Post-apocalypse, Poetry, and Robots

A conversation with Matthea Harvey about Modern Life.

Matthea Harvey interviewed by Jeannine Hall Gailey

Photo by R. Casper.

Matthea Harvey’s latest book, Modern Life, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is obsessed with devastated worlds and hybrid forms of life. Her poems have always teemed with witty wordplay, but now they come with an undercurrent of trauma. In two extended abecedarian sequences, the “Terror of the Future” and “The Future of Terror,” Harvey explores the dysfunction between civilian and military populations in a stark, futuristic environment. In the “Robo-Boy” series of poems, a robot-boy struggles to define himself in human terms while confronting a brutal and confusing world.

The themes in
Modern Life eerily echo those of classic Japanese anime, with which many Americans have become obsessed in the aftermath of September 11. In a recent e-mail exchange, I asked Harvey whether those parallels were at work in Modern Life, and about other influences on her work.

Jeannine Hall Gailey: Are you interested in Japanese pop culture? If so, do you have any favorite anime?

Matthea Harvey: I love [Hayao] Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. There is such freedom of invention in both of them. In the same way that a strong voice in a poem can transport you anywhere, that distinctive animation style lets you surrender to the story. The characters are wonderful—I am a particular fan of the mysterious No Face, a black figure with a white mask face who seems connected to the Noh tradition, and the critterly Susuwatari, soot sprites that are essentially fuzzy black spheres with big eyes.

Do you think the images and themes of manga and anime have permeated our artistic sensibilities? Have cyborgs and post-apocalyptic landscapes affected your writing?

I think many cultures are interested in post-apocalyptic landscapes and human-robot hybrids—we’re always projecting ourselves into the future, aren’t we? The post-apocalyptic world of “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” arose in the writing. My interest in hybrids may go back to the centaurs in Greek mythology and, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the mermaids. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in hybrids. I recently found some mind-boggling photo-hybrids online by Khoa Tran—a cat-penguin, a horse-duck, and a dog-gull, among others. And I’ve just remembered how enchanted I was by Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies.

When I first read your Robo-Boy poems, I immediately thought of the early-fifties Japanese anime series Astro Boy, which is about a boy-robot hero powered by nuclear energy who tries to save the world from various villains and disasters. Astro Boy ponders questions of free will and good and evil despite his robotic form.

Robots are another old love. My first robot crushes were R2-D2 and K9, Doctor Who’s robot dog. I didn’t know anything about Astro Boy until you mentioned him to me, but reading about him and watching a few episodes, he’s clearly Robo-Boy’s cooler cousin. I particularly love that Astro Boy prefers the cube shape to the shape of a flower, and I liked the scene in which his skin suit is pulled over his robot body. Astro Boy (with his rocket legs and laser fingers) is much more powerful than Robo-Boy, though: He’s a force for good in the world, whereas Robo-Boy is just trying to muddle through, like we are. I liked writing about him because of his different perspective on the human, especially those things we take for granted, such as fingerprints and experiencing the full palette of emotions.

One of the things I find most interesting is Robo-Boy’s struggle to be both fully human and fully machine, a common theme in anime series such as Ghost in the Shell and FullMetal Alchemist and in Miyazaki's works, such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Does Robo-Boy personify our discomfort and fear that technology is dehumanizing us?

I wasn’t consciously thinking about our fears about technology (though I dislike the slightest change to my computer). Robo-Boy’s struggle is part of the whole book’s concern with being in the middle of things—cat/goat, poetry/prose (I think the equator probably feels that it is in an uncomfortable position). In Robo-Boy’s case, his struggle is as you describe it: being half-machine and half-human. Somehow, that struggle seems to magnify the human struggles we all go through: who am I, where do I fit in, etc. For that reason, and because I wanted his own struggle about identity to be mirrored in the reader’s perceptions, I was careful not to describe his physical characteristics too much—I wanted him to shimmer between people’s ideas of what a robot looks like and what a boy looks like. I admired how with Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, you sometimes forget that Geryon is a red monster. But now let me contradict myself: Delirium Press published a limited edition chapbook of the Robo-Boy poems called No One Will See Themself in You, and Doug McNamara did the illustrations. His Robo-Boy was quite mechanical (you could see the rivets on his head) but incredibly human in affect. That preserved the shimmer, I think.

