Interview with Matthea Harvey

Author of several acclaimed collections of poetry as well as children’s books and inventive collaborative children’s books, Matthea Harvey will read Sunday November 13, 2011 for the Katonah Poetry Series. Her answers to questions from Andy Kuhn give a taste of her unique sensibility and the range of original approaches she takes to her craft.

Andy Kuhn: Your poetry is such an unusual and delightful combination of airy and dense, fantastical and down-to-earth. You present surreal situations matter-of-factly, with great specificity and assurance. The choices do not feel arbitrary, but seem to have the logic of a dream— not as a dream is told, but as it’s dreamed. How do you do that?

Matthea Harvey: Well, sometimes the poems are inspired by dream, but probably only 1 in 20. Generally, I start with one idea, say, “What would a museum of the middle look like and why might it exist?” and then the details invent themselves from there. They are imagined worlds, but I think of them as fully real and hopefully that comes through in the writing.

AK: If you don’t mind, I’m going to refer to specific previously published poems of yours that you have generously made available online. The poem “Setting the Table” is a kind of bent how-to which in a very authoritative voice describes some strange procedures—it reads a little like Martha Stewart on mushrooms. Do you ever laugh out loud when you’re writing?

Matthea H: Not usually—I’ve blushed and I’ve cried, but I did laugh out loud at the idea of Martha Stewart on mushrooms! Funnily enough, I have Martha Stewart’s Encyclopedia of Crafts on my desk, which has some great sections: “How to Punch Fabric Flowers” sounds like the beginning of a poem and there’s even a “Glitter Glossary!” I have yet to do any of these projects, but I like to think one day I might. I did laugh recently when I was writing a new mermaid poem on the train to D.C. (“The Objectified Mermaid”) and I had her say that the photographer treating her like a “spork.” That was my first foray into hybrid tools, and I was kind of delighted by it. I need to seek out some others… the fabulous “knoon” or knife-spoon.

AK: In many of your poems, in a short space you create alternate realities which are compelling and in some cases quite disturbing. The poem Implications for Modern Life is almost enough to make one consider becoming a vegetarian. It’s not even so much the images, which I found every bit as creepy as anything in Bunuel, but the aura of bad conscience pervading the whole piece. Is that an effect you were going for at the outset, or did it just emerge from the material?

Matthea H: That poem was inspired by a particularly disturbing dream and as I was writing it, the sense of responsibility for creating this imagery started to come into the poem. That surprised me. In a way, though, I’m surprised that hadn’t come into my poems earlier, since I do invent these creatures and people and put them in pretty dreadful situations. I didn’t want to inhabit that landscape of platelets and ham—why should a reader?

AK: There’s so much that’s playful yet quite mordant in your work—it’s right there in the titles of two of your collections, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, and Sad Little Breathing Machine. You mess around shamelessly with words—you were the first to put “rapture” and “rupture” in adjoining lines, I believe—but there’s a certain austerity of attitude even in your jokes, it seems. “We practice drawing cubes—/ That’s the house squared away.” Some of your poems read a little like Lewis Carroll or Ogden Nash by way of Poe. Have you ever had a weakness for any of those writers?

Matthea H: Absolutely. I love Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Gorey (I just read a collection of his letters to Peter Neumeyer—oh to have received those decorated envelopes…) Poe less so. The wordplay in Nash’s poems is so delicious—this is one of my favorites:

The Shrimp

A shrimp who sought his lady shrimp
Could catch no glimpse
Not even a glimp.
At times, translucence
Is rather a nuisance?

I haven’t, however, written any poetry for children. My two children’s books (The Little General and the Giant Snowflake and the forthcoming Cecil, the Pet Glacier) are both in prose. My poems are playful, but usually underneath the play is something quite dark or sad—a shark, or a razor blade. I’m not sure why I’m more optimistic in my prose, but so far that has been the case.

AK: Sentimentality is almost a third rail in poetry nowadays, and you seem to touch on the topic in a delightfully oblique way in “The Gem is on Page Sixty-Four.” You write, “Sentimental outbreaks were not uncommon & there were crews / Trained in containment but they could never predict the next / One.” This in a kind of dystopia where it seems we’re meant to identify with the rebels and not the containment crews. But you could be called pretty rigorously unsentimental yourself. In “The Crowd Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away”, you take the most flagrantly sentimental artifacts—pretty, miniature ponies—pair them with psycho-pharmaceutical packaging, and subject them to terrible abuse, even unto being devoured by rats. (This poem should carry a warning label, Do Not Read to Eight-Year-Old Girls). Even more subversively, in “Ideas Go Only So Far” you flout the sentimental conventions of motherhood by inventing a baby that’s machine-washable, although as it turns out, not indefinitely. Have you no heart? Or do you mistrust your readers’ hearts, in their gooier manifestations?

