Each year Barrelhouse hosts the Conversations & Connections Conference, a one-day writer's conference that brings together writers, editors, and publishers in a friendly, supportive environment. This year's conference takes place in Pittsburgh on October 18th with keynote speaker Roxane Gay.
In 2013, we had the honor of hosting Matthea Harvey as the keynote speaker at our DC conference. Below is a transcript of her address in essay form.
Matthea Harvey is the author of If the Tabloids Are True What Are You?, 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. She’s also written prose books 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.
Hello fellow writers! Ideally, instead of giving this talk, I’d give you each a tiny key that opens a different door in a dollhouse, where you’d each find a tiny television with a strange scene on its screen meant to inspire your next piece of writing. Or I’d spend the day secretly putting haiku in your jacket pockets, like this favorite by Basho: “Year after year / on the monkey’s face / a monkey face.” I love that poem because it perfectly sums up the wonder and weirdness of being a perceiving human being, i.e., a writer. The reason I jokingly propose these alternatives is that I’m not someone who writes directly or even usually talks directly about my writing life. I write poems and stories indirectly—peering through a telescope, through the tight branches of a privet hedge, or looking down on our human situation with the eyes of an alien. I don’t have a useful regimen that I can describe to you.
Or, if I have one, it consists partly of sitting in my office acting like I don’t want to write. My muse likes to play hard to get, or hide and seek, so for days—even weeks—I read books of poetry and novels, or make a set of dominoes covered with photos of blackberries in milk (which later end up being the book cover for Modern Life),
or set up a miniature scene to photograph, or embroider a handkerchief with one of Antonio Meucci’s patents from the 1860s (more on that later). It may well be that I moved into interdisciplinary projects because it’s a way of feeling like I’m working even when I’m not writing. And though I am more often not writing than writing, I am always looking and listening, and I never go anywhere without a pen, a notebook and a book to read. I take notes at museums, on the subway, even when I’m driving. As Alain de Boton describes in his book A Week in the Airport, in which he actually spent an entire week living at Heathrow, “Original thoughts are like shy animals. We sometimes have to look the other way—towards a busy street or terminal—before they run out of their burrows.” Or artist Jean Dubuffet’s version, “Art does not lie down on the bed that is made for it; it runs away as soon as one says its name; it loves to be incognito. Its best moments are when it forgets what it is called.”
So I pretend I’m not at my desk to write, when I’m secretly dying to write a poem that after many hours, leaves me bewildered, heart-sore or blushing in the middle of a forest of my own making. Which leads me to fairytales. I distrust life narratives—how can anyone possibly chart the rollercoaster of moods and experiences of even one day? To explain, “this is how I became a writer” is necessarily an invention, a fairytale with a hidden wand. Looking back, I’m sure I’m creating connections that I didn’t see at the time. Someone I thought was a wolf turns out to be a fairy godmother, golden eggs harden into stones, and I think I’m wearing a fantastic tunic . . . when actually I’m wearing nothing at all. I’m going to tell the story of how I became a writer to you today, but it’s just one version. I’ll try to trace the breadcrumbs backwards, hoping that a blue jay hasn’t swooped down, then flitted off with the crumbs in its beak, or that squirrels haven’t gnawed them down to dust.
Aimee Bender, a fiction writer and kindred spirit, suggested this exercise in a class some years ago at the Tin House Writers Workshop. Write There once was a _____, who couldn’t ______ on a piece of paper. Fill in the first blank, then pass the sentence to your neighbor who’ll fill out the second blank. Give that piece of paper to a third person, and have them write the story. If we throw out the rules (and it’s always good to throw out the rules), my autobiographical fairytale in which I get to fill in all the blanks might begin: There once was an artist who couldn’t draw. There once was a girl from two lands who moved to a third. There once was a girl who loved fantasy more than reality and animals more than humans. There once was an alien who landed on Planet Earth and couldn’t find a legible guidebook.
