Matthea Harvey: A Poet and her Twisted Mermaids

By Meaghan Menzel
Copy Editor
The Rose O’Neill Literary House hosted the final event of the Verbal and the Visual series with a reading from Matthea Harvey on Nov. 3. Director of the Literary House and Associate Professor of English Dr. Jehanne Dubrow said, “Preparing for this event, I read many interviews about Harvey’s work. What comes across most clearly is that she is a collector of the world around her: images, words, and objects that fall across her path.”
In addition to writing, Harvey is also an artist. Dr. Dubrow said, “The experience of reading Harvey’s poetry is the experience of encountering other ways that she explores the act of representation through photography, collage, miniatures frozen in cloudy cubes of ice, sewn and embroidered objects, [and] paper silhouettes.”
“My only background in the visual arts is studying art history for a year in the M.A. program at the University of Iowa and taking some classes at the International Center for Photography,” Harvey said in an interview with the “Southeast Review.” “I don’t really distinguish between writing and making images— when I’m in my office anything goes.”
Harvey read from her  collection “If the Tabloids are True What are You?” which also includes some of her photography of miniatures, paper silhouettes of mermaids, and erasure poetry. Harvey said, “I think I was sort of separately doing art and poetry for a long time, and they started to come together, so that’s how this book happened.”
The first section she read from included poems about mermaids.  Harvey said, “These are kind of dark mermaid poems, and I read them at a mermaid convention in Las Vegas which is kind of a strange… experience because these mermaids were all pretty and sparkly.”
She placed the poems alongside paper silhouettes of mermaids with tools for tails such as the “Swiss Mermy Knife” and the “Mer-Hole-Punch.” “I wanted [the silhouettes] to be not illustrations exactly but almost independent, imaginative gestures,” Harvey said.
In the same interview with the “Southeast Review,” Harvey said,   “The poems themselves say what I am trying to say about mermaids… In general I am interested in mermaids who go against the Disney stereotype…” “I’d rather read or write about unexpected pairings—a foul-mouthed unicorn or a nerdy Lothario.”
Harvey next read an erasure poem of Ray Bradbury’s story “R is for Rocket.” She had turned it into “M is for Martian.” She said, “What I find so interesting about erasure is that even though you’re using someone else’s words, your own obsessions will come through… so I find it interesting how we can all look at the same page and we all find different erasure poems, so I think it’s kind of letting your own conscious do that work.”
Some of her poems take their titles from The Weekly World News headlines. One is written from the point of view of aliens when they abduct humans who hula-hoop. Some other poems she read included, “My Zebra Son” and “My Octopus Orphan.”
“For me, it’s harder to write about humans. I find it harder to write autobiographical, kind of direct stuff… whereas if I have a kind of mask of a mermaid or an alien, that somehow lets me say things I probably would say as a human but don’t,” Harvey said. “What I love about writing about those creatures is that you can have a different take on your own world, and so when I’m bored, I love thinking about, ‘What would an alien think if they landed right now here…’ I just feel like to me it’s kind of energetic when I look at the world from a slightly different angle, and that’s why mermaids and aliens are natural to me.”
Harvey has published five collections of poetry including “If the Tabloids are True What are You?” “Of Lamb,” and “Pity the Bathtub for Its Enforced Embrace of the Human Form,” along with two children’s books. In an interview with, Harvey said, “I’m a general gatherer… I cull quotes from the books I read… I have an orange binder labeled, ‘Current’ full of torn-out pages from magazines… [and] I collect dialogue I overhear on the street.”
“I have a lot of notebooks that are filled with things that I’ve never gone back to… so there’s a big graveyard of images and ideas, but I hope that if it’s a good one, it’ll sort of stick with me,” she said.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *