Modern Life: Matthea Harvey in Conversation
An excerpt from an interview with Matthea Harvey, originally published by Verse Wisconsin
Wendy Vardaman: You seem like a globally gifted artist—interested in visual art and music as well as writing. You took the photograph on the cover of Modern Life, and I read that you studied the flute but don't play anymore. How do you make decisions about how to parcel out your artistic time? Is there other art besides poetry writing that you would like to be doing or plan to do?
Matthea Harvey: I don't know about globally gifted—only if it's a miniature globe. Stopping playing the flute was part deciding to concentrate on poetry, part my cat's hatred for the piccolo, and part having a hard time deciding to be an amateur player. At one point, I wanted to play professionally. Nowadays, I'm pretty lenient with myself about time—if I feel like taking photographs of small things inside ice cubes (a current project) or making animal collages, I just do it. When I want to write, I write. It's all part of the same thing for me. I would love to collaborate on a graphic novel with an artist—I'm terrible at drawing but I really love that genre.
WV: Although you obviously pay attention to sound, your poetry is strikingly visual in nature; the imagery is vivid and often surreal. A poem like "Implications for Modern Life," for example, reads as if it might be describing a fictional painting, or an alternate reality. Does visual art have more influence on your poetry than literature does?
MH: Probably yes. Going to museums or galleries always makes me want to write. I love the imaginary worlds in the work of Amy Cutler, Marcel Dzama, and Julie Morstad, Rebecca Horn's mechanical sculptures, the quiet in Agnes Martin's paintings, Louise Bourgeois's psychological drawings and sculptures, Tom Friedman's miniatures, Gabriel Orozco's clever photographs, and Andrea Dezsö's book art. Those are just a few.
WV: You've mentioned your admiration for the films of Hayao Miyazaki. What other film-makers/animators do you admire?
MH: Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, Jean Painlevé (his more whimsical science films, excluding the psychologically scarring one I recently saw in which a vampire bat slowly drains a guinea pig of all its blood), Pedro Almodóvar, Kimberly Peirce, Spike Jonze, Jane Campion, Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville), Ang Lee, Sam Mendes, Joss Whedon, Miranda July, and Werner Herzog.
WV: You went to college at Harvard and Iowa. What did you study as an undergrad? I'm especially wondering whether you had an interest in math—the math puns in poems like "You know this too" or the photograph you took for the Modern Life cover have made me curious about that.
MH: I studied English at Harvard and wrote a creative thesis, a collection of poems, with Henri Cole as my advisor. I am still attached to my incredibly fat and thin-papered Norton Anthology of Literature. When I was little, apparently I wanted to be a math teacher (or a philosopher named Themistocpholes), but I have very little spatial understanding and doing calculus was like repeating the words to a language without knowing what they meant. Maybe that's why nowadays I seem to be mostly interested in simple division—half-cat, half-goat or half-robot, half-boy. I like that dominoes look like they're fractions—even when you've made the dots out of photographs of blackberries submerged in milk (the photograph I took for the cover of my last book Modern Life). I keep meaning to actually learn how to play dominoes.
WV: What poets have influenced your work? What contemporary poets do you enjoy reading?
MH: I'm very bad at identifying influence, but some of the greats I adore are Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Henri Michaux, W. H. Auden, John Berryman...In terms of contemporary poets, I read anything and everything—Russell Edson, Tomas Tranströmer, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Cathy Park Hong, Jen Bervin, Kay Ryan, Mary Ruefle, Timothy Donnelly, Brenda Shaughnessy, Terrence Hayes, Lisa Jarnot...
WV: I think of your poetry as imaginative, whimsical, witty, mysterious, cerebral, and distant or private. Do you make the conscious decision to avoid the personal?
MH: No—it just seems to happen. I guess I'm a bit of a projector—my emotions tend to get translated into different, fanciful situations. I did recently write one very straightforward poem, but I'm not sure it's any good. I'll have to sit with it for a while. I don't find the "autobiographical me" very interesting—I work much more from my ideas than from my actual experiences. On the other hand, I'm often enthralled by other people's "I's."
WV: Do you see your work as related to a tradition of American women poets or not? If you were teaching yourself to students, who else would you include in the course?
MH: Let's hope I never teach myself to my students! I'm certainly an American woman poet, and many of my favorite writers are from that group, but it's such a large category, I'm not sure it means that much. Umbrellas always miss an elbow or a knee. I'd like to be on the syllabus for an interdisciplinary course which would include Tom Phillips's A Humument; artwork by Nina Katchadourian, Kara Walker and Hannah Höch; fiction by Kelly Link, Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis and Etgar Keret; nonfiction by Anne Fadiman; and graphic novels by Shaun Tan, Paul Hornschemeier, Chris Ware, and Gabrielle Bell.
WV: You're a particularly skilled writer of the prose poem, and I love how that fits into your thematic program—half poem, half fiction. Do you view the prose poem as a form, and has it become more important to you than other kinds of poems? What, if anything, does it allow you to do that other forms don't?
MH: I do love the prose poem because it's such a perverse and provocative little box—always asking to be questioned, never giving a straight or definitive answer. I like how it gives a feeling of containment to the words within. It's a form of sorts, but a pretty loose one. I let my narrative embroidering impulses take over in prose poems.
WV: Many of the poems in Modern Life could be characterized as science-fiction. Could you talk about your interest in that genre?
MH: Sci-fi television shows like Battlestar Galactica and V seem to be on the upswing, and I'm all for it. Ditto for vampires. When I was younger, my sci-fi interests tended towards Anne McCaffrey's dragon series. One of my favorite contemporary sci-fi novels is Jonathan Lethem's Girl in Landscape, which I often assign to my poetry workshops. That book features creatures called Archbuilders who give themselves inspired names like "Hiding Kneel," "Truth Renowned," "Gelatinous Stand," and "Lonely Dumptruck," as well as little hard-to-see creatures called housedeer.
WV: What are you working on right now? Do you have an interest in hybrid forms?
MH: The last few months I've been obsessed with taking photographs of miniatures inside of ice cubes. I think I've ended up with two series, each of which is titled with an ice cube containing a scrap of paper with text on it. One series is titled "Help" and features tiny people and animals trapped in ice cubes. The other, "Stay," is a series of topsy-turvy chairs frozen into place. I think they may be some kind of ice poem rebuses. So yes, I am pretty interested in hybrid forms.
I love graphic novels and I think there should be more graphic poems in the world. I'm also interested in concrete poems—anything that complicates the line between the written and the visual. Some of the poems I'm working on now have photographs as titles and others have cutout silhouette titles—so, for example, a poem called "My Octopus Orphan" is a silhouette of an octopus with those letters cut out of the silhouette.
I'm also working on a book called Of Lamb, with the artist Amy Jean Porter. It's an erasure of a Charles Lamb biography and Amy is doing these wild and independent drawings to go along with the words. I'm also working on designing a two-sided poster with the artist Adam Shecter for a project called 2UP, where artists and writers co-create a poster.