A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Matthew E. Henry

Q1: When did you start writing and whom influenced you the most now and currently?

Matthew: I began writing prose back in elementary school. I wrote short stories from first grade through about sophomore year in college, where I took my first creative class. That class turned me into a poet. Back then my major influences were e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Shakespeare, and Carl Windrel. Years later, my MFA program introduced me to writers who have had a much more profound impact on my writing style and sensibilities, which continues into the present. They include Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Carl Dennis, Mark Jarman, and Miller Williams.

Q2: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Matthew: There aren’t really any moments that let me know that I wanted to be a writer, but there are definitely moments that continue to convince me that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be. I’ll see, read, overhear, or in some way encounter something in the world, and my first thought is “how do I capture this?” while I’m reaching for the pen I have clipped to my watchband. Or I start rehearsing the line over and over least I forget it before I can find a scrap of paper.

Q3: Who has helped you most with writing and career?

Matthew: My two MFA mentors get the credit for helping me figure out who I am as a writer. The wonderful Jeanine Hathaway and Jeanne Murray Walker have my thanks for their talent, care, advice, encouragement, and knocking my head about was needed and invaluable to my journey.

Careerwise my kids (students) get credit for peer pressuring me into composing my first manuscript. In their minds, a poet has books of poetry. “Where’s your book? Why haven’t you written a book yet? You should write a book.” From there many thanks to the various publishers of individual poems, as well as the good people at Main Street Rag, Californios Press, and Sundress Publications for shepherding my collections into the world.

Beyond this, I am indebted to a whole bunch of people who I’ve met in the Twitter literary community. People who have recommended publishing opportunities, invited me to readings and to be on panels, interviewed me, looked at drafts of my work, and have made me feel seen in the chaos of this writing life. In particular Jared Beloff, Chris L. Butler, Ashley Elizabeth, Joan Kwon Glass, Hannah Grieco, Mitch Nobis, Raegen Pietrucha, Whitney Rio-Ross, and Donna Vorreyer. I’m sure I’m forgetting people and will feel horrible about that later.  

Q4: Where did you grow up and how did that influence you? Have any travels influenced your work?

Matthew: I was born and raised and Boston, MA, but was a participant in the METCO program, which busses mostly Black and Brown kids out of the city to attend school in the white suburbs.

Both my chapbook Teaching While Black and my full-length the Colored page delve deeply into the aftermath of this reality, and how I’ve continued to be one of the only Black or Brown faces in every educational institution I’ve been in since then, be that as student or educator.

Q5: What do you consider your most meaningful work creatively to you?

Matthew: I wrote a creative nonfiction piece entitled “Between the woods and frozen lake…” that was published in Barren Magazine. I originally wrote it during a memoir unit I was teaching, and as a demonstration to my kids that I wouldn’t assign them work I wasn’t willing to do myself. I also wrote it knowing some of my kids would read it and think, “oh, this is the story of a tough/annoying year in my teacher’s life,” while other students would read a very different story, see beneath the surface, recognize themselves in the meditation on mental health. I hated the story when it was “done” and published in our class anthology. I came back to it a year or so later and didn’t hate it nearly as much. I polished it a bit, saw a call for submission at Barren, hit send, immediately regretted it, and then received the fastest acceptance email I have ever gotten (under 25 mins). The work took on new meaning as I watched compete strangers comment on it on social media, as well as people who have known me for years learning something new about me. It was and continues to be strange having that piece in the world, but one I am proud of composing.

Q6: What are your favorite activities to relax?

Matthew: I’m a high school English teacher and a writer: what is this relaxation of which you speak? 

Other than binge watching TV and reading whatever I can get my hands on, I also compose music.

Q7: What is a favorite line/ stanza/lyric from your writing?

Matthew: A section of a song I wrote a long (long) time ago, which has only been heard by two people, comes to mind, especially as I never rhyme my poetry, but go off in my music:

And I’m mesmerized by lies I’ve memorized to keep my mind in line. And now I find I’m tied

inquiring, “do you remember the time?,” or was it only in my head? Were those words I never said to you? What should I do when it occurs to me that I am more afraid of acceptance’s holy flame than rejection’s blade? The face of the unknown screams, “where do we go from here?” my dear.

Q8: What kind of music inspires you the most? What is a song or songs that always come back to you as an inspiration?

Matthew: Even though I am a musician, and constantly have music running through my head, I try to avoid being inspired by music. I worry about just reproducing someone else’s lyric in a poem, but poorly. However, I have found myself responding to various hip hop/rap songs and Stevie Wonder lines from time to time.

Q9: Do you have any recent or upcoming books, music, events, projects that you would like to promote?

