What Matthew Gavin Frank Knows

A conversation with Matthew Gavin Frank about his new memoir, Pot Farm.

February 22, 2012

Even as he had one foot out the door, prior to our agreement for me to assume the responsibilities of this space, Churm mentioned that he’d been sent a manuscript by this guy Matthew Gavin Frank about his summer as an itinerant farm worker at a California marijuana collective. He asked if I might be interested in reading it and talking to the author.

I told Churm he had me at “I’ll pay you fifty dollars.”

Pot Farm is a simultaneously beautiful, dark and life-affirming story that recounts the summer Frank and his wife spent as workers at a California collective, Frank as a field hand, and his wife as an on-site masseuse. It’s a book I would’ve paid to read. Pot Farm is Frank’s second memoir, his first, Barolo, a recounting of his time as an illegal worker at a small, Italian winery. He’s also the author of five other books of poetry, with a sixth, The Morrow Plots, coming soon from Black Lawrence Press. We did this by email.


John Warner: Your bio self-declares that you “embraced the vagabond lifestyle,” spending time in Italy, Alaska, Key West, New Mexico. Where do the events in Pot Farm fit in the chronology of your global travel?

Matthew Gavin Frank: Oh hell, John, you’re really testing my memory here. I’ve always been awful with numbers, years, timelines. My unreliability as a narrator in Pot Farm was no affectation. The Pot Farm events are the most recent of the aforementioned bunch. I was a spry young man when I was flipping eggs at the Channel Bowl Cafe in Juneau, Alaska, plopping them onto plates alongside reindeer sausage. I don’t think my aged forearms could take so much spatula-handling these days. I was offered work through some serpentine channels picking wine grapes and mopping cantina floors in Barolo, Italy, in the Piedmont region. I lived there for six months out of a tent, using the shower in a local farmhouse. I was paid in food and wine. Key West followed. I remember this as a blur of restaurant work, booze, drugs, kayaking into mangroves, getting attacked by overprotective motherly ospreys, and meeting my wife in a Latin jazz bar at 3:00am over too many of perhaps my least favorite drink in the world—mudslides. We then traveled to New Mexico together where I worked for a chef whose food Julia Roberts loved (she lived on a ranch on the outskirts of town). Through him, I got hooked up designing menus for her private parties. I dealt mostly with her “people.”  I remember that her husband was almost pathologically nice. I remember her eating a lot of salad, never the dishes I came up with. After that, I shoehorned grad. school into the mix, then returned to Chicago for a year to help my family through my mother’s battle with cancer. It was toward the tail-end of her battle (which she won) that my wife and I lit out for the Pot Farm, believing that it would help us to regain our sanctuary and identity as “married couple in love.”  I’m not sure what we were thinking.

JW: In Pot Farm you relate your return (with your wife) to your hometown of Buffalo Grove, IL as your mother undergoes cancer treatment. Word on the street is that the northern suburbs of Chicago is an ideal place to be a child, good schools, sidewalks, libraries…but you left at age seventeen, what was the hurry?

