Devil’s Lake


Interview with Matthea Harvey

Q: You’ve got quite the array of hobbies and interests. I read, for example, that for a book party for Modern Life you made cardboard robots and spray-painted them silver. You also have all those lovely photographs of objects—berries, tiny chairs, and so on—in ice cubes. And I know you played flute quite seriously. I wonder if your work in other media feels connected to your writing, or if it feeds your writing in some way.

It feels of a piece to me, though how the poems and the photographs relate I’m not exactly sure. I started taking photographs (miniature handkerchiefs on a laundry line, a glowing rabbit ascending, etc.) to use as titles for my poems, but some of them haven’t ended up as titles. Most recently I’ve been making a series of tiny televisions with invented shows on them and I’m not sure if they’ll be paired with poems or not.

Book parties bring out my crafty side. I go a little crazy in the planning—hence the robots (still populating my study), and making 120 fox cookies last weekend for a poster launch (in collaboration with artist Adam Shecter who, along with Joe Winter, started a group called 2-Up, pairing artists and writers to make posters together. You can see more about the projects at I like having the freedom to move between genres, and I don’t make much of the distinctions between them anyway. Maybe the fox cookies are poems, the poems are photographs and the robots are prose poems.

Q: Your poems have such great titles—“How We Learned to Hold Hands,” “The Golden Age of Figureheads,” “Satellite Storage Inc.,” “Baked Alaska, A Theory Of … ” to give just a few examples. How do titles figure as part of your writing process? What kind of work do you hope your titles will do?

Thank you! I love titles. Often the title will come to me before the poem, particularly sound-based ones, like “The Straightforward Mermaid,” “Strawberry on the Drawbridge” or the title of my next children’s book, Cecil the Pet Glacier. Then I suck on the title like a jawbreaker for a few weeks until I know how the poem starts. Titles are like hats—I like all kinds. The big fancy pink feathered ones with a big silk bow that ties under your chin, the little checkered cap, a ski mask. They draw different types of attention to the face/poem below. I hardly ever wear hats, so I’m not sure why that’s today’s simile. Lately, I’ve been using photographs as titles, as well as silhouette cutouts (the text snuck back into these, so the title is exacto-ed out of the silhouette) because I’m intrigued by the chemical reaction between text and image.

Q: So many poets I read seem to have one of two tones – either a default kind of mourning, or a sort of glibly ironic posture. One of the things I love about your work is your ability to negotiate a more complex set of tones and images. I’m thinking, for example, of the movement in “Implications for Modern Life,” which begins with a quite funny description: “the ham flowers have veins and are rimmed in rind, each petal a little meat sunset.” But something shifts when the speaker sees “a horse lying on the side of the road”; the speaker then says, “But if I didn’t make the ham flowers, how can I make him get up? I made the ham flowers. Get up, dear animal.” I’m always amazed by how those ham flowers move from being a delightfully odd opening image to being really deep and compelling in a way. Is that manipulation of tone and image something you’re aware of when you write? (And those ham flowers! Where did they come from?)

I hope to have a wide palette of tones, but it’s not something I am usually conscious of. Recently though, I was working on a poem, “Woman Lives in House Made of People,” and half-way through I realized that having said woman speak defensively meant that nothing interesting could happen in the poem, so I cut the first half and started where suddenly she said something vulnerable. “Implications for Modern Life” started out as a pretty disgusting dream about a field of ham flowers. But the dream was prompted by hearing on NPR that there are microscopic particles of barbecue above Houston (so with a very fine mesh butterfly net you could make a meal!). I started the poem with the image of the ham flowers (funny-gross) and then I was completely surprised by where the poem went. I don’t know how the horse got in there and I really didn’t think that the poem would move into questioning authorial responsibility. I’m glad it went there though. I hope for that kind of discovery in every poem. When I’m writing, part of me is frolicking in the sea foam (imagination) and part of me is hunting the monsters in the deep (emotions). I seem to need to do both at once in order to write anything I like.

Q: You’ve done several collaborative projects, including writing poems to be read with Phillip Glass’s string quartet no. 5, two choral arrangements of poems, and Of Lamb, an erasure illustrated by Amy Jean Porter which you describe as “an irreverent and irresponsible retelling of the nursery rhyme ‘Mary had a little lamb.’” I wonder what you’ve learned through those collaborations. I wonder also if your work feels different once it’s out of your hands and you have a composer or musicians working with it.

Each collaboration has been completely different. In the instance of the Phillip Glass quartet, I wrote the poems to go with the piece, so essentially the piece of music changed for me. I was trying to fit my words inside and around the music. When Eric Moe did choral arrangements of my work, he took the words and transformed them—highlighted certain phrases, invented the country song that’s playing in the palace in “Baked Alaska, A Theory Of…” It’s really a wild and wonderful gift when someone engages that fully with your work. In some instances people collaborate with you, in others they collaborate with your words. For Of Lamb, Amy Jean was collaborating with the words. I could never have imagined that she would handle the sexy bits by having Lamb and Mary peering through windows at dancing cupids or that she would translate “In the midst of the lake / lamb destroyed the rainbow” as lamb in a bathtub gnawing on a rainbow-colored shower curtain. Those are leaps I could never have made, and I felt a little hiccup of surprise each time one of the images arrived in my inbox. Working with Elizabeth Zechel on my first children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, was a very close collaboration. Elizabeth very patiently sketched lots of little generals until she found the one I had imagined. But then she also surprised me with details that weren’t in the text, like the Mona Lisa with a moustache portrait hanging in Sergeant Sam’s room.

Q: Could you talk about what you’re working on now?

I’m working on a poem with a title from the Weekly World News: “Using a Hula Hoop Can Get You Abducted by Aliens.”

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 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, will be published by McSweeney’s in May. Matthea is a contributing editor to jubilat, Meatpaper, and BOMB. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.