Six Questions for Irène Mathieu about her New Collection, “Milk Tongue”

Irène Mathieu, featured in Volume 68.2, published her fourth collection of poetry, milk tongue, on June 13th, 2023. Here, she responds to questions about the book and her writing process.


Can you tell me the story of this book: When did you start working on it? What were some of your preoccupations as you were writing it? How did you know when you had a complete collection on your hands?


I wrote the first poems in this book in 2017 and did final edits in 2022, so this book was five years in the making. During that time a lot of life happened. I finished medical school, then completed training in pediatrics, and became a full-fledged attending doctor. I got engaged and then married. I moved states, back to Charlottesville, where I spent much of my childhood. I got pregnant and had a child.

All the while I was writing, as I always do, in the irregular snatches of time between everything else, preoccupied with questions of “adulting.” I thought this book was about desire—how we learn what to want, how we negotiate the cost of those wants, and who we become as a result of consumption as we grow into ourselves. It turns out the book is about mothering, although most of the poems were written before I was even pregnant. Maybe those are interrelated topics, but there are a lot of poems about my mom, about my dog-son, and about nurturing relationships with human and non-human kin, as well as with my own self.

As with previous manuscripts, once I became consciously aware of the themes and topics that were emerging I started writing toward those themes. Sometimes I wrote multiple poems getting at the same issue, and I’d choose the most aesthetically interesting version and nix the others. Of course, when I thought the book was done, my amazing editor Sebastián Páramo pushed me to take it to the next level with some key questions and suggestions.


This is your fourth collection of poetry. What threads or interests carry through the collections? In what ways is this collection different from the work you’ve published before?


I am definitely always writing about capitalism—capitalism and racism, capitalism and inequality, capitalism and the climate crisis, capitalism and home, and capitalism and humans’ estrangement from one another, ourselves, and the rest of the world. In that sense it’s very much in line with my previous work. At my recent launch party in Charlottesville, Virginia, the poet Lauren Alleyne read with me and then we had a conversation about the book. She identified that mothering is central to the collection, which I hadn’t been consciously aware of before. It made me realize that mothering—which I define expansively to include many types of nurturing—is a more important part of my identity than I’d recognized. I love this about poems—they are always revealing more of ourselves to us. So I guess it’s the maternal light filtering through milk tongue that makes it unique among my collections.


Is there a passage/poem/image/quote you feel is a good representative of the book as a whole, or do you have a current favorite? Can you give us a taste of something you’re especially proud of?


I’m very proud of the eight-page poem “the house” that’s in the final section of the book. I wanted to challenge myself to write a long, long poem, and I ended up splitting it into sub-poems, or chapters. I wanted it to feel like a mini-epic. Here’s a passage from the last page of “the house”:
if we refuse husband and wife
if we carve out spaces wide enough           for each of our whole selves
our loved ones                 and those we will love
if we include in the above category anyone who crosses the threshold
if we include grandfather house himself
if we allow even what we find in dank corners
if we siphon underground water out of stone-filled air
and send it to the roots of pepper and basil along the wall
if we use less each year
if we leave offerings for sentinel tree, nonagenarian stairwell
if we keep all our names
if we teach our children this cumulative song
if, in purchasing the title, we can become unentitled,
        wake up each day with the same grateful shock
        of breaking lake water with a face
if we call this home and approach it at dusk —


I’m curious about some logistics: How did you come up with the title? What about the cover art? This is also your fourth publisher in four books, right? How did you find a home at Deep Vellum? What’s it been like to work with such a variety of presses/editors?


The title refers to the white layer of milk that often coats a baby’s tongue after a feed. It’s often confused with thrush, which is the pathological overgrowth of naturally occurring yeast that lives on our bodies. I was fascinated by the metaphorical power of that image—how easily “normal” consumption and mundane desires can be interpreted as pathological in the context of capitalist systems. For instance, wanting a roof over your head is not a wild ask—it’s a basic human right. Yet fulfilling this right has become incredibly difficult and ethically fraught under capitalism. How do we hold that as we try to take care of one another and ourselves and also change these horrific systems?

The cover art represents a collaboration with a dear friend, the artist Ginger Huebner, whom I met at a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts retreat a couple of years ago. Ginger started making collages based on my poems, and this is one of those pieces. I have also written poems in response to her art. That collaboration was key for me in the months following my daughter’s birth, when I was emerging from a haze of sleep deprivation and all of the postpartum changes, trying to find my language again.

I have enjoyed working with so many different presses! Until now, it’s mostly been out of necessity because the poetry-publishing world is so contest-driven. My relationship with Deep Vellum began when poetry editor Sebastián Páramo reached out after publishing some of my poems (which appear in milk tongue) in The Boiler. Because my other presses were much smaller operations, this is the first time I’ve really had a hands-on editor, and I think that was critical in polishing milk tongue to its final form. Deep Vellum feels like an apt home for my work because of its emphasis on “bringing the world into conversation through literature.” I’ve always been fascinated by translation, and I see all poetry as translation of affective or sensory experience into language. As someone who did not major in English because of an overrepresentation of works by (mostly White and male) authors writing in English in my college’s classes, I am always excited to see more works in translation. In that sense, working with Deep Vellum feels like coming full circle to a literary home I didn’t have when I was younger. I would be happy to publish future work with the press.


Have you been able to tour or do any events—or do you have any plans? What’s been your favorite moment in terms of connecting with readers?


I have done some local events, but I hope to do a couple of regional readings in person in the next few months, and maybe some virtual events as well. I’m not putting too much pressure on myself to do a compressed, formal book tour, as I’ve done in the past, because I just have too many competing commitments as a mom, a pediatrician, an educator, and a physician-scientist. I always love connecting with readers, though, especially in teaching contexts, so I hope to also visit classrooms, whether virtually or in person. And I’ll keep sharing milk tongue over the coming months in a more drawn-out book tour.


Anything special you’re working on now or next?


I’m slowly working on new poems and also some essays. The next big project is finalizing edits on a middle-grade novel I’ve been working on for the past couple of years with my agent, Patricia Nelson. It’s a magic realism story about environmental and medical racism and the power of young people to make changes in our communities.

Irène P. Mathieu is a pediatrician, writer, and public health researcher at the University of Virginia. Her most recent book is Grand Marronage (Switchback Books, 2019), which was selected as Editor’s Choice for the Gatewood Prize and runner-up for the Cave Canem/Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize. She is also the author of orogeny (Trembling Pillow Press, 2017), which won the Bob Kaufman Book Prize, and the galaxy of origins (dancing girl press, 2014). Irène is a recipient of Fulbright, Callaloo, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellowships, and is on the editorial staff of Muzzle Magazine and the Journal of General Internal Medicine’s humanities section.