Jane Huffman: We can start with something miniature. I’ve always wondered—do you keep the items from your art pieces after you photograph them? I’m specifically thinking about all of the dollhouse accoutrements and embroidery pieces in Tabloids; are your bookshelves covered in tiny chairs? (If so, can we see?)
Matthea Harvey: I have a light blue tin with a picture of Trafalgar Square on it in which I store most of the miniatures I used in Tabloids. I don’t display miniatures once I’ve photographed them—I feel almost as if I’ve taken away their soul. I sold or gave away most of the mersilhouettes as well as one of the handkerchiefs (the one of a cat with a strap-on fin). The rest of the stuff is piled somewhere in my very messy studio. I have a flat-file and a drill cabinet filled with miniatures waiting to be photographed. My bookshelves are crammed with books and objects—miniature mermaids friends have given me, a collection of glass and ceramic hands, a set of Barbapapa figurines and nine white porcelain horses and four blue, given to me by my mother. There’s also a type tray in my hallway filled with other tiny things (none of which have been photographed).
JH: Could you talk about the progression of your poetry career, Pity the Bathtub, to Sad Little Breathing Machine, to Modern Life, to Tabloids? I’m also wondering, do you tend to write toward book-length projects or does a project begin to form around the gravitational pull of individual poems?
MH: Each book is what I felt compelled to write at that particular time. The last three have been more project-oriented (simply because I had more of a sense that I might actually be writing a book) but the projects always morph along the way. The finished books are nothing like what I imagined at the outset—they have different titles, different orders and with Tabloids, different pairings of text and image. Pity the Bathtub explores my obsession with art-making and form; Sad Little Breathing Machine is about machinery and the pull towards and away from narrative; Modern Life is about halving things, terror and robots . . . Tabloids probably incorporates all of those impulses, plus a deep historical dive into Antonio and Esterre Meucci’s lives. On the surface Tabloids looks very different because I was exploring how to pair text and image and I immersed myself in working in different mediums (silhouettes, embroidered handkerchiefs, and photography).
JH: What made you want to start writing children’s literature? What about that genre offsets or contributes to your poetic life and vice versa?
MH: Sometimes I have ideas for stories that are clearly for children more than for adults. In my poems, I often go into dark places and it’s recalibrating to write pieces that stay on the sunny side of the street. I love working on picture books because you get to work with artists who add so much to the original story.
JH: What is your relationship to VIDA? Where was the last residency you completed and how was it useful? Do you have a connection to Appalachia?
MH: I am a passionate supporter of VIDA’s endeavors and often cite their statistics in my classes as a way to spur my female students into action. I’m so happy that VIDA exists—it’s very necessary. The last residency I went to was VCCA, a long time ago. I read and went swimming and had my wallet stolen at a movie theater. I tend to be happier working at home, surrounded by cats and miniatures and currently piles of books about clouds. I don’t have any connection to Appalachia—I wish I did!
JH: I adore your essay on Dada and the abecedarian that was published in American Poet and your analysis of the lushness and possibility of language. I also appreciate the essay’s acknowledgement of the pitfalls of too much possibility—a world in which nothing happens because anything can happen—and the way that a fixed form can offset that: “something large (i.e., the century or the message of the poem) squeezing through something small and restrictive (the small openings of the bullet holes in the supper plate as embodied by each letter of the alphabet).” Here’s my question: in your poetry that is not constrained by standard formal parameters, what constraining measures do you use to strike that balance? Is there such thing as “too far” in the poetry of imagination? How to you know if you’ve crossed the line?
MH: I do delight in constraints at times and sometimes they’re invisible. For example in the series of mermaid poems in If the Tabloids are True What are You? I limited myself to only using adjectives before the word “mermaid” that ended in “d” or “t.” I could probably have written fifty mermaid poems, but I wasn’t interested in only doing that. As far as imagination goes, I don’t know of any poet who’s ever gone too far. I’d love to experience crossing that line.
JH: In my own experience in workshops and in academic settings, I have often found that whimsy in poetry is often labeled as “cute,” “precious,” or “girly” especially, it seems, when women’s writing is on the table. Have you been accused of girlishness or preciousness? If so, do you attempt to combat that or do you embrace it?
MH: Oh yes. My work is frequently described as whimsical or quirky or cute and I have noticed that male writers who write about similar subjects are more likely to be commended for their ruthless fun or muscular imagination. I think on a surface level my work does sometimes explore whimsy, but what’s underneath is a lot more scary. Yes, there are tiny ponies in “The Crowds Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away” but it should be noted that they all die as part of human beings trying to eradicate sadness. I write poems to devastate and startle myself and others—and certainly killing the cute is one way of doing that.
JH: It also makes me think of what Susan Howe writes in My Emily Dickinson about how to her, Dickinson was doing more than vacantly doing needlepoint with her poetry. I think there is something quietly political about the presence of needlepoint in your book, in addition to the fact that your “Telettrofono” sequence is gorgeous in its own right. You may have stolen that back for all of us! In fact, I can’t help but feel that your work has a great kinship to that of Emily Dickinson, especially when I think about Dickinson’s herbarium, her world-building, her meticulousness, her solitude, her collections of tiny books and paper fragments. Does she have an influence on your work?
MH: I love Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters. There’s someone who understood how the large can be encapsulated in the little (from #271: “And then—the size of this ‘small’ life—/The Sages—call it small—/Swelled—like Horizons—in my vest—/And I sneered—softly—‘small’!) I made the embroidered patent handkerchiefs for the Telettrofono series because there is so little known about Esterre Meucci (Antonio Meucci’s wife) besides the fact that she was a seamstress. Antonio Meucci has been unfairly erased in the history of the telephone (in the United States), but there’s even less evidence of Esterre ever having been alive. At one point in my research I found a photograph of the Meucci’s house in Staten Island that showed a dress form in the window (then I promptly lost it, much to my dismay) but it seemed so symbolic that all that remains of her is a female silhouette. I decided that she might have been a mermaid.
JH: On a similar note, I am interested in hearing your thoughts on the relationship between imagination and trauma. Do you find that imagination in your poetry serves as a crafted veil for underlying subject matter (a la “magical realism” in the textbook sense) or do you see it more of an open door or escape rope toward reconciliation? Does the aestheticized aspect of your art protect you or open you? Or something else entirely?
MH: I don’t think of it as a veil (honestly I don’t think of it consciously at all—imagining is just what I do when I’m writing or walking around the city). Perhaps it’s more a car with incomprehensible gears or an escape hatch into the clouds or the creaky staircase to the dark truths lurking in the basement. Making things beautiful (whether in text or image) probably protects and disarms me, but I can’t say for sure.
JH: What advice do you have for, say, a purely hypothetical poet who just finished her first year as an MFA candidate and is bracing herself to enter the po-biz with a fledgling manuscript and visions of grandeur?
MH: Cast aside visions of grandeur, first of all, or if they help you write, construct your own damn crown. Make sure that what you love are the long hours of writing, not reviews or awards. Be determined about improving your work and sending it out. Collect friends (in book and human form) who support, inspire, and challenge you.
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 Cirlcle Award and a New York Times Notable Book), Sad Little Breathing Machineand 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.
Jane Huffman is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a staff editor at Sundress Publications. Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Witness, West Branch, The Adroit Journal, The Common, and elsewhere in print and online. She lives and teaches in Iowa City.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Harvey. Visit Matthea online at http://www.mattheaharvey.info/index.html and https://www.graywolfpress.org/author-list/matthea-harvey