The Daily Tar Heel

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Monday May 16th

Q&A with Kenan Visiting Writer, Matthew Olzmann

Each year, the creative writing program in the UNC Department of English & Comparative Literature selects someone to be the Kenan Visiting Writer. For the 2015-16 year, the department chose writer Matthew Olzmann. Olzmann will read this afternoon at New West to students, faculty and graduates. Staff writer Rashaan Ayesh spoke to him about his writing, his inspirations and his time at UNC so far.

The Daily Tar Heel: What can you tell me about Kenan Visiting Writers?


Time: Today, 3:30 p.m.

Location: New West, Dialectic Chamber

More info:

Matthew Olzmann: So the Kenan Visiting Writer, the position I have, is a one-year visiting position where you come in here and you teach one class per semester. And I think the goal is they hope you will write your next book here, and they give you a lot of time to write. There is not a lot beyond teaching and writing that is expected of the Kenan Writer to do beyond a public reading, which I’m doing tomorrow. Mostly a poetry reading.

DTH: What has your experience, so far, at UNC been like?

MO: It’s been great. I’ve got great colleagues. People in the English department and writing program — they are all really smart and generous with their time. Very supportive of each other. The students are engaged and fun to talk to. As a professor you can’t really ask for more than that.

DTH: How did you start writing?

MO: I started writing probably late in high school, just something sort of like a journal but trying to shape things more creative and trying to shape something more into a piece of art. Not always just this random spilling of anything that you might put in a diary. I think I started that approach because in the moment when I am talking to someone, such as like right now, I often don’t have the right words.

But then later, I think of things I wish I had said or could’ve said better. So I just started writing things down. Maybe they resembled unmailed letters, things you wish you said to someone but didn’t, period. Or something you said to someone you could’ve said better. Also, I started writing poetry and stories and essays.

DTH: Tell me about your first published poem.

MO: I had maybe three things accepted at almost the same time, so the first letter of acceptance I got was maybe Main Street Rag, which is actually out of North Carolina, and I’m from Michigan. And I saw some poems in it that I liked, so I sent to them, but I also had poems accepted by the Atlanta Review and the Rattle around the same time. I think the Atlanta Review was the first one to publish one of my poems. It might not have been the first letter of acceptance I got, but the first one I actually saw in an actual magazine, and it was a poem called “Even Now, My Father Still Resembles Beowulf,” and it was in the Atlanta Review. It was when I was an undergrad in college. It was the second time. I stopped going to college and went back in like six years so I was in my mid to late 20s. 

DTH: What is your writing process like?

MO: I’m usually revising five or six things at a time and I shuffle between them. As for generating new work, I try to write a little bit every day and maybe at the end of the month, I’ll look back at what I’ve written over the month and see what I am still interested in. So part of the process is knowing what to discard and pursue in revision, so it involves writing a lot of stuff with the knowledge that I might not return to it. Then going back and picking a handful of them and reversing them constantly. 

DTH: Where do you draw some of your inspiration from?

MO: I try not to rely too much on inspiration. I sit down and I write and I might not have any idea of what I’m going to write. I just like that process of, just for itself. Some of my ideas are things around me in the world that make me stop, make me ask a question and make me say, "What if?" A lot of my poems will begin with a question.

DTH: What advice would you give to young poets?

MO: I think the most important thing for anyone who wants to be a writer is to read a lot. And probably for several reasons, the more poems you read, the more approaches you become exposed to. The more strategies for developing a poem you will witness. Training yourself to read as a writer. To look at a poem and say and see what it is about that particular poem of what is it that produces those effects and how can you apply it to your own writing.


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