Alexandra Mattraw on Reflecting Something True About What it Means to Live

An interview with Alexandra Mattraw, from The Write Stuff series:

Alexandra Mattraw is an Oakland poet who curates an art, reading, and performance series called Lone Glen. Her most recent chapbook can be found at Dancing Girl Press, her most recent review at The Volta, and her most recent poems at alice blue review and VOLT. She believes in the I-Ching.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I’m honest: I tell them I’m a poet and a teacher. I’m lucky to teach poetry, queer studies, 1960s American history, and environmental literature at one of the coolest progressive schools I’m aware of—The Athenian School in the East Bay. Athenian is nestled at the foot of Mount Diablo, and I get to hike, meditate, and write poetry with my students during many of our classes.

What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?

—Getting out of my head and into my body, and finding balance between them

—Empathetically navigating guilt I feel for embracing poetry as a priority equal to that of both my students and my devotion to our two small children, ages 1 and 3.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

I’d ask them to make sure that they experience writing as a biological imperative akin to breathing. If not, it’s not a calling to chase.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

Yes. I have love in my life.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?

I’m a Gen-Xer. We didn’t even have email until we were in our early 20s. If I’m pissed off I go running or blast New Wave or play guitar or write a poem. But here are the last few youtube videos in my queue, used mainly for teaching purposes:

  1. Clip from Slacker on JFK conspiracy theories
  2. Zapruder’s JFK assassination film
  3. Peter Coyote, former member of The Diggers, speaking about why the counterculture did not fail
  4. “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane
  5. Yoda in the swamp scene with Luke from The Empire Strikes Back

Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?

My grandmother taught me a lot about poetry. I wrote my first poem with her when I was 8 years old—something about mechanical windmills as metaphors for people stuck in a feudal hierarchy. She grew up without much in a family of five children during the Great Depression, lost her father when she was six, and had a job picking fruit and vegetables well before middle school. She endured and grew up to be a successful, self-made feminist who helped run a business and a farm with my grandfather while raising three kids. Despite her success, my grandmother always struck me as a humble, grounded person who understood the value of hard work and gratefulness.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

Mick Jagger. I wanted to be the guitar intro of “Satisfaction” and begged my mom to get me an electric guitar for my 11th birthday.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

Seven nights backpacking in the Utah slot canyons with my partner, wading through rivers and sand, a notebook, caves and cliffs, a little whiskey, a compass but no map.

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

Definitely. I stripped Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” in the fall, and my erasure can be found at the most recent and final issue of alice blue review, thanks to Amber Nelson.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

Negative zero. It’s offshore.

What’s wrong with society today?

Rhymes with rump. Racist cops.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

I’m partial to needles. I mean, TCM.

What is your fondest memory?

Secret night swimming in Lake Tahoe when I was very young.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

It’s not qualifiable by personal definition.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?


What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art holds a mirror to the real, reflecting something true about what it means to live in a world where people often forget the interconnectedness and agency of all things, animate and inanimate. Art evokes change or emotion in its viewer. Its necessity is evident for all of these reasons. At its best, art allows (or in some cases, forces) people to reckon with the most difficult parts of themselves and their society, encouraging empathy and sometimes even social change.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

You mean when pen slaps paper?

What are you working on right now?

I’m finishing a chapbook of poems called small siren, a book about motherhood, time, and gender constructs. The poems are interested in ways that motherhood has changed by perception of the “I” of my poems, as well as my perception of time, something which has become more urgent and illusory as my life trajectory demands that I live in the “here and now” and relinquish any sense of ultimate control over what unfolds in that space. Although the subject matter may sound familiar, the forms may not be. Throughout the book, lines are disrupted with colons, the backslash, experimental margin justification, as well as interlineal space. The poems are located by their forms and attention to image and rhythm, while narrative is definitely secondary to these focuses.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I most admire poems whose images root them to concept without heavy handed narrative. Poems that are alive with musicality, whether through internal rhyme, assonance, repetition, or attention to meter patterns. I’m especially moved by poetry that can do all this while also experimenting with forms. I suppose “experimental lyric” poetry is the category that pulls me most, but there are many poets who write in a more narrative vein that I find inspiring as well.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I’d burst the tech bubble and ensure better rent control, particularly for renters of single family homes. 24 hour Bart access.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

It means there is a baby sitter for my two riotous children, and I actually get to have a conversation with my partner. Dinner, drinks, dialogue. If we are really wild, maybe a show.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

Several years ago in the middle of the night, my dead grandmother appeared to stand near my bed holding a vat of blood, warning me in clear speech about my then boyfriend.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

Delete them and then revise. Words are money.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Rain on hot asphalt, vanilla, gasoline, pine needles, brewing coffee, my daughter’s hair.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

A year long sabbatical from work in which my family and I would travel across the world, making month long stops in cities like Rio, Paris, Berlin, Nairobi, Bangkok, and Hong Kong. The funds would pay for our trusted baby sitter (who is also a preschool teacher) to instruct our kids while I’d take off for a solo few days each week to write undisturbed.

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