“We continue to consume the things that are consuming us”: A Conversation with Alex Mattraw & a Portfolio of Multi-Disciplinary Work – curated by Mary-Kim Arnold

I first met poet Alex Mattraw several years ago, when we read together at a lovely small bookstore (now closed) in Providence, Rhode Island, at a reading series hosted by friend and poet, Kate Schapira. After, we all crowded into a velvet booth in a dark, cozy bar and passed a few hours in warm and convivial company. Now, the ease and intimacy of that evening seems like a different lifetime, and I suppose, in many ways, it was.

We’ve been able to stay in touch over the years; we’ve read together to celebrate both our pandemic books, and I’ve continued to be dazzled by Alex’s precisely-crafted poems, each a dense and richly scaffolded inquiry into the nature of our ways of knowing about ourselves, our relationships, our planet.

I invited Alex to speak about her forthcoming book, Raw Anyone, the result of several kinds of collaborative and cross-disciplinary work. In characteristically inventive style, Alex approached the conversation itself as hybrid in form. I’m thrilled to be able to share it here.

Mary Kim Arnold: Can you tell me a little bit about how these poems (and this book) came about? How did you decide on the form of the letters? The poems seem so intimate to me, can you talk a little bit about that?

Alex Mattraw: Yes, I think Covid’s first few rounds made everything feel real intimate, real quick. Like many, I found virtual collaboration to be a survival strategy. Nearly all of that happened with fellow makers. Hours of texts, zoom, e-mails, and phone conversations became my only adult human contact. Much of my remaining time was spent caring for my anxious small children and panicked students.  I guess, if you think you might die soon, and that possibility now hovers with real visibility that was always there, self-confrontation is probable.

Some of my “conversations” felt like the exchange of tiny letters– the text message as perfect Niedecker condensery– the Zoom chat as a space to say what you are really thinking. The epistle form came from those spaces, though I also intend the letters (“Dear cell,” and “Dear Thought Climate,” among others) to be an address to the self and its “other selves,” as well as the body’s cell, and the cell phone. Preoccupation with time, toxins, dreams, consumerism, love, free will– these obsessions wrote the book.

Some of the poems also reference my experience with erasure and fear. As a neurodivergent person, getting the virus, and potentially suffering long term cognitive or physical dysfunction, could break my life and permanently compromise my ability to parent as a solo mom. I am still afraid. Most neurotypical people seem unaware or uncaring of this reality for those of us in the disability community. (See: anti-vaxxers, etc.).

Raw Anyone features the ekphrastic “guillotined sonnet” epistles, but also a long prose series, erasures (and erasures of erasures), and a dream series that inhabits tightly enjambed verse. The forms became collaborative, familial spaces in a fraught, solitary time. In addition to conversations with other artists, they reflect conversations with mentors: Jenny Boully, Carlo Rovelli, Virginia Woolf, Sappho, and Mary Shelley. The poetic “constraints” I made were ways for me to speak to other day to day pandemic constraints.

MKA: How did the collaboration come about? Can you speak a bit about the process?

Image credit: Adam Thorman

AM: For instance, “Scale” (though not in Raw Anyone) shows what happens when Adam rewrites one of my poems I spontaneously write. This one is based on a conversation we had last week about our employer’s salary scale. This week, I made revision suggestions to his revision of my poem, and then we conversed about forms and meanings before he did a few more revisions. We did some of the final revisions through text and email. This is still a draft, but I’d say this version is co-authored while being his production. We work together every Friday afternoon, and when we find time to, which is usually at random and through virtual means. In Adam’s words: “We have a deep understanding and appreciation of each other’s work and usually have immediate responses to the images and poems we share with each other. We are incredibly generative in short blocks of time.”

In Raw Anyone, the “Dear Thought Climate” poems emerged organically, and through trusting relationships. Monica offered the “three-word-poem” prompt, and for a few months, we worked almost every day, texting the work as it developed. Those lines later scaffolded themselves into sonnets. The “Dear Thought Climate” poems are ekphrastic responses to the photos Adam offered me through our talks. Adrienne and I made the “hare” poem/art piece in tandem, after talking in her studio about twins, wounds, and shadow selves. That poem also takes direct inspiration from Manon Steffan Ros’ The Blue Book of Nebo, a Welsh dystopian novel about “The End.” We worked separately but simultaneously in Santa Fe, in her single studio room.

MKA: The photographs seem like studies in contrast — the textures in tension, beautiful, captured in a moment of stillness. And the paintings are vibrant, energetic, in motion. Can you talk a bit about how you decided to include these different energies and aesthetic moods in this series? What can we expect in the rest of the book?

Image credit: Adam Thorman

MKA: I’m curious about the book’s title.

AM: “You don’t own your body– that’s not what we are, our bodies aren’t independent. The health of our bodies always depends on the choices other people are making”– Eula Biss, On Immunity: An Inoculation

The virus acts like a scythe to all our constructed and natural systems. Is this just the beginning? And to what?

MKA: I’m guessing that you were working on this book through the pandemic. How does the experience of witnessing these transformations in daily life, across the country, across the globe — to what extent did that inform the poems? I know that these issues of climate and health, and the interactions of our bodies and environment are concerns you have taken up in previous work. I wonder whether there are any particular ways you thought about these concerns through these last couple years?

AM: Definitely. It was surreal to release We fell into weather in mid-March 2020, in the week of our first quarantine. In some ways, Raw Anyone is an extension of the climate and health concerns I explored in We fell, though through tighter and more obsessive forms.

