Cleopatra Mathis was born in Ruston, Louisiana, and has lived in New England since 1980. She founded the Creative Writing Program at Dartmouth College, and recently retired from teaching there. Her previous books include Book of Dog (co-winner of the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Margaret Motton Award) and White Sea, both published by Sarabande Books. She is the recipient of honors from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA, and Pushcart Press, and her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The New Yorker, The Threepenny Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, Tri-Quarterly, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review and Best American Poetry. She lives in Vermont. Read poems by Mathis in WTP Vol. VIII #4.
Interview with Cleopatra Mathis
By Sara London, WTP Poetry Editor
London: I’m sure you never imagined your selected poems, After the Body, would be published during a worldwide pandemic—a time in which we’re all preoccupied with the body’s profound vulnerability. A number of your book’s newer poems reflect on your own body’s unique mutinies—“Nothing is going to save me from this body / and its careless assumptions,” you write in one. But even among the poems from your first book, we begin to see the body as an independent actor (“This anarchy of hands…”). And a later poem asserts that “the body is another kind of earth.” Could you share some insights into the mind-body dynamic as you’ve experienced it in your poem-making over time?
Mathis: I’ve always had a sense of my body’s independence, but until a few years ago that feeling was generally positive and even proud. I would say now that I was arrogant—I saw my body as an extension of my industrious personality, as if whatever I wanted I could have if I worked hard enough. I expected my body to perform, to “mind” me, so to speak. I knew I was afraid of pain, but I saw pain as a kind of failure of will. I fully expected to have my own way. I see this now, but previous to the recent poems, I didn’t connect this attitude toward my body to my thinking self. I was innocent, not vulnerable. In my second book (The Bottom Land, 1983), that line “I don’t forget what you fed me,” which ends the poem “For Blue,” (and follows “The body is another kind of earth”), I think I was aware of the body as something to be nurtured, but only by others, just as only others could harm it. My brother’s murder is the central elegy of that book, and just as it was not his body that failed him, I did not see the body as adversarial or independent of the self. The body was an extension and product of individual will.
London: I’m also thinking about your work in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd in May—another way we’re reminded of the terrible threat to human bodies. Grief and loss also becomes a refrain in your poems, some of which are about your brother. Has writing poetry helped you in times of despair?
Mathis: The problem with tragedy is that it is a condition of the mind, something we regard and evaluate. Like pain, we can’t imagine it or describe it except by extension (this is like…). Even with a moral imperative at work, unless there is some way to link us to a person or situation, it is easier to simply acknowledge the idea of tragedy and then disconnect ourselves from it. That’s why the Black Lives Matter movement is so distinctive and hopefully permanent: finally, white people are beginning to ask what they can do in the face of racism instead of lamenting and then dismissing themselves from the situation. George Floyd’s murder was not an act of the imagination; it was filmed and obvious; we observed it as it happened. I hope we can’t turn our backs on this reality again. In terms of poetry, I want to disagree with Auden: poetry can make things happen because it gives memorable language to events that should not be forgotten. The sad reality is that too few people have poetry in their lives to do that work.
To directly answer your question, I’d say that the role of poetry in my life as I’ve dealt with grief has been incidental and haphazard. I read poems in times of despair, but I rarely write them then. I don’t trust myself in the midst of trauma. Poetry for me is emotion best recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth said. (Not so much Frost’s comment: No tears for the writer, none for the reader.) I need a clear day, a sharp pencil, a window on the outdoors, and a phrase that offers a way in. I think I am afraid of sentimentality and excess, and often revise with that directive governing the poem. That said, I try to look my subject directly in the face, as honestly and crucially as I can.
London: A deep current of affection for the world—and for nature—runs through all of your books. In “Blues, Late August,” you write, “I can’t move / for love of the world, its terror and sufficiency.” Has your thinking and writing about the natural world changed?
Mathis: I do love the world, irrationally and completely. When I think of death, what most troubles me is the notion of not having nature around me: the trees, the sky, the sea, all of it ever-changing and yet constant. I love the waves because they don’t stop. I don’t think that has varied throughout my life. I wake up loving the morning. When I was a child, unhappy in most every way, the outdoors was my solace and companion. I would have told you that nature spoke to me, that going off in the woods alone was a way to make sense of the world. I had one special tree, a mimosa, that I was sure listened to me and in its way told me that I would leave that life, that I’d be able to leave. Mimosas are not long-lived trees, and when it died, I was bereft, but I took it as a sign. Much later when I read Stanley Kunitz and came across “The Testing Tree” and “Quinnapoxet,” I felt that bond was what made poetry happen for me: it lay at the heart of some mystical, affirming presence that had always guided and nurtured me. Kunitz was my teacher: he lived that presence. He was also fatherless, like me. Can nature serve as parent?
