The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our ‘Poet of the Month’ for September, Airea D. Matthews.
Airea D. Matthews is a poet based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her collection, Simulacra (Yale University Press, 2017), was chosen by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets. Matthews received an MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, and has received fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. With Marissa Johnson-Valenzuela and Cynthia Dewi Oka, Matthews is a founding member of the Riven collective. She is currently an assistant professor at Bryn Mawr College and is a Warren Wilson MFA Program faculty member. She is currently working on a new collection of poetry entitled under/class.
Natalya: Hello from Toronto, Airea! I recently read Simulacra, and I’m interested in learning more about you and your work.
Airea: Thank you for asking. Happy to share.
Natalya: When and how did you begin as a poet? What interested you about poetry?
Airea: As a kid, I preferred writing to speaking. There was a fair degree of chaos in my early life and writing was a comfort. It always seemed to me that writing was preferable to participation in chaos. At a very young age, pre-literacy, I would ask my sister to help me make words from things I’d scribbled. She’d tell me to add vowels to make words. After I figured out the ‘formula’, I was sold on language–utterly in love with written words. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t a voracious reader as a child; reading caught up with me in my early adulthood. By the time I grew to love reading other people’s words, I found myself neck-deep in economics texts and in a social policy graduate program. After I earned my first graduate degree, I put it on a shelf in order to write and perform for a living. I started in the slam community. But, over the years, I discovered I wanted to write outside of performance; I wanted a deeper relationship with language and craft.
After the birth of my 4th child, I started taking classes at a Detroit café with the poet, Vievee Francis. I breastfed my daughter across the table as Vievee pried open the world of craft and deep engagement with poetics. After a few months of those weekly sessions, I decided to get my MFA and, fortunately, was accepted into Michigan’s program. While I was in the program, I was given the time to write for my life. So, that’s what I did.
Natalya:: How did you come to write Simulacra? What was that process like for you?
Airea: Simulacra came in small pieces over a 5-year period (during and after grad school). At the time I’d been writing what I’ve come to call ‘dark domestica’. I was interested in the environments, familial or imagined, that produced melancholy and/or conspired against the American ideal. I think we often glance at the exterior of a life and make assessments about what makes someone happy or fulfilled—a bit of the ‘if only I had that, then I would be happy.’
I’ve since learned that depression, circumstance and blind desire will often laugh in the face of the if/then statement. I wanted to capture that in Simulacra. Plus, I quite liked Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum—the idea that a life based on an imagined ideal can’t exist because the imagined ideal doesn’t exist.
Natalya: Dan Chiasson of the New Yorker likened your poems in Simulacra to “Fugues, text messages to the dead, imagined outtakes from Wittgenstein, tart mini-operas, fairy tales…” He added that, “Matthews is virtuosic, frantic, and darkly, very darkly, funny.” What do you think of Chiasson’s description?
Airea: Well, I certainly appreciate it; it’s a huge compliment. As any artist I desire to be truly seen, and I felt like that description was clear-sighted. I like dark humor. The book is intended to be urgent and referentially broad-reaching. Dan has an incredible critical mind and eye.
Natalya: Tell me about those delicious texts with Anne Sexton.
Airea: In the early days of texting, messages were often delivered out of sequence but numbered. In 2012 I began reading through my own text archive and picking out happy accidents—messages that due to sequencing errors and forced line breaks read as lyrical excerpts. I started ruminating and trying to concoct a form. This experiment also coincided with a depression in which I truly wanted to correspond, for reasons of mental health and fellowship, with Sexton. At some point, I remembered reading Anne Sexton: A Self Portrait in Letters by Linda Gray Sexton and Lois Ames. In one of her final correspondences to her daughter, Sexton wrote “Talk to my poems and to your heart—I’m in both: if you need me.”
In that quote I found a bit of permission to construct conversations through the text form. For about a year, I set up a secondary text account and sent messages to an imagined Sexton, which I began to transcribe and edit into the Sexton Texts poems. And since the poems were written at different times, they each have a different speaker in conversation with Sexton.
Natalya: Do you feel humour is important to poetry, even when poetry covers dark subject matter or trauma?
Airea: In grad school I once asked Phil Levine the age at which he allowed himself permission to use humor in a poem. He told me it wasn’t until his middle years. I was already in my middle years, so that, too, felt like permission. It makes sense to laugh at some of life’s more absurd moments. Why wouldn’t we? In fact, one of my favorite characteristics in a person is a sense of humor and I try to cultivate a self-deprecating humor in myself. I like to laugh a lot because it reminds me to not take myself so seriously all the time. Every moment of our lives can’t be dead serious. Humor allows the poet the opportunity to dance with levity.
Natalya: Who and what do the various “wives” in Simulacra represent? How did you create those wives?
Airea: The wives are various aspects of the self at different times in my life. Even when working heavily with personas, as I do, I think it important to question the ways in which the self is reflected in the other as well as the other in the self. In this, persona work keeps me empathetically supple.
Natalya: You’re passionate about your family, and often share loving photographs of your children’s milestones on social media. How does your family inform your work?
Airea: They support my work entirely. My kids have always been accepting of the fact that they weren’t blessed with a soccer mom. Instead, they got a loving, melancholic, and philosophically-minded mom who lives in her imagination. Pretty early on in my writing and parenting life, I realized that I wasn’t at a disadvantage by being an imaginative woman. Instead of solitarily living in my head I could invite my kids to enter, and we could discover possibility together. Which is to say, in my house we might break out and dance in the kitchen to hip hop, or start speaking a jibberish language in public space, or engage in a conversation about Wittgenstein. Similarly, my family taught me how to properly build blanket forts and be patient and use slang properly and to love. My great loves are iron. Iron sharpens iron. My loves sharpen me.
Natalya: Tell me about your current project, which I understand is a new collection called under/class. When can we look forward to that work and what’s it all about?
Airea: That’s a great question. The book will be done by the middle of 2020. I am heavily revising and discarding and adding poems to the manuscript at the moment. The book has shifted focus over time. At first I wanted to write about poverty, but I didn’t want to be imposing or appropriative. Then, I started thinking about class as a primary spatial marker in American society. Then, I started thinking about the visual plane. Ultimately, the book will be an interdisciplinary (visual/textual) look at American culture from several different perspectives—class, race, myth and affiliation are all a part of it. I’ve remained consistently excited about this book. The idea of thinking about the larger forces that drove the themes in Simulacra feels like an excavation and a deeper interrogation into a culture that shapes us all.