Matt Mitchell claims Vampire Burrito is his last book of poems, but I don’t believe him. In June, we met up in Columbus to see the band Wednesday and got the chance to chat about his latest book. It had been four years since I met Matt in 2019 while he was a student at Hiram, and we bonded over music. During my MFA, I’d make the long drive to Youngstown for Tuesday class a couple of hours early, stopping along the way to meet him for a burger. Matt is proudly intersex and Appalachian. He’s acutely aware of the ethics an audience requires, and I appreciate that he believes he’s a part of the audience he’s speaking to. I’ve written about him before, along with the rest of the Cleveland School of poets, and I consider him a friend. It’s a gift to write towards many of the same things while adjacent to him.
Joy David (they/them) was born in Ukraine and lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where they are a geneticist in a lab studying diabetes and rare pediatric endocrine disorders. They are the author of Hibernation Highway (Madhouse Press, 2020) and organize the Starlight Elsewhere Reading at the Rhizome House. Their work has been published in the Harvard Review, Colorado Review, 68to05, Salt Hill, Muzzle, Passages North, and elsewhere.
Matt Mitchell is a poet, essayist, and critic based in Columbus, Ohio. Currently, he is serving as a music editor for Paste Magazine. Matt is the author of two books, The Neon Hollywood Cowboy (Big Lucks, 2021) and Vampire Burrito (Grieveland, 2023).
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity
[interview word count: 3161]
Joy David (JD): Okay. I feel like this is a pretty good place to start. But, also, I’ll preface this with, as far as I know—and please correct me if I’m wrong—you’re not ethnically Slavic?
Matt Mitchell (MM): We don’t know what my dad’s side of the family is. But my mom’s side of the family is French and English.
JD: That might be a bit tangential, but I wanted to check to ensure there wasn’t some sort of cultural lineage playing into this. Your work has a lot of fabulist elements, not only with having the strange transposed against the everyday, but also in terms of structure, which is common in a lot of pre-Soviet Slavic language poetry, like Russian formalism in the early 1900s. Your poems similarly have that narrative arc to them, not just within the poems themselves but through the whole collection. It’s very linearly temporal and reminds me a lot of Red by Anne Carson. Can you tell me anything about how the mythos of the poetry took shape? Or maybe how you balanced having an overall plot to the project existing alongside the lyrical intent of the poems?
MM: It’s interesting that you bring up the Russian poetry and the folklore aspect of it because there is something at play with that, but it’s not tethered to poetics. I think it’s more tethered to the idea of a folk song. It’s a book with my grandfather at the center of it. I grew up around him, always listening to folk or country music. And those are very narrative-driven genres of song. So, just through that exposure for years, I took that approach to telling stories in this book. I wanted a complete narrative throughout, but I also wanted each poem to tell an entire story the way a folk song does.
Vampire Burrito is a book with my grandfather at the center of it. I grew up around him, always listening to folk or country music. And those are very narrative-driven genres of song. So, just through that exposure for years, I took that approach to telling stories in this book. I wanted a complete narrative throughout, but I also wanted each poem to tell an entire story the way a folk song does.
JD: I feel like Vampire Burrito is also partially a continuation of an ongoing story, right? You also have some of the same characters from the first book in here.
MM: It’s really just an embellished version of myself from the first book minus the theatrics. I think with that first book, too, I was a little unsure of myself as a person, specifically who I’m writing about. So, I decided [in Neon Hollywood Cowboy] to make this character a movie-star-cowboy and put him in Hollywood because they always say, “Go to California; they all love you there and stuff like that.” But this time, when I wanted to make this book, I didn’t think I needed that. I wanted to go home for this book and then go to where my family is from. That’s where I start. One of the first poems in the book is about me coming home on a plane from California because I wanted it to have that continuity.
