“I find that art helps me fall in love with humanity again and again, and I write because it feels beautifully humanizing to be a part of that process.”
the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014)
What’s your chapbook about?
the galaxy of origins is about places – physical and emotional – that have fascinated or shaped me as a poet and person. In galaxy, emotions are intimately associated with particular spaces – Virginia, caves, cities, bayous, the Chesapeake Bay, and the inside of my car driving down the highway, for instance. It’s also about movement through space; there are poems about immigration, traveling across state lines, the speed of light, and pomegranates falling onto stones. I’m interested in how the trajectories of journeys shape our relationships with the Earth and with each other and define what it means to be human.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest piece in the chapbook is the poem “apagón.” The title means “black-out” (as in a power outage) and I wrote it when I was living in the Dominican Republic in 2010 during one of the frequent power outages that punctuate the days in Santo Domingo. I remember sitting on the roof of my building that night, admiring the darkness of the neighborhood and marveling at how the sounds of voices and laughter and cars seemed so much closer without electricity. I was thinking about close-knit communities – their beauty and their potential abusiveness – and what it means to want to leave a place, of course from my perspective as a non-Dominican who chose to move there temporarily.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The title was initially all origins ask why, a line from a poem in the first draft of the manuscript, but I changed the title when I cut that poem. I felt that the galaxy of origins better captured what the chapbook was becoming through my edits and rearrangements – a constellation of places that in some way or another all had been origins for me. I wanted the chapbook to feel therapeutic when read from beginning to end. The first couple of poems are introductory, the middle poems are packed with grief and conflict, and the last few poems are reaffirmations of love and identity. The very last poem is called “meditation,” and at readings I usually ask audiences to close their eyes and experience it as a meditative exercise.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
A chapbook can be a sort of poetic mixtape – a sample of the writer’s breadth and depth without a strong unifying theme, or it can be a way to explore a particular theme or subject matter in a concentrated way. Because a chapbook is concise, maybe it’s a stronger brew than a full-length collection. The shorter size of the chapbook and its relatively simpler physical construction mean that it can be produced and read in a shorter time, making it an ideal format for exploring timely themes.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
The poem “God than verb” is anomalous in its unabashed joy. Most of the other poems are defined by tensions, voltae that don’t necessarily resolve their poems’ emotional complexity. “God than verb” is about unintentionally whispering out of pure awe while watching fireflies after a picnic. It’s about being so present in a particular moment that all of the clumsy baggage that comes with being human falls away for an instant. Most of the other poems have baggage.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
I was writing new poems and revising my vision of the chapbook throughout the process of finding a home for it, so the final poem I added to it was written fairly late in the process. It’s called “does unrequited love contribute to global warming?” and it’s a testament to my preoccupation with the uses of love – for healing of each other and of the Earth – and how love transforms us, starting with the experience of childhood love for the natural world.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I’m constantly trying to improve my revision strategies; right now I have a two-part process for revising manuscripts. I read over the entire manuscript to get a sense of how the poems work or don’t work together, and I rearrange the order of poems or change word choice and syntax to create the cohesive experience that I want the manuscript to be for the reader. I also sit down with individual poems and pick them apart, line by line, with the objectives of clarity, precision, and emotional directness; this process works best when I have some emotional distance from the initial writing of the poem.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
dancing girl press is small and personable, so communication with them about the chapbook’s production was easy. We tossed around a few ideas for the cover before I decided to use something I had already made – a close-up photograph of a painting that I did a few years ago that actually looks like a galaxy.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Poetry by Aracelis Girmay, Audre Lorde, Tracy K. Smith, Terrance Hayes, and Ilya Kaminsky were particularly inspiring for me during the writing of this chapbook (and remain so). I read more prose than poetry, though, and the poetic ways in which Edwidge Danticat, Eduardo Galeano, Jesmyn Ward, and Simone Schwarz-Bart tell stories have been equally inspiring. For me, poetry is story-telling that uses language in unconventional ways, so I draw on many genres for inspiration when I approach writing poetry.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
Was anything surprising about the process of writing this chapbook? I knew that I was a huge (public health) nerd before I wrote this chapbook, but I was surprised by how much geology and physics worked their way into these poems. I found myself reading Wikipedia articles about cave formation and quantum field theory while I was writing a few of them. I don’t write a lot of ostensibly medical poetry, but there is one poem called “cataplexy,” which is the medical term for a condition in which strong emotion or laughter causes a sudden loss of muscle tone while the person remains conscious.
