An Interview with Airea D Matthews

Candor is My Default Position


1. What was your last bite?

I’m sure it was in February after I allowed someone else’s temper
to get the better of me. And then my temper flared. And then my fangs surfaced. And then my bite broke skin.

I regret it. The aftertaste stayed for weeks.

2. Tell us about your work for The Offing.

A good friend of mine, Darcy Cosper, contacted me last year to let me know that she was starting a new magazine via the Los Angeles Review of Books. She asked me to come on board as an executive editor and, hands down, it’s one of the better choices I’ve made in this lifetime. I admire The Offing’s commitment to be a conduit for literary conversations happening on the periphery. I’ve always contended that art created at the boundary by marginalized risk takers is most compelling, and The Offing wants to be a home for those voices.

I’m lucky enough to help steer the direction alongside Darcy, who is now at the helm as editor in chief, and Michael D. Snediker, our brilliant co-executive editor. We have a staff of fiercely intelligent (and demographically representative) department editors and associate editors who are walking in the original vision of the magazine. And our contributors are serious business, flat out. It’s a wild and humbling and unparalleled ride.

3. You and poet/former Kore Biter Rachel McKibbens colloborate quite a bit from cross-country poetry reading road trips to your 2015 AWP panel “From Poverty to Poetry.” Tell us about your common and uncommon crossings. 

You really get to know a person when you are on the road with them. We suffered sleeping in Walmart parking lots, chilling Wyoming temperatures (equipped with sundresses), a trailer with a mysteriously broken door, hilarious stories, physical injury, hauntings, angry spirits, frustration, melancholy, beautiful and brutal landscapes, split jeans, nervous laughter, showerless days and, most of all, sisterhood. We learned a lot about each other and about ourselves in those weeks we were together.

I love Rachel. Her work breathes with both pain and wonder. Her heart speaks a language that many seek to translate, but few truly understand. I understand her language and her heart. She understands mine.

I would say she is the Kumin to my Sexton. But that’s not totally accurate because sometimes we’re both Kumin and sometimes we’re both Sexton!

 4. Recently you wrote on Facebook: “No need to fear otherness. We’re all aliens.” We love this. Tell us more.

I suppose I think a lot about boundaries—physical and psychic—and how people inhabit public spaces. Often, the body in public speaks a language that the mouth wouldn’t dare utter. I’ve seen people call each other horrible things without saying a word; it’s all in how the body speaks, and it seems fear-based.

A good portion of American individualism completely silences the human urge to get to know each other—from the arm’s length of personal space to the non-porous borders of our suburbs and our cities. This idea that some part of space is ours, and ours alone, seems completely illogical to me. But, then too, this weird belief in spatial possession is a necessary fuel for fear. If something belongs to only you then someone other than you, usually someone visibly distinct, some other, might seek to ruin or destroy ‘your good thing.’ And, in one of my more random moments, I thought how ridiculous that fear must seem to aliens, if they exist, which I think they do. And how those aliens, who we’re calling ‘aliens’, are somewhere in infinitely-free space calling us ‘aliens’, too. So, in the end, why fear each other? We’re all just aliens to some other aliens.

5. You deconstruct privilege in an honest, no-bs, refreshing way. From where does your candor spring?

Mostly frustration. I have a hard time trying to sugarcoat my intentions when I’m frustrated. Candor is my default position. To me, truth is like a stone in a soft pillow; you can’t reasonably rest until you pull it out. And privilege, like that stone, makes people uncomfortable.

Perhaps the discomfort is attributable to the fact that most folks don’t consider what privilege means; it’s an enigma to many. And to the degree that I can demysitify the subtle exercises of privilege through candid explanation, I like to think it’s a public service. I’m helping folks to extract the stone so we may both lay our heads on the same pillow.

6. Who are the women writers you are reading currently? And what drew you to their work?

I just re-read Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband because her work keeps me awake at night. She is so damned smart, precise and layered that I cannot NOT re-read her everything.

I’m currently reading:

Leonora Carrington’s memoir, Down Below, because I’ve been obsessively writing about asylums and nervous breakdowns.

Sylvia Brinton Perera’s Descent to the Goddess because it combines two of my primary areas of interest—Jungian psychology and mythology.

Nayyirah Waheed’s Salt. because it simultaneously tears me in two then makes me whole.

7. Tell us where you were in writing and performing “Wisdom.”

I wrote “Wisdom” at a time when I was heavily immersed in persona work. A short while after Katrina, I was listening to NPR where they discussed how the evacuation process failed. We’ve all since heard of the terrible communication failures while FEMA was missing in action. I felt like, at some point, the media was simply recycling stories, which struck me as imbalanced (imagine that—the media being imbalanced!).

Anyway, I wanted a different perspective. I wanted to hear a story about folks who refused to leave because they didn’t have anywhere to go. I felt compelled to apply Toni Morrison’s fine words to the poem—“If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.” So, I conjured a spirit and wrote about ‘Ms. Wisdom.’

8. Do you ever struggle with speaking your truth? When do the words not come?

Of course! I struggle with a lot of things all the time. There are times when no words come, and I stay silent. There are times when the words come and I’m not sure if I’ve used them properly, or pronounced them correctly, or if I used too many commas, or not enough, or if I’ve been true to my memory, or if I’ve been loyal and fair. Point is, I’m constantly at odds with myself, which I think is the key to speaking truth. I accept the truth that I don’t know a lot of things; I accept the truth that I know a lot of things. I live with that constant dichotomy, and it brings a strangely humbling succor.

9. What singular poet do you claim as your north star?

ALICE NOTLEY. Her work gives me life. I like things that don’t come easily, like understanding quantum physics or heuristic algorithms. And just because I like a thing doesn’t mean I fully understand a thing, or ever will; it just means I like the challenge of trying. I count my obsession with challenge as one of the reasons I am utterly in love with Notley’s work. She’s not easy to understand. Her work doesn’t readily deliver meaning. It’s the kind of work that requires the precision of a steady hand administering a deep surgical cut along a thin artery. She’s a challenge, an evolution.

Moreover, Notley’s work implies that art demands a certain hunger, which empire may call enemy, or may never understand. Perhaps that’s the point in a free society; the artist is never universally understood, and never should be.

10.Kore Biters Womanifesto: Please add two-three tenets for transgressive and transformative behavior that you believe every woman writer should abide by or incorporate into their lives or writing practice.

• Seek sister-advocates. Do not privilege writers who identify as men over writers who identify as women.
• As soon as you can locate yourself/your writing voice/your style, transform.
• Give yourself permission to be yourself in your work and then never ask for permission again.

11. Come up with a prompt that helps us consider our alienness. 

This prompt is very loosely based on the Alice Notley poem, “Unidentified.” I’m interested in how memory, reality and history collide in the event of a poem. To that end, this prompt is in 7 sections and will read as a bit of a non-sequitur poem after the first few drafts (which is the point—the non-sequitur is a form of alienation).
1-Recall a dream fragment
2-Write a snippet of a conversation from a doctor’s waiting room
3-Modernize a chinese proverb
4-An alien comes to earth looking at a billboard (write its thoughts)
5-A ghost rides a subway in rush hour (write its thoughts)
6-Who do you know named____? (insert one of the 7 deadly vices)
7-Write a proverb based on yesterday’s events


(with help from Tarfia Faizullah)
Make three lists:
1-List of fears
2-Lists of facts
3-List of the sensations of a childhood memory
Write three postcards to yourself using the material from your lists.

Contributed by Airea D. Matthews