INTERVIEW WITH JO MATTHEWS
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: We love how the alliteration makes “Lullaby” feel so whimsical. When you write, how do you think about and develop music in the language and voice in the poem?
Jo Matthews: One of the things that I love most about poetry is its potential for musicality—the way that the rhythms and rhymes can come to life in sound and become so much more than just words on a page. For this poem, the content is designed to mirror the style in the sense of repeated sounds and words mimicking the patterns of a lullaby. I think the true music of a poem comes alive when reading it out loud, so when I write I do often stop to read out loud what I’m doing and then tweak and progress it based on how it sounds—it really helps to give the words an extra dimension.
RR: We feel totally immersed in the rich details of the poem. Where do you draw inspiration for the images in your work?
JM: In general, a lot of the images that end up in my work come from dreams, or at least words or collections of words that come to me just as I wake up (always handy to have a notebook by the bed!) These are the kind of other-worldly moments and ideas that simply don’t happen when I sit down to write and desperately scrabble around for inspiration! Also, nature and walking bring a lot of stuff up for me – either from the perspective of closely observing the natural surroundings and really trying to notice what’s going on, or from the perspective of just switching my brain into a neutral gear which enables inspiration to bubble up from a more hidden part of me.
For this specific poem, the inspiration came from a period when my baby daughter had her first proper cold and was teething (fun times!) and my partner and I found ourselves up A LOT in that weird part of night where everything feels otherworldly and a bit trippy. I’d often find myself in her room singing to her and rocking her and desperately waiting for that moment when I could feel her drop into sleep. The transitional element between sleep and wake, between dreams and consciousness, made me also think back to the transitional moment from her being hidden inside me to her being alive and present in the world, and in these intangible and imperceptible gaps I could feel some sense of divinity, of somehow being caught between worlds. So in short, the inspiration came from nights of broken sleep and broken dreams!
RR: This poem is set in a sleepless night. Do you find that writing during certain times of the day influences what you write about?
JM: Oh, that’s a good question that I hadn’t thought about before! In some ways I think that the stuff I write later in the day, or the stuff that floats up in the middle of the night, is somehow coming from somewhere a bit deeper, not just from my ‘surface’ brain but from further down in my subconscious or from a kind of collective consciousness. Having said that, I write best in the mornings, before all the busyness of the day has had its chance to get a grip on my mind. So for me it’s a combination of capturing some of the ideas/essence from the more nocturnal side of life and making sure I’m proactive enough to get it down in the broad light of day!
RR: We see from your bio you’ve completed writer’s workshops with Breadloaf and the International Writers Collective. What is the best writing advice that you have received at these workshops or elsewhere?
JM: At Breadloaf I was lucky enough to have my poems workshopped with Tom Sleigh, and I remember him talking about the need to get to the ‘white-hot heart’ of the poem, which has stayed with me, and which I think about for every poem I write. So I ask myself what am I really trying to say, what is the essence I need to impart, and what is the heart of each piece—and not just the heart, but the ‘white-hot heart’—the urgent, living, burning message.
From the International Writers Collective, which I still attend (and actually “Lullaby” came out of one of the assignments from my teacher and poet Laura Wetherington) I think the best advice I have received is ‘show don’t tell’. As in, don’t tell the reader what to feel, show them with the details you choose to share (and those you choose to leave out, which can be just as important). And on that note, over the years another golden piece of advice from them, for both fiction and poetry, has always been—‘be specific!’ So for example in the case of ‘Lullaby’, it’s not just a night light, it’s a night light shaped like a rabbit that glows red…these are the details that can help to ground the reader in your scene with you.
RR: If you could meet any famous poet, past or present, who would it be and why?
JM: Tough one! I would love to meet David Whyte. I’m such a fan of his work, which has a kind of ethereal and parable-esque quality to it – but at the same time manages to speak so clearly to the very real and living experience of being human, and of trying to make sense of our place in the world.
In terms of meeting poets from the past…perhaps a long dinner with Mary Oliver, Seamus Heaney and Rumi. Is that allowed?!
Jo Matthews’ work in Issue 8.2: