Interview with Matthea Harvey
Interviewer: Rachel May
My interest in Matthea Harvey’s work grew out of my study of image and text; I discovered her via Of Lamb before backtracking to read her first two poetry collections. So, learning that her newest book would be full of images of her own making had me especially intrigued, and I was thrilled to have a chance to ask her about this book’s origins and process of creation.
If the Tabloids are True, What Are You? was recently released by Graywolf Press (August 2014). This is her fourth book, cited as one of Publisher Weekly’s Most Anticipated Books of 2014, and described as “an amazing and beautiful work.” Combining images of her own creation with her characteristically idiosyncratic, lyrical poetry, Harvey’s work in this collection speaks to a modern culture that’s incapable of separating image and text, a hyper-real world represented in poetry, layered with surrealistic tales from past, present, or some sort of never-land, as well as repetitions like silhouetted mermaid-tools and nonsensical patents, scenes within tiny televisions, wire springs hanging from trees, human figures in ice cubes—a world turned onto its colorful head. As Daniel Handler wrote in a review for The LA Times, “Take a picture; make one. This is where we are.” Harvey has found a way to meld together the iPhone-picture-snapping, social-media-sharing, virtual-world pop culture with the “high” culture of good poetry, perhaps reaching, as Handler suggests, a new group of readers—or at least making existing poetry readers continue to reconsider the forms that poetry can take in this “modern life” (the title of her last collection).
Q: Before this book, you played with ekphrasis in collaboration with visual artists (I’m thinking of Of Lamb and your children’s books, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake and Cecil the Pet Glacier). What made you take the plunge into generating these images yourself? And how was the process different than your collaborative work?
All of the poems I’ve ever written have had a visual component—I see them as much as I hear them. I’ve been tiptoeing towards making images, I think. In my first book, there is an ekphrastic poem called “The Festival of Giovedi Grasso,” a series based on paintings by Max Beckman, and in practically every other poem someone is painting or trying to look at the world in a different way. In Sad Little Breathing Machine, I made my first foray into the actual visual: some of the poems have little diagrammatic engines. And Modern Life uses one of my photographs for its cover (melting, somewhat cellular-looking dominos which I made by photographing blackberries in milk).
I’ve always taken and often staged photographs (a narrative of a scarf and a red bag falling in love, the underside of a diving board against the sky, a Soaphenge next to a fire hydrant), but when I got a digital camera with a macro lens, the photographs I took started to feel more connected to my poems.
I never thought of illustrating my children’s books or Of Lamb. It was clear to me that those books needed images that I couldn’t create. There’s a surprise in collaboration that I love—Amy Jean Porter painting Oprah into Mary and Lamb’s story, Giselle Potter’s depiction of the Small parents watching lovingly as Cecil eats his plate of pebbles, or Elizabeth Zechel putting a Mona Lisa with a moustache on the wall of Sergeant Samantha’s bedroom (since she’s in love with the mustachioed little general). Doing both the text and the artwork yourself is a more laborious process, because if there’s a hold-up, there’s no one else to blame!
Q: Did you make the images concurrently with the text, or one first then the other? Did they inspire each other? Did you intend to illustrate your poems?
Most of the time the images and the text in each series followed an order, but that wasn’t by design. All the headline poems, for example, were written before I took the photographs. With “Inside the Glass Factory,” I was writing and taking photographs at the same time. In the section of poems titled with images, the glowing rabbit title inspired the poem that follows it; the sonnet in dollhouse coat hanger form came after its poem. … And sometimes it just took me a while to discover that a poem already had an image pair that I’d already created (this is true for the image for “One Way” and “There’s a String Attached to Everything”).
I set out with a specific idea that came out of my fascination with titling—I wanted to title my poems with photographs. That this veered into embroidery, silhouettes and back into erasures was a surprise to me. … So I didn’t start out wanting to illustrate, I wanted to title. Ultimately there are only fifteen poems that have only images as their titles. In other poems I decided that the image could illustrate, complicate and/or complement to text.
