Conversation with Dee Matthews

September 27, 2018

Dee Matthews is a poet and creative writing professor at Bryn Mawr College. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, among other publications, and she won the 2016 Yale Younger Poet award.


Meagan: So, the first question is: what inspires you?


Dee: Oh, everything. I tend not to work by inspiration, actually, it’s just my intent to be as disciplined as I can even when I’m not inspired to write. But I do try to find inspiration in everything, and I can pick apart kind of quotidian moment, like these instances of, actually, the everyday and try to analyze them and try to make them like something else. I’m fascinated by metaphor. This is like this. And so, that’s how my mind works, I’m constantly thinking in what a thing is like, oh this and then its this. This political thing is like this other thing over here. So, if I had to narrow it down I'd say trying to find how something is linked to something else, how seemingly disparate people and movements in the world are all somehow intrinsically linked. That’s how I see the world. To me, nothing isn’t like something else.

Although I did hear a beautiful story today, it was from one of my former students and she was talking about a woman who was drowning, and someone asked the woman to describe what it was like to drown, and she said “everything is not like something else” which is to say, everything can’t be but in to some sort of analog. And so, I think a part of my purpose as a writer is to get to the point where something is not like something else. I think it’s almost like a challenge for me. I always think in patterns and this is like this, and the ultimate thing would be to find something that is not like something else. It's like trying to chase a white tiger, trying to find it, and I think I'm driven by that to some degree. I didn’t even put it together until she said it but, I thought Yeah, that is. If you live your life where you’re constantly thinking in patterns, I guess the goal would be to find that one thing that is not like something I'm constantly looking for that, that kind of inspires me. Driven to find.


Meagan: What would you do with it, if you found something?


Dee: Oh man, I would probably hole up in a cave somewhere and try and figure out how it’s connected to something else, like I would see it as a challenge. Like no, it’s got to be connected to something else. That's like one of those life situations where you realize everything you thought was wrong. You know what I mean? Like you get to the point and you’re like “everything I believe is... I’ve had a set of trash beliefs my whole life”. You have to go inward. I think it would cause me to do a lot of introspection. It would cause me to think about things as the possibility of the discreet incidence, the possibility that something is alone in the world. Which I'm not willing to believe yet. But if I were faced with the belief, like, proof of that, the proof of the existence that not all things are connected I think I would just have to question everything. Or try and find a way in which it was connected.


Meagan: I don’t even know how you could find something that wasn’t connected to something else.


Dee: I don’t either. I don’t wither. I look. I'm constantly on the lookout for it. But I seem to always find the connection, whether it’s people... I’m like a magnet for people who feel like they’re outsiders or othered in some way, and I feel like one of my human challenges or human calls, if you will, is to try to help people who feel othered or marginalized, feel connected still to something, even though they feel very much like they’re outside of everything. And so, I kind of like that charge.


Meagan: Is that why you teach?


Dee: It is. I really adore people. And it took me a really long time to figure that out because I thought, I’m not a people person, I’m not a people person I like to be alone in my thoughts. And I do like to be alone in my thoughts, but I also really do enjoy people, and I enjoy making a human connection with people in instances or circumstances in which the human connection is not something which people look for. They don’t even know that they want it, that they need it.

I had a student who’s now one of my closest friends, she graduated, 3 or 4 years ago. She was a student from Kuwait, and it was when I was teaching at the University of Michigan. And she was in my freshman seminar, which is equivalent to ESem* here, an she would come every time I had office hours and she would just sit in my office. And I wondered, what was it that was making her, why was she always sitting in my office what was it about our dynamic that was interesting to her, and it was just like, she said to me once “this is the closest I've felt to somebody away from home. I haven’t had even anyone to listen to me” because the first year can be incredibly unsettling and isolating if you don’t find a particular set of friends that you connect to. And so, for her, for at least half of her first year, I was her connection for people outside, in the larger world. And I happily took that on, I listened to her about her stories about her home and I listened to her stories about her family, and I listened to her analysis of Arabic literature, and truly one of the most fascinating people I know, incredible heart, incredible mind, and I think when you close yourself off to those types of things, like if I were to sit there like “I am a professor! I am only a professor!” No I’m human and I desire connection just like other people desire connection, and sometimes it’s just tremendous to see how you can connect to your students, just through their experiences, what they’ve been through, you begin to see all human sides, and all human experience. And you view it as valid you view it as necessary. Those are the necessary things for me in teaching. I care about my students as people.

