Poem as Improvisation: A Conversation with Matt Morton

Matt Morton is the author of Improvisation Without Accompaniment (BOA Editions, 2020), winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Program, and his poems have appeared in AGNIGettysburg ReviewHarvard Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of North Texas and serves as associate editor for 32 Poems.


Matt Morton’s debut poetry collection Improvisation Without Accompaniment was published this year, and, as a former classmate, I read it with no little envy. Matt’s poems pull off that elusive trick of being both cerebral and intimate in the space of a page. “Wavelength,” which appeared in the fall 2014 issue of American Literary Review, illustrates this well. Like it, many of Matt’s poems begin with a big dilemma or question, but by the end of the poem, the reader is ushered into a closeness with the speaker. 

Improvisation Without Accompaniment was released during what we might consider a less than opportune time, just as the U.S. began entering lockdown. There’s something timely about these poems. Their rumination on loss and the search for meaning have given me solace during these long months of isolation. 

Matt was kind enough to answer some questions about the book over email. 

Joshua Jones: Improvisation Without Accompaniment takes its title from the first of a series of “improvisation” poems spaced throughout the book. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how you see those improvisations as a form or approach. 

Matt Morton: In a sense, any poem is an improvisation. No poem springs onto the page as a perfect transcription of something that spontaneously appeared in the writer’s mind. Having said that, some poems more than others seem to preserve and exhibit evidence of the writing process itself. I tend to enjoy writing this kind of poem, even when that means preserving some moments of friction or inconsistency or harsh juxtaposition.

I often have a hard time turning off my inner critic and thinking of a poem as an “improvisation” from the outset was also a way of superficially removing some of the pressure I tend to put on myself. This allowed me to expand the fence-line, as it were, that encloses the territory across which a given poem can move. And this spirit of freedom—and the playfulness that freedom makes possible—is essential if I’m going to write something that surprises me. On a formal level, too, the project of writing improvisations served as a prompt for some of the more collage-driven or loosely associative poems in the book.

Most importantly, perhaps, the idea of “improvisation” maps onto the way that I feel about my experience in the world. Every time you or I do something, we are doing it—at that particular time, in that particular place, as that particular version of ourselves—for the first time. As George Oppen put it, “For the people of that flow / Are new, the old // New to age as the young / To youth[.]” We are all simultaneously participating in a joint experiment of living, trying out different modes of being and refining those approaches in real time. Acknowledging the deep uncertainty that accompanies this approach to living can be uncomfortable, but for me it also tends to result in a more expansive perspective, a more forgiving attitude toward myself and others, and a more playful, open approach to experiencing what each day has to offer.

JJ: In “Republic,” the first poem in the collection, there’s this line that I think opens up the book for me: “unsure of what / meaning means, or why meanness—which means / differently—so easily enters the heart / but takes a lifetime to root out.” I’m wondering how you see the connection of meaning and meanness. Would you say sorting them out is one of the book’s projects? 

MM: That’s a really interesting reading. I haven’t considered the ways that a struggle between meaning and meanness (in any understanding of that word) might function as a dialectic that helps structure the book. There are certainly poems concerned with cruelty as it is manifested in various forms. I’ll have to think more about the relationships between that type of meanness and meaning.

Taken on its own, however, the problem of “meaning” may be the most important thread that runs through the book. Does meaning exist at all? If so, what is it? Where is it to be found? And, with provisional answers to those questions in hand, how can we apply the answers to our experience in order to live more meaningful lives? I don’t consider Improvisation Without Accompaniment to be a “project book” in the way that that label is usually applied in our conversations about contemporary poetry collections. However, I do think the book can be read as a unified, progressive search for answers to the aforementioned questions. And this search is a process, one that turns up various answers—some of them truer than others—which may later need to be revised or refined.

I hope readers will consider the ways that attitudes toward the problem of meaning change over the course of the book. At the end of “Viewfinder,” for example, the speaker concludes that life ultimately leaves us “not knowing how little it mattered, how much it meant.” But that isn’t the last poem in the book, and therefore not the last word on the issue. And perhaps experiencing a feeling of futility is a necessary, unavoidable step on the path toward some deeper understanding? 

JJ: Reading some of these poems, one of the things that stands out is their syntactical variety. You don’t shy away from syntactical inversions like “So wrongly ever seemed to churn things out!” How do you handle or approach the sentence as a unit? 

