I first found Matt Mitchell’s work in 2020: A Meat Loaf-quoting, love-struck poem that made me homesick for summers in a town I’ve never visited. That same warm familiarity of Mitchell’s voice glows phosphorescent in his debut book of poetry.
The Neon Hollywood Cowboy (Big Lucks Books, 2021) is a love letter to intersex identity, an instantly iconic disentanglement of the Western Frontier. The book draws intimate connections between Mitski’s tweets and masculinity particles, Harry Styles and gender dysmorphia—tapping into the mystical energy of teenage fandom that tempts the reader to pour over these poems as though decrypting lyrics from a pop-punk album insert.
Below, I speak with the poet about his publishing journey with Big Lucks Books, the process of conceptualizing these poems as a book, pop culture, and cowboyism.
Hi Matt! Thanks so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
I’m writing from my living room couch in Columbus, Ohio! I think I’m doing okay, I think. I went to the store this morning and they had Vanilla Coke on the shelf, so I have a good feeling about the rest of this week.
How have you been spending your time in isolation?
I’ve mostly been working from home and discovering how to live a whole life inside. I just moved to Columbus in September, so a lot of my isolation has been getting acquainted with a new place, all while not being able to really meet anyone in the process, which isn’t the coolest thing. But it’s been manageable at the very least.
The Neon Hollywood Cowboy is forthcoming this spring from Big Lucks Books—congratulations! How does it feel to have your first book of poetry coming out into the world?
It feels kind of weird, not gonna lie! I’ve always dreamed of having a real book, so I’ve spent the last chunk of my life working towards that. And now that it’s practically here, I’m not sure what to do with my hands. I will say, the best part about putting a book out into the world has been the process of learning how to force myself to take a break now that the writing is done. Sometimes my brain wants me to just jump into a new writing project, but I’m trying to take things slow and really enjoy all of this.
Could you speak a little bit about your publishing journey with Big Lucks?
So before I even started writing poetry, maybe in spring 2017, Hanif Abdurraqib’s Vintage Sadness found its way into my hands somehow. I didn’t know what or who Big Lucks even was, but I was enthralled by a book cover that looked like New Order’s Movement (shoutout Layne!). I’d been reading Hanif’s work for a bit, thanks to Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years, but I hadn’t yet delved too far into other contemporary works. All I knew is I wanted to be published by Big Lucks someday. So after a long time writing and publishing—maybe a little under 2 years or so—Mark Cugini and I connected on Twitter through the other publishing thing they’d been working on, Best Buds! Collective, and we kind of just hit it off? I had this book that didn’t have a title yet, so I slapped one on it, and Mark said they’d put it out through Big Lucks. The rest is history, haha.
tNHC unfolds quite cinematically—while shaping the collection, did you think about a cohesive arrangement, or did the form rise organically from the poems you loved and published? When did you start conceptualizing these poems as a book?
I think the earliest drafts for some of these poems are as old as late-2017. Maybe early-2018. There wasn’t a cohesive or conceptual arrangement in my mind at first. I remember my poetry professor from undergrad, the incredible Mary Quade, told me that a poetry book doesn’t have to be conceptual. I think that’s true, and I’m sure I will eventually write a book that’s not necessarily movie-like. The early drafts of the book contained a lot of poems about my grandparents that had nothing to do with cowboys or gender or anything. There were love poems for my partner that thematically didn’t align with anything else in the book. But at the time I thought I’d only get one shot at putting a book into the world, so I ended up making it a singular thing about intersex identity and what goes into that identity. Intersex people don’t get talked about in the movies. No one is writing novels about us. So this is a love letter to my people. This is my movie for all of us.
When did you start writing poems? When did you start thinking of yourself as a ‘poet’?
The first poem I ever wrote was in high school and it was bad. Then I wrote another one in spring 2017 and it was also bad. I got an acceptance from a magazine run by some liberal arts school in Michigan in December 2018 and that’s when I first considered myself a poet, although the title remains loose.
Your work explores gender dysmorphia, Hollywood iconography, and hormone therapy—could you speak a little bit about the process of blending some of these themes using your own voice/experience?
One time I brought “Ocean of Shaking Hands” to an undergrad poetry workshop, and a classmate asked, “What does Neil Young have to do with testosterone injections, I don’t get it,” and that has stuck with me for so long. The short answer is Neil Young has nothing to do with testosterone injections. I come from two parents very much indebted to and obsessed with the things they grew up loving. My house was Clint Eastwood westerns, 70s soft rock, and 80s pop. And my best friend in high school, he and I were obsessed with Bob Dylan and the Antonioni film Blow-Up. Almost none of the pop culture buzzwords or iconography references really have a true connection to my identity or the hormone therapy I undergo, but I have consumed these things my entire life and they are a part of me, and I don’t know how to live in a world without them.
How do you think your work has changed as you’ve grown? Has your trust in the process increased?
I think I trust my own voice more now. Young writers sometimes forget how to invest in themselves. I used to forget and still often do. And I used to rely on writing poems whenever I needed the space to process a big moment in my life, which is why tNHC exists, because it’s basically just a perfectly-bound book of diary entries written in response to an intersex diagnosis. Now I’m starting to grow as a person and talk to people about these things and then writing later. I’ve noticed the outcomes of that are much different than they would’ve been had I not reached out to people. I trust the process now more than ever because it has helped me learn to be healthy and be patient with my needs.
