National Book Award Finalist, Matt Rasmussen, joined The Alchemist Review for a short interview to talk about his small press Birds LLC, and his award winning book, Black Aperture, and the literary community in Minnesota. You can also learn more by visiting http://www.birdsllc.com/ and http://mattrasmussen.net/
Q: What’s the literary community like in Minnesota?
MR: You know, it’s really strong, I think. Minnesota has in the past funded the arts really well. You know, I think every state does that too; but, I think Minnesota sort of makes it a point to do that. Recently…The Legacy Act, was passed, which funneled a lot of money into the arts. On top of that, there’s several private foundations that fund things like the McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation. Those both [McKnight and Bush] are 3M executives. 3M, that’s a Minneapolis Company. And, what else is there? The Jerome Foundation. I guess those are the three. And then there’s like Target; they’re from there as well, they donate a lot of money.
But there’s the Loft Literary Center…they claim the largest independent literary organization in the country that’s not affiliated with a university or a college. So it’s just classes. You can go there to take writing classes. No grades or anything. It’s just learning from teachers.
So there’s things like that. There’s just a lot of poetry…that’s just the community I am. But there’s just a lot of really good poets there, and I think part of that is because of the support that literature receives in Minnesota. That it’s being funded by the state, and you know by these private foundations.
Q: What’s Minnesota like?
MR: It’s cold. Well, I’m from there, so it’s hard for me to sort of talk about it from an outside perspective because I grew up there and everything. Obviously the winters are terrible, but the summers are amazing. Minneapolis has lakes all over the place. It often gets rated really high for outdoor activity cities. It’s one of the top bike cities, even though I don’t bike. I do, but like not seriously like some people.
Q: What do you do when you’re not writing?
MR: I like to golf. Minnesota’s great for that other than the winter. At one point in time, I saw a survey that said it had the highest percentage of golfers per capita. Isn’t that weird? You think it’d be Florida or somewhere like that. So, I like to golf. I spend a lot of time with my daughter, my three year old daughter. I like to read.
Q: Who are you reading right now?
MR: I’m reading Rebecca Lindenberg. The book’s called Love, an Index. She was married to a poet, Craig Arnold. He was going to look for a volcano [in Japan] and he disappeared. They think he fell and died—off a cliff or something. They’re not sure. He’s just gone. So it’s a book devoted to him. So it’s interesting. It’s an index. It’s a lot longer than my book. It’s like twice as long I think. It’s over a hundred pages, but it’s really good.
Q: What’s the strangest thing you’ve been asked?
MR: I had a student in a class I just visited who asked me—it was maybe just the way they phrased the question—they held up the book and they were kind of like [points to his photo on the back of the book] “Did you choose this photo?” I tried to think, Is there something wrong with the photo? What’s wrong with it? She said, “No I’m just curious, did somebody pick it or did somebody else?” It was more of a question about what happens when you get a book published. But I don’t know, strange questions … I haven’t gotten too many.
Q: Any that have caught you off guard?
MR: Hmm…I’m trying to think. Other than this question? [Laughs] The strangest question I’ve ever been asked is, “Have you ever been asked any strange questions?” No. Um.
Yeah, I think a lot of times, people, because of the subject matter of the book dealing with the suicide of my brother, they’ll sort of be afraid to ask about him, or something. You know.
Q: I kind of felt that way.
MR: Yeah, like how do you ask a question that’s respectful? You know? So I guess sometimes if people ask that type of question, you know, “What was your brother like?” Questions like that, which the book doesn’t really explore at all. It doesn’t describe him necessarily, so that always surprises me, you know. That catches me off guard. And it’s a little bit difficult to talk about in front of a group of people. Still. Which is crazy. It’s like twenty years ago and still, it’s difficult to “re-hash” if you want to use that word. Like I said, my book isn’t meant to solve any problems or lead anybody through a difficult time with a member who has committed suicide. But you know people that have read it and known somebody who has committed suicide said that it was, not that it was helpful to them, but that it resonated with them, or it seemed true to them. That I had taken sort of their, not their experience exactly, but things similar to what they experienced when reading my book.
