Lora and I have something interesting in common: we both published books with small presses in 2015 that have since been reissued by larger small presses. Lora’s poetry collection, The Women Widowed to Themselves, was reissued a few months ago by Party Trick Press, and my lyric essay, Tender Points, was rereleased by Nightboat in 2019.
Recently, we spent an afternoon talking about how our texts, our selves, and our writing practices have changed since our books were first published. We conducted our conversation over gchat one day in September while Lora was at home in Oakland and I was visiting my parents in New York City. We took breaks to go to the store and put our laundry in and move it to the dryer and bring it upstairs.
Amy Berkowitz: Tell me how The Women Widowed to Themselves first came to be published — did you approach the publisher or vice versa?
Lora Mathis: I was approached by poet Clementine von Radics who also ran the (now defunct) Where Are You Press. I was a fan of their writing for a few years before they began following my blog, where I shared my art and poetry. Around 2014 they asked me if I was interested in putting out a book with their press. I was excited to have an opportunity for a full-length poetry collection. What was your experience like when Tender Points first came out?
I had a similar experience, in that a publisher approached me as well — I started writing Tender Points in 2013, and around the same time, friends of mine started a small press called Timeless, Infinite Light. When I told them about my project, they were eager to read it and decided they wanted to publish it. It was their first full-length book. There is something so wonderful about having your work solicited — of course things don’t always work out that way, but the synchronicity of working on something right at the same time as someone with a platform is looking to publish something and then your work resonates with them — it’s so great. I don’t know how long it would have taken me to finish Tender Points if the editors at Timeless weren’t waiting for it. But having a home for it, knowing that these people believed in the book and were excited to put it out into the world, made such a big difference.
Yes, that synchronicity doesn’t always happen, but it is so helpful. I was approached for the republication too. I don’t think I would have ever republished my book on my own accord.
Your book was first published by Where Are You in 2015, the same year that Timeless first published mine. How was the book received? Did you do readings or other things to promote it? Did it get attention, reviews? Do you wish it had reached a wider audience?
The publisher nominated it for a Pushcart Prize, but I didn’t do any interviews or shows promoting the book. The book’s promotion largely happened over social media, and utilized my growing social media following. I was asked to post about the book at least once a week, and this was a main way of driving sales.
A few months into the publishing process with Where Are You Press, I asked Clementine if the press had any jobs available. It was just a two-person operation, but they offered me part-time work. I needed to get away from where I was living. I took the job offer, dropped out of community college for what I thought would only be a semester, and moved to Portland. Working for the publisher while having my book put out by them meant that I was tasked with press work. I wasn’t familiar with how to do press for a book, and the book ended up relying on the same outlets I had used to promote my work before. Namely, social media.
When the book was republished by Party Trick Press this last year, it was given more press. The publisher reached out to several sources for write ups and I did a couple of events for a virtual book tour. Party Trick Press also reached out to multiple media outlets for interviews. I’m glad the republication received attention, but I wish the attention had come when the poems felt fresh.
I also did a lot of my own publicity work. My husband was a bookseller at the time, and he showed me some examples of press releases they received at the bookstore so I could make my own, and I worked with Timeless on reaching out to various places for reviews and interviews. It got a decent amount of press for an indie book, and another boost when it was reissued in 2019, but I still think it could reach more people. I’ve heard more than a few people say that my book is the only time that they saw their experiences reflected back to them, that it’s what made them realize they weren’t alone in their experiences of chronic pain and trauma — so I know there are more people who it could resonate with.
I know from your afterword that you went on tour for your book after it was originally published. You talk about finding out about disability justice and meeting other writers and artists making work on disability, sickness, and sexual abuse. Did a lot of the connections come about specifically because of the book?
Yes — writing my book and going on tour and reading from it in front of people is how I met other disabled people. I say this in the afterword, but the first time I met someone else with fibromyalgia was at a reading I gave. So really I was having the same experience from writing the book as people had reading the book — it made me realize I wasn’t alone. And it made me realize that my disability wasn’t just this thing I struggled with personally but something that made me belong to a community.
