We Are More Than Our Breaks: A Conversation With Brooke Matson

Brooke Matson is a poet, book artist, and the 2016 recipient of the Artist Trust GAP award and Centrum residency. Her first collection of poems, The Moons, was published by Blue Begonia Press in 2012; her second, In Accelerated Silence, was selected by Mark Doty as winner of the Jake Adam York Prize and was published by Milkweed Editions this year. Her poems have most recently appeared in TAYOPotomac Review, and Prairie Schooner and have been selected for anthologies such as Towers & Dungeons (Scablands Books, 2018) and Railtown Almanac (Sage Hill Press, 2014). She currently resides in Spokane, Washington, where she is the executive director of Spark Central, a nonprofit dedicated to igniting creativity.


Lisa Higgs: I would not normally begin with simply asking you how you are doing, but these are of course not normal times. If you don’t mind responding, how are you doing? What sort of impact has the pandemic had on your writing, your loved ones, your community? Personally, I’ve found it very hard to find the quiet that usually surrounds me when I write, and when I do find some time in our full house, much of what I write seems incredibly trite. So, I’ve just started journaling and hope that something can be made of the work at a later date. What changes has this unexpected and unusual time had on you as an artist?

Brooke Matson: Like us all, I’m grieving certain things and finding comfort in others. I take it day by day. But my writing has not suffered. In fact, I am putting more energy into it as well as my garden and a few other projects that are non-COVID-19-related. As an artist myself (poet and book designer), I think that continuing to do what you love under all circumstances is a kind of rootedness that can ground you in chaotic times. 

LH: One of the central arcs in your second collection, In Accelerated Silence, is remembrance of your partner’s treatment for and death from brain cancer and your subsequent mourning for your beloved. Many of the poems that most directly approach this topic are multi-sectional poems with titles and subtitles dealing with scientific laws and properties. In “Law of the Conservation of Mass,” the first poem with this form, I was struck how you draw specific correlations between your partner’s neurosurgery and nuclear explosions, be it the Big Bang, the Trinity test, or Hiroshima: “Think of a lit match— / how its head vanishes.” What brought you to tie the two together so intimately?

BM: I rarely begin writing with the intention of tying things together. Usually, if I try to write a poem “about” something, the poem will end up feeling contrived and inauthentic. It tries too hard. But as I explore my emotions and let images seep in, the art is stumbled upon. Then I ask myself—What is this poem trying to do? How can I help it do that further? That is when my intentions start influencing the art—during the revision stage. 

This is especially true of “Law of the Conservation of Mass,” which actually began as a few different poems that I merged together when I saw the similarities between the imagery and the science. Lots of things were exploding while something was being lost, which made nuclear fission the perfect thread to tie the sections together. In fission, lots of energy is created (as in an atomic bomb) but some atomic pieces are lost in this process. They break to the point that it would be impossible to reverse the fission process. Half the poems in this book deal with exploding or breaking, and the other half are an attempt to use the energy from being broken to evolve into something new, which is essentially what we do in grief and what I did through writing poems like this one.

LH: “Prism” is another poem in this vein—a broken water glass prisms light on the floor in one section, and death becomes “[t]he prism we pass through” in another. In the poem’s closing section, the poet “I” goes back to a field of grass that she had visited the day after her beloved’s death: “It was never my intention to return to the beginning…It rippled like an ocean // in every direction—hemmed together / where my body passed through.” Yet the imagery of waves and wakes is much more fluid than fiery. Do you see the two, water and fire, as opposing elements of grief?

BM: What an interesting question! I didn’t think of this poem in terms of traditional elements, but rather scientific ones. Light and the science of light is a key theme of the book both in terms of science and Biblical imagery. For instance, in “Supermassive Star,” nuclear fusion is narrated in the voice of a dying star that’s angry at its creator, the voice of which is referenced with the opening Biblical line, “Let there be—.” “Prism” is another example of this same tension between science and faith, and the water imagery refers to both the physical properties of light as well as the Biblical imagery in the flood story—a story of loss and evolution (and okay, a little anger and betrayal too). 

