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Either way, poet Matt Rasmussen is a winner in the National Book Awards experience

Matt Rasmussen

Today, Matt Rasmussen, his parents, his wife and his 3-year-old daughter will all board a plane for New York City, where the poet will read from his National Book Award-nominated collection, and maybe, just maybe, pick up this year’s top honors for poetry, if he’s lucky. Which, he says, he already is.

“I don’t feel like I can lose. Just being a finalist is something I never expected; this is my first book. Even being long-listed for this would have been amazing. So, I don’t need to win for this to be an incredible experience,” says the Robbinsdale poet.

His dad doesn’t like to fly, and his parents have never been to New York, so Rasmussen is looking forward to showing them some of the city’s highlights — when he’s not mingling with other nominees, such as George Saunders, Thomas Pynchon, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Frank Bidart, that is. But he dedicated the book, “Black Aperture” (Louisiana State University Press), to his parents, and in a way, it is a book about family, so he’s glad they will be there.

The collection centers on the suicide of his brother, and how the aftermath of that experience forever changed his family. It reshaped Rasmussen, and perhaps even made him a poet; at age 16, he began writing poems at the suggestion of a therapist he was seeing for grief. A decade later, in graduate school, he noticed that classmates responded most strongly to the poems he wrote about his brother.

“I was writing about my personal experience with grief, but it’s something we don’t really know how to talk about in our society, so if my poems help people understand something in their own life, the, obviously, that’s great. Maybe it will help open up the conversation about suicide, because, really, it affects so many people,” he says.

The poems are spare and careful, full of ache and observation as he chronicles the weird realm that is the world reshaped by suicide. Some of these poems are purely painful in their description of the jarring confusion that accompanies the mundane tasks that follow a death. At times, they create pictures that are hard to look straight at. And sometimes, they are funny.

“I tried to make sure there was enough humor to balance things,” he says. Even so, there’s not exactly a moment of “healing and moving on,” here, a flat contradiction to the societal expectation that at some point, we walk away from grief. Rasmussen worked on the poems in this book for 10 years, while navigating grad school, a stint in the Peace Corps, teaching (he currently teaches part time at Gustavus Adolphus College) and new parenthood. And yet, even now his brother’s loss is etched behind everything else he tries to write.

“Part of the problem is, it’s difficult to say the last thing about an event like this, you know, and just wash your hands of it and be done and move on. That’s the problem with pretty much any book about grief. The title of the book hints at that inability to find closure,” he says. “Of course, there are new things to write about, and things come to me every day. But the very form of those earlier poems is with me — like, I wrote an elegy for my television that died. And part of that was me having a little fun, but also, I’m really still writing from that framework of grief, whether I want to or not. Now I maybe reach more for the moments of absurdity, and humor.”

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