Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reflections on Matthews

I am so pleased that Jeanie Thompson, the poet who serves as Executive Director of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, allowed me to let fly with an amplification of my November lecture at Spalding University (I teach poetry and fiction in the brief residency MFA program there). The amplified piece appears in First Draft, the great magazine of the Forum edited by the estimable Danny Gamble (a toast to both Jeanie and Danny). Last summer, I wrote a friendly overview of the work of David Huddle for the Southern Review, Huddle being a friend and mentor since 1991 when I met him at Bread Loaf after years of admiring his work from afar. The piece in First Draft, entitled “Deep Image, Humor, and the Poetry of William Matthews," observes my modest little friendship and connection with Matthews, who died a day or so after his 55th birthday in November of 1997.

You can read First Draft, including my article, at

and how can you resist!

Both the Spalding lecture and this retrospective of mine in First Draft are the results of a long mood of remembrance many of us have been in since the 10th anniversary of Bill’s death, which was in November of 2007. Back in February of 1997, working at that time in a consulting firm in Longwood, I coordinated with UCF to bring him to Orlando to read. He read at UCF on February 13th, 1997, and stayed at the Holiday Inn across the street from the main entrance. I joined him for breakfast the day after the reading and to give him a ride to the airport – he was in a rush to get back to Celia on Valentine’s Day. His book Time and Money had won a big award, the Ruth Lilly Award, as well as the New York Critics Circle Award, and he appeared to be getting the recognition we all thought he’d deserved for a number of years. He was tired, but he was happy, and at the reading he was funny and generous. As we sat there at breakfast eating fruit and cereal and talking, he had almost exactly nine months to live. We can never know these things.

“I think there might be a Pulitzer in Time and Money,” I told him.

“No,” he said. “Helen (Vendler, the influential poetry critic through whom one must go to the Pulitzer, or at least such was the case at the time) doesn’t like people like me.”

Isn’t that a wild statement?

After that, in August of ‘97, we traded notes. He was just back from Israel and, I think, Prague, and that was entirely too much travel for a man in his condition. He and Celia were scoping out a house to buy. The September before, 1996, he’d had surgery for serious vascular problems, probably shouldn't have come to Orlando the following February. So in that next August I wrote and asked him how he was doing. He wrote back, very quickly, “I suppose you mean by that have I quit smoking.” It was a funny, faux cranky remark, seriously funny. I say how can we ever know what's ahead, but I've always thought if anyone knew it was Bill himself. The evidence was piling up in his interior life, I imagine, after that big surgery, though he wouldn't have been likely to mention it. (to be continued)


  1. Thanks, Phil, for posting First Draft and talking about your process of writing the article for us. Writers telling how writers influence them is part of the important dialogue. Bill would've loved the fact that we are all consipiring to keep him going through this medium. He would've laughed a lot. He would've dug it ultimately and fundamentally. I hope that whereever he is, he is finding a way to chuckle over this-- his friends talking about him, and resurrecting his wonderful poems. I know he is happy to find us talking about poetry through him, and he's backing up, holding up a hand, saying, "Hey, it's really not about me...after all."

  2. I'm looking forward to reading your article, Phil. I was at the Matthews tribute at AWP several years ago in Chicago and bought "After All: Last Poems." I admit I found the poems dismal..."We all drink from a leaking cup," for example. But I suppose the truth of living is its ephemeral essence, which one can yes view as dismal. Why is it that the ephemeral doesn't make us joyful? I'll read and learn from you, as I always do, but I have a feeling that your breakfast with Matthews did indeed bring him a bit of joy...however ephemeral.

  3. looking forward to reading the article on Matthews, but also want to comment on "Basic Training" as I am currently reading Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED and think it is necessary for us to remember how deeply war affects more than one generation. I fear that the average 22 year old today does not "get it", which makes it more important than ever for them to read poems such as "Basic Training". Be sure to let us know where this is published.