I became obsessed with the fact that light contains all the colors—even ones we cannot see—and like water, it adapts to many different forms and containers. Light is so dynamic that it’s with us even when invisible, as in radio frequencies or X-Rays. For that reason, more of the science behind light made it into “Prism” during revision. It was too relevant to leave out. 

Interestingly, I wrote this poem in anger, but as I added more stanzas over a period of months, the tone of the last stanzas shifted toward curiosity. When the speaker says, “I didn’t mean to end up here,” I’m being very candid.

LH: Near the end of the book, another multi-sectioned poem, “Metamorphosis,” suggests another element of grief. The subtitles of the first two sections, Cocoon and Luna, themselves undergo metamorphosis into the empty space of Lacuna, the subtitle of the final section. Here, the poet “I” cannot respond to questions of how she is doing, wanting to “hollow [a bell pepper’s] reddened ribs // to a carcass / warm enough to crawl inside.” What metamorphoses did you discover in yourself and in the grieving process as you wrote and revised the poems that make up this collection?

BM: Before I get to your actual question, I have to say “Metamorphosis” is a great example of how poems can evolve beyond our intentions because it was actually three different poems at first, but each seemed incomplete on its own. When I began revising and arranging poems, they kept wanting to be next to each other, so I gave in and let them join into one poem. They seemed like three different stages of the same idea in a way I could not articulate. Two of the original titles, “Luna” and “Lacuna,” became subtitles, and then I realized that the first needed to be “Cocoon,” because we are constantly evolving toward light, even when it becomes difficult and painful as it does in grief. 

To your question, grief is not something you get over; it’s something you walk through and continue to walk through even when each step is hard and you feel like laying down and calling it quits. Grief is cyclical, and you may be fine for a while and then something may trigger you to fall right back into the cycle again, over and over. But each time around it gets a little lighter, and you evolve into a different person as you go.

That’s what writing this collection was like: cyclical, hard, but I just keep writing. And something about putting my feelings on paper means they are outside me and can be examined more objectively. They have less control. I had an excellent grief therapist, and yet writing these poems and arranging the manuscript was its own kind of therapy. The manuscript was a kind of medium to express grief when I needed—a pillow to scream into—and because of that, after I sent the final edits for Milkweed, I plunged into a terrible depression. I had no constructive place to channel all that anger and sadness when it surfaced. I think this is true of many writers who explore grief in their work. The writing becomes a kind of container. Thankfully, I was resilient enough to realize what was happening and find new ways to channel my emotions when they surfaced even though the book was done.

LH: The tension between science and religion is another major theme in In Accelerated Silence. What, other than Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, fed this exploration into how things begin and how things end? 

BM: The notorious NDT! This is an interesting story. At the time I started writing these poems, I had moved to Seattle and began working at 826 Seattle, a branch of the nonprofit 826 National started by author Dave Eggers. Kids enter the writing center through the teleporter in the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Store, which raised money for the nonprofit. 826 Seattle soon broke away and renamed themselves The Bureau of Fearless Ideas, but the space travel supply store remained, and it was full of space-themed books and gag gifts (black hole kits, for instance). Working there really activated my curiosity about science and outer space, and I began learning more on my own. The next thing I knew, I was binge-watching interviews with Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and other pop stars of science and reading their books. 

I considered physics my arch-nemesis in high school and college, but as an adult, I absolutely love learning about it. Anti-matter, dark matter, and black holes seem like sci-fi, and yet they are as real as your nose. Physics, particularly astrophysics and particle physics, began influencing my work as metaphors. Add the questions that naturally arise during grief to that mix, and you are bound to become obsessed with the big philosophical questions of life, like where we came from and why we suffer. 

LH: In the poem “Maybe” you begin: “Who is the You in your poems, he asks.” The many references to what I assume is Catholicism indicate that this question is important to you as a poet. By the end of the book, you quote from the Nicene Creed in “Amaryllis,” which at its heart is an affirmation of faith. From the process of writing In Accelerated Silence, do you feel you’ve come to a better understanding of the “You” in your poems? Or perhaps the better question is what role belief has in your work as a poet?

