“Writing Basically Constantly”: Alumni Interview with Matthew Baker ’08

Matthew Baker ’08 is coming to town, and the English department snagged an interview with our New York City-dwelling Hope alum and ascendant professional writer.

Baker’s works include the middle-grade mystery novel If You Find This (2017) and the story collection Hybrid Creatures (2018), from which he’ll be reading at JRVWS on Thursday the 27th. Three of his stories have been optioned for the screen by Amazon, an independent studio, and Netflix–the most recent causing a “bidding stampede”!

So, what are you doing now? We’ve heard the headlines, of course.

Writing—writing stories, writing novels, writing screenplays, writing comics—writing basically constantly.

Not bad advice for aspiring writers at Hope. Speaking of which, how did your Hope English education shape you?

I’m most grateful for two things: having had the opportunity to volunteer as an editor for Opus, and having had the opportunity to take Modern English Grammar, which at the time was taught by Rhoda Janzen [now Burton]. Every writer should take a grammar course and learn how to diagram sentences. I very passionately believe that. You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are to begin with.

I also did an independent study on graphic novels with Beth Trembley, which had an enormous effect on me as a writer. Curtis Gruenler’s course on the history of the English language was essential. Jack Ridl taught me sage wisdom about poetry. Heather Sellers taught me sage wisdom about fiction. Kathleen Verduin let me sleep in a spare room in her basement one summer when I didn’t have anywhere to live.

Also, Julie Kipp during class once made an offhand remark that films were literature too and that as students of literature all of us had an obligation to study film history (I think she was upset that nobody in the class had ever seen Apocalypse Now) and I actually took that to heart and I did—that summer I rented over a hundred classic films from Van Wylen Library, and I can say that despite being an unofficial assignment, that was probably the most important assignment I was ever given.

What advice would you give to current English majors or students considering an English major?

Subscribe to The Paris Review.

Intriguing! Current students may be pleased to know that the Van Wylen Library subscribes, if they want to check out the latest issue. Tell us, if you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

I actually do—I teach an advanced writing workshop once a year at NYU, called Hybrid Fictions. It’s a workshop in which students exclusively read and write interdisciplinary fiction: stories that incorporate subject-specific language, forms, and concepts from other fields of study. For instance, Margaret Luongo’s “A Note on the Type,” which is structured as a series of notes about fictional typefaces, drawing on the field of typography.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

In college my most treasured book was The People of Paper, primarily because one of the characters in the novel is a mechanical tortoise that speaks entirely in binary, which is just marvelous.

Thanks to Matthew Baker for giving us a taste of what to expect on Thursday. Students, faculty, and community members alike: be sure to attend his free reading!

9/27 @ 3:30 p.m. – Q&A in the Martha Miller Center
9/27 @ 7:00 p.m. – reading in the Jack Miller Center followed by reception

25 & Counting: The Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series 2018 Preview

It’s been 25 years since Hope English professor Jack Ridl founded his Visiting Writers Series — JRVWS for short — and it’s time to celebrate! We have remarkable events scheduled for 7:00 p.m. on September 27th and November 13th. Will we see you there?

Hope College has a true legacy in creating a rich community of writers. Throughout the school year, students, faculty, and locals alike will have opportunities to engage these writers in conversation, hear them read from their work, and learn from their artistry.

How does one “humbly celebrate”? Not a paradox if you’re Jack Ridl…

To begin the season, here’s a sneak peak of this fall’s unprecedented gathering of artists, brought to you by the team behind the curtain: English professor and JRVWS director Susanna Childress, and JRVWS interns Shanley Smith (’19) and Annika Gidley (’19). In the words of Dr. Childress: “We hope you’ll join us as we humbly celebrate the rich legacy of years past and look forward to years to come.”

September 27: Matthew Baker, Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Meridith Ridl

In less than two weeks, Hope College will welcome back alum Matthew Baker for the Tom Andrews Memorial Reading. Since leaving Hope, he’s made a big splash, including a recent Netflix deal — look out for more details in our forthcoming interview here at the department blog!

Shanley Smith, who is helping to coordinate Baker’s visit, shared a bit about what his work means to her:

“During my first semester at Hope College, my professor assigned the short story ‘Rites’ by Matthew Baker. I clicked instantly with his crisp style and bizarre subject material. I discovered in class the next day that Baker ranks as one of Hope College’s most successful creative writing graduates.

