An Interview with Matthea Harvey
In three books, over eight years, Matthea Harvey has moved to the front of the pack of interesting poets writing in English. Maybe most interesting and cool about Harvey isn't that she's just a flat-out dynamite writer (which she absolutely is), nor that she's seemingly indefatiguable (contributing editor to a few journals, plus teaching, plus writing and publishing), but that she seems incapable of repeating herself. Yes, certainly: her three books of poetry are all recognizably poetry, but in terms of the project each book represents and explores, and in terms of the language used within each, Harvey's utterly unafraid of striking out for new terrain each time.
It's easy to get the sense, reading Matthea Harvey's books, that she's equally acting as a sort of conductor as she is poet: much of her work reads as if she's created a dazzling system and is then pushing language through the structure she's created. I'd posit that that's a form of courage, an act of daring at the outer limits of poetry as its now written: poetry as experiment, as linguistic dare. But that doesn't even address the fact that Harvey's systems are pretty, puzzling wonders on the page, or that though the prerequisite to accessing her poetry may feel to be a sizeable IQ it's really a sizeable heart -- that for all the braininess at work, her poems sing and move and, emphatically, feel and induce feeling.
Matthea Harvey lives in Brooklyn, took part in this interview over e-mail, and until the end of September had books being released at both ends of October: on the 2nd, her latest book of poetry, Modern Life, will be released by Graywolf, and on the 28th her first children's book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, a collaboration with Elizabeth Zechel, was to be released by Soft Skull. Soft Skull, having recently been acquired by Counterpoint, will no longer be releasing the title, which is a shame, but if you happen to be a children's book publisher, it's great news for you. Someone needs to release this book -- it's beautiful and interesting and funny and deserves a home.
In the most general possible way, what are some of your influences? Music, books, art, movies, food... anything. Baseball. Whatever. Also: have you always written? Was there some other pursuit before writing?
I like the idea of being influenced by food -- and I do have two “food theory poems”: “Baked Alaska, A Theory Of” (it is a wonderfully contradictory dessert) and “Meat Ravioli vs. Spaghetti Bolognese,” which examines how much of the self should be put into the world… Rob (my husband) and I were just in Buenos Aires and we came up with a game of inventing dessert names and then imagining their ingredients and presentation. My first one was “A Herd of Elephants Stops to Look at the Sun,” a block of grey licorice tapioca on a rectangular bed of shortbread with a scoop of tangerine sorbet on the far right of the plate.
I'm a general gatherer, not specifically in any one genre. I cull quotes from the books I read… I have a huge weakness for 19th century novels (Eliot, Dickens, Trollope) and I started this summer off with He Knew He Was Right by Trollope. The language is so delicious: “Nothing would induce Priscilla to take the part of a bridesmaid. 'You might as well ask an owl to sing to you,' she said.” Music-wise, I love all sorts -- Elliot Smith, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Belle & Sebastian, The Weepies, Andrew Bird, Amadou & Mariam, etc… Since going to Argentina, I've also added tango-electronica to that list.
I think I'm really describing my habits and loves, not so much my influences. I'm probably primarily influenced by what comes in through my eyes (sorry ears, mouth, nose and fingers). My sister (Ellen Harvey) is a painter. My poems are friends with paintings by Amy Cutler and Julie Morstad, photographs by Gabriel Orozco and admire, but can't talk to paintings by Agnes Martin. I enjoy the feeling of finding a kindred spirit as well as finding my opposite.
I have an orange binder labeled “Current” full of torn-out pages from magazines…When I page through it right now, it's mostly artwork -- a shiny green chicken rocking chair by Jaime Hayon, photographs by Eirik Johnson (of strange temporary or interstitial places), and a picture of the miniature gloves showed at the Museum of Arts and Design's show, “Radical Lace and Subversive Knitting.” There's also a photo of an almost all-white peacock and a picture of the world's tallest man meeting the world's smallest man.
I collect dialogue I overhear on the street. Recently I heard “I got everybody saying it like they'd been saying it for years” and that will probably turn up in a poem at some point. A lot of things just appear in my head out of nowhere, or out of the thin air that's in there. Those usually become poems -- phrases like “Dinna's Pig” and “First Person Fabulous.”
I think I realized you could actually be a poet when I took my first writing class with Henri Cole in college, but I'd always written poems… I did study the flute quite seriously from the age of seven to twenty, but I don't play anymore. I've recently started taking photographs and I'm working on a collaborative project, Of Lamb, with the artist Amy Jean Porter. She's doing drawings based on an erasure I did of a biography of Charles Lamb. Luckily, his sister was named Mary, so the erasure turned out to be tiny poems about Mary and her lamb.
I don't mean it as as flat a question as it'll likely seem, but do you like teaching? I feel like there's always some little debate about teaching and writing, the relationship between the two, the time demands, etc. Is it fulfilling? Would you rather just write all the time? And editing as well-do you like that relationship with other writers, being part of a group that midwifes work from private to public?
