With the release of his debut full-length poetry collection the Colored page, Matthew E. Henry (MEH) spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Neha Peri about Langston Hughes, the role of style in creating meaning, and the ways anti-Blackness permeates educational environments.
Neha Peri: Can you speak about the epigraphs? / What does Hughes’ “Theme for English B” mean to this collection?
Matthew E. Henry: In high school, one of the only poems I ever saw myself in was “Theme for English B.” So, as the poems in this collection move chronologically from first grade through the present, each section begins with a quote from the poem making a connection to that time in my life. Like the speaker, I have often been “the only colored [person] in my class,” regardless of whether I am at a desk or at the front of the room. I have always been acutely aware of how this impacts a classroom. The color of my skin, as well as the history and experiences that come along with it, is a difference that is only ignored when at least one person is lying. So, answering Langston’s question: yes, the pages that I write are “colored” by all those factors.
NP: You touch on visibility quite a bit throughout these poems. How do the themes of hypervisibility and invisibility as a Black person intersect in this collection?
MEH: In teacher jargon we talk about the dangers of “spotlighting” and “ignoring” students in the classroom. How some kids know what it is to become a blackhole, feeling the light of all the eyes in the room sucked into them. Or the opposite, when every eye turns as far away as possible, pretending they aren’t there. Either way, at best, it’s awkward as hell for the kid. In predominantly white schools, Black kids anticipate one or the other happening on a regular basis. In social studies classes when the topic turns to the Civil War or Civil Rights. In English classes during the baffling and on-going conversations around who can read/say “the n-word” aloud. Hell, I was at a conference where an art teacher from another school, who I did not know, came up to me, apropos of nothing, to tell me how she uses “Black art” with her students and makes sure all the Black kids know that it’s “for them.” Obviously, representation matters, but I bet this was done in a way where every student in class was more focused on the Black kids getting “their lesson,” than appreciating the merit of the art. And of course, there is the aftermath of all school assemblies and emails following the latest round of “someone did something racist, again, but this doesn’t reflect our values.” In each of these moments, eyes bore into or away from any Black kid (or teacher) in the area, and we are very aware of it. But this reality stretches outside of the school halls. Driving while Black, interracial dating, riding the train, submitting poetry to journals: the white gaze is always watching or pretending not to. By addressing these themes, the Colored page shows my growth and change in attitude when this happens to me. Moving from my embarrassment in younger grades, to embarrassing others for doing these things in later grades, to my current attempts to educate people (well-meaning and otherwise) in a nicer way. I sometimes fail at the nicer part (sorry mom).
NP: Can you talk about your use of color in “Western Heritage”? Lines like “suddenly I’m sprinting down sepia halls, / through pastel classroom doors […] to see who stands in front of the black / then green then white board.” place color at the forefront, which I find fascinating.
MEH: This was mostly about memory. The hallways of my elementary school were partially covered in sepia tiles, while my middle school was a little more colorful. However, the change in the color of the boards show that I’m of a certain age. When I was in elementary school the chalkboards were still the old-fashioned blackboards. By the time I hit middle school, the district I attended had made the transition to greenboards. In high school and college, dry erase whiteboards were in use. Nerd that I am, I recently read an article about how and why school districts made these changes. It’s not fascinating reading unless you’re into that sort of thing.
NP: The lack of capitalization besides proper nouns in the collection is really striking. Even in the title, “Colored” is the only word capitalized. What was the thought process behind this and your use of style and form throughout the collection?
MEH: Like many beginning poets, I was overly enamored with e.e. cummings in college. He was one of the first poets I fell in love with. So when I started writing poetry, I didn’t capitalize anything, including “I,” even at the beginning of sentences or lines. I wanted capitalization to highlight words I thought were important in my works. Elements of this remain, like “Colored” being the only capitalized word in the title, as well as which proper nouns receive capitalization in my poems and which don’t. For example, the klan gets no capitalization because fuck them. However, an element of this drastically shifted after the publication of my first chapbook Teaching While Black.
Last year, during a class activity, I anonymously used one of my poems from that collection. My kids were to read and annotate “the surprising thing,” and prepare a series of questions they would ask the author if they could. The next day I revealed that I was the author and answered their questions (By the way, this is a humbling experience I don’t recommend for the faint of heart). One thing I learned was that they think I use too much alliteration, a note I’ve taken to heart, sort of. However, one of the questions quite a few students had was about the lack of capitalization, especially in regard to “I.” More than this, they assumed the reason was because the Black speaker of the poem felt that he was inferior to the white people he interacts with, so the author used a lowercase “i” in order to convey a sense of racial hierarchy. Once the abject horror of what they were telling me passed, I completely changed the practice of not capitalizing “I” in any poem that has racial themes (They know I tell this story and take pride in it. And they still mock my alliteration). An exception to this is the poem “an open letter from the boy i was to the Man you’ve become,” where the lowercase “i” is maintained out of my guilt over the incident, rather than anything racial.