The poems in tNHC seem homesick for the western sunset. What does the Wild West/ American Frontier represent to you?
I blame John Wayne for the way we remember the Wild West/American Frontier. I’m obsessed with cowboyism because it’s a school of thought begging to be broken down. Hollywood says cowboys were white, gunslinging men with mouths of tobacco and scars on their faces. The real truth is there were Black cowboys, trans cowboys, cowgirls, cowpokes! 1 in every 100 people born in America are intersex. Imagine the number of intersex cowpeople, intersex bounty hunters, and intersex outlaws there were 200 years ago. It’s a beautiful picture. And I don’t think it was all guns back then, either. I think it was more flowers and kissing.
One of my favorite aspects of these poems is the incorporation of pop culture in your work—whether it’s Mary Clayton or Harry Styles or Mitski’s Twitter presence (RIP), the references serve as both metaphor and vessel. Do you think pop culture references are truly ekphrastic? How do you feel about that whole notion of “timelessness” in poetry?
Pop culture references are definitely ekphrastic, but also maybe not?. I’ve gotten to this point where I’m obsessed with responding to things I see on TV or in music, as probably evidenced in this book, haha. But recently I rewatched the Evil Genius documentary on Netflix and was obsessed with absurdity of the whole murder plot/body in the freezer angle. So then I wrote a poem about it while also riffing off of William Carlos Williams’ plums poem. The argument that pop culture is not ekphrastic has much more pull now than it might have 40 years ago. Almost everything we do now is influenced by popular culture to some extent, so it’s kind of at this point where we have to discern what we are absorbing out of our own curiosity as opposed to what has always been there. For example, an old French film with subtitles is probably more ekphrastic than a song on the radio now. Ekphrastic poems rely on access, and what we have access to now is limitless. The reason some works are no longer timeless is because we have long quit writing about those things. So as long as we are writing about whatever we have access to, they’ll always be timeless.
The poems in this book seem to come back to neon—neon chromosomes, neon tears, great plains that turn neon. What does ‘neon’ mean to you?
Neon beckons the idea of something nostalgic from our past, but maybe neon can become something propelling us forward.
Let’s talk about poetry and the internet. You recently tweeted “almost all of my poetry heroes are in their 30s and either have private Twitters or are off of Twitter completely and I’m finally starting to see how that is 100% the move and I want to be like them”. How do you feel your relationship to the internet has changed over the past few years?
Haha, I was worried that anyone who didn’t fit into that specific box might have been upset by that tweet, but the coast seems clear so far! When I first started getting involved in the lit community on Twitter, I thought it was really sick. A lot of my networking has gone through that site, and I’ve met so many beautiful people there. I think half of the people in the acknowledgements of my book are people I met connected with on social media. But if 2020 taught me anything, it’s that social media can be unhealthy and draining! I don’t think I’ll ever be able to delete Twitter, because it’s how I promote my work and how I am kept in the loop on what my friends are writing. But I’ve never respected people with timers on their apps more than I do now. Maybe after the book comes out, I can step away a bit and try to realign myself. But it’s hard with a pandemic, because social media is one of the few ways I’ve been able to keep in touch with people. I will say, for whatever it’s worth, Twitter can be good for keeping people accountable and also deplatforming neo-nazis. Sometimes the internet does win.
We don’t talk about this nearly enough, but what is the process of editing poetry for you? How many rounds does a poem go through before you feel like it’s “done”?
Whoever invented the phrase “a poem is never finished” was unfortunately correct. When I was just starting out in poetry, I used to write a poem, barely do edits, and then submit it immediately. I don’t do that anymore. I’m working on a handful of poems at once, at all times, and taking my time on each of them now. Filling your resume up with an excess of publications loses its magic once you quit loving those poems. So I’m taking the editing process slow, finally. I think tNHC went through about 200 editing rounds from its conception to its finish, and I’m sure I could probably still tweak some of the poems in it.
What have you read and loved recently?
Taylor Johnson’s Inheritance and Alan Chazaro’s Piñata Theory were two poetry books I finished near the end of 2020 and they’re both stunning. I’m currently engrossed in Jenny Zhang’s My Baby First Birthday and loving it. Not poetry related, but I’ve been eating up every short story Ross Showalter puts out in the world, too.
Who are some contemporary poets you admire?
I love so many poets and I am constantly reading new things by new people, but few poets are as electric as Kyle Carrero Lopez, Gabrielle Grace Hogan, alexis briscuso, Jason Harris, and Bradley Trumpfheller. Young poets like Ottavia Paluch are the future. Taylor Byas has a chapbook on the way that I’m really stoked for. Samantha Fain, too. Poetry is in good hands, y’all.
Lastly, are there any independent bookstores you’d like to recommend to our readers?
Mac’s Backs-Books in Cleveland, The Book Loft and Prologue Books and Two Dollar Radio HQ in Columbus, and The Village Bookstore in Garrettsville, Ohio. A Novel Idea on Passyunk in Philly. City Books in Pittsburgh. Malvern Books and Monkeywrench Books in Austin.
Matt Mitchell’s The Neon Hollywood Cowboy is forthcoming from Big Lucks Books this spring, and available for pre-orders here.