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"Imagining a more just and peaceful world": the poetry of Irène Mathieu

The Sillerman First Book Prize is now open through December 1st! To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, an interview with poet Irène Mathieu about her forthcoming award-winning collection, orogeny, out from Trembling Pillow Press this Fall, and the double life of the doctor-poet. 
How many books have you published, and where?

My first poetry collection was a chapbook called the galaxy of origins, which was published by dancing girl press & studio in 2014. My first full-length collection, which is called orogeny, will be published this Fall by Trembling Pillow Press. I’m thoroughly grateful to both presses for allowing me to share these creations with readers.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

Orogeny is meant to be a black bag of metaphysical medicine for what ails us, spiritually speaking. The poems move, in four sections, from a kind of diagnostic poetics about the things that are wrong with the world to poetry that honors what is right and true and offers – hopefully – a therapeutic imagining of how the world might be. I wanted the manuscript to have momentum and feel cohesive in its movement, and I ordered the poems with this in mind.

Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?

Incredibly, the word “blood” appears in the manuscript 24 times (and that’s not counting related words like “bloodied,” “bled,” “bleeding,” etc). I think that blood functions as a symbol of life force in orogeny, and it didn’t feel like too much when I read the manuscript in its entirety, so I decided to keep blood in the poems wherever it appeared.

There’s a lot of dirt/dust/soil in the book, too, which is unsurprising given that a large number of the poems are written from the perspective of a character called Pangaea. She’s a sort of primordial earth-goddess-mother who offers intermittent commentary from her perspective as the first continent of our planet, so of course she’s the origin of all our dirt, literally and figuratively. I’ve also been writing a lot of geology into my poems for the past few years, and some of orogeny is outright eco-poetry, so that’s the other reason for the dirt.

There were a few times in the writing process when a single line came to me and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so I crafted a poem around the line. One that keeps coming back is, what memory is not mostly myth? I wrote a couple of poems for that line, one of which ended up in the book. I’m still writing poems for that line. I can’t think of any poetic tics that I consciously revised out of the book; maybe readers will find some that should have been reined in.

How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

I sent orogeny to 11 publishers over eight months, mostly to contests. During that time I was still revising the manuscript, so the final version looks a bit different from my first submissions. I tried to pick publishers that had an aesthetic that I felt jived with orogeny, and/or contests with specifications relevant to my work, such as “prize for a first full-length book by a woman author.”

Has publication changed your writing process?

Publication has taught me how to move from thinking about individual poems to thinking about a collection of poems – and back again. In creating a book I found myself thinking about how the poems in it relate to one another and how they relate to the field of Poetry as a whole. I’m writing another book now, and I find myself even more consciously considering both the micro-ecosystem of the manuscript and its individual poems simultaneously. And there are varying levels of consciousness about our choices to write toward a manuscript or to write a poem simply because a particular poem needs to be written. I think that sometimes we set out to write a specific book and sometimes the book organizes itself when we realize that our poems seem to have arisen out of a centralized emotional urge.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I’m a pediatrician, and I was working nights in the newborn nursery when I got an email from Trembling Pillow Press that said I had won their annual Bob Kaufman Book Prize. The other pediatric resident who was working with me that night walked into the room a few seconds after I got the email and I blurted the news to her. She didn’t know I was a poet, so I think she was a little confused when I started squealing about poetry in the middle of the night in the hospital, but she said something congratulatory and then we went back to taking care of babies. It was such a special moment and also symbolic of how medicine and poetry, two pursuits that are very emotionally connected in my mind, often live in completely separate spheres in my real life. Most physicians have no idea what a chapbook is or the names of any of the poets I’ve read in the past year. Most of my poet friends have no clue what it’s like to be a resident in a busy children’s hospital or what public health research entails. But it’s such a privilege to have a foot in both worlds.

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

That it worked! That my work was honored with the Bob Kaufman Book Prize and that it will be published. Writing is such a solitary activity, but it feels especially so for me given that most of my professional time is spent on my medical career. Because of this I’ve struggled to build literary community, so there are moments when it feels like I’m writing into a void without any idea of whether what I’m creating makes sense to anyone else. Think about it – we’re all sitting alone, writing vulnerably if we’re writing well, and hoping that our deepest fears and visions can strike up a flame in another human. It’s audacious; writing is brave. I think most writers struggle with a little imposter syndrome to some extent, so for me it’s the fact of my art being seen and deemed worthy of publication that is the most surprising.

