At the beginning of 2021, Brandon Noel and Matt Mitchell got together to record a video for our interview series. Due to an unfortunate technological moment, we lost the video of the interview between these two writers. Fortunately, the audio remained. Listen to these charismatic writers talk about Northeastern Ohio, inspirations, and more before Matt’s upcoming release of ‘The Neon Hollywood Cowboy’ at Big Lucks. The transcript below captures the interview and has been minimally edited for clarity.
We are thankful to Matt and Brandon for sharing their time with us, and we are ecstatic to present you with this wonderful discussion on the edge of Matt’s book release (preorder here! https://www.biglucks.com/store/matt-mitchell ) Thanks for joining us, and enjoy!
-Madeleine Corley, Managing Editor
Brandon: Three, two, one…
“I watch this on my parents’ DVD player in Ohio and weep neon crucifixed into a reflection, even though I know that it’s not really me-because the girl in the show has no needles caught in her throat, no name other than fixed. My mother hid the episode from me until it became an island spilling onto my lap, after I started living amongst men who consumed my name as if it had not been hollowed out. I admit, I’ve been mistaken for the gender I’m not and responded with what’s that supposed to mean in an exhausted, defensive way. I told my best friend I only have X-chromosomes and he asked if it could be cured. I tell him there have been a million bodies before me, erased.” (Excerpt from “Intersex Boy Watches Episode Seventeen of Freaks and Geeks for the First Time,” a poem in Matt Mitchell’s upcoming book The Neon Hollywood Cowboy)
Brandon: Welcome to the writers’ spotlight of Barren Magazine. We have with us today one of the best poets that I have read in the last several years. He has a new book that is getting ready to come out, and he has been featured previously on Barren Aagazine in Issue Number seven. The name of the book is The Neon Hollywood Cowboy, and the name of the poet is Matt Mitchell. Matt, welcome to the show.
Matt: Thanks for having me, Brandon. Appreciate it. And thank you for saying such nice things. I’m honored.
Brandon: Well, I have to be honest, over the last year, it felt like every week I was getting hit with new Matt Mitchells, new things were coming out and it just kept going and going and going. There was this shadow hanging over all of these releases – the Neon Hollywood Cowboy, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. So the date you actually put it out there, I was excited to talk to you about it and now that I have read it, I can’t wait for people to get it in their hands. So let’s jump right into this.
Brandon: There’s a lot of references in your poetry: John Wayne, Joni Mitchell, Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks. I mean, I could go on and on. You’re kind of an old soul, Matt. I’ve got to know what do you think your fascination is with these eras and figures and pop culture icons that you weren’t alive to experience firsthand? What’s your connection with that?
Matt: Well, I think that the fascination comes a lot from exposure because, yeah, you’re right. I have not lived through 95% of the things I talk about in the book that are references. Like, I obviously have lived through everything that has happened to me,
Brandon: *laughs* Right, we’re not questioning your life experience!
Matt: *laughs* right, this is all fiction! But I’m very pleased to announce that my parents are kind of like old heads. Like they’re very much indebted to the things that they lived through and the things that they grew up with so with radio stations it was always 80s pop or 70s soft rock and then I don’t think I watched a post-1990s movie with my dad until I was like in high school. So I mean, once you are just around these things for so long, they just tend to just seep into the work that you’re creating, and I think that it’s much easier to communicate everything that I’m living through a world that’s already long been established than to try and make some sense of what’s going on right now because it doesn’t necessarily fit, I feel like, with my experience.
Brandon: There’s a lot of sense to that, and I think for two reasons. There’s this great quote by Kierkegaard that, “Life can only be lived forwards but it must be understood backwards.” And as I, like so many poets and writers, have tried to make sense of the last twelve months of the world, I have found it nearly impossible to really write about it. It’s too near where we can’t process it yet. So I think it makes a lot of sense what you’re saying to use iconography, genre, and things that have been understood. There’s been lots written about it so the references are more relatable. I think that makes a lot of sense. The other reason I think your answer is pretty astute is because your parents appear in your poetry a lot, and I think that that connection is kind of important because sometimes negative, or it’s – I don’t want to say negative – but it’s antagonistic or there’s a tension and a struggle. So, to know now, talking to you, how these things, all of this iconography, is something else they handed down to you – not just biological things, but they handed these things down to you and all of these things make you up – is a pretty powerful image and pretty powerful thing.
I want to get to the next question here. In the poem In Which Tyler The Creator Drops ‘Igor’ – did I say that right by the way? Is it EYE-gor or EE-gor..
Matt: *laughs* EE-gor, but..
Brandon: EE-gor, I knew I was going to say it the wrong way. *laughs*
Matt: I’ve heard it said both ways when it comes to the character from Frankenstein, but I’ve only heard it as EE-gor in terms of the album that Tyler The Creator put out.
