Student Spotlight: Hannah Matheson '18 talks poetry as art

by Melanie Prakash | 2/23/18 1:00am

Hannah Matheson ’18 is one of the few students who arrived at Dartmouth knowing already what she deeply cared about. 

“I came in knowing that I would probably be an English major because I’ve always loved reading and writing,” she said.

This year, Matheson will be graduating as an English major concentrating in creative writing.  She is an editor and writer for literary publications Mouth and The Stonefence Review, and an active member of her sorority Sigma Delta. Matheson is also a singer for all-female a cappella group the Subtleties, but she did not come into Dartmouth with a background as a singer. 

“I think I’m kind of a weird case for a cappella because I don’t really identify as a vocalist because I’m not a trained singer,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things that I do actually … to do something for the sake of doing and not because it looks a certain way or [for] networking.”

She said she did know for some time, however, that she harbored a deep love of poetry. Ever since Matheson attended a poetry reading in high school, where she said she became aware of language as a physical sensation, poetry has always been a very personal experience.

“It was the first time I had ever been ... aware of ... language [as] something that happens to your body because of the way you’re perceiving it,” she said.

Matheson said that she finds a special appeal in poetry because it allows people to understand the world in a specific way.

“I think sometimes we become so desensitized to the world that we’re in that it only makes sense for me to say something rather circuitously,” she said. “There’s sometimes [an idea] that I just don’t think you can say something any other way.”

Matheson said she especially finds poetry a powerful way to communicate her own ideas, citing Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s conception of language as a “common coin” that allows for the personal self to interact with the outside world based on meanings that society has commonly agreed on.

“[In] any genre, you have to think about what you’re doing and why and how that will be understood, so that’s important to me,” she said. 

Matheson said she also strongly believes the arts are crucial to her own perception of herself and a value she finds to be essential to the human experience. 

“Art is the way I understand myself and being a human,” she said. “I think art asks you to empathize, and there’s nothing more important [than] being in the world as a global citizen.”

Matheson’s peers have also noticed how art seems to be central to how they perceive Matheson. Virginia Ogden ’18, Matheson’s roommate and fellow Subtleties member, said she keeps a list of the phrases Matheson has used in the past to express how she feels. 

“For example, ‘[Matheson] feels like a ziplock bag someone filled with soup,’ ‘a plant that lost its vascularity,’ ‘a deflated, wacky, inflatable man,’ ‘a sugar cane where all the sugar has been scraped out,’” Ogden said. “She has a way of describing the human condition in a way I have never heard anyone else describe it.” 

Cote Auil ’18 is another one of Matheson’s friends who said that she sees the unique power of the arts over Matheson’s life. 

“I think that she’s a very passionate person who lives her emotions very intensely, so I think that the arts are sort of an avenue to express herself, to make connections, to voice her concerns and just to analyze the world,” Auil said. “I think it allows herself to express her creativity and is a way of just appreciating the creativity around her.” 

In fact, Matheson’s talent for writing sometimes astonishes her peers. Ogden said there was a time when Matheson had spent hours writing a contrapuntal poem, which consists of two distinct poems merged together by alternating lines so that they form a singular voice. For Matheson’s work, each poem can be read individually in their columns but also together from left to right. 

“I can’t wrap my brain around the fact that someone could make something like that, and then when I read it, I just started sobbing because it was so pure and so beautiful,” Ogden said. 

English professor Vievee Francis said that Matheson brings a unique sense of creativity to her art. 

“To be able to distinguish yourself [as a poet], that takes something,” she said. “And the first way she does that is through that vast vocabulary of hers. Her diction, her word choice in the poems, really sets the tone of them.” 

Francis said that Matheson’s poetry deals with issues that are currently relevant, including gender and family, which can make her poetry challenging to write and read. 

“Still, she brings her best self to the classroom,” Francis said. “She’s happy to be there, and it shows.” 

Ogden said the strength of Matheson’s work is something pure and essential to her character. Matheson has the power to change how people view art because of the nature of her work, she said. 

“She not only creates, but she seeks to turn the world around her into something beautiful whether that’s her own thoughts and feelings or the things that she notices about the world around her,” Ogden said.