“ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE POETRY.”

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An Interview with Matthea Harvey About Her Syllabus 

This is part of a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class. Read the full syllabus here.

Matthea Harvey is the author of five books of poetry, including Of Lamb, Modern Life, and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, and two children’s books. Her newest book, If The Tabloids Are True What Are You?, features a wide variety of art forms, both poetic (sonnet, erasure, prose poems) and visual (photographs of miniatures submerged in ice cubes, embroidery depicting instruments, illustrations of mermaids with tools for tails). Harvey teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

—Stephanie Palumbo

I. BASEMENTS COULD BE POEMS 

STEPHANIE PALUMBO: How do you, personally, define poetry? 

MH: That’s a hard question. I think poetry involves heightened noticing or imagining as well as creating a certain made shape. On the other hand, that shape can be made just by pointing at something and saying, “That’s a poem.” My husband Rob started a literary magazine with some friends called jubilat. They would publish an interview with a perfumer, a list of wrestling terms, and lots of poems, with no distinction. It was a way of saying, All of these things are poetry, which is the case for me too.

SP: Is anything explicitly not a poem?

MH: I’m thinking of all my least favorite things. I don’t like basements, but definitely basements could be poems. Not fond of skin diseases, but again, there’s a pattern. Probably anything could be a poem. 

SP: How is studying poetic forms useful for students? 

MH: I try to get them to think about form as something they can invent themselves. I’m giving them the tools to go to the blank page and start to write. Often I’ll be writing and notice that there’s a form emerging, and that gives me a little bit of a dance partner. Ideally, a form should give you energy, an engine to keep you going. When a form is shutting you down, and you’re just trying to make rat rhyme with hat, that’s depressing and not fun.

SP: You use visual forms in the class as well.

MH: I give the students lots of images—a photo of Jean Shin’s deconstructed shirts or Yuken Teruya’s tiny tree cut out of a Tiffany bag (called “Notice Forest”). Both artworks are working with a given form. Or I’ll give them an essay on how to make arbor sculptures, and ask, how might you translate this into a poem? 

SP: How might they translate it?

MH: Some arbor sculptures are made by putting two trees together, so you might write two word lists and see if a poem can come from braiding the two. 

SP: You teach this class to first year students. How is that different from teaching grad students? 

MH: I think because they’re first-years, they come to poetry with very few preconceived ideas. If you say to them, “Make a poetry comic,” they say, “Okay!” There are maybe twelve people in the world making poetry comics, but the students just accept it, and there’s a kind of freedom in that. 

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"There is an ambiguity built into these stories and that’s why we like them."

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Karolina Waclawiak in Conversation With the Creators of the Podcast Criminal 

Criminal is a new podcast about crime created by Phoebe Judge, Eric Mennel and Lauren Spohrer. Each month, the podcast delivers complicated and surprising stories from  ”people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.” Less interested in the mainstream sensationalism of crime, Criminal inhabits the grey areas and will leave you wrestling with ethical and moral questions.

I chatted with the creators of Criminal over email about stories as far ranging as peculiar murders at the “hands” of animals, Venus flytrap crime rings, cold cases, and more.

—Karolina Waclawiak

I. FOR THE PEOPLE DRIVING HOME ALONE AT 1AM

THE BELIEVER: Let’s start at the beginning. When did an interest in crime begin for all of you?

LAUREN SPOHRER: About six years ago I binged on Raymond Chandler, and reading so many of his novels in quick succession really did something to me. I had been reading a lot of esoteric literary fiction that had no plot, and these novels felt like medicine. I worked my way through the big names of that era—Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith, Dashiell Hammett. My favorite is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. These novels are formal and mannered, and Phoebe has a pretty formal voice, and we were interested in bringing that elegant, somewhat old-fashioned mood to true stories.


PHOEBE JUDGE: I’ve always loved crime. I grew up in Chicago, and when I was a little girl I’d listen to the police scanner. Now you can get a police scanner app on your iPhone, so I still listen sometimes to see what’s going on there.


ERIC MENNEL: Honestly, it started about nine months ago, when Phoebe and Lauren asked “Do you want to do a show about crime?” I think I have a general interest in good stories and often crimes are great stories. Though I have always had an interest in the legal system, and I guess Criminal is really just the less academic version of that.


BLVR: And, how was the podcast conceived? You all have a background in public radio, what brought you all together to make this particular show?


PJ: We met working together for a public radio show called The Story. The show ended, and we started talking about making something of our own almost immediately. When you work for an existing show, you write and edit and think in terms of a specific broadcast clock. You think in terms of the mission of the show, and its host, and because of that you’re necessarily limited. We were excited to see what we could make from scratch.

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5x5: Brian Evenson

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In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this fourth interview, Amina Cain talks to Brian Evenson about Fugue StateRead the first interview with Colin Winnettethe second with Matt Bell, the third with Brian Conn.

Amina Cain in Conversation with Brian Evenson

Before sitting down with Fugue State for the first timeI got to hear Brian Evenson read the opening story of the book—“Younger”—at the Summer Writing Program at Naropa in 2005. I couldn’t get the story out of my head, or the way it began, already in conversation with something: “Years later, she was still calling her sister, trying to understand exactly what had happened.”

I was affected by how direct the language was—and how soothing—to tell this kind of story: a confusion of memory and perception between two sisters and a vivid, filmic scene from their childhood. But whatever I first felt the language (and narrative) was doing, it seemed to multiply until I was adrift in it too, this shared yet helplessly separate landscape of the sisters. All of the pieces that make up Fugue State are places as much as they are stories, like “In The Greenhouse” (here, place is a book or a character’s mind as much as it is a house surrounded by pines), and the reader enters them, though not to find any kind of resolution or protection. 

