Interviews Cleopatra Mathis
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Mia: In one of the articles I read, you were
quoted as saying, “I prefer poetry that is luminous in its
language and concrete in its references; [not that] the reader has
to translate or wade through in order to understand.” Would
you elaborate on luminous in its language?
Cleopatra: I mean to say that the poem’s
language should not obscure its meaning but illuminate it through
the use of appropriate images. I prefer a poem that uses language
to move the poem along emotionally, not stop it in its tracks. The
movement of a poem should be clear to the reader; if the reader
is sidetracked or distracted by the language of the poem, then the
poem is not successful. There are two kinds of language in a poem:
the concrete and the emotional: what Stevens called the outer and
inner subjects of the poem. The object part is the outer, the concrete,
and without it, the poem makes little sense. I want to understand
the subject of the poem, just as I want to appreciate the emotional
significance of the imagery. Luminous language is memorable; it
is the vehicle for the complex emotional life of the poem. For me,
the language also must be musical—it should make me want to
Mia: To follow up, when you say, "not that
the reader has to translate or wade through in order to understand"
— I’m guessing you mean poetry that is not obscure.
But do you think that some of the poem’s clarity and experience
fall on the reader’s shoulders? That perhaps, the reader doesn’t
necessarily want to “work” at trying to understand the
Cleopatra: I think my own poems are fairly clear
in terms of what is happening, the concrete reference (the outer
subject). But my language is fairly dense and textured, and to appreciate
all that it evokes, the poem does have to be read more than once.
The images should all be consonant in a poem, by which I mean they
should work together, they should accumulate into a kind of whole.
A good poem requires a patient reader, I think, because all that
layering isn’t clear on a first reading. But that’s
why poetry is so rich—it aims to accomplish a lot more with
a few words on a page than other writing. I want the poem to challenge
me, but I don’t want to feel that the poem resists me. I want
the language of a poem to illuminate meaning, not obscure it.
Mia: When you feel you have connected with a student,
Cleopatra: I know I’ve made a difference
for a student when she is driven to write more, to read more, and
to stay with it, regardless of whatever requirement I have on the
syllabus. I’ve been teaching a long time now, and I don’t
have much patience with self-indulgence or laziness. A lot of undergraduates
just want to express themselves or work out certain emotional problems,
and those students usually don’t continue writing. The serious
student is thrilled with the reading I introduce him to, and that
is the key for me.
Mia: Let's imagine for a moment that I came to
you and said, "I don't like poetry. I don't understand it;
it's too beyond me. A lot of poetry is so morbid..." What would
you say to me?
Cleopatra: I’d say, “Let’s read
a poem—let me show you this incredible poem by _______.”
I think one of the real joys I still have in my teaching life is
bringing students to poetry in a genuine, questioning way. I teach
a contemporary American poetry course that attracts students who’ve
only been taught poetry by teachers who are mostly interested in
theory. I care most about how a poem is made, how it moves, line
by line down the page. The language, the rhythm and music. I am
thrilled by the poems I love, and there are so many to get excited
about. I make my students learn the poems, not just write about
them, but actually know the lines. Some of them are terribly intimidated
by this on the first day, but by the end of the class, they can
recognize the important poets of the 50’s, 60’s, and
70’s. And they love the work; they are changed by it. It is
all just a matter of close reading. If a reader is sensitive at
all, he responds. And, well, yes, most poems are sad, or they pick
at sad subjects. I don’t find most people are bothered by
“morbidity,” they are bothered by the possibility that
death, or despair, might be all there is. I don’t think I
know any morbid poems that don’t illuminate something valuable
about how we live our lives. The very act of writing a poem seems
to me to be all about hope.
Mia: What are you feelings about MFA programs
in writing, or these seminars and conferences given by established
poets? Do you feel that writing poetry can't be taught? How does
one go about teaching students to appreciate and understand poetry?
