Author Matthew J. Parker speaks with Lucas Gonzalez and Columbia Journal
“So regressive, but on a personal level, like lesions,” says Matthew J. Parker, offering his thoughts on a poem of mine.
Matthew isolates a couple of stanzas where he focused his reading, characteristically eager to talk writing, and generous in his assessment of the work. As artists, we are ever hungry for and grateful to receive a compliment, even more so an engaged response. I thank Matthew for his kind words, adding that “I’ll take it anywhere I can get it!” “But really,” I add, wanting to qualify, and not seem falsely humble: “It means a lot to me that you were down with the poem.”
“Art transcends the political by making it personal, and thus more immediate,” Matthew continues. If we can see another perspective, or see a vital truth through art, we are more likely to respond to it if we aren’t “beat over the head with it,” as he puts it.
“Artists,” he argues, “are organically personal, not polemically so.” It is through accessing individual stories that we get a view into the wider narratives, which exist beyond our understanding and experience.
“Indeed, it can be as simple us being ‘down with it,’ as you say,” Matthew affirms. Admittedly, we can be given to intellectualizing things, and need to read something direct, deeply felt — work that returns the imperative to art-making.
In a culture of publishing literary writing, Columbia Journal has become more engaged in reaching underserved writing communities. It is important to recognize the ways in which literary culture may risk being insulated from writing happening in contexts outside of the mainstream. Columbia Journal’s mission to publish a “range of voices, perspectives, and styles” recently led to the creation of an editorial position dedicated to reaching out to writing communities outside our own. As Columbia Journal’s inaugural Community Outreach Editor, I have had the distinct honor of leading our effort to reach incarcerated writers. The 247 submissions we received this year from writers all around the country told a story about the power of writing.
“That almost instant recognition of progressive thinking that permeates most art despite the fact that most art is depressingly undervalued and/or unrecognized, may be exactly the point,” Matthew says. And so began the conversation that follows.
I sought out Matthew J. Parker after reading his memoir, Larceny In My Blood, which details his journey between “Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education.” Preparing to take on my role as Columbia Journal’s first Community Outreach Editor, I wanted to think of the ways I might contextualize my work, encouraging incarcerated writers to submit to our journal and receive feedback on their writing. Reading Matthew’s memoir presented the prescient opportunity to reflect on stigmas and systemic issues surrounding addiction, incarceration, and the role education can play towards restorative justice. Matthew’s is in every way the personification of a redemption story, a narrative that reminds us of the humanity of incarcerated men and women, many of whom are good people who have made mistakes, only to find themselves alienated and maligned by society upon release.
Speaking to Matthew feels like catching up with an old friend. He is relaxed and excited not only to connect with his alma mater’s literary journal, but also to discuss his own work and the social issues he believes in and stands by. I tell him I am a fan of his portraits of famous musicians, and our admiration for much of the same music serves as a meaningful starting point. We touch on everything from the movement towards incarcerated justice to Bob Dylan’s Nobel laureateship — art “as the counter-weight to the Trump presidency.” In a world where we need more stories like Matthew’s, the conversation that follows is an important reminder that the true power of the written word serves its highest cause as a testament to our shared humanity.
Lucas: I’ve read that the artistic writer impulse was with you from a young age. You wrote poetry before branching off into fiction and non-fiction, and then began merging your visual artwork and your narrative work into graphic novel form. How has moving across and between form and genre changed your writing and the way you think about storytelling?
Matthew: One of the first things I teach my creative writing students is that genres suck. You’re a writer, so write. Whatever genre is called for. I love writing poetry for instance, but was never a very good poet. Fiction, I’m better at. Non-fiction more so, but I think only because I’ve had the most practice doing it. Art, however, that brings a new dimension. If you think about it, you can’t draw an abstraction. Right? Writing poetry is the act of describing an abstraction in concrete terms. That’s how a professor once described it to me. So if you can’t draw mathematics, you can draw Einstein doing mathematics. That same rule applies to writing fiction or non-fiction. Seeing what you’re writing is the essence of the concrete. I sometimes have my students do a drawing of Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel,” for instance, because “The Colonel” transcends all genres. It’s a prose poem, an essay, and it could also be fiction. But do you see what I’m talking about? By being able to draw, being able to visualize what you’re seeing — to be able to make it more concrete. If you can’t draw it, it’s an abstraction.
