The awards and recognition keep pouring in for Gustavus professor and alumnus Matt Rasmussen ’98 and his debut collection of poems titled Black Aperture. Rasmussen, who was named a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry in the fall of 2013, won the Minnesota Book Award in the same category at the Minnesota Book Awards Gala on Saturday, April 5 at the St. Paul Union Depot.
Rasmussen was one of four finalists for this year’s award in poetry. The other three finalists included The First Flag by Sarah Cox, It Becomes You by Dobby Gibson, and Slip by Cullen Bailey Burns.
The following is a story that appeared on the Gustavus website in September when Rasmussen was named to the National Book Award Longlist for Poetry:
Visiting Professor of English and 1998 Gustavus Adolphus College graduate Matt Rasmussen has been named to the 2013 National Book Award Longlist for Poetry for his debut collection of poems titled Black Aperture. The list of 10 books was announced on Tuesday, Sept, 17 by the National Book Foundation. Finalists will be announced on Oct. 16 and a winner will be announced at the National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Dinner on Nov. 20.
The National Book Award is one of the nation’s most prestigious literary prizes and has a stellar record of identifying and rewarding quality writing. In 1950, William Carlos Williams was the first winner in Poetry, and the following year William Faulkner was honored in Fiction. The National Book Foundation’s mission is to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of good writing in America.
“It’s an enormous honor to have my book named to the Longlist for the National Book Award for Poetry,” Rasmussen said. “I just learned about it today, so I’m still processing it a little, but it’s humbling to be named among so many amazing poets and books.”
Black Aperture has already received considerable accolades as it was the winner of the 2012 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. In the collection of poems, Rasmussen faces the tragedy of his brother’s suicide, refusing to focus on the expected pathos, blurring the edge between grief and humor.
“It’s largely about my brother’s suicide, so it’s definitely dark, but I’d like to think it has moments of humor as well,” Rasmussen said. “People have described it as “dream-like” or “surreal.” The book explores grief, but not in a chronicled way. It’s more a fragmented exploration of my experiences, emotions, and imaginings.”
Black Aperture was a project that was 10 years in the making as several of the poems included were written while Rasmussen was enrolled in graduate school at Emerson College in Boston, Mass.
“I worked on it for 10 years, but it wasn’t like I was constantly working on it, or even knew that it was a book,” Rasmussen said. “I just wrote more and more poems and kept adding them to the manuscript while taking others out. It had many different titles and structures throughout those years, but it really took its final shape after Jane Hirshfield helped me immensely with the editing and ordering of it.”
One poem in the collection that Rasmussen feels stands out is titled “Reverse Suicide”, as Rasmussen imagines what would happen if his brother’s suicide were played backwards, like a film roll played in reverse.
“It begins with the guy our Dad sold my brother’s car to coming back to get his money and leaving the car. It ends with my brother and I pouring bags of leaves on the lawn and waiting for them to “leap onto the bare branches,” Rasmussen said. “The poem tries to explore that familiar and oxymoronic emotion we all feel of wanting to reverse time when someone we love passes away. It’s a completely irrational desire and yet completely natural.”
Rasmussen came to Gustavus in the fall of 1994 from International Falls with the intention of majoring in computer science and playing on the men’s hockey team. He played two years of hockey and ended up switching his major to English.
“The English Department at Gustavus made me into a poet. I was already reading and writing poetry before I came to Gustavus, but I had never had a creative writing class before,” Rasmussen said. “My English professors were amazing, including Florence Amamoto, Don Scheese, John Rezmerski, Deborah Downs-Miers, Claude Brew, and Claus Buechman.”
Rasmussen says that the two professors who influenced him the most were current Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen and Phil Bryant – both of whom are currently faculty members at the College.
“They’re two of the most approachable and caring teachers I’ve ever had. Basically, I wanted to be like them,” Rasmussen said. “Not only did they help shape me as a poet when I was at Gustavus, but I kept in touch with them afterwards and they were always there for me when I needed a recommendation or just a pat on the back.”
Rasmussen also said that Classics professor Will Freiert – his first term seminar professor – had a profound impact on him when he told Rasmussen and other first-year students that they should seek to learn things that they want to learn. “That instilled in me the courage to pursue my love of poetry,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen, Sutphen and Bryant are of course colleagues now that Rasmussen has been serving as a visiting professor in the College’s English Department. He is currently teaching a section of Introduction to Creative Writing and has also taught classes such as World Literature II, Appreciating Literature, and Reading the World: The World at the Margin during his time at Gustavus.
While Black Aperture is a fairly new publication, having been published in 2012 by LSU Press, Rasmussen is busy with future projects.
“I’m writing new poems. I don’t have a large project in mind, but I’m not really too concerned about that. I’m hoping my next book finds its form as I continue to write more and more poems,” he said. “I have a three-year-old daughter, Lydia, who loves books and it seems like I’ve been reading children’s books more than anything else. It seems natural that I’ve started writing a children’s book. It’s my first try, so we’ll see how it goes.
Rasmussen’s poetry has been published in Gulf Coast, Cimarron Review, H_NGM_N, Water ̴ Stone Review, New York Quarterly, Paper Darts, and at Poets.org. He’s received awards, grants, and residencies from The Bush Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The Minnesota State Arts Board, Jerome Foundation, Intermedia Arts, The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minn., and The Corporation of Yaddo. He is a 2014 Pushcart Prize winner and a former Peace Corps volunteer. More information about him and his work can be found online at mattrasmussen.net.
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