Cleopatra: An MFA program can be the best thing
to happen to a young writer because it can give her a sense of community
at a crucial time. The energy that a good workshop generates and
the sense that other writers care about what you are working for
can be liberating, challenging, and inspiring. The best programs
foster growth and give writers a chance to share that growth. My
best friends come from my graduate school program at Columbia; I
still rely on them to read my work. Having said that, I will also
say that an MFA program can’t teach you to write. It can shine
a good light on what you’re doing; it can provide you with
models of other writers, particularly if the teachers are good;
it can enrich your reading life and make you articulate aspects
of craft that you might not push yourself into doing otherwise;
but it will not give you the necessary discipline and desire it
takes to become a good writer. The best teacher can’t make
It worries me that students sign up for week-long workshops with
such high expectations. They take seminars with poet-teachers thinking
a particular poet is going to make them better writers. Mostly,
what you get is a glimpse into how that one poet works, which is
not to say her method will work for you. Finding one’s way
as a poet takes a long time, and a week’s workshop works mainly
as an inspiration to keep going.
I think the only way to teach poetry is to read wonderful poems
and examine what is happening in the craft of the poem, line by
line. I often have students imitate poems they admire. I encourage
them to read as much as possible, looking for the poems that stop
them cold. I emphasize how we are drawn to a poem first by its language,
not by its meaning, and I encourage them to read for the thrill
of the language. And of course, I encourage a regular writing and
reading habit: they go together.
Mia: I like your answer: “I encourage them
to read as much as possible, looking for the poems that stop them
cold.” On that note, the poem of yours that stopped me cold
in my tracks and inspired me to write to you the very next day was,
“The Horse” from What to Tip the
Boatman? and consequently led me to pursue this interview
(four years later). Here is the poem:
In those days, she woke only
to reach the stable, the saddle.
Broken racehorse, tethered to his own hell,
he was the only one she'd ride.
She had him tamed on the lunge line
in the indoor ring, where he trusted
the calm circle around her, fixed on course.
That frozen afternoon, who knows what crack
he heard when she dropped the line?
Maybe her body scrambling to retrieve it
jogged his stubborn terror and turned him
crashing through the corridor of closed doors,
splintering each gate, the attached line
flying like a whip at his head, all the way
into the snow, where she followed
his twisting bloody trail. Three icy hours
the mercury dropped, the vet sewed,
steam rising from open flesh, the gaping
shoulder and neck, while in the horse's ear
she whispered him back -- mother then
to his misery, rescued and changed.
Mia (cont): Every time I read this poem, I get
chills down my spine. It clearly establishes a direct relationship
between the broken horse and the daughter, the issue of trust, and
the beginning of the healing process at the end. It’s a very
symbolic as well a symbiotic relationship. I don’t know how
you were able to get so close and precise with your imagery
and metaphor. For instance, “Three icy hours/the mercury dropped,
the vet sewed/steam rising from open flesh, the gaping/shoulder
Cleopatra: The poem is based on a real event,
like so much else in that book. And though I was not physically
there when my daughter’s horse panicked and crashed through
three barn doors, my daughter told me every detail. She is a wonderful
writer herself, and at one point she even wrote about the steam
rising out of the horse’s neck, but in far more detail than
I wrote in my poem. In a sense, I stole the poem from her. And her
involvement with that particular horse was motherly in every way.
She nurtured him endlessly, even when it became apparent that he
was emotionally incapable of the three-day eventing we bought him
for. Interesting that you say how “close” I was, how
“precise.” It was my daughter who gave me that precision,
and her description of the event was so evocative that even now,
I picture it as clearly as if I’d been there. I was actually
three hours away. I suppose that my way into the poem had to do
with my intense identification with my daughter—and many times
having seen the role of her horse in her recovery from her friend’s
death. The drama of the occasion called to me, as well as her incredibly
detailed memory of the event. So I owe the poem to her, completely.
Mia: In your interview with Sarabande, the publisher
of your sixth book, White Sea, due to
release July 2005, you discussed some of the helplessness and terror
centered on parenting your daughter:
What to Tip the Boatman? was written out of sheer terror of
the fact that I’d almost lost my daughter to depression
and suicide after the suicide of her close friend. I’d
never before written a book that was so much in response to
a life situation. . .
