Starting in the Yard

Written by Matthew on October 9th, 2011

This past week I began work on the schooner Mycia, a 70 foot gaff-rigged fishing vessel whose roots date back to the early 1980’s, and the Northwest School Wooden Boatbuilding, which I recently graduated from. Built partly in the backyard of its owners, it has stayed in their family traveling up and down the Inside Passage while they split their time between Sitka, Alaska and Port Townsend.

I had seen Mycia out on Townsend Bay, particularly during the Wooden Boat Festival and was drawn to the presence of the pilot house, which wasn’t seen on most of the other Northwest schooners.  I liked the design and was glad to begin my career in the Port on this boat. I’ve been wrecking out the aftermost part of the deck in order to replace a few feet of rot. Deck plank joints need to be staggered to maintain strength, so this requires precision and planning. You’re already tearing out dozens of feet of gorgeous old growth fir, just to replace it in a way that keeps the entire boat strong.

I beat myself up good so far, and will be back tomorrow morning for more.

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Getting Old. Fashioned.

Written by Matthew on September 29th, 2011

letterI get the mail every day, like most writers, with a dumbly hopeful heart. The mere possibility of what that hollow could hold still gets me excited even though I haven’t been sending more than a few paper submissions each year for a while now. Mostly, I come up with the bland detritus of our times—clothing catalogs, coupons and credit card offers—at which I shrug and reset my hopefulness meter back to zero. But the mailbox occasionally offers something even more rare than journal correspondence—an unexpected letter from a friend.

The frequency with which I write letters may be seasonal, or manic—I don’t know. What I do know is that in letter writing I enter a different space of mind. I turn off certain filters in order that the letter can flow naturally, as a conversation would, as an act of direct and earnest speech. Sometimes that lands me in weird places midway down the page where my train of thought has come to a berm with the tracks run dead and I have to back up a bit. But mostly, I find that this abandon (with intention) gets me to the heart quicker. This only happens for me with old fashioned correspondence, with pen (preferably a good pen), and paper.

I think about famous literary correspondences gathered together in lengthy book formats and the sometimes joy at reading the more intimate voices of people who have reached the icon status. These kinds of friendships don’t seem to exist much anymore, which makes me even more grateful when someone asks me to stop everything else for a minute and engage in a conversation of substance. And I mean substance literally. To hold someone’s words in your hands is to carry a bit of what they have carried. To have a piece of their mind. And the chance to give a piece back.

In that spirit, I have created a book giveaway over at Goodreads for The End of the Folded Map. If you happen to win and mention that you read this post, even if I don’t know you personally, I will send along a handwritten version of one of the poems, a letter with some thoughts on maps, poem-making, and, of course, the chapbook. Enter to win, and spread the word! It’s free.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The End of the Folded Map by Matthew Nienow

The End of the Folded Map

by Matthew Nienow

Giveaway ends October 12, 2011.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

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Updating the Void

Written by Matthew on September 19th, 2011

the R manWell, I don’t know about you, but I’m still here. Truckin’ along as always, learning by falling and picking myself up. Summer came and went, bringing with it birthdays and a small bit of adventure. River turned two and officially graduated into little-manhood. He’s happy, talking up a storm, sharpening his memory, vocabulary, and preferences, daily. He is pretty much the best thing ever.

I also had the great pleasure of returning to Bread Loaf in August where I worked in the back office. Let me just say that making copies and answering questions trumps waitering. Pretty easily. It was still a lot of work and immense fun, but I felt a better balance this time around. I returned home with a fire under me and have been working hard since—revising the full-length and, most exciting, starting, with gusto and surprise, a second book with a vision. I’m writing about boats and tools and making things. About shaping and being shaped. The approaches are direct and obtuse, earnest and ironic, conversational and mythic. It’s exciting as I really haven’t felt the project impulse before, especially in anticipation of creating work.

In other news, I finished Boat School and feel like an accomplished beginner. I think I will feel that for years, but I guess it’s good. Still so much to learn. Looking for work in the Yard while finishing another boat project. I’ll say more when there’s more to say.

And this: the NEA just updated its Writers’ Corner, including a poem by yours truly. Hope you like what you see. Sometimes I think I am too earnest. Anyhow, I’d like to be here more often. We’ll see what life allows.

