a fun table to be seated at: Me, Neal Stephenson and Richard Powers.


--What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?


I spent 10 years trying to force a playwriting career that just wouldn’t go because I didn’t want to admit that I had failed.  Well, I failed.  I kept doing it until I hated it so much because I thought that was the only way to achieve success.  But it was a huge mistake and not because I didn’t get what I wanted.  It was a huge mistake because it ruined playwriting for me—and I loved writing plays.  And, what’s worse, it ruined theatre for me too.  I have not been to a play in years and I have no intention of going anytime soon.  I used to see several plays a month, every month.  I literally spent my entire life doing theater.  I did my first play at age 6 and performed all the way through elementary, middle and high school.  One of my majors in college was theater and I spent every spare moment in rehearsals, writing scripts, building puppets and running a theater troupe.  It was the love of my life and I killed it.  Thankfully, it has not killed my zest for writing about theater or teaching the subject.  I hope someday I can go to a play and find that old magic again—the feeling of intense anticipation as the first lights go down.


--What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?


“Write what you know”—for two reasons: 1.  People assume that means write about one’s direct experience.  It’s actually quite difficult to write about yourself with any real perspective.  There are people who do it well, of course, but they are the rarity.  In a culture as self-obsessed as our own, the problem is that self-reflection itself has become something that is far from authentic; meaning, we are constantly being sold watered-down versions of individuality so it makes knowing ourselves actually quite challenging. 2. It makes for a kind of laziness.  If we only write what we know, where is the room for curiosity or discovery?  It could interfere with our need to take chances and learn new things.  I know originally it was probably meant as a way of liberating writers from some academic notion [in the worst sense of the term academic] of what a poem or a short story or a novel could be about, but I think it’s time to shelve this little gem for a while.


--What scares you the most?


When I was a kid, I had this one dream that haunted me.  I was in elementary school.  In the dream, I am in class looking out a window as the teacher reads a book to the class.  Suddenly, in the distance, I see a bright flash.  There is no noise.  Everything is silent.  Then, predictably, a mushroom cloud.  This is what happens when you grow up in the 80s.  I sit in my chair and watch the blast wave make its way to the wall of my school, which has those ridged glass bricks.  They shatter.  Then I taste glass in my mouth.  The rest of the dream is me in the sewers with my brother or sometimes it is a friend or a cousin trying to stay away from the radiation and find clean water.  The entire dream is me, in the sewers looking for water to drink.  Horrible.  As an adult, I have a different apocalyptic vision, but it’s no dream.  I am most afraid of a world where work is utterly reduced to meaningless, repetitive, time-wasting nonsense—where most people can’t even pretend that what they do all day matters.  And worse, in this world, the hours get longer but these absolutely torturous jobs no longer even pay a living wage, never mind a responsible wage.  


--Where do you buy your books?


I used to buy all my books from used book stores because I was poor and because I loved them.  There used to be this place in New Port, RI my friends and I used to love.  We used to ransack those shelves looking for anything that might grab our interest.  We had no program.  We bought only what spoke to us in the moment.  It was a weird little place right next to a Quaker meetinghouse.  The guy who ran it was always reading a book and he never even looked up when we arrived.  We could have taken whatever we wanted and I am sure he couldn’t have cared less.  We didn’t, of course.  That would’ve been unthinkable.  He had a large cat, I remember.  Such places are hard to find these days.  Chicago has some great used book stores, but they are not particularly close to me.  There is, however, this great junk shop that has opened up near me and she has a ton of books.  Most of them are romance novels and crime books, but there are some gems in there—and more to be found,

I’m sure.  But, to be honest, like everyone else, I buy almost all my books on


--Who are you reading now?


At this very moment, I am reading Darrell Kastin.  He has a new book out, a collection of short stories called, The Conjurer and Other Azorean Tales.  But I also just finished Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire and Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2.  You know, that’s a really weird trio of books, but it captures many of my interests: the Azores, medicine [my scholarly book is about the connections between epidemiology and 19th-century drama] and computers/AI.


Bonus Round:


--What do you want the world to know about you? Make it juicy .... 


I have knocked out two guys in a cage, and every guy—but one—who has tasted my right hand has done a little dance even if they didn’t totally go out.  That one guy had a chin of granite.