The book brings us into contact with thinking itself, with a sense of terror that seems to multiply plainly, and with the most difficult kinds of truth. 

—Amina Cain

 I. DISORIENTATION

AMINA CAIN: One of the things I was left with after reading Fugue State was a profound sense of disorientation, of being lost. Many of the characters in the stories don’t understand what is happening to them or what is actually real. As a reader, and as a person, I often enjoy disorientation. What is your relationship to it? Is there something in it you find, not useful, but interesting or necessary as a place from which to write? 

BRIAN EVENSON: I enjoy disorientation a lot too, though more as a reader than as a person, unless it’s recreational disorientation (I’m not that keen about getting lost in buildings, for instance, unless they’re very particular kinds of buildings). I think a good many writers see writing as something that helps them sort out and pin down the world, that allows them to organize it. I want my writing to do the opposite: to destabilize systems and orders and make everything seem a little less certain. There are various ethical and political reasons for wanting to do that, but I think the main reason is a philosophical one: first, I’m genuinely convinced that the world really is a great deal less stable than we choose normally to experience it, and second, I feel that writing should allow us to perceive that.

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"When I’m looking back I’m actually trying to find some kind of a key to go forward."

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An Interview with Guitarist Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell is a tall, quiet man who seems to live his life in amazement. What was most surprising when we first met was how humbled he appeared to be in my presence. Frisell is perhaps the leading American jazz guitarist of his generation, having put out dozens of albums since the early 1980s featuring collaborations with everyone from John Zorn to Elvis Costello. And still, when we talked music, at the mention of a new name Bill’s response was always the same: to sit in thought for a moment, and then light up and say, “Wow.” Often it was just that:  ”Wow.” A simple recognition, a marker of respect, and no need to explain further.

For this conversation, I met Bill in his temporary studio at the Vermont Studio Center. His guitar lay in the corner and sheets of white manuscript paper hung neatly on the walls. The room was spartan, monkish, and totally unlike the music he makes, which he describes as coming from the same place as the monsters and sci-fi vehicles he drew as a kid. With my friend Alex Lewis, I’ve been interviewing jazz musicians about how knowledge and value are created and communicated through their work for a project called Expandable Sound. And as I talked with Bill, I began to see further into his inspirations—dreams, images, memories, fantasies, reflections—held together like a mosaic. Bill would stop short suddenly, under a spell, lost in wonder. We’d sit quietly for a beat, and I’d secretly hope for him to pick up the guitar, knowing it was those moments that led Bill to music.

—Jake Nussbaum 

I. IT WAS ALL HAPPENING SO FAST

THE BELIEVER: Maybe you can start with how you found the guitar.

BILL FRISELL: I was born in 1951, and I remember so clearly the evening that my father brought a television home for the first time. I was three or four. It was a big deal to get a television, and I watched cartoons and became addicted, and every day I’d watch the Mickey Mouse Club—this group of kids with their Mouseketeer ear hats on—and at the end of every show the leader, an older guy named Jimmy, would gather all the kids around and play guitar and they’d sing. And I just remember being so fascinated by the thing that he was playing. I mean, it had Mickey Mouse painted on the front of it, but it was just this beautiful, strange object. And it had this power to bring these people together. After whatever happened during that day, this guy comes in with this thing and they all just sort of chill out and get together. So I took a cardboard box and cut it into the shape of a guitar and put rubber bands on it and pretended I had a guitar.

I’ve found a photo from even earlier than that—I was with my grandfather, I must have been two, three years old, and I was holding a ukulele.

The guitar was so much a part of the popular culture; this was when rock n’ roll was being born. A few years later I got interested in cars, and I’m thinking about hot rods and rocket ships and the future and then there’s a Fender guitar—you’re seeing them all around.

There was surf music too. I mean, I was living in Denver, Colorado, and I guess all over the country people were getting interested in surfing. I was buying surf magazines and hot rod magazines and science fiction. Popular Mechanics would tell you how to build a flying car. Somehow the guitar just fit into all this crazy stuff. 

BLVR: So when you found the guitar, it had a futuristic element?

BF: Yeah. There was this feeling in the air: we’re gonna go to outer space and the future is going to be really great. That still has an impact on the way I think about music. At the time, there was this big optimism. That got derailed, I think, when Kennedy got killed and Vietnam started picking up steam. And this was all happening as my awareness was getting larger.

BLVR: How old were you?

BF: I was twelve when Kennedy was killed. It’s incredible to think that three months after Kennedy died The Beatles were on the Ed Sullivan show. What happened in 1964 blows my mind: Cassius Clay, Sonny Liston, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights Act, The Beatles, A Love Supreme. It seemed like so much stuff was compressed into a short amount of time.

Now when I think of a decade, it’s not the same. Look at what Miles Davis did between 1959 and 1969. From Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew. I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and just a couple years later I saw Jimi Hendrix, live, in the gymnasium at a Colorado Women’s College. A couple years after that I saw Miles Davis play. It was all happening so fast.

BLVR: How did you go from The Beatles to Jimi Hendrix?

BF: It was a natural progression. Part of it was my age. I mean, I’m twelve when The Beatles are on, and then a month later I’m thirteen: a teenager, like man, I gotta get an electric guitar. Everybody wanted to get an electric guitar. The music has been about these connections. That’s the whole deal. 

A lot of what I do is try to figure out where I come from and where the music comes from. The more I find out about what the people I loved were listening to, it’s like this infinite forest; you just climb around…. 

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