“Ripe with philosophy and equations, his latest work Hybrid Creatures catered to my left-brain mindset. His specificity with topics such as Aristotle or trigonometry creates a paradoxical accessibility to individuals across various disciplines. Through the mathematical and scientific, his stories tap into the humanity of subjects such as memory loss and family conflict.

“For nearly four years I’ve admired Baker’s work, so it is with heightened anticipation that I look forward to welcoming this year’s JRVWS alumni guest.”

On the same evening, we’ll also welcome the creators of a beautiful book featuring two types of artistic collaboration! It’s not just a reading — Dr. Childress lets us know to expect the unexpected from Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Meridith Ridl:

“What makes Lake Michigan Mermaid unusual is not just the ‘tale in poems’ of a young woman trying to find where she belongs or the threat of losing connection with her family and their home, a ramshackle cottage on the lake. It’s also the voice of a mermaid speaking telepathically into such an urgent and pivotal moment.

“This poem-tale is a collaboration of Michigan co-authors Linda Nemec Foster and Anne-Marie Oomen, illustrated by the striking, mystical hand of Meridith Ridl. Such a summation of talent and connectivity brings us the fascinating, fantastical, and endearing story-verse and visuals of Lykretia and Phyliadellacia, which JRVWS-goers will get to experience as a co-reading with projected illustrations. In our series’ 25 years, there’s never been an event quite like it!”

November 13: Emily St. John Mandel

Partnering with the Big Read, JRVWS will be bringing Emily St. John Mandel back to the very lakeshore that provides the setting for her New York Times-bestselling novel Station Eleven.

Annika Gidley, one of the students making it all possible, gives us the details:

Station Eleven, a novel by Emily St. John Mandel and this year’s selection for the NEA Big Read Lakeshore, examines the search for human connection in a world where ninety-nine percent of the population has perished in a pandemic. The novel offers all the action and suspense that readers of post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction expect. But more than that, it allows the reader to ruminate on bigger, more uplifting ideas, such as the importance of art and the power of relationships that develop in unexpected places.

“In a world where social media and ever-increasing workloads make authentic connection seem harder to come by, St. John Mandel offers readers a chance to reflect on and interrogate their own world, their own relationships.

“When she visits Hope’s campus in November, St. John Mandel will provide insight that readers can take with them as they put down the novel and step out into their own lives.”

Intrigued? Join us, and experience these unique opportunities for yourself.

Matthew Baker, Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Meridith Ridl will appear for a Q&A in the Martha Miller Center at 3:30 p.m. on 9/27. Their presentations are at 7:00 p.m. in the Jack Miller Center, followed by a 25th anniversary dessert reception.

Emily St. John Mandel will give an address to students at 11:00 a.m. on 11/13, and her keynote speech will be at 7:00 p.m. the same day in Jack Miller.

Hope College Academy of American Poets Prize 2018

About the Prize

The Hope College Academy of American Poets (AAP) Prize award is funded by the University and College Poetry Prize program of the AAP. The academy began the program in 1955 at 10 schools, and now sponsors nearly 200 annual prizes for poetry at colleges and universities nationwide. Poets honored through the program have included Mark Doty, Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Gjertrud Schnackenberg and Charles Wright. The winning poet receives $100.

Judged by Lauren Haldeman

Lauren Haldeman

Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collections Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry), Calenday (Rescue Press, 2014) and The Eccentricity is Zero (Digraph Press, 2014). She works as a web developer, web designer and editor during the daytime. She received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman award and National Poetry Series. She is also a mom and makes paintings.

Lauren Haldeman writes: “I loved reading all of these! I am really impressed with this quality of the work — there is so much talent here! It was hard to choose, but these are the two I kept coming back to, over and over.”

Winner: Amber Carnahan’s “Rooted”

Amber Carnahan

Lauren Haldeman writes: “Immediately this poem had me off-balance, engaged, interested. Within the first two lines, we are already moving from the wild and natural place of “bones bury roots” to the domestic and enclosed space of “in the body of my bed”. This initial action promises more angles, pivots and fresh viewpoints to come. The form alone carries the poem into higher realms, with slashed punctuation acting as indicative lines breaks, visual structure and pauses within the spill of consciousness. There are fantastic emotive turns in this work, hinging on singular words, such as “admiring the life // sprouting through the cracks // I am cracked,” while images such as “a kaleidoscope of nameless gravestones” thrill visually. Meanwhile, the subtle use of alliteration throughout the work ballast the poem in sound. Most of all, I love that we travel so far from the initial scene — the bed — outward to an interstate, to a graveyard, to cracks in a windshield, only to arrive back, finally at the end, to a snooze button on an alarm. This last image is wonderful: it is poetic, it is silly and it is human.”