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Written by Matthew on June 10th, 2011

The End of the Folded MapMy life is a mess of possibilities. Every good thing I’ve ever poured myself into has reappeared before me this year as if to show me the different roads I must choose from.

Boats, music, poetry and family.

I want them all, but I’ve never been able to keep them all in the air at once. And maybe it is better that way, as each love is distilled with the urgency that demands I give in when I am called.

Yesterday I spent the day helping a friend pour a huge slab of concrete (two big trucks worth of cement), us in the usual tattered Carharts and rubber boots, wading atop the rebar in a wet gray mix, working it into every crevice before smoothing the whole thing over, again and again. It was a good day of work, felt in the body, the result tangible before. I never once thought about getting on the computer. How different that is from my former self of the past several years, hungry for any connection the internet had to offer. And then, late in the day I get online and find a poem of mine feature on Verse Daily. I had waited for that in the past, but of course it only happened after I was done waiting. After I had turned away. So thanks, Universe, for once again speaking clearly and giving me something to consider. (Thanks also to all the friends who have said nice things and shared the poem on Facebook.)

Because I have been so torn this year, between all my loves (and vices) I never made much of a deal of my new chapbook, The End of the Folded Map, but I’m here now, and I have this to say: I’m proud of the collection in a way I haven’t been with my previous two chapbooks. I think it holds my strongest work to date and the folks at Codhill did a lovely job putting it together. I don’t think it should cost as much as it does, but if you can afford it check it out. And if you can’t, drop me a line and I will find a way to make it cheaper. You can find it on Amazon, Borders, through SUNY Press and at Open Books in Seattle.

Concrete. Poems.

And now I’m back to the chisel. And tonight my band plays a great pub in town that over looks Puget Sound. And River turns two on Sunday, which means I will have more to say then.

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Into the Dark: Considering My Songwriting Practice

Written by Matthew on May 31st, 2011

Last night I found myself alone again, the sun slowly setting through the windows of the kitchen where I’ve camped out with my recording gear while Elie and River are visiting family in the Midwest. It’s been strange to come home to an empty house; I miss my people like crazy, but I’m also trying to use this small bout of bachelorhood to do some things I don’t normally get to do. Last night it was rocking out well beyond bedtime.

I started with some new songs that have been taking shape over the past couple weeks before working on something brand new. Once I had a rough shell I got out my newest songwriting tool: my iPad. Seriously. This thing is invaluable for my creative process. I don’t mess with fancy recording gear, just turn on the video camera, which captures surprisingly decent audio. And I go from there.

Last night was a perfect and strange example of what I get up to and how it helps me draft a song: I started out in the low light of dusk, recording something without much direction before doing take after take after take, slowly changing the shape of the new piece. At evening’s end I had gone into the dark, all the while leaving a trail of the song’s evolution, each growth marked in gradients of light. Literally, the darker it got—and the dimmer the video became—the firmer the song in its shape.

With poems, I lean into the page, working over and over at a single word or line. With songs I work the sonic phrase. I wonder at the feel of the thing before I nail down the words. Regardless, revising songs has never been easy. My songwriting practice has only recently begun to feel similar to that of my poetry.

In a way I wish I could submit these songs the same way I submit poems for publication. It’s a winnowing, a test, both of the piece itself and of my belief in it. But seeing as that isn’t how it really works with music, I’m going to have to play the untested piece in front of a crowd, trying to decipher some direction from a small reaction at song’s end. Then it’s back to the videos, which, not too long ago, would have been all memory, a worn notebook, and a pen.

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Following What You Can’t See

Written by Matthew on May 28th, 2011

mattmattLast night I was walking down a pier in the golden light of evening, about to get on a boat when a friend who works at a a nearby restaurant raced over to ask if I would play some music. Their booked performer hadn’t shown. I didn’t know what to think. I haven’t played a solo show in years now, but I’ve been writing a ton of songs in the past few weeks, so I went for it. Grabbed my tinny sunburst guitar from the car, got up on stage in the red light to an unexpected applause and began to play. New songs. Songs I don’t even know yet. Something in the dark just beyond my touch.

And somehow I sang for two hours, the sound coming from this place I just returned to after years away. Made $90, got some food and drink and two more solo shows lined up, but more than anything I got this strange answer for a question I have been asking the universe about what I should do with this need to make things. And so, in whatever fashion it may happen, I am going to try to do something with the sound I hear. I hope to share something of it soon.

