by Gina Myers

There are few conversations I've had, if any, that have jumped from discussing early 20th century avant-garde movements to the guitar playing of Black Flag's Greg Ginn in a matter of seconds, but that is precisely what happened when interviewing Matt Hart in advance of his visit to Saginaw. The poet and musician will be here on Friday, March 26th, to read his work at Court Street Gallery's Last Friday event, though for those who have seen him read before, they know "read" is not quite the right verb to describe the occasion.

Hart's range of influences is hard to pin down, and it was during this part of the conversation where the leap from Dada to punk rock took place. Hart has "a crush" on the Romantics, especially Coleridge, Keats and Clare, crediting their "emotional exuberance, their fits and starts, their self-making and negation, as well as their exclamatory daily-ness" as being important to his own work. He says the "deliberate recklessness and automatism, as well as the process-oriented modes of proceeding" are what excite him about the early 20th century avant-garde, especially Apollinaire, the Dadaists and Surrealists. Further, he cites the Beats, especially Gregory Corso, and the 1st- and 2nd-generation New York School Poets, especially Kenneth Koch and Ted Berrigan, as being central to his work. And then comes the music: "The angularity of Greg Ginn's guitar playing has been hugely important—the cacophony, the dissonance, so many wrong notes at exactly the right time. Sonic Youth, too. And more recently The Blood Brothers, who wrote the craziest songs—really amazing lyrics and song structures are just nuts." For those who have not yet seen Hart read before, perhaps the picture is becoming a little clearer now. The emotional exuberance of the Romantics is certainly there, and Hart likens his reading style to being a little more like singing.

That's a poem?

Hart began writing poetry as an undergrad at Ball State University where he was studying philosophy. He had been playing in bands since he was fifteen, and he wanted to learn to write better lyrics, so he signed up for a poetry writing workshop with Tom Koontz. It was there that he met some grad students who kept giving him different books to read. The grad students, who referred to themselves as "The Smaller Midwestern Poets," hosted a reading where one of them read Etheridge Knight's "Feeling Fucked Up." Hart recalls, "I remember sitting there thinking, 'That's a poem? Because if it is, I get that.' And, of course, it was/is a poem—a great one—a litany of expletives which turns out to be a love letter. I've been writing ever since."

He continued to study philosophy and completed the course work for a Master of Arts degree in it, but he was eventually "cured" of philosophy and left the program to play music full time. Hart does have a Master of Fine Arts degree from Warren Wilson College, where he studied with Dean Young, Heather McHugh and Stuart Dischell.

In 1993, a high school friend, Mass Giorgini, who produced Screeching Weasel, The Queers, Anti-Flag, and many other bands, asked Hart to sing for Squirtgun, a pop-punk band. They released three full-length records, two on Lookout and one on a subsidiary of FAT, along with numerous 7 inches and compilation tracks. In 2009, Squirtgun released a live album and went on a final European tour before calling it quits. During their time together, they had videos on MTV and saw their songs featured in major motion pictures, including Kevin Smith's Mall Rats.

Hart was also a member of Travel, a collage/noise band that he founded with Chicago-based musician, playwright and novelist Darren Callahan in 1998. Eric Appleby and Kelly Morelock were also in Travel, and they released ten full-length albums over the next ten years, with Mike Vallera also appearing on a number of the albums. Though Travel disbanded in 2009, Hart likens making records with that band as "a fairly pure experience." He says, "[It was] not all clouded with egos, or record deals, or touring, or sales, or any of the other crap that goes along with playing in a band. We released ten records, and I don't think I ever sold a single one, though I gave tons of them away. In that way, it's a lot like poetry. I'm always amazed when someone's heard Travel, and I still have the same experience when someone says they've read my poems."

Hart, currently bandless, thinks the music chapter of his life is behind him, though he says he will return for one thing: "[If] The Blood Brothers reform and ask me to take Jordan Billie's place." He is grateful for the role that music has played in making him who he is and he still loves listening to it, but he finds that poetry now fills the space that songwriting and playing music used to. "The biggest difference for me between songwriting and poetry is that in songwriting the music accompanies the words, and in poetry the music is the words. Poetry is music, but music isn't necessarily poetry or even poetic." Additionally, he finds touring for poetry to be a lot different than touring with a band: "Poetry tours are a lot more civilized. I mean, the whole time Nate [Pritts] and I were out, not a single person spit at or heckled us. It was idyllic; the difference is vast, like the difference between a dumptruck and a nightingale." He adds, "Also, I don't have to carry any amplifiers."

"What a blast is life"

Hart, who is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Who's Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006) and YOU ARE MIST (Moor Books, 2009), currently teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Teaching and writing go hand-in-hand for him. "When I am teaching well, and a lot, I am writing well, and a lot—and vice versa. One feeds the other." Hart explains, "I am lucky to teach at an art school. My students are fearless. They'll say just about anything just to see what will happen. And my colleagues are all dedicated artists. It's very inspiring and energizing."

Add family to the mix, and there never seems to be a dull moment for Hart, though he never has trouble finding time to write. He currently has four manuscripts "in various states of disarray." Later this month, The Hours, a chapbook, will be published by Cinematheque Press, and in April, Late Makeup Years and Decline (1979-1983), a collaborative book with Dobby Gibson, will be published by Hell Yes! Press. Also in April, Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety, an independent publication he has edited with Eric Appleby since 1995, will be releasing its 22nd issue as well as publishing poetry chapbooks by Abraham Smith and Chad Sweeney and a poetry cookbook by Melissa Barrett.

This summer Hart will be joining a delegation of emerging American writers to China as part of a program sponsored by the University of Iowa's International Writing Program and the U.S. State Department. While there, he will meet with five ethnic Chinese writers for discussion, collaborations and readings.

At the end of the interview, Hart deftly sums up everything—the exuberance, the experiences, the future: "What a blast is life."

Matt Hart will be reading with Matthew Falk and Nate Pritts this Friday, March 26th, at Court Street Gallery (414 Court Street, Saginaw). The event starts at 7 p.m. with music by Mike Galbraith. Cost is $3.00. For more information on Court Street Gallery's Last Friday event, visit http://courtstgallery.com.

© Gina Myers, 2010