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“I do have a heart, it’s just small, black and made out of velvet.”: An Interview with Matthea Harvey

By Harriet Staff

Matthea Harvey was interviewed by Andy Kuhn in anticipation of her reading in the Katonah Poetry Series.

Here’s some some:

AK: There’s so much that’s playful yet quite mordant in your work—it’s right there in the titles of two of your collections, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form, and Sad Little Breathing Machine. You mess around shamelessly with words—you were the first to put “rapture” and “rupture” in adjoining lines, I believe—but there’s a certain austerity of attitude even in your jokes, it seems. “We practice drawing cubes—/ That’s the house squared away.” Some of your poems read a little like Lewis Carroll or Ogden Nash by way of Poe. Have you ever had a weakness for any of those writers?

Matthea H: Absolutely. I love Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, and Edward Gorey (I just read a collection of his letters to Peter Neumeyer—oh to have received those decorated envelopes…) Poe less so. The wordplay in Nash’s poems is so delicious—this is one of my favorites:

The Shrimp

A shrimp who sought his lady shrimp
Could catch no glimpse
Not even a glimp.
At times, translucence
Is rather a nuisance?

I haven’t, however, written any poetry for children. My two children’s books (The Little General and the Giant Snowflake and the forthcoming Cecil, the Pet Glacier) are both in prose. My poems are playful, but usually underneath the play is something quite dark or sad—a shark, or a razor blade. I’m not sure why I’m more optimistic in my prose, but so far that has been the case.

AK: Sentimentality is almost a third rail in poetry nowadays, and you seem to touch on the topic in a delightfully oblique way in “The Gem is on Page Sixty-Four.” You write, “Sentimental outbreaks were not uncommon & there were crews / Trained in containment but they could never predict the next / One.” This in a kind of dystopia where it seems we’re meant to identify with the rebels and not the containment crews. But you could be called pretty rigorously unsentimental yourself. In “The Crowd Cheered as Gloom Galloped Away”, you take the most flagrantly sentimental artifacts—pretty, miniature ponies—pair them with psycho-pharmaceutical packaging, and subject them to terrible abuse, even unto being devoured by rats. (This poem should carry a warning label, Do Not Read to Eight-Year-Old Girls). Even more subversively, in “Ideas Go Only So Far” you flout the sentimental conventions of motherhood by inventing a baby that’s machine-washable, although as it turns out, not indefinitely. Have you no heart? Or do you mistrust your readers’ hearts, in their gooier manifestations?

Matthea H: No one’s asked me that before! I do have a heart, it’s just small, black and made out of velvet.

In the first poem you mention, I’m definitely on the side of the sentimentalists, but I’m not a Hallmark aficionado. I don’t think about whether my readers are sentimental or not—probably like me, there are things that reduce them to a puddle of goo and things that leave them cold. I’m very sentimental about animals—I can’t bear to see them die (so sadly I couldn’t watch the amazing series Planet Earth—too much weeping when the polar bear begins to starve), so writing the poem about the tiny ponies was hard. I felt bad about killing the baby too—I particularly liked her incarnation as a “peacefully blinking footstool”— that would be a useful and soothing kind of baby. I didn’t think she was going to die, so I was shocked when she did. The rhyme led to her death. The word “dead” was orbiting the poem the minute I wrote that her flaw was “dread.” A friend of mine asked me to read that poem at her wedding and I had to convince her otherwise!

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Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, November 7th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.