JD: It reminds me of the Franz Wright poem titled, literally, “The Poem,” which talks about imagining other lives. Is your work, to some extent, you testing out lives to see which ones you can inhabit or want to inhabit, or maybe the opposite—can’t inhabit, so you let them play out on the page? You know, Cowboy, he’s dead. But what parts of you does that demonstrate? These characters both are and are not extensions of you, maybe more so aspects or parts of you. What parts of you made it into this book, and what is different about the you in this book versus the you in the last book?
MM: The approach was similar. In Neon Hollywood Cowboy, I wanted to take the idea of hormone therapy and make it as glamorous as possible. It might just be a lack of knowledge on my part, but it feels like hormone therapy as an act, as a thing that you have to go through for years of your life, isn’t written about as much in poetry. And, when it is being written, it’s written by trans people or about trans people. I’ve thought about whether or not what’s going on with me is a trans thing, whether it’s a more complicated issue of how I perceive my sex and gender, but regardless, I wanted to make it glamorous.
I also feel like people are uncomfortable with the idea of taking hormones that your body can’t make on its own. Like using a needle, it’s a rugged instrument, and so, with that first book, I said, “How can I make this look cool.” When the book was finished, though, I felt like people might have a different opinion. And then I got feedback that wasn’t negative at all, but it was just an abundance of people saying something along the lines of “That shit is brutal to read about,” and I’d respond, “Damn, I’d hoped it wouldn’t be.” So, I think going into Vampire Burrito, I said to myself that maybe it needs to be brutal. But when it comes to who I am as a person across both books, I just wanted this book to be as true as possible.
When I was in high school, I’d be sitting at my grandma’s house with my mom, and we would just be spitballing about if I had a son what would I name him. It was all just fun with my mom. But with my dad, it was always a little more weighted because, in our bloodline, I’m the last person with my name. As I got older, I realized it’s a kind of subtle psychological torture, tumbling through life with an ending written for you. Where if you don’t fit into that ending, your everything is a failure, right? And that’s something that my dad would remind me—you’re the last Mitchell; you need to have a kid and carry us on—and I wanted to play around with that. I imagined honoring his request, having a child, him being a grandfather. And then I imagined what that looked like and thought about how I could be the dad that he never was. I think there are a lot of things going on in this book, but when I was done writing it, a big part of it was attempting to unlearn the things that my family instilled in me from a young age.
As I got older, I realized it’s a kind of subtle psychological torture, tumbling through life with an ending written for you. Where if you don’t fit into that ending, your everything is a failure, right?
And so, the parts of myself that made it into this book are larger than what I was putting into the first, which was only the really brutal parts. With this book, I wanted to put everything. I’m going to put love, I wanted to put family, I wanted to put the struggle of being an intersex person, and I wanted to put hope in the book. That wasn’t something I was thinking about. Initially, I didn’t give a shit about hope. Because at the time, when I wrote it, I didn’t have anything. But in the time that passed, COVID put things into perspective. I got to start caring for myself and being kind to myself. And so, in this book, I wanted to finish with hope. I was very nervous about this act. But I said I’d give it a shot because this feels like something that needs to be done.
[T]he parts of myself that made it into this book are larger than what I was putting into the first, which was only the really brutal parts. With this book, I wanted to put everything. I’m going to put love, I wanted to put family, I wanted to put the struggle of being an intersex person, and I wanted to put hope in the book.
JD: As you said, some people thought that first book was more brutal, not glamorous. Do you think that specific reading of your poems carries anything of what readers might be bringing to it? And—this is tangential, but—we’re both sports fans. Specifically, in that talk radio arena, I hear many stem cell or testosterone replacement therapies being pushed on men. Things like, do you want to get your libido back? Do you want your hairline to come back? Do you want to have more stamina in the bedroom? It’s pitched as an act of self-preservation for cis-hetero masculinity. Whereas when you try and do the same thing as an intersex person, the response is oh, this is so brutal.