I spent a good bit of the fall making cardboard robots and spray painting them silver on my roof (I had a Halloween robot book party when Modern Life came out), and it reinforced something that Scott McCloud talks about in Understanding Comics: how quick we are to see human qualities—for example, we see a face in two dots and a semicircle. It’s a bit sad to think we’re a species scurrying around looking for reflections of ourselves, but also sweet.

The post-apocalyptic tone in “Terror of the Future” and “The Future of Terror” seems to me clearly focused on the anxieties of Americans post–September 11. Roland Kelts, among others, has compared our bewilderment after September 11 to the bewilderment of the Japanese after World War II.

The book was written post-9/11, and the terror and anger in the book are partly from that event, but I think the poems address that in a general way (paradoxically by being very specific). “The Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” series are set in an apocalyptic time in the future—I didn’t imagine any particular country—so it makes sense that the anxiety in them could apply to any war-time. Terror doesn’t know historical or national boundaries.

In an interview with Bookslut, you mention reading graphic novels. What are your favorites? Are they mostly American, or have you read any Japanese or Korean manga?

I haven’t read much manga. Some of my favorite graphic novelists are Paul Hornschemeier, Chris Ware, Lauren Weinstein, Rebecca Kraatz, Renée French, Gabrielle Bell, Alison Bechdel, Posy Simmonds, Lewis Trondheim, and Graham Roumieu. Have you read Roumieu’s Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir or In Me Own Words? If not, you must—they’re laugh-out-loud great. I’m also a huge fan of minicomics—I think Lark Pien, Fay Ryu, Doug McNamara, Briana Miller, Tom Gauld, Jamie Tanner, and APAK (Ayumi and Aaron Piland) are all brilliant. When something is tiny, maybe the little arrows of heartbreak penetrate more easily—slip in through a tear duct or a pore.

Your work is very visual, even in its layout. It’s almost as if you’re a poet who thinks like a graphic novelist. Do you think your poetry would make for a good graphic novel? Are you a frustrated artist in disguise? When I read Modern Life, I kept picturing images from the Japanese Superflat pop art movement, especially the works of female artists such as Yumiko Kayukawa and Chiho Aoshima, who create strange, otherworldly images that seem, like Modern Life, at once playful and menacing.

I like the combination of playful and menacing . . . like a sugarcoated Combo with razor blades mixed into the peanut butter. And I enjoy the work of the Superflat artists—Yoshitomo Nara’s “cutism.” I would love to have every one of my poems translated visually. I hope more of that kind of collaboration comes into my life. I’ve worked with a few artists—Doug McNamara, whom I mentioned before; Elizabeth Zechel, who illustrated my children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake; and Amy Jean Porter, who is working with me on a project called Of Lamb, which is based on my erasure of a biography of Charles Lamb.

My older sister, Ellen Harvey, is an artist, and I do envy her talent. I would love to be able to draw. I started taking photographs a while ago, mostly of miniature constructed scenes—sugar houses, the dominoes on the cover of Modern Life, little stacked boxes of sky. It has been a delight to approach invention so visually. I’m in Iowa City this semester, and when my flight to New York [for the Associated Writing Programs conference] was canceled last weekend, I consoled myself by taking photographs of pink dollhouse teacups filled with snow.

Homepage photo of Matthea Harvey by R. Casper. “Robo-Boy” artwork by Doug McNamara from the limited-edition chapbook No One Will See Themself in You, published by Delirium Press.
Originally Published: March 5, 2008


On March 5, 2008 at 5:12pm Shin Yu Pai wrote:
Harvey's description of Robo-boy seems reminiscent to me of the politics of Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for a Cyborg." Any connection?

On March 5, 2008 at 6:39pm ashley wrote:
Interesting interview; I'm reading Modern

Life at the moment. Lovers of disarming

hybrids should also check out this brilliant

visual artist, Kate Clark.





On March 6, 2008 at 11:52am Dina wrote:
This was pretty hard to get into unless you already have a background in this stuff. I would have liked to see some broader questions.

On March 6, 2008 at 12:41pm Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi wrote:
Good questions make an interview with a poet , a kind of biography,a kind of mirror to show hidden aspects of that poet. This is why I find this interview important.

