Matt Cook is a stevedore of himself, so spectacularly unboxing and arranging his triggers and obsessions in poetry readings that a passing ear might lose him to shtick. Cook’s work is buoyed by cultural trends and observations, to be certain. But his is a metaphysical satire, with particular portent given via cyclical delivery, all of which separates him from academics but keeps him a step offstage from your regional stand-up troupe.
For turning human moments inside out, Cook carries the “funny man’s burden,” as peer Jeanne Marie Spicuzza remembers him saying in college, in a way that sincerely fits with all sincerity. Cook has reached that rare practice of writing precisely how he speaks, that action itself coming from a mighty and at times peculiar mind. It has rewarded Cook with a modern poet’s laundry list of accumulating achievements – of note: four books, regular readings on NPR, time spent under Allen Ginsberg, and, weirdly to him and most everyone else, a poem read in a Nike ad for Olympic downhill skier Picabo Street.
This summer, he began the work of his most focused conjuring: as the official poet laureate for the City of Milwaukee. For Cook, it’s a two-year program treading just fine into the mild unknown.
“No, I wouldn’t say it’s changed how I approach my work,” Cook said of the city title, bestowed by the Milwaukee Public Library. “It’s always been a mystery how my poems come into being, and it remains a mystery.”
There is mystery in source material, alright, and its all his own. In “Bladders in the Windpipe,” from his first collection, Cook drops the word “some” in that Donald Barthelme way, to let the unfamiliar breathe a little in your head through his lungs. Later in that same book, he writes of “My Great Something Grandfather …”, a descendent, or something like that.
Make no mistake about the origin of his presentation. As goes that direct conduit from brain to pen, so does the pipeline from paper to his voice. Cook talks as he reads, down to the dry punctuation of phrases like “GOAT trans-ac-tions” (in a poem) and “there are so-phist-i-cated PEEEE-ople in Marfa” (in conversation).
Cook’s hidden talent is the ability to go self-aware into the unknown, without all the treacly self-help stuff others dwell on in knowledge of self. Ego, as a tool for expression.
“Some avant garde poets probably think I’m a thespian act. It’s all relative,” Cook said. “You know that what you’re doing is vain and narcissistic, but so what. That’s what art is. At a certain point you have to be comfortable with that because it wouldn’t happen otherwise.”
Soon after, he added: “You can’t worry about that too much or you’re not going to get anywhere. I think you have to have a certain amount of ego strength, a certain amount of – I think ego is very important. As an artist, I don’t know how you’d make it without [ego]. I couldn’t proceed.”
Prolific Milwaukee musician and fellow poet Zack Pieper marveled at a time Cook, with pure earnestness, gave a collegiate lecture series on the lives of American Presidential First Ladies. Here is Cook’s poetry framed as the “master of the anecdote,” an “intrinsic exaggeration of his function in the world,” Pieper said. Pieper later compared him to ancient Greek historian Herodotus, whom he hasn’t been able to convince Cook to read (Cook, separately, said: “I try to avoid reading the book that everybody’s talking about … I’m really loving John Barth right now.”)
“What’s interesting to Matt is not the thing that is in the gutter, not the thing on the pedestal, but the thing that’s buzzing outside the door, trying to get in,” Pieper said.
Spicuzza, a Los Angeles filmmaker by way of Milwaukee, cut her teeth alongside Cook on the fringes of the emergent slam poetry scene in the ‘90s. She praised his delivery, it being the same she’s heard while they shared stories in their youth and fretted about what the hell they’d do once they became writers, whatever the hell that meant. Cook gets laughs because, generally, he’s funny in a relatable way, she said. And other times, he gets laughs because he stands on stage and reads the “Writers” entry from reference books.
“Matt’s reading this entry and I’m dying,” Spicuzza said. “And then he said, ‘Ah, even the World Book Encyclopedia says writers often have a second job.’ He would say things so many people would think or wouldn’t think to say out loud. Or wouldn’t have the guts.”
Growing up in college towns in Colorado and Michigan, along with his own studies stint in Tennessee, Cook is now 46, hitched to a smart filmmaker, Meredith Root, and planted in Milwaukee. Long ahead of official designations, Cook had found his place in in the Cream City, which he said has a good, diverse set of poetry scenes, and the one of the best poetry bookstores in the country, Woodland Pattern. Find Cook’s Milwaukee in the multiple pieces where he’s simply paying attention outside his Riverwest neighborhood living room window, to, more plainly, the subject of works like “A Girl in Milwaukee and a Girl in Brooklyn” and the retelling of a city bus ride in “Progress.” With the laureate’s title, Cook expands his public identity from reading and semi-regularly teaching gigs to a purposeful civic place. While the voice in his own work is set in cement, Cook is making one of his first poetry events a commendation of one of Milwaukee’s less marketable assets.
“[W]e’ll get a group of poets and writers together and the idea will be to read beautiful literary passages about really ugly nasty weather. Mostly found poetry, but also original. It occurred to me that in the first paragraph of both ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Moby Dick’, dreary November weather is mentioned. And it made me think that this might be fun to help us through November in Milwaukee.”
Cook harbors no great branding or business plan. His latest collection, 2013’s “Proving Nothing to Anyone,” was well received but hasn’t compelled him to author something else some time soon. His restlessness provides motivation, so much so that I tease him about “walking around” as one of his self-cited source’s of inspiration in email exchanges and an in-person interview over beers near his home at the homey Polish Falcon corner tavern. He tamps down my dumbness with his candor.
“Driving a car can bring inspiration, too, sometimes, but of a lower grade sort,” Cook responded. “I just have to be moving. Moving and talking to myself. That’s the important thing. I don’t know why talking to oneself is so discouraged and frowned upon. That’s where poetry comes from. Maybe that’s why it’s discouraged and frowned upon.”
Featured image by Daehyun Kim
Justin Allan Kern is a writer and nonprofit organization marketer. His goal in life is to shoot fireworks downward from a helicopter into a volcano. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and cats.