MGF: Is it too easy to say, wanderlust? An ideal place to raise a child probably sounds great to parents or prospective parents, but it’s not great for every child. I felt very claustrophobic there. I hate malls. I have anxiety attacks in them. Woodfield Mall on the outskirts of Chicago attracts tourists from all over the world because, well, it’s a big mall, I guess. My lips would go numb navigating the parking garage there. I’d get funny feelings in my extremities.  The neighbors all seemed like odd grotesques with underbellies far less interesting than those Lynch highlighted in Blue Velvet. I remember going to Passover Seders at the neighbors’ houses, squirming at the kids’ table as the adults talked about sports and the stock market and clothes and carpooling. The brisket was always so dry. Soon, the kids started talking about sports too. When I turned twelve, I started adjourning myself to the bathroom at the beginning of the “service” portion of the evening—the reading of the Haggadah, the asking of the sacred Four Questions... I had just started to get risky, ripping pages from my father’s Playboy magazines. I would stock my pockets with them before going to these Seders, along with a sandwich baggie into which I had squeezed a portion of Irma Shorell’s foaming facial wash. This was my borderline-hyperactive 12-year-old boy tool-kit of escape. As the adults led the kids in a round of chanting the Four Questions—Why is this Night Different from All Other Nights...?—I would retrieve said tool-kit and go to town on myself. As I got older, I realized that escaping suburban Chicago and this small pocket of folks didn’t have to be so creepy. All it took was a car. Hell, I’m sorry about this. You ask a straight question and you get childhood masturbation during the Jewish holidays. I mean, Jesus. But yeah: good schools, sidewalks, libraries. I took classes in Spanish and classes in building radios. I rode my bike without a helmet. I checked out books, read about places that had mountains and weird foods, and wanted to go there.  Perhaps not-so-strangely, when I returned to my hometown as an adult, driving along Fox Hill Drive with my wife for the first time, I realized, of course, that it’s not so bad. There’s something romantic about even this. Look: there’s the field we used to sit in when talking about how there’s nothing to do here!  Look at those lightning bugs!  And I realized that the neighbors aren’t so bad. Some of them are good people. And I realized that the asshole was me. And that’s an important thing to do.

JW: And the re-entry to your childhood bedroom was obviously rough for several reasons.

MGF: Yes. As I wrote in the book, this forced me to re-access the creepier aspects of childhood, not all of which were limited to Karen Velez centerfolds and facial wash. It’s odd, for instance, trying to get intimate with one’s wife when one’s mother is whimpering and one’s father is coughing in the next room. It’s odd to be looked down upon by one’s childhood posters and wall-hangings—Alyssa Milano circa Who’s the Boss?, Michael Jordan, Ryne Sandberg, King Kong hologram... It’s tough to reconcile marital intimacy with the icons that stood for and inflamed one’s pre-pubescent self. These things just didn’t want to gel. That year seems blurry for many reasons.

JW: It seems like you take great pains to tell the reader what Pot Farm isn’t. Your mother’s illness is central to yours and your wife’s states of mind and the decision to spend a season as unconventional farm workers, but you chastise yourself when you start sniffing around the conventions of the “cancer story.” It’s a memoir, but you’re always right there to tell us what you’re inventing, what you’ve consciously altered (including your wife’s nationality), and what you might be misremembering. Were you always conscious of what the book wasn’t going to be, as much as about what it was?

MGF: I definitively did not want to write a memoir about my mother’s battle with cancer, and how that affected us. I was more interested in exploring the often-clandestine everyday goings-on at the medical marijuana farm—the fantastic, the mundane, the dangerous. But of course, if my wife and I fled toward the Pot Farm, part of the narrative involved establishing, at least in backdrop, the thing from which we were fleeing. Outwardly admitting that I misremembered things about our time on the Pot Farm came only with the third draft. I became interested in using disclaimer and a “cloak of unreliability” to get away with something. To allow myself to speculate. To allow myself to fill in the blanks. And sometimes, to honor those blanks. It was during draft number three that that “extra” voice came in, commenting occasionally on the craft of the book itself. But I’m not going to use the prefix “meta,” John. I promise. I’m not going to use it. So I guess I want Pot Farmto be lyrical nonfiction coupled with immersion travel writing and legislative fact. I want the book the book to not only allow for the faults of memory, but also, rather than sweeping such faults under the narrative table, to turn up the heat beneath such faults, inflame them, bring them to the surface and engage them—and such a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall engagement is coupled with both the personal narrative and research, so the book simultaneously becomes memoir, lyric essay, a series of research-based information, and a discussion of craft. A personal narrative-lyrical-informative-CNF textbook of sorts. How’s that for self-aggrandizement?

JW: Is your stance on not making stuff up (or telling the reader when you are altering reality) when you’re labeling something “non-fiction” hard and fast, or was it just good policy for this book, and deep down you’re in league with the John D’Agata’s of the world and don’t want facts to get in the way of art?

