“I don’t like to be told what to do, and poems are very bossy.”
AIREA DEE MATTHEWS
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I often start by asking how long the book’s been in the making, but I’m especially interested in that for you since Simulacra is a first book.
I thought up / lived the concept of the book about seven years ago.
Oh, very interesting.
I was thinking about truths that I wasn’t ready to walk into, or any number of things I wasn’t ready to walk into—including how to make philosophies converge with poetry without announcing the convergence. Sometimes I feel like my poems know more about me than I know about myself at any given point.
I was afraid of finding out the future.
So the concept of the book started seven years ago. And it kind of started with a series of poems that did not make it in the final manuscript. But the oldest poem that did make it into Simulacra is about five years old.
I love that idea—of being afraid to find out the future through the poems.
Yeah. There’s something to be said for the subconscious and the collective unconscious. If you believe that nothing is ever a coincidence, even something as innocuous as image deployment, then poems take on a more oracular meaning.
It’s like when someone is afraid to put their hands on the Ouija triangle.
Yeah, exactly right. You know, I feel like I opened myself up to a space that is accommodating, but is also very, very frightening inside of a poem. And I didn’t necessarily want to know what my subconscious was thinking for fear that I would make conscious decisions that might change my course, veer into unknown territory; but that’s precisely what makes poems work.
That’s super real.
You can go off the rails with that very quickly. It takes me a while, probably longer than it should, to come to terms with what a book or what a series of poems are trying to do. Because I don’t like to be told what to do, and poems are very bossy.
Most of my figuring comes in poems.
Yeah, and so I think I was afraid to step into a certain space that was not the space that I was in at the point I started writing this poem, but eventually I got comfortable with it.
Given some of the subject matter that Simulacra is grappling with, you really have to be in a pretty good, stable headspace to be able to take these things on. I imagine some of that stuff could really engulf you if you were in a sort of unstable place, you know?
Actually, it’s interesting. I was completely unstable when I was writing most of those poems.
Oh, that is interesting.
I wound up going into a descent that bottomed out January of 2015. And I knew that that was going to happen when I started writing the book, so it was almost as if I was conjuring up a rock bottom. Essentially, I saw a rock bottom before the rock bottom presented itself.
Did you find that experience to be instructional? Did you feel like the place that you found yourself in at rock bottom was a useful vantage point? Or was it the process of getting there that was useful?
The experience provided a useful vantage point. Perspectivally, it’s the point in which you can most clearly see light if you look up.
Descent is frightening because it’s quick and it doesn’t wait for you to catch up with what’s happening. But once I bottomed out, it was comforting to look up and see a light. It was as if I descended down some sort of a cavern or something. But because I was paying attention to the fall, I noticed the grooves that I could use to climb myself out.
It’s fascinating to hear you talk about that. In the experience of addiction, so much of the race to rock bottom is just sort of a mindless lurching from crisis to crisis. And then it’s not until you’re there and you’re like “Oh, shit,” that you really see with any sort of clarity what has brought you there, you know? And that sort of clarity can be really, really, horrifying because you know you’ve done all that shit.
Right, and you’ve injured people and you’ve self-injured. And you are trying to figure out like, “Okay, do I climb out to go fix this, or do I just stay here?”
Yeah, sure, sure. I mean, inertia isn’t on your side if you’re trying to climb out.
Exactly right, exactly right. It’s a conscious choice, right? For me, putting together those poems was a very conscious choice and I was conscious—incredibly conscious—of the risks that are associated with what I call neo-confessionalism. So, I just went forward with it because I felt like I had to. I didn’t have the choice. It was what it was. Mostly, I had to view that point in time as a discrete unit in time, one of many, and just move forward.
Yeah, that’s beautiful. And I love the idea of thinking about it as neo-confessional, because the phrase confessional implies a kind of desire for pardon or a desire to be absolved.
True. I tend to think about the confession as a way to personally release shame.
And I feel like this book isn’t asking the reader for absolution in that way.
Right, right. You can’t ask others for absolution because people can’t pardon you. You liberate yourself.
There’s a point past enough. And if you’ve been sick for a while, you typically go past that point.
People have their own limits, they have their own set of circumstances that will preclude them from forgiveness or preclude them from absolution. And if you are doing it with that external focus, then to me it’s not lasting. It’s as if you’re going to the Catholic priest and confessing a sin that you’re going to commit again. There’s a sense of repeating in that. Like, “If I get this absolution, I can just go and do this same useless shit again and again. I can meet this priest every week and dance this same dance.” And I didn’t want that. I just wanted a sense that that’s what happened, that’s what it was. It is what it is, but it is not what it will be.
