Matt Mitchell opens up, finds community with ‘Vampire Burrito’

The Columbus poet addresses toxic masculinity, intersex life and the boundless potential of love in their generous new collection, out on Grieveland in June.
Matt Mitchell
Matt MitchellCourtesy the poet

Even before the first poem, Matt Mitchell lays bare what readers can expect from Vampire Burrito, writing, “This is a book about being intersex, about being infertile and about being in love.”

At its core, it’s also a book about finding a way to break with the past and forge a more hopeful way forward – a truth conveyed in the way the poet details communications with their father (“I tell my father I love him with a handshake”) and in their attempts to soften enough to disrupt this genetic pattern.

“I come from a family where, on my dad’s side, the masculinity is quite toxic, and he and his grandfather and his grandfather really struggle with talking about emotion,” said Mitchell, whose new poetry collection was set to release via Grieveland on Wednesday, May 10, but has now been pushed back to June 10. “Through this book, I was trying not only to better understand why he is like that, but also figuring out what I can do to make sure that I’m not like that. And that led me down the rabbit hole of, 'Well, what if I were to have my own son? If that became a possibility later in life, how could I begin to extend acts of kindness and empathy toward that child beginning at a young age?' Because that’s something I didn’t get, and it’s something I’ve been left to sort of figure out by myself. My dad is a closed book; I’m trying to be the exact opposite, where I don’t shy away from talking about anything.”

This shines through in the intensely giving poems that populate Vampire Burrito, which find Mitchell addressing everything from their uncle’s death by suicide (the elder's presence haunts a handful of the book’s early compositions) to their upbringing as an intersex person, which has made testosterone injections routine. “To combat 46XX with a shotgun of hormones is like a weekly suicide without the grief,” Mitchell writes. “When the two-headed calf saw twice as many stars, was it not the beauty we spoke of first?”

Mitchell said they labored for nearly three years to complete their first poetry chapbook while in undergrad at Hiram College. Vampire Burrito, in comparison, arrived quickly, with most of the poems taking shape in about a year beginning early in the pandemic, the ease with which the words arrived reflecting the poet’s growing comfort in relaying their story. 

“Writing that first book, I was looking back on things from when I was younger, and I was thinking from a pretty fatalistic perspective and trying to make sense of my own doomed self,” said Mitchell, who was born and raised in Southington, Ohio, and now lives in Columbus. “And with this book, I felt more comfortable writing about these things. And I thought I could do it in a more direct way, and really give proper space to all the emotions and all the feelings and all the medical diagnoses that are running through my head and through my body at all times.”

The poems in Vampire Burrito take many forms. Some, such as “American Water,” arrive in dense blocks of text, like thoughts crowding an overactive brain. Others, such as “Looking for Mothman,” feature ample white space, as though the page itself has opened up additional room for Mitchell’s lines to breathe.

Throughout, the poet works to introduce this sense of promise, addressing how the past continues to reverberate in us – “The years blow by, and of course our cells still remember,” they write – while also warming to the hope of an unknown future. “My last name is now an open tab,” Mitchell writes in “Mother’s Day.”

While Mitchell said beginning therapy was the “purest vessel” in sparking this transformation, writing has been essential to the process. “Poetry was sort of the most immediate way for me to unravel my own headspace and to try and work through it and make sense of it,” Mitchell said. “It’s one thing to talk about these things with someone for 50 minutes at a time, but I like to be able to leave that session and go write down what I’ve taken from it, and how I can continue to learn from it beyond the confines of the couch.”

Mitchell said they first took up poetry in high school, drawn in by the freedom of the form, which allowed them to write absent any rules. Another breakthrough occurred when as a freshman in college they discovered the work of Columbus writer Hanif Abdurraqib, whose poems helped them to the idea that “beauty can exist in a place that maybe isn’t immediately built for people like me.” 

"It also made me realize I could write about where I live and write about it in a very loving way that goes against how other people in this country seem to think of us in this state," Mitchell continued. "When I read poets like Hanif, or I read the work of Toni Morrison or Ross Gay or Ruth Awad, I'm taught over and over there's beauty in this place."

Like Abdurraqib, Mitchell has a fondness for lacing their poems with references to pop culture, explaining that songs, television shows and films have always existed as a way to unpack questions of identity, which could at times be a double-edged sword. For every Neil Young song that helped Mitchell navigate their own struggles with needles, “there would be an episode of ‘Friends’ on the other side waiting for me where my identity is the butt of a 30-minute joke,” said the poet, who interrogates this reality on “Intersex Boy Watches Episode 179 of ‘Friends’ for the First Time.”

“There aren’t many poetry books by people who are intersex and out as intersex,” Mitchell said. “And I don’t want this text to be a biblical reference point. I just want to tell my story, and I want other people who are maybe looking for that kind of resource to find it. … I’m almost six years older now than when I started my first poetry book, and I think time has kind of been on my side in that regard. I’ve been meeting more people who are like me, and it’s given me more perspective and a much bigger sense of community, which really is vital in poetry.”

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