10 Questions for Thea Matthews
- By Franchesca Viaud
Teeth marks are found in the back of a cop car.
Cymbals clang on too-hot grits.
My mental chatter is at the speed of rabbits thumping.
Asphalt tapes the blood spill.
A gold tooth crater smiles into a blow.
The blow is the lingering smoke of a body left
unrecognizable. A rollercoaster of adrenaline
the red pollock splatter.
—from "O Holy Night," Volume 64, Issue 3 (Fall 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Well, from the beginning, poetry came to me as a means to communicate the unseen, channel agony, and express stigma. I gravitate to the interior of one’s motives as well as the societal issues that impact one’s psyche, especially when it comes to survival and resiliency.
As you know, the summer of 2020 was filled with tear gas, riots, protests, and chants of Black Lives Matter after the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Back again, I was out in the streets, meditating on the travesty of justice as a principle and as a botched course of action in the US.
Come fall of 2020 as an MFA candidate in poetry in my first semester at New York University, Rachel Zucker was my craft professor. The central focus of her class was examining the long narrative poem. We interrogated the epic, discussed the works of Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, Maggie Nelson, M. NourbeSe Philip, Tommy Pico, and others, and we were given the task of writing a long poem.
It was here for the first time I set out to draft a long overly ambitious lyric titled “Americana” to interrogate notions of justice by subverting hymns, using symbolism of the American flag, and interweaving found language, and traditional American folk imagery.
My reflections on the US criminal justice system, and how justice for one is an injustice for another propelled me to draft over fifty thirteen-line triolet-esque cantos for “Americana” that serve as fodder for poems, including “O Holy Night.”
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Like whetstone, Nicole Sealey and Terrance Hayes have sharpened my approach to form and language. I’m very much drawn to their risk-taking and intentionality when it comes to writing in a particular form. Whether it be the expansion of a Wanda Coleman’s American sonnet or erasure as a means to underscore the gravity of emotion, I read closely and listen to their beat. And, their straight critiques of my work continue to affect how I write after.
Robin Coste Lewis is another influential poet and was one of my workshop professors at NYU. She taught me how to access the liberty to lean into fear and just write the poem. In class, Robin assigned us to select and recite a poem from Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. A peer and poet friend Cortez de la Cruz II chose “The Kid” by Ai [Ogawa], and listening to him recite that poem changed me.
Similar to a monumental moment in one’s life, there is a before and after of Thea Matthews as a poet from that experience. The extraordinary nature of Ai’s poetry is its experiential, provocative, and devastating qualities. I’m amazed by how Ai can skillfully capture the psyche and hold the gravity of love, apathy, and violence in one breath.
I keep her poetry collections, especially Cruelty and Killing Floor, close. For me, dramatic monologues and narrative persona have been an entry into confronting parts of the self and participating in the discourse of social in-/justice. Alongside Ai, the work of Patricia Smith is canonical. When I first read her “Tankas” in Blood Dazzler, I was brought to tears. From longer works to thirty-one syllables, Patricia is an inimitable wordsmith penetrating the heart.
I’m also influenced by the works of Sharon Olds, Jericho Brown, and Natalie Diaz; and I’d be remiss to not mention these poets as profound influences on my poetry: Ntozake Shange, Bob Kaufman, and William Carlos Williams.
What other professions have you worked in?
Before all things poetry, other professions include being a research assistant and project policy analyst in the field of public health and medical sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. Wild, right? Only recently do I feel a solid integration of my academic background in sociology and me as a poet. Perhaps, one day I can hope to design a course on the intersection of sociology and poetry. Time will tell…
What did you want to be when you were young?
In kindergarten, the class was asked the routine question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Little Thea said she wanted to be a singer.
I think even then I was intrigued by the limelight, the glitz and glamor of rock stars, and pop stars. Eventually, that persona of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll spat me out like a wine cork.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Building from my response to the first question, I was attempting to write this long poem titled “Americana, and it was rough, nascent, and fragmented. Come fall 2021, my craft professor was Nicole Sealey. The title of her class was “Patience as Practice,” and the basis of her class focused on reimagination as revision.
I must say, Nicole revolutionized my approach to writing poetry. In a Paris Review interview, she’s asked “…how do you know a poem is finished?,” and she responds with: “When do I know a poem is finished? I’m among those who believe a work is never finished, only abandoned.” Classic. I learned that before I can abandon a poem, I need to feel content and that comes by repeatedly reimagining the poem.
