It’s not an exaggeration to say that poetry probably saved my life in those early years. It really was borne out of that kind of psychological necessity.
Louise Mathias was born in 1975 in Bedford, England, and grew up in a small village in Suffolk, England, and later, Los Angeles. Her first book, Lark Apprentice, won the 2003 New Issues Poetry Prize, selected by Brenda Hillman, and was published in 2004 by New Issues Press. A chapbook, Above All Else, the Trembling Resembles a Forest, was selected by Martha Ronk for the Burnside Review Chapbook contest, and was published in 2010. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Epoch, Octopus, The Journal, Green Mountains Review, Slope, Verse Daily, and many others. Her second book, The Traps, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. She divides her time between Joshua Tree, California and northern Indiana.
Visit her web page: http://www.louisemathias.com
Special Note: Louise will be the Featured Writer at the Hearthside Readers & Writers Series at Fiddler’s Hearth in downtown South Bend at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 21. This edition of How to Become a Writer is being posted a day early to spread the word!
How Louise Mathias Became a Writer
This is the fourth installment in the new How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Louise for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I always preferred living in my own head to reality, but why did I choose writing as opposed to other forms of escapism—say, LSD or acting? It sounds simplistic, but I was told by a teacher in high school that I was good at it. As a lackluster student with few extracurricular interests, it felt good to have a potential “calling”, so I gravitated towards it.
Other reasons: I certainly had something to say that wasn’t being voiced in other ways. Also–and this strikes me as funny as it probably isn’t entirely true in the era of facebook, google, etc–but when I was sixteen or so, I thought of being a writer as an endeavor in which one’s physical appearance didn’t count. It seemed to me a way of both being vocal in the world and somewhat anonymous. This was important to me at the time as I struggled for years with an eating disorder and was desperately seeking to define myself outside of the arena of my physicality—as a way of asserting the self apart from the outer shell.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that poetry probably saved my life in those early years. It really was borne out of that kind of psychological necessity. I think we are sort of conditioned to feel that is a sub-par reason to write, and of course it can’t be the only reason. Other reasons emerged later that have more to do with being part of a literary and aesthetic conversation, but that was the genesis and I do think it’s given my work a kind of intensity.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
By doing it, mostly. By taking it seriously enough to be extremely hard on myself—to push myself to grow, take risks, give it my all despite the fact that there are limited external rewards. I don’t have a ton of formal education beyond a few classes as an undergraduate and a few workshops and writers conferences I attended here and there. I’m certainly not knocking graduate level work—but I do think it’s important to acknowledge there are other potential paths for growing as a writer if one is driven and self-motivated enough.
Of course I read a lot. Read things I loved, read things I hated. Tried to figure out why I loved what I loved and hated what I hated. Tried to write the poems I wanted to read but couldn’t quite find in the world.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Philip Larkin and Sylvia Plath “helped” me as much as anyone really, but specific individuals who encouraged me at pivotal times include my 10th grade English teacher mentioned earlier, Molly Bendall, who was my teacher as an undergraduate at USC and Heather McHugh, who gave me a huge psychological boost when I studied with her briefly at Napa Valley Writers Conference, and she offered to help me put together my first book, Lark Apprentice. Her input on that manuscript was invaluable, but perhaps more important was the vote of confidence that I was ready to put a book out into the world.
In recent years, my partner, who is also a poet, helps me on an almost constant basis with the example of his utter commitment and excitement about poetry, his support, and his keen editing eye. And I’m blessed with many poet friends who help by simply being in it with me, all of us keeping going. I’m far from a “joiner”, hell, I moved out to the middle of the Mojave desert to get away from people, mostly, but I do appreciate the camaraderie of other poets whose work and spirit I admire.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
The surrealist artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who died recently. I saw a wonderful documentary of her in my early twenties, she was in her 80’s, living in Mexico City, utterly outspoken and completely herself, saying things about hyenas like “and they eat garbage, which strikes me as a wonderful virtue” (you have to imagine this in a clipped English accent). She more than held her own in a time when women were mostly relegated to the role of muse.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
My answer to this is probably a good example of why I am not, and shouldn’t be a teacher. Don’t do it unless you absolutely feel you have to. After we’ve established that: mellow out. It will be okay.