Snowflakes in General

an interview with Matthea Harvey

by Louis Bourgeois

Matthea Harvey is the author of 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 Circle 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 by Tin House Books in 2009. An illustrated erasure, titled Of Lamb, with images by Amy Jean Porter, was published by McSweeney’s in 2011. Matthea is a contributing editor to jubilatMeatpaper, and BOMB. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.

Louis Bourgeois: I would like to begin by asking you to describe your background and development as a poet. What led you to write poems, say, rather than stories or novels?

Matthea Harvey: Rhyme drew me in. Encountering rhyme out of the blue is like finding a long-lost twin (fraternal), or a suitcase that closes with a particularly satisfying click. One of the first poems I can remember memorizing is “Bed in Summer” by Robert Louis Stevenson, from A Child’s Garden of Verses. It starts out:

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candlelight.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I was probably six or seven at the time, and I remember being very impressed by the way that poem managed to capture something I felt so acutely. I liked that the poem puzzled its way through its confusion—there was something Rubik cube-like about it. Unconsciously I must have felt how meter and rhyme connect those two contradictory situations—going to bed when the sun is shining, getting up when it is dark. Another rhyme I remember from early on is from the song “You are my Lucky Star” (in Singing in the Rain): “You’ve opened heaven’s portal here on earth for this poor mortal.” There’s something delicious about that, right? I remember visiting my friend Frances whose son Sebastian was then four years old—he and I were reading a book called Snake Cake by Yukido Kido, which runs through families of simple rhymes: Snake. Bake. Cake. Goat. Oat. An hour later, while we were eating lunch, he looked up at me and said, “Tortilla . . . Matthea!” I don’t know which of us was more delighted.

In my own writing, I’ve mostly abandoned end-rhyme, but wordplay is still a huge part of my process. I’ve written a series of mermaid poems in the last few years. The first one was called “The Straightforward Mermaid” which arose from my delight in that word combination. After that, I decided that future mermaid poems would have to be words ending in “d” or “t,” which led to “The Deadbeat Mermaid,” “The Morbid Mermaid” and so forth . . .

LB: Please explain the provocative title of your first collection, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form.

MH: Is it provocative because of its length? I remember talking to Mary Jo Bang about this, and at the time she was writing her second book, The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans. We agreed that if we could each remember the other’s title then they weren’t too long. I’ve never forgotten hers. One of my favorite titles of an art piece is “Première Communion de Jeunes Filles Chlorotiques Par Un Temps De Neige” or “First Communion of Chlorotic Young Girls in Snowy Weather” by Alphonse Allais. It’s essentially a joke of a title, since the accompanying image is a simple white square.

The title-phrase “pity the bathtub its forced embrace of the human form” came to me in the middle of the night. I try to keep a pen and paper by my bed for those ideas because it’s very tempting to tell myself I’ll remember the idea in the morning, and I never do (at one point I had a wonderful pen light—I keep meaning to find another one of those). In the morning I read the phrase and I carried it around in my head for a few months until I could write a poem about that idea—that bathtubs don’t have a choice when it comes to embracing humans. I do have a tendency to invest inanimate objects with human qualities—for example we used to have a kitchen faucet which I named “The Eager Alien.”

LB: There seems to be a great density of language in many of the poems in Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form: some of the poems extend so far to the right-hand margin of the page that they nearly become prose poems. Can you talk about the use of the line in this book as well as the use of other forms, such as the double-column, the spatial poem, as well as the prose poem?

MH: In what I call the “swivel poems” (poems where one word ends a sentence and begins the next), I didn’t want to let any silence or white space in. I wanted the readers to feel like they were somersaulting down a hill so that they’d arrive in a new place, dizzy and disoriented. I felt swept up in a whirlwind in writing them, because a sentence would end on a word—say, “strange”—and suddenly I had to start a new sentence with that word. It was a really exciting compositional strategy for me because of the way it provided cliffs, back alleys, diving boards, dead-ends. InModern Life I had the same feeling in the “Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” series, where I was using a rough abecedarian technique—making word lists between “terror” and “future” in the dictionary. I love the push-pull of these kinds of strategies—sometimes the form seems to be leading, sometimes I do.

