Sebastian Matthews is a creative soul, and hard to categorize. Poet, novelist, collagist, book artist, DJ. He spent years creating a boxed, eleven volume work called The Life & Times of American Crow. In it, he utilized all his varied talents, and his passion for collaboration, and bringing forms together, in the telling of the story. Matthews, who lives in Asheville, North Carolina, agreed to chat not just about the work but about living the creative life to its fullest possibilities. He was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Editor, Edward J. Delaney.
MH: I’ve spent a lot of time with American Crow, and I know you are primarily or originally a poet. With this project did you do the writing first, then move into the other aspects?
SM: The story came in a vision. I spotted this kid on the street. He was 19, maybe 20. He literally had a copy of On the Road falling out of his backpack, and he seemed ready to go out into the next phase of his travels. When I looked at him, I saw myself at that age. I imagined myself a lot like him. But this guy seemed further out there than I’d ever got.
Back then I was traveling around, hitchhiking. I was pretty privileged. I had a strong connection to a circle of friends. I was in touch with my parents, though I didn’t see them very often. If I needed money, I could have borrowed it from them. And I could work. So when I saw that kid, I saw myself but also someone a lot less secure. Maybe he was bipolar (not neurotic like me). Maybe he had AIDS, certainly he was homeless; very much disconnected from his family, maybe in a way that came out of an abusive situation.
I imagined somebody with very few lifelines. And then I imagined him having been in an artists’ circle that had the feel of a family—his chosen family. And when I imagined him leaving that circle, the story began to come to me. I imagined that he had left thinking, I'm going to set out and do the romantic thing and travel across the country. But this act quickly began spiraling down into a bipolar state. I pictured the kid self-medicating with pot and acid, not really seeing that he should be on his meds.
MH: I love the fact that the writing itself is typewritten as if torn out of notebooks and so forth. But how did you do it? Is that a more visual kind of representation, or did you write it that way?
SM: The typewriter I used is a Hermes Rocket. It weighs eight pounds. And it fits in a case. But that all came later. I started imagining writing the book about 16 years ago when I started to make collages as the kid, Linus. I was making collage postcards back then, and I wanted to think about what kind of art the kid would make. And so before I really did any writing, I made about 100 or more postcard-size collages, imagining that he was sending them to a friend or a lover or whoever. And when I got those done, I felt, Okay, now I have a story. And I started taking old journal entries from my own notebooks. I would use a passage from a notebook from when I was 18 and riff off that.
But for a bunch of reasons my energy for the book dissipated in a short period. It wasn't until seven years later that I began to really write it. And then, when I started, I found an old typewriter—not the Rocket—and started to type out my entries. Eventually I was gifted the travel typewriter, which felt better because the kid needed to be able to take the machine with him.
The joke is that I gave it to a typewriter repairman about halfway through the process. And he was like, “What have you done to this thing?” He was quite mad at me. He said, “What are you doing? Writing a novel on this thing?”
MH: Let’s use that as a pivot to your own origin story as a writer, and then we can keep talking about the book. Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How did you take the route of being a writer and collagist?
SM: Well, both my parents were/are poets. My brother’s an artist and a musician, my stepdad’s a photographer, my aunt's a dancer. I come from a family of artists and teachers.
I went to college out in Southern California. Pitzer College. It’s one of the Claremont Colleges. I had grown up between my divorced parents, and my dad was moving a lot, so I moved around the country. We ended up in high school in Seattle. We’d also lived in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire area. The places that are in the story of American Crow are the places of my childhood and young adulthood.
When I was done with college, I took some time off and just hung out and did some traveling, some hitchhiking. I decided to spend the next couple of years using the Gary Snyder method: which is, after four years of undergrad, you do four years of the opposite. I did a lot of traveling on my own. Buses and hitchhiking and borrowing cars and working odd jobs and staying with friends. And I did that for about two years and then started to settle down. And I ended up back in Seattle, got a girlfriend, a job. But it wasn’t long before I realized I had to get a degree. I need to make some money to support my writing habit. Maybe I could be a teacher or something, I wasn’t sure. I thought a master's program would be a good idea, give me a chance to write, be with a circle of writers, have a place to stay, and hopefully a job.
That was kind of the beginning of my professional writing life. I went to the University of Michigan on a partial scholarship. It provided me with a teaching gig. I augmented that salary by working at a local bookstore. After a year I met my wife, Ali, who was just starting a PhD program. After my two years were up, I was going to head off again, get back on the road. But Ali was like, “Stick around.” So I started teaching at a community college and an ESL institute. I also taught as an adjunct at University of Michigan. I liked it. My goal was never to be a full-time teacher. I never went for a full-time, full position, tenure-track job. I resisted that the whole way through.
MH: And at Michigan, who were your influences there?
SM: This was in the early ‘90s. I worked with Charles Baxter. I worked with Nicholas Delbanco. And Al Young. They were my three main teachers. I worked with some poets, too, though the department frowned on poets taking fiction workshops and vice versa. Still, I worked with Richard Tillinghast and a few of the other poets there. But officially I took the fiction track.
After about eight years—I was waiting for my wife to finish her Ph.D.—we moved down to Asheville, North Carolina. Ali got a good job offer. And we both started teaching at Warren Wilson College. She taught social work and I taught creative writing and freshman seminar. We’ve been in that town, here in Asheville, ever since. Both of us have since left Warren Wilson. About five or six years ago for me. It was a great place to teach, but I don’t miss grading papers.
