In his sixth poetry collection, Dear Almost, Matthew Thorburn tries to answer the question, “How do you grieve for someone you never knew?” If you were to compare the force of his words to nature, they would be a stream instead of a river. Using soft-spoken language and a controlled, syllabic free verse, Thorburn takes us with him over the course of the four seasons, telling us the story of his wife’s “almost child.” From recounting hospital visits, to imagining what his almost child would look like, Thorburn explores memories and daily life alike to reach out for the void that his child left behind. Thorburn isn’t just writing to understand, he is writing because it is the only thing that he can do to understand. “What else can I do?” he writes. “I’m not a painter/ or potter, not a sculptor/ but someone who/ works with words, re-/ordering them here/ on the back of an old calendar/page.” At first glance, Dear Almost appears to be a poem about death and loss. While it certainly discusses those things, what you end up finding by the end is a poem about rest.
– James Hancock, online nonfiction editor
JH: The poem takes place over the course of a year. Why did you choose to split the narrative into the four seasons?
MT: On a practical level, breaking the narrative of Dear Almost into the four seasons gave me an organizing structure. It made the daunting task of writing a book-length poem—of trying to write one, since I’d never done it before—feel do-able.
I tend to write in a collage-like way, getting phrases and images down in my notebook, drafting a line or two at a time, then going back to see how they can fit together into a poem. That works fine for shorter poems, but in this case, I had pages and pages—a whole notebook full of stuff—and I was struggling with how to shape it into a poem. A lot of what I’d written had something to say about the landscape or the weather, so there were certain seasonal cues that made it natural to go back through these pieces in my notebook and think, Well, okay, that’s a spring image or That’s really a winter line, isn’t it? And again, this just made a big undertaking feel a little smaller and more manageable.
One some deeper level, I realized that following the seasons is also a natural way of charting the grieving process—the way the seasons keep circling along, and how that echoes the way your thoughts and feelings circle back again and again as you try to make peace with a loss.
JH: Dear Almost serves as a letter to your own almost child. Your grief is almost always indirectly discussed, either through metaphor or during certain moments, like where you try to imagine what your child would have looked like when she was older. What inspired that approach?
MT: Well, one of the things I admire about classical Chinese poetry is the way that a poet like Wang Wei or Meng Hao Jan would write about the seasons or the landscape as a way of describing his own inner weather. Adopting a variation on that approach appealed to me, and offered a sense of shelter, as I tried to find words for this feeling of loss. I didn’t imagine I could write directly about our almost girl for more than a few stanzas at a time without the poem becoming maudlin and unbearable, for me and for the reader. I don’t think I realized it fully at the time, but after the book was finished I could see how that approach might also make the moments of direct focus and address more powerful.
JH: You brought up classical Chinese poetry as an influence for Dear Almost. In the poem, you also talk about a visit to China, as well as the Chinese heritage on your wife’s side. Has the presence of Chinese culture and East Asian poetry influenced your previous works before?
MT: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been an avid reader of Chinese and Japanese poetry in translation for a long time. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve tried to learn from these amazing poems and model certain aspects of them in my own writing. Two of the books that mean the most to me as a writer and a reader are David Hinton’s anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry, and the Essential Haiku, a wonderful gathering of translations of Basho, Buson, and Issa, edited by Robert Hass.
Of course, my experiences in a cross-cultural family as well as the opportunities we’ve had to travel to China and Japan have influenced my writing too—in terms of what I write about, but also more broadly in the way I look at the world through my poems. Many of the poems in my previous book, This Time Tomorrow, also take place in China and Japan.
My mother-in-law, Mrs. Fong Koo, makes several appearances in Dear Almost, including during a car trip to the Chuan Yen Monastery in Carmel, New York. A section of the poem also takes place in her neighborhood in New Jersey, where all the streets are named for poets. She passed away recently, and some of my fondest memories of her involve our conversations about poetry. A lifelong reader of poetry, she would share with me poems clipped from her Chinese-language newspaper, which publishes a poem in each issue. We would also sometimes look at two translations of the same poem and she’d ask me which English version I thought was a better poem in English, and why. We both owned copies of Poems of the Masters, Red Pine’s translation of a classic Tang and Sung dynasty anthology and compared notes on favorites. For us poems were a common ground on which we could talk—across generations, languages, cultures and geographies. I miss her. I know as I continue to read poems in translation I’ll always wonder what she would think of them.
