I first met Matthew Burnside a massive Facebook group called MFA Draft when we were both applying to MFA programs. The group was set up so applicants to the many creative writing grad programs could share support and anxiety while they waited for those acceptance calls or rejection notices. Matthew was one of the many memorable personalities in that group. I, certainly, was not, but many of them friended me anyway, and I love seeing where their paths have taken them now that we've all finished our programs. Matthew Burnside's Facebook feed alternates between the most ridiculous, awkward memes and the most inspirational, heartfelt manifestos about writing and art. See the interview below and you'll get a taste of what I mean.
Matthew's first full-length story collection, Postludes, is out today from Kernpunkt Press.
Sarena Ulibarri: The most important question first: is that a corgi on the cover? Is there a corgi in this book?! I must know.
Matthew Burnside: There are at least two dogs in Postludes, but I never specify that either is a corgi. I actually asked the cover artist to just “envision your most precious pet” and a corgi was the result. Pets are inextricably linked to childhood, nostalgia, and most notably our early conceptions of loss I think, so they definitely had important roles to play.
SU: In a nutshell, what was the path from manuscript to publication for Postludes?
MB: Postludes is a jigsaw of mostly formal experiments I did over the years, some preceding my MFA but many of them completed while I was in my program. Finding a home for the collection was difficult because they aren’t traditional pieces, some have more in common with poetry than prose, and a cohesive theme proved elusive for the longest time. In short, it was a monster to market. I feel like much of my work feels like B-sides, not in quality hopefully but in tone and variety. Prose that feels more like poetry at times (or vice versa) can be really alienating to readers, but it’s how I write for better or worse. Plot or narrative doesn’t interest me nearly as much as conveying a feltness or visceral emotion through landscapes of language.
SU: You earned an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop—what advice do you have for young (or not so young) writers struggling through the MFA application process?
MB: I know when I first started trying to crack the MFA code (I was rejected by 50+ programs before Iowa finally said Sure, come on in) I was doing it for the wrong reasons: I needed validation. To feel like a writer. I needed people who had already been successful to pat me on the head and go, Yes, little one you have my permission to write your little things. And then, of course, you look around at all the other really talented writers and do your best to follow their example. To publish where they’ve published and how they’ve published. You try to sound like them and maybe look like them and think like them, too. This is the mistake I think, because it means latching on to a path that’s been tread a thousand times already instead of maybe footing it and exploring your own path, which can be scary and lonely but may lead you to yourself---your own unique identity as an artist. At a certain point when I was at Iowa, I remember some of my peer’s words ringing in my ears, regarding this weird new media project I had made: “How in the HELL are you ever going to sell this?” And I remember thinking I HAVE NO IDEA and then promptly thinking, How Exciting is That? Maybe it doesn’t matter if I sell it at all? Maybe it shouldn’t? That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy investment of time and craft. That doesn’t negate its value as an artful endeavor. That acceptance changed a lot for me. Since then, I’ve just sort of been exploring and writing what’s interesting to me. Some things have been successful, most haven’t, but it’s all one big exploration now. So, I guess my advice to younger writers would be Forget Trying To Make It Into the Cool Writers Club. Forget carving a fail-proof career out of art. Forget perfectly padded CVs whispering the promise of tenure and wide-eyed admiration from little versions of you. Accept Loneliness Now. Invite Failure Now, the more ambitious the riskier the better. Accept being an outlier, an outsider, an under-the-radar obscure no-name Nobody. Because there’s tremendous creative freedom in that, to work on what you want how you want for your own pure-as-ice joy. If you want rabid fans, if you’re desperate for attention, go start a cult. Writing is not a way to get love from others, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about finding a key to unlock rooms you never knew you had inside of you.
SU: Much of your work can be classified under that fuzzy label of “Experimental Writing.” What does “experimental” mean to you, and how has your understanding of it morphed over your writing career?
MB: It used to mean WRITER WHO WILL NEVER MAKE MONEY EVER. It still means that, mostly. But it also means being a Serpentine Disciple of Yes in a narrow valley of mediocrity. It means a willingness to die again and again through your work for the off chance to be reborn as something better. It means restlessness and motion sickness and a stubborn refusal to wear the same hat even if it is the prettiest and most comfortable of hats.
SU: What books, authors, or films most influenced you while writing Postludes?
MB: I’ve already spoken of the influence Akira Kurosawa’s DREAMS had on the book in another interview, but there are others too: Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, the dream fog logic of David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the dancing of Martha Graham, the science of Stephen Hawking, cartoons, video games, even the comedy of Mr. Bean.
SU: Do you have any readings or signings coming up? Where can readers find you?
MB: None scheduled. I find that my work doesn’t really lend itself to performativity. I mostly prefer to leave it as a thing that exists on the page or screen, but in 2017 that may be something I try to change. I’d welcome the opportunity, especially if it involves working with young writers, as the classroom is where I feel most comfortable.
Until then, I live on the internet at http://matthewkburnside.wixsite.com/2017 and currently teach fiction and creative writing for new media at Wesleyan University.
Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Kill Author, PANK, and Pear Noir! among others. He is the author of several chapbooks and numerous digital works. He currently teaches at Wesleyan University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Find your copy of Postludes:
Small Press Distribution