“O Holy Night” emerged as one of the revision exercises Nicole assigned to the class for reimagining the source poem, and in my case, an excerpt of “Americana.” The fourth assignment was to write the poem using a specific form other than the one originally used. I attempted to write it as a villanelle. It’s clearly not a villanelle. So yay! I failed…
The win is that the hymn itself “O Holy Night” essentially gave me the form to leap from. Once I accepted the form, I got to swim laps in the pool of my interest––cross-examining the course of US history and the parallel execution of ethics with the genocide of Indigenous and African Americans in the US.
In the process of reimagining the poem, I had to practice listening to the poem and be led by its truth. A concoction of additional influences that helped get this poem actualized include Thomas Merton’s “Hymn of Not Much Praise for New York City,” childhood memories, and even the imagery found in Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” lyrics and music video.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Wherever I physically am can influence my writing. For the past few years, I’ve been especially influenced by the grim expressions and grime of a metropolis influence. I observe the streets, the “concrete jungle” as one might say, the abandoned fields full of weeds, bars with flickering neon lights, rows of rundown shops, dilapidated buildings where people struggle to live, where I’ve struggled to survive, where people hustle, and where one would dismiss the scene as a desolate place, I stare mesmerized with the task of making beauty, wrestling with shadows in the dark.
I was born and raised in San Francisco. So the 4-1-5 to my current residence in Brooklyn, as well as the city’s struggles bleed into my poetry, influencing my writing, in particular imagery and prosody.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Consistency keeps me oiled. My writing process includes researching articles, reading other poets’ work, meditating on published poems by poets, reviewing notes to revise poems, taking notes of lines that come to me, and then of course, the act of getting quiet and writing.
To actually write, I simply have it on my calendar: “Show up to Poetry/Revision.” With this task reminder, I know that at some point during my day, I commit to show up to the page, meaning, I open my laptop to a blank page or to a poem that needs revision and sit quietly until I start typing.
If I tell myself, I need to write at a designated time or for a specific length of time, it won’t happen, guaranteed. However, by simply having the task note to write, I write! And I get a hit of dopamine from completing a “task.”
Sometimes, I embark upon the 30-day generative writing for April, June, September, and November where I draft a new poem every day no matter what or for how long. Whether I am working on a poem or generating a new one, I first and foremost need to feel rested, mentally stable, and grounded.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
It depends on the poem! And if I’m using a particular form. For instance, I went to Terrance when I decided to work with the Golden Shovel. By letting him read my drafts, I learned how to effectively as well as successfully work with restraint in a newfound way.
Now, a first read? No one.
I’ve had to learn to be patient and know that once I draft a poem it’s not immediately meant to be shared with someone else. I need to wait, and not waste anyone’s time or affect my creativity with unnecessary input. I also have to be honest with myself about my motives when I do seek a reader. Am I seeking criticism? Validation? Do I want to just hear someone’s reaction or experience from reading the poem?
When I am inspired to share a poem, I do so with trusted folks––encouraging mentors, friends, and peers, all of whom ultimately help the poem reach self-actualization.
What are you working on currently?
I’m working on a book that bears the gravity of survival, with poems oscillating between apathy and resistance as a sociopolitical discourse on systemic violence and gentrification. I’m also in the process of deciding what to do next with reimagining these two long poem projects: “Americana,” and an erasure titled “Last Statement” as I gear up for a new generative writing month.
What are you reading right now?
I read a lot for work, and as a poet, I went from Wanda Coleman’s Bathwater Wine to Henry Dumas’s collected works, but most recently, I finished Nicole Sealey’s latest poetry collection, The Ferguson Report: An Erasure.
Nicole’s brilliance shines bright as she illuminates a found lyric in the report documenting systemic violence and police brutality. I’m in awe of her approach to uncovering a poem as well as the overall structure of her book.
In addition to rereading The Ferguson Report, I will be getting my copy of Carl Sandburg’s The Complete Poems, and look forward to reading this man’s canonical work.
THEA MATTHEWS is a poet and educator of African and Indigenous Mexican descent from San Francisco, California. She holds an MFA in poetry from New York University and a BA in sociology from UC Berkeley. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, Epiphany Magazine, Obsidian Lit & Arts in the African Diaspora, Alta Journal, On the Seawall, The Cortland Review, The New Republic, and others. She was nominated for Best New Poets in 2022 and Best of the Net in 2021. Her first book Unearth [The Flowers] was published in 2020, which was listed as part of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Indie Poetry of 2020.