People: Matt Betts' "weird and wonderful" approach to poetry

Erica Thompson

In a technology-driven world with so many forms of entertainment, the decision to engage audiences with the written word can be risky. However, it's a choice that Columbus poet Matt Betts has gladly made.

"I just love to tell stories," said Betts, who will celebrate the launch of his new collection, "Underwater Fistfight," at Destination Discount Books on Saturday, April 16.

So what inspired him on his path to becoming a poet? The work of Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Lord Byron? Not so much.

"It was not something that really spoke to me," Betts said of the classic poetry that he was taught in school.

He wrote some poems in college, but didn't have much success "[because] the professors were not really interested in the subjects I wanted to write in," he said.

As a speculative poet, Betts specializes in science fiction, horror and fantasy. His cast of characters often comprises zombies, ghosts, robots and characters from old TV shows and movies. For example, Van Helsing and Mothra make guest appearances in his latest book. There is also a poem, "Ghost of a Beloved Children's Show Host," which "sort of references a giant purple dinosaur, but not by name," Betts said.

Betts hopes others will give speculative poetry a shot during National Poetry Month, which runs throughout April. At his event, he will discuss the genre and encourage attendees to create their own "weird and wonderful" poems.

One of Betts' early influences was"Jaws," which he saw on a 30-foot screen at a drive-in theater in his Lima hometown - at four years old. "Some of the horror stuff that I write probably started from that," he said.

As he got older, Betts sought out more entertainment that was on the scary side - a difficult feat in his rural environment. "There was one TV station," he said. "If you wanted to watch anything else, you had to struggle with the antenna. You could get stations from Columbus, and every once in a while you could get something out of Detroit or Cincinnati."

One of Betts' discoveries included a Detroit channel that aired a different monster movie every Saturday afternoon. "I would be struggling to get that antenna to bring a signal in so I could watch Godzilla … or whatever it might have been that weekend," he said.

Pretty soon, he found out other kids were doing the same thing. "They were trying to find something a little weirder, a little offbeat to check out, and we were all battling our TVs, messing with the antenna," he said. They became a "tight-knight group" in elementary school, and Betts learned about other movies and TV shows from his peers.

Betts was also influenced by comedies like "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Today, he cites humor as a significant part of his work.

After studying communications in college and working for a few radio stations, Betts moved to Columbus in 2000 and joined a writing group. His goal was to write fiction, which he still does (he has published a steampunk novel and an urban fantasy novel). He didn't even know what speculative poetry was until he attended "Context," a writer's conference once held in Columbus. "The more I learned about it that weekend, it was like, 'This is what I should be doing,'" he said.

Betts credits the writing groups, conferences and overall arts and literary scene in Columbus with giving him the support he needed to succeed. "I had lived in Cleveland a little bit, I went to school in Toledo and I lived in Lima, and I had just never had that [creative group] that was this large," he said. "We're all out supporting each other … it's just such a great community."

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Age: 44

Day job: Barnes & Noble and Columbus Creative Cooperative. "My primary day job is chasing down my two kids."

Hometown: Lima, OH

Current Neighborhood: South of Hilliard

Currently listening to: Regina Spektor, Foo Fighters

Favorite restaurant in Columbus: Mac's

Favorite movie: "Star Wars" (the original)

Favorite TV show: "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr."

What was the last record you purchased?First Comes the Night by Chris Isaak. "He's just got that unique voice and wonderful songwriting style."

"Poetry of the Weird and Wonderful"

2 p.m. Saturday, April 16

Destination Discount Books

1185 US Highway 23 North, Delaware