MGF: Of course, I’m excited about D’Agata’s new book. I’ve read the clips. I’ve ordered it already. It seems like a real guilty pleasure, a real caramel. And yes, I agree that sometimes facts can get in the way of art, but facts can sometimes get in the way of an extra truth as well. A super truth. Emotional truth, whatever you want to call it. A strict adherence to the facts may not always be the best way to transfer the real sense of a particular event. But, unlike fiction, we nonfictioneers must begin with the facts and then bend them, blur them, paint over them for the sake of the narrative, for the sake of the art. The creative nonfictioneer’s, or the essayist’s, first obligation is to the art, to the narrative. That’s why we’re not journalists. Hell, I like being manipulated. I like being duped. That’s, in part, what I turn to art for. (I like being duped, I should clarify, when such authorial techniques are applied in service to the art, as opposed to the author). If I want the straight facts, I’ll read the manual on how to put together my Cuisinart. And even that manual has an agenda. One of reassurance. (Congratulations on the purchase of your Cuisinart. Cuisinart is good. If you follow these easy steps, Cuisinart will work).   

Folks read an essay or piece of creative nonfiction in order to see what happens when aspects of the “real” world are filtered through a very specific—and very faulty (meaning: it has, at some level, an agenda) human brain. Such brains exaggerate and understate, but of course, the stuff that’s exaggerated or understated comes from a “real” place. That original stuff is not made up.  Anyway, I don’t turn to a book like About a Mountain because I wantto learn about Las Vegas. I want to learn about John D’Agata’s version of Las Vegas; to learn about how he went about learning about Las Vegas; to learn about what he became obsessed with and confused about; and how he tracked those obsessions and confusions toward something that he misperceived as truth. That’s what’s interesting. This may sound grandiose, but I’m not going to get all up in arms because Picasso’s Nude Woman with a Necklace doesn’t really look like the painting’s original subject model. The facts have been bent.

If a nonfictioneer wants to make something up, to add a dead bird to the landscape in order to best transfer the way a particular moment felt, I’m a believer (at least I was in practice, in Pot Farm) of triggering the reader, letting them know that I may be bullshitting them because I’m struggling, as a writer, to capture something, to find connections between seemingly dissimilar things. In this struggle, in this grappling, is a holiness and a humanity and, ideally, an empathy with a reader. Because, honestly, what narrative structure, whether journalistic or creative, is equal to the task of supporting the Truth? At some point, all narrative structures break down in the face of it and fail, and it’s all the writer can do to represent the truth of this failure faithfully.

And far as mundane elements of craft go, speculation is necessary. Depending on the context, I’m not even sure that a writer is obligated to trigger the readers, to let them know that he or she is speculating. I mean, folks who attempt to reconstruct dinosaur bones and/or design the dioramas for the Smithsonian speak all the time of the professional leeway they’re allowed to fill in the historic geological time gaps, the blanks, the missing pieces of both actual, physical reconstruction, and the narrative leashed to the reconstruction. They admit that much of their process is speculatory, and this is accepted as an unavoidable norm within the field. But if nonfictioneers attempt to speculate, to fill in the missing pieces and blanks, the faults of memory with the same sort of educated and entertaining “place-holders”—be it research, form, mosaic, confused image, time compression, composite character, exaggeration, understatement, poetic evocation of “emotional truth,” or linguistic leap, the truth-police like to come in with their goofy batons, crying foul and stirring further controversy/debate. And this sort of attention and interrogation, while often annoying, is also what makes creative nonfiction so exciting and fiery and ever-shape-shifting, and downright attractive. I mean, if life scienceis an inexact science, what can’t creative nonfiction be? 

Look, the fact that this issue continues to inspire so much debate—many of them sober and literate—is a good thing. This is an essential dialogue. Whatever the genre is doing, it’s not inspiring dismissiveness or passive acceptance. This is what engaging art does. The energy generated by most, if not all, engaging art lies in part in the insufficiency of the medium to speak universal truths while maintaining any kind of artistic appeal, no matter how hard it tries. So some of the most exciting nonfiction—and not just contemporary nonfiction—comments on this electric insufficiency (itself a kind of truth) by deliberately fudging “facts” to favor the “art.”  In this way, it can tell a story, engage the real world, and implicitly comment on its own faulty medium. And that collision, while goofily controversial, is often exhilarating stuff. But you know what’s really exciting? All that may be bullshit too.