Rooted

bones bury roots // in the body of my bed // head a rock refusing // to be lifted or even turned to face the window // displaying life in action // like the fry cook on his way to work // tracing the path of red bricks // and admiring the life sprouting // through the cracks // I am cracked // but not a violent shatter // that hints at spontaneity // but like a chip in the glass // of your car windshield // that time never provided // a chance to heal // fractures spread // until I am encompassed // by a kaleidoscope of nameless gravestones // my identity faded // past recognition // past grief // glass fragments intermingle // with the roots in my bed // I think about rising // before shifting the tide // of stagnance // from the window’s disapproving view // and hitting snooze.

 

Honorable Mention: Safia Hattab’s “The Aftermath Sestina”

Safia Hattab

Lauren Haldeman writes: “A sestina is a difficult endeavor, and not often successful. Yet the struggle to write a sestina sometimes reveals treasures of innovation, and in this poem they appear with a wonderful subtlety: in surprises like the switch from “flown” to “flu” within two stanzas, or the change of “tear” from noun to verb. I also enjoyed the odd images and newly-seen objects, such as “sugared wool” and “petals bleeding pollen into soil” that arise out of the quiet storm of this work. This is a rich poem, a poem that twists into and inside of itself; this is a poem that takes on a life of its own, through the demands of a rigid form, through its insistence on returning over and over to an obsessive question of ingrown desires.”

The Aftermath Sestina

The first time she bled,
tiny roses erupting from pieces
of broken glass, she flew,
like mama told her, to her safe place,
where crystalline tears
on cherubed cheeks stayed buried

in five year-old minds, buried
behind dollhouses that bled
candy floss’d sunshine, sugared tears
leaking from pieces
of puffy treats placed
by the honeyed God flown.

The second time she flew
to where her pain was buried,
a lotus bloomed in place
of the home, petals bleeding
pollen into soil, pieces
of yellow dust like golden tears

in vibrant green. No one told her tears
could grow, and as she flew
years later, she found only pieces
of cotton-candied buildings buried
under golden grass, encased by ivy bled
from crystalled seeds; no longer the place

she could hide, or the place
where houses grew from inked tears,
black from all the times she bled
crooked trails of rust, flown
over the graves of buried
worlds left behind, pieces

broken but intact. When she returns, pieces
of nostalgia still visible, she will place
another dilapidated shack over buried
remains, plant it with the tears
of a more mature sadness, festering like flu
until allowed to bleed

in buried houses with fruitless pieces,
bleed through sacred places and rotted sweet,
tear into sugared wool flown over cuckoo’s nest.

Event: JRVWS Authors, Karen Russell and Nate Marshall

I am thrilled to say that Karen Russell and Nate Marshall will be arriving on campus this Thursday, March 1 to participate in the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series. They will host a Q&A at 3:30pm in the Fried-Hemenway auditorium and read from their work at 7:00pm in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts. It’s an especially exciting thought for me as I prepare to welcome an author whom I have loved for years, as well as another whose work I just recently encountered with immediate respect. For those of you who haven’t heard of either of them, let me tell you a bit about my experiences with their works.

When I was seventeen, I read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” It was a story that nipped at my mind for months to follow. Needless to say, I was excited when I found out that she’d be visiting Hope College. She was one of those pivotal writers that first spurred me on when I started exploring the world of contemporary literature. Her words bent my expectations of narration and plot and she introduced me to a new form of literature: magical realism.

Karen Russell

As I read her book Vampires in the Lemon Grove this summer, I found myself once again in the grip of Russell’s words. Her stories were infectious, permeating my thoughts long after I finished the collection. I often caught myself attempting to explain her bizarre plotlines to my friends, and I soon realized that her flare for magical realism had begun to creep into my own poetry. I do not offer my recommendation for Karen Russell’s work lightly; in fact, I must warn that her work stole my attention and snatched my thoughts in a way that stretched beyond mere entertainment. Russell sneakily inserts cultural reflections into her stories. Her latest novel Swamplandia! encouraged me to meditate on juxtapositions between family and individuality, selfishness and ambition, and faith and naivety. Be warned that Karen Russell will leave you with a busy imagination and a sensitive conscience.

