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From books to boats

By Mara Fink '11
December 14, 2010

Matthew Nienow '05 recently added the role of award-winning poet to a resume that already includes wilderness tour guide, boat-building student, musician, husband, and father.

The National Endowment for the Arts recently selected Nienow from a pool of more than 1,000 applicants to receive a creative writing fellowship worth $25,000. The Ole, now residing in Port Townsend, Washington, is the author of two chapbooks, attends the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building, and led his most recent wilderness trip through Northwest Territories and Nunavat in Canada. He also maintains a poet’s blog titled It Goes Without Saying.

Nienow took a few minutes from building his first skiff to share what draws him to boats and poetry, how he finds balance in his life, and why the money isn’t the best part of his NEA award.

You’re the author of two chapbooks. What, exactly, is a chapbook?
A chapbook is a short collection of work (poetry in my case) that is usually printed in a limited edition press run of 300 or fewer copies. For poetry, its main defining character is that it is less than 48 pages, which is what constitutes a full-length book. Chapbooks have been around in various forms since the 16th century and seem to be making a strong comeback in the last several years.

Are you going to spend the $25,000 you received all in one place?
At this point it is hard to say what exactly the money will go toward. And when it really comes down to it, the money is the small side of this fellowship. While it's immensely appreciated, it will only go so far. What feels like the biggest capital is the faith the NEA and the panelists have placed on me to continue to do good work in the world through my words. I still can't believe I was selected to receive support, but as this year's youngest recipient I feel endowed with a great sense that I do belong to something larger than myself and my immediate interests as a writer. This is a gift of confidence that will carry me through my career.

You’ve been a high school teacher, a musician, a wilderness guide, and now you’re opening a wooden boat shop. It looks like you really took your liberal arts education to heart ...
St. Olaf surely nurtured my curiosities. From my time in Cuba studying the revolution to my creative writing workshops, I always felt I had room to grow into a different version of myself. My time on the Hill gave me the drive to pursue the elements of the world I was most interested in and, when I was ready, to make something happen. I know for a fact that if it wasn't for former professor Eliot Khalil Wilson and current professor Diane LeBlanc, I would not be writing now, and I certainly would not be on that list of NEA recipients. St. Olaf offered the kind of learning environment that allowed me to be friends with my professors, which is another way of saying that my learning did not happen in a box. It was always connected to the larger world off the Hill and years away.

What draws you to building boats?
I love making things, which is why I love poems, too. At its root the Greek poetes means "maker." With poems and boats I am able to take a raw piece of the world — whether that's wood or a powerful experience — and shape something. It's constantly challenging work, but something I feel called to do. With poems, the work happens through me in a physical way, but it's not the same as shaping a piece of wood with planes and chisels. The two kinds of work seem to feed each other and establish a balance I have not found elsewhere.

What kind of boats do you build?

I built my first cedar-strip canoe during my first year at Olaf. While I was still figuring out college life on the Hill, I was also interested in other kinds of learning. So I looked around and found the Northwest Canoe Company in St. Paul. They were offering a 10-week class for almost nothing, so I signed on. I was also working with guys 30 years older than me, which meant that I learned a bit more than how to build a boat. That was 10 years ago. Since then, I have built three other canoes, twice with students of mine. I recently began building my first skiff, and throughout the year I'll build several rowboats and sailboats of various designs and construction methods. I find the work deeply satisfying.

How do you balance being a dad, husband, poet, and all of your other hobbies?

Balance is always the trick. It's the thing that looms beyond me — something I will never reach, but will always be working toward. I'm grateful that my wife, Elie, is so supportive of my work as a writer (even before it paid) and my ever-widening interests in different forms of making. And, of course, I'm grateful for the little boy — my son, River — who gives me another reason to work hard every day. It seems that the elements of life beyond my own desires allow me to do more than I otherwise could. For these gifts I am most grateful.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or