Continued Journeys: An Interview With Matt Mitchell

J.B. Stone

Grown Ocean by Matt Mitchell
Word West, 2021

Following the success of The Neon Hollywood Cowboy (Big Lucks, 2020), published just last summer, Matt Mitchell’s second poetry collection, Grown Ocean (Word West 2021), once again, captures the imaginative infrastructure of journey through the self. Mitchell’s poetics aim to redefine the love poem, and bringing meaning to the most unexpected characters in human experience. 


There are no titles in most of Grown Ocean, just seemingly one fifty page epic, a journey through the observations of a dying world, and two lovers finding themselves in a better space on the other side. The use of imagery is so unique to Mitchell’s voice, one portraying an unfettered honesty of the world at large for all it’s been, all it is now, and all it’ll ever be. Whether such honest imagery falls under beauty, or brutality, simultaneously, both play a necessary role, shaping the context of Grown Ocean. 


Michell’s work is able to move into the future without leaving the past behind, and by doing so, he effectively brings more meaning to every reference used. Every name brought into Mitchell’s poetic free-verse, isn’t a prop, not a background character, but a vital component to the context. 


It was on this cooled, but sunny October afternoon, with Coke Zero and cold-brewed coffee zipping through my blood stream, I spoke with Matt, on the moments that led to his second collection and the moments that still find themselves in the planning stages.

JBS: It’s always a pleasure to have this chance and speak with you, so, I’ll get started! I noticed at the end of Grown Ocean, under the acknowledgments page, you credited a Fleet Foxes song as the inspiration for the title. Is there a particular story behind that?


MM: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lyric, “children grown on the edge of the ocean,” in the first verse of that song, and it’s one of my favorites. The whole collection itself is about a separation from a loved one by being on different continents, separated by oceans, and us both at opposite edges. And by the time we were back in each other’s arms, we’re different people, but in a good way!


JBS: I can definitely see that particular narrative unfold throughout your work! One set of lines which I particularly loved: After 3 consecutive episodes, Netflix asks me / if Jason Bateman and I are still enjoying the coo / of this specific heaven—where we are nothing / but paid-off mortgages floating around cars / in rush hour traffic. I say yes and pull Jason Bateman in real close just so I can study his perfectly-symmetrical face. I remember reading this poem in HAD (Hobart After Dark), and the idea of lending meaning to something that might seem so meaningless. The whole Netflix question that pops up mid-binge Are you still watching? is seen, at least from my own personal experiences, as an inconvenience, but you just give this annoying feature, so much depth, more depth than it was designed to have. It’s a pattern I see so much in your work. The attempts at creating whatever personal heavens we can for ourselves, even out of something so insignificant. Is this also meant as a way to find self-love in a dysfunctional world? By lending this meaning, and creating something to hold out of this?


MM: I think there’s as much self-love in the book as there is love for others. Being co-dependent is great and I love having people to lean on, but earning a new sense of independence and trust in my own personhood has also taught me that I do have this capability to make it through stuff by myself. All of it gives me a new appreciation for the give-and-go of emotional space. Who you give it to, how much you keep for yourself. It’s a balance that I’ve loved figuring out.


JBS: It’s definitely something worth figuring out! You mention the trust in your personhood and the importance of those reminders. I have also noticed the similarities in personhood between your debut full length collection of poetry The Neon Hollywood Cowboy and in the second collection. I also know you mentioned how some of these poems were originally cuts from tNHC. Would you say there is difference in how that trust in personhood is conveyed?


MM: Definitely. In tNHC, the work was about me, about what I was going through personally. Whereas in Grown Ocean, the focus is titled a bit onto the people I shared that period of time with. Both books could’ve been put out together, but I felt like before I could talk about everyone else in their adjacencies, I had to first understand what I was going through. I still don’t fully get what all of this is about, with me being intersex, because I’m still learning about it myself and always will be, but I do feel much safer about who’s in proximity to me during all of it.


JBS: I am always glad to read you’re in safer and better space. So in a way would you say, Grown Ocean is also a continuation of tNHC, since you’ll always be learning about yourself?


MM: Grown Ocean is a continued journey in the most literal sense, because most of the poems were going to originally be in tNHC. But I cut them when I realized that they deserve their own space away from what the final cut of tNHC became. But a good author always learns something new from the work they make, so metaphorically it’s a continuation just through creative default. And also to the extent that I will probably always be tapping back into the creative place that these poems came from.


JBS: Agreed, that’s one of the things about a particular style, or particular voice of a particular author, one of the maybe the key traits in developing a distinct voice and style in literature is not leaving one’s past in the dust, but carrying it with them throughout their literary journey, present, and future included. I also wanted to touch base real quick about your meteoric rise as a cultural critic, from your essay on the personal importance of “Freaks and Geeks” out in Lithub, to your music reviews which have been published in spaces like Paste Magazine, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, Flood, etc. I definitely can see the connection between your essays and poetry. As we already discussed about the influence of Fleet Foxes lyrics’ on your second book’s title. Would you say you can see the connection between your essays and your poetry, especially in Grown Ocean?


MM: Yeah, of course. I’ve been writing more essays lately because they’re essentially just long poems. I love poetry for how I can be as vulnerable as I am curious. But with essay work, I’m able to go down as many rabbit holes as I need while keeping a lot of the lyrical voice I use in poetry. That being said, sometimes my poem brain turns on too much and I end up writing some way too abstract things in an essay and editors are like, “What the fuck does this mean?” But, for the most part, I’m able to separate the two mediums while, at the same time, letting them feed off of each other. The mission for both poetry and essays is the same: being violently curious and unafraid to unlock certain parts of yourself in the process. This is also just to say that poetry has made me a better essayist, and vice-versa.


JBS: Getting back specifically to the work itself, I noticed at the end of Grown Ocean, the only poem that has a title, “Felina.” In what way do you think this poem serves as the perfect conclusion to Grown Ocean?


MM: There are a lot of layered nods in that one, which is probably why it’s my favorite poem. “Felina” is the name of the love interest in Marty Robbin’s “El Paso,” and the song is about him returning to her. “Felina” is also an anagram for “finale.” It’s also the title of Breaking Bad’s finale episode, which is a show my partner and I watched together before and in quarantine. It’s the logical conclusion to the chapter because it’s a “this is where I come from and this is where we’re going” kind of deal. No one knows how, but it’s kind of a setup for the next book, which will be out Fall 2022. I like the idea of end poems setting up the gist of what comes next, “Felina” was the one that made the most sense.