I do like it. At Sarah Lawrence, where I teach both graduate and undergraduate poets, faculty meets with every student every other week for half an hour. That set-up suits me -- it is much easier to point students in the direction of poets and artists they'll find inspiring if you know them as a whole person. It's like being a good present-giver. You pay attention to their favorite things and extrapolate from there… Also, there's the not-so-secret secret of teaching, which is that you get to keep on learning. If you want to think about the relationship between the graphic novel and poetry, you teach a seminar on that subject.
What I loved about editing American Letters & Commentary with Anna Rabinowitz and Ed Darton was assembling different voices and making a record of that year in poetry and fiction-our own tree ring. Constructing a syllabus has a similar feel. We handed American Letters & Commentary over to new editors (David Vance and Catherine Kaspar) two years ago. I've found that that teaching and editing and writing was a lot to do at once. Being a contributing editor (to jubilat and BOMB) is ideal. For me, it's good to have a mix of being out in the world and at my desk.
How’s New York as a literary place? Do you feel plugged into or part of any sort of scene‚ or group there? Sort of along the same lines, do you feel part of some group of writers, in NYC or elsewhere? And sort of back to the first question, too: who are some of the up-and-comers (in any arena, I suppose; if you’ve got a jai alai background, that’d be cool as hell), in your eyes?
I've always loved New York/Brooklyn. I love the Manhattan Bridge's blue knobby beauty, Prospect Park's perfect size, and the pairs of identical dogs trotting down the streets. It feels alive and mixed in both a general and literary sense. There are always readings to go to, streets you've never seen before. I have a lot of friends who are poets, so there is a sense of community, but I also have friends who are psychologists, small business owners, artists, and assistant D.A.'s. In general, I'm more of a one-on-one person than a group person.
In the last couple of years I've become really interested in graphic novels (often misnamed since so many of them seem to be graphic nonfiction) and minicomics. Recent favorites are Rebecca Kraatz's House of Sugar, Danica Novgorodoff's A Late Freeze, Gabrielle Bell's Lucky, Renee French's The Ticking, and Paul Hornschemeier's The Three Paradoxes and minicomics by Briana Miller, Fay Ryu, Tom Gauld, Allison Cole and Doug McNamara.
Do you set out to write with structural/formal/thematic ideas, or do the actual words come first and the thought of conjoining/conflating come later? (Expound on this as much as you’d like. You’re one of very few writers who are doing thematic/structural things, and so aside from the rarity of it, I’m also curious about the the relationship between form=theme=actual words of the poem (the relationship between those three things, I think, is something you do incredibly well; Sad Little Breathing Machine’s machine poems just wowed the crap out of me)).
Usually the formal idea emerges while I'm writing a poem. I'll keep going with it as long as the results are surprising me. With the “Future of Terror” poems, I originally thought I would write one poem with that title. I started working on it, got stuck, and looked up the words in the dictionary. It struck me that the way that abstract phrase “the future of terror” was cordoning off certain ideas (when you're absolutely terrified, complexity, empathy and reason, among other things, fly out the window) could be formally enacted if the words moved alphabetically between “future” and “terror.” So I started making word lists and the poems almost felt like they were writing themselves. I didn't know that when I followed the word lists forwards through the dictionary, I would find myself writing from a military perspective and that backwards was from a civilian perspective.
Quite early on in the writing of Modern Life, I realized that I was writing about dividing lines (the place where a centaur turns from horse to human, the dotted line outlining a paper doll, the equator, the white lines in the middle of the road) as a way of trying to live in contradiction, in-between “yes and no,” and “good and evil.”
Not that your book comes down hard or heavy-handed in terms of political tone, but do you feel a responsibility to address the sensation of being alive at the present, which (of course) includes huge political heavings and shifts and (in many eyes) lots of awfulness? If you do have some sense of responsibility, was it accretive -- is Modern Life something you’ve been building toward, outrage by outrage, or confusion by confusion, or terror by terror? Did you think Sad Little Breathing Machine or Pity the Bathtub... were engaged in the same sort of public project that Modern Life seems to be engaged in?
I didn't set out to write a political book. I don't use much autobiographical material in my work, so my own life comes into my writing usually in disguise -- cat suit, canary mask… But of course my emotions are all over my work, and the shapeless dread I felt after 9/11 is definitely in the “Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” poems. They're related to our current situation, but they're set, say, five hundred to a thousand years in the future, depending on how long it takes us to make gravity hinges and portals. There are poems I consider political in the other books -- “The Transparent Heir Apparent” in Sad Little Breathing Machine and “The Gem is On Page Sixty-Four” and “Minarets and Pinnacles” in Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form -- they're political fables, I suppose, and in a way, I think they're more didactic than the poems in Modern Life, which don't have any answers.
What's the view from your window?
Right now my hole punch is propping the window open. I have a little paper cutout of a boy wearing a school uniform and holding a ladybug the size of a rabbit hanging from the lock on my window. I bought him in Berlin this summer. Depending on whether the window is open or closed, he has his toes in the treetops, he floats inside someone else's window or he flutters against the sky as the clouds move past him. Behind him I can also see the corner of our pink fire escape and the curve of the building next to ours (we live on a circle, though it is officially called a square).