BM: I’ve always been a mystic at heart and love exploring the unknown. It’s probably why I love poetry! Writing these poems, I felt like I was interrogating the “You,” even putting it on trial. Arranging the manuscript felt like arranging an argument for court or gathering evidence for a scientific theory of why good people die and why we suffer. But even science, which I very much believe should be at the center of our societal decisions, has limits on what it can explain about the big questions like why we suffer and what is outside the known universe. Poems like “Dark Matter” say as much. In the end, I think the “You” is in the grey zone. Everyone wants black and white answers so they can sleep at night, not the “maybe” with which we have to wrestle and live.

LH: The figure of Eve features prominently in this collection, as does her apple (or pomegranate depending on which scholars you believe and how connected you see the myths of Eve and Persephone). “Elegy in the Form of a Pomegranate,” “Eve Splits the Apple,” “Newton’s Apple,” “Eve’s Apple,” “How to Eat A Pomegranate,” and “Ode to a Rotting Apple” contain references to those words in their titles. “Psalm of the Israeli Grenade” compares a pomegranate with the titular grenade. “Broaden the Subject” contains a pomegranate as well, and “Prism” references both apple and Eve. What drew you to the character of Eve, possibly Persephone, and the punishment and loss each faced by eating fruit? 

BM: If you’d have told me Eve would show up in my poetry, I’d have laughed at you. No way would I intentionally pursue such an overused archetype! And yet there she is, and more than once. I guess we never know what will happen when we pick up a pen. What fascinated me about her appearance was that both the apple and pomegranate have such a role in Judeo-Christian tradition and in scientific myths like that of Newton. Both times, something has to be broken for greater knowledge to be gained. 

The pomegranate actually came before the apple in my writing, but one led to the other. After writing “Elegy in the Form of a Pomegranate,” I stumbled upon the art of Ori Gersht, an artist from Tel Aviv who shatters things and records the break in slow motion. His piece “Pomegranate,” where a pomegranate explodes from a bullet, left me dumb-struck. It exactly embodied how I felt during my loss and was the inspiration for “Psalm of the Israeli Grenade.” There’s a rage that accompanies grief, and I think it is the reason there is so much violence in our world; people are hurting from their own trauma, and tragically, they’re taking it out on others in various ways. 

As mentioned earlier, everything from stars to fruit explodes in this book, and all those voices began to be the same voice at different stages of grief. That fascinated me—this echo of grief over time—defying time. So I kept going, exploring Newton’s apple, Eve’s apple left to rot, then a rotting apple whose seeds had become fertile from the death of the fruit. I probably could have kept going, honestly. 

LH: Likewise, the color red is common throughout In Accelerated Silence, as are flames, stars, and light. How do you see the color red functioning in this collection? Do you think that its role in various poems alters at all over the course of the book?

BM: Red is a thread I followed from poem to poem, and yes, I think it evolves from one of violence and death to one of a pulse—a beating resilience that keeps us going. One early title for this book was “Odes Dressed in Red,” which I’m saving for another book! Trauma is repetitive in the mind, like a record stuck on loop, which is why it’s so hard to overcome. That’s why a sestina was the perfect form for “Neurosurgery”—that haunting repetition. I realized mid-manuscript that so many of the poems had red in them that I began to actively pursue it. I was not exaggerating when I said, “I return to red red red,” in “Broaden the Subject.” One red led to another, but the context of the color changes section to section.

LH: In Accelerated Silence can be read as an intimate expression of grief, made up of many forms of poems, particularly elegies, odes, sonnets. What drew you to formal poetry as you wrote this collection? In what ways do you think your formal poems meet tradition and in what ways do they expand tradition? I’m thinking, for example, of “Elegy in the Form of Porcelain,” which ends:

I loved the brushstrokes 
at the corners of his eyes / little hairline
fissures / I mean
we are more than our breaks / what cannot
be reconstructed from the bang
or the plate before / spinning like a galaxy
across the porch

Or the poem that follows in your collection, “Sonnet in the Higgs Field,” which is right-justified and without rhyme. As a poet drawn to form myself, I am always curious what freedoms other writers find within constraint. 