There’s a Goodreads review that I think is funny because it says something like, “In the afterword, she writes about being influenced by the disability justice movement, but I didn’t see that movement’s analysis reflected in the text.” And it’s like, if you read the afterword, it’s about how I didn’t know about disability justice when I wrote the book! In many ways Tender Points is about a feeling of being isolated and scared because that’s the place I wrote it from. Disability justice is amazing and liberatory, but not every book needs to be about it. The experience I had of feeling alone and feeling like I had to piece things together for myself, that’s also an experience worth writing about.
Are there places in your book where you didn’t have knowledge that you now have?
That must have been such a profound experience to meet someone with fibromyalgia face to face for the first time at a reading. In your afterword, you mention that when you were writing the book in 2013 the trauma you were discussing felt like “personal problems [you] needed to sort out.” You go on to say that is why you started writing the book. I too feel like my first book was written at a time when I felt very isolated and wrote to be heard.
My book is filled with gaps in knowledge. There are poems in it that deal with degrading sexual experiences, but when I was writing the book, I hadn’t yet named those as assault. I wrote it to try and pin down a lot of experiences I didn’t understand yet.
We both wrote about our lived experiences and unraveling trauma. This process is non-linear and has gaps. Those gaps, as you say in the book, are a part of the story. You not knowing about disability justice until after the book was published, and thus not writing about it in the work, shows up in the experiences of isolation you describe. Any poetry book I wrote now wouldn’t look the same way my first book did. I’m sure any future work of mine will have its own gaps in knowledge, but they won’t be exactly the same as a work put out when I was 22.
In the process of republishing Tender Points, were there ways you changed it and thus made it a new book? Or was the afterword the only addition?
The only thing we changed is the afterword! My new publisher, Nightboat, even kept the cover, which has a whole bunch of die-cut holes in it and was designed by the endlessly creative ex-Timeless editor Joel Gregory. At first we suspected keeping the holes might be a logistical nightmare but they figured out a way to do it.
However, for the reissue of your book, The Women Widowed to Themselves, you made a number of revisions. I’m so curious to ask about that process — but before I get into asking you about how the book changed, I first want to ask you a little bit about how you changed.
I imagine you’ve changed in various ways since 2015 — I definitely have! I know that one thing that’s shifted for you is your understanding of the degrading sexual experiences you mention. In one of the interstitial essays that appears in the new edition, you write “Many of these poems contain experiences which, shortly after they happened, I described to friends as bad sex . . . This was before I knew that assault was rarely such a neatly wrapped experience . . . Now I look back at these poems with an eye of self-protection, wishing that I could shield my younger self from harm.”
I’m curious about what else has changed, and the distance (and/or lack of distance) you feel between today-Lora and past-Lora. When our books first came out in 2015, I was 31 and you were 22. My book was reissued when I was 36, and yours was reissued when you were 28. I think the distance from 22 to 28 is greater than the distance between 31 and 36, not only because it’s two years longer, but because 22 feels like a really distinct stage of life, a time of youth that maybe draws to a close by a person’s mid to late twenties. When I was 22 I was impulsive, excitable, ravenously hungry for experience. My feelings all felt so BIG. Looking back at your 22-year-old self, what was it like to be them and how did that contribute to the poems they wrote?
When I was asked to republish this book, I thought it would be a simple process. The poems were largely not changed. I took out a couple of poems from the original manuscript because I did not feel they added anything significant to the work. I added two more which were written at the same time point because I wanted them to live in a collection permanently. The new publisher, Party Trick Press, and I also divided the book into four sections. There were already short poems sprinkled throughout the book. We made these stand out aesthetically, and placed the essays after them. The cover and aesthetic look of the book changed.
