Poet Chris Mattingly Explains How Vulnerability Is His Greatest Strength

In this interview recorded and edited by J.D. Gray at the Monroe County Public Library’s Level Up studio, Chris Mattingly tells Dave Torneo about his journey to the poet’s life. Mattingly, who studied under Indiana University professor Ross Gay, reads several of his poems and describes some of his significant influences — from his father giving him “permission to be emotional, to be vulnerable, to be sensitive, and to be open” to joining a cult in Monterey, California, to returning to the “freak culture” in Evansville where he grew up.

Mattingly is the author of a full-length collection of poems, named Scuffletown (Typecast Publishing, 2013), as well as two chapbooks, Ad Hoc and A Light for Your Beacon (2010 and 2012, respectively, both from Q Avenue Press). His work has appeared in The Louisville Review, Sawmill, River Styx, and The Lumberyard. He graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in English and folklore and has an MFA in poetry from Spalding University. He lives in Louisville.


Included below are poems from each of the Ledge Mule Press co-founders: Mattingly, Torneo, and Gay.

The Catalyst
By Chris Mattingly

A long time ago I said, Fuck work.
But I never gave up on walking. And so every day
Rise before sun to lace up and cock the brim of my black trilby
And do what the sad call nothing.

This summer, I’ve been walking the six miles down
To Butchertown to sit under the bridge by the creek
That runs beside the slaughterhouse.

I like to lay my head back against the sun-warmed limestone pilings
And listen to the guttural squeals of pig
Until I remember how I used to lie
On the floor when I was fifteen—my head between
The twelve inch subs of my mom’s floor speakers from ’77.

I think the idea was that if I played the Melvins loud enough,
I could erase memory.

I think I was just waiting for that one curdling red feedback note
To pour down like a river that really could carry me away.


The only other time I’ve felt at home was when I was actually there,
In the mosh pit.

Once, at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, I was swept under
The pit by a rip tide of elbows and boots.
I went limp and let it take me into the buck-and-tangled
Swirling mash of bodies swarping into denim waves
Of sweat and skutch.

Now, when I think about the crush of bodies, I see the wide bed
Where you lie, little grrrl, with Laurel and I in a criss-cross slumber,
The window open to night’s jet engine.

Sometimes you wake me with a heel in my chin,
Or an elbow in my ribs, and I love it. And the way you writhe
And twist to ride the wave of Mama’s breathing…

That, and I think about our walks along the river,
You strapped to my back. After only a few miles, both
Our shirts are soaked through.
The heat between us so green,
I think of humid Appalachian crevices: water trickling
Down between limestone, ferns and lichen.
I don’t know, but I like to think that there
When you turn your reddened cheek into my shoulder,
And your arms finally fall limp, when
Your burning eye lids twitch,
Your chest fills with air and your mouth opens like a waxing moon,
That we are saying all that can be said between
A father and daughter.


Today, the river is so placid I can stare until it turns
Into the green Coke bottle vinyl spinning
Under the dim light of a turntable.

The closer to the dam, the more like a lake this river becomes
Until, finally, there, backed up against the dam, the tangled
Lock and twist of limbs and trunks of driftwood.
They rise out of the water like the antlers of some extinct thing…

After the show that night, I walked onto Pacific Avenue
Wearing a polka dotted dress and combat boots,
My fingernails painted like Fruit Loops.

I don’t want to make a big deal about it,
But I was 2,000 miles from home with less than $2.

Looking for some squat to sleep
In the stucco flats with my dress riding high
Calls from the porch, the late corners,
Shouting things I can’t repeat because I didn’t understand.
Thinking, if I can just get to the beach, walking faster
Like any girl on a dark street: aware of every time
A man crosses the road, turns the corner,
Picks up his clip… 

That night I stood out on the railing of the train bridge
And asked the one question we all must ask.
The river sloshed and rocked into the tide. I could hear the surf
Like a street sweeper circling the neighborhood.
And from farther, thunderous bark of sea lions under the wharf.

The rain hit my back and I spread my arms
Like a crow in a trash bag.

I remember thinking this is how everyone I’ve ever hurt
Must’ve felt. And in that moment,
With the neon lights of the boardwalk diffused across a gauzy sky,
The silhouettes of palm trees,
And plain, loud barking sea lions, I let go.


Dave Torneo

David Torneo is the co-founder of Ledge Mule Press, which produces intricate, bespoke, limited-run poetry books and is set to launch a 7-inch vinyl record featuring spoken-word performances by Matt Hart and Rachel McKibbens. | Photo by Natasha Komoda

David Torneo is the co-founder of Ledge Mule Press, which produces intricate, bespoke, limited-run poetry books. | Photo by Natasha Komoda

Dave Torneo’s poems have been published in MudfishThe Café ReviewSilverfish ReviewAnother Chicago Magazine, Asylum, and Big Scream. Born in Los Angeles, Torneo graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara and spent time in upstate New York before moving to Bloomington in 1996. Besides championing local and regional poets by organizing readings, interviews, podcasts, book launches, and LP releases through the Ledge Mule Press Poetry Project, Torneo is “an all-around artist,” says Gay. Read more about him in this profile: “David Torneo: Bloomington’s Ambassador of Poetry.”

He’s 15

and we’re driving from Bloomington, Indiana
on Interstate 65
to some infernal suburb west of Chicago
where he’ll be prime meat for a few days
as coaches from tony campuses
lure kids into enormous debt.
I can’t touch a single dream as he dozes
folded in his bucket seat—
not the sisters of mercy
calling to him from a 2am
red-light walkup, or the dominatrix
in spit-shined jackboots
demanding he bark like a dog;
I can’t protect him from the KGB
or the local sheriff stoned on meth
or the errant drone or the bogey man.
He’s 15.
I’m too old and lost in my own lagging
hard-on driven lusts to know what drives him crazy,
but I can guess.
Are all fathers voyeurs
hoping to glimpse
a son’s backseat humpfests?
Or is that just me
caught in a tangle of affection and fear?

