©Photo by Schah Photography.
•25 August 2020•
It is a joy to be speaking to Matthew Burgess, who is always in motion, always immersed in a creative, productive flow. He teaches poetry at Brooklyn College and is the author of beautiful, meaningful, and honest children’s books, amongst which Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring and Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings. Matthew is also the founder of the PUMP project – where he blends his passion for art, poetry, and shaping a safe and creative space for local communities in New York.
With many warm thanks to Matthew for his time and generosity, we hope our readers will enjoy this conversation. Find out more about Matthew’s latest book: Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring. Learn about his experience as a teacher, poet, and advocate for being more in touch with our creative, braver selves.
Hi, Matthew. Great to meet you & thank you so much for this interview. What attracted you to studying poetry? How did you get drawn to poetry specifically?
When I was fourteen years old, I lost two people who were very close to me. They both died suddenly – within the span of four months. I had little experience with death, and I was navigating grief without any map for how to go through it. In the midst of this, my oldest sister, Michele, who is an artist and a bookmaker, gave my sister, Karen, who had just lost her boyfriend, a book of poems. The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke. I picked up this book and read a few poems, and something mysterious happened. I don’t know if it’s accurate to say that I “understood” the poems, but a light flickered on. It was thrilling to have language for something that I couldn’t explain, something I couldn’t talk to other people about. There’s one definition of poetry – I can’t remember who it’s attributed to – “Poetry is insides talking to insides.” I think that was the moment I sensed the potential of poetry – that it is a secret language of sorts. I was beginning to understand the way poetry can connect you with kindred spirits across time and space.
Unlike through reading through a long paragraph, poetry hits you in a succinct way.
I think the poem is inviting you to wonder, whereas with prose you get on the train of syntax, you ride the sentences, you feel as though you know where you are headed. You are more or less “oriented” in prose. Poetry is more of an atmosphere that you are moving through – and often you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. This disorientation is something I love about poetry. You are dropped into a landscape full of music and images, and you begin to find your way. There is that blur, which I love, and also moments of vividness and surprise.
You teach poetry to very young children – is it a different experience in terms of the creativity that comes from their unbiased minds? How do they experience reading and writing poems?
Children don’t have the baggage around poetry that grown-ups often do. At some point in our education, when a teacher brought us poetry, they presented it as a riddle that we were supposed to solve. The students who were “good at it” were the ones who rattled off literary devices or selected the right multiple-choice answer on the worksheet. This sends all the wrong messages about what poetry is and how to read it. When my college students approach a poem, most of them initially assume that I’m looking for a smart-sounding summary of the poem’s “meaning.” Whereas I really want them to experience the poem, to enter into the blur and the wondering and the surprise, and to notice how it plays in the body. We can work our way toward analysis, but if you’re gunning for meaning, you miss the experience.
With children, poetry arrives as a language that is exciting, alive, musical, fun. They have this unfiltered experience of language that is dancing and singing and playing. It’s so fun to teach the kids because they understand that poetry is playtime. This is how they continually teach me! If you say, “The jaguar jumps to Jupiter to drink the jujube juice,” they start laughing because they see the jaguar, the leap – it’s animated, it’s visceral, it’s alive. Kenneth Koch said that “poetry is an experience and not a description of an experience.” Kids get it.
Is the numbing of the senses rooted in the ways we educate children, or is it a consequence of growing older?
I think probably a combination of both. I do not want to put the blame at the door of teachers; however, I will put some blame at the door of the systems of education that we have created. Of course, there is the developmental process of growing up and assimilating into the social sphere – becoming social beings who are increasingly aware of how we fit in and how we relate to others. But I believe that education should be actively working to develop our imaginations; it should be anticipating the developmental threats to our innate creativity and working to preserve this ability, this aliveness.
For too many of us, succeeding in school is not about asking great questions and learning to follow our hunches and intuition. Good grades usually reward obedient adherence to a set of standards that we internalize and replicate. Instead of being in this state of possibility, freedom, and creative potential, we begin looking at teachers and asking: “What do they want from me?” Good students – and I was a good student myself – learn to become efficient producers of content, and so often in the process, we often sacrifice our excitement and our imagination.
And it becomes an incessant pursuit of achieving goals.
One way to think about this is process versus product. If the emphasis is entirely on the product, then the process becomes impoverished; it becomes robbed of freshness and possibility. One of the things we know about creativity is that the truly exciting things happen when we are so immersed in the process that we stop worrying about the result. This state of absorption and flow is where the magic is. We should be teaching students how to create the conditions for this to happen – and how to trust the process.
Tell me more about hand-made book that you created referencing Keith Haring’s style?