There are few directly autobiographical details in my work, but in my third book, Modern Life, I wrote a series of prose poems about a character called Robo-boy who is half boy and half robot. He’s troubled by these halves—his emotions work like gears, and underneath a coating of skin he’s silver. In one poem, I gave him my childhood fear of peacocks; in another I bestowed upon him an experience I’d had where a bottle of makeup broke inside my bag. In “Minotaur, No Maze,” Robo-boy goes to the DMV where he has troubles because he has no fingerprints and the real-life episode morphed into this: “His mother keeps a little can of Skinspray #439 in her bedside table drawer along with her pearls and her vitamins. Once she broke a bottle of foundation in her bag and when he looked inside it seemed lined with her skin. It pleased and scared him—he half expected a pair of eyes to blink open above the zipper-mouth of the inside pocket. Instant baby sister.” Later in the poem, Robo-boy looks around the DMV and sees fingerprints everywhere. Looking back, I see that I was unconsciously exploring the way that—even when we write primarily from dream and imagination—our fingerprints are all over our poems and stories. In this case, I’d essentially covered a character in my skin. The inside will out and the outside will in. As Jeanettte Winterson puts it in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, “The more I write, the more I discover that the partition between real and invented is as thin as a wall in a cheap hotel room. I can hear voices on the other side, running water, the clink of bottles, the sound of a door, opening and closing.”
So I’m going to dive headlong into autobiography. My father is English and my mother is German. I was born in Bad Homburg, Germany, so German was the first language I heard. Two years later, we moved to Marnhull, England, a tiny village featured as Marlott in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Some time elapsed before we went back to Germany, and when we did and I heard German all around me, I burst into tears. During that time in England, I had apparently decided that German was my private language with my mother. Even now, when I’m on the F train in New York and I hear a couple talking in German, I find myself unconsciously leaning towards them.
I felt a jolt of recognition when I first read Jorie Graham’s poem, “I Was Taught Three,” which begins (including the title): “I was taught three / names for the tree facing my window / almost within reach, elastic / with squirrels, memory banks, homes.” The poem traces the poet’s differing perceptions of the same tree according to its name in French, Italian and English and ends, “What is the idea // that governs blossoming? The human tree / clothed with nouns, or this one // just outside my window promising more firmly / than can be // that it will reach my sill eventually, the leaves / silent as suppressed desires, and I / a name among them. In writing, we’re all trying to clothe our own human tree in nouns and verbs and adjectives, trying to portray the “I.” My version would begin, “I was taught two.” Quite possibly that’s the reason I am drawn so strongly to writing about hybrids—mermaids, catgoats, centaurs. Or—and there is always an or—perhaps my interest in halves came from spending summers on my grandmother’s farm in Germany in a tiny town called Klein Zecher, which was 3 kilometers from the then-border between West and East Germany. Or perhaps it should begin, “I learned three names…” because we moved to Milwaukee when I was eight, and by the fourth grade, I started speaking with an American accent at school and an English one at home—which continued until I went to college and chose the accent you hear today.
Growing up with two languages gave me the feeling of perching on the corpus collosum between the two hemispheres of the brain, balancing on an “and” or an “or”. There is an indescribable gap between the English word “butterfly” and the German “Schmetterling,” and I love the fact that you can smash eight German words together to make one. I recently visited my aunt in Berlin—as she struggled to open a package of salami, she used the word “Sollbruchstelle,” which means “the place where the package should open.” Later, at the shoe store, I spied “Anprobierstumpfe,” a compound word for “trying-on socks.” Mark Twain said of the length of German words, “Some German words are so long they have a perspective.” Take this one on the screen: Fussbodenschleifmaschinenverleih—“the place where you go if you need to have your wood floors sanded.”
When I read poet Paul Celan side-by-side in German and English, I can sense that for him, “swarm of black stars” was one word, as was pre-flood, hatchet-swarms, eye-shears, counter-heavens, lung-scrub, sand voices, and passage-happy—and that it isn’t fully possible to have the same effect using dashes in English.