I’ve got Coltrane on the CD player
to ease me through one form of pain to another—
Central Park West and then Naima—over and over;
just by pushing a button
I enter that lonely heartbreak.
He’s 15
and I want to wake him to those phrases,
what the poet Pat Rosal calls a gorgeous groan,
somehow insinuate sheets of sound, the attendant
lush sweetness and emblems of bitterness
into his brain like an inoculating serum.

Because I still believe the actual world
is antidote to what ails us, I want to wake him
to all this as we travel on
past collapsed barns, honey locusts
turned to dry cross-hatchings, scrawny rabbits
shivering in the stubble, hawks hovering, eyeing
the skimpy pickings of February,
father and son on a road trip,
but I resist the dream-ending nudge.

A New England poet
clearly with winter locked in his heart
said our sons
are our executioners. I say no,
more like our saviors,
umbilical cord a thrumming lifeline, live wire
linking us to days we could dunk a basketball,
or at least nick
a bent schoolyard rim with a finger tip.
No wonder I hesitated to snip him loose into free fall.
Would it hurt him?
Of course it would!
Even after all this, face bruised, smeared with his mother’s blood,
there would be more blood.

He’s 15,
snores through an open mouth
traced with nascent pencil-thin stache,
a little funk rises off his lank body,
and I ache because I’m stuck
in a constant state of nostalgia
for his long gone babyhood.

Should I tell him by pure chance alone
I avoided a father’s fists and steel-tipped boot,
that a swarm of rats
never drifted like a skittering fog into my crib
to carry me to a new home in a sewer?
My path was clear
so I could imagine myself
the hip-guru-father.
Better to count up all the days
I’ve fallen over phantom trip-wire,
better to be still, behold, and keep quiet.

He’s 15.
I hope his dreams are moist with honeysuckle vapor
rising from an August garden.
I hope he still confuses the dreamer with the dream,
moves along that safe terrain
free of the father’s tyranny,
the father’s losses.


Ross Gay

Among the Finalists for the National Book Award is "Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude," a collection of poems by Indiana University professor Ross Gay. | Photo by Natasha Komoda

IU professor Ross Gay has been actively involved in promoting poetry and literature, both on campus and around Bloomington. | Photo by Natasha Komoda

Ross Gay grew up in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and earned a Ph.D. in English at Temple University. An IU professor who has been awarded a fellowship for the 2015–2016 academic year by Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, his book of poetry Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) was selected this year by the National Book Foundation as a Finalist for the National Book Award.

Gay is the author of two other collections of poetry, Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), and he co-wrote Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014) with Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

In this profile, “Book by Local Poet Ross Gay Selected as Finalist for the National Book Award,” Gay reflects on his work, his relationships with other poets, and on the influence Bloomington has had on his poetry.

Holy Shit!

Holy shit it’s boring
I mostly think
all dusty webs shivering
(even the spiders cough!)
the dictive felicities and dumb
lock-step thudaroo
the brainy lingual balletics the ghastly tabernacles
the inspections of the lint
in our minds’ navels
a goddamned snooze-fest
we in our hum-drum
kill-me-already reading voices
and the rickety pages
and white horses with bows in their manes
we licking the mausoleum-keepers’ boots
the grave sweepers
their finely-woven brooms
such a weird little party ours
all dust-motes and bow-ties and flaking atlases
all endowed chairs and martinis
and houses with barbed wire fences
god forbid the lusty jungle
of your tongue god forbid
you shit 84 minutes ago and the toilet paper
broke god forbid the snaggle of spinach
between your teeth your limp
the animal face you make when you come
with friends or alone
the rivulet of sweat
behind your ear or the funk
there god forbid you are actually dying
this second the ants are licking their lips
despite the ghastly shine we paint on everything
I think let me give this up
this stupid goop
trade it for a six-pack
or pick-axe for anything
until the kid makes his way to the mic
with his glasses just cocked
and pulls from his pocket
a poem and unfolding it tears it
slightly while the second hand
bangs through the air and his face
twitches the least bit as he looks toward us
squinting for he is blinded
and he swallows and moves toward
the mic and his hands
shake and the poem
in his hands shakes
and we with him
shake too


Ode to the Flute
By Ross Gay

A man sings
by opening his
mouth a man
sings by opening
his lungs by
turning himself into air
a flute can
be made of a man
nothing is explained
a flute lays
on its side
and prays a wind
might enter it
and make of it
at least
a small final song

“Ode to the Flute” from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay, © 2015. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the university of Pittsburgh Press.

Dave Torneo
Dave Torneo is a founding editor of Ledge Mule Press, and coordinator of the Ledge Mule Press Poetry Project Reading Series. Dave has interviewed such notable poets as Leslie Marie Aguilar and Adrian Matejka. His poems have been published in several small journals, including Another Chicago Magazine, ART/LIFE, The Café Review, Big Scream, and Mudfish. Dave has been a Bloomington resident since 1996.
J.D. Gray
J.D. Gray is a Bloomington native. After graduating from Bloomington High School South, he attended Butler University and received his degree in English Literature and Digital Media Production. While in Indianapolis, J.D. worked at WFYI Public Media and with Know No Stranger, which is a collective of artists that create and perform multimedia shows. He is always looking forward to his first cup of coffee the next morning.