November 21st, 2014

Amazing Guy, Gone But Remembered

Matthew Power was a wonderful writer and a friend of mine. A Vermonter who graduated from Middlebury College, he got assigned to my nonfiction writing workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2004, where he was overqualified. The manuscript he brought to share was a piece he had just published in The Believer, about a possible “lost tribe” of Jews in India. It was already in great shape and I don’t know how much he got out of the workshop.

Matthew Power by Amber Hunt

Matthew Power by Amber Hunt

But I gained a friend, one I would see in New York and also at subsequent Bread Loaf conferences, which he would return to with his wife, the wonderful Jess Benko, and give talks on radio journalism and travel writing. One August he couldn’t attend but called from Minnesota to check in. He was floating down the Mississippi River with a group of punk anarchists on a crazy boat they had built, he said. The leader was a sort of punk Captain Ahab named Matt Bullard. Matt Power had met Matt Bullard seven years before in a park in Arcata, CA. As he wrote later in Harper’s, “Matt was almost exactly my age, and from that first time we talked I admired his raconteurial zest and scammer’s panache. He considered shoplifting a political act and dumpstering a civil right.” Matt had accepted Bullard’s invitation to join the group and had spent many days with them. I was excited—it sounds like a book, I told him. Matt wasn’t so sure. The raft was moving extremely slowly—about seven miles a day with 1500 miles to go, as he’d later write. Worse, Bullard was impossible to get along with and the crew was gradually abandoning him.

The experience became the basis for my favorite article of Matthew’s, “Mississippi Drift.” I like the piece because it’s so delightfully unlikely, so anti-sentimental, and also because to me the role of a punk Huck Finn suited Matt so perfectly.

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photo via Facebook

Matt died while reporting a story in Uganda last spring. He had visited a class I teach the day before he left, and at lunch afterward we talked about the long cold spell we were having in New York and how nice it would be to leave it for a while. Shortly after came the news he had died, apparently of heat stroke during an arduous hike along the Nile.

Matthew had a wide network of friends, and a search of the web will turn up many fond remembrances. Among the most moving of these are recollections by three writers and editors who knew him well, Abe Streep, Brad Wieners, and Roger Hodge.

Matthew also had devoted family. His sister, Elizabeth Power Robison, in coordination with me and my colleagues at New York University, has worked tirelessly to establish an endowment for a new prize, the Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award. As of this writing, nearly 500 people have contributed; you can join their ranks by donating here. The first award, a grant of $12,500 to support the kind of work that made Matt special, will be given this spring. Applications are being accepted until February 16, 2015, and you can read about it here.

DylanVanWinkelPhotoOfMatt-lores

Matthew Power by Dylan Van Winkel

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