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Clay Matthews


Clay Matthews

The black dog next door opens his big mouth.
Sometimes I get drunk and say too much. We
circle the yard and bark. We head down south
and test the leash. It's that time of the sea-
son where we all get itchy. How come May?
How come that trill at the end of the bird's
song? Chain link. Divvy up the loot, and, hey,
I'll meet you this side of Texas, yessir,
next year. A small tail walks down the street and
everything goes crazy. The wind, the loud
thunder that split my dream last night, and ran
me ragged in two directions. I howled
in one. In the other, I walked the black
road. Fences everywhere. Then I came back.


Mental Aerobics

The morning paper, and my neck is fucked
from sleeping wrong. I can't get this crossword
right. 29 Down: ___________ of the old blanked
blankety-blank. Late last night the stars heard
this rumor from this planet about how
things would shake down today. It goes like this:
If you want change, there is no time like now.
I don't know what I want. Some eggs. A kiss
from the woman in the other room. Health.
I am sick. Not well. But it is spring and
so thank you for the flowers. A word with
four letters, beginning with "L." A wand
I can wave around to make the answers
appear: last, lost, long, love-yeah, that one, sure.



Thirty at last and I now find myself
wondering how I got here: heavier
and in love, the dog pacing, a bookshelf
with thousands of words I've forgotten. Sure,
I'm alive and happy, but it is strange
to be an age, strange to be an older
thing getting older. I remember change
was something I wanted. I remember
asking for facial hair, and it came here
to this strange topography of body,
but now I ask it to leave, go back where
you came from, when I was softer, slowly
becoming me, and do I love what is
me, gone, to come, what then, what now, what this.


                              -from Pretty, Rooster


Clay Matthews earned at Ph.D. in English from Oklahoma State University in 2008. He has holds an M.A. in English and a B.A. in English, both from Southeast Missouri State University.

Clay Matthews is the author of three books: Pretty, Rooster (Cooper Dillion, 2010), RUNOFF (BlazeVOX Books, 2009), and Superfecta (Ghost Road Press, 2008.) He has published individual poems in over fifty literary journals, including The American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, The Brooklyn Review, New Orleans Review, Pilot, RealPoetik, and Verse Daily.

Clay Matthews has earned numerous honors for Creative Writing, including winning the Academy of American Poets Prize in 2005, being named a Finalist of the Burnside Review's 3rd Annual Fiction Chapbook Contest for The Pony Express, in 2009, and winning the Marye Lynn Cummings Endowed Scholarship at Oklahoma State University in 2006.

He has been a featured reader at the University of Tulsa, the University of Central Oklahoma, Cameron University, and Oklahoma State University.


I'll Hang Around as Long as You Will Let Me by Clay Matthews, first published at Atticus Review

I think about windows. Roads lit by a streetlight going on and off. The railroad tracks. These things follow me wherever I go: Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee. They’re like pick-up trucks and grain elevators and old barns. Place to me is perspective. Where I am is what I see, and that “where” is hugely expansive and complicated and not.

Less than a block from the house I live in now is a train track. The town I grew up in, Sikeston, MO, had a train track that divided (and pretty much segregated) the city. The townspeople called the part of town on the other side of the tracks “Sunset.” There’s a similar division here in Greeneville, TN, but it’s more about social class than race. We live on the poor side of the tracks. I think a lot about trains and tracks. They populate my poems like liquor, coffee, and birds do.

My daughter used to love to watch the trains go by when she was younger. She doesn’t as much any more, even though I call her over all the time when one’s coming by. I’ve had friends hit by trains—one who damn near lost an arm playing chicken. I read my daughter stories about trains as courageous little blue things. We watch Thomas on the television sometimes; we bought her a track last year for Christmas.

Ford Madox Ford wrote that impressionism was like looking out a window and seeing a landscape, but you also see your reflection in the glass, which turns out not to really be your reflection but the face of someone behind you. I’ve always thought he was looking out a train window there, but my memory is foggy. Place for me is that place: a window, a reflection, movement, a train—something that I’m not getting quite right.

Out my window right now I can see the mountains. They used to make me claustrophobic as someone who grew up at the flat top tip of the Mississippi delta and who has also spent a good deal of time looking out at the long rolling expanse of Oklahoma. I couldn’t see past the mountains, and I always wondered what was going on over there on the other side. Now I can feel how deep they are, how far back they go. Now I know what’s on the other side, and beyond that, and then the ocean far away somewhere.