Q: How do you prepare, because it’s such a taboo topic? Is there any sort of mental preparation, or “psyching-yourself-up” before you talk in front of a group of people?
MR: It’s something I have to distance myself from to talk about. I can’t talk about it as though it’s me, Matt talking about it. I have to be the person who’s—do you know what I mean? I’m a character talking about this brother of mine who’s died, but it’s not me. I don’t know. It is a really difficult thing to talk about; not that I don’t like talking about it because I think it’s something that has affected me in a huge way. It affects lots of people all the time, and it’s often not discussed and not brought up just because people are afraid to, you know, make you cry or push the wrong button.
Q: Make you feel uncomfortable?
MR: Right, bring back the wrong memory, or whatever it is. So, I don’t know. I think psyching myself up, it is difficult. It is difficult to talk about in front of a group of people, but you just have to do it I guess. I just have to do it.
Q: How do you work with the artists on Birds LLC?
MR: Well, we had one cover artist who designed, I think, the first four or five covers of our books and then we had an author, or poet, who was really close friends with an artist and he was like, “I really want this guy to do the cover.” And in other instances, Dan Boehl…he’s friends with the artist who worked with him, and did the cover for the most part…Um, they’re definitely working for less than they should, when they work for us, and I think they do it because they like our books and they want to support us. I mean we pay them, but it’s not what a normal cover designer most likely would be paid. So, we usually know the artist as well. It’s not just some like random person. They’re already sort of part of the community that we have.
Q: You can talk to them. They know what you want.
MR: Yep, exactly.
Q: Have there been any squabbles at Birds LLC?
MR: No. No real squabbles. It’s been really smooth, actually. Surprisingly. I think, as editors, we have different opinions about different people’s work and disagree on some things often. What we’ve done is we’ve made one person the editor for each book. So there’s five of us, so one of us is assigned to this book and we all read it, all put comments on it, the manuscript. So there’s people looking at it, editing it, and then that one editor takes all those comments and whatever ones they like, agree with, whatever, then they’ll pass those comments on to the poet. So it’s sort of like, you can disagree with me, or you can have that opinion, but I’m the editor on this. If you want to try and convince me of that, that’s fine, we can go over it however much you want, but the editor has final say. And really the poet really has final say. Because once we’ve accepted a book we can say, “Do this. Do that. Do this.” But if you just say no…
Q: Then I’m taking my work back.
MR: Yeah. Or, I think that line is really important to the poem. Then we as editors we can push back, but in the end it’s the poet’s decision. So I think squabbles for the most part have been avoided because of that process, I don’t know. It wasn’t designed that way.
I think, with the covers, we’ve only had one cover that had to be redone. And it was pretty much everyone that decided it needed to be remade. And it was for a book and the original image was really literal. And we all looked at it and were all like, “Ookay. Let’s see what the poet thinks.” And we sent it to the poet and we didn’t hear back for a while. We were like, “Oh crap.” But we already knew, just the feel from us, the excitement. Every other cover we’ve been like, “Holy Cow! That’s so cool you know! Awesome!” and we want our poets to have that same experience. We want them to be happy with it. So anyway, the poet was like, it was really weird, she said, “I have this pillowcase I really like.” So all of us were like, “Oh, no. What? A pillowcase?” And, so, then she took a photo of it and we sent it to the designer and he designed the cover and it was awesome. It was so great. It was amazing. And it’s one of those covers that people walk by all the time at book fairs and are like, “Oh that cover is great! I love it.” It was something we were so skeptical about at first because of the poet, sort of, you know—
Q: Being “too poet-y.”
MR: Yeah, that was our vibe and I guess what it made me realize: you don’t know what’s going to happen out of those things…It ended up being awesome.