I reeked of the sea and had nothing to show for it.
Darkling saltwater for a dream
and no other place to be (29-31)
Excerpt from “In the Year of No Work” by Matthew Nienow
To enter into Matthew Nienow’s workshop is to walk back in time. Wood shavings lie coiled in heaps on the floor, the smell of freshly cut lumber permeates the air and a sense that things move slowly here settles comfortably in your chest. And then there are the paddleboards. They are everywhere; leaned up against walls, in racks stacked three high, some finished, some waiting in various states of construction. Matthew emerges from a corner of the shop. He is quiet, rugged, tall, his handshake firm. His hands are those of a woodworker’s, giant and able, his words are chosen with care, a reflection of his second trade–poetry.
Where most people might see woodworking and poetry as disparate professions, he sees them as intrinsically linked; both are in service of making functional, lasting things. In a Tishman Review interview he says “…in this space I work with things. A poem ultimately becomes a physical object. Even to read it requires some sort of physicality.” Many of his poems, in fact, capture that physical process of building.
In “It’s the Boat That Haunts You” Neinow writes:
curls golden bracelets of cedar
around your wrists as you plane each
plank, its touch the dream of a body becoming
whole—to make the shape, to be shaped—and the boat (7-10)
Matthew’s woodwork is born of his experience in the outdoors. “I started building paddleboards because growing up I used to lead canoe trips out in wild places,” he explains. It was partly that realization that drew him from the path of poetry to one of wood. After attending graduate school for poetry at the University of Washington, he moved to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula to study at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. He explains that, initially, his shop was just a side project that kept on growing. “At boat schooI I was working on different types of boats, and I happened upon paddleboards. I have two young boys and we would go out adventuring. I wanted to build something where if we tipped we could just get right back in.”
Matthew uses ancient boat building techniques and hand-tools to painstakingly build the boards up layer by layer. “My goal with this work is to make boards that are beautiful and useful” he explains. A swift glance around his shop shows that he’s clearly achieving his objective. One board has a softly swooping wave pattern over the entire deck, one a stripe design that defies what wood should be able to do. Fiber-glassed and then sanded for hours to a mirror-like finish, the completed ones are silky smooth to the touch.
The boards are not just art pieces though, these things are tough. Ranging between 6 and 12 feet long, they are made to withstand the wide range of water conditions in the NW. “The boards are rugged – they last a lot longer, years longer than their standard counterparts,” Matthew points out. “Some of them are built for racing, some for recreation. They’re all made in a certain way so they be repaired if needed – you just can’t do that with standard boards”.
Above all, Matthew wants his creation to be used in service of living a good life -used for adventuring and then having tales to tell about the journey. His shop is named “Good Story” after this notion. About this name he writes, “We take it a step further in our pursuit of living a life worth telling about. We want to live a good story. We want to do things worth doing, make actual things worth making, and be in a way worth being.” And it’s not just lip-service. “We definitely get to adventure on the peninsula, Matthew says, “I paddle a lot on the water here. Everything is here for us, the mountains, the water, it’s all in our backyard.”
It’s difficult to leave the shop, to walk out of the filtered, sawdusty light. There’s a draw to the boards and to this place that’s difficult to define. Matthew put it this way, “there is something powerful about surfing and paddling on something made to last, being out in the wild place while using something that’s functional and hand-built.” It’s hard to disagree.