By KOFI FORSON, JUL. 2017
Airea D. Matthews’s first collection of poems, Simulacra, received the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award (Yale University Press, 2017). She is a recipient of a 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award. Her work has appeared in Best American Poets 2015, American Poets, Four Way Review, The Indiana Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Matthews is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College.
KOFI FORSON: In this post-post virtual domain we exist as ghosts. Our meta-positive and psycho-analytical selves interact in what has become an orgy of discourse.
How are you as writer able to separate the thinking persona from the gossip muse? Does Social Media become a place of thought? Or is it more or less a day at the races, unfettered thoughts flying through space?
AIREA D. MATTHEWS: I don’t consider gossip in my everyday life. I’m invested in the personal interior landscape into which social media provides a pivot lens. There are certainly interesting pieces of cultural and political information that might be gleaned from social media. But, for me, the overarching questions always refer to the one individual in that one specific environment and how knowledge capital affects their thoughts, attentions, and, ultimately, identity itself. In the current cultural milieu, identity has become a bricolage. Social media contributes in that it allows for the urgent first thought of the present self, which makes for an interesting sociological experiment.
FORSON: The epigraphs in your book Simulacra are taken from works by Jean Baudrillard. What is your fascination with Baudrillard? How is the theme of love and death crucial to your work? Is the writing process a means of seduction?
MATTHEWS: It occurs to me that most writing and much of memory is a dance with seduction. We write remembrances and misremembrances all the time, which seems to suggest a fascination (a love affair, even) with the past. I tend to consider the past as a type of death. So, yes, I do tend to think that love and death are subjects that are critically intertwined in any kind of making.
Baudrillard, who rejected romanticism, plays a huge role in my artistic belief, as do all of the cultural figures in Simulacra. Baudrillard believed that the postmodern movement was much like a collage, a non-linear assemblage of culture that has come before, a curved return to what’s already been imagined. When an artist embraces the idea that some part of the present reaches for the past, absent the sentimentality of a romanticist, I believe a profound interrogation can take place.
FORSON: The poem, Rebel Prelude, opens your book. It concerns itself with two permeating images of a garden and lovemaking.
My mind revolves around a painting of flowers, Caravaggio, by Marc Dennis, a hyper-real shock of life as death / death as life. How does the writer use love to avenge death? Is the trick constant circumventing of the dying inevitability?
MATTHEWS: In Dennis’s Carravaggio, we are reminded about a reality of death-- every cut flower is dying as is every leaf on a vine. There is no getting around it, really. Time and fate do their work regardless of our intervention. The poem proposes that we do not easily accept this inevitability of death. If knowledgeable action is a reasonable response to death then we can stave off the inexorable for a time. And if we assume that love is the highest action, then we give the flowers a few more days in the vase.
FORSON: Anglo-gore to me is the hyper-real intent of violence in literature, film, music, etcetera, whether it’s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album Murder Ballads or the television show American Gods.
How are you able to use language to dramatize preoccupation with blood-lust, using, The Mine Owner’s Wife, as an example?
MATTHEWS: One of the most apt descriptions of my writing is that of dark domestica. I am interested in how global violence makes its way into the everyday lives of subjects. In other words, to use Cave’s work as a metaphor, I want to imagine what happens beneath the soundsuit. Every now again we see glimpses of the human hand or foot inside Cave’s suits. The shadow of pain that animates the suit fascinates me.
In the poem, I wanted to mythologize a specific type of domestic violence disguised as comfort and privilege--the poem as a way to see beyond ornamentation into the reality of subject.
FORSON: Somehow the poem, Hero(i)n, made me think of Mark Twain and Basquiat. Basquiat’s lover and confidant, Suzanne Mallouk’s Op-ed piece, in the New York Times spoke about his paintings as a form of subjugation.
Your poem deals with “narcissus-reversed” and an “unfortunate predatory consequence”. Your painterly depiction of birds brings to mind birds in a Courbet painting.
How does Mark Twain’s naturalism in the poem subject itself to the misuse of power? Is this the “underbelly” of the world within the book?
MATTHEWS: Twain doesn’t figure in at all in my writing. Actually the primary concern with the poem was the effect of language on understanding. So the poem doesn’t hinge on the idea of natural forces but rather language, an inherited tongue, as deterministic.
As for Mallouk’s point about Basquiat, she felt he would have wanted the world to understand how subjugation, racism and greed caused him suffering. In this particular poem, I hoped to express how language subjected the speaker to suffering. There are infinite forms of misery in the world and a countless number of ways to artistically express it to the world.
FORSON: The poem, Meeting Anne Sexton, is an impression of a mad world. I think now of the Chris Cornell suicide.
Does suicidal artist/poet/writer/musician become adored in death or in dying made evident in chronicling of their life’s work?
How did you come about Anne Sexton? What does she mean to you?
MATTHEWS: Sexton and I are alike in some very real ways—mothers, wives, poets, friends and women who suffer mental illness. I am vocal about my own struggles with mental health; it can be an all-consuming disease. Sexton forged a path to be able to render that experience in poetry.
I have no romantic conceptions of death and artistry. I don’t know what death does to artists other than still and/or distill their voices, and I hope not to find out any time soon.
FORSON: How does paranormal behavior give way to virtual associations, our ghost-selves interacting? What is the explanation for phenomena such as sex with a ghost, texting with Anne Sexton?
Is this a means of possession and possessiveness?