In Pity the Bathtub, I used a double and triple column in a poem called “The Illuminated Manuscript,” in sections titled “Diptych” and “Triptych.” I was experimenting in a rudimentary way with having the visual presentation of the poem correlate to its subject. The same thing applies to “Ornamental,” the poem in the shape of an “O” which echoes the gaping mouths of the stone carp in the poem. I am charmed by concrete poetry (but it’s very hard to do well, I think) and in general by the idea of mixing the visual and the textual. For this reason, I read a lot of graphic novels—some of my favorites graphic novelists or artists are Rebecca Kraatz, Gabrielle Bell, Graham Roumieu, Tom Gauld, and Renee French. Right now I’m writing a book of poems that has photographs and silhouette cutouts as titles.

LB: I found the poem “Ceiling Unlimited Series” particularly intriguing—what was the genesis of this poem, and what were you are attempting to convey?

MH: “Ceiling Unlimited” is something I heard a weatherman say on the Weather Channel—it means a completely clear sky. I thought that perhaps if the sky was truly free of clouds and any other distractions (birds, kites, skywriting), we could see if there was something else out there. I wasn’t really raised in any religion (in England I attended an Anglican school and went to a Methodist church, but I left that all behind at the age of eight when we moved to the U.S.), but like most people, I sometimes wonder if there’s anything or anyone out there. “Ceiling Unlimited” is a series of attempts to communicate with that. I could say I was addressing God, or gods, or aliens, but really the poem names the “other” in more accurate ways than I can now describe: “God of Seedpods,” “dust-ghost,” “magnet mine,” “sweet triple trochee,” “finite font of counsel,” “constant corrector,” and “absent gauze over my gaze.” The language in that poem made a leap into a more private vocabulary because I decided that if I was addressing someone so possibly all-knowing, they would understand what I was saying.

LB: The title of your second book, Sad Little Breathing Machine, is a rather intoxicating set of words. How did you happen upon such a title? How does the title help guide the reader throughout the rest of the poems in the collection?

MH: I think the title prepares the reader for the intersection of the human and the mechanical. In the “Introduction to____” poems, whichever word fills that blank (world, diction, addiction, etc) is considered as a system or a machine (speaking on the left column of the page) while on the right column humans try to learn the language of that system and engage in a dialogue with it.

I’m not sure when I came up with that title. I have a vague memory of seeing an image of a child in an iron lung and the phrase “sad little breathing machine” coming into my head. The more I thought about it, the more I felt that on certain days—the worse ones—we could all be described as sad little breathing machines.

Very early on in the process of writing Sad Little Breathing Machine, I saw Rebecca Horn’s sculpture, The Unconsciousness of Feelings, and I knew that was the image I wanted on the cover. It’s essentially a steel rectangle with little arms that spin around, and it has a kind of futile sweetness to it. I picture the satellites in “Satellite Storage” in Modern Life looking similar. In that poem a satellite attendant shows the satellites filmstrips of sunsets and places a tiny city model underneath the retired satellites to remind them of their pasts and prepare them for possible future work, which is probably not forthcoming. In real life, retired satellites go into “graveyard orbit,” which is possibly more tragic.

LB: Please explain the variety of forms throughout your three collections, and the prevalence of the prose poems in your later work.

MH: There isn’t a grand plan at work in the progression of the books with respect to the line. I do want the books to be different from each other, certainly, but I’m more aware of that on the level of theme or structure. I can tell when I’m writing the last of a particular type of poem because the writing is too easy and I start to feel queasy. That happened with the swivel poem and I haven’t written another one since. Maybe it’ll be my chosen form again at age seventy-six.

When I started writing Sad Little Breathing Machine I wanted to create a book with different constituent parts that worked together, and the separate “cogs” did end up having different characteristics—introduction poems, poems with diagrammatic engines under their titles, poems using their own titles as engines, and the prose poems. Initially I was working with only the first three types but I started to feel lopsided—I was consciously evading my narrative impulse and realized that the book wouldn’t feel whole without it. So really it was my attempt to try writing less narratively (with more gaps, with more non-sequiturs or secrets) which led me to writing my most narrative poems.

