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.
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.
II. A PROCESS OF SUBTRACTING
SP: The author Lynda Barry is known for helping writers access an imaginative state associated more with childhood than adulthood. You teach her book What It Is in this class.
MH: I have my students do her exercises, like answering the prompt, “What is the first phone number you remember?”which leads to all sorts of memories. Sometimes you have an idea for a poem, and you’re good to go; her book is for when you don’t have that idea, or when you have an idea and don’t know quite how to shape it.
SP: Barry’s book is a hybrid memoir-collage, as driven by images as by words. Another book you teach, A Humument, is an art object as well as a poem told through the erasure of a novel. How is this book instructive?
MH: The first thing I do in the erasure section of class is have everyone erase the same page. No one comes up with the same thing, and often their erasure still sounds like them—which is amazing, because they all start with the same field of language. Writing a poem is always a process of subtracting: you start with all of language available to you, and you choose a smaller field. With erasure, you take an original text and put those words through the sieve that is your own head, and the things that stick usually make a self-portrait of sorts.
SP: The erasure of A Humument undermines the original story in some ways.
MH: That’s the interesting thing about erasures—you can have different attitudes toward the texts. Jen Bervin has a reverential feeling toward the Shakespeare’s sonnets she erased, or you can have mixed feelings about the original—like Travis Macdonald, who did the erasure of the 9/11 Report. I saw a great show at the Museum of Arts and Design called “Slash: Paper Under the Knife,”—it featured a piece by Ariana Boussard-Reifel, with every word carefully cut out of a book, with the cutout words in a pile next to it. When you read the wall text, you find out that it’s a white supremacist bible, so the act has a completely different meaning. On one level, it’s this beautiful object, but it’s also a pointed critique.
SP: Does the placement of words in A Humument have an emotional effect on the reader? Some of them crawl, some have this gulf between them…
MH: Yeah, that style is unusual, maybe because Phillips is a visual artist. As writers, we tend to follow the rules of the sentence, but he created this fluid method that gives him more syntactic freedom. His drawings are sometimes like that too—he does like a blob.
SP: Phillips finished the erasure in the 1970s, but then he began erasing it a second time, creating an entirely different work. In the book Exercises in Style, which you also teach, Raymond Queneau retold the same story in 99 different styles. What possibilities does this open for students?
MH: It shows them there are so many choices in how to tell a story. Early on as a writer, you often take the position of, “I am the person witnessing the thing, and I will write the poem.” But wouldn’t it be interesting if an ant under a leaf were writing the poem? How and what would it perceive?
SP: I read that the word “poet” is derived from a Greek word whose root means “to pile up,” which feels appropriate, because I can’t help picturing all 99 versions piled up.
MH: My cats like to pile on each other, so maybe they’re making a little small cat poem of A-B-A-B-C: paws here, paws there, a tail…
SP: Queneau co-founded Oulipo, a writer’s group that created inventive games, some of which Harryette Mullen used in Sleeping with the Dictionary. Her poetry is playful, but the themes in her work, like racial inequality, are serious. If her work didn’t have that depth, would it still be powerful?
MH: I think the depth is necessary. She has so many sources—fairy tales, language games—but she transforms them. She’s playing, but she’s also critiquing loudly. You can be playing a game and be deadly serious at the same time. Writing directly from a feeling of anger or sadness is difficult, but if you distract part of your brain with word games, the ignored emotion often tiptoes in.
SP: It’s interesting that Mullen’s voice stays consistent, as does Terrance Hayes’ voice in his collection Wind in a Box. He uses many different forms, so how do you recognize his voice?
MH: It’s hard to say. I love that he uses these different characters, like Dr. Seuss or Borges, but his voice still comes through. There’s an energy to it. You feel it. I don’t think you can really pin it.
SP: If we could pinpoint it exactly, would it lose something?
MH: Yeah, because the impersonation is important. It’s like when you watch an Elvis imposter. The delight is in the fact that this person looks like Elvis, but not exactly. He’s singing like Elvis, but not exactly. The tension between the two identities is where the energy of the poems resides for me.
