Matthew Wimberley

Matthew Wimberley talks his upcoming book “Daniel Boone’s Window” and the strength of the Appalachian poetry community

Matthew Wimberley, an assistant professor of English at Lees-McRae College, sat down to have a conversation about poetry and his new poetry collection, “Daniel Boone’s Window.”  

“Daniel Boone’s Window” will be released this coming September 2021 by Louisiana State University (LSU) Press. The announcement of his second book comes after Wimberley’s first collection, “All the Great Territories,” received the Weatherford Award for poetry. This award is granted by Berea College and the Appalachian Studies Association each year to the book of poetry that best characterizes the “unique qualities of the Appalachian South.” 

Wimberley has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from North Carolina State University and a master’s degree in poetry from New York University. He teaches Introduction to Poetry, Advanced Poetry, and Rhetoric—among other courses—at Lees-McRae. 

In Fall 2020, I took Introduction to Poetry with Wimberley. Through him, I developed a previously undiscovered passion for the art of poetry. Weeks ago, when Wimberley announced his second poetry collection release, the idea of interviewing my mentor about his new book came to me. 

The interview took place at the Banner Elk Café, located one block below Avery Residence Hall, in downtown Banner Elk. I arrived at the café around 11 a.m. Wimberley was sitting at the same black metallic table on the patio where we have met on a couple of occasions to discuss poetry, politics, and everything under the sun.  

Wimberley was staring reflectively at the mountainous landscape as I approached the table. He was wearing a white shirt and his almost iconic dark, wide brim hat, which added to his bohemian look. We began our interview with the noise of early-summer tourists and cars circulating through downtown Banner Elk in the background. 

Juan Sebastian Restrepo: What was your reaction when LSU Press notified you that your second book was going to be published? Was it as exciting as the first time? 

Matthew Wimberley: In some ways, it was more exciting. It is hard to write a book of poetry. Having one come out and having another one come out so quickly is somewhat rare. So, bewildering would be the expression that I would use. Do you want a little backstory? 

JSR: Go ahead. 

MW: The series editor is a poet named Dave Smith. This is a series within LSU Press called the Southern Messenger Poets, exclusive to poets from the South. They publish two books a year in that series. It is pretty exclusive. Long before “All the Great Territories” was released, in October 2018, I was at dinner at Bodegas with Gregory Donovan and Michele Poulos. They had produced the documentary “A Late Style of Fire,” the Larry Levis documentary. At the dinner, I got an email from Dave Smith, whom I had never met before. He said that he had read some of my poems and saw that I had announced that my first book was coming out. He asked me if I had poems for a second book and told me that once I got a second collection together to send it to him directly. I replied yes immediately, but then I panicked. I did have some other poems. When you put together a book of poetry, you have a narrative arc; you see how the poems go together. I had set aside the poems I thought did not belong with the first collection. When I got Dave’s email, I probably had 15 to 20 pages of poetry that I knew could go together. That was sort of a spark. I started writing pretty extensively.  

By April 2019, I had a manuscript for a second book and I sent it to Dave. In May, I got an email back from Dave saying that he would take the book if I made certain changes. Dave Smith was nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes, so I was not gonna question him. My advice to young poets is that when someone who knows what they are talking about tells you to correct something, it is best to trust them. I had given Dave a manuscript of about 65 pages of poetry. He gave me 20 pages of detailed notes back. At that point, even if Dave did not ultimately take the book, I had gotten 20 pages of notes from an amazing editor. Even if the book did not work out here, in my mind, I knew that I would have another book. We went back and forward around three times.  

Finally, he said that he would take the book if I changed the title. The book was called “Another Heaven,” which, in hindsight, was a horrible name. He was the one who suggested “Daniel Boone’s Window,” and I immediately recognized that was the title.  

JSR: Is that the name of the central poem of the collection? 

MW: There is a poem in the book called “Window.” The poem has this image of Daniel Boone, but it is a fake Daniel Boone. In the 1980s, a famous forger forged a letter from Daniel Boone, which he sold at a New York auction for a large amount of money. There is a Netflix documentary about this guy. When I wrote the collection, I did not think this was the central poem of the book, but Dave, such a good poet, saw this larger narrative of the book connected to this poem. The book confronts the idea of Appalachia, often perceived as monolithic, almost mythical. The poems of the book directly challenge the myth that there is one Appalachia. The legend of Daniel Boone is one thing; the real Daniel Boone is another. The collection explores what it is like to live in a real Appalachia, not in the real Appalachia. It is a complicated question that one single person cannot answer. The 20 square miles that I write about gets mythologized into something much bigger. The myth of Appalachia is more appealing, just like the myth of Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone was mythical. Robert Morgan wrote in an excellent biography about Boone, how he lived to see his own legend. Robert Morgan, by the way, is from North Carolina, and he has read at Lees-McRae for the Stephenson Center lecture series. 

