Interview with Carlo Matos
Interviewed by Kristina Marie Darling
Tell me about your new collection, The Secret Correspondence of Loon & Fiasco. What are three things that readers should know before they dive in?
Readers should know . . .
- Lizzy Borden gave her mother 40 whacks and when she saw what she had done, she gave her father 41.
- ALICE—Artificial, Linguistic, Internet, Computer, Entity. Chat with her online, but be careful, don’t fall in love.
- All the words to REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) or fail the shibboleth and have your head lopped off and left to bob in the river water.
I enjoyed the way your new book modernizes the epistolary tradition, situating this age-old form of writing in a twenty-first century cultural landscape. Letters are melded with emails, encryptions, and chat bots. How did the project begin? What inspired you to resurrect the lost art of letter writing?
L & F began as two separate projects. At the time, I was reading a lot about Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, and the German Enigma machine, and it gave me the idea to write a series of encrypted poems between two mysterious secret agents code-named Loon and Fiasco. At the same time, I was working on a novel about Johnny Sundays, a man who kept falling into time loops, into groundhog days like in the Bill Murray movie but much less fun. As the novel developed, I realized that Johnny had been recently estranged from his wife, but I knew even before I had worked it out that these were the kind of people who would not stop communicating with each other, that they were people with an almost pathological need to test their perceptions of the world against the experience of one very specific person. That’s when it occurred to me that the encryption poems and the novel were related. What if, I thought, something happened and Linda suddenly just stopped responding to Johnny’s letters, texts, and emails? Wouldn’t Johnny totally freak out? Then I realized that the encoded messages were a part of that, that Johnny and Linda were Loon and Fiasco, that two people who needed to communicate with each other so much might also enjoy encryptions, ciphers, telegraphy and things of that nature. Then I realized that Johnny would need a substitute, but something told me it was not going to be another human. So he goes to sex chatrooms, but that doesn’t quite do it for him. Eventually, he finds his way to the chatbot ALICE, and she becomes the receptacle of Johnny’s need to connect at a distance.
I'd love to hear more about the research you did for this collection. What part do other voices and other texts play in your creative process?
I tend to do quite a bit of research. I enjoy the act of researching itself, so in essence I am always doing “research.” I think you know what I mean. It must be a leftover from my graduate school days. That is why my work tends to be quite intertextual. It’s not by design; it is simply an after-effect of my nature to treat whatever I’m reading as if I am going to use it in some larger project later on. In this way I randomly happened upon an article about the Loebner Prize—an annual AI competition between chatbots. During the competition, judges are brought in and they have conversations with actual humans and with bots and then they try to decide which are the humans and which the bots. The goal, of course, is to produce a bot that can mimic human cognition. There are, however, many critics who question the validity of the test, that wonder if aping human speech is actually a measure of cognition. At the same time I was reading about the prize and about Alan Turing, I happened to be reading Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, which is also about AI. Powers is a favorite of mine. I like his polymath imagination. What I noticed, however, was that the chatbots were nowhere near the kind of AI he created in his book or the kind we see rather often in the movies, like in Her, for example. In the movies, the AI’s are extremely human. They are more human than human, actually, but they are nothing like the chatbots I encountered in the transcripts of the Loebner prize. I know many scientists are starting to worry about AI transcendence—and maybe it is something to fear though I think we have bigger problems—but even if computers do achieve sentience, I very much doubt it will look anything like human cognition. I’m no expert, but I am pretty sure it won’t be like Her. I did quite a bit of research on how networks work, and they do some really spooky things like self-organize. I think that is a much more likely vision of what sentient computers will be like. I doubt very much they will speak English and fall in love with their creators/users. That is just a human fantasy, just our normal and overblown vanity.
The collection, presented as a book-length sequence, has a beautiful sense of unity. Do you always work in projects? How do you balance the larger project with the individual poem, offering us a cohesive manuscript with poems that also stand on their own as individual pieces?
Thank you. Yes, I always work in projects. Only my first book breaks this mold, where I had the poems first and then had to find the shape to fit the work. My last four books had a shape/conceit long before I had much content. It is very rare that I write single, stand-alone poems these days. I need the larger canvas to keep my imagination going. I think this might be a result of my years writing plays. I spent a decade as a playwright and what I liked most about writing plays was that there was always something to work on, some problem to solve, so I never had fallow periods. And since L & F started out as a novel, I had some 25,000 words as raw material to work with. I did a lot of cutting and compressing before I started writing new material. In terms of the integrity of the individual pieces, it helps me to never think of them as fragments. L & F is a novella made up of individual pieces, but those pieces should be able to stand alone. Again, my most powerful tool is compression. I compress so much that the pieces should, if I have done it right (and, of course, I don’t always succeed), have enough distance from those around them to be their own thing. I hope so, anyway.
What's the best thing you've read all year? What's the worst thing you've read all year?
The best thing I’ve read all year is Parmy Olson’s We Are Anonymous, which is about a faction of Anons known as LulzSec. Anonymous represents, to my mind, a very real and necessary force of resistance in our current world because they can actually damage those who continue to abuse power. I worry about a world where resistance has become so anemic. You know what, maybe it isn’t anemic at all. Maybe that is exactly what I am meant to believe, but I guess I enjoy Anonymous’s fearless will. I like to imagine that one of my students goes home to her computer at night and makes the world a little more difficult for those people who think it their right to oppress others. My vision of them is a little romanticized, I admit, but one’s heroes always are, I guess.
What are you working on now? What can readers look forward to in the near future?
I have a new book coming out later in 2015 with Negative Capability Press called It’s Best Not to Interrupt Her Experiments. It’s the first collection of lyric poems I’ve done since 2009, since my first book. As you know, I’ve been working almost exclusively in prose poems/flash fictions for the last five years so I thought it was time to return to my roots, to return to line breaks, stanzas, and precious, precious enjambment.
Currently, I am working on a book of MMA/Roller Derby prose poems with my wife, Nicole Matos. It is tentatively called “Skate/Glove.” My wife is a writer and former derby girl, and I am a former MMA fighter. She wrote this amazing series about her time on the track with the Chicago Outfit, and I wrote a series about my years fighting for Team110. My wife was also a student in my Muay Thai class, so she knows a little something about fighting as well, so we wove these pieces together into this manuscript.
Emails, text messages, or epistles?
I love writing letters, but I’m a text fanatic. I miss the good old days of the analogue keypad. I hate typing on a digital screen. I love that texts are both immediate and distanced. It gives me the thrill of live conversation with the added ability to consider my responses more carefully because I can take as much or as little time to respond without making the person in front of me rather uncomfortable.
U.S.P.S. or Pony Express?
Pony Express, because why not?
James Franco or Amber Tamblyn?
James Franco but only because he happens to be Portuguese-American. The only reason I am even aware of the fact that he writes poetry is because of Hyacinth Girl Press publisher and poet, Margaret Bashaar, who was a little obsessed with him some time ago. I’ve never actually read any of his work, I am sorry to say.