On March 8, 2008 at 5:18pm Gil Dekel wrote:
How can one reconcile the chaotic flow of inspiration and the ‘structural’ forms of intellect? How can one operate between receiving non-logical, but highly inspiring messages from above, as well as living in this world which demands ‘logic’?

This is the question I ask my self as an artist, who senses uplifting emotions, and is also a researcher engaging in a ‘logical’ and coherent PhD research at the University.

To my assistance in overcoming that duality I use the blessings of art, mainly poetry. Poetry helps me to mediate between the transcendental and the logical. Being inspired by transcendental emotions and messages I do not disregard them simply because they are ‘out of logic’. On the contrary, I accept them, and then use my logic to shape them into a communicative form, i.e. make words of them; poetry.

Here is how I was inspired to do it:

I was walking in one the religious cities in Israel, as a non-religious person; amidst these many Jewish religious people, and then God told me, ‘Here I am’… in the middle of the street, when I was sixteen. So I looked around me and I could not see him.

I asked him, ‘Where are you?’

He told me, ‘You shall write poetry, that is where I shall be.

This is a true story (and it is taken from the short student film ‘A Fallen Angel’, in editing process, on

Gil Dekel

On March 10, 2008 at 10:45am Ron Starr wrote:
Oh, wow. You got to hang out with one of my favorite poets. Very cool--and a very interesting interview all around.

On March 10, 2008 at 2:07pm Annette Spaulding-Convy wrote:
This is a great interview! It is fascinating to read how Harvey's poetry has been influenced by anime. technology, and the social/political mindset post 9/11.

Jeannine Hall Gailey's questions are in-depth and to the point. I hope she will continue to explore the influence of Japanese pop culture in current American literature and art, especially the post apocalyptic aspect, which, I personally, find intriguing.

And as far as Harvey's poetry--I'm a huge fan of anyone who can successfully blend R2-D2, C.S. Lewis, Miyazaki, and 9/11.

On March 10, 2008 at 7:58pm Todd Colby wrote:
In our apartment we love Matthea Harvey!

On March 11, 2008 at 11:39pm harrold gnards wrote:
is this interview relevant to poetry? i'm not saying it's not a good interview--in fact, it's a fantastic interview but how does it relate to poetry past or present (futuristic)? am i the only lost and confused human left on the planet? am i the only whackjob that doesn't pay attention to anime? isn't this what shows like BUCK ROGERS and STAR TREK are for. i mean they tell stories and stuff. i know i don't have a book nominated for the NBCC award--much less a finalist (heck, i don't even have a book) and i don't knock the work/effort but i need help people, somebody give a brother a hand with this. i mean, does her poetry hint at the deadman, is she glossing any poets? where's the poetic links to her writings beyond anime and pop-culture. it's a strange concept to a large degree because with this poetry we're asked to look at the human condition through a hybrid--something that doesn't exist and never will? i understand how mythology was developed to account for the unknown but this is weird? is it a fad? signed, R2D2's little brother r2d2

On March 14, 2008 at 2:01pm Felicity wrote:
It's an interview with a poet, so it seems fairly clear it's relevant to poetry.

Admittedly, I'm a prose writer, so perhaps I am out of touch, but I find the idea that poetry should relate only to poetry not only strange, but potentially suffocating. One of the functions of art, any art, is to expose and forge connections. Matthea Harvey's work obviously has connections running all over the place, between countries, disciplines, and 'types' of cultural product.

Literature has asked us to "look at the human condition through" "something that doesn't exist and never will" many times. It's more often done in prose, perhaps -- /Frankenstein/ and /Animal Farm/ are only the first to spring to mind -- but to limit the scope of literature, prose or not, to the currently possible and the definitely known would be arbitrary and tragic.

This is a very short interview, and it's entirely possible that if we had the entire transcript, we'd see more poets mentioned than Anne Carson, et c. But whether that's true or not, I find the idea that Poet A asking Poet B about the influences and themes behind her poetry is /irrelevant to poetry/ truly incomprehensible. Poetry is a medium, not a lockbox. It seems to me that using that medium, its techniques and ability to communicate and inspire, on unusual subjects is expanding and enriching the field of poetry. If poets really want to leave the nature of consciousness and identity, the consequences of war, speculation on the future, and all the other new frontiers to prose writers, okay! We'll take it!

