Thea Matthews in Conversation with Chloe Hull
Born and raised in San Francisco, California, Thea is a queer black feminist activist, poet, educator, and author. She is Afro Latin X with Black, Indigenous, Mexican blood who writes on the complexities of humanity, grief, and resiliency. She earned her BA in Sociology at UC Berkeley where she studied and taught June Jordan’s program Poetry for the People directed by Black feminist author Aya de Leon. Currently, Thea is a public health researcher and an MFA candidate for Creative Writing at New York University. She is the poetry editor for For Women Who Roar™. And she has work in the Atlanta Review, The Rumpus, The Acentos Review, Foglifter Journal, and others.
On October 1st, I sat down to do an interview with Thea Matthews, a CCSF Alum and Berkeley Graduate, about her new book, Unearth [The Flowers]. I log onto a zoom call, something most of us now have become too familiar with, and tap my fingers on my coffee table. Admittedly, I’m a bit anxious. I’d just come out of the hospital–for what the doctors are calling an atypical type of asphyxiation— and my heads racing. Theas works mirrors this morning’s sensations, as when confronted with her poems, you are confronted with the inevitable passion fervor of her literary voice, it’s unmistakable, and overwhelming in its unapologetic presence.
Interview by Chloe Hull:
After a long week of research and hospital beds all that’s left is to put a face to the name, I blankly stare at the screen in the cool and silent morning, try to gather myself for the interview. Yet as Thea logs on to the meeting she’s a welcome face sitting calmly in her apartment sipping on a cup of coffee. As we get to talking, it is evident how much Thea cares about her craft and the community around it, a theme throughout our conversation.
Me: What ways do you think CCSF prepared you for schools such as Berkeley and NYU? What class did you find most enriching?
Thea: City College made me the woman I am today. It is such a vessel for learning. And honestly, a portal for reinvention, I was reminded of the ability to have another chance to learn. I’m a non-conventional student. I decided to pursue higher education in my mid 20’s, when people are technically applying to master’s programs, and have definitely graduated already, from [a] undergrad program. Once I was able to make that decision to pursue higher ed, City College gave me so many resources, it reminds me too, that if I want to excel I can, because the support is there. CCSF just offers a tremendous amount of support for the students willing to show up, willing to learn. I learned there that once I was willing to come halfway, I was met halfway. I’m really grateful. It was like, okay, what do I want to hear? All is possible. Anything’s possible.
Me: I’ve been to a few different colleges. And it’s so funny. I think that CCSF somehow just has some of the most supportive staff that I’ve ever met. They really want the students to go far…
Thea: Yes! Yes, supportive staff, supportive teachers! And this genuine care. Wanting to see the student Excel. This genuine care to provide the means to assist the student in whatever their goals maybe. Whether it’s a transfer to gain new skills in life, to switch careers, regardless of age. Regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation. Everyone has a chance at CCSF.
Me: So Kim Shuck San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, reviewed your poetry book, Unearth [The Flowers], along with many others. What was it like to be recognized by such a prominent figure in the Bay?
Thea: Yes Unearth The Flowers! So this is my debut poetry collection, this book is just a marker of time, essentially. It’s a marker of where you’re at, and what you’re writing, what you’re focusing on, what you’re going through. That’s exactly what Unearth [The Flowers] is. To have it be recognized. I mean, it’s amazing. Jericho Brown wrote a blurb for this book, and he recently won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. It’s very humbling and exciting to be recognized by such prominent poets. It’s also a form of validation, like, I’m seen and heard by those I admire the most… And validates me too on the journey. I didn’t write for the blurb, right. It really just is a testament to the work of Unearth and the promise and potential this collection has for the reader. I love Kim Shuck, I was her apprentice for a period of time. So working with her, as an editor, as an assistant so to speak, really helped me with where I was, as a poet, as a reader in the literary art scene in San Francisco. And as an author, too.
Me: That’s so amazing you got to work under her, how did you come to find that opportunity? Or what avenues did you take?