My mother often quotes German proverbs in English. One of my favorites is “the blind chicken also sometimes finds a kernel of corn” or “Das Blinde Huhn findet auch mal ein Korn.”
To me, the meaning of this proverb hovers somewhere between being something you say when someone compliments you and you try to deflect the compliment and something you might say if the person complimenting you seems too surprised by your accomplishment. The closest you can come to it in English is “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” But the German proverb is also an ars poetica. We often begin writing blindly, not knowing where our writing will take us, pecking out words on our keyboard and wondering if we’ll ever hit on something new, that longed-for kernel of truth.
My first real memory—not one of the many that I’ve retroactively conjured from a photograph—is of standing in our kitchen in England, peering up to an orange Formica counter (it was about head-height so I think I was four years old) to look at a piece of paper with writing scrawled on it. I can remember being so frustrated that I couldn’t read it—all I wanted was to crack that code. Add that childhood yearning to the first poem I fell in love with, and perhaps that equation equals “writer.” That first poem was “Bed in Summer,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, from A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Like children throughout time, I’d had this exact experience (minus the candlelight) and been mystified by it. Here was a poem that articulated the difference between those summer hours after 7 p.m., when it was clearly too light for me to go to sleep, and the shrill alarm clock waking me in the dark of winter, when clearly I should still be dreaming. I loved the way my bewilderment was put in a succinct rhyming parcel. Something clicked in my brain. Stevenson had articulated a contradiction I’d noticed but never put into words. I wanted to be able to do that.
A sidenote: Poems for children are usually illustrated, and it occurs to me now, thinking about how formative this poem and its accompanying image were, that I’ve returned to that combination of text and image in my forthcoming book.
In fourth grade, I was introduced to an even more influential poem: May Swenson’s “Southbound on the Freeway,” in which an alien visiting Earth thinks that cars are the inhabitants of our world.
A tourist came in from Orbitville,
parked in the air, and said:
The creatures of this star
are made of metal and glass.
Through the transparent parts
you can see their guts.
Their feet are round and roll
on diagrams—or long
with white lines.
They have four eyes.
The two in the back are red.
Sometimes you can see a 5-eyed
one, with a red eye turning
on the top of his head.
He must be special—
the others respect him,
and go slow,
when he passes, winding
among them from behind.
They all hiss as they glide,
like inches, down the marked
tapes. Those soft shapes,
the hard bodies—are they
their guts or their brains?
I’ve never forgotten turning this poem over and over again in my mind as one might a new toy. The imagining in it is exhilarating: Suddenly you’re hovering over the earth, looking down through the alien’s eyes at the freeway, seeing how they might mistake our various vehicles for the primary creatures of this planet. What does it mean that they know human concepts and words like “inches” and “brains”? When I’m bored, I amuse myself imagining what the aliens would think if they landed right next to me. In the post office they survey the line of humans holding packages. What do they think we are doing? Are the postal service workers behind the grille, teachers, scribes, doctors or priests? Are those padded envelopes and boxes our children or our souls about to set off on some strange journey that starts in a hidden back room? Are we standing there waiting to die? Do we type our pin numbers into those little grey boxes in an effort to communicate with the gods behind the glass, as a kind of prayer? What would they think if they landed here today?
I wrote limericks and haiku and odes at every opportunity, and in third grade even won a T.V. essay contest answering the question “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” with a long rhyming poem about an invented world called Kimmasaccalottamely which featured “bees with bendy knees” and “lunchboxes on trees.” But I didn’t know you could be a poet until I went to college, and it was only in my junior year that I was brave enough to apply to a poetry class. In that first poetry workshop, my professor, Henri Cole, handed out a page of quotations about poetry. One of them read “Poetry is an egg with a horse inside—3rd grader.” This was utterly unexpected. I was ready for the quotes from Yeats, Bishop and Stevens, but a quote from a third grader? And yet there it was, the perfect definition for why I write poetry: fragile delight, the crack of bewilderment, the tiny neigh of surprise.
