Interview with Matthew J. Andrews, by Cindy Bousquet Harris












Matthew J. Andrews is a private investigator and writer whose poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Orange Blossom Review, Funicular Magazine, and EcoTheo Review, among others. His debut chapbook, I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He can be contacted at: matthewjandrews.com

 

CINDY: Besides being a writer, you’re also a private investigator. Which came first?


MATTHEW: Writing has always been in my blood, so I would have to say that came first. As a child, I wrote stories, screenplays, poems, and all sorts of things, and though the exact goal changed as I aged, I knew I wanted to grow up to write in some capacity. That said, I took a long break from writing creatively as the demands of life grew in size and scope, and I didn’t pick it up again until only a few years ago.


The private investigator gig, interestingly, came about as a result of a terrible job market for writers. I got my BA in English in 2007, just in time for the Great Recession, so jobs in areas like journalism were nonexistent. I got a job with a PI firm, doing in-depth interviews and writing reports for insurance claims, and it just kind of grew into a career from there. I spend most of my time on the back end of cases, working with the reports and documentation.

CINDY: How does this affect your writing?


MATTHEW: There are some practical conflicts (the first drafts of creative work sometimes have to be stripped of the overly formal way of writing I use for the investigative work), but for the most part, I don’t see a lot of bleeding from one area into the other. Surprisingly, it’s rare that my (admittedly very interesting) career even shows up in my work at all. I think it’s more likely that they exist as different outlets for the same mental process of interrogation.


CINDY: Your writing addresses (or shall I say “investigates”?) spiritual topics. Tell us about this, would you?


MATTHEW: I picked up creative writing again out of need to investigate these topics. After years of spiritual malaise, accumulated baggage, and general struggles with doubt and cynicism, I ended up in a place where I knew I needed some kind of outlet, a way to deal earnestly with what was weighing me down and re-engage with the only faith I have ever known.


In time, writing became a sort of spiritual discipline for me, something akin to the practice of Lectio Devina. As I read through the Bible, I paid attention to what spoke to me – be it a character, an image, a narrative arc – and was honest with myself about how I felt in response. The poems in this collection, as well as many others, ultimately came out of this period of creative wrestling.


CINDY: Your book includes poems inspired by events from Genesis to Revelation. How did you choose which events, people, situations to write about?


MATTHEW: The poems came together pretty organically. I spent about two years reading the Bible and responding with poetry and, because I didn’t have any intention of making a collection (at least not in the beginning), there wasn’t much thought being put into making these kinds of decisions.


Once I decided to make a chapbook, it became a process of curating more than anything. I wanted the final product to have strong work, but I also wanted to it be fairly representative of the scope of Scripture, and I wanted to try to split the poems as evenly as I could between the Old and New Testaments. That was a hard process, and I had to leave out some poems I really liked because they either didn’t fit the developing aesthetic or were too thematically similar to stronger poems.


CINDY: Your new book is titled I Close My Eyes and I Almost Remember. You use that line in one of the poems. What does that phrase mean for you?


MATTHEW: Coming up with a title was a challenging process, but in the end, I think that phrase strikes the right note, especially when considering my aim with these poems. A memory is a recollection of something experienced, something personal; to remember something is different from to simply know it. For me, the Bible is something I have always known very well, but more and more, I realize that I knew it from a distance; there was no attachment, no emotional investment, no memory. More than anything, these poems were an attempt to take these stories, which have existed for thousands of years and belong to everyone, and make them my stories.


CINDY: Do poets need to close their eyes sometimes?


MATTHEW: Absolutely. Poets, like all people, need darkness in the same way they need silence: as a way of focusing.


CINDY: What have you remembered?


MATTHEW: With these poems, I have remembered a community that stretches back further in time than I would have thought possible. Like all men, I will have my struggles – with doubt, with questioning, with my intense desire to classify and label a God who can’t possibly be fathomed – but if nothing else, this process has made me feel a kinship with men and women of the Bible, people who almost assuredly struggled with the same things that bog me down.