Eula Biss and Matthew Zapruder co-wrote a great piece for American Poet on how faint the boundaries are between the lyric and the narrative (“Matthew Zapruder and Eula Biss Revisit the Lyric and the Narrative”). I certainly believe you can write a narrative lyric or a lyrical narrative—why not a nyric or a larrative? In Sad Little Breathing Machine I wasn’t smudging those boundaries. I was separating them out. So the prose poems in that book are particularly narrative. I spun each one around one idea, such as “what if we took photocopying classes?” or “what would a life ruled by the theory of the Baked Alaska be like?” then pushed that idea to its most extreme and sometimes ridiculous conclusion. Those prose poems are cousins of some of the more fantasy-based swivel poems in the first book, except that their shapes are different. If you were going to make sculptures of them, the swivel poems would be disparate objects all attached with hinges and the prose poems would be small sheep wrapped in extra wool.

When I start writing a poem, I can usually know quite early on whether it’s a lineated or prose poem, but I don’t think I can explain how. It’s like deciding whether to wear a skirt or a pair of pants. In Modern Life, the prose poem made sense as a form because of the subjects. I didn’t want to be writing about borders and equators and dotted lines in lines—the centaur needed to be able to consider his divided condition (“But what his stomach wants, his tongue won’t touch; what his mouth wants, his stomach recoils from”) without being lineated himself.

LB: What are your views on the prose poem in general?

MH: That’s a bit like asking me to describe snowflakes in general. Or chocolate cake in general. What I like about prose poems is that they seem to make people uncomfortable—people want to define them, justify them, attack them. Prose poems are natural fence-sitters, and since Modern Life is trying to walk that middle line (whether it’s finding the exact center of a strawberry by growing it on a drawbridge or inventing a catgoat), of course I’m attracted to them. I don’t see much difference between prose poems and flash fiction (I’ve often taught the latter as the former), but then I also don’t see that much difference between art and poetry. I think of poetry as a very inclusive term. Still, it’s interesting that people want to make the distinction. I love the magazine Double Room for that reason (contributors have to write about their ideas on the prose poem/flash fiction).

Recently, while I was in England, I saw a documentary on the BBC about the border between India and Pakistan at Wagah. When the border closes each evening around six o’ clock, the soldiers on each side do these amazing high-stepping peacock march-offs (like a dance-off). The displays are almost identical on each side and thousands gather to watch them. Though they’re patrolling along their separate borders, what comes across is how similar they are. Whether you’re talking about political borders or aesthetic divisions (and clearly, the political ones have much more tragic consequences), it seems like once they are created, we want to patrol them, enforce them. I grew up spending time at my grandmother’s farm in Germany and she lived a few kilometers away from the border between east and west Germany. It was so strange that roads which used to connect two towns now ended in the middle.

LB: In your work, there seems to be little “confessionalism” going on. This is not to say that your work is not “personal”—there is a strange type of internal dialog at play, certainly—but the poems always seem to be reaching outward to a world beyond the speaker of the poems, to the point that your work seems to become almost “anti-confessional.” If any of this is accurate, please comment. In any case, this rather convoluted question poses the question: what do you think of “confessional poetry”?

MH: I’m all over my poems, even if their relation to my everyday life is that of dream to reality. Poems can’t help but be personal. Mine are certainly an accurate blueprint of the things I think about, if not a record of my daily life. It’s a matter of temperament—my neurons fire when I’m writing about strange implausible situations. But, for example, my husband and I moved next to Prospect Park in Brooklyn about six years ago, and Modern Life has three park poems in it. Granted, none of them are about me in the park, (in one, the park is a place for word-watching in lieu of bird-watching), but that park crept in.

As a reader I don’t distinguish between confessional and non-confessional work. After all, how do we even know that certain “I” poems are confessional? It’s a tricky business, this correlating of the speaker and the poet. If I begin a poem, “I am a donkey,” reason kicks in and says, “She is taking on the persona of a donkey.” But if I write, “I have taken so many drugs I can’t see my feet,” the tendency is to take that as a confession on the part of the poet. Maybe that doesn’t matter. I’d almost prefer for it to be the other way round. Some of my favorite poems are “confessional” poems written in the voices of aliens (“Southbound on the Freeway” by May Swenson” and “Report from the Surface” by Anthony McCann), sheep (“Snow Line” by John Berryman) or a yak (“The Only Yak in Batesville, Virginia” by Oni Buchanan).