For the last six years I’ve been taking photographs to title or illustrate my poems, and something spurred me to do a photo-illustration of that third grader’s quote. I sorted through my collection of small horses and found one horse that almost perfectly matched the brown eggs I had in the fridge. I cracked the end open with a spoon, let all the egg white and yolk run out, and carefully inserted the horse into the egg, tail-first. Voilà. He looked like he was just making his way out—tottering on those two front legs, wondering if he will ever get the back two out, deeply concerned about what might be beyond the egg. He’s a totem of sorts.
Besides giving me that quote, I’m grateful to Henri Cole for his precision and the exclamation marks he would put next to images he liked in a poem. I’m grateful to my other teachers as well: to Louise Glück for saying “I want messy poems that have threads hanging from them,” to Seamus Heaney for being strict about the ballad form and telling jokes at the beginning of each workshop, to Jorie Graham for diving into a poem—good or bad—and finding a much better poem inside it (what one might call the Kinderegg approach), to Mark Doty for modeling how to run a respectful yet rigorous workshop, to August Kleinzahler for his healthy disdain for teaching writing, and to Dean Young for making gazelle-like leaps in his poems and for being the officiant at our wedding complete with a headset that made him look like Madonna. But overall, what moved me the most was hearing them talk about the poems they loved best.
In workshop I learned that there were some writers who would enter my poem on its own terms and show me signposts I was missing, and others who would try to make my poem into one of their poems. Tuning other people out when you know what you want to do, is a key element of being a writer. Ultimately I learned that if I listened to my own work hard enough (which I learned partly in workshop and probably more by reading voraciously), I would figure out how to revise it. Sometimes I put a piece away for a year; sometimes the poem grows by two lines a year; sometimes I have to listen to a poem with a glass pressed to the wall because there’s a secret subject or detour that the poem wants to take and I don’t have a key to that room.
I’m a collector—I have flat file full of miniatures and far too many jars under the bed that might come in handy some day,—but I also collect inspiration, and I’m grateful to a heap of writers, artists, singers, and athletes I’ve never met whose work has shown me new ways of seeing and thinking. In one of my many notebooks I keep a list of people who inspire me, and I add to it every few weeks. Here’s just one page of the list. On it are poets Tomas Transtromer, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Carson; graphic novelists Lynda Barry, Peter Blegvad, Rebecca Kraatz, and Marjane Satrapi; artists Nina Katchadourian, Kara Walker, Gabriel Orozco, and Tom Friedman; novelists Lydia Davis, Henry James, George Saunders, Kelly Link, etc. I also keep a binder labeled “current,” which is bursting with show catalogs, articles from The Believer and Aperture, a piece about an elephant and dog who are best friends, a list of obscure gardening terms, favorite New Yorker cartoons, a photograph of tiny gloves by Althea Merback, and printouts of the quotes I collect as I read hundreds of books a year.
As a teacher, I’m happiest as a curator—pointing students to art projects they haven’t read about, giving them work by my favorite writers. I’d like to teach a class that was entirely “Show and Tell.” But now I’m going to switch into advice mode—a gear that I don’t usually shift into. Your interests (high and low, a distinction which I bristle at) make you who you are.
Here, for example is a piece by Eugene von Brunchenhein, a self-taught artist from Wisconsin who lived from 1910-1983. He worked at the Carpenter Baking Company, but in his spare time he took surreal pinup photographs of his wife, painted with brushes made out of her hair, and my favorite—he and his wife saved the bones from every chicken they ate and created marvelous gold towers and thrones out of them. I’m the writer and person I am precisely because I love outsider art and mermaids, historical research and dollhouse miniatures, comics and robots, the tiny giraffe in the DirectTV commercial and Marcel the Shell, Design Sponge and dachshunds, ice sculptures and Rufus Wainwright, erasures and Elliot Smith. I could go on and on. Inspiration can come from absolutely everywhere—for instance, I recently read Heidi Julavitz’s brilliant and terrifying short story, “This Feels so Real,” which is based on the TV show “The Bachelor”!
