Matt Briggs is part of what I'd call the new Northwest literary scene. A young writer with four books already under his belt ??? and an active blog
??? his newest novel, Shoot the Buffalo
(Clear Cut Press) is both a deliberate and impulsive reading experience. The mood of his prose reminds me of a term I've heard Jonathan Raymond
use: The Dark Hippie. Meaning there are sixties-ish elements present but there's a disaffected mood that overshadows any sort of peace and love. The Oregonian
has compared Shoot the Buffalo
to Raymond Carver
and also said, "Not since the emergence of Sherman Alexie
has the Northwest produced such a unique narrative voice."
KS: Does Shoot the Buffalo have any resemblance to your own upbringing?
Matt Briggs: I tried to make the book resemble my own upbringing. I grew up, like the narrator of my novel, in the Snoqualmie Valley in the 1970s. My father worked nights as a cook in a downtown Seattle diner and spent his days hiking in the Cascades or tending to his marijuana farm. For a time my mother kept house and then, in the late seventies, started work again at a number of crummy waitress jobs at truck stops and diners along I-90. So there was a period when I was really little where I lived in a cocoon of perfect hippiedom. I didn't see my parents at work. My mom was home tending to our vegetable garden and chickens. My father was around and, when he was, he was joyfully stoned and would nap with our cat on the mossy boulder behind our little farmhouse.
From my viewpoint at eight years old it was a utopia based on marijuana. We didn't earn a living from marijuana, really, but I have very fond memories around the activities of its cultivation. While I didn't consume any, aside from second-hand smoke, I also have fond memory of the various parties where massive amounts were consumed. There were always lots of sweets, which I could eat.
And then, perhaps because I was getting older, maybe because my mom had to return to work, maybe became my father started to take substances more volatile than marijuana, the inherent flaws in our utopia began to become obvious even to me, a ten year old boy by this point. For one thing, an uncle on PCP threatened to kill us. Another uncle killed himself. My father was arrested for dealing.
I started writing the book when I first learned a bit about how to make a world in prose. There are a couple of tricks to it. It's not difficult or anything, but I am a very slow learner and when I figured it out, I was able to recreate this half-remembered time from when I was kid and everything seemed perfect. To make a story out of it, I was drawn to the way in which the perfect world became broken.
KS: What's it like to work with Clear Cut?
Briggs: Clear Cut Press has been great to work with because they are a utopian enterprise. Everything about their operation stems out of conversations between the literary editor, Matthew Stadler and the publisher, Rich Jensen, regarding cultural production in the Pacific Northwest. Matthew Stadler is a novelist and has worked on a number of weeklies and quarterly magazines including The Stranger and Nest. Rich Jensen in addition to making a variety of things like poetry and sound records also founded Up Records and worked at Sub Pop through most of the 1990s. They feel books are an appropriate vehicle for cultural production. When you pick up a Clear Cut book, with their convenient size, built-in bookmark, and clear design it becomes obvious you are picking up something that has been made in relation to other things that are not purely market driven. A typical quality paperback seems a by-product of an industry. So my work with Clear Cut has revolved around the central object of their books, but I've done a lot of other things. Even something as straight forward as a reading becomes a deliberate cultural conversation. I've been able to participate in pancake feeds such as Catch That Beat in Astoria and music festivals such as What the Heck Fest in Anacortes. Last spring, Clear Cut took me up on my scheme to create an alternative space to the creative writing industry conference in Vancouver BC. In a kind of mock-protest, we offered a day long bacchanal called the Unassociated Writers Conference & Dance Party at a performance place called Western Front that featured three stages of continuous readings, food and inebriating drink, and a luminous white cube filled with an inflatable bouncy.
KS: Do the rural settings of your stories come from a disinterest in urban living?
Briggs: I have a rural fantasy, but I think it comes from the context of living in a city. My car broke down recently and I was stranded for a day in Cle Elum, a little town on I-90 in the foothills of the eastern Cascade Mountains. It is a beautiful place filled with people who all want to live in complete isolation.
My parents lived an essentially urban existence. While my brother and I were raised in the realization of their scheme of a rural, hippie farm, they worked in Seattle. The frame of reference was always urban. As soon as I could, I moved to the city. I recently saw a day long talk at the Tacoma Art Museum about the practice of land use in the west. The cause of the talk was an exhibit by Portland painter Michael Brophy who paints stunning portraits of tree stumps. The fact was made over and over again that the rural in the west is kind of a misnomer. The rural is merely the site of a vast outdoor factory where things are cut, mined, and processed. All of this work is done to benefit city life. In Cle Elum this was very clear. There is a massive heap of slag at one of edge of town. The hills around the town have been mined and the forest cut and now the land is being gradually repurposed to include golf courses and suburban ramblers. I have no interest in living in an outdoor factory, but I do like to think about it.
KS: Should writers these days feel an obligation to participate more in their communities?
Briggs: The process of writing is a communal act. The myth of the writer as a genius, isolated, at work on a hermetic masterpiece and then emerging many years later I think is just this, a myth. It exists, I suppose. I don't imagine Thomas Pynchon lining up for his turn at an open mic. Even Philip Roth reads the news and writes his books in response to the culture at large. D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce didn't descend from the mountain to present their works but were engaged with a conversation with other writers. Where I think there might be a change is that writers, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, is that the participation includes not only the kind of conversation that results in new work, but also includes the less glamorous work of finding financing for publication and finding a body of readers for the published work. Although I think a case could be made that both Virginia Woolf and James Joyce took this work up as well. Many writers in the Northwest either run small presses, publish through very tiny presses, or self-publish. To me models of this kind of writer are Jim Munroe in Vancouver BC, TNI Books and Black Heron Press in Seattle, Portland's Evil Twin and Future Tense Publishing. But there are hundreds of writers from Spokane to Astoria who work in this way, or work with presses who work in this way. These presses and their authors depend on communities that are engaged in a conversation with literature. Even though it is a cracked kind of venture in a culture where print culture is being outmoded, I find it a hopeful thing rather than purely an act of conservation.
KS: What's been your most memorable experience at a reading?
Briggs: I once saw Willie Smith read at the vegan café that hosts Seattle oldest open mic, the Red Sky Poetry Theater. Red Sky is a spectacle of civil decorum. Often two-dozen poets will show up and they will all take a turn at the mic and everyone will listen to everyone else and no one will leave. There is also a featured reader who reads for a bit longer. Willie Smith has been writing and performing in Seattle since the early 1980s. Although he's only read once with Jesse Bernstein, perhaps Seattle's most famous indigenous performance poet, they came from the same punk biker poetry tradition. It was common practice in the eighties, I guess, for the audience to drink and cavort while the poet read. The poet had to find a way of keeping the attention of a bar full of drunks by reading over the top of this din. Jesse Bernstein could do it and Willie could do it. Willie has since become a kindly middle-aged man with back problems. He is often a bit looped on various pain medications and he speaks with a polite whisper. But when he reads he becomes the vocal equivalent of a percussion section. His work is full of hard consonants arranged into a pounding rhythm. His voice has a nasal bite. When he read at Red Sky a couple years ago, he riled up the normally placid poets to the point where a fight broke out. A poet who had skirted the lack of alcohol at the vegan café by getting loaded before hand began to heckle the MC. The MC pushed him into a corner and raised his fist. And for a moment the decorum of Red Sky dissolved.