In the summers of 2020 and 2021, I masked up with everyone else and stayed indoors as wildfires raged through Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. I taught full time in person as of August 2020, as Covid hospitalizations rose again, and ash dusted my classroom windows. I thought a lot about my own culpability. I react immediately to Covid or wildfires when I can physically witness their catastrophes, but what about the looming carbon and toxin problems that contribute to them? Plenty of research connects covid to climate change issues; rising temperatures, air pollution, and deforestation exacerbate new viral possibilities, infection rates, and our ability to survive getting sick. I keep thinking about what most scientists project: By 2050, the climate crisis will cause much more and unthinkable damage than what we’ve seen in this pandemic. After a certain point, there will be no inoculation or policy to help. What about policies and behaviors we might have secured, and could still secure, to curb wildfires, Covid, and future global crises?

And what does it mean to grieve while inhabiting these traumas? In the last year, I lost a father figure to cancer, and another person to time. It seems that in the survival pressures of pandemic life (How to pay rent? How to be and/or stay employed? How to protest? How to parent? How to partner?), the space for grief of any kind is so tiny and uninhabitable, unless that space is one of a collaborative community. Often, it feels as if we have industrialized even our familial relationships through a culture that pretends to value real love.

During 2020, the hypocrisy of my own cell addiction and reactionary Amazon purchases (and accompanying privilege), were not lost on me. The “cell”, “the room”, and “the mouth” became lenses with which I read other problems in political/social and personal spheres: pollution and projection; environmental and racial justice; dependency and denial; toxins and relationship toxicity. I began to think about what rooms are left in me, and how Covid reveals that our “quarantine” walls are, to some extent, illusory. We share the air; we are one chemical body; we continue to consume the things that are consuming us. Raw Anyone reflects some of this thinking, however experimentally.

MKA: Is there any other question you wish I had asked?

These poems, from Alex’s forthcoming Raw Anyone, were created in collaboration with artists Adrienne Heloise, Monica Tiulescu, and Adam Thorman.

Dear Climate Folio

Process Statements

Adrienne Heloise: Heloise partnered with Alexandra Mattraw on a recent visit to Santa Fe, where they shared an afternoon reflecting on a recent translation of The Blue Book of Nebo by Manon Steffan Ros, with Alexandra composing poetry, while Heloise constructed her image layering ink and cut paper, to capture a portrait of a savage, cannibalistic nature overlayed with symbols of a divine presence.

Monica Tulescu: The poetry series paintings were constructed in three stages. In the first instance the white canvas panels were painted to form a  layered spatial environment. In the second instance, three-word poems written by Alex Mattraw were drawn compositionally within the painted field. The words as line drawings became integrated into the colors. In the third instance, new elements inspired by the meaning of the words were introduced into the paintings to create an abstracted and symbolic visual narrative. 

Adam Thorman: Alex and I have been collaborating for several years now. As friends and colleagues, we discovered a shared affinity for a metaphorical interpretation of the landscape that led to our first project together, when I created work to pair with Alex’s poems for a series published by Radar Poetry. This summer, when I headed off to Iceland for an artist residency, we started a series in which I sent an image, Alex sent back a line of poetry, I sent back an image, back and forth. We would discuss the work and ideas along the way, as well. When that piece finished, our collaboration moved on to these two poems inspired by single images. Our collaboration has intensified and continued with iterative responses to images and poem erasures with me creating erasure poems of Alex’s poems and vice versa, as our work continues to intertwine and expand into new territory.

Alex Mattraw (she/her) is a poet, critic, and curator. Raw Anyone is her third full length collection (forthcoming at Cultural Society, late spring). She also released We fell into weather in the pandemic (Cultural Society, March 2020), a book which explores epigenetics and environmental toxins. You can find an interview about that book at Kenyon Review, and a review at Colorado Review. Other poems, reviews, and collaborations have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Heavy Feather Review, Interim, Lana Turner, Jacket2, The Poetry Project, and VOLT. Alex also curates an art and poetry focused reading series, Lone Glen, which just celebrated its decade birthday in December. A queer, neurodivergent mother and educator, she is a fourth generation northern Californian.   

Adrienne Heloise is a self-taught artist living in Santa Fe, NM. Originally from the California Bay Area, Heloise received a BA in Psychology from Humboldt State University, and moved to Santa Fe NM in 2019. Heloise was awarded a de Young Artist Fellowship and a 2-month residency in the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Recent exhibitions include “Cut up/Cut Out” Traveling Museum group exhibition (2016-2020), “Paper Works Refolded”, Brea Art Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2018),  “Feral Kingdom” Morris Graves Museum, Eureka CA (2017), “Each Eats it’s Own” Soil Gallery, Seattle WA (2017).

Monica Tulescu is a Romanian born, New York City raised  artist and educator living in Los Angeles.

Adam Thorman (adamthorman.com) is an Oakland, CA-based artist, photographer, and educator. His work has been written about in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED Arts. His work has been exhibited locally, including at Royal Nonesuch Gallery and Root Division; nationally, including at the Sam Lee Gallery in Los Angeles, Pictura Gallery in Bloomington, IN and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ; and internationally with Galería 54 in Mexico City. His work is in the permanent collection of SFMOMA. He has been an artist-in residence at Baer Art Center in Iceland and Casa Lü in Mexico City.