I carry all of these places with me all the time. I’m always caught between what I’m dragging around in my head and this other “thing-ness” of a place—the feeling of its people, its roads, its food and the songs its people hum when they don’t realize anyone is listening.

If I think of a window I always think of a road outside that window. If I think of a road I think of a map—my own geography. I think of my father and mother in Southeast Missouri—all the interstates that run from here to there and out from there—I-81, I-40, I-55. I think of how straight the section line roads back home are, how winding the mountain roads are.

I used to be terrified to drive a crooked road. Now I get a special kind of pleasure making the people riding with me a little bit nervous. Once I catch them grabbing on to something, I feel like I’ve done something right. I think of the snow in northern New Hampshire and Vermont where my wife grew up. I wonder what the mountains will mean to my daughter. I think about the Mississippi river, the house in Alabama on the gulf my family rents for vacation. I wonder what the water means to all of us.

I feel like this essay is all over the place. I guess that gets it right, though—I am all over the place. But I’m here, too. At the computer. And my daughter is asking my wife for something to eat, and I can hear that perfect sound a toaster makes going down. It’s always right here and now, after all, but that’s not right either because I’m also with my father looking at a white Ford three-quarter ton truck he traded for today and texted me a picture of. I’m with so many of you from one moment to the next.

My daughter and I took a walk downtown this morning with the dog. We kept finding balloons everywhere—it was surreal. She kept a green one because it’s my wife’s favorite color. We both wore sock hats, and I don’t remember ever looking at our reflections in the store windows. But we were all held there for a while in the glass as we passed—I’ve seen it before. Then another train came through. We ate biscuits on a little bench.

Looking back, we’re always right where I remember.


Click here to read a review of Pretty, Rooster at Publishers Weekly


An Interview with Clay Matthews by Lea Graham, first published at Atticus Review

Lea Graham: One of the things that I admire about your work is its attention to the shiftiness of experience and perception.  Trains come and go.  Roads are lit then unlit by street lamps.  Voices from the kitchen drift in and out of earshot.  The mountains obstruct and enclose, then they inform and suggest.  What you see from the window isn’t outside, but your own reflection.  No—it’s the reflection of the person standing behind you.  Can you talk more about place as something that you’re “not getting quite right.”

Clay Matthews: I’m not an especially moody person on the outside, but from one day to the next I’m all over the place. I think place is a sort of faith, because in many ways to identify with a place, or people—to be a person—is absolutely absurd. Some days I can easily forgive. Some days I hold a grudge. Some days I’m at peace with the past and future. Other days I can’t stop wanting for some big thing to happen.

I think, for me, place reflects all of those things. I love working on our home—odd little projects—because I have this image in my mind of how to make this house the perfect house for us. Then, I’ll be out taking a walk, and see another house, and wish mine was more like theirs. I scroll through new listings on real estate websites all the time, waiting for some place/house to speak to me, to “claim” me as it were. 

I’ve never felt perfectly at home anywhere in my adult life. My homes have felt like stops on a road to some perfect home in the future. Same for my towns. And I never know if this is me being unsatisfied or greedy, or if there is really a place for me, us, out there somewhere—the one we’ve been looking for. I know somehow I’m not getting it right one way or the other, but I don’t really know which. So, I keep trying. I like place because it keeps that search alive in me—place keeps me curious, ambivalent, hopeful, and moody.

LG: You’ve moved around the South and Midwest.  Talk a bit about where you’ve lived and how those places overlap (through trains and tracks, etc.), but also how they are places that are specific or even isolated in your memory and imagination.  Do you remember when place became a central (and peripheral) concern for you as a writer? 

CM: I hadn’t thought much about place until I moved to Oklahoma. That distance from “home,” as it were, allowed me to reflect more on the role of place in my work. I grew up about fifteen minutes from the Mississippi river, and when I lived in Cape Girardeau, going to school, my apartment was just a few blocks away. I used to walk down every morning and watch the barges go by, and watch this new bridge going up. It was one of the last (if not the last) suspension bridges built in America. It was amazing, and my writing was often preoccupied with that water, or with Sikeston, MO, where I grew up.

