by Mary Harwell Sayler
Matthew J. Andrews is a writer based in Modesto, in the Central Valley of California. Matthew is primarily a poet, although he dabbles in prose. In his work, Matthew examines the intersection of the spiritual and the secular, the wrestling match between belief and doubt, and the complications of ancient faith in a modern world. His writing also explores the many faces of the natural world, the sacredness of small moments, and the intricacies of the creative process, among other things. He serves as an Assistant Poetry Editor at Solum Press.
When he is not writing, Matthew is a professional private investigator, a voracious reader, an amateur chef, a wannabe outdoorsman, a sometimes runner, a doting husband, and a competent father of two.
In a candid interview with Agape Review’s Poetry Editor Mary Harwell Sayler, Matthew discusses his poetry and his debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember.
Matthew, the flyer announcing your chapbook, I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember, begins by telling us these poems are “Born of spiritual crisis,” which could be said for many Christian poets/seekers. However, I then read that you’re a private investigator, which cannot be said for any of the poets whose work I’ve read! Therefore, I can’t help but wonder about the connection between the two. i.e., Instead of continuing to struggle in a spiritual quagmire, did your work-experience coax you into an investigation of the battle between doubt and faith that Bible people also experienced?
It’s an interesting question! I’m naturally inquisitive, with a healthy amount of skepticism and the ability to detach enough to see things from multiple angles, so even though I never set out to be a professional investigator, it makes sense that I ended up there. I think it’s safe to assume that when I started writing poetry a few years ago, these qualities influenced my approach to it (and, by extension, the subjects of these poems). Perhaps my experience investigating as a career refined my approach a little bit, giving me a better sense of what I was doing as I took a deep dive into the lives of biblical characters.
You obviously read and study the Bible. What attracted you to the scriptures in the first place?
I was raised in a church, so they were a steady presence as I grew up. This is, on paper, how you want to raise a family, I suppose, but the downside is that I never had much of a chance to be attracted to them. They were just there, a permanent fixture of the greater culture in which I was raised. As I got older, this led to a lazy disengagement with the Bible, a sort of spiritual malaise. Ultimately, what drew me back into them (a process that, unbeknownst to me at the time, would lead to this chapbook) was a desire to see if I could make that connection again.
The Bible rescues many of us from floundering faith or even despair. What else nurtures you spiritually?
I’m a hardcore introvert, so I am nurtured by periods of silence and solitude. I try to find that daily in the mornings by getting up earlier than my children, and that’s where I do most of my reading and writing. I also try to find it monthly in some sort of extended recharging time, usually with a long hike in the middle of nowhere.
Good idea! What do you hope your fresh thoughts and poems will accomplish? Or to say it another way, what effect do you hope your writings will have on other people?
I wrote for a long time before I dared to show my writing to others, much less seek to publish it, so in a lot of ways, my poetry exists primarily for myself, as a tool to reflect, process, and engage with what I’m experiencing. I don’t have an audience in mind as I’m actively writing, but I suppose that if my work helps people with their own process of reflecting, processing, and engaging, there’s not much more I can ask for.
Yes! The give-and-take of poetry (aka reader identification) helps us to understand one another and more about ourselves. What have you learned about yourself and/or your life as a Christian poet by putting on the robes of Bible people?
If you had asked me to express my biggest reservations about my faith prior to starting this project, I think I would have given intellectual arguments about interpretation or why I had a hard time finding truth in certain areas of belief. But after going through this process (and really not until the end as I was looking at these poems as a whole), I realized that really what I was struggling with was a disconnection with God, the idea that He exists and can be experienced, but just not by me in the way that I wanted. In so many of these poems, I dealt with people who wrestled with their place in God’s plan, facing doubt and pain but not getting the comfort they want, and really I was actually expressing the root of my own problems. I suppose writing these poems made me more honest with myself, and oddly enough, the idea that some of the “heroes of the faith” likely had the same struggles and challenges was reassuring in its own way.
That’s likely true for most of us, so I’d like to return to that aspect of faith shortly, but first I want to say that, as an avid reader and writer of Bible-based poems, I’m choosy! And I have thoroughly enjoyed your chapbook. Other readers certainly will too, and, like me, they’ll want to know more.
