I'm pleased to welcome Matthew Gavin Frank to Michigander Monday!
Debbie: Matthew, please tell us a little about yourself.
Matthew: I grew up in Buffalo Grove, Illinois on the outskirts of Chicago. I left home at 17, embraced a vagabond lifestyle that lent itself to restaurant work. I was a spry young man when I was flipping eggs at the Channel Bowl Cafe in Juneau, Alaska, plopping them onto plates alongside reindeer sausage. I don’t think my aged forearms could take so much spatula-handling these days. I was offered work through some serpentine channels picking wine grapes and mopping cantina floors in Barolo, Italy, in the Piedmont region. I lived there for six months out of a tent, using the shower in a local farmhouse. I was paid in food and wine. Key West followed. I remember this as a blur of restaurant work, booze, drugs, kayaking into mangroves, getting attacked by overprotective motherly ospreys, and meeting my wife in a Latin jazz bar at 3:00am over too many of perhaps my least favorite drink in the world—mudslides. We then traveled to New Mexico together where I worked for a chef whose food Julia Roberts loved (she lived on a ranch on the outskirts of town). Through him, I got hooked up designing menus for her private parties. I dealt mostly with her “people.” I remember that her husband was pathologically nice. I remember her eating a lot of salad, never the dishes I came up with. After that, I shoehorned grad. school at Arizona State University into the mix, then returned to Chicago for a year to help my family through my mother’s battle with cancer. It was toward the tail-end of her battle (which she won) that my wife and I lit out for a medical marijuana farm in Northern California, believing that it would help us to regain our sanctuary and identity as “married couple in love.” I’m not sure what we were thinking. I’m now teaching at Northern Michigan University, and editing for the literary journal, Passages North. I’m still struggling to turn smoked whitefish into a palatable ice cream.
Debbie: And, of course, we want to know all about your books.
Matthew: Many of these misadventures have served as fodder for my writing. I’ve written two books of nonfiction—Pot Farm (a behind-the-scenes exposé about the goings-on on the medical marijuana farm) and Barolol (about my work in the Italian Piemontese food and wine industry)—and three book of poetry—Saggitarius Agitprop, Warranty in Zulu, and The Morrow Plots, the latter of which is forthcoming. When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the badass winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus that, upon researching old newspaper articles, I found were often the site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. It’s now a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy, consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-In Volcano that winter.
Debbie: Other books or projects on the horizon?
Matthew: Yes. It’s a book-length single lyric essay dealing with Newfoundland Reverend Moses Harvey, the guy who secured and photographed, for the first time, an intact specimen of the giant squid, forever altering the ways in which we engage the construct of the sea monster. When I saw the photograph in the Smithsonian, captioned with like two or three lines of inadequate explanation, I began my obsession with Harvey, and his own fevered obsession with the then-mythological giant squid. When Harvey, in 1874, took that first-ever photograph of the giant squid, he rescued the beast from mythology and proved its existence. To take the photo, Harvey transported the squid from one bay to another, and then finally to his home where he proceeded to drape it over his bathtub's curtain rack so its full size could be displayed. No one has yet traced the logistics of his undertaking and connected said logistics to the peculiarities of Harvey’s personal life. To flesh out the story behind the photograph, I’m researching the various aspects of 19th century Newfoundland that influenced Harvey and his journey from bay to bathtub and beyond. Such aspects include, but are not limited to, the period fishing equipment, politics, religious practices, and Harvey family history that informed and contextualized Moses Harvey's obsessions. I’m coupling such research with lyrical meditations on the nature(s) of mythology, and some personal narrative (including aspects of the life of my grandfather, a big Dixieland jazz band saxophonist who wrote a single song called “Squid Jump,” attempting, and failing, to start a new dance craze) with the aim to uncover, through inquisition and analysis, a larger statement about our human need to mythologize. I got out to Newfoundland this summer to poke around—walked the walk Harvey walked from his Devon Row home in St. John’s, the three miles to Logy Bay where he found that squid entangled in herring nets, surrounded by fishermen in orange slickers.
