“The Punker Becomes the Punkee: a Review of Matthew Clifford’s 4 New Books” by Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery

As I’ve had this sort of reawakening this summer, trying to reconnect to the local poetry community and getting this site going again, it’s meant reaching out to some people who I’ve disregarded for the last few years for one regrettable reason or another – bitterness, envy, intimidation, shyness, depression. For some I’ve held grudges.   

I went about 3 years without really speaking to Matthew Clifford. He probably could guess why, but I never talked with him about it directly – chalk it up to fear of confrontation. And I won’t go into the details here to spare people involved, but basically he hurt my close friend and that hurt me. 

It was tough cuz I otherwise liked Cliff a lot, but I held certain loyalties, and so for that time it felt like the right thing to do was pretty much forgo the Full Moon Reading, Punketry, and anything else he was involved in. And now as parties involved are mending things, I feel like it’s time to forgive and move on myself.  And this article is part of that goodwill.

I mean, I think Cliff would be the first one to tell you that people are messy. We do bad things and we do good things. And personal issues aside, it’s hard to disregard all the good things he’s done for the poetry scene over the years.

Matt Clifford came out of the legendary Jack Kerouac School MFA class of 2013, which for whatever reason had an unusually high number of students who got involved in the greater community. Along with Joseph Braun, and Craig Collier, Cliff was responsible for starting the Full Moon Reading in the alley behind Pearl Street, which has been going for 11 years now. There was also the All Knowledge Must Be Shared series at the old Lefthand Bookstore. And he’s always been a staunch supporter of others’ projects as well. 

Cliff w/ Black Market Translation at Tommypalooza at Quonset Hut Hemp September 2022

And for the last 5 years or so he’s been an instrumental (literally) part of Punketry, the monthly poetry reading where features are backed up by punk band Black Market Translation (usually at Mutiny Information Cafe). With Cliff on the bass, they’ve played their brand of sonic-youthy edgy-sound-weirdness behind just about every poet I can think of on the scene at this point. 

At this month’s Punketry, the punker will become the punkee, as for the first time ever Cliff will be one of the features (in addition to a stellar lineup of Reed Bye, Marcus If, Rob Geisen, and Caitlan Mitchell), reading from four of his recent books which are essentially being ‘released’ at the event. 

In his own words: 

1. Ego in a Book Pile– this is like a straight collection of poems, about 40-50 in total, you prob heard me read some of them over the years, they stretch mostly 2012-2019ish.

2. Frank’d Up– this is a series of prose-poems about booze and drinking culture and how invasive it is and my own and society’s fairly questionable relationship with the substance.

3. OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight– more like a chapbook. Sarah Richards Graba once said she wrote “eight poems” over some length of time and I was always impressed at how precise and confident her measurement was so during Nov/Dec 2020 in quarantine when usually i’d prob go visit family i set out to write eight poems and was also messing with tarot at the time so this is the result of that.

4. Postscript– published by Turnsol Editions, I guess I technically released this in 2020 but there were only 40 handmade copies and 20 got hyperironically lost in the mail, so I got a softcover version of it now that is publically available for the first time. 

To honor the projects and give you a taste I’ll analyze the first poem of each book…

But first a word on Cliff’s poetic style in general: He’s always struck me as a ‘true poet’, in that his mind naturally seems to put together words in unusual ways. One only needs to see as evidence the odd syntax and whimsical wordplay of the Full Moon Reading Facebook events he’s posted over the years. My theory is that while some poets might have to put in an effort to outmaneuver their linear everyday mind, Cliff’s can’t help but do this automatically and it’s the everyday (and he’s a professional accountant no less) that requires an effort to communicate normally. Somehow tho his syntactical quirks never come across as all that confusing. They’re often delightful and in a way help you to see things in a more fresh way.