If you’ll expound a bit on some specific pieces from the collection, I’d like to start by asking about the opening poem “The Sixth Day,” which appropriately begins with the possibilities of God’s perspective. For example, the line, “In that strange way one can see clearly only with the gifts of time and distance he began to notice he had built his world to respire, each piece giving up part of its life to give life to another.” I love the thought of cyclable giving, but I’m puzzled by “he began to notice he had built his world to respire.” Assuming you’re speaking of Creator God, do you think He had a definitive plan or the joy of spontaneity?
As far as dogma goes, I’m sure it’s the former, but I love how poetry gives us some freedoms to look for beauty in and beyond certainty. As a poet, I’m very intrigued by the idea that God (especially a trinitarian one, with his innate interconnectedness) almost can’t help but create a world with beings inseparably wrapped up in each other. I don’t think this means God doesn’t have a plan, per se, but I imagine it’s something like drawing a house and realizing you’re drawing your childhood home; not an accident, but an innate part of who you are expressed in your creation. I also think it makes the next poem, “Exile,” which deals with the fractured relationships between people, so much more devastating.
Some things we’ll never know fully in this life, but it’s interesting to speculate. Like, in “Exile,” you wrote, “I remember when I first bled, that day we left, when we walked through the briar patch and the thorn cut a serpentine pathway across my leg, the blood running like berries crushed in a fist.” Then in the poem, “Reflections From Peniel,” you said, “Scars without memory are only birthmarks. Without breath, the sons and daughters collected at the river’s edge are only stones.” What brought these images to mind? Did they just come to you, or do you have a way of coaxing forth such fresh figurative language?
Firstly, thank you for the compliment!
With “Exile,” I tried to picture the brokenness of life in the immediate aftermath of the Fall, the severing of connections and the fear of the unknown, by putting a darker twist on garden imagery. As a result, the lush garden becomes thorns and briar patches, blood is equated with a crushed piece of fruit, and so on.
“Reflections From Peniel” is, I believe, the oldest poem in this collection, so I don’t have as good of a recollection about how individual images came about. I will say that the first line (“Scars without memory are only birthmarks”) was the hook for this poem, the line that stuck with me and around which the poem was built. In the story this poem references, Jacob wrestles with God and has a permanent hip injury as a result, and it occurred to me that the memory of the wrestling match and the blessing that comes after is what gives that pain meaning. Without it, the injury is just a deformity like any other.
That excellent insight says a lot about the paradoxes of God and His ongoing redemption, neither of which may be recognizable as such – immediately or ever!
For instance, I once wrote a poem about Noah’s wife and how the blessing of the ark probably didn’t feel too blessed to her, being stuck indoors with an orchestra of animal sounds and smells. Similarly, you wrote as “Ezekiel’s Wife,” who asks, “Is there not another man damned to deliver your word?” Were you thinking of all the husbands out there whose wives ask, “Why you? Can’t someone else do that?” or were you focused more on God’s highly unusual (sometimes gruesome!) requests of Ezekiel?
One of my favorite writers is the novelist David Maine, who wrote a trilogy of books based on biblical narratives, including one based on the story of Noah called The Preservationist. It’s his best book, and based on what you’re describing about your poem, I think it’s worth checking out!
To answer your question, I specifically had in mind a passage from Ezekiel 24. Essentially, God tells Ezekiel that his wife is going to die, but that Ezekiel can’t mourn for her because the whole thing is to be another one of his performance prophecies, her death, and his lack of mourning another sign to all of God’s people about their many faults and failures. This is one of the many stories in the Bible that I have a hard time stomaching, and I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like for Ezekiel. He knows better than anyone that God cannot be refused, but how hard must that have been, to lose what you love and have the ability to mourn taken from you? Even though he knew the logical reason, how hollow that must have felt! The role of prophets in the Bible is endlessly fascinating to me because they give their entire lives to divine service and almost always suffer as a result.