So, it’s not only a job, but it encourages me about the future if that makes sense I feel encouraged by my students. To see a student struggle and then see a student come back from that. Or see a student who never thought that they could write and finds out that they can. A lot of it is people just believing narratives that they’ve been told. So, you’re good at that so you should only do that, or you can’t make a living writing, surely you don’t want to do that. And I like to see how they twist those narratives, how they turn them on their heads, and prove other people wrong, say “I can do other things” or “I can be a writer and sustain myself or sustain my family over time” and I don’t know, I like those stories, kind of like determination and survival and pursuing passion.


Meagan: I’m in Poetry I, and this is the first class I’ve had with you, so far, so what are some of the other classes you teach like?


Dee: I teach a class that, it’s a connections class actually, it’s absurdist lit, but it’s absurdist lit with an eye toward contemporary society. Like picking out kind of the absurd things we see in contemporary society. And that’s my ESem class, it’s called “the real absurd.” I like that a lot. One I really do love absurdist lit, I love theater of the absurd, I love Beckett, I love Kafka, I love Jean Genet, Ionesco, I like all of their writings. I love Albert Camus. So, I enjoy teaching it because it gives me the opportunity to revisit it. I just, I actually enjoy rereading texts, because I find I get something out of it, like I didn’t see this the last 30 times I read it. So, I have a lot of fun with that. And I also have fun with seeing how they make connections, the ways in which they view the absurd, like things that are happening that they really haven’t had the chance to think about, or articulate, just because where they’re from, or their family. I find that a lot of first year students carry the weight of their parents’ belief systems, so it’s interesting for me to see them come out of that and develop their own belief systems. So that’s one. So, the real absurd.

Then there’s poetry I, which you’re taking with me, which is kind of the introduction to poetry, the opportunity to practice poetry. What does it mean to practice poetry, what is it like, as I was saying to some earlier students, what is it like to make art for art’s sake? I think there’s one thing to learn theory, and I think there’s another thing to learn practice. And I think practicing a thing, at least my experience as a learner is I learn by doing. And so, you learn by doing the thing and overtime you develop a facility in doing the thing, and then overtime you develop mastery of a thing. And so, I teach by doing, almost everything. I believe that there’s value in that. There’s value in the body as a vehicle to learn, not just sitting in a seat, but like, kinesthetic learning. And not everybody learns by kinesthetics, but I think poetry, learning poetry that way, is an interesting shift in the way that it’s taught.

I also teach a poetry II class, which is a more advanced poetry class, and that’s where we start reading collections, and explore forms, explore forms, explore both the Apollonian poem and the Dionysian poem, get little bit wilder with poems and see where our imaginations take us. So that’s it for now, but I think there’s a demand for me to take on some more classes, as evidences by the fact that my independent study is full, so I think I might take on another class past poetry II at some point, a more advanced poetry workshop.


Meagan: Have you taught in other settings besides a college setting?


Dee: yes, actually, I have. I was nomadic for many years so I kind of floated around as a teaching artist, from the early 2000s to probably around 2010. I taught, I was a teaching artist where I would teach at public schools, inner city public schools, so I would be contracted to go into schools and teach kids anywhere from second grade through high school how to write poems. And in second grade you kind of teach them the loveliness of the rhyming poem, because they can feel it, something about the rhyme gets into them. They're not too far from like fairy tales and kind of fables and limericks. They like all that stuff and it’s fun to teach that actually. And then when we get into the high school age they start to learn again with poetry as practice they start to earn the idea of expression. How to say what they need to say or what they want to say but have held back from saying for however long, whether it’s about their family circumstances, or their lives, or their thoughts. A lot of times I feel like kids that age aren’t taught to think. They're taught to memorize. And so how do you teach them to think through expression. how do you get them to know that their experiences are valid? We also teach kids of all ages, college too, young adults, that experiences don’t matter as it relates to evidence. That’s ridiculous. Of course, it matters your life matters. Who is anyone to erase your life. And so, I try to get them to start thinking of their life as evidence of some larger thing. Like, what is the interrogation you might be able to launch based on your life.

