Interview: Irène Mathieu (2017 Yemassee Poetry Contest Winner)
Interview with Irène Mathieu
By Yemassee Editors
Irène Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and public health researcher. She is the 2016 winner of the Bob Kaufman Book Prize and author of the poetry chapbook the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014) and book orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017). Irène has been a Callaloo fellow and a Fulbright scholar.
Mathieu is the winner of the 2017 Yemassee Poetry Contest. Her poem “thunder’s baby” was selected by contest judge Jericho Brown.
Y: How would you describe your journey as a poet?
IM: Erratic! I have been writing since I was very young (I used to dictate to my mother before I was physically able to write) and always knew it would be an important part of my life. As I child I had all kinds of notebooks with poems and stories and ideas in progress. I still have dozens of old journals, every page filled. We didn’t have a television in our house when I was a child, so I became a voracious reader, although I read more fiction than poetry. As I got older I began to gravitate toward writing poetry rather than prose; it somehow felt more organic and I had a bad habit of abandoning longer prose projects.
It wasn’t until the year after I graduated from college that I really started to take writing seriously, however. I was living in the Dominican Republic at the time and I met a U.S. American woman who had immigrated there and also ran a small press. Her advice was that if I wanted to write I had to take myself seriously as a writer. At that point I became more methodical about reading poetry, writing, and submitting my work for publication. More recently, I’ve attended the Callaloo Creative Writing workshop and have started to build a small but lovely poetry community, first in Nashville, TN, where I went to medical school, and now in Philadelphia, PA.
My path has been a little unconventional because I studied International Relations in college and then went to medical school (I’m now finishing up my training in pediatrics); other than my two weeks at Callaloo I’ve never had dedicated time to focus on poetry. But my experiences of traveling and conducting public health research have shaped how I think about language – the uses of languages and how they might be remixed in the form of a poem. The proximity of human suffering, joy, wonder, fear, beauty, and hope that medicine engenders also has informed how I think about the emotional possibilities of poetry.
Y: What kind of poems/poets are you most drawn to?
IM: I love poems that expand my notions of what can be done with language and form. I love poetry that creates visceral experiences – I want to see and smell and hear and taste poems. I want to be half-afraid of, half-in love with them – because they should unsettle me. I like poems that afford a kind of travel and bring me into a headspace/heartspace very different from my own.
I admire poets who are committed to disseminating poetry, who are involved in their communities, and who mentor enthusiastically. I especially admire poets who are kind and generous. These are the folks I hope to emulate.
Y: Has there been a particular something (idea/image/phrase/quote/obsession) knocking around in your head lately?
IM: Recently I’ve been working on a manuscript that’s about the intersections of oppression and privilege and is loosely based on family history. As a result I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction about the Creole New Orleans community in the early twentieth-century – all its cultural peculiarities and socio-economic structure and its dirty laundry, too. This project also has involved informally interviewing my family members – namely my paternal grandmother (who knows about the project) – and thinking about questions that have haunted me for many years. When a people has had so much migration and loss of languages/cultures, where is home? How do you make home in a place that has never necessarily loved you, as is the case for so many black and brown families in this country? In addition to thinking about the macroscopic, sociological issues of gender, race, class, and trans-Atlantic/inter-city movement, I’ve also had to wrestle with how to tell family stories in ways that are authentic and ethical and also poetically sound. My first full-length collection, orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017) was a very global book; the current collection is more specific and personal and it’s as much an archival project as it is poetic.
Y: Can you talk about your poem “thunder’s baby” and how it came to be?
IM: This is an odd story. The collection I’m currently writing has a series of poems dedicated to/inspired by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, a Harlem Renaissance-era Creole writer who was originally from New Orleans but spent most of her adult life in the mid-Atlantic. In high school I had a brief literary crush on her far more famous ex-husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar, but I knew nothing about Alice. Last year I came across some of her work and I started reading more about her life – how she struggled to create a mutually respectful friendship with Paul and ultimately experienced intimate partner violence by him, how she had both male and female lovers at a time when bisexuality and same-sex relationships were not openly discussed, and how she (a light-skinned Creole woman and a prominent socialite) was an avid civil rights activist yet also had problematic views about race and class. In some ways she was so freethinking, and in other ways she was very much a person of her society and time.
As part of my research, I found Give Us Each Day (edited by Gloria T. Hull), Dunbar-Nelson’s collected diaries. I had been reading her diaries for several days when I decided to write a poem that attempted to capture the conflicting emotional impulses she describes in her diary as well as in her poetry and prose. I wrote “thunder’s baby” over the course of a thunderstorm one afternoon. It came pouring out of me in a way that felt very surreal. It was really thunder’s baby. I did very little editing of the poem afterwards. It was as if the storm brought this nearly fully formed poem with it and I caught it in midair before it was whisked back into the sky.
Y: What’s strangest about your writing process?
IM: Maybe that my writing practice is affected by the weather and sometimes poems fall from thunderclouds? Ha! Seriously, the strangest thing is my inconsistency. It’s not at all what the smart poets will tell you about writing. I wish I had a daily or even weekly writing practice. I journal when I can, but much less frequently than I used to. I would love to be more deliberate about reading and editing, but life as a doctor-in-training really doesn’t leave much space for these ideal(ized) writing practices.
I write whenever and however I can. Sometimes I dictate poems on my phone. Sometimes I go for weeks without writing anything. Sometimes I write three poems in a day. Sometimes a poem comes tumbling out all at once, like with “thunder’s baby,” but more often I spend several days or weeks (or years) with some thought-feelings gestating in the back of my brain until I can think of a way to translate them into words. I’m most creative and productive late at night, but since I often have to be at work between 6:00 and 7:00am I rarely have the opportunity to stay up late. Lately I’ve tried to craft more structured time for myself to think critically about poetry. For instance, I have a friend from Callaloo with whom I regularly exchange work. I’m also an editor for the humanities section of the Journal of Internal Medicine and I write poetry book reviews for Muzzle Magazine. These commitments force me to get outside of my own head and be a responsible poet.
Y: If you could share one piece of advice with your fellow poets, what would it be?
IM: Nurture community. Poetry isn’t about individual poets; it’s a collective conversation we are all having across time, space, and languages. I define “nurturing community” quite broadly; it can mean hanging out with other poets in real time, participating in readings and collectives, formally or informally editing others’ work, offering your own work for edits, mentoring younger writers, gifting your friends and family with poetry, reading interviews and essays by poets, translating if you’re interested and able, and of course reading as much as possible. Creating community has been one of my central tasks for the past few years, and I’m still learning about all the ways there are to take part in this collective conversation. There are many poets who live this out beautifully, and I look to them for ideas about how we can keep expanding poetry and building up this community.
Y: How does it feel that poet Jericho Brown chose “thunder’s baby” as the winner of the 2017 Poetry Prize?
IM: Writing often can feel like a very solitary experiment. This poem in particular felt like bungee jumping into the fog because the process of writing it was so bizarre. I suddenly felt something move through the world and through me, I attempted to write it down, and someone else comprehended that thing. Jericho Brown has this uncanny ability to illuminate what is sacred but also invisible, and in a sense this is one of the central tasks of “thunder’s baby.” To have an extraordinary poet like him recognize what’s happening in this poem feels almost miraculous.