JW: Are you ever in touch with the old gang, or is it kind of like summer camp, where the bond is short and intense, but once it’s over, everyone drifts their separate ways?

MGF: I’m afraid it’s the summer camp thing. We made our lanyards and played some kickball and bid each other farewell. This may be good, though. There are some folks who worked the farm who would not appreciate being written about. As genial as folks were there, the industry is still cloaked in a lot of secrecy for sound reasons (self-preservation, the desire to avoid gunfights...). So, I changed names and was purposefully indistinct in regards to precise location, but still: I fear some of my Pot Farm friends may be a little pissed at me.

JW: Looking from the outside legalizing marijuana seems, if not immediate, inevitable, except that reading Pot Farmmakes me realizes that there’s a lot of forces beyond even law enforcement or anti-drug moralizers who have a stake in the status quo. What’s your sense of the issue?

MGF: It seems inevitable to me too, but said inevitability is also complicated and entangled in various committees and propositions dedicated not only to anti-legalization concerns (which, however wrong-headed, is still an active agenda), but also to trapping such inevitability in a knotted stalemate (a passive agenda). So you have pro-pot, anti-pot, pro-stalemate, anti-stalemate, etc. On top of that, you have a federal policy that’s at odds with various state and local policies, so a sort of nebulousness shrouds all of this legislation. It’s forever in flux. A pinning-down of this flux, a moving forward with clear policy seems inevitable, but the laws of entropy are tough bastards. And on top of that, Pot Farms are raided all the time by both state agencies and private militias, oftentimes resulting not only in a decimation of the crop, but in the loss of human life. Pot Farm owners have started employing ex-military folks as snipers who are stationed up in these tree forts in the redwoods as a security measure.  At the ground-level, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. AIDS patients and folks suffering from all kinds of chronic pain do light work on these farms in exchange for the medicine that works best for them and carries the fewest side-effects. Many of these folks are simply fighting for easy access to their meds, without the threat of taking a bullet.  

JW: Your books seem significantly indebted to your “vagabond lifestyle,” but your next book of poetry The Morrow Plots is named after the oldest experimental corn field in the country, a seemingly far more prosaic spot than a northern California farm or a small, northern Italian village. What was the attraction this time?

MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during a long and depressing winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots. I think I was at the point in my life when I started feeling a pull to return to the Midwest, to rediscover my regional roots, whatever that means. Symbolically, The Morrow Plots came to represent that pull. The Plots were for me, that winter, MIDWEST!  So, I started researching this regionally revered square of land to see if it had any secrets. All I knew was that it was an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus that generated genuflection, an underground library (so it wouldn’t cast a shadow on the corn), and a severe student expulsion policy for trespassing/vandalism.  Upon researching old newspaper articles (primarily The Urbana Daily Courier), I found that the Plots, in their early days (late 1800s, early 1900s) were often the site for violent crime, and a dumping ground for bodies. INTERNAL ORGANS OF MURDERED GIRL RECEIVED AT UNIVERSITYread one 1920s-era headline. It’s now a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy, consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after writing all of this murderous Illinois poetry. 

JW: You are now an assistant professor at Northern Michigan University, faculty, tenure-track faculty, the kind of position one associates with lifetimes. Anti-vagabondism. Do you feel settled?

MGF: Yes, relatively speaking. I actually like my job. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is fabulous. We checked out the dog sled races last week. Chicago’s only six hours away if I want a good Italian beef sandwich with spicy giardiniera. My wife and I want to start a family. I want to drag our own kid to Passover Seders. To pass on that King Kong hologram. Settled... It’s great. And a little unsettling. ...But I promise the brisket will be better.   


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