Don’t write like your teachers or to please your teachers. Don’t write in a way that seems “in fashion.” It won’t be any fun and you won’t be very good at it. Try to write like yourself—but like your smartest, most complicated, strangest self. The self you hide, or can’t convey when you’re simply speaking. And I don’t mean “find one voice and stick to it.” We use different voices with a sick pet, a lover, a former friend. We paint rooms an array of colors—beach glass, green apple, and orange popsicle. Why wouldn’t you use all of those voices, nuances, colors, and moods in your poems? Expand your palette of emotions. If you’re comfortable with wonder, try rage. If irony fits you like a tailored suit, try sincerity. I remember resolving that there should be some sex in my third book of poems, and was unpleasantly surprised when the only resulting scenes were a gang of girls giving blowjobs in an alley and a boy having sex with a pig—not at all what I’d had in mind. I try to write toward my taboos, and sometimes I’m horrified by the resulting poems. Two that stand out are: “Implications for Modern Life,” a poem based on a dream I had about ham flowers (which prevented me from eating ham for three years); and “The Inside Out Mermaid,” a poem about a mermaid whose organs are on the outside, which—given that I feel faint merely considering my own organs and bones—still makes me shudder.
Contrary to popular opinion, at some point in your writing life you may be desperate to escape your voice or mode of writing. I know that it’s time to stop writing in a particular form or style when the poem is suddenly too easy to write and I feel physically sick. One way to avoid getting stuck being one version of yourself is to experiment using different formal or compositional strategies. In Modern Life I didn’t set out to write twenty-one post 9-11 apocalyptic poems. I was trying to write one poem called “The Future of Terror,” which was a phrase I kept hearing on the radio. It seemed an impossible poem to write until I looked at the word “future” and the word “terror” in the dictionary and started writing down a list of the words that appeared in the pages between those two markers. Having that modified abecedarian structure (where the poems proceeded from f-g-h-i, towards t) allowed for part of my mind to be distracted with the delight of wordplay while the fear and frustration I was feeling came out in sentences like, “We were inextricably fucked. We’d outlawed jesters and inventors just when we most needed humor and invention …” I would never have written those sentences if I hadn’t been collaborating with the dictionary.
When you’re feeling too much yourself, try looking at the language of an old book about taming pet birds, listen to one piece of music over and over again, go to an art gallery or erase a newspaper. Take photographs around your house from the perspective of your cat. Collaborate with other artists and writers—adding another person’s ideas into the mix naturally changes the resultant cake. You dance different waltzes with different partners.
In contrast to the mad muddle that is my interior world, my path to publishing my books of poetry and getting into editorial work was relatively straightforward. I started sending poems out to magazines in graduate school. I met Mary Jo Bang when she visited my MFA program, and shortly thereafter I started reviewing for Boston Review. I finished my first manuscript at school and moved to New York, where I worked as the unpaid managing editor of American Letters and Commentary (again through a fluke—Anna Rabinowitz had published two of my poems and when I moved to New York we met for lunch and began a lifelong friendship). I submitted my manuscript to multiple poetry contests. I was a frequent finalist until I was lucky enough to win Alice James Books’ New York/New England prize. Some years later, my current poetry editor Jeff Shotts was his graduate school magazine editor, and he asked me for some poems. After he finished school, he went back to work at his previous job—at Graywolf Press—and asked if I had a second book. He took Sad Little Breathing Machine, and Graywolf has been my poetry publisher ever since.
My story is quite a lucky one. I know plenty of friends who graduated at the same time as me, who are just as if not more talented than I am, who have struggled to get their work out and have only recently published their first books.
People think that there is a secret to getting published. If you’ve written something really good (and that’s the hardest part) the only secret is: publishing is a numbers game. You have to submit your work over and over again. It will only find its way into the hands of a like-minded reader or contest screener or editor if you keep submitting. But if it’s a numbers game, it’s also a weighted numbers game. Most of you probably are aware of VIDA (Women in Literary Arts), an organization that has been tracking the amount of women and men reviewing and being reviewed in literary publications for the last three years. There are many biases in publishing, and this is just one that I think we all need to be aware of.