MM: I’m very interested in the notion of poems as psychological performances of a mind moving on the page. And attending to a writer’s syntax really allows us to observe how that particular mind is working, not just what it is thinking about. I’m especially delighted by writers who employ unconventional syntax and, in doing so, express a very particular sensibility—writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins, Karen Solie, Virginia Woolf, Proust. Reading writers like these—i.e., thinking their thoughts—gives me the experience of being inside a deeply interesting mind that is very different from my own.

I think we can only rarely have this type of experience reading poems comprised, for example, only of declarative sentences and/or fragments. That type of poem might sound very authoritative and certain of itself, but I’m not sure it truly gives us (as readers or writers) the opportunity to follow a line of thinking to its conclusion, wherever that may be. Moreover, it’s just not very interesting to write without playing with syntax. Experimenting with the various ways the “same” thought can be expressed is one of the most exciting things about writing.

JJ: The third section of the book, “Elegy for My Brother in the Wilderness,” consists of a single poem in parts. The first line is so startlingly direct: “The manner in which one begins is of utmost importance.” And it made me want to ask about the order that those sections came to you and maybe more about how the whole piece came together.  

MM: I wrote “Elegy for My Brother in the Wilderness” in response to a workshop assignment to write a long poem in the vein of the sectioned poems in Susan Mitchell’s collection Rapture. At the time, I was also reading Ovid in one of my graduate school courses, and the notion of somehow combining the story of Acteon with more autobiographical subject matter had been percolating for several months, although I had little idea how the poem would come together.

As it so happened, when I sat down to write the poem it came very quickly. It was one of those rare writing experiences where one goes into a flow state and comes out hours later to discover what one’s mind has been up to. As far as I can recall, I had multiple Word documents open and was composing the various sections almost simultaneously, moving back and forth between various documents, figuring out which information belonged in which section, and finally determining an order for the sections that would result in the type of pacing and emotional narrative that would best suit the poem. Much of this work was purely intuitive. Ultimately, it required less revision than almost any other poem in the book, which is odd given how long it is. But I imagine that speaks to the urgency of the subject matter and attests to the subconscious work that must have been taking place, unbeknownst to me, for a long time before I began writing.

JJ: Much of the book takes place in or makes reference to a rural Texas setting with everything you might expect—trains, bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, deer. But the book never comes across as conventionally nostalgic or regional. Do you think of yourself as a Texas poet? If so, what does that mean more broadly for your work, beyond setting?

MM: We’re inevitably shaped by our environments, especially those in which we grew up—it seems this fact becomes clearer to me on a weekly basis. I’ve lived all but four years of my life in Texas, and I can certainly see various ways in which growing up and returning here has affected my writing. An attraction to certain types of imagery, as you mention. Maybe particular inflections of speech that wouldn’t be present had I grown up in, say, Brooklyn. Some of the recurring images in the book—mountains, trains—actually appeal to me because we don’t really have those things in Texas, or not to the extent or in the same way you might find them elsewhere. So I suppose my poems have been affected by both what has populated my Texas experience and what has noticeably been absent from it.

Having said that, I don’t think of myself as a Texas poet or a “poet of place,” and I would be disappointed if readers came away from the book with that impression. My goal is always to write poems that have the potential to affect as many people as possible, and what I see as the book’s primary concerns—time, mortality, family, the question of what it means to live a good life—transcend any regional or topical horizon of understanding. I hope so, at least.

JJ: This book is haunted by some big literary figures, including Keats and Faulkner. Especially with this being your first book, who are the authors you feel yourself responding to? Do you think of yourself as entering a particular poetic conversation?

MM: It wouldn’t be wrong to say that most of the poems in the book are responding to one or more writers I happened to be reading at the time. I enjoyed acknowledging these influences by alluding throughout the book to those writers without whom my own poems wouldn’t exist. In addition to Keats and Faulkner, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Carl Phillips, Wallace Stevens, and Mark Strand were also important influences, although there are many others.

As for your question about entering a poetic conversation—I’m really not sure! I know I’m responding to the work of writers who have meant something to me, but I’m still trying to work out for myself what my role as a poet is. I will say that many of my favorite poets seem to have approached writing as an opportunity to investigate—rather than merely lament—the conditions of our existence. And yet it seems to me that a lot of contemporary poetry has a relatively narrow focus on suffering and the negative aspects of our experience. I think my book is making an implicit argument in favor of broadening that perspective to acknowledge the essential roles of hopefulness, playfulness, and joy in our lives.


Joshua Jones

Joshua Jones is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Texas. His poems and essays have appeared in Southwest Review, Salamander, and Hotel Amerika, among other journals. He and his wife wrangle dachshunds in Frisco, Texas.