And then there’s college. I taught at University of Michigan as an adjunct for a while and then I went on to be the assistant director of their program. But I also taught in prison before all of that, through a program called the Prison Creative Arts Project, in Michigan. And that wad hands down the most fulfilling time I've ever had teaching poetry. The woman who were incarcerated there for, if I may be so bold as to say, they were there for being poor. You know, they couldn’t afford fancy lawyers, and they were there for the most part, most of the women that I knew were there for drug offences, either having taken drugs, or getting mixed up with somebody who was selling drugs. There's very few violent offenders, at least not the ones who took poetry. And they all had, this one girl, I was telling a story about the other day. I say girl, she was a woman. This woman was there for stealing food, because her mother was a drug addict and she had five siblings that she had to feed, so she was hustling. I mean she was stealing food to get food for them to eat but she was also trying to get clothes for them to wear for school. she got busted and got like 3 to 5 years. And she said to me in private, we were workshopping one of her pieces and she said “Dee, what I need most of all is just help. Like, I don’t need this, this is not reforming me. I just need help.” and she went on to write this poem called Help, that laid me flat. It was a beautiful, beautiful poem. So that was some of the teaching that I've done, and I loved that. I would actually do that again, in fact, I would love to craft a course here where I could do that. where I could take folks, who have been through poetry training, like poetry I and poetry II and go out and teach the creative arts at an institution. I hope to do that at some point.


Meagan: That’s a really cool idea.


Dee: yeah, I would love to do that. *laughs*


Meagan: So, at the beginning, you said that when you write it’s not about inspiration, it’s about like making yourself write.


Dee: yeah, just writing.


Meagan: and I’ve heard that a lot, and so like, what do you use to drive yourself when you’re writing.


Dee: Guilt. *laughs*


Meagan: *laughs*


Dee: I really do make myself feel guilty for not writing. I do. I’m like, you didn’t write. You just pussed around all day. You didn’t do anything really. ‘Cause if I'm not writing, chances are I’m absolutely doing nothing, ’cause these are my option because of my personality type. I'm either writing, or I'm in a state of nothingness. I’m not really doing anything. I can’t catalogue my day at the end of the day. I get to 8o’clock and I'm like what? What did I do today? I can’t really remember. The thing that I can remember and that makes me feel productive is writing. Like I feel like I've done something, I feel like I'm doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I do I guilt myself wen I don’t write enough. And then also when I don’t write well. Which I've got to get better at because we don’t always write well. The goal is to write. It's not to write well every time. Even masters don’t write well every time, they just write, and sometimes they will pluck pieces, harvest pieces and pull them into another poem later, and that’s a part of the writing process too. So, I think, I think a fair degree of guilt and knowing that because of my personality type I do need to feel like I'm being productive, and when I'm not productive I don’t feel good about myself. and I make worse choices, than I did, when I-- You know what I mean? Like I make really bad choices when I'm not productive, so I kind of make sure that I'm not mentally or physically idle too much. I move around a lot and I write a lot in the moving. Not that I go places all the time and write, but just that I let my mind be agile and then sometimes in letting my mind be agile in that kind of movement I've got to get it out. I've got to document it in some way. And that seems to help me. But guilt. That does it.


Meagan: I’m interested in, like, how did you come do poetry?


Dee: Hmm...


Meagan: Complicated question, yeah.


