Keynote: Matthea Harvey

  • author1_revised-smallerMatthea Harvey is the author of four books of poetry—Of Lamb (an illustrated erasure with Amy Jean Porter), Modern Life, Sad Little Breathing Machine and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form as well as a fable for children and adults, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel and  a picture book, Cecil the Pet Glacier illustrated by Giselle Potter.

    She is the winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award and the Addison M. Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.


    By Barrelhouse Poetry Editor Dan Brady

    BARRELHOUSE: Artistically, you’re very hard to pin down. You’ve published poetry books, prose picture books, and collaborations with visual artists. In the past few months, I’ve see your work take many forms, from your children’s book Cecil the Pet Glacier to photography for the cover of American Poet to an interview with a five year old about jokes in Jubilat. I’m curious if you’d still consider yourself to be primarily a poet or are you just as comfortable being known as an artist in a more general sense?

    MATTHEA HARVEY: That’s a good question. Writer-Artist or “all-genre bloodhound” might be right. I’m always sniffing around for what interests me. I don’t see a big divide between the different art forms—I’m inspired by all of them and love work that doesn’t fit squarely in one category, by people like Anne Carson, Lynda Barry, W.G. Sebald and Peter Blegvad. I feel ridiculously lucky in terms of the people I’ve had a chance to collaborate with—composer Eric Moe, the Miro quartet, artists Amy Jean Porter, Elizabeth Zechel and Giselle Potter, and sound walk artist Justin Bennett—because when you switch dance partners the dance is always different.

    BH: Your next book is If the Tabloids are True, What are You? What can we expect?

    MH: The book is hard to summarize, but essentially I’m experimenting with different ways of combining text and image, and collaborating with myself instead of another artist. There are poems inspired by tabloid titles, real (“Hula Hooping Can Lead to Abduction by Aliens” and invented (“Neptune’s Settlers Revert to Olde Worlde Ways”) illustrated with photos of miniatures, a series of poems with photographs as their titles, mermaid poems illustrated with mertool silhouettes and a play-like piece, Telettrofono, about Antonio and Esterre Meucci (Antonio was one of the first inventors of the telephone and Esterre, who in real life was a seamstress, I re-imagined as a mermaid-seamstress). Telettrofono is illustrated with embroidered handkerchiefs depicting Meucci’s real and imagined patents (Improvements in Effervescent Fruit Drinks (real), A Purring Shell (imagined)).

    BH: At various times, you’ve held positions with American Letters & Commentary, Jubilat, and BOMB, in addition to teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and elsewhere. How has being involved in literary life outside of your own writing shaped your work?

    MH: Teaching and editing are an extension of what I’m interested in already. I love discovering new writers in the slush pile or while judging contests, and interviewing people I admire (like Kara Walker, Abraham Burickson, Dean Young and Heather McHugh). I like being interviewed less, since I already know myself rather well. As a teacher, I’m a curator—I encourage my students to experiment as much as possible by showing them work that has inspired me, whether it’s Jean Shin’s dissected shirts , Glenn Ligon’s text paintings, Eugene von Bruenchenheim’s sculptures made out of chicken bones, or Sophie Blackall’s beautiful “Missed Connections” paintings. This kind of list could go on forever.

    BH: You’ve been spending a little more time here in DC. What do you think of the place?

    MH: It’s great. Every time I come to D.C. I go to a new (free!) museum and usually go to see a documentary film (I don’t know why, but documentaries make sense to me in D.C.). Through my husband, Rob Casper, who works at the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, I’ve met some lovely people (one not flesh-and-blood figure was an ice sculpture of Abraham Lincoln holding a book). Curator Katherine Blood generously showed me some incredible items from their archives, including
    The poetic body: Poem dress of circulation” by Lesley Dill.

    I’m also a big fan of 826 D.C. and their Museum of Unnatural History Gift Shop. I do have an unfulfilled D.C. dream—to meet Bo Obama. If anyone can help me with that, let me know.

    BH: In the grand tradition of Barrelhouse interviews, we always end with the same question. What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?

    MH: Dirty Dancing of course. Looking through the list of movies he’s been in, I am a bit curious about the 1984 T.V. movie Pigs vs. Freaks—only if the pigs are real pigs though and one of them oinks, “Nobody puts piglet in a corner.”


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