However, this interview seems to imply not every poet is so inclined.

On March 17, 2008 at 2:30pm Nicki-poo wrote:
Wow. Heated.

I admit, I know nothing of anime so this interview was a slightly detached experience for me, but that just means I've been introduced to a bunch of stuff I might now further research. Oh, and the statement that the hybrid "doesn't exist and never will" is surprising to me. I think any biracial person would refute it...heck, even any black american, due to the duality that W.E.B. Dubois so eloquently articulated in "The souls of black folk." At first, when reading Modern Life, I found it odd that Harvey didn't explicitly explore any of the subtler hybrid lives already in existence. But that's the whole point really, I guess. By exploring those ideas through exagerrated fictions, all of the existing conditions are implied. Pretty damn crafty, I say. I frickin loved that book.

Modern Life's overall dichotomy theme constantly reminded me of Derek Walcott's "a far cry from Africa" and, well...the whole remaider of his oevre, as well. This new volume of hers enacts the experience it describes so perfectly, to me, because there are so few traditional qualities that relate it to and define it as poetry--many of the poems are in prose form even--but still, the whole book, to me, has more of that one, elusive characteristic that defines something as poetry than any book I've read in a LONG time. That's accomplishment.

I suppose we could say the same for this interview as well, no?

Nick Demske

On March 21, 2008 at 11:36pm harrold gnards wrote:
thanks for the input--that's all i was seeking--some connections or explanations. all points well taken, i just have more faith in blood versus 9 volt batteries. we were told in the introduction that many americans have become obsessed with anime post 9-11. come on now, how true is that?

i guess my question was why be so clever when there are humans suffering out there. post-apocolypse is simply a fabrication at this point in time. if i had the choice to read about a starving somalian versus an alien i'd choose the somalian. which i guess answers a bigger picture regarding lit tastes and preferences. everybody gets theirs in poetry too!

you guys sound pretty well-thunk.

and i do love the flaming lips' album YOSHIMI BATTLES THE PINK ROBOTS.

thanks for the feedback.


On March 22, 2008 at 12:46am g.g. abrams wrote:
Um, I believe (if I'm not mistaken) that the statement "many americans have become obsessed with anime post 9-11" is probably a reference to statements made by Roland Kelts in his recent book JAPANAMERICA, which is all about the influence of anime and manga in American pop culture.

On March 22, 2008 at 3:17am Tim Boudreau wrote:
I just think it's awesome that poetry with such obscure influences is being taken seriously by somebody outside of the fan base (because yes, I'm pretty sure "Ghost in the Shell" and "super flat" aren't household names in America, despite huge gains in popularity). I think it's a fine line, though, between creating a stand alone (bad pun!) piece influenced by anime and creating a fluff/fanfic-esque piece that relies too much on inside knowledge of whatever anime you're grooving to/writing about. You see it way too often on poetry forums, and I think that a lot of people, especially younger kids, who are maybe curious about poetry but haven't yet been gripped by a real respect for the art and craft of the good stuff will be drawn initially to anime-related subject matter, and eventually laugh it off as tripe because, as far as they can tell, nobody is, or should be, giving it any real consideration. Or maybe not.

But seriously, I don't know how aware of these influences the poet was at the time of conception (it's easy to talk it all up after the fact), but I really hope to see this type of work gain a larger, more serious audience in the future!

On June 21, 2008 at 1:38pm Michael wrote:
This reads like the interviewer had a particular agenda to get across, but the interviewee wasn't well-versed in the particulars of that agenda. A lot of the questions feel like foul balls, no straight up home runs in the group.

The problem with the interview has nothing to do with anime or poetry. It has to do with the interviewer wanting to talk about something she's interested in rather than trying to engage the interviewee in conversation.

On January 12, 2009 at 8:25pm SatoKiptEpill wrote:
I think you are thinking like sukrat, but I think you should cover the other side of the topic in the post too...

On January 15, 2009 at 2:50am Enlargement wrote:
I am amazed with it. It is a good thing for my research. Thanks

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Jeannine Hall Gailey is a Seattle-area writer whose first book of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, was published by Steel Toe Books. Poems from the book have been on NPR's The Writers Almanac, Verse Daily, and included in 2007's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Evansville Review, and The Columbia Poetry Review, among others. She's an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review and . . .

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