Dee: the circuitous route. A very circuitous route. So, here’s what I did. I, in 1999, no, I’m sorry, 1998, I graduated from college in 94, in 1998 I moved to Boston, and I was like oh yeah it will be a big move, I moved from new jersey to Boston, it’ll be a great move, I'll enjoy it. I went to be with my fiancé at the time who’s now my husband, and I got pregnant. We weren’t married but I was pregnant. Didn't matter. And I was just like, I felt life happening to me. Like, I caught it, like I was like wait a minute. What's happening here? Life is happening to me. I feel in no way in control of any of this. I just feel like things are happening and I’m not directing what I want to do. and I said to my husband, then, I want to, I want to write. I think I want to be a writer. I was like I've always written poetry, and it was in college, it was not great, I was an econ major in college. I took no creative writing classes. I took not one English class except for those that were mandatory. That were required. And so, I didn’t have any expertise in writing. I didn’t have any, I didn't know anything about craft. I just knew I wanted to be a writer. And we lived in, I say moved to Boston it was really we moved to Rhode Island, and it was close to brown, and I said, I really want to go to brown. I called it up, as a university. I would like to go to Brown one day. And I just kind of kept it in the back of my head.

Then we moved from Boston to Detroit, and when we were in Detroit, I, um, this whole time I was working a corporate job by the way. I was working for proctor and gamble in sales and marketing, and I decided to quit that job when I moved to Detroit. I was like I hate this job, I hate everything about it. I make amazing money, an incredible amount of money, and I'm miserable. Which for me was testimony to the fact that you can actually make tons of money and be miserable. I was miserable. I didn’t like my job I didn’t like that I was doing. I didn’t feel fulfilled by it. I didn’t feel productive. And so, I quit the job and I was like, I’ll go into nonprofit. this whole while I was running from the idea of being a writer, is what’s happening. I was like, I’ll go into nonprofit management. So, I went to school to Michigan and I went and got a graduate degree, public policy, I was like I will go and do policy things! And then I realized, I just want to write. I take myself through all these motions because I just want to write. But a lot of it is just like gaining experience, so I feel like, I feel kin to the people who do that, go through many different ways before they evolve into what they are meant to be.

And so, after a couple of years, actually directly after I got out of grad school I’d decided to do performance poetry. So, I was in the slam scene, the spoken word scene. I was like three kids deep, I have four kids all together now, I was three kids deep and going to slams and doing slams and I did well, I was like, yeah, I want to do this, but then at that point I was like, I want to take it deeper. Like I really want to engage the craft of writing. Like, I want to know more about what I’m doing. I don’t want to just intuit something and write it down I want it, I want to be deep in the field. So right around 2010, I got a mentor. Vieviee Francis, who is a professor at Dartmouth now. And I asked her to help me, to teach me to be a poet. I was like I’m writing these poems, but I don’t feel like a poet. I don’t know anything. about poetry. I don’t know any of these dead men, I don’t know any of their work, I can’t quote them. And she helped me, and I wound up going to Michigan and getting my MFA, and that deep engagement helped to propel me, like past what I was doing and to have exactly what I wanted, which was a full-on relationship with writing.

So, every other iteration of myself I was running away from writing. Until I finally got real with myself and said, this is what you were put here to do. Go do it. And so, I did. but that’s my story. I’ve always known I was a writer, even when I was a kid, I would write things down on a piece of paper and I would show them to my sister and write things down and I would ask her, is this a word? and she’d say, “No, you need a vowel.” I said what were the vowels? like, tell me what the vowels are. she’d kid me about it, I’d put an A in there like is this, she's like "That's still not a word” and then I'd just keep trying until I would get a word and she’d be like “that’s a word! Good job!” so, I’ve been constantly chasing words, and also fearful of the and also running from them at the same time, running in a circle, then I finally got out of the loop. and now I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing.


Meagan: and now if you’re a writer you can make up words.


Dee: *Laughs*exactly! Now I can make up words! I can actually make words that don’t have vowels in them if I want. You know, that feels great.





*an ESem is a specialized class that serves as a writing seminar for freshmen at Bryn Mawr College


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