Photo credit: Lila Molina
Matthew, you are a native of New Orleans, and your writing is infused with a sense of place, a love of place, which in a way becomes an allegiance to the city. Can you speak a little about how your stories and poetry are influenced by the city and community? For example, in your poems, “X – a city,” about how the city was marked and marred in the aftermath of Katrina’s flooding, and “The 1200 Block of Simon Bolivar Avenue,” a tribute and a cry out for Brianna Allen, the little girl at a birthday party killed in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting in May 2012.
To be honest, when I first started writing, I thought New Orleans was boring, and I hated writing about the city. But in the past year I began to realize there was a voice here, and that voice began to speak to me. Until I put it on the page, I didn’t realize how lyrical and full of imagery that native voice was. When I started writing more and more about the city, I was able to grasp what the voice of New Orleans was trying to tell me, and that’s when the real writing came. The city began to influence many parts of my writing, and it was never so much about being aware of the setting or having a sense of place—to me it was just writing about where I’m from as it relates to where I am in my life now. It’s funny, you never know how beautiful your home is until you stop, stand back, and look at where you came from.
As it relates to my work, like “X- a city” and “The 1200 Block of Simon Bolivar,” there is a sense of tribute, but also a sense of what I’ve learned from events in the city. This past year I felt driven to find out things about myself, including the connection to my home. I love my city, and there is so much I’ve taken from all of the areas of New Orleans. Each section of the city has spoken to me, and that is where my connection comes from. These particular pieces act as homage to events that have caused tremendous loss. For “X” it was Katrina, and for “The 1200 Block” it was a murder. Both events are ones that hit the city hard, but most importantly these events touched me and made me think more about where I am really from and how much the city means to me.
I was fortunate to attend your Certificate of Artistry thesis defense at Lusher High School this past May. Your senior thesis, titled “Ways of Women,” is a very thoughtful and beautifully sequenced collection of stories and poetry, in which the female narrative voice is predominant. Tell us about how you decided to focus on this perspective, and about your purposeful use of gender in writing.
Gender roles have always been something I’ve been interested in. Whether it’s the unstoppable femme fatale, or a strong female figure. The truth is, women have always come across as more interesting characters to me. I am a male, and I know what it’s like to be one. That’s why I like writing about women. I feel that as a writer you should never be in your comfort zone, and you should always find a way to challenge yourself. I do that through gender roles. My thesis, “Ways of Women,” is a compilation of works inspired by women in my life. Through these works I’ve recognized the importance of gender roles in literature, but I’ve also discovered what has captivated me most about women. In each of my pieces there is a mystery behind the woman—that idea of secrecy is what has inspired me to focus on women, especially in stories like “Hive” and “Bonnie.” What is unknown about women intrigues me—that’s what makes me dig deeper. As it relates to my characters, I think that there are some secrets they can have, even from me. I want my literary women to be just as mysterious to me as they are for my readers. This allows me to dig and discover, but it also gives me the chance to realize when to step back.
Gender roles allow me to think more about the big picture of the work, and ultimately, what everything means as a whole. A female character can give the narrative a sense of depth that not all male characters can. It’s just more interesting that way.
In your story, “Hive,” the use of metaphorical language reveals a woman trapped in a hive of memory. Virginia Woolf inspired this piece, yes? Would you speak about the use of metaphor and the very close viewpoint of this story?
“Hive” was inspired by Virginia Woolf—specifically, Mrs. Dalloway. I was drawn to the fact that Woolf was so intimate with her characters’ points of view. The focus on her characters allows readers to enter their perspectives, their minds, even when the narrator isn’t in first person. That’s the effect I wanted in “Hive.” Through details, I gained a precision that entrapped my main character. The entrapment she feels is a product of the events from her past, and I decided to expound on that. For the point of view I didn’t want to have a first person narrator because the entrapment Charlotte feels could be extremely overbearing to readers. Third person limited gave me the chance to explore her world. Through metaphor I was able to extend the senses and the idea of how Charlotte’s memory works in the narrative. This gave me a sense of control and allowed me to find her character. I became Charlotte while I was writing this story. I had to be able to think like her; that was the only way I could create her. I also had to step away and realize there were certain aspects I didn’t want to know. This is where the idea of the “hive” came from. I wanted her to have secrets that not even I knew. When I created her memory of the bees, the metaphor came on its own. She’s a very intriguing character, and there’s a side to her that I still don’t know. As a writer, of course, you need to know your characters. But, to me, I don’t want to know them as well as some other writers know theirs. That’s why my fiction is mostly character-driven. It gives me a chance to explore and understand how far the exploration will go. In that way, the metaphor of “Hive” came to be.
Some of your stories include details such as texture and fabric. And so: raw silk, chiffon, or taffeta?
Chiffon. I like the way it layers. It just flows a way certain fabrics don’t.
Influences? Writers, artists, designers.
In fiction, Flannery O’Connor and John Cheever and Ralph Ellison, as well as Virginia Woolf. I love how their range is so different, how they have different methods of characterization. I’ve learned so much from each of these writers.
In poetry, I’m a huge fan of Anne Sexton. She’s always inspired and influenced my thoughts about structure and diction, and how they work together for a poem. And ever since I started writing, I’ve loved William Butler Yeats. Recently, my work has been inspired by contemporary poets, like Ntozake Shange, Terrance Hayes, Kevin Young, and Langston Hughes. I’ve studied and drawn from them as I’ve began to find my own voice. “X – a city” was actually inspired by Terrance Hayes. The rhythm was a response from “Blue Seuss.” I was flattered when you mentioned E. E. Cummings because I think he’s brilliant. “The 1200 Block of Simon Bolivar Avenue” wasn’t influenced by another poet; it was just me and everything I’ve ever wanted in a poem. It wasn’t a response, rather a creation of something that had been on my mind for a very long time, and I finally had the chance to write it. Something triggered that poem’s creation.
In terms of designers, I admire Chanel and Alexander McQueen. These two have changed the face of the fashion industry. I love Givenchy and Marchesa because of the construction of their designs. I love when designers take fashion risks, as that parallels the risks I take in writing. That’s why I love fashion as much as I love writing. The risks are endless, and when you mess up, you can just start over. They both seem to go hand in hand, and it’s all art—and that’s the most important thing for me.