INTERVIEW: Matthew Zingg and Co. on the New Federal Dust Reading

by Josh Milberg

I first met poet Matthew Zingg at the recently-deceased Fireside Follies Reading Series which was co-curated by Mike Lala and Eric Nelson in Brooklyn. On a recent trip to Baltimore, where Matt now lives, we drank some bourbon while talking alternative country and horror films.

After I got back to Brooklyn, he announced he’d be starting his own series called Federal Dust, which kicked off this past Saturday (there’s a slideshow below). I sent interview questions to Matt and the first three readers (Joe Young, Adam Robinson, and Scott McClanahan) via a Google Doc. The questions ended up being answered as individual emails, meaning some answers came without context for what was said beforehand. It makes for odd reading.

Electric Literature: Joe, knowing that, in addition to writing, you’re a visual artist, I asked you to make a spiffy rendering of you and the other folks interviewed. You graciously supplied the graphic above with you on the left, Scott in the middle, and Adam on the right. Here’s my follow-up: Is Adam blissfully unaware that you and Scott are about to levy a hellacious zombie attack his way or is this more Adam catches a reflection of the dance floor behind him at AWP?

Joe Young: If Adam is the congenial visionary digging stanzas off the new floor of the near horizon and Scott is in the peripatetic paper shaman’s mountain trance then I’m the unweary somnambulist just watching for their arrival.

EL: Adam, now that we know your fate as should have been evident to me by the subtle sexiness of the others behind you in Joe’s graphic (and the mischief in your almond-shaped eyes), I feel I should mention that I’ve seen you stand up at a reading and tell everyone who you planned on having sex with. Has a reading ever gotten you laid?

Adam Robinson: Thanks for asking!

EL: Scott, I won’t insult you by asking the same question I asked Adam. I once saw you read at the Franklin Park Reading Series and we all caught the vapors. It was like you channeled superhuman intensity which is charming to those into superhumanity and the occult. Toward the end, you walked up to the crowd and began chanting. Where do you draw that presence from? Is it paranormal, religious, a long line of bullshitting salesman?

Scott McClanahan: I don’t know.

EL: Speaking of out-of-the-ordinary presence…Joe, you’re writing site-specific microfiction and putting it on buildings. This is great news for people who think books might as well be holding up buildings, as well as those of us resigned to live inside them. Tell me more about the influence of each building to its corresponding work and vice versa.

Young: That’s a pretty good idea actually, to suggest my stories go on a load bearing wall, to let words carry at least some weight in the culture. But yes, the building, the wall, that wall’s function, the room it occupies, the kinds of people doing their own occupying, all of that goes into my thinking/contemplating when writing a microfiction I’ll install somewhere. I like to think it all gets folded up in the words.

As for how the story influences the building, I really don’t know. I realized a while ago that other people are usually better able to tell me what my stories are about than I am, so it’ll be interesting to see what a house or cafe has to say about one of my story installations over the long term.

EL: Changing gears, Matt, what’s up with the name of the series? Sounds very dark.

Matthew Zingg: Well, originally Federal Dust is the title of a Silver Jews song (I’m a big fan), and my neighborhood, where the series is held, is called Federal Hill. When I was throwing names around for the series, Federal Dust somehow popped up. So that’s the lazy explanation. It was just a matter of coincidence.

But recently, a friend pointed out to me that writers and poets comprise a sort of federation, which is another way of saying community, I guess. Plus the notion that something can be monumental and negligible at the same time has always been, for me, a good way of thinking about language and its aims. Maybe that’s dark or sad, but it’s also liberating.

EL: Adam, my mind is pretty much one track. Who do you think writes the good sexy stuff nowadays?

Robinson: The answer is, and always shall be, Grace Paley. Sorry everyone after her!

EL: Lastly, Matt: You once cribbed, “cruelty is the first act of grace,” and dropped in one of your poems. You recently moved from New York to Baltimore, each of which has enough folks describing the cruelty within. Can Federal Dust bestow us a helping of grace?

Zingg: Haha. Clearly I’m prone to cherry-pick (see: steal) ideas from others. That line owes itself to Flannery O’Connor. It’s kind of like her mantra.

All cities are cruel and graceful in one way or another.

I miss New York on a regular basis. There is just so much there — an enormous literature scene, countless readings, no shortage of talented and varied voices, and not to mention people that I love to the very core of my yokel heart. New York is everywhere. Leaving and learning to live without New York was a cruel and difficult process, it was a tough break-up, but Baltimore turned out to be more generous than I could have ever imagined.

This isn’t a judgment of either city, but here I have space to move around, literally and figuratively. I feel lighter, and isn’t that a symptom of grace? Maybe Federal Dust is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to a place that was so quick to take me in and make me feel like a part of something. Maybe. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet.

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Editor’s note: Held (almost) every first Saturday of the month, Baltimore’s newest reading series, Federal Dust, seeks to bring together the very best local and national writers for an intimate reading. The premier event featured Scott McClanahan (Crapalachia, Stories V!) along with Baltimore’s own Adam Robinson (Adam Robinson and Other Poems, Publishing Genius Press) and Joseph Young (Easter Rabbit, 5 Drawings of a Maryland Sky), plus music by Boat Water. The readings take place at 1003 Light Street. They are free and open to the public.

— Josh Milberg is Director of Promotions and Outreach for Electric Literature. Right now he’s pretty keen on Baltimore’s Moss of Aura.

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