Mermaid Convention: An Interview with Matthea Harvey
September 2, 2014 | by Stephen Burt
Matthea Harvey’s whimsy almost defies the scope of the English language. She seems to sculpt out of molten glass the topics and the treatments in her poems, optimistic fairy tales for a universe where everything’s deformed, or maybe deformed fairies in a universe where everything’s optimistic. It’s easy to feel almost at home among her poems, which are sometimes uncanny in the way that scary truths are uncanny, sometimes uncanny like the Uncanny X-Men, and sometimes uncanny in that their delightful artifice should, but can’t, be preserved and canned.
Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn; she grew up in England and Wisconsin. You may have read her beautifully titled first volume, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (2000); or Modern Life (2007), where alliterative, associative, alphabetical poems jostle against prose parables that science-fiction readers would call “slipstream”; or Of Lamb (2011), Harvey’s collaboration with the visual artist Amy Jean Porter, in which an erased biography of Charles and Mary Lamb sends Mary and Her Lamb through—a lost garden? A forest of previous children’s books? A dreamland? Or you might have seen one of her other collaborations—with composers, with animators—or one of her own photographs. Still, you won’t be ready for If The Tabloids Are True Then What Are You?, her new collection of poems and fables, in verse and prose, about mermaids, ice cubes, erasures, talking animals, and early telephones, with a set of images—including photographs of Harvey’s sculptures—inseparable from them. As NPR put it earlier this year, “Harvey is a genius of the unusual, and of the dark underbelly of the adorable.”
Some of the poems have obvious sources in fables—“No-Hands has hands,” or “the animals did begin to glow.” Is there a particular fable or fairy-tale compilation that served as your best source? Aesop, the Grimms, La Fontaine, Kafka, Andrew Lang?
I wrote both of those poems without knowing that there were fables about either one. Myths and fairy tales are mysterious that way—we’re all shoots sprouting from one underground narrative fungus. Still, I know that stories by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Heinrich Hoffmann’s Der Struwwelpeter are all tumbling around in the pebble polisher of my unconscious. I’m currently reading Phillip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm, in which I found a new favorite, “The Mouse, the Bird and the Sausage.” This insanity happens in it: “The sausage stayed by the pot most of the time, keeping an eye on the vegetables, and from time to time he’d slither through the water to give it a bit of flavoring. If it needed seasoning, he’d swim more slowly.” Imagine flavoring a soup with yourself!
This collection is full of mermaids. Why mermaids?
Primarily because the phrase “straightforward mermaid” appeared in my head and wouldn’t leave me alone. But why mermaids in general? Because they’re sex objects who can’t have sex. Because there’s a whole school of gender issues swimming around them. Because we live among so many unspoken boundaries that sometimes it’s a relief to have such an explicit one. Because we all know the feeling of being divided and not belonging. Because we don’t acknowledge our animal selves enough.
Did you follow any of the recent fiction or nonfiction about mermaids—the film Sunshine State, the Times magazine piece on people who imitate mermaids, Liz Kessler’s middle-grade novels, Michelle Tea’s Mermaid in Chelsea Creek?
My first encounter with a mermaid in a contemporary short story was Aimee Bender’s “Drunken Mimi” from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Her mermaid is in high school, hiding her tail with long skirts, and has hair-tendrils that can drink. Once I was writing about mermaids, I started to see them everywhere. At first I thought this was just because I was newly interested in them, but they really just are everywhere. It’s strange to be part of a trend accidentally.
In Dorothy Dinnerstein’s wonderful book of seventies feminism, The Mermaid and the Minotaur, mermaids are women who have been made to be (or who have had to teach themselves to be) feminine. Helpless, exotic, relatively immobile in the adult world, admired for looks—how dangerous is that archetype for you?
It’s horribly limiting. When I went to the otherwise quite wonderful Mercon, a mermaid convention, it was striking to me that the mermaids in their restrictive tails were so helpless on land—they had to be carried around by men. But once they were in the pool swimming around, they were strong and quite magical.
What do we need to know about Antonio Meucci, who makes a cameo?
That he should get at least partial credit for inventing the telephone. He’s well known in Italy and Cuba, where he lived before moving to the U.S. in 1850. His house is preserved on Staten Island because the freedom fighter Garibaldi lived with Antonio and his wife, Esterre, at one point. You should also know that he invented—and sometimes patented—more things than I could include in my poem. Improved firework propellant, tinned Italian meat sauce, a process for preserving corpses—he lost money on that one—a coffee filter, Christmas candles, and a plastic paste for making billiard balls. About Esterre, you should know that she was an accomplished seamstress who had twenty-one cats, including one called Lillina.
Meucci invented the marine telephone for divers to talk with ship captains, so clarity was essential—you didn’t want “Help, a shark” to morph into “Maybe let’s park?” Poems are impractical telephones, prone to mishearing, distortion, but perhaps indirectly a means to the truth.