What is your favorite part of your first book?

My favorites are the poems that nod to other poets’ work. There are epigraphs from Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa and poems after Rodney Jones and Aracelis Girmay, although these few don’t begin to encompass the body of literature that has shaped me as a poet. Similarly, there are found-ish poems based on articles that I read and museum exhibits that I saw in 2013-15. I like the idea of poetry books as both discrete little artifacts and as living beings that talk to each other and the world through us. I imagine the poems with citations or epigraphs as the hands that reach out and hold other books’ hands.

You are part of a long tradition of doctor-poets—how does your work inform your writing or vice versa?

I think a lot about William Carlos Williams and the stories of his double life as a pediatrician and poet, caring for sick children during the day, then sneaking off to New York on the weekends to hang out with his artist friends. There’s a sort of implied transgressiveness to this duality, as if these careers are unlikely bedfellows – despite, as you point out, the long history of folks who are doctor-poets. People who know me as a poet first are usually shocked to find out I’m also a physician, and vice versa. In truth, the two are intimately related for me. While I tend not to write about medicine or health care in my poetry, per se, my interest in healing and in imagining a more just and peaceful world brought me to both doctoring and poetry.

A physician-writer who exemplifies this most beautifully, in my opinion, is Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian psychiatrist and activist who has written a large number of poems, plays, novels, and essays. I love her work because she disrupts dominant narratives about women in such clever ways, and this disruption parallels her health justice activist career. After being jailed for her feminist activism in 1981 she said, “danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”

Besides disrupting dominant narratives, I think poetry (and art as a whole) has the important job of reinforcing our humanity. When physical, mental, or social disease/dis-ease (threaten to) distance us from our sense of self, then poetry – and ideally, medicine – can bring us back. In medicine we bear witness to disease/dis-ease, and I think that work keeps me close to an emotional place that makes my writing stronger. Conversely, poetry gives me a space to creatively re-imagine the structures in our world that feel immutable, and this creativity has direct applications to health equity.

An important part of medicine is listening, and learning how to listen to people who talk in many different ways has deepened my relationship with language. It’s humbling to hear snatches of poetry in everyday speech and realize that this is a tradition as old and universal as language itself. Poetry is central to human communication, and communication is essential to the doctor-patient relationship and, I think, to healing more generally.

You write complex, lush images that are gushing and overflowing and changing form—I'm thinking of your poem "Prelude," where the lake frogs become an orchestra, "each musician coated with/pollen sauce" and your poem "Observation in a Small Country" where salsa music "gushes in the sunlight." Can you talk about that? (This is inelegant. I love your images. How do you think about them?)

Thank you! This is so kind of you to say. I think about imagery as a way to reveal layers of emotional complexity that can’t be summarized prosaically. I’m trying to challenge the emotional capacity of (the English) language, perhaps in subconscious homage to the poems that have most moved me with their surprising imagery and expanded the limits of what I thought language could do. I’m also experimenting more with form as a dimension of imagery. Several poems in orogeny are clear examples of this play with the physicality of words and space on the page – “prelude” is one of them. I think that effective imagery adds sensuality to the work; I like to see and hear and feel and taste poems, and I’m trying to give readers this kind of experience with my poetry. Ultimately I’m just trying to write the truest poem that I can.

Irène Mathieu is a pediatrician and writer based in Philadelphia. She is the 2016 winner of the Bob Kaufman Book Prize and author of the poetry chapbook the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014) and book orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, forthcoming). Her poetry, prose, and photography can be found in The Caribbean Writer, Los Angeles Review, Callaloo Journal, Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, Big Lucks, and elsewhere. She has been a Fulbright scholar and a Callaloo fellow, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Irène is a poetry book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine, an editor for the humanities section of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, and a contributing author on the Global Health Hub blog. She holds a BA in International Relations from the College of William & Mary and a MD from Vanderbilt University.