Scott Thomas Outlar: First off, Matt, I want to thank you for taking some of your time to do this interview with me at W.I.S.H. I’ve been enjoying your work (and the unique voice you bring to poetry) for the past couple of years now, so it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to toss some questions your way. To get things rolling, can you talk a bit about when your interest in poetry and writing began? Have you always been drawn to the creative arts? Who were some of your early influences?
Matthew Borczon: Thanks for asking. I have been writing since before high school. Not even sure how it started. Most likely I read some of my early influences and decided to try it. I was a fan of the beats and of Richard Brautigan. At 15 or so I read Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries and his poetry collection Living at the Movies. That is most likely when I realized you could write about your own life like it was interesting. I was also very influenced by what was happening in music, punk rock was all new and the idea that energy or anger was enough fuel for art was interesting to me. I have always been drawn to creative things. I play a number of instruments and I have a BFA in fine arts. I was a painter the first time I went to college. My parents were very encouraging in all the interests of their children artistically and physically so I was very involved in sports as well.
Outlar: Coming from an artistic and athletic background, and having successfully earned your BFA, what then led you to enter into the Navy in service of your country? Was it a path you had always been drawn toward, or did world events at the time play a role in your decision?
Borczon: My father was in the Marines and I had 2 uncles in the Navy so it was kind of always on my mind. I had moved on from it for a while though, after 9/11 the reserve started looking to build up their force and I was contacted by a recruiter about it. I thought I was too old for it at first. I was 36 at the time but the medical service was opening up a new unit so they were looking for people for it. I was an EMT at the time so they wanted me. I thought about it for a while and realized it had never left my mind totally so I decided to join, of course at the time I came in the Reserves were doing what they called back fill. This meant that if the active duty got called up we would go to the hospital they left and work there. So it seemed like a safe option and a small contribution to make. It was only later that they decided to send more reserve than active duty into the war zone. Oh well, you live and learn.
Outlar: Before getting into the next question, I want to thank you for your service and the sacrifices you made. Having never experienced the chaotic energy of actually being in a war zone, I can’t even begin to imagine the emotional, physical, and spiritual toll that such an event has on a human being. Most of us are never faced with anything that comes anywhere close to that type of situation. But your poems seem to serve as a charged revelation of sorts that provide a window into the raw intensity of war’s impact on the soul. How long were you stationed overseas? Did you write poetry during your time in the war, or was it only after returning home that the experiences began to pour out?
Borczon: The deployment to Afghanistan was 10 months from start to finish, that is from the time I left home. I was in Fort Jackson and then in Yorkshire England before in order to train with the British army, it was their hospital we were working in. I kept a journal while I was there but I had not written a poem in probably 10 years before I wrote the first one. I was home almost 4 years when it started. I was having nightmares and the medication had not worked like I had hoped so I was not taking it. I was not sure how to get it out of my head. I thought I would write just one, but after the first poem they just started to roll out of my head. I joined a closed Facebook group of writers just to see if the poems even made sense. My first publications came from people on the site. I did not even know they had journals. I was just trying to chase the ghosts away. I have only been writing these poems for about 1 1/2 years now. I think I have a lot more I need to say about the war, as well as other things. I am still writing from the personal experience. I have not even touched on how the war makes me feel politically yet.
Outlar: I’ll definitely be interested to read your political take on the war whenever those types of ideas start flowing. Please feel free to express anything in that vein here if you’d like. I readily admit that I’m a junkie when it comes to digesting commentary dealing with the state of affairs the world finds itself in presently.
Your chapbook A Clock of Human Bones was awarded the top prize in the 2015 contest hosted by Yellow Chair Press. What was that experience like, considering that you’d only been publishing your work for a short time before then? Your poetry has obviously struck a chord with readers. How does it feel knowing that these deeply personal, and oftentimes tragic, vignettes from your experiences are resonating with people so vividly?