When my daughter became ill, it was as if the girl I knew had
disappeared. But the biggest parallel, in which the self-identifying
figure of Demeter initially came to me, even before I started
writing the poems, has to do with my own refusal to write until
I knew my daughter was safe, that she had come back. My first
response, curiously, was not gratitude, but what seemed to be
recognition of the terrible knowledge of parenting: the child
will leave and the parent is helpless. I don’t think I
ever felt I had the power to save her; I could only respond
to her absence by refusing my own self. Demeter’s “self”
is the land she nurtures, and she is willing to let everything
she creates there die if she can not have her daughter back.
The mother’s power is a self-negating one, all sacrifice
of the self, which is the reason mother-love is so complicated.
It’s a power struggle in which the mother threatens to
obliterate herself to get what she is desperate to have.
I had done everything I could, furiously, and what was left
me? I had given everything of myself up in the process.
Mia (cont.): I don’t feel as if you’ve
answered the question that you, yourself posed, “what was
left of me?” The question intrigues me because that kind of
mother-daughter struggle implies a loss of self that can never be
regained, thus an all-consuming sacrifice. Is there a part of you
that has accepted sadness for your own loss and will mark you in
such a manner that will affect your writing?
Cleopatra: Yes, I think my new book is all about
being marked by that loss. I felt for a long time that I would never
write again, then after I wrote What to Tip the Boatman? I felt
I had nothing creative in me left. That book seemed to be a report,
not an imagining. The sentient writing self had closed up. Later,
I had other things to deal with as well, particularly the deaths
of close friends. The question of how to speak, how to create poems
around and through the self’s despair, was my way into the
new book. But in the end, I feel far more open in my responses to
the outside world.
Mia: Is there any kind of formula or approach
to poetry? Are there any trade secrets of writing poetry that you’d
be willing to share?
Cleopatra: There is no formula for me. I go outside
and look around. I never get tired of looking and I can’t
believe how everything changes from day to day or day to night.
I want to show on paper what I see, and I want to see it clearly.
The inside of my head is blank until I find something worth watching.
I have no idea where poems come from, except that I know for me,
they depend on silence and emptiness, a receptivity in me, that
my life mostly lacks. For that reason, I tend to write first drafts
when I am away from home and my daily life. I can revise the way
I clean house or perform any other task, but the first draft of
a poem is an unpredictable and blessed circumstance. It comes when
I am completely open, as if I am just blank and waiting. When I
do have that visitation, I write quickly and without any self-critic
looking over my shoulder. I think it’s really important to
go wherever the poem takes me, and sometimes that is a complete
surprise. I don’t want to interrupt the process before it
finishes with me. Later, revision is a completely different, completely
conscious thing, with me in control.
I also allow myself all my excesses in the first draft. Anything
is permissible, but when I start revising, I am very hard on myself.
I push hard at all my boundaries and I don’t let up. I make
myself go to the hardest part of the poem, by which I mean the most
ambiguous and coded, and I try to dig there. I also tend not to
write everyday or even every month. There is a pressure that builds
up in me, which results in a group of poems all at once, an urgent
release. Then I revise those poems for months. It’s taken
me my whole writing life to not feel uncomfortable about this tendency
to wait awhile for poems, rather than working steadily everyday.
I’ve finally accepted that I can’t write all the time,
even if I had the time. I believe in the poem as a crucial utterance,
not random or incidental.
Mia: How important is it to being published? Online
as opposed to Print?
Cleopatra: I don’t think poets ought to
be thinking about getting published. They should be thinking about
getting better. They should be putting their energy into their writing,
into thinking about writing, and reading as much as they can. Thinking
about pleasing an audience is not important and it can derail the
very important process of learning your craft. An audience is not
going to teach you how to write, and an editor is not going to make
you a better writer by accepting or rejecting your work. If I didn’t
have a commitment to a university, which requires that I publish
a good amount of work each year, I would not send work out except
to possibly two or three journals. It’s just not that important
to me anymore. I know the poems will appear in a book eventually,
and that’s enough. As it is, I am so reluctant to send work
out before I feel confident that it is (as much as I can guess)
finished that I often have trouble getting it into magazines or
journals before the new book comes out.