As a teacher, part of what my job is to help students uncover their own brilliance. To create an atmosphere that is conducive to creativity, that sort of tricks people into temporarily setting aside their inner critic so that they can play more freely. Lessons, prompts, and activities that bring the stakes down and whack a path through self-consciousness. One of my favorite things is seeing students surprise themselves with something they’ve made. It helps foster a trust that they can do it again.
Do you feel constrained by the expectations of the educational system? How do you combine the result-process approach in teaching?
If you ask most school teachers, it is a huge struggle, especially for those who feel called to incorporate more creativity into their classrooms. Often, they are forced to teach to the test, so how and when do you smuggle something in that feels more imaginative and freer? I am fortunate as a visiting poet because I get to drop in and shake things up a bit. I am not constrained in the way many school teachers are, and they are doing the daily work. These teachers who are finding ways to reach and inspire their students amid all of the standards and pressures – they are my heroes. In my college classes I have more freedom. There is much more freedom to create the atmosphere that you want to create. You don’t have administrators opening the door, walking in, questioning your methods. I don’t want to suggest that it’s an either/or scenario—that’s it either creativity or structure, product or process. Most of the time, if you place greater emphasis and excitement on process, you are going to get a more interesting and more alive result.
In one of your online discussions of Drawing on Walls, you mention that the book is double the length of the standard children’s book. What about Keith Haring inspired you to stretch outside these borders?
First of all, Keith was someone who didn’t want to be restricted. As I write in the book, he was determined to be spontaneous and free! The spirit of the story is hinted at in the title: Drawing on Walls. It’s about the freedom and the permission to express yourself in a brave and generous way. Hopefully, when you hear the title, you already get the impression of something a little bit rebellious or outside of the usual rules. The title, the length, and the size of the book are all meant to evoke and hopefully transmit some of the energy of the subject, which is Keith! If you look at Keith Haring’s actual paintings, many of them are big. Many are murals that cover entire walls. We wanted to create a book that physically and formally conveys this sense of fun, expansiveness, and aliveness.
The exhibition that made me want to write this book was at the Brooklyn Museum in 2012, which I wrote about it in the Author’s note. When you see Keith Haring’s drawings on t-shirts or even online, you get this sense of play and joy and dancing. But when you see them in person, you begin to feel the freshness and the swagger, the daring, and the spontaneity of his line. Keith’s line vibrates with an energy that makes you – the viewer – want to create. Keith’s work actually transmits the creative impulse to the viewer.
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings is also a longer book – and this permission to think outside of the usual constraints comes from my editor and publisher, Claudia Bedrick (from Enchanted Lion Books). She has consistently given me that green light to think big and explore the possibilities, and she has tremendous respect for the intelligence of the child reader. With Drawing on Walls, it felt right to include biographical detail. We wanted it to be brave and true to Keith’s spirit. Josh Cochran has been the ideal illustrator and collaborator; he loves Keith’s work and he brings this incredible color, style, and vitality to the book.
You mentioned Claudia’s support: in Drawing on Walls, Keith’s love for another man is included as part of the story. Why is sexual identity so rarely addressed in children’s books, and is it a challenge to find publishers that are open to this topic?
Claudia and I agreed wholeheartedly about telling Keith’s story in an honest and open way, and to tell his story in a way that feels true to what Keith would have wanted. A review was just published a few days ago on Drawing on Walls by Betsy Bird. She makes the point that we have books about activists and leaders (Harvey Milk); we have LGBTQI+ themed books; but what struck her about Drawing on Walls was this moment of tenderness in the subway, where Keith and Juan Debose are sharing this moment of happiness together. ‘But do we ever see a single cuddle? A snuggle? A small private moment that shows that two people really and truly do care about one another?’ Including this moment was really important to me, so it was heartening to read Betsy Bird’s review.
In a very candid interview in Rolling Stone in August 1989, Keith says: ‘There are so few people who are openly gay role models or just good people are respected who are open about their sexuality. Now there has to be more openness about all these issues.’ That was 30 years ago. He was concerned about kids growing up in the middle of the AIDS crisis and how it gives so much ammunition to people who want to tell you that being who you are is wrong. To me, this is an important part of Keith’s life and message – and to censor it or sidestep it would be to go against his explicitly expressed wishes. For me, it was absolutely mandatory to tell his story honestly and openly.
Is there censorship in children’s literature on topics of sexual identity, homosexuality?
We’ve made some great strides, but yes, censorship persists. If you think about the proximity of Poland to where I am living right now in Berlin, Germany… Here we enjoy this progressive freedom, and people are free to be who they are and to express their love for one another. But just a short drive away, you have a government which is actively discriminating against LGBTQI+ people. To people in the United States who say, ‘look at how far we have come,’ I think, Yes, absolutely, we have come a long way, and it should be celebrated. But for every person who feels supported and validated, there are countless individuals in the US and across the world who are living in daily fear of discrimination and violence.
