We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the talented emerging poet Philip Matthews, author of the upcoming Witch from Alice James Books—here’s what he has to say about his journey of becoming poet.
When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?
PM: When I was 17, I came out at a poetry reading through a piece I’d written, so for me, calling myself a poet has been tied up with being open and out as a queer person. I’m 31 now, and up to this point, that conflation has felt powerful. But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about whether I’ve somehow equated performance with authenticity, and thereby created some serious hang-ups in my relationships. Am I constantly performing to be authentically myself around others? Can I even tell a difference? If I were to eclipse my identity as a poet, who would step out?
Still, I call myself a poet because I think it’s important to offer new potentials for language in public, where language so often markets to us: products, affiliations, identities. Language that sells feels to me a closed container posturing like an open one. It seems to offer, but ultimately means to enclose, hegemonize, subsume. Whereas a poem, this published structure that appears fully formed at first, opens you to yourself in multifaceted ways that may end up being quite private and introspective. For me, poetry usefully fractures language into spaces for replenishment, then action. And calling myself a poet gives me agency to do this work.
What was the journey of getting your first book Witch picked up for publication?
PM: It’s still wild to me that the book is forthcoming, and with Alice James Books—a dream press. I wish for every poet to receive the kind of generous, affirming email Carey Salerno wrote me this summer.
The book was mostly written at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 2016-17. Bhanu Kapil predicted that, that the poems would come quickly on the tendrils of one another. I’m currently on second-year fellowship here, and it’s been surreal to revisit Witch at the sites of its making, to finally understand this book that was buried under so many predecessor projects and iterations. When I left Provincetown in spring 2017, I actually thought I’d written drafts of two books. But in the winter, I began to realize the projects were one, both angel and Petal (my alter-ego). Dana Levin had offered that the angel poems needed something non-angel to rub up against, and CAConrad gave a Tarot reading that suggested Petal and the angels could live together. When I began intertwining them, it became clear which poems had to be shed. I wasn’t interested in revision. I was interested in trashing the poems blocking this new container’s electricity. Over the next month or so, I shared versions of Witch with important people and poets in my life: francine j. harris, Mary Jo Bang, Alec Hershman, Maura R. Pellettieri, and their responses sealed for me that this was the book.
It’s funny, now that I think of it in relation to the previous question— In the fall semester of 2017, I taught a class alongside artist JE Baker at the Kansas City Art Institute, and remember, around Samhain, doing a ritual in her backyard. I burned my identity as a poet to make room for my identity as a witch. Of course, I didn’t and don’t have to choose one or the other. They’re always co-present, and the forthcoming publication of Witch feels to me significant of that simultaneity. But in that moment, I think I needed to suspend what I’d assumed about myself as a “poet” in order to make a new kind of work. Or maybe: I needed to get myself out of the way to give space for the book to organize itself.
How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?
PM: Honestly, I let it be. I fill that time doing other things that bring me pleasure and meaning: walking, cooking, meditating, being with people I love. In the past, I’ve been hard on myself during stretches I wasn’t sitting down to write, which is so useless. I don’t actually believe I’m in control of this practice—the timing isn’t up to me. The poems arrive when they’re ready, and it’s my job to be open, attentive, and grounded when they do. So the practice has be holistic in that preparation.
I was at a party recently where artists and writers were having a beautiful conversation about alternating periods of work and reflection in their studio practice. Someone remarked that conversations like these are part of the practice, too, and I thought, yes, and also, it’s fine if we’re just talking together right here, right now. Not everything has to be applied to the work. In fact, I think that’s a dangerous place to be—where you start thinking about your lived experience first and foremost as a resource for mining. If I catch myself thinking “this is great, I could use this for a poem,” that’s usually a signal I should stop writing for a bit. Because in that moment, I’ve foreclosed the potential of listening to what a future poem wants, and instead started to try to force its content and direction. If I’ve learned anything about this work, it’s that I can’t be the center. It’s always, always the practice, to come back to, tune into the present.
What was the darkest moment for you as a poet?
PM: This is an intense question. I think ongoingly my darkest moments arise when I hold money and poetry too closely in the same space. Through an astrological lens, I have a retrograde Chiron sitting with my ascendant, and my second house of resources in Cancer, so there are ample emotional issues wrapped up in self-worth and money which I continue to work with, through. Of course we want and deserve to be compensated for our work, but it unsettles me to think about poetry existing, maybe sometimes even willfully trying to exist, within late-capitalist structures, that we know are toxic.
I was up for a major award last year, which on the one hand was a boon to my confidence, and on the other threw me into a dark psychic loop, because I began to daydream about what I would do, how I would feel, how others might see me if the financial award came through. I began to tell myself this story where winning the award would equal the worth of my work, then one horrible step further, my worth. I think it’s unhealthy, for me, to strive for poetry as a livelihood, yet some part of me deeply desires that. It’s something I continue grappling with, and maybe it all goes back to that question of identifying primarily as a poet. I have, have long had, career-obsessed tendencies, and I’m beginning to recognize those dangers.
Something really hit me over the past winter holidays. I was talking with my mother when she reflected back to me: “What I’m hearing you say is that you feel you need a book before you can have a relationship.” And I’m like, fuck, I didn’t realize I was sitting here bared to my mother, but of course she sees me. Our mothers see us. So I’m actively trying to nurture other aspects of myself—friend, brother, son, yogi, witch, teacher, lover—so that I’m burdening less my creative and spiritual practice.