London: I think it can; there’s solace to be found there, if also secrecy, and sometimes a ringing reticence. We listen for a sort of “voice” in nature—even if, in some ways, it’s our own, echoing back to us. In “Mine” (WTP Vol. VIII, #4), you write, “my voice wavers and sinks / until by the end of day I can’t find it…” Voice, as a bodily tool for speaking, grows evasive here. In a much earlier poem in After the Body, “Dancer among the Constellations,” you refer to “this voice I can no longer shut up…” Voice, as a more abstract element, is something we talk about a lot in poetry—that individual utterance that shapes a poem’s tone and becomes our signature sound. Young writers, of course, spend a lot of time searching for their “voice.” Do we ever truly find our voices?
Mathis: One terror of my illness, Parkinson’s, is that it can take away your speaking voice, both its volume and character. I have been a teacher all my adult life, and I have loved the clarity and strength of my actual voice. As I have begun to lose my voice to the disease, I have also associated the power of my speaking voice with my other voice as a poet. I am afraid the two are linked. If you can’t hear me, do I still have a voice? Or is that just vanity, having nothing to do with my own “signature sound.” I’ve never felt voice in poetry was something a writer could “find;” it simply came as one matured as a writer. The “voice I can no longer shut up” in “Dancer Among the Constellations” was the voice of abandonment, something different: in that book, I wrestled with the guilt of abandoning Louisiana and my family. You ask if I think we ever truly find our voices; I think voice can change, both physically and poetically, so in that sense, no.
London: When and how did your commitment to writing poetry begin? In what ways did your Greek and Southern roots inform that start?
Mathis: I don’t remember not writing, or not imagining myself writing. From third grade, I felt I had that ability in me, a gift of my beloved teacher. I was a terrible liar as a child and she called it the source of my creativity. I can’t imagine myself without that heritage, as I can’t imagine not being Greek, though I was a painfully unhappy child. I am both frightened and in awe of it. Memory plays all kinds of tricks, especially on writers, and I am still being affected by new information I’ve found out about my father’s family; my previous history turns out to be erroneous.
London: You’ve certainly piqued my curiosity. It’s remarkable how revelatory time can be—how much reshaping happens over a lifetime. And the experience of assembling a book of “selected” poems must deliver interesting new clarity and insight about these reshapings. What are the most noteworthy changes you’ve noticed in your writing over the years?
Mathis: The older poems certainly are governed psychologically by a certain myth-making, a kind of self-determination. I think I was trying to create a self, and the poems were the vehicle for that process. I don’t think I was much interested in craft—what I did well I did haphazardly and accidentally. I remember Ellen Voigt saying to one of my students that writing to tell “how she felt” would not make her a writer: that she had to care about the art of making the poem. I was lucky enough to have a great group of teachers in a very fine MFA program, and they set me straight, but I stubbornly clung to content for a long time before I became a student of the craft. As an autobiographical poet, my work has continued to be driven by my own experience in the world, but I also see connections and identification with a bigger world than my own. In terms of the architecture of the poem, I am driven more by what I can create out of experience, how I can shape the poem and its ideas. When I read the poems I wrote a lifetime ago, I am often impressed by the unpredictable, inventive love of language I see there, a creativity I barely remember, but I am more interested now in the poem as a made thing.
Selecting the poems for the new book was difficult; I had to choose one trajectory and eliminate others. The body that is so much the focal point of my recent poems ended up determining what I chose to include from the previous seven books. I did feel the book should be focused and have a certain unity. It was easier once I worked through the manuscript with that in mind, though I had to leave out some poems I liked.
London: Who inspired your earliest love of poetry, and can you name a few poets who move or excite you today?
Mathis: I was truly in love with Kunitz for his identification with the natural world, with Sylvia Plath for her reckless urgency, with Phil Levine for his stripping away of the image, and Bishop for her painstaking clarity and brilliant eye. Newer poets: there are so many excellent poets I admire that I would leave someone out if I tried to name them. But I can’t imagine a time we have been richer in poets.
Cleopatra Mathis’ After the Body: Poems New and Selected, was published this year by Sarabande Books. In this eighth book of poems, as Michael Collier writes, one discovers “the resolute heart and keen human insights” that have made her one of “our most important and essential poets.” Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, notes her new poems’ “extraordinary acuity” and their “attempts to describe the wracking pain as the poet struggles with crippling illness….In these knowing poems, readers may recognize their own humanity, as well as the sometimes-impossible conditions of living.”
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