When I was a kid, books with LGBTQI+ characters didn’t exist. Part of the excitement for me as the author of this book is the idea that a child who finds this book in their library or is given this book by a friend might feel encouraged and less afraid. Growing up I carried around this unspoken fear that I was different, and I didn’t have any visible role models or examples of people in the environment or the larger culture. It can be transformative for kids to find these “mirrors” in books, and to feel that their experience is valid and valued.
Having books like Drawing on Walls can position this conversation in the classroom. Do educators have a role in triggering this? How important are educators in supporting children with being more confident with who they are?
My heart both breaks and lifts when I hear this question because I am so aware that there are classrooms where safe accepting spaces are created by teachers, who are more open and loving towards students who are different, and the opposite is also true; there are classrooms where kids are scared into the shadows because they sense that their teachers don’t believe that this is okay – to be who you are. To have an adult who makes you feel seen and safe and celebrated for who you are can be life-changing – even lifesaving.
The idea that this book could be used in a classroom to help create that atmosphere of acceptance makes me very happy. Simply reading the story could be enough. Drawing on Walls is the story is of an artist’s life, and in the course of the story, he falls in love. This book could be incorporated into a unit on diversity, or read during Pride Month, but it also can be read at any time of the year. We are learning about an extraordinary human being and along the way, we find out who this person loves. This approach feels aligned with the kind of world we want to create – where who someone loves is an aspect of a life story that doesn’t need to be hidden or censored.
How can a program such as A Book A Day support this conversation?
I think everyone can play a role by having these conversations and sharing them, and by sharing and reading books. Independent programs like A Book A Day can do so much good in the world by making books more visible and available. I spoke earlier about discovering Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus because my big sister brought it into the house. That was a formative experience in my life that might not have happened if the book hadn’t been there. Books, as we know, can be sanctuaries and portals.
What role do parents/guardians have in conversations about sexual identity, as well as encouraging creativity in their children, as were the roles of the fathers of both E.E. Cummings and Keith Haring?
I think parents and guardians are hugely important in helping to create these spaces for young people. But my impulse is to open it up and to not only single out parents and guardians but to invite everyone into this larger project of making the world more loving and more livable for young people. I want to bring other people on board too! For example, my oldest sister was a trailblazer who found art and creativity and brought that back to me. I say let’s call in the uncles, let’s call in the aunts, the older folks, the neighbors, the sisters!
What we are talking about here is trying to make the world more loving and livable, so we all need to do something about it. Because what we are seeing now is alarming. If people who are in power are so consumed by cruelty and greed, materialism and power, competition over cooperation, then those values are being reflected to young people. Whereas in my mind we should be embodying values of creativity, love, respect, generosity, and kindness.
How would Keith Haring react to our current reality, with everything around us being torn apart?
As I researched Keith’s life, I became more and more aware of how frightening the world was in 1985, 1986, 1987. We have these nostalgic views of the 1980s, but if you look closely at what Keith was confronted with, how terrible it would have been to watch so many of your friends dying of a mysterious disease, and the absence of any meaningful government response for so many years… Imagine how scary that would be to live through. Keith also grew up with the persistent threat of nuclear war. If you read Keith’s journals and think about what he was facing – at times it must have felt as if the world was falling apart. And yet Keith never stopped making. He loved life and he celebrated life until the end, in spite of all the challenges he was facing.
Right now, we have very urgent concerns over environmental sustainability and systemic racism, and the rise of authoritarianism, and it often feels as if the world is coming apart. Not the mention the global pandemic we’re living through! It’s possible that things need to come apart in order to be reassembled in better ways, and every generation – we have to enter into the messiness of what we are presented with and try to create some light in the darkness. That’s what Keith did – he created images that made people feel liberated, excited, alive. The radiant baby, the barking dog, the pregnant woman, the dancing figures – these are life-affirming images. He was also creating images that were calling out evil, injustice, and greed. Keith was doing both – identifying what’s wrong and singing about what is beautiful. I imagine that if he were alive now, he would be doing something similar to what he was doing then, which is responding to what is wrong in the world and speaking out and speaking with and for people who are fighting for good and presenting solutions. Keith made posters for literacy, he made posters for the liberation of South Africa, for nuclear disarmament. Most likely would be identifying injustice and calling it out, and he would also be reminding us to dance.
I think children benefit from seeing people who love life. In spite of all the difficulties and challenges that he was facing, Keith embodied and transmitted a love of life. One thing we can do for young people is to find ways to celebrate life and to invite them to join us. Not by burying our heads in the sand, but by staying connected to what makes life worth living, and to remember that we’re here for a short time. Keith’s line, his visual imagery, is constantly vibrating with this aliveness.