NP: Themes of institutional racism are central to this collection, particularly through anecdotes and discussions of microaggression. Can you speak about the importance of anecdotes, or, in other words, the use of lived experience, in your work?
MEH: I’m a storyteller who happens to be a poet. The vast majority of my poetry simply tells stories from my life and others, as well as those borrowed from history and works of literature. I believe storytelling is primarily about bringing others into our experiences, having them see what we saw, feel what we felt. This collection is composed of stories from my life, and racism in all its forms, is a central part of that story.
While studying Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, my sophomores dissect “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” the famed chapter from Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. While I do not agree with all of his thoughts on the relationship between Black ontology and the “white gaze,” I believe that to understand what it is to be Black in the United States, one must hear the stories of how Blacks are viewed by white people. Microaggressions (and outright aggressions) are a large part of this reality.
My lived experience, as a student, an educator, a writer, is largely shaped by the fact that white teachers, professors, students, and colleagues have treated me differently because of how the color of my skin, and their associations with it, color their perceptions of me. White educators assumed things about my parents, my neighborhood, my raw intelligence, my knowledge base. White colleagues and classmates have presumed my interests and limited experiences. White students have switched out of my class on the first day upon seeing a Black man standing at the whiteboard. White editors have asked me to revise poems because some turn of phrase, while true to my experience, made them uncomfortable. I bring all of these perceptions and actions into my writing, so my poetry reflects my attitude: I like to subvert expectations and make people eat their biased assumptions. Or as one of my recent graduates lovingly wrote in her final paper, “he’s prepared to mentally fuck you up anytime he can, it’s his favorite pastime.” I laughed out loud reading this, and it accurately reflects how I want my poetry to land on those who need to hear it most.
NP: In poems such as “an open letter to the white feminists holding a literary panel on Toni Morrison” and “conversation with a white girl,” you discuss white feminism and its impact as a function of racism. What frameworks can we use to unpack structural and institutional racism?
MEH: Well, I don’t know if I am as qualified as others to speak on “frameworks” as such, but I think a simple starting point is white people, especially white women, recognizing their privilege. Not only as white people, but also inhabiting a demographic that has been used, and has used, their positionality to harm people of color. For example, the power of white women’s tears has a long history in this country as a weapon against Black men. Christian Cooper was threatened with police intervention for telling a white woman to leash her dog. Anthony Broadwater was sentenced to 16 years for a rape he didn’t commit because he smiled at a white woman. Emmett Till, we now know, didn’t actually do anything.
I was literally in a conversation yesterday with some of my kids, mostly young white women, about the importance of feminism in the world. But within the conversation they were using terms like “intersectionality” and “Womanist” without knowing that they were coined by Black women to speak of the experiences of Black women, and were currently being co-opted by white women like 90% of the dances on TikTok (…and now I must go write that poem). They were cognitively aware that Black women, and other women of color, can be double (or triple or quadruple) minorities, but in practice often forget that they are talking about and fighting for women’s rights in ways that privilege themselves and/or ignore those who don’t share their shade. To that end, a number of the poems in this collection try to shed light on how well-intentioned, good-hearted white people will focus on a shared human struggle, but comfortably forget that said struggle is made more difficult if you aren’t white. Like how my trans kids have it rough, and anyone who comes for them with a rude comment will catch these hands, but my Black trans brother is routinely assaulted by the cops.
All that to say, a starting point might be white people listening to, paying attention to other voices without defensiveness or fragility. But I think it is generally hard for people, all people, to not be competitive, even when it comes to the oppression olympics.
NP: Some titles seem to function as a first line, a lead up, into the poem. What was your thought process behind titling each poem, and what did you hope to accomplish?
MEH: Process? Poets have processes?!
Titles are very fluid for me. Sometimes the first line of a draft gets a promotion. Sometimes—especially with the “when asked…” and “open letter…” poems—a person, a thought, or an event comes first, and I write the poem to fit the title. Sometimes I finish a poem and then stare at it, cursing the sky until an appropriate title comes to me. Regardless of the genesis, I want titles that the poem cannot function well without.
