Q&A: Matthea Harvey

questions posed by Selah Saterstrom, August 2006

SS: In looking into the history of the word "terror"—at least as it is recorded in various etymological dictionaries—it is interesting to see that it seems to make linguistic history only when in reference to war atrocities or very naughty children. What does "terror" mean to you, and in what ways does it relate to the process of making poems?

MH: I think my initial response to the government's way of talking about terrorism was like that of a child. Even though intellectually I knew that the word "terrorism" was a label designed to inspire fear, nevertheless I still felt heart-stoppingly afraid whenever I heard phrases like "the future of terror" on the radio (which I've listened to every morning since 9/11). One day I decided to write a poem that would turn this vague phrase into something more specific. So I made a list of the words that appear in the dictionary between “future” and “terror” and from that list I wrote a poem called “The Future of Terror.” I had no idea when I wrote this poem that it would turn into a series, but after writing one I clearly had more to discover. I then thought of writing the “Terror of the Future” poems, which take the same terms but in reverse order. I didn’t set out to write political poems—it seems like I must have, but truthfully I felt I was following the words. When I look back on the list that sparked “The Future of Terror /3,” I can see that I unconsciously gravitated towards words like “generalissimo” and “mourning bands” and rejected some other delightful candidates like “outfox,” “pilaf,” and “palanquin.” The formal strategy allowed me to address things that I hadn’t found a way to express previously. That’s how the world of these poems—an apocalyptic future in which absolutely everyone is fucked, civilians and soldiers alike—came into being. The process was a strange one—I wouldn’t say it was imbued with terror exactly—more a mixture of adrenaline, sadness and dread. I cried when the “you” who appears as a lover in the “Terror of the Future” poems died, even though I was the one killing her. I really felt the words were leading me, and that gave the process an electrical charge. Like tangoing blindfolded amongst landmines.

SS: What is it that happens that makes you want or need to make poems?

MH: It can be anything really—though a lot of my poems start with titles. Here’s a short list of how some of the titles of past poems have arrived: something someone said (“I May After Leaving You Walk Quickly or Even Run” and “Bird Transfer”), a phrase appeared out of nowhere in my head (“Dinna Pig” and “Strawberry on the Drawbridge”), a dream (the title of my first book, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form), a piece of art (“The Festival of Giovedi Grasso”), etc. These are ways a poem gets started, but how the poem gets written is much more mysterious to me. I think it’s best not to look at that part too closely.

SS: I want to take another look at "Restricted Vista" (which first appeared in Perihelion):

Where they've punched holes in the roof,
twenty tubes of sunlight slide through.

Rattatatat. The paparazzi clatter
up the ladder and now their eyes

are shooting sight-lines past you,
through you. They're in the "about" section

watching the dreams below. You're here
because you've seen things, because you see things:

red ground behind your eyelids,
panoramas pulsing beneath each shoe.

In thinking about the act of seeing, as it relates to the act of writing, what is required? What is taken on? What is given and what is gained?

MH: I think a lifetime of writing poems might not answer that question, but I’ll give it a go. I consider “Restricted Vista” a poem about the difference between looking and actually seeing—looking involves the surface, seeing involves many more layers. I think poetry gives us an opportunity to show someone the world through our own eyes. I’ve often wished I could trade eyeballs with people to see what they see, and vice versa, but in reality, you’d have to trade optic nerves and brains, maybe even entire bodies—because seeing what someone else sees is much more than simply pointing at a fungus growing on a tree. That wouldn’t be so interesting (unless you were a fungus specialist, or it was a particularly beautiful fungus). In poetry you can show how that fungus catches the eye; what synapses are triggered; how the fungus is seen through the lenses of memory, mood, etc. And if you communicate that precisely enough, I think the experience can be revelatory. The quotation I used from Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities as the epigraph to Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form speaks to this idea: “Ordinarily, we look at something, and our gaze is like a fine wire or a taut thread with two supports—one being the eye and the other what it sees, and there’s some such great support structure for every second that passes; but at this particular second, on the contrary, it is rather as though something painfully sweet were pulling our eye-beams apart.” The fact that writing poems can make new things visible is an incredible super-power. Suddenly, like an x-ray, you can see inside and through the self; or like a microscope, you can zoom in on an object and examine it on a cellular or structural level; or like a telescope you can perceive distant galaxies; or like a kaleidoscope, shatter the known world into new patterns. This all makes me seem a bit more reality-based than I am however—one of my favorite activities in poems is describing an invented world so precisely that it seems absolutely real.

SS: After each book that you've finished, what core information/insights—if it is possible to essentialize such things—have you been left with about writing?

MH: Imagistic obsessions usually reveal themselves to me after the books are written. Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form is brimming with rain, water, and oceans, and Sad Little Breathing Machine has a sunset every few pages—I didn’t know that until someone pointed it out to me. On the other hand, with the last two books I’ve written there has been a certain amount of intentionality at the beginning. I knew when I started writing Sad Little Breathing Machine I wanted to write a book that worked like a machine, so the question became how to do that. My “Introduction to” poems show humans in conversation with different systems—diction, addiction, the world, disease, and so forth. Those became the first poems in each section of the book. As I wrote, I discovered my love/hate relationship with narrative. For the “hate” poems, I used titles and/or diagrams to create a skeleton of coherence, but refused to move in a linear fashion; for the “love” poems, I wrote prose poems which spun cocoons of narrative around an idea (what if someone lived according the principles of the Baked Alaska, what if our leaders became invisible?). When I started Modern Life, I had been thinking about the story in which William Penn asks George Fox what he should do about the fact that according to his station, he is required to wear a sword, but according to his Quaker religion, he should not carry a weapon. Fox’s response was apparently: “Wear it as long as thou canst." That idea of living in the middle of contradiction—in the grey area, between yes and no—was what I wanted to explore in this book. I didn’t know how these ideas would emerge—sometimes I forgot about them and then still found myself writing about centaurs (and what creature is more divided than that chimera?) Last week my Rob Brezny horoscope in The Village Voice began: “French author Andre Gide said, ‘The color of truth is gray.’ Make that your watchword, Virgo. Resist the temptation to fall in love with bright shiny red facts or alluring azure maxims. Run like the wind from anyone who tries to sell you a story about good guys in white hats versus bad guys in black hats…”

SS: In terms of your work right now, what are your present obsessions, concerns, and/or questions?

MH: I’m not really able to discuss much about my next poetry project because I’m just at the tender unknowing beginning of it, but it has to do with a new approach to ekphrastic work. I’ve been interested in work that crosses genre boundaries and intersperses images in the text (like W. G. Sebald’s books, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and your book, The Pink Institution). I’ve also been madly reading graphic novels in the past couple of years (recent favorites include Paul Hornschemeier’s Mother Come Home and Sequential, Alison Blechdel’s Fun House, and How to Write Comics by Scott McCloud). And since the summer I have been having a wonderful time discussing the illustrations for my first children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake with the illustrator, Elizabeth Zechel. We get together and discuss military outfits, spats, snowflake types, and the continuum from photorealism to cartoon. We’ve talked about inventing a Realism Dial so that you could turn it up or down in a particular poem or drawing. I’m keeping a list of these inventions—you never know what will be possible in the future. This morning on the radio I heard that scientists have generated a miniature human liver!

Matthea Harvey is the author of Sad Little Breathing Machine (Graywolf, 2004) and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (Alice James Books, 2000). Her third book of poems, Modern Life, is forthcoming from Graywolf in 2007. Her first children's book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel, is forthcoming from Soft Skull. Matthea is a contributing editor to jubilat and BOMB. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.