Brandon: Right, well you follow that up by saying, “and we go get some hot dogs to celebrate.” In the poem you say, “the first day of summer doesn’t come until Jesse, Alex and I hit up this hot dog joint in the next town over.” So I have two questions, very important that are purely born out of my own curiosity. One: is this about the Hot Dog Shop in Warren, Ohio?
Matt: Yes, it is.
Matt: It’s not about Jib-Jab. It’s not about Jib-Jab, okay!
Brandon: Good, I’m not the Jib-Jab guy! I’m the Hot Dog Shop guy.
Matt: I apologize to any non-Northeast Ohio viewers on this interview who are probably like ‘what are these two things’ but I’ve heard too many people say they’re the same. They’re not, but it’s definitely about the Hot Dog Shop. Yeah, it’s a long standing tradition in my family and now with my friends – not so much this year – but sort of around the end of May / early June, we’d all get together and go to the Hot Dog Shop at the beginning of summer and kind of enjoy it.
Brandon: I mean, the Hot Dog Shop is literally three blocks from here. Like I could, if I wanted to, it’s cold out. I mean I love the Hot Dog Shop so when I read this, I was like oh yeah, I know it’s talking about the Hot Dog Shop.
Matt: *laughs* Yeah.
Brandon: Well this leads to my follow-up question which is you often go into such great detail about things, naming people like we just talked about, places across the country that you’ve been to. But you don’t name this one [the Hot Dog Shop]. So my question is: when you’re deciding, in a poem like this one, not to name it and not to specify it, what goes into your decision making? Did you have a version that said Hot Dog Shop and you changed it and, if so, why?
Matt: I mean I could lie and say that it was intentional that I didn’t name drop the Hot Dog Shop, but I can’t, I’m not going to do that. I don’t know – I wrote…So many of these poems, this whole book I should say, is written for me. And it’s written for intersex people in general. But then you get down to it and some of the poems are specifically written for other people. And so I tend to go into so much detail because I want people who are reading it to kind of be able to insert themselves in the poem and understand it. Because I think that a lot of readers…I mean when I’m reading, I’m like, ‘Okay, how am I going to fit myself into this poem? How am I going to relate to it?’ So usually my details are all about the reader because I know what I’m talking about. I can be as vague as I want, and I’ll get it. But this is one of the few poems in the book where it’s just like if the reader understands it, that’s good, but I wrote this for my friends. This poem is mostly a remembrance of a memory, and it hits a little harder because it’s the last one that we’ve had because of COVID, so it’s written for them. And if people are like well, I want to know more about this hot dog place! then I apologize. But the Hot Dog Shop is great.
Brandon: *laughs* I said it was purely my curiosity.
Matt: It’s a great place and I plan on elaborating more on it in future works, hopefully. That’s my goal.
Brandon: Well to go at a little more serious a question: I’ve published two collections of poetry myself and inside each of them I found during the experience that I was shedding something in this book. Like I was burying some particular burden in the pages of it as I was kind of pushing it out the door. So in your own words, how would you name what burden you feel like you’re shedding in this book?
Matt: Well, my gut feeling is I don’t know if there’s necessarily a burden that I’m trying to shed in the book, but I agree with you. I would say that in almost every single book there’s something being taken away – releasing something and moving on. But I think that this book is more of finding self-acceptance and clinging onto it more than losing something. But then again, by losing something you’re gaining something, so I’m trying to shed these like standards about masculinity and I’m trying to shed the way that masculinity and patriarchal types of foundations have been put on me because, I mean, I come from a small family, but it’s mostly, on my dad’s side, it’s almost all men. So manly things are always in my forefront, and I just don’t know how to do those things a lot. And so, this book is kind of me trying to chisel away my own new idea of masculinity, and I think that comes through a little bit in a poem where I specifically referenced my dad having a little bit of trouble understanding that his son has female chromosomes. I think that that is…I get it from his perspective, but it’s also kind of hard. It’s kind of hard to live through that. So I’m trying to find something in this book would be my answer. More than lose something.
Brandon: Well that’s a perfect segue into my second last question. There’s this clear oscillation of identity and gender running through the entire book. That’s clear and you’ve stated it even here, that’s who you’re writing to is this community at large through yourself and your own experiences. So after returning to these themes many many times throughout these poems, wrestling with them the way you do, do you feel like you’ve hit it? That you’ve uncovered it? Or do you think there’s something nagging just beyond that you just haven’t reached just yet?
Matt: Um, a little bit of both, I think. I think what I wanted to accomplish with this book specifically, I definitely nailed it. I got what I wanted out of it and that is understanding a diagnosis. Which I think is the backbone.