JH: You’re an established poet, but unlike most writers who happen to be professors or editors, you work in corporate communications. Despite the vast differences between the two, are there any similarities? Has your work in communications ever influenced your work as a poet, and vice versa?
MT: It’s funny to think of myself as established. Mostly I just feel old. When I was looking at MFA programs 20 years ago, I had thought I would go into teaching—it seemed like that’s what everyone did after getting an MFA. But I had been working in corporate communications for several years already, and so when the MFA program I attended turned out not to have any real opportunities for us to teach, I just kept doing the kind of work I’d been doing all along. And in many ways, it’s turned out to be a day job that complements my poem writing.
There do seem to be some similarities between corporate comms and teaching. For example, I give my colleagues writing advice and sometimes edit their press releases. People tend to come to me with grammar or punctuation questions. Saying more with fewer words, seeking clarity, and coming up with memorable phrases are important in both modes of writing.
Probably the most direct influence of my corporate work on my poem-writing occurred years ago when I was working for a PR and marketing agency in Detroit and wrote a poem about a break-of-day photo shoot I helped with for a taxi cab brochure.
JH: Dear Almost is an incredibly personal poem, much more so than your previous work. Was it purely circumstantial, or was this already a natural progression for your writing?
MT: For me it was a case of writing what I needed to write. I can’t remember when I started to write about this loss or decided that I would write about it—I just remember being already in it: writing about her, to her, trying to find words for this loss I’d never imagined. And you’re right; it was intensely, painfully personal. It’s still hard for me to read from this book.
I don’t know if there’s a progression. Probably any writer is the wrong person to answer that question about their own work. But for over a year now I’ve been writing poems for a new book, a sequence about a teenage boy’s experiences in a time of war and just after, in which he loses most of his family. The very first spark for this came from reading Jean Follain’s poems. I was blown away, wanted to write my way into a landscape like I’d seen in his poems, and just started dreaming this up. Maybe because of that I felt sure for a time that this would be purely a work of imagination, disconnected from my own life—which would be a relief after working on Dear Almost for so long. But of course, that’s never true. As I’ve written deeper into this boy’s story, I find myself writing about fathers and sons, what it means to be a parent, how it feels to lose people you love… themes that of course draw directly on my own experiences and emotions. You can’t ever really escape these things, can you?
JH: We’ve discussed the personal nature of your poem, but I feel that there’s also a universal experience that can be found within your grief. Do you expect parents who have experienced similar events will be able to look to Dear Almost and feel like they aren’t alone in their struggles? Was that ever one of your intentions while working on the poem?
MT: I’ve heard from a few people who read the book and felt a sense of recognition, found some comfort in it, and shared their stories with me. I’m humbled by that. I’m gratified to think I’ve been able to express thoughts and emotions they recognize and feel too—that, like you say, none of us are alone in this. It does seem like miscarriage is something that just doesn’t get talked about much—or that it’s sometimes seen as something to just get over and not dwell on.
So, I wanted to describe my experience as a would-be father. I wanted to find the words for what I was feeling—for this loss—because it felt as if no one had written something I could relate to. I was writing for myself, first, but also with the hope that when other people read the book someday they’d find meaning in it too. Of course, that’s always my hope.
Matthew Thorburn’s book, Dear Almost, has recently received the Lascaux prize. In addition to Dear Almost, Matthew Thorburn has also published several other poetry collections, such as This Time Tomorrow, Every Possible Blue, and Subject to Change. He is also due to have his upcoming book, The Grace of Distance, published by next fall. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Paris Review, Poetry, and The American Poetry Review. He has received the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, and the BRIO Fellowship from the Bronx Council on the Arts.