In this day and age, some of these numbers are ridiculous. I recently canceled my subscription to a number of journals after their numbers showed they weren’t making any progress in the direction of equality (I wrote each a letter explaining my reason). Instead, I’m choosing to subscribe to publications that are balanced. This is my small protest, but if you’re a woman you might decide be to bombard these magazines with your submissions instead. Or men and women, you might both keep these inequities in mind when pitching books to review. This literary world we live in is one that we shape, so we have a responsibility to make it reflect our own ideals. We can choose to champion what we believe in and reject what we don’t.
I had a bumpier road in my foray into children’s publishing. I wrote Cecil the Pet Glacier in 2001, and it came out in 2012. I had two agents, one who left the agency relatively soon after taking me on and another who had great success getting YA authors published but who couldn’t seem to get my picture books published. I was lazy and let my stories languish in a drawer. Eventually, a friend suggested sending to her children’s book editor, and Anne Schwartz at Schwartz and Wade took Cecil. In the interim, I wrote another children’s book and bypassed using an agent entirely.
I sent The Little General and the Giant Snowflake to Soft Skull Press, knowing that the press liked semi-political children’s books. They took it and asked me to find an illustrator (which doesn’t happen with larger presses). My friend Elizabeth Zechel and I had a grand time talking about every illustration—what Sergeant Sam should wear, what poses the lemmings should strike. We went through the publishing process with Soft Skull, and they even sent out galleys. But in the middle of the process the press was acquired by Counterpoint, and a week before publication they canceled the book, citing the fact that our contract was now void. That was one of my very worst weeks as a writer. I was devastated, and I questioned whether it was worth continuing on with children’s books. Eventually Elizabeth and I picked ourselves up and sent the book to Tin House Books, and we were lucky enough to be taken on by them. Even writers who seem like they’ve had some success, face challenges at some point, and keeping on, even when you feel hopeless is hard but worth it. The Little General and the Giant Snowflake has a special place in my heart, partly because its message is that imagination and empathy can prevent wars, but also because Elizabeth and I struggled to get it out into the world.
Another book of mine, Of Lamb—which looks like it’s for children but has a decidedly adult subject matter—started on a whim. I’d given my graduate students an assignment: buy the first book you find on a table for $3 and do an erasure of it. The first book I came across was A Portrait of Charles Lamb. I erased it for years (on the subway, at coffee shops, at home) and eventually decided that I wanted it to be a book beyond its whited-out form. I knew Amy Jean Porter’s work from Cabinet and McSweeney’s, and I emailed her out of the blue to ask if she had any interest in collaborating. Luckily, she did, and her paintings took my found text and essentially transformed it once again.
Here the text reads, “Lamb in the midst of the lake, ruined the rainbow” which Amy Jean translated into an image of Lamb standing in a bathroom chewing on a shower curtain. After Amy finished ten drawings, we sent a proposal to McSweeney’s, which was eventually accepted. A year after Of Lamb was published, Rachel Lewallen, a student at Chapel Hill, requested permission to make a performance piece out of the book. This is one of the images she sent to me from that play.
(Photo by Julia Wall)
Of course there’s publishing, and there’s making a living. I certainly don’t live on my small advances. After graduate school I worked in the reference division of Columbia University Press, then as the assistant to the head of the graduate film department at New York University. Next I moved to BOMBmagazine, where I did grant writing for three years, and I was invited to teach creative writing at the Pratt Institute, at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. Eventually I got a job teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, and except for a spring semester at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop I have taught there ever since. Teaching can be incredibly rewarding—but it’s not for everyone. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you automatically have to or want to teach. I love working with students one-on-one, and in workshop I try to create a respectful, open and interdisciplinary atmosphere in which we can all experiment. I’m not interested in the model of the teacher as the all-knowing expert. In my graduate class this year I have students doing erasures, making handmade books, rewriting The Arabian Nights, writing comic poems, adapting Irish myths, and making video persona poems. I want them to feel that poetry is a place of endless possibilities.