Brandon: That’s in your acknowledgements, yeah.
Matt: Yeah, the backbone of this whole book is being diagnosed as intersex officially, and then trying to wrap my brain around what that means for me as a person. So, I mean, I went out, and I went to California, the west coast, for a month in 2019 only maybe a week or two after I’d gotten the official diagnosis. That’s why the book has Hollywood in the title because a lot of the feelings that I was able to figure out about myself came there. And then I came home and I wrote about it. So I think that in terms of what The Neon Hollywood Cowboy is supposed to be, I think I nailed it. But there’s a lot more to figure out. Getting comfortable, being proud of my own body, that’s one hurdle. I think I jumped it, and now I’ve got a couple more hurdles that I got to write about. I mean, I told myself like five months ago when I started putting the finishing touches on this book that this was the only book I’m going to write about this identity, and I’m going to finally pivot back to writing poems about grandparents and like football, for good. And then as I was getting closer to finishing up the manuscript, I realized that’s so unrealistic. I don’t even know why I entertained that idea. So, I got more to do, but I think I nailed it on this book in terms of what I wanted.
Brandon: It reminds me of a very young version of myself when I was in college at Kent State, and I had a professor named Maj Ragain and I was working very hard on a poem about death. I had a family member die, and I was writing about this and I had gone through many revisions, and he said, ‘How many revisions are you going to do with this poem?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I just want this to be my death poem.’ And he just looked at me aghast and was like, ‘You’re singular death poem, that’s it? You’re gonna write death poems for the next thirty years of your life. Just move on, son, just get past it.’ You know, sometimes as poets, we have grandiose feelings – This is the work! This is the opus I’m gonna do! – But ten years from now you’re gonna have ten years of more thoughts about your diagnosis, about the community. So that leads me to my last question which is, what is next for you? Taking a breather? Gonna lay low for a while or just promote or you’ve got something else already on the horizon?
Matt: It’s like a mixture of all that, I would say. Definitely, in terms of my public life, I am doing mostly promoting right now. I am taking a break from submitting work out. I’m gonna try and let my Submittable go dry, which is really hard because you feel like you get down to about eight or nine, and you’re like I gotta submit more. So that’s my attempt. My goal is to let my Submittable hit zero before the end of the year, hopefully. I guess it really depends on how quickly journals respond. But I mean I’m working on the sequel of this book already. I want, I mean it’s my hope, that it comes out next year. I kind of want to do a back-to-back release in the same way that Back To The Future Two and Three came out. So like they both are written around the same time and they come out in consecutive years.
But I found when finishing this book that there was a lot more stuff I want to investigate. I mean, my family is Appalachian. I think we’re six or seven generations deep into Appalachian heritage on my father’s side of the family. And so, I am hoping to investigate masculinity through Appalachia, and also fatherhood, and I’ve been writing a lot of poems about infertility a lot, because I think that that’s something that I touched on a little bit in The Neon Hollywood Cowboy, but I want to talk about it a little bit more in my next book because I’m getting to that age where I’m starting to think about having a family, having children. There are barriers in my life that I have to approach in the next five to ten years of my life. So lots of stuff to analyze, but I’m taking it slow. I’m taking a break, a little bit.
Brandon: Well, Matt, thank you so much for talking with us. It’s been a pleasure. Where can people find more of your work if they were seeking it out?
Matt: So my website domain name is a kind of like a really hard one to remember so if you go to my Twitter page which is @Matt_Mitchell48, and you click on the link in my bio that’ll take you to my temporary website for right now. It’s got some links to my recent work. I’m trying to not have a lot of exposure to the work that has already been published that’s in this book, so people can just read the book, but I’ve got some stuff in Hobart and Sporklit that won’t see the book.
Brandon: You can check out “appalachian gods don’t believe in me” in Barren Magazine. I don’t believe it’s in this book, so if people would like to go back to Issue Seven and check out that piece from our magazine. It is fantastic. I think it’s actually maybe the first or second piece I ever read of yours. It’s kind of one of the pieces that originally drew me to finding out who is this guy? I gotta talk to him, gotta meet him. He seems like a cool kid. I would like to close this out by saying people should go to https://www.biglucks.com/store/matt-mitchell and pre-order your book there!
Matt: Yeah! It is the pre-order, it’s dropping any day now. Could be today, could be tomorrow. I don’t know. We’re moving very close to sending the book to print.
Brandon: Well by the time this episode drops, you should be able to go to https://www.biglucks.com/store/matt-mitchell and hopefully preorder. If not, follow him on Twitter because I’m sure he will be posting it up and down there when that hits the green light. Once again thank you, Matt, and thank you all for tuning in!