In the meantime check out the brand new EP from my fuller band (led by Brother Townsend). We’re called The Cost.

Oh, and I guess I might try to come back to this abandoned blog. Nearly six months away can be good for a man.

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Goodness Abounds

Written by Matthew on January 8th, 2011
Just receieved Luke Johnson’s brand new book, After the Ark, and having already read it through more than once, I implore all remotely interested parties to order a copy (or several copies) now.  I mean now.
2011 has been very good to me so far.  Most of this is old news on Facebook, but whatever. In the first week of January I received a $7,500 grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in support of my first full-length manuscript, had a poem (”Ruin”) picked up by online hotshots, Blackbird, and won the 2010 Codhill Press Poetry Chapbook Award for my ms., The End of the Folded Map. All I can say is, “wow.” And, of course, “thanks.”
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Lunch with the Devil

Written by Matthew on December 10th, 2010

I have two new poems up in the brand new issue of Devil’s Lake.  Check ‘em out!

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Making Something from Nothing & the NEA

Written by Matthew on November 23rd, 2010

rabbet planeI was swallowed by a whale named making something from nothing and it came up for air just now. What I mean to say is: I’ve been taken over by the deep focus and resulting joy of making my own tools from scraps I’ve scrounged up at Boat School. The piece pictured here is a little rabbet plane made from a rusted chunk of angle iron, an old chisel and a small piece of walnut. I ground the slag and rust off of the angle iron, cut it to size on the metal band saw, shaped the walnut handle, half-lapped it to marry the metal, cut the mouth, fashioned the blade from the old chisel and the adjusting cap from leftover angle iron, etc. etc. It shines and feels good to hold. And beyond that, it works.

I’ve made and repaired a number of planes now, one of the boatbuilders’ most used tools, and I find it deeply satisfying. Building tools that will in turn help me build boats. It’s a lot like writing, really. I have to look around, be intentional, work with materials that are constantly overturning my expectations, fail, be inventive, fail, revise, revise and refine.

Working with wood is a reductive art and in many ways poetry is no different. Put some shining piece of the world in your hands and take away all the unnecessary parts until you have the piece that looks and feels just right.

It’s a great journey I’ve started and I can’t say enough how lucky I feel to be headed in this direction.


I also got lucky when I met the man behind Brother Townsend, a music project I am now one half of. We’ve played a few gigs and have more on the way. Plans are in store to record an album this winter and I know you are all going to love the tunes. Brett writes some amazing songs. I play mandolin and rock the harmonies. I’ll share some tunes as soon as I’m able.


Lastly (and many of you already know this thanks to Facebook): I am thrilled to be included in this list of amazing poets, chosen from over 1,000 applicants to receive a $25,000 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. This gesture of generosity fills me with great hope and a new store of energy to make art that matters. Thank you to the panelists, the NEA staff and all the friends and writers who have helped, and continue to help, me along the way.

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Drifting Toward the Names of Things

Written by Matthew on October 18th, 2010

river and meGood news abounds.

First, I love Boat School. It is awesome.

Second, more poems for the world: New England Review picked up (what I would consider) my “best” poem to date. Devil’s Lake took two poems and Grist took one. So, yeah! And if you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, check out my “Ode to Paul Bunyan” over at The Collagist. I’m working on an interview with them as well as an audio recording of the poem.

I’ll leave it for now with this amazing poem by Robert Hass from his first collection, Field Guide:


Amateurs, we gathered mushrooms
near shaggy eucalyptus groves
which smelled of camphor and the fog-soaked earth.
Chanterelles, puffballs, chicken of the woods,
we cooked in wine or butter,
beaten eggs or sour cream,
half-expecting to be
killed by mistake. “Intense perspiration,”
you said late at night,
quoting the terrifying field guide
while we lay tangled in our sheets and heavy limbs,
“is the first symptom of attack.”

Friends called our aromatic fungi
liebestoads and only ate the ones
that we most certainly survived.
Death shook us more than once
those days and floating back
it felt like life. Earth-wet, slithery,
we drifted toward the names of things.
Spore prints littered our table
like nervous stars. Rotting caps
gave off a musky smell of loam.

—Robert Hass
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