Borczon: I love Sarah Frances Moran, she has been a huge supporter of my work from the beginning. I entered her contest because it was so affordable. I know that sounds strange but I had only been writing a short time so I had no expectations of winning. I just thought it would force me to look for a narrative to all of this work I was producing. When I had made the first cut I remember still thinking I had already gotten my money’s worth and would be encouraged to have just made it that far. I still did not think I would win. When they told me I had won I was really surprised, I did not honestly think the poems would have much meaning to anyone but me at the time. Since then I have learned that everyone has a family member or a friend or someone they know who has had a similar military experience so I guess they feel like they would like to understand it all better. I also learned that there is not a lot of writing out there by military people. More maybe now than ever before but still not a lot. I also know that Bill Shields, who wrote a lot about Viet Nam, was eventually outed as a guy who did not do all that he claimed to have done in the war. I think this drove a lot of writers away from the story, as it were. I do not write about heroism or all the bloody things I did, because that is not my reality. I was just a witness to all of that and only after the fact. Bloody wounded soldiers and marines were all only in the hospital setting for me. I never fired a weapon in Afghanistan so I am not the guy to tell those stories. I hope he is out there somewhere telling his truth though. I think people respond because my viewpoint is mostly about feeling like I failed people, did not do all I thought I would do. In my head I only saw myself as saving lives and as being effective and what happened is different. I saved more than I lost but the learning curve was that you cannot save everyone in a war. Sounds simple but I did not expect to be so affected by the people I could not help. I have a flag letter of commendation that sits in my office at work, and it says we treated 2,268 coalition and local nationals. It is a big number, but the children, the women, and the soldiers and marines who died are the ones that fill my nightmares. It is also all the people who lived but without arms and legs and other important body parts. I think everyone knows what it feels like to try their hardest and not have it work like they thought it would. I write to that part of myself in an attempt to make peace with the guilt and the pain of feeling like they might have made it if I had been better at my job. I think most people know this feeling on some level.
Outlar: I have no doubt that you and those alongside you did your damned bests at every turn, saving many lives in the process. You’re right that those sorts of regrets and worries are part of the basic human experience. I’ve surely felt them.
Have you found the writing to be helpful overall as a therapeutic tool? You mentioned earlier that you still have a lot left to say about what you dealt with. Can you tell a difference between your first collection and the new one you’ve recently published through Epic Rites? What can readers expect when they pick up Battle Lines?
Borczon: So far it has been very therapeutic. I got the idea from a therapist that I could tell my story over and over again until I was less afraid of it. So far it helps, though I still have nightmares pretty regularly and sleep is still hard to come by but that is all just a part of what the PTSD diagnosis is. I imagine I will have all of it with me going forward, but I am less moody, less angry, not all the time but some of it anyway.
I see a huge difference between my first and second book. A Clock of Human Bones is all about me. How I feel and felt during my time in Afghanistan. Battle Lines is the story of all the other veterans I have met over the years, and of me as well. I originally wrote it as kind of one long poem in parts, but they also stood alone as completed pieces so when we put it out the numbers went away and the first line of the poem became the title. I am telling more than just my own story with Battle Lines. I have stories from every war going back to WWII in it. I cannot help but see how we are all connected through our PTSD. I also have encountered a lot of people who have it from other things. Accidents or trauma of any kind can cause it so I keep finding more and more people who can relate to what I am writing in a real and tangible way. My next book Ghost Train is more like my first book though. I am still living through the war like swimming in deep water so I always revert back to looking at my own thing as a way to try and figure out how to go forward.
Outlar: Based on the benefits to your own health and well-being that writing poetry has brought about in your life, do you envision any other opportunities of expressing your experiences in the future that could possibly help others who suffer from PTSD? What is the “poetry scene” in your area like? Do you enjoy getting out and reading at events?
Borczon: I would like to do some work with veterans on writing at some point. Though being an art major and a nurse I am not always sure I am the guy to do this type of teaching. The poetry scene in Erie is a strong one. We have a weekly reading at a venue called poets hall that I regularly attend. They hold 2 poetry festivals a year. We have 4 universities around Erie so they often have readings and speakers and we are close to New York, Pittsburgh and Cleveland so there is a lot going on. I like to make myself read, not always sure I enjoy it as I have had my anxiety and PTSD pull me right off the stage sometimes. It can be hard depending on the day, still when it goes well I do enjoy it. I have a couple things coming up out of town I am looking forward to.
Outlar: What else is on your radar for 2017? Do you have a website or social media account where people can follow your work? Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview. Feel free to mention anything else on your mind that I might have been remiss in asking.
Borczon: I have a chapbook coming out from Weasel Press called Ghost Train in June 2017 and an as of yet unnamed chapbook coming out from Grey Borders press in July. I am also working with Grey Borders on my first full-length poetry book for release in 2018. I am also finishing a chapbook for Nixes Mate Press that has nothing to do with the war so I am pretty excited about that one; it should come out this year as well.
I have a website: https://www.weebly.com/editor/main.php. I am not great at updating it but I will work on that. Mostly I am busy trying to get my oldest daughter off to college in the fall and raising my other 3 kids and trying to get the therapy to work this time around for my PTSD; it all just keeps rolling on.