“There is no poetry without consideration of the myriad external forces that make us who we are.”
Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I grew up without a TV, the child of two physician parents who shared a deep love of art, music, history, and literature, as well as science and medicine. My parents made it clear that the dichotomy between the sciences and humanities is decidedly false. Creativity was always encouraged in our house full of carefully curated, multicultural children’s books, and I spent a lot of time running around in the woods with my siblings, inventing games (and even countries and religions). My parents were sticklers for academic achievement, but without the sort of “helicopter parenting” that seems to be so prevalent today. In retrospect, my ample unstructured playtime was crucial to my development as a writer. I knew that I wanted to write from a very young age, and actually started dictating journal entries to my mother when I was two. However, I always had a sense that I would do something else as well. Turns out that something else was to become a doctor (surprise, surprise), albeit with very different medical interests than my parents’.
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?
The two are intimately connected. In my job as a pediatrician, I bear witness to the ways in which social inequities impact the developing human body on a daily basis (and try to make a positive impact in the face of such inequities). This is what drew me to medicine. As a result, I’m constantly thinking about the ethical impact of my actions, both professionally and personally. I think that poetry is a way to more deeply explore the self, our place in the world, and our relationship to the world and each other. It follows, then, that there is no poetry without consideration of the myriad external forces that make us who we are. I’ve spent the last few years as a writer trying to name and grapple with these forces and to better understand how they connect me to others.
Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Why did you choose this poem?
I chose “sweet things” because this poem captures many of the themes in Grand Marronage – New Orleans girlhood, the effects of external and internalized patriarchy, the objectification of women, and the sweetness/niceness/respectability that cloaks all of this and makes it so difficult to discuss for women from a certain generation. Also, my parents visited my great-grandmother in New Orleans just after their wedding. She reportedly offered them a slice of cake after a huge, multicourse meal and several other desserts at various relatives’ homes, arguing that it was “just like water – it’ll go right t’rough you!”
What obsessions led you to write your book?
What was life like for my paternal grandmother in 1920s and ‘30s New Orleans? How did her life change when she and my grandfather relocated to the Washington, DC area in the 1940s? How has my family’s past shaped who I am and where I find myself today? How can I complicate externally imposed assumptions about my identity by exploring the nuances of my family and personal histories? How can I connect to a cultural identity that has been irrevocably transformed over time as people move and cities change? What can I make in the space between how others see me and how I see myself? It feels like that space holds potential energy. How is trauma inherited and survived? How is a traumatic cycle broken? How have my family and I been complicit in the system of racialized capitalism that created this country, and which continues to destroy so many lives? How might awareness of this complicity lead me to deeper and sustained action against that system?
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
The arrangement is vaguely chronological, which made the most sense to me as I tried to parse out a multigenerational story. The Alice Dunbar-Nelson poems in the middle section provide a short interruption in an otherwise mostly-linear chronology told through narrators modeled after my grandmother and myself.
“Grand marronage” describes the phenomenon of enslaved and/or indigenous peoples in the southern U.S. escaping from mainstream society to form alternative, liberated communities, often in inhospitable terrain. In Louisiana, this often meant the swamp. There is a poem in the middle of the book called “maron,” which describes the fictional escape of an unnamed young woman from a group of armed men. She runs into the swamp and turns into a fig tree in order to become fully free.
The title is partially a reference to this poem and partially a nod to this history of freedom-making, which I see paralleled in my family’s story as women of color who have been freeing themselves from racialized patriarchy in large and small ways over multiple generations. At the same time, Grand Marronage asks, at what price is this freedom? In what ways are we still not free? What would it take to fully liberate ourselves without inadvertently limiting anyone else’s liberation?
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
Nearly all of the poems have meaningful origins. I spent a lot of time mining family stories that I’d heard for years, as well as interviewing my grandmother to learn more about her life. It was important to me to title some of these family stories “myths,” because I was very conscious of how generational selective memory alters history. Sometimes a story communicates more about its teller and his/her socio-cultural investments than it does about factual occurrences. What about the stories that are forgotten, or are deliberately omitted from the family narrative? Doesn’t their absence also shape how we see ourselves? I guess I was really interested in how family mythology is perpetuated through both stories and silences.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
I have been using my own artwork for all my book covers, and I don’t have that much art, so selecting the cover image was pretty easy! I found the silhouette of a woman’s head from an Internet search of open-access clip art. One of my publishers, Alyse Knorr, designed the layout using these images. Working with her was an extremely easy process, and she was very receptive to my suggestions along the way.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up my debut young adult novel (stay tuned!). I’m also writing more poems. I loved writing around a set of themes guided by very specific (hi)stories for Grand Marronage, but right now I feel more like focusing on individual poems, instead of writing toward a larger project. I’m finding that stories emerge from the poems and the themes and obsessions declare themselves anyway. It’s refreshing to reverse the process this way, and I’m curious to see what will come of it.
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
I return to what made me feel whole and creative as a child – running around in the woods, going for a swim, making and eating delicious food, reading books, cuddling with my dog, and minimizing my screen time as much as possible. I find spending time outdoors to be tremendously restorative in a deeply spiritual way. When I feel overwhelmed and am brimming over the best remedy for me is usually to go into the forest or to the nearest large body of water.
Dr. Irène P. Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and public health researcher. She is the author of Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019), selected as Editor’s Choice for the Gatewood Prize and runner-up for the Cave Canem/Northwestern book prize; orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), winner of the Bob Kaufman Book Prize; and the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014). Irène is a poetry book reviewer for Muzzle Magazine and an editor for the Journal of General Internal Medicine‘s humanities section. A recipient of Fulbright and Callaloo fellowships, she is a member of the Jack Jones Literary Arts speakers bureau.