Matthew: As mentioned before, my first full-length collection of poetry, the Colored page, was published by Sundress earlier this year. It is the semi-autobiographical journey of being “a raisin in a bowl of milk,” the Black face in most educational institutions, from both sides of the desk. First grade through doctoral student. High school teacher, college professor, and writer.

Otherwise, my time outside of the classroom is spent during virtual and in-person readings, visits to K-12 and college classrooms, and conducting professional developments for schools looking at antiracist/anti-bias work through the lens of poetry. 

Bonus Question: Any funny memory or strange occurrence you’d like to share during your creative journey?

Matthew: I could tell the story of the time I pooped my pants driving from Santa Fe to Denver, after a writing retreat, changing in a Burger King bathroom, and then showing my soiled underwear to the woman who would eventually be my wife when she didn’t believe me, but I won’t.

Website: www.MEHPoeting.com

Twitter: @MEHPoeting

Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of the Colored page (Sundress Publications, 2022), Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020) and Dust & Ashes (Californios Press, 2020). He is the editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal and an associate poetry editor at Pidgeonholes. MEH’s poetry and prose appears or is forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Fahmidan Journal, The Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Shenandoah, Solstice and Zone 3. MEH’s an educator who received his MFA yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. You can find him at www.MEHPoeting.com writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.

A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Ona Woods

with Ona Woods:

Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?

Ona: I’ve always been interested in writing, but I started writing poetry seriously around the time I was 18, at the end of high school and beginning of college. The first book of poetry that really grabbed me and pulled me deeper into writing was The Splinter Factory by Jeffrey McDaniel, and from there I spent a while being completely obsessed with more performance-focused poets, particularly those who were being published by Write Bloody, like Derrick Brown and Anis Mojgani. I’m not so focused on performance poetry now, especially as I’m struggling with voice dysphoria since starting my transition, but I think those influences still keep me focused on the idea of poetry as something that can be loud, quiet, fast, slow, and contain all the elements of music.

Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?

Ona: My fiancée, Inès Pujos! I fell in love with them while we were both working towards our MFAs and for eight years we’ve grown together side by side both as writers and as people. Their poems are ferocious and gut wrenching and gorgeous, and their first book, Something Dark to Shine In, is coming out from Sundress Publications later this year!

Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing? Have any travels away from home influence your work/describe?

Ona: I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I would say my writing is more influenced by the time I spent in Chicago while in undergrad. Those years were the years where I first found a community of writers, where I learned how to use my writing not just to express myself but to actually become myself, and where I learned that poetry is first and foremost an art of empathy (also that kind of winter just changes you after living in California).

Q4: What do you consider your most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far?

Ona: The most meaningful work to me is actually not a poem, but an essay that I wrote at the very beginning of my transition, before I’d come out to anyone, and the act of writing it really helped me come to terms with my gender identity after decades of repressing it. It’s the first thing I ever published under my new name. It’s called “An Honest-to-God Step Towards Something” and it came out in Entropy in May of 2020: https://entropymag.org/an-honest-to-god-step-towards-something/.

Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Ona: Unfortunately, my memory of that time isn’t so great, so I can’t say. I can only really remember those years as phases and feelings, not specific moments.

Q6: Favorite activities to relax?

Ona: I’m a big ol’ nerd. Video games have been a great (maybe too great) escape during COVID times, and in particular Final Fantasy XIV should be prescribed as a palliative treatment for gender dysphoria. I really want to learn to cook/bake but I’m too tightly wound and whenever I do anything in the kitchen it just turns into a whole lot of panicky yelling.

Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects you’d like to promote?


I have a poem coming out in the July issue of perhappened that I’m very excited about! (https://www.perhappened.com/) It’s called “Nothing Is the Night” and it’s a long-ish piece from several years ago. Writing the piece was an experience that showed me that something buried inside me was screaming to be let out, though it took another five years to figure out what that something was.

Also, I’m working to get an online literary magazine off the ground. We’re called Ciphertext, we’re taking submissions in all genres now, and you can find out more at http://ciphertext.pub/submissions!

Q8: What is one of your favorite lines from one of your poems/writings or from others?

Ona: The chorus of the song “December” by We Are the Union has been stuck in blood ever since their new album, Ordinary Life, came out last month: “You’ll be dead in December. / There can’t be two of us forever.” My whole life I’d given myself over to a constructed persona bent on keeping the real me hidden and safe, and coming out meant taking control back from, and ultimately destroying, that artificial self. So hearing those lines sung by a woman who had herself just come out as trans has really resonated with me.

Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?

Again, I have to say my fiancée. They’re the only one who’s never been afraid to tell me what needs to be cut, whether it’s a single line or an entire poem.