CINDY: What has been the hardest poem for you to write?


MATTHEW: “Isaac at Twilight” was a difficult one, which is funny because it’s such a short poem. The story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac has always been a tough one for me to swallow, so dwelling in the aftermath of that event from Isaac’s perspective was a particularly dark place to hang out. And the poem itself was a challenge to get right. It was one of those poems that fought me at every word.


CINDY: As Christians, we want to share God’s Word and to let people know what it means in our lives. You tackle a challenging job in writing about Scripture. Proverbs 30: 5-6 tells us,

Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you...”

How do you write about Scripture—how do you approach writing about Scripture—without risking contradicting it?


MATTHEW: I think there are probably a lot of good answers to this, but for me personally, especially as it relates to this collection, I think the key is a real sense of connection with the characters I’m writing about. I think it’s important to be empathetic with them, to meet them where they are, and then build from there. The Bible tells us a lot, but there’s also so much left out, and what I’ve mostly tried to do is look into that unknown.

Ultimately (again, for me and my writing), I think that sense of honest treatment of the characters was a more immediate consideration than being true to the text. That’s partially because of the nature of poetry. A poem isn’t a theological statement or a presentation of fact, but an exploration, a probing, so it can be a little more imaginative in its handling of the source material without compromising it.


CINDY: So, some of the poems are more “character-driven” than “historically-driven.” For example, the poem “Outstretched Hand” deals with the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and ends with “the staff discarded as sawdust,” though later, in Exodus 17, Moses used it to get water from the rock. Your poem “Peter Goes Fishing on the Sea of Tiberias” relates to the account in John, chapter 21. The Biblical account does not indicate that Peter walked on the water at this time (though he did in Matthew, chapter 14) and doesn’t mention anything about Jesus having a sword with him. What more could you say to help those who might find themselves confused about these issues?


MATTHEW: I would say that thinking of these poems as character-driven is the right way to approach them. There are several poems, including the ones you cited, that fall into the category of “reimagination,” but that’s done as part of their commitment to making the characters and their emotions the core. As an example, in a poem like “Peter Goes Fishing on the Sea of Tiberias,” we’re treated not to the actual account of events, but Peter’s fantasy, a storm of emotions – guilt, shame, fear, and, oddly enough, a deepening faith – that stem from his betrayal and subsequent reunion with Jesus.


CINDY: Here are some of my favorite lines/phrases from this collection. Would you, please, share some thoughts about at least one of these lines?

in “The Sixth Day” “he had built his world to respire, each piece giving up part of its life

to give life to another”,

in a poem titled “Unfinished Psalms From the Private Notebook of King David”

“Speak to me, please, in a tone that is not thunder, in a voice that is not rain”, (and)

in “The Last Temptation of Judas Iscariot,” “It starts as a whisper.”


MATTHEW: I’d be happy to talk about all three of these lines. Thank you for picking them!

“The Sixth Day”: This is a poem about the creation story, and one of the things that fascinates me with how our world works is the symbiotic relationships we have with other life forms. On a practical level, we breathe in what we need to live, and then we give up what another needs; on an emotional level, we make ourselves vulnerable, we give part of ourselves away, to others who do the same. I love the idea that this is just a part of who God is that bleeds into creation, almost because he couldn’t help but make a world that way.


“Unfinished Psalms From the Private Notebook of King David”: The basis for this poem was the question, “What kinds of psalms would King David write and not show anyone, especially in his darkest moments, in his times of guilt and pain?” These are hard moments for anyone, but, I imagine, especially so for the man who used to be God’s anointed, who found favor with everything he did. How difficult it must have been to be caught in a storm and long for sunny days.

“The Last Temptation of Judas Iscariot”: It’s easy to look down on Judas, to see him as the villain, but who among us hasn’t given into an impulse, a hellish desire that first started as a soft whisper in the ear?


CINDY: I love this from your “Damascus” poem: “anyone can listen to thunder… Fewer are those who heed the quiet teaching of rain”. That’s beautiful. Can you say more about it, please?


