AN INTERVIEW WITH THEA MATTHEWS
Your full-length collection Unearth [The Flowers] is an impressive debut, especially in terms of its subject and form. Can you speak to your writing process with that collection and in general?
My writing process depends on if I am working with a theme. I am very much project-oriented and, if I already have a theme in mind or intention of what I hope to write, then that gives me the fuel to show up to the page.
Unearth [The Flowers] is very much a Black feminist text—very much a triumph-over-trauma text. I utilized flowers as an entry point to increase survivorship visibility, seeking to disclose and destigmatize trauma and the non-linearity of trauma, of healing from trauma. Much of this collection encapsulates the fact that healing in nature and memory is nonlinear: there are cycles. Much like perennial and annual flowers, there is a cycle of life and of death, and there are cycles of healing and remembering.
Perennial and annual flowers are the perfect metaphor for the ongoing recovery from trauma. How did you come up with this comparison?
The idea came to me when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, enrolled in the Poetry for the People program led by Aya de Leon. I was prompted to write a self-affirmation poem: “Write a poem that affirms yourself and venturing into territories of what's not to be written. What can I not write?” And what came about was “Lilac”—that was the first poem.
Later, I was prompted to “write a love-as-resistance poem.” What came of that was exploring the bystander effect and the realm of forgiveness––the poem “Hydrangea.” After these two poems, I began exploring flower symbolism and language of flowers: What are the essences of flowers? What about flowers’ essential oils and healing properties? What are flowers’ aesthetics?
You mentioned trauma and increasing survivorship visibility—and you don’t shy away from articulating your trauma in your poems. What role does poetry play for you in facing trauma?
For me, writing poetry always has been a means to validate. As an artist, my medium is language and, through language, I'm able then to construct a thematic analysis on resiliency and the trauma itself. The imagery that addresses sexual violence in this collection is done to destigmatize it, to invoke the gravity of the situation. And there is much buoyancy in the poems—I focus on the triumph rather than the trauma.
Readers can learn a lot from your collection, which focuses so much on resiliency and on regaining a sense of power. I felt like many of these poems had a call-to-action, urging the reader to love, speak, and persevere. And, now, so much has happened since the collection’s release in June 2020. Are the main messages to readers any different now?
You’re right—the content of Unearth [The Flowers] is timely. With this collection, I utilize semiotics as a way in to interrogate the notions of justice, democracy, of Liberty. Do we truly have it? How selective is it? There is a stratification of life, a stratification of breath.
The issues I address have been going on for centuries: Rape and sexual violence are war tactics. Control, domination, patriarchy—these are centuries-old issues that humanity has been silencing and struggling to grapple with. The injustice of the body. This collection serves as a declaration of power, a reclamation of the body, a return to wholeness. My message evolves as I continue to engage with the craft and what I hope to explore further with the other books that I’m working on. But the commonality of my oeuvre is survival.
In all my writing, I ask, “What is justice?” Unearth [The Flowers] is situated right after the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Oscar Grant, Tamara Rice, and others. It is also post-dawn of the #MeToo movement, and here we still are, with nothing radically addressed. Thank God we have a new administration—but we are still in it.
You mentioned you’re working on other books. Can you tell us more about those?
Yes! I'm working on two books. The second book taps more into the gravity of gentrification and family displacement, of addiction, and of suicide. There is a strong commentary on the city I was born and raised in—San Francisco, CA—where there is an unlawful homelessness crisis.
The other book will serve as my MFA thesis—it’s a poetry collection that relies on the focal metaphor of the American flag to uncover truths about American indoctrination and ideologies, and also to address the complex history—as well as present times—we are in.
Final question: Who are the writers who inspire you?
So many! June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Jericho Brown, Terrance Hayes, Natalie Diaz, Patricia Smith, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka. I have a canon of BIPOC poets and authors I look to—to be political, evocative, provocative, lyrical, and innovative, to show me the way. ⋆
Thea Matthews is an S.F. poet, scholar, activist, and the author of Unearth [The Flowers] (Red Light Lit Press, 2020). She has work published in The Atlanta Review, Tilde, Foglifter, The Rumpus, and others. She has work also featured in anthologies Still Here San Francisco (Foglifter Press 2019); and Love WITH Accountability: Uprooting the Roots on Child Sexual Abuse (AK Press 2019). She earned her BA at UC Berkeley where she studied and taught June Jordan's program Poetry for the People.
Julia Medina is an undergraduate student at the University of San Francisco, where she will graduate in May 2021 and will then pursue her MFA in creative writing. Currently, she is working on her thesis, a work of fiction that explores an unreliable narrator's obsessive paradox between love and lust.