Debbie: Upcoming appearances?
Matthew: In Chicago, I’ll be reading at Quimby’s Bookstore September 7th at 7pm, and at The Book Cellar September 22 at 7pm. In Evanston, IL, I’ll be reading at the Evanston Public Library Sept. 23 at 1:30pm. I’ve done a bunch of Pot Farm readings in Michigan already, and will read in Michigan again come January 2013 and beyond, once The Morrow Plots comes out.
Debbie: Do you have a favorite Michigan bookstore?
Matthew: It used to be Literary Life Bookstore in Grand Rapids, but they’ve sadly just closed their doors. So now I’ll say Snowbound Books in Marquette, Michigan. It’s tiny and serpentine. A great combo.
Debbie: How about a favorite place in Michigan?
Matthew: There’s this bench where the woods meet the Lake Superior beach in Marquette (just off the Lakeshore bike trail across the street from this restaurant called Coco’s, which has good pie). I sit there and read, and critique student poems and essays, and watch the lake. I love this spot. I know I’ve just given fairly specific directions, but don’t take my bench.
Debbie: Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?
Matthew: In Grand Rapids, I really enjoy Art Prize. It’s very populist—sort of a fusion of citywide art exhibition with an American Idol style of judging and critical sensibility—which means it’s this odd fusion of wonderful and horrible, which lends the event a real energy. People who typically don’t give a shit about art fill the streets in droves. And, of course, there’s the Humungous Fungus Fest in Crystal Falls in the U.P., a celebration of the world’s largest mushroom. The fest culminates with the communal feasting on the Humungous Pizza—topped with mushrooms, of course, and 10 feet by 10 feet. It takes six grown men to carry it.
Debbie: A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?
Matthew: Okay. Writers. I’ll mention some younger or lesser-known ones (compared to say, Bonnie Jo Campbell) who are putting out fabulous stuff. (I apologize in advance for the Oscar speechiness of this list, but I don’t want to leave anyone out!)
In Kalamazoo: Doug Jones, Elizabyth Hiscox, Traci Brimhall, Brandon Davis Jennings. In Grand Rapids: Todd Kaneko, Caitlin Horrocks, Linda Nemec Foster, L.S. Klatt, Emma Ramey. In Marquette: Jennifer Howard, Austin Hummell, Beverly Matherne, Alex Gubbins, John Gubbins, Josh MacIvor-Andersen, Matt Bell, Marty Achatz, Richard Hackler, Molly Anderson, Laura Mead, Justin Daugherty. Elsewhere in the state: Darrin Doyle, Adam Schuitema, Saleem Peeradina, Vievee Francis, Laura Kasischke, Robert Fanning, and many, many others...
Debbie: Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?
Matthew: In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, from 1843 through the 1920’s, pure native copper just about leaked from the earth, exploded from it, and towns were established and boomed, and folks ate food and drank liquor and men spread their legs and women spread their legs and with food and liquor and spread legs made descendants who can visit these towns in the name of communion and reunion and union and none, and we call these gatherings heartfelt and we call these gatherings historical, and we use words like ancestry and inheritance and we stand on the rock piles and bluffs and tailings of Central Mine and Gay and Mandan and Cliff and Delaware and Phoenix and we eat pasties not because we need to, but because they are some sort of souvenir, some kind of shaft that leads, definitively down, toward something like heritage or lake-bed, something makeshift, but geologic and collapsible, and we pretend that these towns are not popularly preceded by the word ghost.
Debbie: Last question... Some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders; others Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: are you a "Michigander" or a "Michiganian"?
Matthew: I’m a Michigander. My wife’s a Michigoose. Together, we honk like the dickens.
Debbie: We'll add you both to the tally! Matthew, thank you for being here today for Michigander Monday!