Sorry, I know I gave you a long answer. That is one condition of living in the South, storytelling. So, the feeling was bewilderment, pressure, and excitement. 

JSR: Let’s go a little deeper into the process of putting together the collection. You already mentioned how Dave Smith gave you the initial push and helped you edit the book. But, what were some of your inspirations, and how was the poetry writing process?  

MW: When I was in graduate school, my thesis advisor was Yusef Komunyakaa. I remember distinctively I had started to write these elegies for my father, which is what the first book encounters, recreating my father in the Appalachian landscape. I could not avoid it. When I moved to New York, I began writing about here maybe as a way to feel like I was home. When I wrote a particular poem about my dad, I was sitting with Yusef one afternoon. He suggested setting it aside and saving it for another book, even if my next book was not about my dad. Years later, when Dave emailed me, that one was one of the poems that I came back to. Then, I realized that the first book is about the myth and the reality of my father, though this realization might change. I used this patch of Appalachia, the landscape I was most familiar with, to explore that relationship.  

In the second book, having mythologized and demythologized my father, I had more access to the myth and the reality of place, which is the book’s focus. As I was writing, I saw a connection between the poems outside of the elegies for my dad, in the same lineage of the ones to my dad. It took a long time. The oldest poems from the book are from 2013. I included poems and made changes until July 2020. It was just a matter of patience to put together the second book. I had to listen to how the poems wanted to be together. Having Dave suggest the new title was crucial because I could then recognize if a poem I wrote belonged to the collection. I do not sit down and say, “I will write a poem about X subject.” I just sit down and write. Eventually, a poem will happen, even though there is a fear that it will never occur. The key is just to listen. 

JSR: Your first book, as you mentioned, is an elegy to your father, and you explore the idea of what is home and your relationship to the land. You expand these subjects in “Daniel Boone’s Window.” What are other themes you explore in this second book, and how do they relate to what you defined as the overarching narrative of the collection?  

MW: Again, the overarching narrative is the idea of deconstructing the myth and the monolith of Appalachia. The themes I explore are class, environmental degradation, exploitation, and community. Unlike the first book, which is divided into sections, there are no sections in the second collection. I was interested in what kind of conversation that would build. Having multiple sections gives the readers a pause, telling them which poems go together. As I was writing the collection, I just did not feel compelled to add sections. The book as a whole is a glimpse of place.  

One important thing is that once I write a book of poetry, it does not belong to me anymore. It belongs to the reader. At some point, the reader would decide what the book is about. I have my interpretation of what the book is about, but others would have a different relationship to it. There lays the question of what poetry is. Am I writing poems, or am I listening for them and putting them down on the page? Once the poem is out there, it does not belong to me. I am just the person who listened to them first. For the most part, I think poetry exists so that the person reading it can feel it. Feeling, not knowing, is the most communicable aspect of a poem. 

JSR: When you received the Weatherford Award for “All the Great Territories,” you commented in an interview for Lees-McRae that receiving the award was “a double-edged sword.” You said the award created pressure and expectations on all your future works. Do you feel that pressure with “Daniel Boone’s Window,” or are you confident that the book will meet, or even surpass, the expectations set by your first book? 

MW: Selfishly, yes! When you create something, you want it to thrive. Still, it is not up to me. I know that the poems sustain me, but as I am writing, I am my first audience. I think about no one but myself. I think about what I can say to surprise myself. The pressure is there in a shallow way. Not to diminish my work. Everyone wants to win some significant award when they write something. It is the nature of our times. Everybody thinks success has to be immediate. Luckily for me, the first book got a little attention. The Weatherford Awards was kind of unexpected. It is humbling to be recognized. Yet, it is not like I would not write poems if my book had not won an award. 

JSR: As you taught me once in our poetry workshop, the nature of poetry makes it impossible to judge. It is subjective. 

MW: Yes. And, even if you do not receive recognition, you cannot stop. I would not be a poet if I said to myself, “this is just a hobby; it did not work, so I will quit.” 