MH: Where did American Crow fit into that timeline?
SM: Back in 2011 I was in a car wreck with my family. It radically changed our lives. Just before that event, I had kind of run out of steam on American Crow. When I recovered from the accident, when I was back on my feet and able to walk again—basically, the PTSD and the trauma came a year or two later—I realized that I wasn't going to teach much anymore. I had to convalesce in a different way. I understood that if I was going to go back to the American Crow story, which suddenly seemed very important to do, I would need to focus on the notebooks. And when I started to do that, it became clear that this Linus kid had made these notebooks with other people. He was collaging postcards to send to a friend. And that he eventually got working with somebody who helped him make these ‘zines-style books that he hoped to give out friends or put in the local used bookstore.
So I began to look for collaborators to help me make these ‘zines. I had the collages, the typed text. I’d been making chapbooks with some poet friends over the years, and I was working with letterpress people in town on broadsides. I thought, Wait a second, I have this community around me. I was a novice at all of it, but Asheville’s got a great book arts scene, and I found this young couple that did Risograph printing, which is this basically a Xerox machine that uses a single ink-drum that requires multiple runs like in printmaking. It’s an artist's dream because you have to do it color by color. You take out the red and put in black, and then take out the black and put in blue, and so you're running a page four or five times, and that becomes a whole other aesthetic, a whole other look. And when I started to do that with these young printers, that changed the story in a big way.
And I realized, at the same time, that the character was actually bisexual—which was like coming out of the closet as a writer. I did and didn't know he was bi. When I leaned into it, I saw that the story hadn’t really been full, and that I had been missing a layer. So I wanted to move away—for Linus to move away—from the original story, in which was he was looking for this girl Sarah, and turn more toward the friendships he had with men and with his brother, Ezra. Linus ends up taking on a lover, Martín, who becomes the person who helps him make the chapbooks.
The story had a renaissance after the accident. I had written the first three chapbooks already—and mocked them up with my collages—so we began printing those. But I had to construct notebook four, notebook five, etc.; and for the next two years we printed the chapbooks, and I wrote and revised and designed as we went. It was an incredible experience.
MH: American Crow even has a CD included. Did you do the music or someone you know did the music?
SM: The music’s by a man named Nathan Bell, the son of the poet Marvin Bell. I gave a reading with them in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This was a year after the accident, and I was very fragile. I had decided to read from American Crow for the first time. Nathan came up after the performance and lifted his sleeve. He had a huge crow on his arm, just where I had described Linus’ alter-ego tattoo. Within a few days, Nathan sent me an MP3 file. He'd written a song about the kid. It was called “American Crow,” with guitar, harmonica, voice a la Springsteen’s Nebraska. Two months later, he’d written three or four more songs. Over time I gave him the text and he wrote some more. His "American Crow" was a little different than mine. But I didn’t really care. It was really interesting to experience them side by side.
MH: Tell me about that kind of balancing between doing the work that you believe you want to do, that you believe is worth doing, versus the constant kind of commercial aspects of being an author.
SM: I always try to write a book that people want to read. I wrote one about the accident called Beginner’s Guide to a Head-on Collision. It’s poetry and prose combined—a book of and about recovery. I wrote that so you’d have to read it from start to finish in one big rush. But the hybrid form is not always the most accessible.
With American Crow I always thought it could be a hugely popular thing. But the more I worked to make it as a book-arts project, the more I realized, Well, okay. This isn't going to be about money. My goal has always been to make back the money it cost to make it, to basically break even, and I think that’s going to happen. The book’s expensive, as you know. It should be $250 for that box set, though I often give an artist’s discount.
MH: Who is the readership so far? What kinds of people reach out and kind of embrace it and delve into the book?
SM: Well, one of the things that happened was that the people in my creative circles pitched in and gave seed money for the project and basically agreed to watch me create it as I went. And I ended up giving it to them in installments.
I bit off more than I could chew, of course. It was very hard and very expensive to get it to people across the country. Every two months, I’d send out another copy. I did the best I could. About forty people read it that way, and by now 100 or so copies have been sold or given away. It’s a mix. A lot of friends and other writers, some family, and friends, but also people are beginning to hear about it through the grapevine. A few collectors have purchased copies; it’s in a bunch of libraries. Librarians love it. It’s an impossible book to categorize but there are a few librarians who love creating those spaces where people can have interactive experiences.
MH: So now you’re turning it into a paperback, a single volume, as well…
SM: The reason I decided to go for a paperback was that the people I wanted to read it—my former students, undergrads, twentysomethings—I think they are the perfect audience; and they are not going to be able to afford the art-project version. I'm creating a book that will cost twenty bucks and work like your standard paperback, but with illustrations. Something you can put in your backpack and head out on the road. It’s nearly done.
MH: Tell me about what it’s like living this life of being a creative person.
SM: It’s the way I’ve come to live. For me, teaching occasionally, writing, making art, family life, walking, being in touch with friends, it’s all of a piece. For me that’s a real lucky place to be. As you know, when you’re living a creative life you can shelter in a place by nature—and also, after the accident, I became a bit of a hermit for a few years—and you get into a solitary rhythm. My brother calls it “the philosophy of the day.” You get the rhythm of the day going. One thing feeds the other.
To balance this, I find myself doing more and more collaborative work with other artists. It comes from what I’ve learned in making American Crow. Like now, I am working with my father, Charter Weeks, on a collaborative photography and text project.