“Confessional poetry” is another one of those labels. It goes in and out of fashion. I suppose it’s useful in designating writing that tends to come from personal experience, work that delineates an “I,” but it’s a loose lasso, one which may rope certain poems by one poet and not others. Plus the way people “confess” can be wildly different. I might go into the confessional and say, “Father, what is my obsession with miniatures?”

LB: Although I am quite pleased with the complexity of your poetry, I was wondering if you ever concern yourself with losing some readers in the whorl of your literary gyroscopics?

MH: Well, not everyone is going to like every carnival ride. I hope that there’s enough for readers to hold onto, but I also like poems that are haunted by a structure or a narrative, or poems that frisk flirtatiously at the boundary of sense.

LB: Do you like teaching poetry writing?

MH: I do. I’ve had amazing students, and teaching is a great way to keep learning. When I get interested in a new topic I teach a class on it. There’s a graduate seminar I teach in which the students and I try to expand the terminology we use to talk about poetry as well as expand our notion of what makes a poem—we read source texts on architecture, dance, photography, film and the graphic novel (books like Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, Doris Humphrey’s The Art of Making Dances and Words and Buildings: A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture by Adrian Forty).

LB: Do you consider yourself an experimental poet, an avant-garde poet?

MH: I try not to consider myself too much at all. I know it has been said before, but to be a poet you have to experiment. But I don’t like the idea of deciding to be a _______ poet unless that adjective space can be left open, Mad Lib-style.

LB: What advice might you have for aspiring poets?

MH: The same advice I give myself: read widely (in and outside of your own genre), keep a notebook with you at all times. Do something that scares you every now and then. Try to locate your own frequency, knowing that one year your voice is on AM 532 and the next it’s on FM 92.8. Read Fanny Howe’s essay on “Bewilderment” in The Wedding Dress. Go to lots of out-of-the way museums, like The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles or the Mustard Museum in Mount Horeb, WI.

LB: Tell me about Of Lamb, which was published last year.

MH: I very much admire Tom Phillips’s A Humument, Jen Bervin’s Nets, and Mary Ruefle’sA Little White Shadow, so about five years ago I bought a book from the sale table at a used bookstore, A Portrait of Charles Lamb by Lord David Cecil and decided to do an erasure of it. Erasures are interesting to me because they prove what particular sieves we all are—of course my erasures ended up being all about lamb and Mary (as luck would have it, Charles Lamb’s sister was called Mary) and evolved into a series of very short poems about the two of them and their relationship. Here are two examples:

Lamb, eyes shut,
ran backward.

Mary called him

Partway through the process I got in touch with an artist whose work I love—Amy Jean Porter—and we decided to make a collaborative book, Of Lamb, which was published by McSweeney’s in 2011.

LB: Have you ever had the impulse to write stories, novels, or plays?


MH: I started writing children’s stories a few years ago—so far I’ve published two, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel and Cecil the Pet Glacierillustrated by Giselle Potter. I think it would be interesting to try and make the leap from prose poem to short story someday. I wouldn’t have said I would ever write a play, but this year I made a sound piece called Telettrofono with the sound artist Justin Bennett. It’s the story of Antonio and Esterre Meucci (Antonio Meucci invented the telephone years before Alexander Graham Bell) told in a number of voices (mermaid chorus, verifiable fact mode, math problem mode) and it’s a little like a radio play. Right now a novel feels beyond my grasp given my love of magnifying glasses, but who knows? In the last ten years I’ve found myself studying photography (I like to photograph miniature constructed scenes—I’ll buy a very sad cake decoration like a plastic computer for a dreary office birthday party and construct a wildly colorful scene to put on its screen, or do a series of dollhouse chairs frozen in ice cubes) embroidering handkerchiefs and making silhouettes (most recently a mermaid-knife hybrid—a “Swiss Mermy Knife”). Clearly I can’t predict what will come next.

Click here to purchase Pity the Bathtub its Forced Embrace of the Human Form at your local independent bookstore
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