MATTHEWS: I do believe that many of us have the ability to communicate with others who are beyond the veil. The task requires discernment, listening and observing the living archive. In Sexton’s case, she left the world her books and plays. Before she died she told her daughter to ‘talk to my poems and talk to your heart, I’m in both’. To commune with the dead requires only that we observe the lessons of their life’s work.
FORSON: The comment I made to myself after reading the poem, Rebel Opera, is that your “Rebel” poems are delicious. (Laughter)
What impresses you about theater, be it the staging of a story or pageantry? What are your fond memories of American, French or Russian theater?
MATTHEWS: I love Beckett’s body of work very much. Waiting for Godot’s sense of estrangement from modernity resonates with me. Endgame’s elliptical writing and its commentary on cyclicity never fails to impact me. No matter which playwright’s work, I am always looking for meanings beyond the plot. Beckett delivers every time.
FORSON: After reading the poem, Blind Calculus (From Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse) I was forced to think – is semiology a form of eroticism for the intellectually mad and obsessed?
What do you think?
MATTHEWS: I can’t speak for the intellectually mad and obsessed. I haven’t been appointed a spokesperson for any group. What interests me about calculus and semiology is patterning and meaning. Math is a logic that requires practice and rote memorization of rules. It also offers answers except when the logic is flawed; then, equations break down. I am interested in that particular unwinding of signs.
FORSON: John Zorn’s composition, COBRA, is usually performed as game pieces, order of which is based on rules.
How do you account for Wittgenstein’s suggestion of operating within the construct of a language game? Does that then become the strategy for your poem, The Lover Problem in Analogue?
MATTHEWS: In Philosophical Investigations published, posthumously, in 1953, Wittgenstein moved away from the picture theory to a “tool” theory; pictures convey a single-use object (ie-a chair) while tools have many uses. Wittgenstein objected to monolithic, set meanings for words and advocated for a set of meaningful connections and resemblances. In this “language game” with its own set of conventions and rules, meaning is subjugated to use. Or, if framed in Wittgenstein’s signature aphoristic style, don’t ask for the meaning of the word, ask for the use.
“The Lover Problem in Analogue” tells of a speaker who finally looked deeper than the mere meaning of words, a speaker who ultimately understood the use of words.
FORSON: The first line from your poem, Can? (From Wittgenstein’s Lost Black Book) is “Explain the word “can.”, followed by “Can a machine be lonely?”
Much of this reminds me of the semiotic determining of the word “chair”, the very thing you sit on, represented as a physical thing and how that is different from the actual word.
Of the three philosophers, Wittgenstein, Barthes and Baudrillard, who comes closest to simplifying the primitive form of language, what one professor called, “untying a knot and jumping rope?”
MATTHEWS: Well, Baudrillard wouldn’t have considered himself a philosopher; he was a sociologist. Barthes was mostly a literary theorist and semiotician. Of the three, Wittgenstein was the only true philosopher. Nevertheless, all three men contributed through their work to the study of knowledge and experience.
In terms of language, I admire Wittgenstein’s ability to reconsider his earlier work and counter it with a new (and contradictory) theory. In my experience, people who are truly committed to truth will admit their own error in thought.
The thought life is key. After all, it takes a theory to beat a theory.
FORSON: If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein reminds me of an elongated Thelonious Monk solo. Or a Mingus composition. I also see it as a drum piece. Not Max Roach. Maybe Art Blakey. Baba Olatunji?
It evokes a very distinct voice. The pattern within the poem is different from balancing of thought within the other poems. Certainly it preoccupies itself with “threading of language”.
MATTHEWS: Thank you. In one of her lectures in America, Stein said that what makes one a genius is the dual act of talking and listening. I tried to capture that essence in the poem as if the speaker were simultaneously hearing and relaying.
It’s intentioned to have a fluid rhythm so that the poem morphs every time it’s read. In fact, I have yet to read that poem the same way twice. Like jazz musicians, the work leaves room for improvisation. If it were only meant to be recited one way, then Stein’s logic of repetition and genius collapses because there would be nothing new to hear or say.
I remind myself to listen to it each time because each time the words come in a different sequence or carry a slightly different meaning. I think that’s an important aspect of that poem.
FORSON: Descent of the Composer, feels more classical, like a concerto, string quartet.
Does the ghost of Schopenhauer exist in this poem at all?
MATTHEWS: Only in that there exists a natural skepticism in the poem.
FORSON: Please explain the linearity of the poem, Privileged Ghosts of Paris? It’s a very polite piece. As a poem it makes no bones about its self-importance, pre-eminence, fortune.
There’s a suggested cadence.
MATTHEWS: Ezra Pound, problematic as he may have been, offered the idea of composing “poems in the sequence of a musical phrase rather than a metronome,” and that’s what “Privileged Ghosts of Paris” attempts. It is a piece that privileges breath as a unit of measure in the poem. It is very much in the tradition of Olson’s Projective Verse theory that concerns itself with “certain laws and possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of his listenings.”
This particular hybrid employs prose-style dialogue. Like the Sexton texts, which serve as broken-down contrapuntals/fugues, the space between lines holds meaning. The breath, full of possibility, leads the line.
FORSON: Listening to John Zorn’s recording Spillane is like watching a movie.
I’m happy to say, and this is a first for me… Reading Simulacra felt like listening to an album of music by a traditional American composer.
Carla Bley comes to mind.
MATTHEWS: Bley’s work is singular; that’s a huge honor! Thank you. I particularly love her collaborations with bassist, Steve Swallow. The notes in those pieces are wonderful conversations. I only hope to do the same—to make my path in the landscape without compromising my aesthetic intuition and my internal music. WM