Campus Closeup: Matthew Frank
A series of unique adventures fueled by “unrepentant wanderlust” preceded writer and poet Matthew Frank’s (English) arrival at NMU. Most revolved around food and wine—his way of rebelling against the microwaved meals favored by his parents. Frank left their Chicago home at 17 with a one-way ticket to Juneau, Alaska, and $300 in his pocket. Through fortunate timing, he was asked to run a breakfast café adjacent to a bowling alley that had “a puke-green, gold-flecked counter and stools held together by duct tape.”
Frank later worked the wine harvest in Italy’s Piedmont region while living out of a tent in the garden of a local farmhouse. He also served as a sommelier for two high-profile chefs, cooked at a seafood restaurant in Key West and helped to design menus for actress Julia Roberts’ private parties in New Mexico while again living in a tent to save money for grad school. In a deliberate departure from the hospitality industry, he spent a season at a legal California marijuana farm after watching his mother reluctantly reap the herb’s medicinal benefits during her struggle with cancer.
Barolo is a book Frank wrote about his experience in Italy. He shunned food writing for a while afterward to avoid being pigeon-holed in the genre, but will resurrect the culinary theme in his next project. Frank is working on a series of essays on the historical significance of the defining cuisine of each U.S. state. The book is tentatively titled "The Food You Require is Heavier." He said his restaurant background made him realize that the approach to preparing a gourmet meal is similar to writing a piece of lyrical non-fiction or a poem (he has four poetry books to his credit).
“Both employ the same imaginative alchemy,” said Frank, between nibbles of the braised lamb neck and sautéed eggplant he made for lunch. “I worked in some fine dining kitchens where the cooking was avant-garde and you tried to find creative ways to bridge seemingly dissimilar ingredients in a perfect dish that causes a flavorful explosion in the mouth. It’s the same in poetry. You’re trying to find that ideal way to bridge ideas and phrases into a well-crafted form or expression that resonates with the reader.”
Pot Farm described Frank’s stint in northern California after his mom’s successful battle against stage 4 lymphoma. He learned of the diagnosis when, on a typical whim, he was about to move to Vermont. Frank had earned his MFA in poetry and creative nonfiction from Arizona State University and intended to look for teaching jobs in Montpellier while working in restaurants. He and his wife, Louisa, a South Africa native whom he met in Key West, canceled their plans and spent a year in Chicago helping his mom through her rigorous chemotherapy/radiation protocol.
“My mom was straight-laced and refused to engage marijuana even as it was becoming more common medicinally. It took some arm twisting, but eventually she used it toward the end and it helped a bit. It’s less harmful than a lot of prescribed substances. I became interested in the politics of medical marijuana through that lens. I get obsessed very easily. Especially with non-fiction, I tend to wrap myself around a topic and can’t let go until I exhaustively explore it. I did hard archival research and then wanted to work on a medical marijuana farm to get an educated opinion and write about it. Some illegal folks are giving legal farms a bad name. But the people I worked with are opposed to legalization unless there’s solid regulation. They are also against driving under the influence of marijuana. Basically they were good-hearted people driven by the desire to help others feel better.”
Frank’s most recent title is Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. He will give a reading at a new book party at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 23, at Peter White Public Library. Preparing the Ghost was the subject of a recent New York Times Sunday book review. It relays the story of Moses Harvey, an eccentric Newfoundland reverend and amateur naturalist who photographed the first complete specimen of the giant squid in 1874 (right). He draped it over a shower curtain rod in his home to demonstrate its impressive size.
No one before Frank had researched the sequence of events that led the squid to be transported from the bay to the port and then to Harvey’s house, where it was wedged through the front door and carried to the bathroom to be preserved on film for posterity. The idea struck Frank during a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
“They were really pushing the Hope Diamond, but I found that boring. In an adjacent room was this display of a giant squid with a photo next to it. It fascinated me, so I copied the three-line description about Moses and that’s all I had to go on. I figured it might result in a five-page essay, but in typical fashion, I fell in love with the object of research and couldn’t let go. I went after it like I was a [private investigator] and made a trip to Newfoundland. Moses rescued the giant squid from the realm of mythology by proving its existence and altered the way we construct the proverbial sea monster through literature and science.”
When he’s not writing or teaching at NMU, Frank likes to cook, travel, kayak and bicycle with Louisa. He’s also trying to teach himself the saxophone inherited from his grandfather. “He’s been dead since 1986, but the reeds still smell sweetly of his saliva,” said Frank (yes, he does wax poetic in addition to writing that way). So how did a self-professed vagabond decide to settle down into academia?
“When I was younger, I did want to see the world and immerse myself in various contexts and I achieved that. As an undergrad, I took a class from a professor of psycholinguistics at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He was about 80 years old and a serious chain-smoker. He said to me in his raspy voice, ‘Matt, you will go out there and you will find that you are the Midwest.’ He was right. I grew up there and I’m happy to come back, first to Grand Valley State as a visiting writer for three years and now here in Marquette.”
For more on Frank, including his current favorite dessert recipe—Revisionist Caprese Salad: Basil Ice Cream, Mozzarella Syrup, Oven-Dried Sweet Tomato and Tomato Rock Candy—visit www.matthewgfrank.com.