(I wish I was more poetically playful like Cliff in writing this article, but alas the following section will now sound more like a literature professor…)

“Book Pile” from Ego in a Book Pile – This calls to mind my own poem called “BookMess,” in which I literally describe how all my books tend to end up on my floor. But Cliff’s pile seems to have more metaphorical levels to it. In one sense, “The books were dumped from a box when I moved out of the house” might literally refer to the process of moving. But that seems to only serve as a catalyst to a deeper stream of consciousness leading to lines like “Everybody is a prophet with a platform standing over attention yelling,” which could stand for this current moment in history in which we are overwhelmed by an over-saturation of not just books but all media and information in general. Tho as writers, and perhaps everyone to some extent, we would like to see ourselves as a unique voice with a special purpose in this world, Cliff concedes that “I am an idea the history surrounding me had already.” The line  “…I am alone as an ego trapped in a book pile,” suggests this is merely an illusory desire of the ego anyway, which is ultimately alienating. But in spinning his mental wheels over the significance (or insignificance) of adding to the pile, he recognizes this as perhaps just a distraction from writing itself – “I am talking to myself again when I should be writing.” Which is ironic, of course, because all of that talking has been in fact written. 

“Wasted as Art” from Frank’d Up – This book, which is a reflection on alcohol, has a clever organization in that each piece explores how different topics “pair” with alcohol. Here he makes comparison between drinking and art –  “Getting wasted is an art. The timing and rhythm, selection of materials, open ends, ambiguities, the mystery.” Although, like most of Cliff’s writing, it is probably not meant to be taken too seriously as any kind of academic argument and usually has a current of humor running thru – “Who is Denver Dan and why is his number in my cell phone?” While there are insights to be had – “See, in a life intoxicated, one is always performing to their perceived interpretations of their social expectation” – the beauty of it is also in the way the words are put together, often wavering on tangents that just sound interesting. While written in a prose format, it still features the ambiguity, unpredictability, and general weirdness of poetry.- “You might not remember that face you met when you see it next. You may black out your mirror.” But thru whichever strange turns of phrase it takes to get there, the bottom line of this book I think is a serious self-analysis, starting with its dedication “for the people I’m sorry to.” Is this exploration enough to change regrettable behavior? Maybe only Cliff can say. But at least the journey is poetically intriguing. 

“Lover de Royale (The Glass Licker)” from ONETWOTHREEFOURFIVESIXSEVENEIGHT – I believe this was probably based on a drawing of The Lovers card from a real tarot deck, but the interpretation is more of a poetic experiment than any kind of traditional reading of the card. It includes examples of a Steinian absurdist repetition quality that I always enjoy in Cliff’s work – “There just needs more hands/ The lovers have hands/ How many hands they must have/ Let us talk and hold on.” It veers from poetry to prose and back again with some playing with the space on the page. There’s a tonal shift that accompanies the prose, which goes from more a lighthearted description of the lovers to the harsh orders of a boss personae – “Hit harder. Hit in the face for looking that way. Hit the other way. Hit until it works. Work harder. Prove a point. Love is the message. Love harder.” It shows the complex nature of being a lover which can start off with such lightness but inevitably must collide with our dark sides. 

Postscript  #1 – This piece presents a location (perhaps an emotional or internal place) where the post office is no longer willing to send mail. The place is described in simple, charming terms – “There is a statue of a soldier but nobody remembers who he is and this must have been what he was fighting for. Birds fly to the statue then away from the statue into the sky and they are good and the sky is blue and good, a different kind of good, and the war was bad, very bad.” The place has the feel simultaneously of somewhere from the past (where letters were once a primary way of communicating from a distance) and the future, a post apocalyptic feel in which something has been abandoned and left to more primitive ways of surviving. There is a need to send a letter (yearning to communicate) but it requires the more convoluted process of mailing the letter down the river. The whole piece feels very dreamlike and symbolic, where Cliff’s own interior processing of things is what’s most at stake, but those symbols are not so far removed from our own. 

So yes, these books are ceremonially entering the world on Wednesday 9/14 at Punketry, but in typical Cliff fashion he claims he may not read much from them again. He’s a true punk in that way, not caught up in traditional measures of success – simply the making of the art (which includes something concrete to hold (in print)) is what’s most important. And like his band’s  musical improvisations it’s totally okay when they vanish from this current moment never to be repeated again.

I’m pleased to be supporting Cliff’s work again, and encourage everyone to come to Punketry and also check out these books (get them from Cliff himself, he might not even charge you for them)!

Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of Boulder Poetry Scene. The author of Pizzas and MermaidThe Reality Traveler, and the soon to be released Nine Books (at Once!), he’s been on the Boulder poetry scene since he went to get his MFA at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School in 2003. You can find more of his work at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com