Our other visiting writer Nate Marshall taps into the classic theme of home in his latest book of poetry. It seems most authors have spent a season exploring their childhood through writing. This makes sense, as our upbringings often shape how we view the world, but Nate Marshall’s book of poetry Wild Hundreds strides beyond an ordinary reflection on home. University of Pittsburgh Press is right to describe his work as “a love song to Chicago.”

Nate Marshall

Marshall brightens his poems with strikingly original material as he writes about Harold’s Chicken Shack in a series of three poems. The pieces work together in a beautiful exploration of strength, spirituality, and identity. In another poem, entitled “Palindrome,” he vivifies the age-old subject of romance as he tells a love story in reverse. Marshall’s words invited me into his nostalgia with an even balance of sweetness and grit. The material provided me with something to digest rather than simply taste, and he awakened within me an appreciation for streets I hadn’t walked, foods I hadn’t tasted, and churches I hadn’t attended. Marshall dropped me into blends of love and hate and left me in a perfect balance of peace and conviction. In his own words, Nate Marshall brought me on a journey through “a pool of grief puddling, / a stare into the barrel, / a push into open air,” yet as Marshall concludes, “ours is a love song.” He manages to string all the complexities of his upbringing together into a serenade for the streets where he grew up, and I am so thankful that he allowed me as a reader to listen to it.

I hope you all join me on March 1 at Nate Marshall’s and Karen Russell’s Q&A at 3:30pm in the Fried-Hemenway auditorium and their reading at 7:00pm at Jack Miller.

For more information feel free to visit the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series website.

Event: JRVWS Authors, Randall Horton and Lauren Haldeman

Over Christmas break I found myself with time to nestle into a couch and burrow into books with a leisure that school semesters rarely allow. I took my time entering new worlds conjured up through poetry and memoir. Two of the books I was fortunate enough to read–Hook and Instead of Dying–were written by the next two guests for the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series, and they will both be on campus to read their work this Thursday, February 1, at 7:00 P.M. My emotions were caught in the heist of these crafty authors’ words. I knew from the dust jackets that their works would make a grab for my heartstrings, but I did not anticipate how tightly they would grip me.

Randall Horton

Hook by Randall Horton introduced me to a world that I’d never imagined before reading. I’ve always admired memoirists for their ability to sift through memory with honesty and courage. Randall’s work is exceptional in this regard. He shares his journey through addiction, incarceration and eventual rehabilitation. He writes with a natural poeticism and earnestness, which allowed me to empathize with what I would’ve thought an incomprehensible world; instead, Horton graciously invited me into a story ripe with the human condition.

In her own distinct fashion, Lauren Haldeman wooed me from the moment I laid eyes on the cover of Instead of Dying. It expresses a sort of whimsy with its sketch of two wolves holding a stream of colors reminiscent of Funfetti. Her vocabulary is rich with nostalgia and tenderness as she honors the most innocent memories such as birthdays and “the way the candles and cake arrive.”

Lauren Haldeman

Haldeman’s book drew up long-buried memories from licking the strawberry frosting on my fourth birthday cake to stargazing with my father. This nostalgia made the core of her poetry–the grieving process following her brother’s death–hit with an intensity paralleled by the soft grace of her imagery. I toted this book with me to coffee shops and airports only to find myself crying in these most public places. Haldeman’s words, though gentle, prodded me and stirred buried sentiments of family memories and the fragility and importance of relationships.

Horton and Haldeman both display an aptitude for the “white hot center” that Robert Olen Butler describes as the key virtue of any skilled author. Their fearlessness hums in their writing and shakes each page. I look forward to meeting them this Thursday, February 1, as they join us for the first event of the Spring 2018 Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series, where they will bring both voice and insight to their books.

Please join these fine writers at the 3:30 P.M. Q&A session in the Martha Miller Center’s Fried-Hemenway Auditorium and at the 7:00 P.M. reading in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts.

For more information on these events, visit the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series website.