Oklahoma had always held a kind of mythological place in my mind. When we were kids, my brother and I traveled there with my father for the Timed Event World Championships at the Lazy E arena. We didn’t travel out of state much as kids (we were a family of six kids), and that trip was just “the guys.” So, years later, when I moved to Oklahoma, I came with this idea of the west, and of guys, and of fathers and sons. My poems quickly stopped being about rivers, and became more about rolling hills, livestock, old men, horse racing (I frequented Remington Park in Oklahoma City). 

Some writers write about one place all of their lives. I admire that—the way that place never leaves them. I come back to Southeast MO in my writing often. But, mostly, place is what’s right outside my window, and that’s something I learned was part of my aesthetic in Oklahoma. When I moved to East TN, my poems were suddenly populated by mountains and rhododendron. Landscape places me—it tells me where I am, where I’m not, which way’s north and which way’s south. My place is usually the place of the present. I tend toward the sentimental naturally, and when I write about places from years ago, I have difficulty being (and feeling) honest. So, I write from where I am. Right now, that’s in my office, the mountains outside my window, an abandoned house next door, the television in the next room playing some children’s show about a dragon and girl that ride a magic bus across the universe.

LG: I love the title of your essay for its use of the Steve Goodman and John Prine song, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (most known, I think, through the David Allen Coe recording?)  Talk a bit about the intersection between song and place for you.  How does overhearing “songs …people hum when they don’t realize anyone is listening” give place and keep time for you? 

CM: Thanks—I love that song, too. John Prine is a personal hero. I think, often, I feel a place most in its music—the music the people claim as their own. In the bootheel of Missouri, we claimed the music from Memphis and Northeast Arkansas as part of our own—the blues and Sun records, from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash.

In Oklahoma, I became more and more interested in the legends of the Oklahoma music scene. J.J. Cale was on repeat. I used to watch shows at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa. I saw Leon Russell play his birthday bash over there. Bob Wills used to play that venue, and it was one of the last places the Sex Pistols played. I claimed classic country and Texas swing. There was a big dance hall just down the road from my house where people two-stepped in their pressed Wranglers. 

East TN is the land of bluegrass. When we first moved here, we used to walk to downtown Jonesborough, where they had free concerts every weekend—they’d shut Main Street down and just play music. You can walk into almost any little country store in East TN on a Thursday or Friday night and find a band playing, standing room only. Americana is also big in the area. We try to go to the Rhythm & Roots festival in Bristol every year, and Asheville is only an hour away.

The music gives me some heartbeat of a place. But I carry it with me, too. The classic rock stations never change—only the name and number on the dial. Some days, I’ll hear some old Tom Petty song and I’m fifteen again. Music carries space and time for me, and so in that way it always also holds a place in language and sound. 

LG: Your poems include materials from the natural world (honeysuckle, the ornamental peach tree), alongside the human-created: bits of spoken conversation, the “dope needle in the brush pile” and the sound of someone “laying on their horn.”  Talk about the energy of these materials for you.  What usually catches your imagination in the beginning of writing a poem?

CM: I get caught by images that work in levels. I become fascinated by them—a gum wrapper becomes a metaphor for all the workings of the self. When I was in high school, I always loved that Tennyson poem about the flower in the crannied wall, that ends: “Little flower—but if I could understand / What you are, root and all, and all in all, / I should know what God and man is.” Materials are reflections for me—they let me see something about myself, or try to.

Take honeysuckle, for instance. It’s wild, strong, and specifically fragrant in time and place. I have memories of my mother teaching me how to suck the honey out, of me teaching my daughter, and then of me showing my mother my new technique. It’s summer. It’s present and mosquitoes, or it’s nostalgia. The fragrance, like the name, is delicate in memory, but overbearing in reality sometimes. It’s just right. And when it’s there, it’s everywhere.

Even garbage is interesting to me. People drive out here to the mountains to dump things—but it’s not a short stretch of road. I look at this washing machine in the middle of nowhere, and wonder what it did to somebody, or what they were feeling that day, to drive all the way out to where they were, and let it loose off the side of a ravine. I wonder the weight they felt lifted when it tumbled down there. I wonder if they feel bad about it sometimes, if they drive that road again and try to ignore it but can’t.

If all language is metaphor, then all things are, too. And if knowledge comes mostly (or perhaps only) through language, then these things have something to offer us. The birds as a whole and the one mockingbird on the neighbor’s roof. The starlings moving out of town as a river in the sky. There’s something beautiful in all of it if I can just learn to see it right.


Click here to read an interview with Clay Matthews at The Kenyon Review

Click here to buy Pretty, Rooster

Clay Matthews

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