Lucas: It’s kind of a negotiation between your chosen medium, and the objective correlative; how to anchor your ideas and emotions in the physical world, in space, through language.
Matthew: Yeah cause that’s how I write. That’s how I use art.
Lucas: Are you working in many genres at once right now? Or …
Matthew: Oh yeah. I write op-eds all the time, but I’m also writing novels. In writing, you want to try and balance between the literary and the commercial because you’ve got to sell your work.
Lucas: Interesting that you’re distinguishing and negotiating between literary merit and marketability. There’s an inherent tension between the two. Let’s talk about “Larceny in my Blood,” your graphic memoir, which balances both so well.
The memoir spans your epic journey from addiction, crime, prison, to higher education. We get an indelible impression of you and your character throughout. One of the main traits I noticed is your merciless sense of humor and irony, but also your disarmingly empathic and forgiving approach towards life and those around you, even those who you may not agree with. How did your sense of self as a writer change during the time you spent inside? What role did writing play in your day-to-day life, while you were incarcerated?
Matthew: I recently wrote that one’s descent into hell is directly proportional to the height of one’s empathy. I was talking about Joni Mitchell, but of course the rule was general. But sense of humor and irony are survival mechanisms and are among the few things they can’t take away from prisoners.
The empathy, however, stems from another writerly axiom: “Utopias suck.” I also teach this to my creative writing students. They are empty things bereft of conflict. A utopia would be the worst thing possible for a writer and doubly so for us as human beings, because if you think about it, what are we but a mechanism to overcome our flaws? And in overcoming them, we can apply the same rule to others and that begins with empathy.
Though I never really thought of myself as an artist while locked up, it was through art and writing that I learned to channel my inner rebellion, my inner iconoclasm, if you will, and get a laugh out of it to boot. My day-to-day writing in prison, I kept a journal. I wrote poetry. I wrote tons of poetry. It was bad poetry because of course it’s easy to write bad poetry, but it was still poetry. It was still writing. It also taught me to think in metaphors. Einstein was a great scientist, not so much because he was a mathematician, but because he could think in metaphors. He could think what would it be like to sit at a beam of light and ride it like a train?
I think that’s a big part of writing too. When you write, it’s therapeutic. Which is why I applaud the whole thing you’re doing, the whole thing Columbia Journal is doing, along with [Columbia Artist/Teachers] workshops at Rikers [Island].
Lucas: I get the sense that in some ways, writing was enacting its power on you. At the same time, you were learning to channel your own powers through it.
Matthew: Oh yeah. It definitely helps. I mean, it’s an outlet. Prison’s not what people think. There’s jail and there’s prison. The county jail is where you’re locked up waiting to go to trial or waiting to sign your plea. But once you get to prison, it’s a lot more relaxed. You find a job and you work eight hours a day. Other than that, you have a lot of free time. There’s a lot of violence and racism. Work is how I got away from it during the day, art at night.
Lucas: An excerpt from the poem “Waltz with Sticks,” by Genevieve Burger-Weiser, serves as the epigraph to the memoir. The image it presents really captures that essence of what art can do for us in states of solitude, and of isolation or alienation. The poem reads:
Once in his cell,
I caught him painting cornfields
in crepuscular light.
I think you told me a little bit about how you came across this poem, but maybe you can retell the story of how you decided on this for the epigraph? What does this poem mean to you?
Matthew: Genevieve and I were pretty close. She was in poetry at the School of the Arts, and I was in non-fiction. I didn’t have many friends there. As social animals go, I’m not much of one. I spent an awkward year trying to fit in before retreating back into solitude. I was kind of this in-your-face ex-con. I’m the convict at Columbia, and I had to let everybody know it. But after a year of that, I said “Oh, fuck this,” and I backed off.
So, for whatever reason we hit it off. When I saw the poem published, I was floored. It reminded me of so many years spent in cells trying to read or draw by the dimmest of light, because there’s always these lights-out rules. The line … Trying to draw and write by the dimmest of light, late when it was quiet, but the poem was also about empathy. The kind of empathy I mentioned above. Yes the world sucks, but from that suckiness we create beauty, so it’s back to that whole utopia thing. It’s in the depth.
The introduction to Don Quixote has a thing about prison. Even one engendered in the most noisome prison is able to find beauty and light, and by doing so, transcend the prison. That’s kind of what the poem’s about. What I saw in the poem. That’s why I used it as an epigraph.