Thea: This is where it’s important to critically engage with the community, start simple. [At first] I just went to open mics, I went to readings. I started to get acquainted. Once upon a time,there was Viracocha, with features such [ poets ] as Cassandra Dallet, she was definitely one of the Bay Area poets that influenced my work in this collection. Then also to getting acquainted with curators and being a curator myself. It’s a small world after all, we all technically know each other to an extent. The degrees of separation lesson as you critically engage more with what’s around you.
Me: It seems like in your work, you’re dealing with a lot of subject matter around family, and nature, and grief. What is your thought process when you’re going through such vulnerable subject matter? It seems as though you’re processing something and searching for something [ In your work.]
Thea: There was a lot of work that had to be done before even getting to Unearth the Flowers. Healing is never ending, right. Healing is nonlinear. I think so much of what Unearth the Flowers does, exemplifies the nonlinear nature of healing. It also serves as alchemy, and it’s a triumph over trauma collection. Because Yeah, it is traumatic, right? Like there’s vignettes, if you will, descriptions of sexual violence, child sexual abuse. At the same time, there’s also this transcendence from the trauma. There’s this visceral, beautiful language that’s infused through nature, right, with flowers. Flowers as the symbol of resiliency, flowers as a symbol of memory of the body. So, utilizing this central metaphor gave me the mechanisms to then convey, quote unquote, traumatic events. But to not have it just stay there, there is movement within each poem that is grappling with reclaiming the body, reclaiming the mind, releasing these memories, and having these poems, be also a form of prayer, to be also a form of self affirmation, of reclaiming oneself. That takes time, that takes practice, and that takes a lot of reading. The role of the writer is to share, is to have it be public.
Me: What would be your advice to current CCSF students who are interested in becoming poets and or writers?
Thea: I mean, as a CCSF, alumna, and now an NYU MFA poetry candidate, I would strongly encourage that you write therefore, you are a writer. In order to get better, you must practice your craft. Read, write, revise, edit, repeat. One of the quotes that Jericho Brown says when he’s asked this question, regarding, what does it mean to be a poet? He really stresses the identity, take on the identity of like, what does it mean if I say I am a poet, then I am to write, I am to see the world through a lens, the world is my muse, what I feel what I experienced, the memories I have, the interactions i’m in, everything is up for fair game to convert or transmit through my poetry. You write and you write and nothing goes to waste. It’s taking that time to show up for you. Then there’s the craft , there’s form. There’s a system in place. It’s getting acquainted with that system. Mind you, it can be optional. Not everyone has to go through that. Showing up with so much more vigor today, with poetry, I’ve come to really, accept the tools, if I want to advance as a writer, to garner the legitimacy of my writing to get acquainted and experiment and to be innovative through writing. The role of the writer is to share is to have it be public. Share it, have readership. Knowing how do I maximize the impact of what I want to say.
Me: So off of that, who are your biggest poetic influences and why?
Thea: Oh, I mean, I can rattle off quite a few. For Unearth the Flowers specifically, I definitely do think it is a strong nod to the legacy and the spirit of June Jordan. Even Sylvia Plath. Definitely, Ntozake Shange. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for professionalism. They were the persona. They were the main speaker, what they wrote was based on their life. June Jordan, she has a strong distinct voice and power. Same with my Angelou. Same with Audrey Lord. There’s this resiliency component where it’s not just I as a subject matter, and here is what I’m going through in these like mental disturbances. It is I as a subject matter, and I’ve been called to rise. Then being inspired by like, Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka. And folks in the Black Arts Movement, Sonia Sanchez, these were strong figures that were also political, and have this voice that you could not deny through their work. And then just poets today that I’m watching, I mean, there’s Joy Priest who just came out with this book called Horsepower. There’s Jericho Brown, Patricia Smith, very much inspired by her work. Claudia Rankin, as well. There’s quite a few that I read, quite a few that I’m watching and reading. Time will tell how much more shows up in my work. But as of the first book, it’s definitely more of like Pat Barker, Audrey Lord, and June Jordan.