SP: Hayes wrote that there are “recurring explorations of identity and culture in my work and rather than deny my thematic obsessions, I work to change the forms in which I voice them.”
MH: I think that shows students that whatever they love can become the stuff of their poems. For Mullen, it was the dictionary; for someone else, it might be sewing terminology. I’m conflicted about my obsessions—sometimes I wish they would change. I realize I’m not ever going to be uninterested in hybrids. I’ve tried to find different ways of exploring it, like making silhouettes of mermaids with tools for tails… but at the same time, I think it’s good to go in different directions. Before I wrote “The Future of Terror,” I wouldn’t have said I was going to write political poems. I just know that I’m not good at sitting down and willing myself into new territory—it has to happen organically.
SP: Do you develop as a writer by teaching?
MH: You definitely do. You get bored if you don’t teach what you’re interested in, so in some ways you create a course you wish you would have taken. And you can always find new ways of looking at things. For example, when I was trying to teach my students prosody, it wasn’t going very well. And I was thinking, What would make it less intimidating? So I showed them the video of Marcel the Shell, which has always stuck in my head. We scanned Marcel the Shell—there are a lot of lines in near-perfect meter in it—and it worked out well.
SP: You teach W. S. Merwin’s The Vixen. The poems are not punctuated, and he is quoted as saying that periods and commas “staple the poem to the page.” What effect does the lack of punctuation have on the reader?
MH: To me, his poems feel breathless, like you just have to keep speaking them and you’re kind of tumbling over yourself. The Vixen is a wonderful example, in the way its lines overlap. Teaching line breaks to students is always interesting, because they often haven’t thought about it. I’ll give them a poem they haven’t seen before in a prose-clump, have them break it into lines in pairs so they’re articulating their choices, and then show them how the poet chose to break the lines.
SP: In Pity the BathtubIts Forced Embrace of the Human Form, the lack of punctuation allows the lines to double back on themselves. Does that ever happen in Merwin’s work?
MH: It feels more like this is going forward, but there are moments where you get uncertain of the syntax, where a sort of stutter-step happens. I think he wants the uncertainty as well as the rushing.
SP: How would you characterize the form?
MH: Tumbling capsules? (Laughs)
SP: It seems like the poems begin in a similar narrative fashion and then meander until they’re somewhere more transcendent.
MH: Yeah, there is a kind of cycling. The first poem of that book has the image of the fox lying nose in tail. That’s what the poems are doing, I think.
III. NOT A GIMMICK
SP: Another book with a strong narrative is The Autobiography of Red. I was trying to figure out why I love this book so much, why it’s so exciting. It feels very urgent. Assuming you feel as strongly…
MH: I do. I adore it.
SP: What is it that creates the intensity of emotion? Is it the book’s unpredictability? Is it the fact that it’s centered in myth?
MH: It’s fascinating that Anne Carson uses just the wisp of a myth and creates this whole world. It has such a tiny diving board and leads to such a gigantic swimming pool. There’s a sweetness to it and also a sadness. The students just love Geryon, that little monster with his red wings.
SP: What forms does she use in this book?
MH: She’s coming at story from all of these different directions, not unlike Exercises in Style. She uses essay and translated fragments and interviews and autobiography and palinodes and appendices, and has them work together to create a whole. But it has so much heart and invention, which is key. In all the books I teach, I’m not really interested in just showing my students a flawlessly executed form. It’s not supposed to be a gimmick. It feels like the forms Carson uses came out of exploring the story, not from sitting up and saying, “I shall first do an interview and then an appendix!”
SP: She has said she’s more interested in mystifying through form than content.
MH: Her ideas are so beautiful that of course she wants them to be clear! You wouldn’t want to obscure an observation like “adjectives are the latches of being.” In her formal choices, I think she’s using a whole chorus instead of singing solo.
SP: You said in an interview that Robo-Boy, a character in some of your poems, was partly inspired by Geryon because at times, you forget that Geryon’s a monster.
MH: I wanted him to live in the space between robot and boy, just like Geryon lives between monster and boy. Holding these contradictory ideas in your head creates a push-pull, a kind of tension for the poem to live inside.