JSR: Let’s talk about the state of poetry in America today. You have been categorized as an “Appalachian poet.” What does Appalachian poetry mean to you? Do you like that label on yourself?  

MW: I do not like the label, but I am humbled to be included in that group. Often regionalism becomes a kind of pejorative. People would say, “he is a good Appalachian poet but not a good poet, period.” I like the idea of the label if it works to subvert expectations. However, I am a white, straight man. I am not subverting the expectations of an Appalachian poet. I am not a representative of Appalachian poetry. A representation of Appalachian poetry needs dozens of voices. Often, some of our best poets are inhibited by the label of being an Appalachian poet. They are not included in the national conversation. I do not like any kind of label in poetry for that reason.  

I like the idea of community and being part of a legacy that subverts the stereotypes of Appalachia. I like talking with Appalachian poets, whom people do not label Appalachian poets, like Nikki Giovanni, from eastern Tennessee. She is one of our great American poets. Likewise, I admire the Affrilachian Poets, the collective that Frank X Walker started, and writers such as Crystal Wilkinson and Jesse Graves.  

Poetry is a business. A lot of times, people in the national conversation are good at self-promotion. I am not interested in self-promoting. If I am called an Appalachian poet, I take the label because it is a good group of people to be associated with. Yet, I think that Appalachia is belittled by the outside world—whatever the outside world means. Many would say, “that is pretty good for a ‘hillbilly,' but they are not one of our great poets.” Look at Nikky Finney, Nikki Giovanni, or Charles Wright. They are Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award-winning poets. They were only considered worthwhile after they won the award. That is a lie. Nikky Finney, for instance, always was a terrific poet. Nikky Finney did not need an award to validate Nikky Finney’s poetry.  

It is humbling to be an Appalachian poet, and it is important. At the same time, these labels tend to deny the poetry. I am in a privileged position as a white, straight man to shred that label. There are queer, black, indigenous, and brown poets for whom this label is used in a pejorative sense. I would like to be part of the conversation to change that but not the figurehead of that transformation.  

JSR: Putting aside the controversial use of Appalachian poetry as a label and focusing on the larger movement, you are part of the new generation of poets writing from Appalachia. How do you see the future of Appalachian poetry in this ever-changing region, which is confronting different outside forces subverting its culture and traditions?  

MW: I think the poets writing in Appalachia are one of the most exciting, dynamic, and diverse groups of writers to be associated with. I am 32 years old. I am excited to hopefully champion these poets—the older generation, the contemporary generation, and whoever comes next for the rest of my life. Let me contradict myself here. I will advocate for poets from Appalachia indefatigably. 

JSR: Going into more general questions about poetry, who are some of the poets that have inspired you the most, or whose works have been the most influential in your life? 

MW: Broken record for everyone who knows me, Larry Levis is by far the poet to whom I return again and again. Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, Eduardo Corral, and Natalie Diaz are some more—Natalie Diaz, who “only” has two books, scare quotes around only. Part of the reason I admire them is that they are my friends. 

Some of the poets whom I am the most excited by are the contemporaries with me. It is exciting to think that they are part of my generation. To mention a few, Monica Sok, Javier Zamora, and Craig Santos Perez from Guam, whose book, “Habitat Threshold,” I have been reading. There are poets in North Carolina who I am excited by as well, like Nicole Stockburger. It is a hard question because I do not want to leave anyone out. I could keep going indefinitely. There is a lot of great poetry right now, in part because “everyone” is writing poetry. It is actually a small percentage of people writing poetry. Most people silence themselves. However, there is more access to poetry than ever before. One can find poetry for all tastes.  

JSR: To wrap up, what does the future hold for Matthew Wimberley? What other projects do you have in mind after the release of “Daniel Boone’s Window”? 

MW: I am always writing, so I have poems for a third book. I am conscious that we live in a very capitalist society that demands production. Your value is determined by how much you produce. I’ve got poems, though not for an entire book. I am in a privileged position where I am not under pressure to release another book soon. Maybe, next year or ten years from now, I will have a third book. I will not stop writing poems every day. I am in a good position to take my time to listen for the following collection and remove myself from the dynamic of publishing. There is a phrase that I hate, which is “publish or perish.” I would like to reimagine that phrase as “write or perish.” 

Wimberley will be reading selections of his poetry during the second Stephenson Center Summer Lecture Series event on Wednesday, June 16. The poetry reading will take place at 7 p.m. in the Shelton Learning Commons.  

By Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21June 14, 2021