Still, I didn’t think the book would take very long to put out, but the republishing process took almost a year. Much of this was because I am in school full time and working part time, so I don’t have a lot of free time. I also schedule in rest a lot more than I used to. But another reason the republication process took a long time is because it was emotionally demanding for me. It took a lot out of me to sit with these poems written by a younger version of myself. You said it well — 22 was a time of impulsivity and big feelings for me too. I felt deeply lonely and craved understanding from others. One way that’s changed now that I’m 28 is that I don’t seek base-level understanding through my writing anymore. I have strong relationships that have given me the feeling of being seen I always craved. Writing has been a way for me to work through a lot of pain, and sharing that writing has connected me with others. But writing is often a private act. It doesn’t allow for back and forth or in-the-moment support. Finding support in relationships has changed a lot for me.
I first read your book in 2016, when I was going through a period of grief. Our mutual friend Grizzly lent me the book when I was staying with them. It really shook me upon my first read. I reread your book again recently and was surprised at how much pain it dug up. Even though I logically know this, I’m always surprised by how trauma continues. I’m curious, what is your process when you revisit your book? Did republishing the work take a lot of emotional weight for you?
Republishing the book didn’t feel heavy for me. I’m kind of — I don’t know if desensitized is the right word — but I’ve just read from Tender Points so many times now that I don’t find it jarring. The book just feels totally integrated into my mind and body, very familiar. Recognizing the community I’ve found thanks to the book made me feel emotional in a good way, and I’m grateful to Nightboat for suggesting I think of something to write an afterword about!
I want to talk for a minute about how you’ve put out your own work as well. I know you’ve self-published some zines / chapbooks, and I’m also really interested in how you’ve been publishing your art and poems on Tumblr and other social media. You’ve been doing that for about ten years now, I think. What did it feel like when your work started going viral, and how does it feel to be an Internet-famous poet now?
Yeah, I’ve been putting my own work out for ten years in the sense that ten years ago, when I was 18, I began sharing poetry and visual art on my Tumblr account. Back in 2013, my friend Leah Levison and I started a poetry zine press. We put out chapbooks of each other’s work and a couple of other people’s. The project was put to rest when I started working for Where Are You Press.
One of the first times one of my poems went viral, I was still living with my mom. I remember telling her my poem had 500k reblogs on it, and she said, “Well what does that translate to?” Having an internet following has given me opportunities. I certainly would not have been approached to put out this book initially if I didn’t have that following. I’m grateful that sharing on social media allows for people to find my work, but I’ve pulled away from some of the pressures of social media. Those largely boil down to me not wanting to share online all of the time to stay relevant.
In one of the essays in the new edition of your book, you observe that “writing is a way of moving through,” in regards to how writing about assault was how you began to process it. It sounds like revising was a way of moving through, too — revisiting this younger version of yourself and their big feelings and intense experiences. A big theme in your work and in this book specifically is the ever-changing and evolving self. I’d love to hear about what draws you to this theme and how it’s reflected in your approach to the reissued version of the book.
Yes, you’re right. Revising was a big way of moving through. As for the ever-changing self, nothing seems fixed. Everything is changing and moving all of the time. Viewing myself, and the world in general, as fluid reminds me that specific traumas are not going to eat up my life as they once did. I don’t really believe the whole romantic notion that trauma just goes away, or that time heals wounds. But I have seen experiences which once consumed my life becoming smaller and shrinking as other parts of my life grew bigger. I’m interested in the many dimensions anything can contain and in studying things from multiple angles. This involves not seeing things, including myself, in a fixed position.
How did you and Party Trick decide to divide The Women Widowed to Themselves into four sections and include the short poems and “Notes on the Past” essays? And how did you identify the themes that you wanted to speak about in these essays (growth, trauma, assault, codependency)?
The publisher and I found that these divisions in the book already existed. There were several one- to two-line poems signaling themes of the poems to follow placed throughout the book. We accented these by putting them on blue pages. As for the essays, there was a lot of conversation around whether they should all go at the end of the book, or the beginning, or in between the poems. Ultimately, they ended up being placed alongside the short poems. My experience in reading the book included a lot of interruptions. I could not simply take the poems in as they were. There were things I wanted to clarify about them, things I had learned in the years since originally writing them. Those internal clarifications interrupted my reading. The essays are meant to interrupt the reader and to mimic the experience I have reading the book now.