Sad, but true and not uncommon as Jesus Himself let all followers know to expect trials. Most of us, however, cheer on St. Teresa of Avila, who has been translated as saying, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
Returning, though, to those long or short-suffering biblical wives and mothers brings us to “Mary Remembers,” a poem recalling Herod’s order to slaughter all male children, two and under, in hopes of ridding himself of the Baby Jesus. God warned Mary and Joseph, of course, and so they fled with their infant to Egypt. In your poem, that terrible time causes Jesus’ mother to recall, “The cries of the children, their blood flowing as a river, their crimson coloring those brilliant Egyptian sunsets.” Insightful words as Mary was surely sensitive and empathetic to others, but what made you take that unusual approach to her, rather than the common focus on her blessedness.
This poem came from an interesting intersection of reading the Christmas narratives as the same time I was reading The Meaning of Jesus, a debate in book form between N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg. Both of these individuals are great for different reasons, but it was thinking about some of Borg’s arguments that really influenced this poem. Borg is a historian whose work focuses on trying to isolate the influence of the first century church on how the gospels are written and structured. In other words: how did decades of grappling with what Jesus’ resurrection meant for the world influence how we told the story of his time on earth? This is, in some sense, a scholarly question without much influence on one’s life, but it’s also kind of a microcosm for how we, as Christians living two centuries after Jesus walked this earth, negotiate our shared history with these stories. How do we relate to them on a personal level when they’re buried underneath layers of people telling us what to think about them? I felt some resonance with what I was trying to do with this project.
That’s a lot of backstory to say that I used Mary to play with some of these ideas, in no small part because I imagine that she, more than anyone else, is torn between these two impulses. She gave birth to Jesus, raised him as a son, knew him better than anyone else, and decades later, finds herself at the center of a story she could never have imagined. All these experiences, her experiences, are now everyone’s stories, a central part of how people are understanding the world in the wake of the resurrection. What must that have been like, to have the story of your life spin out of your control? How do you keep hold of your own memories when they are actively becoming part of a collective understanding?
Good questions! And ones I hope you’ll address in future poems.
Meanwhile, your consideration of Paul on the road to “Damascus” presents an interesting take on another familiar story as shown in these lines: “The truth is, anyone can listen to thunder, to the deep ancestral growl that tremors under the skin after the luminous knife blade had cut across the sky and left you in darkness.” According to the account in the book of Acts, the light blinded Paul, albeit temporarily. So my question to you is of a more personal nature: Do you ever feel The Light we often refer to as Christians flickers, strikes, eventually leads us into darkness, or something else entirely? Are you saying, for instance, that encounters with God are available to all who are looking for Him?
On a personal level, there’s some jealousy in how I view Paul in this story. We all strive to know God, and Paul had the experience of God rocking his world, speaking directly to him and giving him clear direction. That must have been terrifying, but at least it was clear and decisive, and I imagine anyone with this kind of experience would have a faith like Paul’s. Most of us, however, do not get these kinds of experiences, and so we’re left to discern what we can from the more subtle ways we are spoken to, which is a much more difficult task. In the same way I am jealous of people like Paul, I also admire those that hear the quiet preaching of rain and reach the same level of faith. I wish my faith was that strong.
Thank God, we only need a mustard-seed-size faith!
Well, Matt, I could go on and on talking with you about poetry in general and your poems in particular, but I suspect most of us want to know, as I do, what’s next?
While the poems in this collection are all based on biblical stories, I write widely in other areas, and my next project will be derivative in a different way. I am currently putting the final touches on a second chapbook manuscript, A Razor’s Edge, which is composed of prose poems based on the life and songs of Bob Dylan. Working on these poems was a chance to dig more into my love of surreal poetry, and in doing so, explore questions about how artists relate to their art, their inspirations, and their audience.
Excellent! When I think of the “great” poets, writers, artists, and musicians, one common denomination I see isn’t brilliant wit or technical skill, but honesty.
Thank you, Matt, for being a truth-teller whose future work we can truly look forward to reading. May God continue to bless your search.
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One thought on “Interview with Poet Matthew J. Andrews”
Excellent interview! Can’t wait to read these poems in full. I really love the investigation of Biblical characters through poetry, the way it gives new eyes to see both the text and God. Exciting stuff!