Yeah, the engine that drives the desire for self-improvement has to be internal not external. I know that we’re speaking about different experiences, but in my experience with addiction, it didn’t matter how many people in my life told me that I was fucking them over, or fucking myself over. To hear that in any sort of external way didn’t matter. It had to really permeate my thick fog of unknowing, and ignorance, and willful apathy. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. Absolutely. “Willful apathy” is a very good way to put it. I mean, that’s exactly what it is. I think, in some abstract way, our wills are sentient beings. The personal will does its own thing, and you just kind of go with it. But there are degrees to sentience and agency. The will is a stray that goes and does whatever it wants to do, but you can veto the will’s decisions. You can gently govern your will.
As opposed to feeling like an automaton, one can simply evolve their rules of operation.
Yeah, yeah. So much of the work of self-improvement is realizing that you don’t control the first thought that comes into your head, but you control the next one.
You can make a poem for whatever the will wants to do, but you also have to eventually realize that you have some amount of agency over that. You’ve got some veto power.
Yeah, it’s like dealing with spirits. When folks talk about dealing with spirits, every medium I know says that humans have the upper hand. Humans have a body. And your body can choose to do X, Y, or Z. A spirit doesn’t have a body, they’re trying to talk through you to other people because they don’t have that vehicle to actually execute their own wills. We have a body to execute our wills, but we also have a mind to decide if that execution is in our best interests.
Yeah, that’s fascinating.
It kind of feels like that to me.
Say a little bit more about that.
I feel alive and electric—a very Whitmanesque electricity. I am able to perceive and sense and feel and, to some degree, alter or revise. As a medium, I am hyper-sensitive to environments and people. One component of my spiritual beliefs is to recognize the power of the living body and to tune into the open secrets a vast universe provides. I don’t readily believe in everything, but I also don’t disbelieve everything. I listen and tune in using my body as antennae, and I try to do that with my written work.
And having learned my own authority, I can not do a thing, I can choose to not carry a message to someone. I can choose to carry a message to someone else. I choose. And so just because a spirit asks for you to carry a message, doesn’t mean you are obliged to. I can choose what I do.
I make decisions about what happens next as it relates to my thoughts, my words and my actions. Because exactly as you were saying before, the "what comes next" belongs to me.
Yeah, absolutely. I love that. I think that’s so beautifully put. I want to talk a little bit about the book itself, but while we’re on this topic—in an interview with Lithub you said that you really did have the psych nurse named Anne Sexton–
I did! Yeah, that really happened. In real life, that happened. It was January 2015. And I went to U of M – University of Michigan is one of the few hospitals in the area that has a psych ward– it may have been the only hospital. And I could feel myself unravelling, I felt it getting worse.
And so I went, after I taught a class, actually. I checked myself in. And the first nurse that I saw was named Anne Sexton. She took my vitals and tried chatting me up while I was in tears and tatters.
Wow. Sometimes the universe isn’t very subtle.
And mind you, the Sexton texts had been written prior to this meeting. And so it was a call from beyond, and I listened.
So I said to her – exactly as in the book – "Do you know this famous poet who’s named Anne Sexton?" And she said, "No, I’ve never heard of her before."
Yeah, that’s so wild. It blows my mind that there was this person named Anne Sexton who had lived long enough to become a nurse and had never encountered someone who had told her there’s a poet named Anne Sexton.
Never. She had no idea. She said, "Maybe I’ll read her one day." And I was like, "No maybes. You need to read Anne Sexton. Seriously, given your particular field it might be essential reading."
Yeah, and because I tend to deflect from myself in conversation, I kept awkwardly talking about her field and the poet. I remember saying, "I mean, maybe you guys are related in some odd way you don’t know." I also remember asking her where she was from—nowhere near New England. I didn’t go that far in the family tree, though. But it was an interesting coincidence, that’s for sure.
Well yeah, and there’s a way to look at it where it’ll just totally disabuse you of any notion about the lasting social clout that any poet has, you know what I mean?
Oh, right! Exactly right, exactly right. I mean it wakes you up to that, it wakes you up to the realities of the ego.
Yeah, totally. Totally. I think often about how if I’m in the subway and Claudia Rankine and Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky all walked into the subway, I would probably be the only person in that car who was losing his shit.
Oh, absolutely. Here I am, a poet Sexton has immeasurably impacted, and the woman who carries her name has no idea who I am talking about.
And that’s useful. That’s useful perspective. You say that this was an interesting coincidence, but I think that it’s a pretty obvious wink from the universe, you know?
Oh, totally. I felt held in that moment. I actually imagined Sexton looking around the room from the corner behind the triage door, wearing a well-tailored gabardine suit, smoking a cigarette and saying "Perhaps I am no one."