I am not a huge fan of the computer, and I really dislike reading
the screen. I have to print things out to enjoy them. But I realize
that I am more and more in the minority, and I’m trying to
accept the inevitable! I’m sure there will be more and more
on-line publication; I can see how it is even a good thing in terms
of making poetry more easily available. I know people who go to
poetry sites on the web who before the advent of the computer would
not have sought out poetry in journals.
Mia: If you don’t mind, I’d like to
talk a little bit more about your background, where you grew up
and what influenced you to write. From the same interview by Sarabande
I think the most significant thing about my childhood was my
Greek family’s isolation in north Louisiana. We were set
apart in ways that Greeks in large urban centers were not: they
could form their own community and keep their culture intact.
(This was true in Birmingham, Alabama, where my mother and her
brothers were raised.) In some ways we were no different from
other uneducated rural people. No one expected anything of me,
and my family didn’t have the means, the educational background,
or knowledge of English to introduce me to literature or any
of the arts. In that sense, we weren’t unlike lots of
other lower middle class people whose primary concern has to
do with making a living. We didn’t have many magazines
or books in the house early on, though that changed as I went
I understand your love of language and a hunger for books is what
drove you to become an avid reader, but what compelled you to pursue
your education to go on and become a writer, then a teacher? (I’m
assuming that’s the order).
Cleopatra: No, that’s not the order. I wanted
to be a teacher all my life. I saw teaching as one of the respectable
professions a woman could have. All the women I knew were either
waitresses, teachers, or nurses. I was ambitious. I wanted to get
out of rural Louisiana as soon as I could, and getting an education
was the way to do that. I began to think of writing poetry when
I was teaching contemporary poets as a high school English teacher,
starting at the age of twenty. I began to keep a journal and my
daily jotting turned into poems. Eventually, I thought that the
only way to get a college teaching job (which would allow time to
write) was to go to graduate school.
Mia: You also revealed that in third grade you
had an amazing teacher, Mary Caroline Wilson, whom you still refer
to as Miss Wilson, the person most influential in encouraging you
to read. The part about being a “terrible liar but an avid
reader” struck me as humorous, but I believe they make up
the ingredients of a good writer. Do you mind sharing that story
Cleopatra: Miss Wilson, who had a Ph.D, was an
anomaly in our town. No one knew what to make of her. She left a
prestigious job at L.S.U. to come back to Ruston to take care of
her widowed father, and out of boredom, I suspect, became a third
grade teacher. She noticed those of us who weren’t like the
others, I think, and she encouraged us. I was a terrible liar, but
she never punished me, or even called me on it. Instead, she created
a “writing nook” in the back of the classroom and told
me that whenever I felt the need to tell one of my “experiences,”
I should just go there and write it down. I confused her with Laura
Ingalls Wilder, the popular children’s book writer, because
she read all the Wilder books to us. I wanted to be a writer because
Miss Wilson had such a love of books, and confused, I thought that
meant you had to write. We also had very few books in the school,
and I’d read everything by the end of third grade. We had
no town library. I really didn’t think many books existed.
By all counts, it was my duty and obligation to bring more books
into the world.
Mia: The late Hunter Thompson in his interview
with Salon once said, “Telling the truth is the easiest way;
it saves a lot of time. I’ve found that the truth is weirder
than any fiction I’ve seen.” Then, how much of your
writing is “fiction” and how much of it is truth?
Cleopatra: Everything I write is true. I wouldn’t
know any other way. But saying it’s true doesn’t mean
it actually happened in exactly the way the poem details! Being
true in spirit is a constant search, one in which I am forever seeking
Page: Featured Poetry
Copyright © 2005 Tryst/Cleopatra