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RIP Harry Mathews, 1930–2017

By Harriet Staff

Harry Mathews

Le Monde has confirmed the news that poet, writer, translator, and Oulipo member Harry Mathews has died. The Paris Review Daily reports the news in English. “In Harry, the Review has lost one of its most faithful and best-loved contributors, a writer we’ve worked with for more than fifty years—beginning in 1962, when we ran an excerpt from his first novel, The Conversions,” they write. His long-time publisher, Dalkey Archive, has also written of the writer today.

Mathews has long been associated with the New York School of Poets. With John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and James Schuyler, he started the literary magazine Locus Solus in 1960. Mathews was also good friends with Georges Perec, who translated The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium into French in 1981, and Tlooth (as Les Verts Champs de moutarde de l’Afghanistan), 1975. With Alastair Brotchie, he edited the anthology Oulipo Compendium (1998, revised edition 2005).

Mathews’s interview game was strong: He spoke with Lynne Tillman for BOMB in 1988 (his novel Cigarettes came out in ’87); and more recently, Semiotext(e) published (as part of their 2014 Whitney Biennial pamphlet series) a conversation titled “Week One” with Mathews and downtown performer Jim Fletcher.

Notably, Mathews also discussed, with Barbara Henning for EOAGH, the absence/presence of women in Oulipo.

As for the poetry: check out John Beer’s essay on Mathews’s The New Tourism (Sand Paper Press, 2010).

If Harry Mathews is esteemed predominantly for his masterful fiction, it is nonetheless as a poet that he ventured upon a writing career. The marriage of form and content evident in the inventions of Tlooth or Cigarettes emerged from the discovery, as he puts it in a 1987 interview with John Ashbery, that prose could be written with the same arbitrariness as poetry. This discovery is traceable back to his initial encounter with the work of Raymond Roussel. Tempting as the separation of genres may be, it constitutes in regard to this writer’s works an absolute error.

Or as Mathews wrote in 20 Lines a Day:

Each day happiness lies in wait for you around unpromising corners. Conceivably, if you weren’t careful, it could surprise you at every moment–how you possibly survive that?

The June 2014 issue of Poetry featured Mathews’s poem “Cool Gales Shall Fan the Glades,” which our own Lindsay Garbutt helped to put in context here, next to other Oulipo writing from Poetry over the years.

Harry Mathews was married to novelist and translator Marie Chaix, and divided his time between New York, Paris, and Key West. Our hearts go out to his friends and family.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 26th, 2017 by Harriet Staff.