MM: It’s funny that you bring up the radio advertisements, too, because, in different versions, there was a poem positioned as a radio ad for testosterone. I ended up cutting it from the book because I thought it was a little too indulgent. It’s funny, too, because I never thought there was a version of this book where I talk about the parallels between the juicing era of baseball in the ’90s and taking testosterone as an intersex person because that was around the time I was born. And I definitely felt like I was dreaming of past lives in a lot of ways.
I think that informs The Neon Hollywood Cowboy. There’s a line in “The Last Great American Blockbuster” where the ending is tricky because it happens in a different decade, where no one knows intersex people exist. That felt great in the moment to write, but looking back, I felt it cheapened the ending. I went into that book thinking about what I could do to serve the intersex community with poetry. When I finished that book, it felt like I did a solid service. I got a DM once on Twitter where someone asked me a lot about poetry, and one of the things was what it was like being the only intersex poet. And it kind of snapped something in me where I was upset by that.
JD: I want to ask you a little more about that interaction. Are there other intersex poets you’ve connected with through your work?
MM: Yes, there are. My friend had someone in her MFA cohort who found out they have Klinefelter syndrome, which is common in the intersex community. Apparently—and this was the cool thing, it was such an amazing moment for me as a writer— they didn’t even know about our friendship. They found my Freaks and Geeks poem from the first book and used it for an assignment. When my friend found out, she connected us two, and it was great.
The thing about knowing you’re intersex, though, is complicated because I was very privileged. I only found out I was intersex through an incident at a doctor’s office. At the time, my neurologist thought I had this disease called Charcot Marie Tooth, and there were like 48 or 49 different types of that disease. So, they had to perform gene sequencing, and when they did, they couldn’t find my Y chromosome.
I was very privileged to have those circumstances. My mom has a job with good insurance. I was afforded the luxury of going and having that diagnosis. And the problem is that not everyone has that. And it makes me wonder about folks who are genderqueer—how, for some of them, their dysphoria around gender might come from a place of being intersex. That’s where the intersection of both gender and sex comes into play. But it gets a bit murky because there are people out there who want to consider being intersex a part of the trans umbrella, and then there are people who don’t. And I’ve elected not to enter those conversations because I don’t think I have the resources, even now, five and a half years into knowing I’m an intersex person, to answer that question for anyone who isn’t myself. But I do wonder sometimes.
[T]here are people out there who want to consider being intersex a part of the trans umbrella, and then there are people who don’t. And I’ve elected not to enter those conversations because I don’t think I have the resources, even now, five and a half years into knowing I’m an intersex person, to answer that question for anyone who isn’t myself.
JD: And even within the “trans umbrella,” you perhaps have different layers of identity. Even within a simple semantic realm, there are transsexual and transgender, and as much as folks like to say that gender is socially constructed, some don’t go as far as to recognize that in very much the same way, sex is too. There’s much more fluidity than what we talk about: how your gender plays a role in your sex and your sexuality, and vice versa. There’s that whole queerness triangle, and even beyond that, the queer shape is bigger. It has many more spokes to it.
MM: You know, Kaveh Akbar told me something while writing Cowboy. I emailed him and said, “I’m putting this book together, and I’m really struggling to get it finished.” He called me the next day, and I told him, “I don’t know what my work is doing for intersex people.” And he said to me, “You can write about whatever you want. It could be about sports, about love, about nothing. It’s always gonna be intersex.”
JD: There’s just something about him that recognizes what folks need to hear. I’ve had a similar conversation with him. For a while, he was the only person that asked me why I chose my name, Joy. I think he understands, to such a nuanced extent, what it is to exist in a politicized body.