Me: As a woman of color, how do you think your experiences differ compared to that of your peers?
Thea: I think it depends, right? Like, as a black queer woman, coming to CCSF at an unconventional age? Um, in many ways, I found similarities with my peers, it depends on the demographic, it depends, privilege. It’s kind of hard to say, surely, based on my experience, if I’ve personally experienced any barriers. I mean, I feel I’ve been blessed in that regard. Where I’ve been given many opportunities to deliver my work in diverse artistic spaces. You caught me on a good day, I think, because I have a lot of hope. The world is changing, considering that we have a black gay poet who won the Pulitzer Prize, for poetry this year. Quite remarkable. We have a Cherokee indigenous Poet Laureate, which has the highest esteemed honor in the city.I think what I have experienced and what others have is this degree of imposter syndrome, that others may not have, they wouldn’t necessarily have a doubt in their capabilities, and their skill set. And I think many students can potentially have that. Like students returning back to the classroom after years of not being in school, students who have children, or who have had two or three careers. And so they’re back to the drawing board. And they’re coming back to City College. Experiences more so than race for me have sent me apart.
Me: One of the questions I really want to ask you and I find myself struggling with this, is often with artists, there’s this sense of isolation, right. Especially in regards to the rest of the world. Feelings of not being completely understood, even within peer groups of artists, how do you navigate that? How do you find a sense of stability, especially in all of the characters that are in the art and writing world?
Thea: Oh that’s a great great question. So it has to do with my approach. Understanding what my primary purpose is, in engaging with spaces, such as, open mics, [and] spoken word literary arts events. I’m here to show up, I’m here to listen, I’m here to deliver. That’s it. You know, I mean, definitely, I think ego is there. And having just somewhat of a spiritual wall of protection, of like, this does not need to pierce my psyche. I am meant to protect and guard my craft, I am to protect that part of me. [I] know when to come out, and when to retreat. When to engage and listen and when to step back. I gotta say, though, I do love the San Francisco Bay Area literary art scene. I’m just really grateful for the fact that what I’ve witnessed, had a lot to do with community, and collective uplift. We were able to listen to each other and applaud each other for the work that we we’re doing.
Me: In Unearth the Flowers it seems like you hit this balance of vulnerability but also this power. How do you think you’re achieving this balance?
Thea: It’s working on the degrees of intimacy. This is a very intimate book, with what I’m sharing in many ways. There is this testimonial devolgent component of , here, let me share the secrets of my body with you. And that flower right, the central metaphor of a flower, serving as the means to alchemize the pain into a form of self affirmation. Have it be this, collection of resiliency, and a collection of love, of love letters, whether that’s to the self, to family members to the country, and how through self affirmation, then each poem becoming an incantation right, a form of prayer. It was interweaving, I kind of looked at each poem as a braid. And each strand, right, so one strand, would be the vignettes, the memories, and the experiences, another braid would be the symbolisms of the flower, and the aesthetics the flower holds.
As we wrap up, Thea reads her poem Lotus from Unearth [ The Flowers]. She is deliberate yet emotional in her delivery.
They tried to
kill me in silence
pillage the countryside of my body
desecrate the wild.
They tried to
bury me in shallow ponds
tarns to drown cries
near glistening limelight stages.
They tried to
unknowingly preserve my life
their hands swollen from brandy
cold wrinkled greasy ignited light from soil.
My roots now
strengthened my bones in formation
I emerge slowly uprising in the night. I rise
in the glimmer of untamable waters
and I watched her
renounce turbid lies billboards of deceit.
I watched her
purify ruptured vessels of her spirit.
She thought she was supposed to die
yet I watched her live
risk everything to learn love
trust an unfamiliar embrace from clean hands.
Fresh waters through the curvature of her stem
she grew ascending healing releasing
an oscillating upsurge of surrender
arms unfold thighs widen.
She breathes above sunlit waters and dances
dances wildly she is within me.