Matthea H: No one’s asked me that before! I do have a heart, it’s just small, black and made out of velvet.

In the first poem you mention, I’m definitely on the side of the sentimentalists, but I’m not a Hallmark aficionado. I don’t think about whether my readers are sentimental or not—probably like me, there are things that reduce them to a puddle of goo and things that leave them cold. I’m very sentimental about animals—I can’t bear to see them die (so sadly I couldn’t watch the amazing series Planet Earth—too much weeping when the polar bear begins to starve), so writing the poem about the tiny ponies was hard. I felt bad about killing the baby too—I particularly liked her incarnation as a “peacefully blinking footstool”— that would be a useful and soothing kind of baby. I didn’t think she was going to die, so I was shocked when she did. The rhyme led to her death. The word “dead” was orbiting the poem the minute I wrote that her flaw was “dread.” A friend of mine asked me to read that poem at her wedding and I had to convince her otherwise!

AK: In terms of form, some of your pieces are prose-poems, to the extent that they’re in blocks of text without poetic line breaks. Other are laid out so as to be more readily identified, visually, as poetry. Hearing you read the different kinds of work, however, the distinction is less obvious. Your prose poetry has all the sonic virtues of more conventionally composed free verse, including rhythmic patterning. Could you talk a little about how and when you elect to write in the more compressed prose poetry form, and when in the forms with line breaks?

Matthea H: I think my ear is the same when I’m writing prose poems and lineated poems, but when I write lineated poems I’m really trying to utilize the extra possibilities of the line break. I don’t like to read line breaks out loud, though. The line breaks are for the silent reader. Recently I’ve written a lot of poems about hybrids (Robo-Boy and catgoats and ship figureheads in Modern Life) and now a series about mermaids. They seem to naturally want to be written about in a hybrid form.

AK: You’ve been involved in several projects that pair poetry with music—notably Philip Glass’s—and with photographs. You have the first animation of a poem I’m aware of, and you’ve done poetry in response to art. And you recently completed a project involving selective erasure of a book about Charles Lamb, to create a new and very different book. Can you tell us more about some of these undertakings, and how they enrich and are enriched by your poetry?

Matthea H: I couldn’t have predicted that I would have the opportunity or even desire to collaborate with these various talented people and groups (Elizabeth Zechel on children’s story The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, Amy Jean Porter on the illustrated erasure Of Lamb, Eric Moe—who made two choral pieces out of my poems for the Volti choir, and the Miro Quartet). I think I’ve been experimenting with form through collaboration. How can one’s work not be transformed by listening to Philip Glass’s Quartet No. 5? I recently worked with Adam Shecter on a poster project for a poster collaborative called Two Up (http://twoup.org/2UP_past.html#) in which we took a poem I wrote about a constellation called the Suicide Fox—essentially a faux star pattern created by the government to prevent suicide—and Adam transformed it into an iconic almost loony-tunes-like character. The posters are double-sided and I loved that we came up with the second side just saying “ARE YOU OKAY?” because that really sums up what I want people to ask one another. Also recently Paul Tunis, a writer and cartoonist, took a poem of mine and made that into a graphic poem. The poem (which I’ve been working on for years during the U.S. Open) always lacked something, and in his illustration, he grounded and complicated the poem perfectly. Link to Loaded Bicycle: Sometimes you find out, out of the blue, that someone has collaborated with your work. Ani Simon-Kennedy made an amazing short inspired by “The Straightforward Mermaid” Link to Sea full of hooks and it arrived whole in my inbox one day! I couldn’t believe it.

AK: As you know, the Katonah Poetry Series has been bringing great poets to our town for a long time. Looking over the list of those who have read here over the years, can you see any who have been a notable influence for you?

Matthea H: Well, it’s such a list! It might be easier to say who hasn’t influenced me on this list! Sophie Cabot Black was one of my undergraduate thesis evaluators. I love Lucie Brock-Broido’s insanely embroidered work and Donald Justice’s odes (he used to be a customer of mine back when I worked at a used bookstore in Iowa City). “Instead of You” by Stephen Dunn was one of the first poems I chose to memorize. I took a class with Marie Ponsot at the 92nd St. Y in a space that was, by day, a kindergarten. You see, I could keep going…

AK: Thanks so much. We’ll look forward to seeing you Sunday November 13th at 4 pm.

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