Lucas: I got the sense that this poem in a lot of ways is about art as a vehicle for transcending and taking us past those dark places.
Matthew: Yeah. That’s what I saw when I read that poem. I saw myself in the cell. I painted for a little while at a prison in Safford. Actually, my mom still has it. I painted her a kachina doll. It’s hanging in my living room.
Lucas: The poem reflecting yourself back on you.
Matthew: Exactly, but not just me as a reflection, as a general reflection of everybody who’s in prison. Not just walls and bars prisons, but prisons of our own making.
Lucas: On the subject of teachers, you’ve talked a lot about Richard Shelton. So many writers who’ve come under the influence of the right teachers at the right time. You note that there was some irony in the fact that the first workshop that you found yourself in was in prison. Tell me some more about how his workshop influenced you in your writing, and maybe who some of your other teachers have been and what you learned from them.
Matthew: Richard Shelton and I came together on this weird coincidence. This weird confluence of disastrous events, 9/11 and a prison war. We were both at a huge prison complex in Tucson, both on separate yards, at a time when Mexican Nationals and Mexican Americans were killing each other. Because of this, they moved me and him to Manzanita yard.
Lucas: You were both simultaneously relocated.
Matthew: Yeah. Forcefully relocated. He wasn’t happy, but it worked for me. Suddenly I was in this writing workshop that’s supposed to be nurturing amid all this violence. It wasn’t just the prison violence. BOOM! All of a sudden 9/11 happened. They shut down the yards for a week or so after, so I didn’t get to see him. By the time they opened them back up, I was transferred out. But I’d gotten what I needed. Richard was the first person to tell me that my writing sucked. It was actually a relief.
As for other teachers, there was Sandra DesJardins, my first creative writing teacher, and also a Columbia Alumna. Today she’s my boss. Full circle, right? She pushed me beyond poetry. Amy Lerman, who’s my colleague at Mesa Community College. She taught me not to take literature too seriously. From Columbia, Patty O’Toole, who shaped my voice. Richard Locke, who taught me that literature was a tool to enhance my writing, and Margo Jefferson, who opened the essay to me. Margo taught me … It was something beyond the editorial. Something very personal. Gut-wrenching.
Matthew: It doesn’t necessarily have to be confessional but certainly personal.
Matthew: Then of course there’s Richard Howard, Timothy Donnelly, Bob Pullman, Michael Janeway from the J-school. When I was at Columbia, I was like holy shit. I was born to be at this place. Couldn’t get enough of it.
Lucas: Sounds like you were right at home.
Matthew: Yes. There were so many writers. I didn’t know where to start. That’s only mentioning some of them.
Lucas: It seems like the teachers that you had were … I can say this of myself, but it seems like it’s also true for you … that the best teachers are the ones who challenge us to go beyond even our own expectations, and raise the stakes.
Matthew: And I didn’t even mention their influence on the way I teach.
Lucas: What are some of the things that you’ve sort of inherited from those teachers and integrated into your own teaching style?
Matthew: Just that personal, that don’t be afraid to get personal. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Don’t be afraid to be a human being. Yes, you’re in college, but don’t take it too serious.
One of the things that shocked me about prison was so many people thought themselves incapable of learning. No human being cannot learn. That’s what I try to instill in my students, and I use myself as an example. I’ll show them a picture of a mugshot of me, and then a picture of my graduation picture from Columbia. If I can do it, they certainly can.
Lucas: This year, Columbia Artist/Teachers, or CA/T, began its first creative writing workshop at Rikers Island, which is, for readers who may not know, New York City’s main jail complex. One of the world’s largest. From your perspective, what is the importance of or the potential impact of writing workshops in jails and prisons?
Matthew: The arts flourish in any repressed society. The absence of structure is genuine humanity, how could it not be? The other thing is the hustle. I did portraits for ten bucks a pop and wrote sappy poetry at two dollars each.
Lucas: There’s marketability.
Matthew: Yeah, but workshops are an entire different thing. Now you’re being taught to write, and that’s key. It’s not only for the sake of the art but more because it opens the mind. Writing allows the mind to breathe. That’s the way I like to picture it. Breathing on its own will forge new and even painful pathways. Writing is therapeutic, cathartic, and empathic, which is the whole point, whether you’re in prison or not. I mean prisons are everywhere, not of bricks and bars alone. That’s kind of what this new novel’s about.