The way you came to weave the essays into the poetry makes so much sense to me — thank you for sharing that about the process. I think they really add to the book this way, rather than being placed at the end. This way, they really lead you through the book as a guide, providing context that makes the poems richer and adds a layer of reflection. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, the interplay of the original poems and the poet looking back on them. Reading it feels wonderfully intimate, like you’re giving the reader a tour of your poems and kind of a tour of your life and growth as a person as well.
Thank you! I know you are currently working on two new books — a novel and a book of poetry. The novel deals with sexual assault as well. How does it feel to write about this in fiction?
Writing about sexual assault in the novel feels a lot more complicated than the writing I did in Tender Points. In Tender Points, I was just telling my own story; I knew what happened to me, and I wanted to speak my truth. In the novel, I’m trying to write about a whole bunch of complexities around sexual assault — not just the experience of assault but the experience of its aftermath, whatever that may be, and how friends and communities do their best to support survivors and sometimes fuck up. I’m writing about a complicated and messy thing, and writing about it has felt complicated and at times also messy. But I’m compelled deeply by the subject, largely because there isn’t a lot of writing about it, outside of zines.
I have a couple more specific questions about your revision process for the new edition: You mention in your introduction that you had to manually type all of the poems from a copy of the book. If you don’t mind my asking, how did the file get lost? How do you think the experience of retyping all of your poems changed the way you experienced republishing the manuscript?
The original file for my manuscript lived on a computer hard drive that got erased. I think if I really tried I could have found a digital copy of the manuscript, but retyping the poems allowed me to sit with them. It took a lot of time and was tedious. I think it made me go through the work meticulously and really live in the poems for a bit.
I was a fan of your poems online and in zines (and on T-shirts), but I hadn’t read the original version of your book. In the current edition, the dedication says: “Dedicated to shedding old narratives.” Was it the same in the original edition, or is it new? What does it mean to you?
Originally the book was dedicated to a good friend of mine, Robi. She and I bonded in community college and a lot of the poems dealt with experiences we supported each other through. I changed the dedication because the republication felt like a new work. The essays changed the book. The dedication of “to shedding old narratives” could have also been “revising old narratives.” I spent a long time being immensely angry, and feeling trapped in this anger. It was important for me, at 22, to name myself as a victim and survivor. To say with certainty, these things happened and they were not okay. But revisiting that book made me realize that while this was helpful at one point, I no longer wanted to carry on the same story. The book is a record, and I want to recognize pain while also not dredging it up repeatedly.
If you were to write Tender Points now, how do you think the book would differ? Do you look at your book as a time capsule of where you were at?
The main difference between now-me and 2013-me is probably that I now experience belonging to an inspiring and supportive community of disabled people. So the frustration and anger in the book might be dulled by that — or maybe sharpened because I now have a greater awareness of how many others are experiencing the same kinds of harmful situations. And I’d have so many more amazing sources and quotes to reference. But honestly I can’t imagine Tender Points being any different than it is. The book does feel like a time capsule, not just of 2013, but of 1993 – 2013, my life starting with my assault and ending with my attempt at solving the mystery of it by writing the book.
Yes, the book is non-linear and jumps in between space and time. It makes sense that it’s not simply a capsule of one specific moment, but so many moments mixing into each other.
In Tender Points you also discuss how women are assumed to be exaggerating their experiences. You write “poetry fails me because it’s not written plainly” and go on to say “That’s why I so firmly want prose here. Sentences. Periods. Male certainty.” How has writing this book, which demands to be accepted as fact, influenced your fiction? Does fiction allow for more freedom with play? Or do the stakes feel higher because you are trying to capture others’ experiences?
I think the answer to both your questions is yes: fiction gives me so much freedom, and trying to represent different kinds of experiences feels like a tremendous responsibility.
This reminds me, I wanted to ask you — in one of your essays, you write: “My self has shifted with age, as all selves do. The book I wrote in my early 20s is not the book I would write now.” How has your writing changed? What are you writing now?
