Getting to Know Matthew E. Henry

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?

Like most kids, I was exposed to and asked to write poetry in elementary school. In middle school and high school we were forced to analyze the genre. For most of that time, I was a short story writer who found poetry either incomprehensible or boring. The two exceptions were Shakespeare’s sonnets and the terrible love poems I’d occasional write to catch the attention of some young lady at summer camp (and I’m just making the connection between those two things for the first time right now).

I really discovered poetry during a creative writing class in college. It was the first time I was learning poetry from a practicing/publishing poet, which meant I was being exposed to the genre not only from the perspective of analysis, but also inspiration and craft and intention, as well as something that could appreciated without counting the number of similes or arguing about symbolism. The ADHD kid that I am also found it liberating to be able to tell a story without having to labor over annoying things like exposition and character development. So I “became a poet” and didn’t write another short story for almost 20 years.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?

Most mornings I get to work about an hour before everyone else. I’m able to sit in a classroom with three walls of windows, bathed in natural light. I mostly use the time to revise old drafts, attempt to make sense of something I scrawled on the notepad beside my bed the night before, and write out the idea I’ve been repeating in my car so I wouldn’t forget on the drive in. I put my head down and compose until one of my colleagues or kids walk in and catch me talking to myself.

Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?

It’s usually a phrase or idea more than an image or sound, though I am often inspired by those as well. Something catches my attention, rings a bell in my head, and immediate connections or potential connections begin to form in my head. Everything is fair game. A question asked in class, a half-heard interview on NPR, an argument I’m having with a philosophy textbook, the soul-rending sigh from the man in an airport, the husband of a young couple who clearly wants kids, but the wife’s scowl crushes his face and chest. Yesterday, while critiquing a character in a play, one of my kids compared someone who is culturally appropriating another culture to some dude attempting to mansplain period cramps to a woman. How can I not attempt to put that in a poem?

Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?

There are many writers that I enjoy, have learned from, and admire, but the ones that helped shape the writer I am, helped me figure out my “voice” the most: Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Carl Dennis, Mark Jarman, Anne Sexton, and Miller Williams.

What excites you most about your collection, the Colored page? (Significance of the title? Overarching themes? Process/experience of assembling it?) 

The Colored page is a semi-autobiographical journey of a Black kid through predominately white educational institutions, first as a student (elementary school through PhD), but also as an educator (high school teacher/college professor). Assembling the individual moments and the overarching narrative was a surreal process, as mining my own life for material was never something I intended when I began the manuscript. To that end, I still find myself surprised by a turn of phrase or an image, or I have a realization about how I captured an event or emotion. I’m learning about myself through my writing (which is such a poet thing to say I just threw up in my mouth).

Connected to this is the reaction of audiences at readings, especially talking to people who had read the collection or individual poems in advance. As the poems deal with racial interactions on the spectrum between well-meaning, but mildly racially insensitive elementary school teachers to white girls in high school chanting the N-word with reckless abandon on social media, the starkness of the content (and at times my language) has some reading my words as A BLACK MAN FILLED WITH RAGE.™ After most readings, I am approached by many people (usually white) who comment on how my performance colored (pun intended) their understanding of the poems in significant ways, usually that my tone was more wry, nonchalant, or humorous than how they read the words themselves. That there was more laughter than they expected. We then have the awkward conversation about how these events are a discomforting reality they are facing for the first time. For me it’s an average Tuesday.


as a kid from Boston, the Revolutionary War
was my favorite subject in fourth grade.
a Tea Party I could respect. class trips vainly
searching for musket balls in Lexington treetops.
reading of decapitation by cannonball on Breed’s Hill.
even the sights in Southie—unsafe for me to visit—
were a source of tribal pride. like rooting for the Patriots.

we were told to don our colonial imagination caps
and tell our story of emancipation from the British.
where would we be? the Old South Meeting House?
the Old North Church? what would we see as we rose
to American greatness? our teacher should hear freedom
ringing in the streets through our words. I dropped my head
to begin—oversized pencil in hand—until I remembered.

seeing my inaction, she crouched and began to re-explain.
I patiently waited for her to finish, eyes on her lips,
then asked if she wanted me to pretend to be white,
or to picture myself for sale on the steps of Faneuil Hall,
or stacked in one-half of the Harbor ships heading to
and from the West Indies, explaining my parents’ patois.

after the vocal static—the hems and haws of white noise—
she suggested Crispus Attucks: the hometown boy, the Black
hero of the Boston Massacre. my siblings had taught me
the “one-drop rule,” and when to nod my head politely,
so I pretended he was not half Wampanoag, that Framingham

was not his master’s home, and imagined myself
the first unarmed Black man shot on these urban streets.

Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of full-length collections the Colored page (Sundress Publications, 2022), The Third Renunciation (NYQ Books, 2023), and said the Frog to the scorpion (Harbor Editions, 2024)as well as the chapbooks Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020), Dust & Ashes (Californios Press, 2020), and have you heard the one about…? (Ghost City Press, 2023). He is editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal and an associate poetry editor at Pidgeonholes and Rise Up Review. The 2023 winner of the Solstice Literary Magazine Stephen Dunn Prize, MEH’s poetry appears in Cola Literary Review, The Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, Pangyrus, Ploughshares, Poetry East, Shenandoah, and The Worcester Review among others. MEH’s an educator who received his MFA yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. You can find him at writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.