Making Sense of Squiggly Lines

Poet Dee Matthews on the art and craft of poetry

By Meagan R. Thomas

“You should turn this into a contrapuntal.” Dee Matthews asks me to hand over her laptop and starts to move words of my poem around on the screen. When she shows me the result, I’m floored. She has moved the words into two columns, and triplicated their meanings. As a poet and professor, this is day-to-day for Matthews, who teaches at Bryn Mawr College.

As we work, she tapes my poems to the blackboard like we’re arranging an elaborate conspiracy. She sees the connections, the art of it all, even where I can’t. She gives all the poetry she touches new life.

Matthews has a soft face and wide eyes that achieve a soul-searching intensity. Her hair is twisted into tight rows, and falls gently unnoticed across her face when she concentrates on a page. She often wears statement jewelry, including elaborate gold bangles and cuff bracelets for a regal touch.

– Dee Matthews

In the classroom, Matthews is slow and methodical. She eases the knots out of poetry, highlighting the smallest insights into the language, form, and images. She speaks in a low, mesmerizing voice that makes her students lean in to listen with an intensity of which most college professors could only dream.

Teaching is a big chunk of the work Matthews does. “Much of my time during the academic year is devoted to trying to give my students my attention” She says. “It’s actually hard to concentrate on my own [work] from September through May.”

That devotion is clear. Matthews works personally with each of her students. She has them call her Dee, and is insistent that everyone is equal in a workshop. Everyone is an artist.

“I’m one of those people who wants to share what I’ve learned, and I encourage my students to teach me what they’ve learned.” Matthews says. “My classrooms are symbiotic environments.”

When she’s not teaching, Matthews is writing like her life depends on it.

When asked to characterize her process, Matthews replies: “I think and obsess until I can’t obsess anymore and then I wildly write for months.” She can edit the same poem for months, or even years.

Her process pays off. Matthews’s first book, Simulacra, was published by Yale University Press in 2017. It won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Her style is often Dionysian. She pushes back against traditional form in favor of unrestrained energy.

Matthews journey to poetry was long. Her first degree was in economics, and she worked a corporate job for almost a decade. It wasn’t what she wanted, so she went back to school for public policy. That didn’t fit either.

“I couldn’t shake how much I wanted to write.” Matthews says.

But the hardest point to reconcile for many artists is the idea of making money with writing. Matthews was no exception. The idea of making ends meet had long made writing seem off the table as a career.

“As life crept in, I found myself getting farther and farther away from desire for the sake of stability.” She says. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet with just ‘words.’”

But when the placeholders weren’t working, she turned back to it.

“At some point, I gave myself permission to think about my happiness and deepest desires.” Matthews says.  “Writing was at the top of that list and I went for it.”

Matthews started teaching after her first graduate degree. She lived in Detroit at the time and started as a teaching artist for a nonprofit. The goal was to provide arts education for students, and get young people interested in art and poetry.

“I loved working with kids and making ideas of art palatable for youth.” Matthews says.

After that, she got an MFA in creative writing at the University of Michigan, and started teaching at the college level, where she came to realize how gifted she was at teaching. She kept doing it, expanding the programs she taught and putting more and more energy into her students. Her newest endeavor is teaching an MFA herself, working with the next batch of professional poets to unleash into the world.

When asked what makes poetry so important, Matthews says: “What’s most important are people.”

“I believe that poetry is the voice and history of people and I’m all ears.” She says. “And as a person with chameleon tendencies, that’s vital.”

“As a pre-literate kid, I would write squiggly lines on paper and ask my sister if they made any sense” Matthews says. While they usually wouldn’t make sense then, she soon found words.

“I found writing, poetry in particular, to be a way to feel the world while not being overwhelmed by it.” She says.

Matthews’s words ring true. Working with her feels like writing squiggly lines and asking her if they make sense. But for Matthews, they do make sense.

Meagan Thomas is a Byrn Mawr junior whose beat is the arts.