Charlotte Matthews is on a mission—a mission of empathy and sharing stories. After undergoing a radical double mastectomy for stage three breast cancer 12 years ago—followed by six months of chemotherapy—she felt overwhelmed, like she didn’t know who she was any more. In spite of all the love and support she received from family and friends, “something was missing,” she remembers. “Cancer diagnosis and treatment tend to be a passive endeavor: you are diagnosed, you are staged, you are given chemo, you are given radiation—all of this passive. But I found that writing was something I could do. I could write. I could make a record of what transpired. And in this way, I regained power, authority.”
Her third book of poetry, Whistle What Can’t Be Said, came out of this realization. “It felt so empowering. So I began to dream of empowering other women who were going through the same thing, by bringing writing workshops to them.” Soon she was collaborating with her friend, filmmaker Betsy Cox, and together they plan to produce a feature-length documentary film that will give voice and character to the writings that result from her workshops.
“Whistle Words is a multimedia project for women impacted by breast cancer, and all those who love them,” said Mathews. “It’s the story beyond diagnosis and treatment. It’s about giving voice to all that is too often left unsaid—honest talk about all of the facets that affect you when you’re going through what I did. Writing can bring out things you didn’t even know you were feeling.”
The project has two, separate aspects: the workshops and the film, which “will be different than your usual documentary,” Cox explained. “It will be a kind of visual poetry that weaves the creative writings from the workshops—both poetry and prose—into a chorus of women’s voices and stories.” They are hoping to involve women from all walks of life, and from diverse socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups. Eventually, they hope to publish an anthology of the women’s writings, along with a facilitator’s guide, so that the project can be replicated all over the country.
“What a gift it would be to help women express this. To hear from people we love, and be able to support them.” Matthews and Cox are seeking partnerships with breastcancer.org and other support organizations, as well as funding from foundations, corporations, and private donations (www.whistlewords.org).
Writing workshops are being offered now both in person and online for all who have, or have had, breast cancer. Matthews will offer free, in-person workshops starting Monday, May 1, from 10:30 a.m. to noon at Olivet Presbyterian Church on Garth Road, and running every Monday throughout May. It is never too late to sign up! Journals and refreshments will be provided, and the instruction will be designed to get you in touch with your deepest feelings. You can come to only one or all of them, as convenient for you. Starting Wednesday, May 3 from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Matthews will also be running virtual, online workshops every Wednesday via Blackboard, which is interactive in real time using video technology. You may join with a simple click of a button from the website to participate; Matthews asks that people join between 6:45 and 7 pm, and not pop in in the middle of a workshop. Workshops are live and will not be recorded.
Charlotte Hilary Matthews is the author of Green Stars (2005), Still Enough to Be Dreaming (2007), and Whistle What Can’t Be Said (2016). She received the 2007 New Writers Award from the Fellowship for Southern Writers for Poetry, and teaches in U.Va.’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program.
Whistle What Can’t Be Said
During radiation nothing gives—
all the steel and glass and plaster.
The machine closer and closer
until it’s an inch from the absent breast—
Why can’t I say what happened?
I’m trying to—but I’ve been instructed
not to move, not even a millimeter,
or the radiation will reach my heart.
All I want is to hear my neighbor
call his cows home at dusk, to see him
touch their bellies, feel the fur
that swirls between their eyes.
– Charlotte Hilary Matthews
You may have seen her in the past at the Charlottesville City Market, where she wrote poems on demand at her “The Portable Poet” stand. She plans to reprise this unique service at the Crozet Farmers Market this summer. “I have baskets of words and of intriguing objects. People choose a word and/or an object, and tell me what they want their poem to be about. I write it on my 1941 Corona typewriter” (faculty.virginia.edu/poetsstudy).
Betsy Cox, owner of Red Spark Films, is a documentary filmmaker who likes to tell social issues stories. Her last film, Southeast 67, was about kids growing up in the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C., during the crack epidemic, who were offered college scholarships.
She named her company Red Spark because “the red represents courage and the spark represents the new insight that I hope will come from sharing these stories.” She is currently working on a short film based on one of Matthews’ poems, to be released in July (redsparkfilms.com).
“I’m glad I had this [cancer],” Matthews says. “I see the world in a different way now. It allows me to navigate the world with gratitude, and small worries have lost their sheen.”
To share your story and let what you’re experiencing be heard, visit www.whistlewords.org, where you can sign up for the free writing workshops and/or sign up for a newsletter to keep up to date on the project.