SP: And having to hold contradictory ideas in your head is…
MH: The best thing in the world. The most difficult thing, but also, to me, the most interesting.
SP: You teach Mary Ruefle’s book The Most of It. Do you consider it to be a work of prose poems?
MH: I do, even though the book calls it prose.
SP: How does writing prose poems change what Ruefle is communicating?
MH: I don’t think it would work as well in lines. Often her pieces are bizarre, and the strange and surreal fits nicely in a prose poem. The form of the paragraph looks more like a story and is kind of soothing, and you can jump right in—saying, as she does, “If you were very, very small, smaller than a leprechaun, smaller than a gnome or a fairy, and you lived in a vagina, every time a penis came in there would be a natural disaster.”
SP: What makes you call them prose poems and not prose?
MH: They’re not that different. It’s interesting that people draw these lines between what they’re doing—this is a children’s book, this is YA, this is poetry, this is prose. I mean, really, who cares? It’s all just one thing. However you got that amazing thing written, that’s great. It seems odd that I’m talking about teaching a class on form and also saying I don’t care about the distinctions. I care about the inspiration you can get from the form—I just don’t care about the labeling. If you write a sestina and want to call it a lyric essay, that’s fine with me. I know I’m contradicting what I just said—if I think about it, for me calling something a prose poem is a way of complimenting the work. I don’t know why, though.
SP: I was too intimidated to write poetry in college, because I thought I couldn’t write beautiful poems, but looking through this lens, I’ve written poems.
MH: Exactly. A lot of people are writing poems and don’t realize it. They have this limited idea of how the poem should sound or what subjects it should address.
SP: I have very weird dreams, so I write them down, and I now realize these are poems. But nobody wants to hear about somebody else’s dreams.
MH: I don’t understand why people would say that. I’m the opposite—I want to hear everyone’s dream. I have not ever met a dream I did not want to hear about. I’d much rather hear about people’s dreams than have them tell me how their coffee wasn’t good today. You were riding a monkey down Main Street? Tell me!
SP: Do your dreams inspire your work?
MH: I write poems from dreams pretty frequently. It’s limiting to think the poem has to come from a sensical lyric “I” stating things clearly or dramatically. This whole course is trying to say there are millions of ways to approach writing a poem.
SP: How do you use the book A Natural History of the Senses?
MH: I ask the students to use all five senses in their poems—to make them realize they’re typically only seeing, not licking or sniffing. All poets have one sense that’s dominant, and I’m definitely all eyeballs. The book also has so many strange facts, which can be inspiring. I give the students strategies they can use, like extraction: extract a line from a source text and use it as a first line. Or elaboration: take an idea from the book and elaborate on it. Or create a form based on a fact found in the text, like using the information about where we taste things—which I think has been disproven—and making a form in which you’re mapping out a tongue, with sweet things here and sour things there, translating tastes into types of diction. As a class, we go through the list and create and name different forms. A literal misreading of something. A landmine poem in which you exclude a sense from your poem. I see here that a student suggested “A poem in a slutty robot voice”—I quite remember the genesis of that one!
SP: This seems so fun. And the student work you’ve shown me is…
MH: Amazing. They’re amazing. If you ask them to just write a poem, it can sometimes be awful because of those preconceived ideas—I must write this way and describe the leaf on the wind. I’ve succumbed to that myself—we’ve all done it. The original, amazing stuff comes out when you distract them.
SP: Why do you take your students on field trips?
MH: I’m trying to encourage them to do more than just read books of poetry. I read constantly—probably 50 percent of my waking time—and I love it. But what makes me want to write a poem is having an old roommate say that her Parisian mother-in-law calls marrow “the little Jesus in velvet pants” or visiting an outsider art museum and seeing Dalton Ghetti’s tiny sculptures carved on the points of pencils. Poets need lots of time at home, but they also need to go out into the world.
Stephanie Palumbo is a documentary film and television producer, and a former assistant editor at O, the Oprah Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and cat. You can follow her @onetoughnun.