MATTHEW: This poem stemmed from my admiration of people who don’t struggle (or at least don’t seem to struggle) with their faith. Paul is lauded for his work as an apostle, but I’d like to think anyone could be a good soldier if God made himself known so decisively like he did with Paul. Most of us don’t get that kind of clarity, so we are forced to listen to the more subtle words He speaks, the “quiet teaching of rain.”


CINDY: You dedicated the book to your wife, saying “without whom these poems would not exist.” Can you say more about how your wife has an impact on your writing?


MATTHEW: What’s funny is that she’s not much of a poetry reader. Her contribution is definitely of the supportive variety, giving me time and space to write, to read, to explore, to ask hard questions. She is my best friend and without her I wouldn’t accomplish very much at all.


CINDY: As you become more well-known as a writer, does that interfere at all with your work as an investigator, for example, making you more easily recognized?


MATTHEW: I only wish I was that successful!


CINDY: Whose writing has inspired you?


MATTHEW: Many, many writers, of all sorts of styles and backgrounds, but instead of going on all day, I’ll list two who are most material to this project. The first is David Maine, an American author whose three novels based on biblical narratives – The Preservationist, The Fall, and The Book of Samson – floored me when I first read them and stick with me a decade later. The second is Stephen Mitchell, who wrote a book, Portraits and Parables, of mostly prose poems that deal (mostly) with biblical narratives, and his take on them – especially his ones about the parables, which are almost metanarratives on the parables themselves – have been particularly inspirational to me.


CINDY: What’s the best advice you’ve ignored as a writer?


MATTHEW: I used to take it to heart that I had to write something every day, which is advice a lot of writers give. That probably works really well for people who earn a living with their words, or who have novels to crank out, but considering I write mostly poetry, I long ago stopped trying to produce something every day. Instead, I give myself daily time to think about writing, which is a necessary part of my process. Usually when the pen hits the paper, I’ve already spent a lot of time messing with the idea in my head.


CINDY: Do you remember something you wrote as a child? Tell us about it.


MATTHEW: I wrote a lot of things as a kid, but I remember once for a school project in junior high, I wrote a detective story where I used my classmates as characters and everyone got a kick out of it. I don’t know if this is really how it happened or if my memory is creating a narrative, but I recall that being a defining moment in me having ambitions as a writer.


CINDY: And it’s interesting that it was a detective story. Maybe also an indication of your future work as an investigator?


MATTHEW: Very possibly! I don’t remember if the detective aspect was part of the assignment or something I brought on my own. I wasn’t especially into detective stories at that age, at least not that I can recall, but maybe I was because the story had a very noir feel to it.


CINDY: Do you have a favorite poem of yours?

MATTHEW: I have a couple of poems that I really treasure, but for me, it’s hard to beat “Evening Walk in the End of Days,” which I had published over at Earth & Altar last year: https://earthandaltarmag.com/posts/sb4q0dty0mgnymakqj51hxnsw7so87.


CINDY: A favorite poem written by someone else?


MATTHEW: I don’t know if I have a single favorite poem, but to pick one that I really love that relates more to my book, I would have to say “The Parable of the Sower,” a prose poem by the aforementioned Stephen Mitchell, which ties into the very idea of writing about biblical texts: http://www.wuu.org/sermons/reading032008pmoore.pdf.


CINDY: What effect do you want your writing to have?


MATTHEW: I suppose I would be happy if there were people out there who read my work and it in some way helped them make a deeper connection – to themselves, to others, to God, to whomever.


CINDY: What else would you like to tell us that I haven’t asked?


MATTHEW: I am in love with the cover of my book! It was actually created by my brother, Joshua Andrews, who is a talented and accomplished mixed media artist. Writing a book has always been a dream of mine, but to get to work with my brother on it takes it up another level. You can check him out on Instagram at @ _jandrews__.


CINDY: That’s wonderful! Another example of “connection.” Matthew, thank you for your thoughtful answers. We hope all the best for you.


MATTHEW: Thank you so much for talking with me! This was a pleasure.


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