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Crafting Boats and Poems

Story by
Nancy Joseph
Matthew Nienow Portrait

Matthew Nienow Media credit: Peter Bonde Becker Nelson

Matthew Nienow (2010) is a 2013 recipient (along with UW alumnus Hannah Sanghee Park) of a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Awarded by the Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine, the fellowship recognizes aspiring poets in the United States. The $15,000 scholarship prize is intended to encourage the further study and writing of poetry and is open to all U.S. poets between 21 and 31 years of age. Nienow earned an MFA in creative writing from the UW and a degree in traditional small craft from the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. His work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, New England Review, Poetry and two editions of the Best New Poets anthology (2007 and 2012). He has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and Artist Trust, among others. He lives in Port Townsend, Washington, where he builds boats and custom wooden paddle boards.

What drew you to poetry initially?

Though I had exposure to the classics in high school, I specifically remember reading William Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark" during my junior year of college [at St. Olaf College] and being knocked sideways by a poem that was at once accessible and mysterious. That was my true entry into the possibilities of Poetry, but my future as a writer began the following year in Eliot Khalil Wilson's class on the elegy. The loss of a young friend, Rilke's "Duino Elegies" and Larry Levis' "Elegy" all collided at the right moment. That, and Wilson's encouragement to take myself seriously enough to submit my work to magazines. Once I started on the road of reading endlessly and offering myself up even in the face of constant rejection, I never turned back. 

Why did you choose the UW's MFA program?

I spent most of my youth in Seattle and had been away for several years. UW's MFA program allowed me both the chance to return home and study with some of the country's best poets.

Have any UW faculty been particularly influential in your life and work?

Well, I'm now neighbors with Rick Kenney in Port Townsend, whose life and work have been incredibly influential to me. Rick's were the most challenging classes I've ever participated in; through his total authenticity in inquiry he earned my immediate respect, which, in part, asked that I push my mind farther than I ever had before. He gave me a new love for Mother Goose, which, as a father of young boys, has been a joy to share. I also love that he is writing poems like no one else I know. Smarter than hell, funny, and full of the substance of the world. And Linda Bierd's workshops were essential to my growth as a poet, both in terms of my own writing and in my ability to articulate my interests and concerns. I would be remiss, though, in failing to mention all of the program's poets: Pimone Tripplet, Andrew Feld, and Heather McHugh. They all had a hand in guiding me during my two years at UW and helping to shape the writer I have become.

What appeals to you, as a writer, about working in this particular literary form? Are there joys and challenges unique to poetry?

Sometimes I'm jealous of novelists. I want to be expansive and full of the stamina required to produce hundreds of pages of brillance. And yet, somehow I find myself honing in on the smallest of details, obsessing over a single word, or a single comma. I do write some prose, but my heart is in poems. I can carry them with me everywhere.

Does your work as a boat builder ever intersect with your work as a poet?

I've always loved making things—from boats to furniture, to songs and poems. When I finished my MFA, I found myself uninterested in pursuing a career of teaching. So I chased another love—boats—and spent a year at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding, where I transformed from a hobby builder to a professional. What I didn't anticipate was how deeply this would influence my writing. I was overtaken by the power of the language of boats, by the pervasive maritime metaphors used everyday in our culture, and by the idea that we wouldn't be here without boats. I resisted it at first, fearing people would see it as a gimmick, but I soon found myself writing about boats and tools, such that I now have the bulk of a book made up of this work. Beyond the specific crossover, I find my life is much more balanced by working outside of academia. I'm still engaged in the culture: I read literary magazines voraciously, I read collections of poems, and novels, and short stories, and I just started working as a writer-in-residence at a small private school in Port Townsend. But the bulk of my day is spent in my shop working with my hands, building and fixing things, and somehow this work, though largely separate from the direct work of writing, has made possible the richest work I've yet written. I just read this great quote by Yusef Komunyakaa, which probably explains what I feel: "The whole thing is that you're first a person before you're a poet, a writer, an artist. And that's the most important. That human connection ties all your artistic endeavors together in some way. The imaginative world has to be linked to human experience." 

What does receiving a Lilly Fellowship mean to you?

Of course, it is an incredible honor. Living in Port Townsend means that most people know me through boat work, or family, and only a handful of people know me as a writer. This award keeps me connected to that larger community elsewhere. It means I might be doing something right, or at least aiming in a good direction. It reminds me to take myself seriously and it reminds me to be patient. I think this was the sixth year I had applied for the fellowship, and the first time I was even a finalist. At one point I was in a rush to publish my work. Though, over the past couple years I have changed that thinking. This award affirms the impulse to slow down and keep my standards high.

If someone wants to explore the world of poetry, are there certain poets you recommend they start with?

Larry Levis is my favorite poet, though probably not the easiest place to begin. Dorianne Laux was really important to me early on, as was B.H. Fairchild and Natasha Trethewey. Dean Young and Bob Hickok are wonderful as well, and a lot of folks would probably enjoy Matthew Dickman's All-American Poem, or Matthew Olzmann's Mezzanines. Jack Gilbert is one of my all time favorites too. Erin Belieu is a sharp one. Natalie Diaz's When My Brother Was and Aztec. Eduardo C. Corral's Slow Lightning. And be on the lookout for Tarfia Faizullah's Seam next year, which is going to be a great book. I could go on and on. Below, Matthew Nienow shares one of his poems, "It's the Boat That Haunts You." The poem was published in the New England Review.

It's the Boat That Haunts You

And so it is, the boat has come to own you,
has learned to speak a language you cannot help

but agree with, its voice the dark lapping
of water against the hull, its song the wind

in the stays while you sleep, dreaming of a bowsprit
to hold you against the waves, and the boat

curls golden bracelets of cedar
around your wrists as you plane each

plank, its touch the dream of a body becoming
whole—to make the shape, to be shaped—and the boat

says please, says the honed edge
against clear grain is my small prayer to your devotion.

May you forget your life, may you
always be close.

To read more of Matthew Nienow's work, visit his webpage at matthewnienow.com.