Published on June 29, 2020. Irène Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and author of three collections of poetry. A recipient of fellowships from Fulbright, Callaloo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Irène practices primary care pediatrics at the University of Virginia, where she leads workshops on poetry and medicine for physicians in training and serves as an editor for Muzzle Magazine and the humanities’ section of The Journal of General Internal Medicine. Irène co-facilitated the Poetry of Power workshop for high school students in the spring of 2020 and was the CreativeMornings Charlottesville speaker in June 2020.
In the Working from Home series, Charlottesville artists are sharing about their work and life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Irène is our seventh featured artist.
1. Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Irène Mathieu, and my pronouns are she/her/hers. I currently live on un-ceded Monacan land, where I also spent much of my childhood, although I'm a granddaughter of Creole New Orleans. I'm interested in the rifts in our world - both social and socio-geological. Why are we so separate from each other and from the earth? How can we heal these separations? What are the societal/ecological/spiritual possibilities of getting closer to each other? Said another way, how do we collectively and individually divest from racialized capitalism, and re-build with an ethic of radical community care? I'm trying to answer these questions as a(n eco-) poet, middle grade novelist, essayist, and primary care pediatrician.
2. How has the pandemic changed your daily life?
As a pediatrician I still have to go into work several days per week. Aside from that, it's changed just about everything. Like many other people I've been spending more time in virtual meetings as well, virtual hang-outs, and fretting over a new set of anxieties - fear for loved ones, myself, the future of our world, etc. At the same time, I'm grateful for more time to be with my partner and our dog-son.
3. Has it changed your practice? Has it changed the poetry you're writing?
I have been journaling more since the pandemic hit. While I've written a few pandemic poems of questionable merit, I've found that I have less emotional reserve for creativity. I'm devoting all of my extra energy to getting through the unpredictable emotional landscape of the days, particularly in the setting of yet more incidents of overt racial injustice in our country, and the ensuing public response to it. Maybe pandemic poems are part of the getting through, even if I don't deem them worthy of sharing (yet). So I'm trying to give myself permission not be productive in this arena of my life right now, at least in the way I used to measure productivity. Perhaps this in and of itself - this re-framing of my own productivity - is a useful side effect of an otherwise bleak time, and a necessary task in my personal journey of divestment from racialized capitalism.
4. Tell us about something you're working on.
I'm currently researching (reading) in preparation for revisions of my debut middle grade novel - a magic realism, environmental justice thriller about friendship, middle school drama, and childhood chronic illness. I just signed with an agent (Patricia Nelson of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency), so I'm really excited for us to usher this book into the world. I'm also revising some essays I've been writing over the past few years with the help of my (now virtual) local prose writing group, and I'm sending a new poetry manuscript to presses and contests for publication. I've also been teaching this spring. With poet Valencia Robin I just finished leading the inaugural Poetry of Power workshop for area high school students, and I've been a guest lecturer in several health humanities and creative writing courses for medical students and undergraduates at UVA and other institutions.
5. What is inspiring you/bringing you joy these days?
The way the earth doesn't stop creating and recreating herself! I love watching my garden slowly mature, all the perennials around my yard unfurl and announce themselves, and the big tree in the back bloom and green. There is something comforting in the way all this continues, no matter what private heartaches or drama we humans are living through. And did you ever notice how large and magnificent and generous trees are? I've been noticing trees a lot more lately, I mean really noticing, and frankly I am in awe of them. It's an honor to be alive on this planet.
6. What is something you've learned about yourself through your creative practice in a time of social distancing?
I've learned that I have limits and that it's not only okay, but actually essential, for me to respect my own limits and take care of myself. Just because I don't write new poems or essays for a few weeks or months doesn't mean that I'm not reading, teaching and thinking with my students, processing life, documenting in other ways, and creating/cultivating other things - like meals, my garden, physical health, and relationships. This kind of grace doesn't come naturally to me, so I'm actually enjoying the challenge of noticing the way creative practice operates in other areas of my life, and also making peace with this season of scarce poems.
Images by Justin G. Reid.
The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the artist and do not necessarily represent the policies or positions of NCAI.
Learn more about Irenè's work work on her website.