BM: To your first question, I was drawn to exploring grief and physics in formal poetry (sonnets, elegies, odes, psalm, sestina) because I found it a nice parallel to forms of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Grief can take on different forms unique to each loss, yet it is infinite and timeless in its voice. That this voice took on new characteristics when compressed in a formal poem fascinated me. That is why some of the poems play with titles like “Elegy in the Form of…” I wanted to keep that extended metaphor of physics going even in the titles.

To your second question, it wasn’t my aim to expand formal poetry tradition, but rather to play with the form and see, at times, how far I could push it to hold the content. Poems that take a traditional form and update it to contemporary voices or play with its formality always delight me. Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and Jamaal May’s Hum are two masterful collections that do this. Scientific concepts can be so abstract and weird that I found it both geeky and satisfying to use formal poetry to connect physics—the Higgs Field or dark matter, for instance—with the experience of grief.

LH: So many of the poems in your collection bear scientific titles, which made me curious about your writing and revision process. Can you describe how this collection came together for you—when you knew you had the foundations of a strong book, how you reworked old material or wrote new material to fill out that foundation? And per your titles, how did you come to them—as you wrote or after, as a means of tying the collection together? Your ordering and titling seem wise to me, however you came to it.

BM: This book went through quite the distillation process. After I had Thom Caraway read the manuscript at an early stage, I cut at least half the poems, rearranged the rest, wrote more, revised, rearranged, wrote more, revised, rearranged…this went on and on for years as more poets I knew read the book and gave me feedback, or when I got a bee in my bonnet and spent a weekend mapping motifs and metaphors. An upstairs room became a scene from that movie Beautiful Mind with poems all over the floor and scribbled notes on the walls. I was actually getting ready to rearrange the manuscript again when I found out it won the Jake Adam York Prize. Mark Doty helped me arrange the fifth section, for which I was grateful. I just couldn’t seem to nail it. 

As for the titles, they did evolve once I saw themes emerging, but I made sure they truly fit the poem and could stand alone without the poem on either side needing to prop them up. I guess the process I used for arranging and for titles was “try it and see if it sticks.”  

LH: In addition to being a writer, you are the executive director of Spark Central, a nonprofit arts organization in Spokane, Washington, which offers adult and youth activities across a wide spectrum of creative endeavors. What drew you to this important work, and what impact do you see this organization having on your community and your own art?  

BM: This sounds weird to say, but I think I built Spark Central for me. What I mean by that is I needed something to keep me busy and moving in grief, and a startup nonprofit is a Herculean task. Also, I was a very creative kid, and everything we do and have at Spark Central is something I would have killed for as a kid. Creativity, innovation, and imagination are my middle names, and having a nonprofit that helps people find these things is incredibly rewarding. If you can believe it, I built the nonprofit at the same time as I was writing this manuscript—two creative projects that fueled me through the difficult years. Both changed me and made me into someone different than I was before.  

LH: Given the great uncertainties facing all of our communities these days, what do you think arts organizations will need to come out of this pandemic if not whole at least functioning? Do you see any new roles for the arts and organizations that support the arts—in local communities, states, the nation, the world—when a vaccine finally is developed and the idea of “normal” life starts to feel much more possible?

BM: I think arts organization have to remain relevant if they are going to survive, and so we at Spark Central are looking at ways to serve the youth that are missing school and don’t have the educational support or enrichment at home. When we can reopen, we’ll only be able to serve a finite number of people due to social distancing, and we want these to be the youth who are now missing the mentoring, learning, and enrichment Spark Central provides. We have never done tutoring before but are considering it when we are allowed to open at a limited capacity. The kids that used to join us outside of school for free creative learning activities and a safe space are going to need us more than ever. 


Lisa Higgs

Lisa Higgs’ third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2019. Her poetry has been published widely, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.

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