Going back to an earlier response of mine, my current writing isn’t stemming from a deep need to be heard and seen. Writing provides that in ways but I also have other outlets that give me that in much more fulfilling ways. Also, when this book first came out, I would often share work immediately, without editing it first. I don’t do that anymore. I sit with what I’m working on and am more protective of it as a draft. I don’t share everything I make. Right now, I’m back in school completing my BA in English & Art after six years out of school. (The semester I took off to work for Where Are You Press extended far past the point I thought it would.) School dominates a lot of the energy I have for writing or putting out non-school-related creative projects. That being said, I have also been writing and compiling poems for the last four years. I have enough poems for a book. When I get a break from school, I intend to move into editing and ordering the poems into a manuscript. Additionally, I compiled a series of poems I wrote in 2020 into a collection. That, along with an introductory research essay on dread, will come out through Burn All Books some point in the future.
Were there any books or poems that helped shape your changing relationship to / understanding of trauma and assault? Or was the shift mainly due to lived experience, relationships?
Oh, good question. It’s a fuzzy timeline for me. But I’m inclined to say that relationships and lived experience made the biggest impact. The part of your book where you describe your idea for a painting series of brilliant women talking about rape (versus anything else) feels very real to me. I’ve had so many conversations with people where we’re describing sexual assault — whether it’s our own experiences or at large. Connections with other people through conversation made me feel so much less alone. As for books, your book changed me a lot. I’d never read anything like it. I’ve told you this, but it really shook me. I wish I found your book a few years earlier, but I’m grateful it was handed to me at all.
My last question for you: We both have talked about writing as a way through. Do you feel that writing from an isolated place brought you to the other end? Is there a “through” that you’ve found? I’m suspicious that a full path through any life-altering experience truly exists, but I wonder how this resonates for you.
It’s really lovely to hear that my own book helped shift that for you. I think writing Tender Points wrote me through the mystery I set out to solve — the mystery of my body, why I started experiencing chronic pain the morning after recalling a memory of being sexually abused as a kid. I think I’m more at peace with my history of abuse and my pain now, and less confused about how the former caused the latter.
What’s next for you? I know you’re working on two books right now, but do you think you will get into event booking or more in-person community building? I also ask you this with full awareness that we’re still in a pandemic. I’m wondering if something like Sick Fest, which you helped co-organize in 2016, is something you’ll do again.
What’s next for me is hopefully publishing this novel, then finishing the other novel I’m working on, which is refreshingly not about rape, and trying to find a home for this chapbook I wrote called Gravitas about how the only thing I learned in grad school was that my life wasn’t worth writing about. I don’t think I’ll take on organizing another event like Sick Fest again — it was very hard and exhausting! But I was hosting a reading series mostly at my apartment for six years pre-COVID, and I would really love to get back to doing that.
What about you? Tell me more about your forthcoming chapbook with Burn All Books. What are the poems like? I’m intrigued by the essay on dread. Anything else on the horizon?
The poems were written from March to August 2020. Looking back at them in the fall of 2020, I was surprised to find the word “dread” come up repeatedly. That wasn’t a word I regularly used before. The introduction to the chapbook is an essay looking into different forms of dread, including existential dread and capitalist dread. It was exciting to me to put this chapbook together because it gave me an opportunity to play with design. The poems may be a bit challenging to read, but the chapbook will be as much about how the poems look as it will be about the words themselves.
Other than that, I’m still writing poems and hope to put that out in a full-length book soon. That requires me taking time to create a manuscript and trying to get it published. Also, my friend Matty Terrones and I are going to record an audio poetry project. They’ll be providing droney guitar and field recordings while I read poems. We’re talking about performing a couple shows up the California coast in the winter too — depending how things look with the pandemic. Looking forward to all that.
Lora Mathis is a poet, artist, and musician from San Diego. Since The Women Widowed to Themselves was first published they have put out a second book of poems, instinct to ruin. A chapbook of theirs is forthcoming on Burn All Books. They currently live in Oakland.
Amy Berkowitz is a writer. Since the initial publication of Tender Points, her writing and conversations have appeared in publications including The Believer, BOMB, Bitch, and Jewish Currents. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she’s writing two novels.