Q: What’s your background as an artist, and how do your identities as artist and writer intersect, collide, feed each other?
My only background in the visual arts is studying art history for a year in the M.A. program at the University of Iowa and taking some classes at the International Center for Photography. I don’t really distinguish between writing and making images—when I’m in my office anything goes.
Q: Who are your ekphrastic heroes?
Early favorites were Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”, Elizabeth Bishop’s “Large Bad Picture” and Jorie Graham’s work—she has incredible ekphrastic poems in almost every book. Also Mary Jo Bang’s book The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, in which every poem takes its title from an artwork. I’m also drawn to artists who use both text and image—William Blake, Saul Steinberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leanne Shapton, Ed Ruscha, Tucker Nichols, Cecilia Vicuna, The Royal Art Lodge, Edward Gorey, Maira Kalman, Audrey Niffenegger, Raymond Pettibon, Glenn Ligon, Roni Horn and David Shrigley.
Q: How you define the genre in which If the Tabloids are True might fall?
Good question! Illuminated Books? Poetry Plus? No, that sounds like a vitamin supplement … I don’t know.
Q: As a sewer-writer, I was thrilled to see your pieces in Poetry a couple of months ago, in which you embroider alongside the poems. What inspired you to take up thread to illustrate these pieces? How do you see yourself as part of that—or not part of that—tradition?
The sewing came out of the writing (and researching). Esterre Meucci was a seamstress and after I wrote this section in Antonio Meucci’s voice, “Her sharpest brightest needle—her piccolo delfino— / was always diving in and out of the seas of fabric on her lap,” I wanted to try embroidering to make sure that I was writing about the process properly. The first piece I sewed is the last one in “Telettrofono,” copied from Meucci’s diagram of the telephone in his Staten Island home. I sewed it onto a cotton handkerchief of my father’s, and at that point, it hadn’t even occurred to use an embroidery hoop, so it’s very uneven. Luckily for me (sadly for her), Esterre developed severe rheumatoid arthritis once she moved to the U.S., so I could write into the text that her sewing prowess had declined: “… my stitches make me sick. They look / like the work of a drunkard or a child.” Also, the Meuccis were completely broke at this point, so it made sense to me that this last handkerchief would be cotton and the previous ones, from more prosperous times, would be linen. I enjoyed reproducing Meucci’s patent sketches, but it was even more fun once I allowed myself to invent patents for things like a purring shell or a refrigerated snowcoat.
Somehow I always learn about (and happily join) the tradition after I’ve done the work. I think I need to discover it on my own first. That’s how it was with abecedarian form in Modern Life. When I’m finished with a project I start looking around to find people with similar obsessions. I did have the good fortune of sharing a studio with Jen Bervin for a year, so I saw her sewing sequins onto her “River” (a gorgeous scale model of the Mississippi). I also love her book, The Desert (a 130-page sewn erasure). Maybe being surrounded by her skeins of sequins and spools of thread unconsciously influenced me?
Q: I love the story of Esterre Meucci, “born 1815, a seamstress who is rumored to have been a mermaid,” and the series of mermaid poems and images at the start of the book. Of course, it’s not just the “The Objectified Mermaid” who’s objectified, but all the mermaids, as their tails curl into tools—a pocket knife, a rake, a hammer, a power strip. And they’re all torn, in one way or another, between the two worlds—the sea, which has fewer rules, and the land. I read the mermaids as symbols of women caught in the contemporary moment, often objectified, often not seen as “whole,” sometimes caught between tradition and change / innovation / empowerment. Esterre says to the humans, “… we don’t abandon the sea / for love or legs—we fling ourselves onto the shore for sound … ” How did these mermaids come to you, and what do you see as their role in the book? If there’s anything you’re “saying” with them, what is it?