When we’re reading poetry in class, my kids learn very quickly what happens if they jump into the first line of the poem, skipping the title. I usually scream and then roll around on the ground. Or slam my head into the whiteboard. Then they roll their eyes and read the title. Whenever this happens, after we have worked through our thoughts on the text, I ask them if the insights they have drawn out work without the title. They always say “no” and then explain the importance of the title to the piece. That’s what I aim for. I want titles that not only set up the poem, but allow the reader to learn something about the poem, be that the intent, the setting, the mood, a historical or literary connection, or some other flight of my ADHD brain. They should always be accessible, but you might have to Google something.
NP: Tell me about your choice of language and syntax in “when asked why I don’t volunteer,” particularly in lines like “unpaid labor, shackled in the red-faced sun / of small groups, whipped to explain everything” and “auction-blocked, forced to open my mouth, / show my teeth for all the assembled / after speaking simple, uncomfortable truths.”
MEH: This poem was born from a real conversation on why I don’t volunteer to be on any more diversity/inclusion/equity/multicultural/[fill in the buzzword blank] committees at my current place of work. I have been on them in the past, many times at different institutions, and I’m pretty done. The conversation was with the only other Black educator in the school, who is on almost every single one of those types of committees in the building and throughout the district. It’s always volunteer work and she doesn’t get paid any extra money for the hours upon hours upon hours of work she puts into this. However she is passive aggressively undermined, has her ideas co-opted by less intelligent people, or is just ignored when doing the wonderful work some people pay lip-service to doing (You’re amazing La Toya!). I made a quip to her about it being “unpaid labor” akin to slavery and started drafting this poem in my head.
The images in this poem fuse the auction block and cotton/tobacco fields with the professional developments in every predominately white school system I’ve worked in over the past 20 years. Literally being forced to speak up and “share my truth” when the people really don’t want to hear it. A quick example. While discussing Ibram X Kendi’s definitions of antiracist, assimilationist, and segregationist mentalities in school settings, I was asked in a small group to share whether I had any white teachers who were antiracist in my formative years. I said no. My colleagues lost their minds. Couldn’t believe it. Kept bringing it up over the course of the hour. They were offended as if they themselves were my elementary school teachers. I assume they were terrified that the students of color they’ve actually taught over the years would say the same thing about them.
So, as a matter of self-care, I limit the amount of such interactions in my life. Especially for free. I’m still waiting on my 40 acres and a mule. At this point I’ll settle for my mortgage paid off and a pet squirrel.
NP: “an open letter to my well-intentioned white educators: past, present, and future” speaks directly to the audience about the unintentional harm white supremacy and anti-Blackness perpetuate. I’m curious about the decision, throughout this collection, for the speaker to speak directly to the audience. How did this choice shift the meaning of these poems?
MEH: At first, this wasn’t a conscious choice. I was processing certain events and writing poems. But when I noticed that the poems coalescing into this collection were all in the first person, I doubled down on it, culling or changing any poems that weren’t “me” speaking directly to the reader. To my mind, personal addresses hit home more. When the speaker is talking directly to me, I can be challenged, indicted, called to task, or asked to investigate myself in some way. Obviously, some people are not a fan of this, but I love when a writer punches me in the gut, making me question all of my life choices. I’m also a teacher whose students refer to his classes as “existential crisis 101,” so I have issues.
When I was a college professor, I taught excerpts from the book Metaphors We Teach By. Among the various metaphors for the different aspects of teaching and learning, I personally resonate with the idea of teaching as catalyst. We light a fire, add an irritant, move things around, shake things up, all for the purpose of helping our kids move themselves from where they are to where they could be. I like to think that my poetry functions in the same way, or at least that’s what I’m aiming for. Direct addresses make it more personal, adds a little bit of pain. Makes it harder to look away, so hopefully change can take place.
Order your copy of the Colored page today!
Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020) and Dust and Ashes (Californios Press, 2020) and editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal. MEH received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University, and an MA in theology and PhD in education from other institutions. You can find him at MEHPoeting.com writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.
Neha Peri holds a BA in English from Rutgers University. In her senior year, she was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the university’s oldest literary magazine, The Anthologist. While at Rutgers, she also tutored for the Rutgers Writing Program, completed internships with the Rutgers English Department and the University of Mississippi Press, and wrote an honors thesis. Her work has been featured in The Anthologist. Currently, she works as an intern at the Princeton University Press.
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