MM: When thinking about what he said to me, I look back on [Neon Hollywood Cowboy] and see a lot of failure because there’s no hope in that book. And some of my favorite poems by trans poets are hard to read. Yeah, they’re tough. And that’s just a picture of being a queer person in this world, right? It’s not happy as frequently as we’d like it to be, and I think those poems are necessary. But when I started writing Vampire Burrito, I realized we deserve joy too. Of course, there are poems in the book that are hard sometimes to grapple with, “Chromosomal Clit” is a very hard poem to even look back on. Because it is a poem about feeling suicidal after coming out. And that’s a hard thing to do. But I also wanted to give into happiness in a way; whether or not I was feeling that in my personal life is another story, but I don’t know; I think that that was Vampire Burrito. A lot of it isn’t real, but a lot of happiness isn’t real. Sometimes, we have to imagine other things happening to us. And that includes imagining a good thing happening to us. Yes, hard poems have to be written, but at the same time, I personally am tired of fetishizing my own downfall. I can’t do it anymore.
[S]ome of my favorite poems by trans poets are hard to read. Yeah, they’re tough. And that’s just a picture of being a queer person in this world, right? It’s not happy as frequently as we’d like it to be, and I think those poems are necessary. But when I started writing Vampire Burrito, I realized we deserve joy too.
Yes, hard poems have to be written, but at the same time, I personally am tired of fetishizing my own downfall. I can’t do it anymore.
JD: In previous conversations, you’ve mentioned you wish there were more publishing opportunities targeted towards intersex people, that these could go a long way in building some of those connections necessary for a healthy community. Since we’re doing this interview for Lambda, I wanted to ask what, if anything, you’d like to see change in terms of Lambda supporting the intersex community?
MM: I think it starts with showing them off, wanting intersex poems to be seen. Lambda has always been a resource for queer people, so of course, I Googled Lambda Literary intersex,” and something popped up. But then you click, and there’s nothing there. It’s a blank web page, right? I was taken aback because how do they not have anything? It doesn’t even have to be anything about writing, maybe even just a resource landing page. And a jaded version of me felt wronged by Lambda. At that point, it felt like their LGBTQ+ stopped at the T. But the answer is, I’m not really sure yet.
In terms of their book awards, there are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender categories. And I know labels and awards aren’t a fix, but it would be nice to see a “queer” category where there are opportunities to highlight other identities. Like I said, award labels aren’t a solution, but there’s got to be a first brick. Right? So maybe 10 to 15 years from now, there are 30 intersex poets that are widely read. And, you know, obviously, you want that as a future. I want all of my people to have that opportunity. I wouldn’t be doing them justice if I didn’t say that I thought Lambda could do better towards intersex people.
JD: The thing is, when you care about something, you want to make it better. So I see your comments about Lamda being less of “screw this place” and more of “this is important, and I’d like to see some practices changed. Let’s make it better.”
MM: Yeah, it rings similarly.
JD: I know everyone asks you about music and pop culture poems, and perhaps falsely, you’re regarded as a “pop-culture” poet. And I think maybe my perception of it being a falsehood comes from the fact that your poems aren’t ever really “about” the figure or song in them. When I think of your poems, they remind me more of taking water and pouring it into different vessels. You’re the water, and the songs, cinema, whatever the pop cultural unit, is the vessel you’re inhabiting for a while. It’s more about the shape of the water than it is about the vessel itself. What would be your ideal sonic vessel to inhabit? How would you shape that song?
Matt: I would start with Xandy Chelmis from Wednesday on lap steel. Standing two feet away from him last night only heightened the appreciation that I already had for his work. Because you know everything that’s got a lap steel in it or pedal steel sounds infinitely better. There’s a country singer named Dylan Earl. He’s got the best baritone voice you’ve ever heard. I love that shit so much. And then give me like a just like a nobody drummer. You know what I mean? Someone with a name nobody recognizes but with the approach to playing the snare where it’s like he’s hitting it with a whisk. On guitar, give me Hayden Pedigo. I think that if you put those four people together, you’re gonna get like the coolest song you’ve ever heard. And the fun thing is none of those people are known well. They’re not selling out huge arenas. For me, though, in terms of what I would love to see, they would make the best song. That’s kind of my intention for my poems, too.