“The Straightforward Mermaid” was the first mermaid to appear and Esterre Meucci the last. When I finished writing Modern Life I told myself “no more hybrids” and then promptly disobeyed my rule. Likewise when I finished the mermaid poems, I told myself “that’s it for mermaids,” and then as I researched Esterre, it seemed inescapable that she wanted to be/was a mermaid. I won’t bore you with all my evidence, but just to give two examples, Antonio’s grave has a bronze plaque showing a man talking into a telephone to a woman who is in the sea (and it’s not clear if she has legs) and then there’s her rheumatoid arthritis, which connects to the fact that in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, the mermaid gets legs but experiences a stabbing pain in her legs when she walks.
The poems themselves say what I am trying to say about mermaids (though I agree with your conclusions). In general I am interested in mermaids who go against the Disney stereotype. Stereotypes, to go back to their original meaning, “printed by means of a solid plate of type,” are by definition unchanging and therefore stagnant. I’d rather read or write about unexpected pairings‑a foul-mouthed unicorn or a nerdy Lothario.
Q: You have a great sense of humor that’s strung throughout the book, in both the images and text. I’m thinking of “Cheap Cloning Process Lets You Have Your Own Little Elvis,” and “Michelin Man Possessed by William Shakespeare.” The images of the people trapped in ice cubes are both disturbing and funny in an absurdist way. Then there are moments like the Slinkies in the apple trees. Of Lamb and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form both hold that same sometimes wry, sometimes absurdist humor. How does that work its way in? How did you find the balance between the more humorous and more serious moments?
Being dark or funny are not things I set out to do. They just happen. I think that may just be my natural register when I write.
Q: Arranging the poems and images together is a feat. How did you think about rhythm, sound, mood, tone, and narrative threads as you combined the pictures and the words? Was there a lot of rearranging, or did the parts fall together neatly? How did you find the balance between all of these elements?
I thought a lot about the transitions between sections, in terms of color, theme and medium. The last mermaid, the merscissor, is supposed to subtly prepare the reader for the “M is for Martian” erasure (a kind of cut-out text). Putting “Hulahooping Can Lead to Abduction by Aliens” follows that naturally in terms of content, and the image that precedes it—a tabloid photo in which the abducted people are whited out—forms another bridge. The image for last poem in the tabloid section “Woman Lives in House Made of People” is black and white in order to transition into the silhouette section, and thematically you’re moving from a multitude to a solitude in “On Intimacy.” The silhouettes seemed to naturally move their inverse—the animal constellations. … Sometimes the arrangement relies more on subject matter and sometimes more on visual connections, such as moving from “Inside the Glass Factory” with its photographs of miniature glass bottles to the ice cube photographs. …
Q: When I got to “On Intimacy,” I began to think of Kara Walker’s cut-out silhouettes (probably because of the woman in the wide skirt). Was her work an inspiration for the silhouette-like mermaids and “On Intimacy”? Her work carries some dark humor at times, too, not unlike yours.
I’ve always loved silhouettes (from anonymous folk art pieces to Hans Christian Andersen’s cutouts to work by modern cutout artists like Barbara Ensor, Julia Elsas, Ariana Boussard-Reifel, Noriko Ambe and Kara Walker). I interviewed Kara Walker for BOMB back in 2007 and though there were poems about paper dolls and silhouette cutting in Modern Life, I wasn’t thinking of making any myself. I’m terrible at tracking influence, but she’s rightly synonymous with silhouettes in this day and age and I’m sure that visiting her studio and looking at her incredible pieces had an effect.
Q: How did “Telettrofono” evolve from a soundwalk into print form with images?
Justin Bennett (the sound artist) and I walked around Staten Island, visited the Meucci/Garibaldi museum, and the whole time Justin was recording different sounds. We decided on the subject of the piece first, followed by the path of the walk, which gave me the setting for the text. For instance, I knew that people would be walking along the water, through the Atlantic Salt Factory (giant white mountains of salt), winding through residential streets, up a stairway into a little overgrown park, then back down to the St. George Theater. As a result, when I read that the Meuccis travelled to Havana with an opera troupe and thirty tons of props, I focused on the mountains, and researched which of the operas they performed would have used mountain backdrops. … A group of cement pilings on the beach which looked vaguely like a xylophone turned into the invented stone piano. It’s really all mixed together. For example, I gave Esterre a cat before I read Basilio Catania’s tome on the Meuccis which told me that she had twenty-one of them! Antonio and Esterre’s obsession with sound came from the facts (Antonio was in charge of sound effects for the theater, and later invented a marine telephone along with his telephone, the telettrofono …) and my imagining that Esterre (the mermaid) was enchanted how things sounded aboveground.