Dan Brady, one of the organizers of this conference, asked me to discuss challenges I faced in my writing. As I wrote Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (the title of which came to me in a dream and luckily the next morning I could decipher my scrawled note), I wasn’t really thinking of making a book. I wrote poem by poem, and when I got to the stage of imagining them collected together, I was surprised to see that though they took on different personas, used different forms, therewere through-lines: an obsession with water I hadn’t been paying attention to (though I remember my second strongest memory from childhood is standing in the ocean and thinking about how it divided my head and torso from my underwater legs) and an interest in exploring art and artifice.
Somehow I keep forgetting how to write a book without trying to take control at the outset. When I started Sad Little Breathing Machine, I decided: this book is going to be all about machines and lyric equations, and every poem will begin with its title. At one point, I even thought of calling it “Title First: A Machine,” which is a terrible title. Pretty quickly my love of narrative started trying to edge its way in, though, and the book ended up being balanced between what I call “secretive” lyrics and more forthright prose poems. With Modern Life I decided to focus on the conceit of hybrid forms and halves, which was so flexible it didn’t hamper me too much. But I fell into planning again with my forthcoming book of poems, If the Tabloids are True What are You? First I told myself it was time to stop writing about hybrids; then I decided each poem would be titled with a photograph, so there would be no text tiles. This slowed me down and made me feel guilty when suddenly I found myself cutting out silhouette titles with an Exacto knife. Then I started thinking back to headlines from The Weekly World News, which I’d been collecting, and I started—God forbid—writing poems that began with their title and used photographs as illustrations. Even worse, the phrase “The Straightforward Mermaid” popped into my head and that led to nine titled mermaid poems with cut-out “mer-tool” silhouettes. So much for being done with hybrids!
Again, I had to relax the rules and decide that the book aimed to experiment with combining text and image. This meant that my headline poems (such as “Hula-hooping can lead to abduction by aliens”) could have text titles and photo illustrations. I slow myself down by being so rigid about how the books are going to turn out before I write them, and then when I’ve finished them, I’m realize I’m glad that they’re not as tidy as I meant them to be at the outset—they’re more interesting with the threads hanging out. That being said, they’re hell to organize.
Here’s last weekend’s attempt at putting the new book in order. I’d been making all sorts of diagrams of how the different sections connected to one another which were only making things seems more muddled than before. Then I took a break and watched the T.V. show Smash (which often films in the St. George theater which I’ll mention again in a minute) and I saw three characters using post-its to reshape the arc of a musical. Story-boarding turns out to be a great way to organize a book and it’s what I’m working with now.
We can’t predict events in our lives, and it’s the same in our writing. When I was writing nasty limericks in high school and melancholy formal poems at college, I could never have predicted that I would end up spending weeks photographing tiny bottles to illustrate a poem I’d been commissioned to write, to accompany a quartet performing “Quartet No. 5” by Philip Glass . . . or that when one of those bottles broke, it would change the path of the poem. The characters in that poem were girls in a glass factory who come up with the idea of making a girl out of glass. I was struggling with the fourth section when a gust of wind broke the tiny bottle I’d been using to represent her in the poem, and that led me to decide that she disappeared off into the forest.
I couldn’t have predicted that because of my first published mermaid poem I would be invited to attend “Mercon 2011” in Las Vegas and find myself in a world of mermaid pool parties, thousand-dollar silicone tails, and lots of rather lecherous-seeming photographers. Or that later, a film student in Prague would make a beautiful short film titled “Sea Full of Hooks” based on that poem.