Being able to actually go into a jail and put people in a group and show them how a workshop works — to me I was floored by Richard Shelton’s workshop. I said ‘Wow.’ Because not only is everybody reading my work, I’m reading their work. That nurturing atmosphere of a workshop, that constructive criticism not only enhances your writing. It enhances your humanity.
Lucas: The writing becomes that way of not only liberating ourselves and our own minds, but opening our own capacity to what others are feeling.
Matthew: Exactly. The whole empathy thing.
Lucas: That sort of serves to hopefully better us all.
Lucas: The other side of this is the Columbia Journal, which is the student run literary magazine, just opened up manuscript submissions to incarcerated writers for the second time this year. Our goal is not only to create more equity and access, but also to encourage incarcerated writers to continue writing. We’re doing this by sending every submission we receive a response letter with individual feedback on the piece. When you were working on your own writing while incarcerated, what helped you to continue writing? What kind of advice do you wish you would have received at the time?
Matthew: I never stopped writing. Even from when I was a kid to when I was locked up. There was a pen in one hand and a book in the other. I’m kind of compelled to write.
My problem was that I never believed I needed schooling. I thought I could do it all. But I had another issue: heroin. Once I purged that from my system, the rest was fairly easy. School’s the logical next step. That’s what you’re going to be dealing with. That and most of your students will have had very little formal schooling or indeed none at all. So I commend Columbia Journal for its work in providing feedback. But what Richard Shelton did was start an outside journal. The Walking Rain Review, which was solely for prisoners and ex-prisoners. That may be your next step.
Lucas: There is this ongoing conversation going on around just these issues, so it seems like really a prescient time to be talking with you. I know this also connects to something that you wanted to address, which is the hurdles as you see them societally and institutionally for ex-cons who get released. That leads me to ask, what are some of those hurdles that you see and that you experienced, and what are some ways in which educational institutions can work to support formerly incarcerated people?
Matthew: Some of the hurdles are legislated discrimination against ex-cons. I can’t vote for one, not in Arizona. I can’t rent an apartment in certain neighborhoods because they do felony checks. I can’t get certain kinds of government assistance. Even student loans I could be barred from. That’s some of the things you have to overcome. New York City was also bad. They once gave me this impossible quest to perform. A modern day golden-fleece quest. The TLC, the Taxi Limousine Commission, when I tried to drive a cab in New York, they told me I had to go to every single court I’d ever been arrested in and corroborate everything that’s on my FBI fingerprint card, which is literally impossible.
I got my undergrad at ASU. They hired me to grade papers for an online MOOC, and then technically fired me for being an ex-con. They tried to do the same thing to me. Do this quest, and maybe we’ll let you teach here. It’s kind of what you’re up against. If they don’t want to hire you, they’re not going to. When you’re an ex-con, you’re probably last on their list. It’s just the way it is.
The other thing I’d love to see is … I noticed that Columbia just initiated a scholarship program for Syrian refugees. Which I applaud, I love it. Right? But I would love to see them do the same thing for ex-cons. Maybe open up four or five scholarships a year for gifted ex-cons, who are very close to being released. Transition them right into education. If that makes sense.
Lucas: It makes a lot of sense. As activists trying to enact progress and justice, we have to think about the ways in which we fill in the gaps; the ways in which institutions with power can levy an influence in modeling what restorative justice looks like. I think many would agree that we’re far from a system that could be considered restorative.
Matthew: You’re right. We currently have 70 million people in the United States with some kind of criminal record. 70 million. Six million alone can’t vote, including myself. It’s mostly in the red states. I voted in New York. When I lived in New York, I voted in every election. But here I’m not allowed to. That’s starting to turn a little. Virginia’s governor did a very commendable thing, he pardoned a lot of ex-felons and allowed them to vote again. In Florida it’s on the ballot in November to overturn their felony disenfranchisement law. There’s a little movement. Not enough, but a little’s better than none.
Lucas: I applaud you on your efforts to do that through teaching. I think that you are definitely a believer that the dream and aspiration of art for a better world is one of the only forces that we have over the darker and more dismal tides of history. At least that’s something that you touch on in your recent essay, talking about “Masters of War,” and Dylan’s Nobel prize as the counterweight to the Trump presidency.
Matthew: Yeah. It is. He’s kind of relevant again. It’s ironic but at the same time it’s just the rhyming of history, if you will.
Lucas: An age-old story of the artist fighting the power.
You can learn more about Matthew and his writing here