I composed the piece in poem form and started embroidering the handkerchiefs in the middle of the process. Some of the finished handkerchiefs were displayed along with Justin’s sketches for Meucci’s inventions in the storefront in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal where the Guggenheim set up the start of the walk. When I put “Telettrofono” at the end of the book, I wanted to have the same ratio of image to text (1:1) that was in the rest of the book, and I’d given Antonio a wish list of things he wanted to invent for Esterre in his last speech, so I just kept on sewing.
Q: Who are some of your visual artist heroes, and who were you reading while you wrote this book?
My visual artist heroes are many. My sister, Ellen Harvey, Luigi Serafini, Marian Fayolle, Yoko Ono, Sophie Blackall, Tim Friedman, Luis Camnitzer, Gabriel Orozco, Dorothy Ianonne, Hreinn Fridfinnsson, Hannah Hoch, Paul Klee (such great titles), Donald Evans, Amy Cutler, Marcel Dzama, Nina Katchadourian, Renee French, Chris Ware… I could go on and on.
As far as reading goes, I wrote this book over a period of seven years (and I read constantly), so here are a few highlights:
Fiction: Elizabeth McCracken, Hugh Howey, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Maria Semple, Jill McCorkle, Daniel Handler, Kate Atkinson, Amber Dermont, Michel Houllebecq, Tove Jansson, Lydia Davis, Amity Gaige, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Lionel Shriver, George Saunders, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Kate Hattemer, Jayne Anne Phillips
YA fiction: Meg Rosoff, John Green, Rainbow Rowell
Nonfiction: John D’Agata, Jenny Lawson, Caitlin Moran, John Berger, William Gass, Maggie Nelson, Anne Fadiman, W.G. Sebald
Graphic Novels: Lynda Barry, Stephen Collins, Tom Gauld, Shaun Tan (not quite sure how to categorize him), Roz Chast
Poetry: Martha Kapos, Patricia Lockwood, Heather Christle, Sally Keith, Phil Levine, Yona Harvey, Nick Flynn, Anne Carson, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Doug Kearney, Mathias Svalina, Mark Strand, Mary Ruefle, Rebecca Lindenberg, Lucia Perillo, Henri Cole, Heather McHugh, Cathy Park Hong, Kay Ryan, Carsten Rene Nielsen
Q: Are you interested in the VIDA Counts and the conversation that’s happening right now around women writers, writers of color, queer writers? What’s your role, if any, in that context?
Absolutely. It seems ludicrous to me when a board of all white straight male editors assert that they are only publishing “the best work” and it just happens to be written by 70% straight white men. That is some coincidence! Everyone has their own conscious or unconscious biases and examining them is an essential part of being an editor, teacher, or just a person in the world.
Rachel May’s book of profiles of modern quilters, Quilting with a Modern Slant, was released in January 2014 (Storey/Workman), and she has work published or forthcoming in Michigan Quarterly Review, Indiana Review, Cream City Review, Memoir (and), Night Train, Fugue, EOAGH, Sleepingfish, and other journals. Currently, May is editor of The Ocean State Review and a PhD candidate and Teaching Fellow at The University of Rhode Island, where her focus is contemporary experimental women writers and textiles.
Matthea Harvey is the author of five books of poetry—If the Tabloids are True What Are You?, Of Lamb (an illustrated erasure with images by Amy Jean Porter), Modern Life (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book), Sad Little Breathing Machine, and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. She has also published two children’s books, Cecil the Pet Glacier, illustrated by Giselle Potter and The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.