I may have seemed in need of connection to Louise Mathias, when, upon meeting her, I gushed about what Joshua Tree meant to me. It’s true that I’m in need of connection, always, especially with poets, especially to places like the high desert, a place where, years ago, I thought I might live. I believed getting married on the dusty cracked earth would seal something closed in me. The desert, though, is often a place where I open up.
Desert dwellers, though, fascinate me. Louise Mathias had to listen to me gush about the desert more than once, likely because I forgot I’d already told her how I felt about the landscape, more likely because of that pressing need for connection. Here is someone whose presence invites incoherent babbling, maybe because her work is the opposite—there is a sharp economy of language present, always, in the midst of what poet Derick Burleson calls the “astounding hairpin” turn—and yes, it makes me want to babble. Her physical presence, too—composed, observant, with an aura of intensity—also inspires me, an introvert, to babble. Inside her quiet house, her black leather jacket hanging on a dining room chair made me want to write a poem. It’s a funny effect but a profound one.
Louise Mathias is the author of Lark Apprentice, which was chosen by Brenda Hillman for the New Issues Poetry Prize and was published by New Issues Press in 2004. Her chapbook, Above All Else, the Trembling Resembles a Forest, won the Burnside Review chapbook contest. The Traps has just been released by Four Way Books. Louise splits her time between a dusty outpost in the Mojave Desert (Joshua Tree, California) and a cottage on the banks of Baugo Bay (Northern Indiana).
The Rumpus: How is The Traps different from your previous collection?
Louise Mathias: I think it’s more tonally savage than Lark Apprentice. I’m not so obsessed with beauty anymore, or, to put it differently, my ideas about what beauty is have been complicated.
The Rumpus: The Traps opens with two epigraphs, one of which is “The secret of poetry is cruelty.” Can you talk a bit about how that frames the book and what it means to you?
That line is from the poem “The Secret of Poetry” by Jon Anderson, the last two stanzas of which are as follows:
I’d like, please, to leave on your sill
Just one cold flower, whose beauty
Would leave you inconsolable all day.
The secret of poetry is cruelty.
In the context of that poem I take the line to mean that poetry should be unflinching, that you have to cut through sentiment to whatever is the darker, piercing truth. Since the first time I read Anderson’s poem, that line has rattled around in my head on a daily basis.
With regard to my own work and the book, I knew very early on that I was going to use the line as an epigraph, and all the poems I have written in the last decade or so have operated under the canopy of this assertion. I like to be injured by art. I like language that turns around on, and injures itself.
There is also an association with a certain vein of eroticism, which moves as a continuous underground force in the book. I don’t want to say too much about that though—it’s in the book for those inclined to look for it.
The Rumpus: Who are the subjects of your poems?
Mathias: I’m not so sure it’s a who, so much as an attempt to document a kind of knowledge which comes from deep inside the body. I’m in there, of course, in a rather Cindy Sherman kind of way—I’m thinking of her early film still series mostly. The poems are completely emotionally autobiographical, though the facts and circumstance are often removed or abstracted, but there is a thin sheen of artifice as well. Also God, though I don’t believe in him at all, is in there quite a bit, and various figures from my present and past some of whom would probably rather remain anonymous.
Of course snakes and horses and sky and birds and hallucinogenic flowers, and stars, and the smell of creosote after rain, and rope and wrists are at least as much of a “who” to me as most people are anyway.
Mathias: The relationship between my interior life and the exterior landscape, a metaphysical kind of loneliness, my experience of the erotic, (writing for me is first and foremost an erotic act), and the thin membrane between pleasure and terror—which is how I define the sublime.
The Rumpus: What kind of impact does living in Joshua Tree have on you?
Mathias: Living here has made me very happy. It’s a permissive place, the desert, so I feel I’m more authentically myself as a result of the time I’ve spent here. Artistically, I feel—less guarded—and that’s probably true emotionally as well. There is profound opportunity for solitude, which I need, and I feel closer to the forces of life and death than I ever have.
Things that used to upset me when I first moved here—seeing a snake get into a doves nest and eat the eggs a mere day or two after the eggs had been laid, for example—now just seem strangely moving and beautiful. But really, more than that, the expansiveness, the sense of possibility—it’s changed me in some fundamental ways—right down to the pace of my breath, and on more melodramatic days I might even say it’s saved me.
The Rumpus: What do you believe is your impact on Joshua Tree?
Mathias: I try to live very lightly here, mostly to be in awe and appreciate. Sometimes I like to think I contribute in some small way to the swirl of amazing creative and artistic energy that exists out here in this dusty little outpost in middle of nowhere, but I’m probably indulging myself on that front.
The Rumpus: Who are you reading right now?
Mathias: Leland Hickman, Mina Loy, Ed Dorn, Clarice Lispector, Sarah Fox, Richard Deming and Jane Bowles.
The Rumpus: Who are the artists you return to again & again?
Mathias: Anne Carson, Louise Bourgeois, H.D, John Taggart, C.D. Wright, Liam Rector, Mary Gaitskill, Maggie Nelson, Leonora Carrington, Alice Notley, Francis Bacon, Robert Creeley, Kiki Smith, Brenda Hillman, Jon Anderson, Lydia Davis and D.H. Lawrence, to name a few.
The Rumpus: What do you find troubling?
Mathias: Almost everything in its own way—my own mind included. Creatively speaking, I have to confess I find trouble to be mildly exhilarating, sexy even. A reviewer once described my work as an “erotica of trouble.” I loved that. As a human, in my everyday life, I try to stay clear of it.
The Rumpus: Where do you encounter ecstasy?
Mathias: Under the Milky Way, in the paintings of Marlene Dumas, in clouds, in noticing the gleam of a knife, barreling down desert roads with Pink Floyd on, at Noah Purifoy’s art site, reading Hélène Cixous, in apocalyptic Mojave Desert sunsets, burying my nose in peonies and roses, and, mostly and especially, in private.
The Rumpus: Describe your favorite pair of boots.
Mathias: Old Gringos, Cuban heel, pointed toe, with some embroidering on them. I’ve worn them most days for almost four years, so they are perfectly broken in though they could stand to have the heels repaired.