A thing that I think about a lot is how paranoia, the irrational belief that the universe is conspiring against your happiness, has an opposite. Pronoia is the belief that the universe is directly conspiring to facilitate your happiness, or your wellbeing. And this seems like such an instance of that.
Oh, absolutely. I cried off and on that whole day. And the night before. But I remember that that one image of Sexton behind the door made me hold my head down in a stifled chuckle.
Like in this crazy fucked up moment of terror and whatever else you feel in yourself slipping, the universe is like, "We got you."
There’s no doubt. That little chuckle made me feel alive and in the right place. My imagination of her made me feel more real than I had that entire month. It was as if she were whispering beyond the grave, “Good job. You’re where you need to be.”
And that’s just such a staggering moment for me to think about. And even if it hadn’t been a real thing, even if it had just been in the book, it had such a staggering effect. Then reading that interview just totally blew my mind.
Yeah. I felt cared for in that moment. I should add this, and I don’t think I’ve shared this before, but I was reading Ai’s Cruelty the night before I checked myself in. I’d read it before and never noticed the blurbs. Sexton blurbed that book. On the back cover, these words: "All woman — all human — all vital. Alive with the arteries of life." That was also a message.
I don’t require that anyone believe me when I say this, but she was definitely watching over me. She was there with me. Even through the treatment I felt like she was right there. It wasn’t anything that she hadn’t been through before.
Well she was also sort of navigating a lot—being a wife, and being a mother, and being a poet, and having some sort of mental illness. In his introduction to Simulacra, Carl Phillips talks about her juggling that with her ambition. We say it like it’s a bad thing, but it was really sort of a pure thing – and her trying to juggle all those things seems very much like vibrating at the same frequency as what you were going through when you were writing these poems.
It was exactly the same frequency. I was telling a trusted friend that I could be sitting in a car and I felt like she was right next to me. She spoke to me, as she spoke through her poems, and we would be in conversation in that way. It was like we were having this back and forth inside of my car, in my kitchen, at work, or wherever, and it was how I continued on the path to wellness. She was my otherworldly sponsor and mentor.
And I was two when she died, so I mean–it meant something, it still means something to me–I still feel her, actually. I don’t think she’s left completely.
I don’t either. I remember when I was really young, I used to think it was really, really, weird that when I was sad I wanted to listen to sad music. I thought wouldn’t it make sense that when I’m sad I'd want to listen to happy music to make myself happy again? I think that what it is, is that when we are going through these times of intense emotional duress, we want to know that other people have lived through those times, and then came through to the other side.
Right, exactly. Humans are built for fellowship, camaraderie and companionship. Even if you are a recluse, you still need touchpoints.
And it seems like that’s what Anne Sexton was for you.
Oh, absolutely, there’s no doubt about it–she was. I could see myself more clearly in the mirror by her example. I could also choose to be healthier. To get back to the earlier point about poems being ahead of us, if she served as my primary reflection—and we all know how her story ends—then I might be better equipped to exercise my will in my best interests. If her example is predictive, then I must feel compelled to change my course. We are in an age of representation, identity, and modeling, and as with all models we have to choose what suits and what doesn’t. Molds are made of breakable materials.
And the same goes for Stein, whose work I disliked for years because I read it as a privileged, private language. But once I held the mirror to myself, I could see the direction I wanted to take in my own work. I didn’t resent her use of language. I resented her freedom. And then, of course, I realized, "Damn, I’m free, too.” She, like Sexton, is a part of my lineage.
Yeah. And that’s one of my favorite poems in the book, "If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein."
Yeah. That poem is mostly about recognizing and honoring lineages—good, bad, ugly. It’s recognizing the helix that binds and coming to terms with it. I mean, we have genetic lineages, for sure, but we also have poetic lineages. And I think it’s important that every poet knows who’s in their poetic gene pool.
And respond to them, be in conversation with them in some way. It doesn’t have to be a metaphysical dialogue like those I mentioned earlier.
Simply go back to their work and figure out what they’ve already said about what they lived and how they lived through it. As Anne said, "Put your ear down close to your soul." Their poems tell you almost everything you need to know about this life, and the ones you’ve already lived.
Absolutely. I think that the speaker of this book seems so hungry for conversation with these great minds. There’s a kind of hunger for conversation that doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing, to me, as lonely, I don’t necessarily think of it as being lonely. I think of it as being deeply curious.
Right, it is. It’s a hunger for dialogue.
And I think in the age in which we are right now, this technology age, we’ve given ourselves over to these restricted-character monologues, and many heavily-edited, public/private life documentaries abound. I love the idea of documenting lives, actually, it’s a beautiful thing. But at the same time I think we lose aspects of the art of discourse because it feels as if people are talking at each other. Like vastly different planets shouting in space trying to find the center of an infinite universe. But what happens when people who are incredibly different along every major metric have a genuine conversation? What happens if they talk about the one thing they both have in common—their making, their work, their living? Say, for instance, a privileged woman of color from the 21st century having a conversation with Gertrude Stein about privilege. What might they talk about? Say, for instance, a black woman poet talking to Anne Sexton about how mental illness and domesticity impacted both their lives, and how?
Through conversation it’s possible to transcend the time-space continuum. I mean, you need only listen to what they’ve already written and start writing back. Give and take. Listen and speak.
Absolutely. I am nodding furiously at everything that you’re saying.
You really did have an addict father.
Yeah, my father struggled with alcohol and heroin as many years as I knew him.
And so there’s a way where you’re not just communing with Barthes, Stein, and Sexton, you’re also communing with family.
Right. And self, too. I wanted to understand what makes me who I am and how much of that can be resisted? You know, when I talk about the mirror, I talk about what happens when you look into the mirror and you see something that you don’t want, that you don’t like. Then you start to resist that reflection. But how possible is that resistance? Is it a resistance that births a revolution, which spawns a system worse than the one that preceded it? Is it just part of who you are, and you just need to come to some agreement with the self about what that means?
And I grapple with my memory of my father. He was was a heroin addict, an alcoholic, a gambler, a ne’er do well. He died of AIDS in 1996; we presume he contracted HIV from dirty needles. And I thought about how much my former angers were informed by his presence and his absence. There’s a presence when you have a parent that’s an addict, a constant reminder of what it is that took them away. And then there’s a wrestling match with the damnable absence, or loss, of who they could have been and what they were, and who they weren’t. There’s an emptiness, a kind of vacuity there that I felt compelled to fill. I made peace with it over time, but the absence and presence was something that I could only grasp by writing through it. In the end, I am who I am because of who I come from and what I’ve seen.
And honoring that, as opposed to just resisting it and being repulsed by it. I have learned I am made alive by my experiences.
Yeah. And it’s honoring both the lineages of which you spoke. It’s honoring both the poetic and the familial lineages.
This has been really astonishing. I’m excited to just go back through this and take notes for myself. I mean that sincerely.
Oh, thank you.
I can tell from the poems that you and I had some fairly significant simpaticos, but talking to you about them is like blowing my fucking mind, to be quite frank about it.
Oh, thank you. I mean, same here. When I read your book—and this is not a quid pro quo, this is me saying I read the book and I felt it. From me, it’s the highest compliment, that I read a book and it sits with me and swirls around. There’s a cognitive and sensory excitement, a deep knowing. I am so grateful for your words and work, which are equally eye and heart.
Exactly. Well, I mean–I’m grateful that you read it generously, but it seems like there’s a kind of deep understanding, you know, we’re kind of vibrating at the same frequency.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
Do you want to talk about what might be next for you? Are you totally focused on your teaching, are you writing, what’s going on?
I’m writing a lot about–actually by request for anthologies—about the current political climate.
But that’s not my wheelhouse in terms of writing. I’d much rather write an essay about the state of politics than to try to write about it in a poem. For me, the poem isn’t my preferred container for politics. I try to write through politics and race in essays. And I write through life in poems. I like the paradox of interrogating life as a long concept in a short form; it’s a built-in tension.
I prefer to deal with those dichotomies of scale in a rather genre-specific way. Although my new writing project is challenging me. The work considers poverty and abundance—economically, spiritually, materially—and trying to understand cultures of lack and plenty. The culture of poverty is often characterized as deplorable and dysfunctional, but it isn’t. Actually, it’s a culture that rises. While abundance, the favored culture/state, seems to be one that reaches. I’m thinking about the act of rising and the act of reaching, and talking through them in the work. So, some of what I’m doing is trying to figure out how to lyrically and visually render cultural concepts. In other words, I am having a lot of fun playing with pages and language.
Yeah, well that was so central to the way that Simulacra worked, your sort of virtuosity of like a billion different formal techniques.
Yeah, I’m really interested in form. I think culture dictates form in a lot of ways. And how does the culture of poverty dictate the form/shape/image of and in the poem? And so, I think about different topics/motifs/themes and how they inform a poem’s shape and meaning . I’m mostly writing by thinking and reviewing scholarship from which I can glean essential knowledge. But there are a few pieces that are ready. I just have to stop hovering over them like an overly anxious stage mom.
Interview Posted: April 16, 2018
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