I had no idea that when sound artist Justin Bennett invited me to write the text for a Staten Island sound walk for the Guggenheim museum, that our collaboration would launch us into a six-month immersion in the lives of Antonio and Esterre Meucci, whose house still stands in Clifton, Staten Island. Antonio invented the telephone decades before Alexander Graham Bell, and his other inventions and patents included tinned Italian meat sauce, improvements in effervescent fruit drinks, an underwater telephone used by divers to talk to ship captains, improved paste for billiard balls. Esterre was a seamstress and suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, (she was confined to her second floor bedroom for years) and so— naturally I decided that this was because she was actually a mermaid whose bones were crumbling. Soon Justin and I were plotting out a walk called “Telettrofono” (Meucci’s name for his telephone)., where people would listen to the story of Antonio and Esterre told in various modes (preset verifiable fact mode, mermaid chorus mode, etc) as they walked along the shore, through the Atlantic Salt Yards, where all the street salt for New York City is stored, and ending in the St. George Theater, built in the 1920’s.
As I wrote the text for Telettrofono, Esterre decided—or seemed to decide—that on Antonio’s birthday she would embroider one of his patents on a handkerchief. So without knowing the first thing about needle and thread I embroidered nine handkerchiefs that now serve as the illustrations for the text. Some of the patents were real, and others—like this one, a wave metronome, and a shell that purrs when you scratch it, —I invented. Saying yes to projects that aren’t in my comfort zone has been incredibly rewarding. Now I can sort of sew!
A couple of years ago my husband started working at the Library of Congress, and while visiting DC I discovered the wonders of the weekday Express and its second page. “The Big Picture” and the column “Eye Openers” are perfect for erasures! This is the first one I did, which only happened because I was bored waiting in line for coffee. It reads: “It wasn’t hanging. It malfunctioned, a technician said. ‘We don’t have heavy landings anymore.” And then the caption: “Fascinating.” I don’t know if this series will ever make it into a book—I’m just making erasures because I enjoy them. I’m trying to follow my own advice from before. I took photographs and photography classes long before I knew some of those photos would appear in my next book of poems. Just last weekend I realized a picture I took of a television screen during Wimbledon (when they panned up to show the clouds) would make the perfect illustration for a poem called “Game for Anything,” one I mentioned earlier that grew glacially two lines a year for six years.
Writing isn’t a career—it’s a way of being in the world that can be both painful and beautiful. On a day when I’m truly open to the world (the pigeons pecking their shadows on the roof next door, the snow on the still-green trees), I feel like a giant pair of eyes perched on a stick. I also can’t help but be caught up in the play of language. When I’m on a plane and I hear the man three rows back saying, “I am a salmon geneticist,” I want to add “who was recently kissed in the mist” to make his statement even more Dr. Seuss-ish. I hear tennis player Rafael Nadal say in his broken English, “Hopefully the book will like the people,” and I imagine authors peering into living rooms to see if their books look contented. On a bad day, I’d like a lead suit to prevent that porosity. Writing is a wild animal you’ll never tame—some days it eats out of your hand, other days there’s not even a glimpse of tail in the shrubbery. It’s a rocky love affair, solace after a friend’s suicide, a canoe trip with no compass. Just like the trail of crumbs that led us all here can sometimes feel like unreadable forest floor Braille, the trail of crumbs ahead is shrouded in fog.
Ted Hughes put it this way: “I think of poems as a sort of animal. They have a life of their own, like animals by which I mean that they seem quite separate from any person, even from their author, and nothing can be added to them or taken away without maiming and perhaps even killing them. And they have a certain wisdom. They know something special . . . something which we are very curious to learn.” Stephanie Strickland said, “Poems are words that take you through three kinds of doors: closed doors, secret doors and doors you don’t know are there.” I hope your time at this conference gives you a little extra oomph as you rattle that locked door handle; the patience to press on every wood panel to see if a door springs open; and the courage, when you stumble across a door you didn’t know existed, to go in. It’s exciting to look out at all of you and imagine the ideas and worlds you’ll discover as writers, which I and other readers will then get to discover in your future books. Good luck and thank you for listening!