Which came first, the poems appended to images, or the images appended to the poems? Or did you develop text and image together?
With “In the Glass Factory,” the acts of writing the poem, listening to Philip Glass’s Quartet No. 5, and taking the photographs were all intertwined. I had five inch-tall glass bottles on my window and when I got stuck on a part of the poem, I’d photograph them. I have thousands of pictures of those bottles. When the wind blew the light blue bottle onto the floor and it broke, I realized that the corresponding glass girl in the poem had to disappear.
I wrote the mermaid poems without any illustrations and made the mermaid silhouettes independently, not knowing they would eventually pair up. The poem that gave me the most trouble was “The Radio Animals.” I tried so many different setups—a silhouette of a Coke can that ended up looking like a face, photographing my radio, making chopped-up purple jello to shoot through. Ultimately it turned out that I needed a combination of silhouette and miniature for that image.
Your prose poems are notably lyrical and evocative, whereas your poems in free verse, at least those in stichic free verse, go out of their way to tell stories.
The difference is entirely intuitive. I can’t explain it. I just know within the first line or two whether it will be in a prose block or in lines.
In poems with one clear metaphor throughout—the puppet, the Treatzcart, the Phenom—does the metaphor come to you first, before the language that develops it, or do you start with a phrase, or a kit of phrases?
Those all started with bits of language—I heard the phrase “game for anything” and I got excited imagining that as an actual game. And a friend actually said to me, “I’m a puppet snob,” which made me wonder how one would become a puppet snob, and how that snobbery would make you experience the world. The phrase becomes the lens through which I look at the world and make the poem.
“My Owl Other” is possibly the one poem I would use to introduce If the Tabloids to someone who had never seen your work. “You’re gone too, my Owl Other” may be the most traditional line in the book.
I’m usually not a very autobiographical writer, but “My Owl Other” is an elegy for my grandmother, who died a few years ago. I called her Omi Eule, German for grandmother owl, and she called me Matty Maus. She lived on a pig farm in Klein Zecher, a tiny town in northern Germany, with my aunt, uncle, and cousins for most of her life. I have fond memories going swimming at a lake that was on the border between East and West Germany. I found it so strange that one lake could be in two countries.
“My Owl Other” had many incarnations. I revised the poem endlessly. I think it’s the first one I wrote when I unknowingly started this project—at one point the title was a photograph of a glass owl seeming to melt into a swimming pool inside a rearview mirror. Initially I thought all the poems would be titled with photographs inside rearview mirrors.
Only when I started listing owl facts did the more personal voice of “you’re gone too” break in. It is a moment of unusual directness.
The collection includes a Shakespearean sonnet—did that come fast or slow compared to the free verse that surrounds it?
Most of the poems come at a similar pace—over days or weeks. The sonnet wasn’t any different in terms of speed from the free verse pieces. Only “On Intimacy” arrived in the rushed romantic way one might wish for.
Do you keep multiple notebooks? Do you keep separate notebooks for verse and for visual art?
I have piles of notebooks. And nothing is organized. Sometimes I’ll go through and try to color code which are notes on museums, poem ideas, children’s book ideas, or image ideas, but without much success. It’s the same with my large collection of miniatures. I try to sort them into categories—furniture, tools, food, books, animals, et cetera—but I find that the random juxtapositions that occur when they’re loose inspire me more.
Is poetry a form of miniaturization? Do you embrace, or work against, the tendency of miniaturization to make whatever or whomever it shrinks become cute, feminized, childlike, portable, harmless?
I’m intrigued by miniatures—I love a tiny blue cheese or a boiled egg in an eggcup as much as, if not more than, the next person, but I also think miniatures can be disarming, and can therefore slip past our defenses. After all, a blood clot can kill you just as easily as a truck. A year ago, I wrote an essay about miniatures in poetry titled with a line from Emily Dickinson, “The Rose is an Estate in Sicily,” in which I talked about how miniatures also bring up the issue of control. In Russell Edson’s poem “Counting Sheep,” about a scientist who makes a test tube full of tiny sheep, the speaker quickly moves from delighted musing to a kind of murderous impulse. “He wonders if they could be used as a substitute for rice, a sort of woolly rice … He wonders if he just shouldn’t rub them into a red paste between his fingers.”
Is there a book we should read to help understand you—to understand these poems?
Fantastic Toys, by Monika Beisner. It’s a book I read over and over again as a child. It features such wonders as a heated sheep toboggan and winged jumping boots. Four years ago, I discovered the reason we had that magical book—my mother had gone to elementary school with Monika. For me, it was as if she’d gone to school with Marilyn Monroe and never mentioned it.
Stephen Burt (sometimes Stephanie) is a professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them Belmont (2013) and Why I Am Not a Toddler and Other Poems by Cooper Bennett Burt (2011). Stephen is currently writing a book of essays on single contemporary poems, tentatively called The Poem Is You.