“My study is my apartment in Brooklyn–it’s the furthest room from the front door. We live on the fourth floor and I look out onto our pink fire escapes, the building across the street and a sliver of Bartel Pritchard Square (which is actually a circle). It’s usually a bit of a mess—mostly it’s full of books and robots and miniatures. Luckily the miniatures don’t take up that much room. And the book piles are in every room except my husband’s office (he is much neater). My dream office would be a white room full of empty desks, but I’m sure even if I had such an office, projects and piles would take over like so much kudzu…I stage a lot of photos on the cat seat in the window (when Wednesday isn’t there) and the black pictures hanging up above are image titles for a series of poems I’m working on about invented constellations. “
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 (Graywolf, 2007) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Cirlcle Award and a New York Times Notable Book. Her first children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel, was published byTin House Books in 2009. An illustrated erasure, titled Of Lamb, with images by Amy Jean Porter, was just published by McSweeneys. Matthea is a contributing editor to jubilat, Meatpaper and BOMB. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.
FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?
MATTHEA HARVEY: I don’t have any regular routine. I always have a small notebook with me and I jot down ideas. Then, when I feel like it, I sit down at the computer for hours over multiple days and work on a poem. I also take photographs, so often I’ll take photographs for a few weeks, then write poems, etc. A lot of my process is unconscious–I only recently realized that in the last ten years I moved from writing a children’s book about a glacier (Cecil the Pet Glacier is coming out next year with Schwartz & Wade with illustrations by Giselle Potter) to taking photographs of tiny things inside ice cubes, to my current project–making an arrow out of fake ice cubes. I’ve been doing a lot of glue experimentation and the problem is not solved yet.
Books are like magnets–I have very little control.
MH: After I did the erasure I felt that it needed to be transformed one more time. I contacted Amy Jean and asked her if she might be interested in painting a lot of lambs, and she was! I love what a layer-cake the project turned out to be–Lord David Cecil writing about Charles Lamb, me erasing his words into series of poems that are haunted both by the story of Charles Lamb and his sister Mary and also the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb,” then Amy Jean’s transformations of the poems. I was surprised by each image that arrived over email–I could never have imagined that the poem “A perm did not prove successful” would turn into Mary with a mass of pink hair inside which George Washington is crossing the Delaware.
FYD: How do you approach language; is it something you grew up studying and learning?
MH: I‘m always learning. My first language was German (from age 0-2, then we moved to England) so I could peek through the language fence and see how different things were on each side. I was recently on a little reading tour in Germany with my translator and friend, Uljana Wolf, and I was so delighted by some of the compound German words I discovered: ”Anprobierstrumpfe” (trying-on socks) and “Sollbruchstelle” (the place where packaging seems like it should open but doesn’t…).
Literal box: bottles of whiteout, a miniature cheese under a miniature dome and five types of glue.
FYD: Do you allow friends edit your work?
MH: No. I like to work alone and I do a lot of revising and reading out loud (sometimes to Wednesday the cat, my office-mate). If a poem never really gets off the ground, I can feel it both in the music and in my bones and eventually I’ll abandon it. I spend a lot of time ordering a book once the poems are finished and then I do talk things over with my husband and my editor at Graywolf, Jeff Shotts.
FYD: Why does poetry appear esoteric to some?
I think people get scared of poetry–that they won’t “get it.” If they could just relax, they’d probably start experiencing its delights pretty quickly. There are all types of poems–poems that are conversational and close to prose, poems that are more hermetic and live more on the surface of the language, haikus that blow your brain doors wide open… (listen to Matthea read Implications for Modern Life.
FYD: You are my teacher. Assign a few readings.
A few of my favorite individual poems: ”The Lock-Eater” by Henri Michaux, “The Guinea-Pig and the Green Balloon” by Oni Buchanan, “Counting Sheep” by Russell Edson, “On the Difficulty of Drawing Oneself Up” by Kay Ryan, “Snow Line” by John Berryman. And some books to read… Lynda Barry’s “What It Is
” (a graphic novel about writing and drawing) ”Autobiography of Red
” by Anne Carson,” The Pink Institution
” by Selah Saterstrom, “The Irrationalist
“ by Suzanne Buffam, “House of Sugar
” by Rebecca Kraatz (these are comics, but as close to poems as it gets), and “The Essential Haiku
” edited by Robert Hass. This is a list that would have drawn me into poetry, but it’s going to be different for each person. When I work with students, I try to gage what their interests are and curate a list specifically for them.
I think people get scared of poetry–
FYD: How many hours do you spend reading work not your own?
MH: I‘m an avid and pretty speedy reader–I probably read 3-4 books a week–mostly poetry, fiction and graphic novels. I have no idea how many hours that comes to… When I’m teaching I spend a lot of time reading my students’ poems and meeting with them one-on-one, which I enjoy. Most recently I read the Game of Thrones series (I love a large series), The Trees The Trees by Heather Christle, The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke, The Changeling by Joy Williams, The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff, A Day in the Life of the Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble, Harvey by Bouchard Herve, Destruction Myth by Mathias Svalina and The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. It has been a great summer for reading! Books are like magnets–I have very little control.
Metaphorical box: mermaids, arrows, headlines.
FYD: Poet Donald Hall talks about unpacking the boxes. What’s in your box?
MH: For years I’ve been keeping different-shaped boxes under my bed. Then when Modern Life came out (which has a series of poems about a robot-boy in it), I decided it was time to build some robots for the robot Halloween/book party I was throwing. Those boxes now live in my office. They’re silver and empty, unless they have secret robot hearts inside. But is that a metaphorical or literal question? Metaphorical box: mermaids, arrows, headlines. Literal box: bottles of whiteout, a miniature cheese under a miniature dome and five types of glue.