What sorts of experiences inform your work?
My experiences of being a woman of color, of traveling and living abroad, and of course relationships are central influences in my writing. I’m heartbroken by how we humans are able to treat one another and the Earth, and much of my writing is the processing of that grief. I find that art helps me fall in love with humanity again and again, and I write because it feels beautifully humanizing to be a part of that process.
What are you working on now?
I have a new book (a full-length collection) that won the 2016 Bob Kaufman Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from Trembling Pillow Press. The book is heavily rooted in the spirituality of environmentalism and social justice, with several poems from the perspective of a fictional character called Pangaea. As with galaxy, orogeny arises from what I (and maybe others) call therapeutic poetics – the notion that writing and reading or hearing poetry can be inherently therapeutic. In my day job I am a pediatrician, so attention to healing is the starting point for my work in all realms. I am now working on a (currently genre-less) manuscript inspired by the trauma and triumphs of women who grew up in Creole New Orleans in the 1930s and ‘40s, which is loosely inspired by the lives of women in my family.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I took classical piano lessons for many years as a child and through college, but I was never good at music theory or composition. If I had the talent for it I would love to be a singer-songwriter. Musicians like Valerie June, Leyla McCalla, Esperanza Spalding, Les Nubians, Santigold, Mima (Yarimir Cabán) and rappers Akua Naru, Ana Tijoux, and others create some of the most magical art.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
The best piece of advice I ever received was to call myself a writer and to take my work seriously. Write, and identify as a writer, but read and listen at least twice as much as you write. It’s important to write with the objective of truth telling, rather than the objective of publication in mind.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
Discipline and organization are so important! I was a medical student when I wrote this chapbook, so I was fairly disciplined and organized at baseline and I simply applied this to my writing life as well. Discipline means being true to art and not only true to yourself; that is, sometimes you have to make editorial choices for the sake of Poetics despite your personal investment in a particular line or phrase. Does the poem do the work it is supposed to do? If not, it must be revised. The more time you give yourself between first drafts and subsequent edits, the easier it is to be an objective editor. I edited regularly and I kept track of all the submissions I had made and their outcomes in a spreadsheet (and still do). When your work is rejected, consider it an opportunity to regroup and revise; then resubmit, or submit to a different journal or press.
Irène Mathieu is a pediatrician and writer based in Philadelphia. Her poetry, prose, and photography can be found in The Caribbean Writer, The Lindenwood Review, Muzzle Magazine, qarrtsiluni, Extract(s), Diverse Voices Quarterly, Journal of General Internal Medicine, Los Angeles Review, Callaloo Journal, Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk and elsewhere. She has been a Pushcart Prize nominee, a Callaloo fellow, and a Fulbright scholar. She is the 2016 winner of the Bob Kaufman Poetry Prize and author of the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014) and orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, forthcoming).
the city’s a party of ghosts.
bricks couldn’t snuff out the spirits;
you can see how their dancing
breaks open sidewalks soft as
tres leches cake.
the city’s a party of mosquitoes,
spindly wings crammed into suit jackets,
singing politics into darkened blocks
where people slap away the stings, tired.
the city’s a party of babies,
honey plump babblers grabbing
at dogs, at breasts, at other babies.
there are more of them every year.
the city’s a party of slaves.
there are bloody corners,
the sound of chains
raking open brains;
there’s sour rage.
the city’s a party of fathers.
some stone fathers become gods
on Independence Day;
some sweaty fathers just
make more mothers
and others work like gods
beside invisible women
who sweat darker.
“¡por la Patria!” they all pronounce.
the city’s a party of dogs.
the barking can drown out
motorcycles, screams, church choirs.
some limber, nipples dragging,
to nests of pups in alleys;
some follow tourists,
wagging too happy, like hustlers.
the city’s a party of martyrs
in the only country where martyrs party.
not in New World cathedrals,
these martyrs are old-school,
howling on the docks of ships
or swaying in corner stores,
swearing over the din of dancing
forever and never island promises.