Will Huberdeau speaks with Lucian Mattison about his new collection of poetry Curare from C&R Press.
Will: Starting with the title, what does “curare” mean to you? I had to Google it and got a variety of definitions and explanations. How did you develop the concept for this collection?
Lucian: I’m not normally a big obscure reference kind of guy. Usually, I like to lean more into “Let’s all get along and understand each other.” But in this case, I made an exception for a couple of reasons. On a more surface level, I read the book Shaman’s Apprentice about a scientist from Berkeley who goes into the rainforest to study medicine. He tries to get the ingredients for this poison called curare that is applied to the tips of arrowheads and darts. It becomes this elusive thing, and no one has a recipe. Or they don’t trust the white guy enough to give it up. It really got me thinking. Where does a medicine turn toxic or poisonous? A drug in small doses might turn out to be medicinal or helpful. And then there’s other cases where a higher dose might be good medicinal practice. But I wanted to highlight the idea that there’s a thin line between what we see as poison and what we see as a healing salve.
On top of this, in Spanish, the word means to heal. It would actually be a future construction: “I will cure.” Ultimately, it feeds more into the idea that we are messing around with a bunch of tools that we don’t understand. Some things seem to hurt us. Some things seem to be good for us. We don’t really know what we’re doing. We’re fucking up the environment. We’re fucking up ourselves with our relationship to technology. But there’s also within these things a way out—a goodness that we can find through it. Within what looks like a poison to us in our world right now, I think–I hope–there’s also some kind of healing property.
W: Much of what you write about seems to reference such existential cycles as grief. One example comes in “Démicas for the Patron Saint of Dogs” where the canine “licks death with charity’s tongue,/ licks the earth’s canvas until oils/ fade to beige, the mutt, so loyal,/ licking itself to exhaustion.” And in the end of “Trucker” the trucker is hanging by the ankles “from the exhaust like a wet flag” just like the bats he caught and forced to smoke cigarettes. I wonder was there any intentional effort to stand outside of these existential cycles and look within?
L: To some extent, I think it’s part of human nature to bear witness to these cycles. We all know that we keep repeating the same mistakes, right? We tend to assign importance to the idea that things are the best they can be at any moment in time that we’re in. We keep getting wise to that over and over again. So when it comes to cycles, I wanted to maybe point out the fact that we are probably within a moment that we don’t understand just yet, and there is this end product that we’re not going to be able to predict. Maybe it’s a positive message about human resilience and our ability to come out alive. Because we’ve done it pretty well it seems for now. But we’re also reaching what seems to be a critical mass. I think maybe the way out is partly through the tools that we’re inventing. I think that’s kind of where the ideas of the poems entitled “[clouds]” come in. In terms of information and shared memory as shared witnesses, everyone wants to know everything. They want to be on top of stuff. And this tool, our phones, that we have right next to us is that key. It’s like having a second brain. It actually should be really beneficial to us. We should be adapting ourselves in order to use our brain power for something more important than storing garbage short-term memory. That’s why we’re still in this very raw moment of our relationship to what we’re creating. We don’t really know where we’re going or what we’re doing. But hopefully, we’re stumbling forward.
W: What would a forward outcome look like for you?
L: I think a positive outcome would look like accountability. Something that people can’t flout anymore. That’s something that I’d like to see this collection address. Take, for example, police with body cams who still murder people. They’re wearing a camera, and there’s still this disconnect. I have a feeling at some point that connection is going to click into place, and people are not necessarily going to be able to get away with that.
Although the spread of misinformation complicates things, too. But I have a feeling we’re working toward truth. More truth, a clearer truth. A more universal truth. And I think that’s where the salvation really lies. If we start to establish our baseline truth–something irrefutable–then people have to start listening and we get accountability.
W: This might be a good time to ask you to name names. Were there any current events that act as plot points while you were writing that are especially important to you?
L: We know the one glaring event that doesn’t even need a name is obviously the 2016 election. I wrote this book between 2016 and 2020, so it was directly after that. There’s no really getting around that.
But particular things that really affected these poems? I would say a lot of it has to do with the violence people get away with. The uptick in mass shootings was a spark for some of these poems, these incidents of people having an immediate window into what a consequence is and choosing to not acknowledge it. Or police murdering people even while on camera. It’s those events I think that really drives some of these poems. They’re not all about that, but I think it really got me thinking about accountability and technology and what we can do to hopefully limit this kind of violence. Or at least hold people accountable.
W: How did it feel to put together a collection like this? This project seems to be done out of duty more so than pleasure.
L: Most poets will say that we’re writing because we have to. There’s something that’s driving us. Our brain decides to hold on to certain things. I have to honor that because in the end, I’m going to trust that my unconscious mind is doing something better than what I could do in my waking life. Or at least is making better associations than I can.
W: What would you like your reader to do in response to your poetry? Or think? Or believe?
L: I’d like the reader to witness and to be aware of what we do. In being aware we have a lot of power that we haven’t really tapped into yet. We tend to demonize technology because it does govern and hurt us. But at the same time, I think part of it is to embrace that and see how this really is actually going to save us. The second is to honor the natural world. We’ve been taking advantage of it for so long, taking advantage of each other. We need to be a little kinder to animals, to nature, to everything around us, to each other.
I think that’s the other big one. We have our relationship to the natural world that we need to keep furthering even though it seems like technology is robbing us from it. It’s our responsibility to keep engaging within it. A part of it is being present, being able to spend your time really soaking in what is around us, and appreciating those things. If you start to really focus in on specific instances of joy and euphoria in nature that’s when things start to really have more value. You can look at a flower and be like that flower is cool. But if you don’t really know what ecosystems or neat niche-like things are happening around this flower, you miss something. Who depends on it? What does it do? What has it done? If you study what cycles it goes through, it’s impossible not to love that. It says something about just caring. Because when you really truly study something, you start to see how beautiful it is, and you get to see the intricacies of it. Nature has a lot of value that’s not just about joy. It’s about compassion and empathy. It’s about becoming a better kind of human where we’re not just consuming left and right.
W: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
L: I can’t not talk about a certain amount of spirituality that is in the collection. Not in a prescriptive or dogmatic manner, but the relationship to the divine and our relationships to nature and those kinds of things. I don’t want to undermine spirituality. It’s a very important thing for everyone to have their personal connection with the earth, with ourselves, with others. Some people do this through a divine being. That’s always going to be part of my life because I was raised for the first eighteen years to believe that there was something very big and very important and very beautiful and present in this world. But that changed shape. It no longer was just a guy in the sky. It’s an old story. But it kind of shifted into more of a bunch of us in the sky, invisibly interacting.
It’s really important to see the world, to be present in the world that way, to keep reminding ourselves that we are just these things breathing. We’re just a vessel, just a thing. That’s important. And we have to really take in the beauty around us. I think spirituality means a million different things to a million different people. I believe our brain is this powerful, beautiful thing. And interacting with the world around us is a meaningful experience. It’s very meaningful for us to take our time and notice and be present with things like in our world because we’ll care about it a lot more if we do.