Anyone who has talked with Heather McHugh, read her poems and essays, or seen a Road Runner cartoon, knows what it is to feel like Wile E. Coyote, left in the dust as something wonderful, contradictory, and strange dashes by. In the lectures I have seen her deliver, there is always a palpable struggle in the heart and hands—Should I try to scribble down every last word or just sit back and marvel? As a result, I felt not a little relief when Heather said she would prefer to conduct this interview via email. Finally I would get a record of every last word! I wasn’t sure that a tape recorder, digital or otherwise, would have caught more than the triumphant “mmbeep, beep” of McHugh speeding by. In the cartoon, the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote communicate by holding up signs at each other. Here, then, are the signs I held up and the signs I got back, signs crammed with linguistic leaps and perspicacious puns. Though this flightless bird has words that fly, she also has the surest footing on the path of poetry. She is a marvelous guide, if we can just keep up.
McHugh is the author of numerous books of poetry and literary essays, including Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968–1993 (a National Book Award finalist) and Broken English: Poetry and Partiality, and, more recently, Eyeshot. McHugh lives most of each year in Seattle, where she’s Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.
Matthea Harvey In your poem “Mankind’s Pet, the Copycat” from your latest book, Eyeshot, you write: “Ephemera appear / perpetual to us, who read the world by eye-gulp, eye-gloss, / pupil-race and spot-lit blind.” Your work has always dealt with looking and language, seeing and saying. How would you describe the connections you see and hear between the two?
Heather McHugh You know, I never could tell things apart the way healthy people do. Meaning and means. Form and substance. Mind and matter. Sensible and sayable. Animal and vegetable, even—the molds and corals boggle my line-drawing mind . . . . Animal and mineral?—fingernails are living, and a crystal grows. Taxonomies and categories help if what you want is to economize on thought. But if you want to enlarge on it, they hem you in: each line you draw between things makes it harder to keep the options open. Where does the sky begin? Where does a hat end? Heaven’s little joke and blessing was to put eyes in our heads so that we can’t see half of what we are. The Sufis say that reason does not know itself.
When criticism glosses something, it seldom seems to get the glisten of the thing: to take a shine to something, I say rub an eyeball on it. Ride a lip-line toward it. It’s the tact and the tango of a lingo I’m attracted to. And I was never very good at settling for any one sense of sense. So semantics became largely a matter of syntactics for me. Poems don’t make sense; they make senses.
When poems are touching, it’s because tact governs the arrangement of parts, in sentences and lines, in space and time. (Is it obvious I love the touch, intact, in words, of etymology? Superciliousness derives from one raised eyebrow! Hell, that’s more compelling than a treatise on humility. Sometimes I think the brain is the highest intestine. Maybe that just means I don’t know shit from shinola.)
There’s a law of practical efficiency that makes most people leap to just one sense of any string of words—and only one direction of that sense. It takes an entirely different kind of practicality—a practical excess—to entertain the open-mindedness of poetic language. We feel more ways than one, all the time. If you’re reading someone like Dickinson you’d better be ready for many directions of sense. Many senses of direction.
MH Can you give an example of a sense-soaked sentence?
HM I heard a blind bluesman say once, of an ex-girlfriend: “She didn’t like how my eyes looked.” The double-take in that remark might break a brazen hussy’s heart. And then there’s Borges, on his blindness: “It’s a confinement but also a liberation, a solitude propitious to invention, a key, and an algebra.” The world itself is so rich with occasion I sometimes think thing is a sort of participle.
Thomas Mann said a writer was someone for whom writing was harder than it is for other people. I had so hard a time learning to tell time, it destined me for a life of metaphysical addiction. At twelve on the one hand it’s all shadow, at twelve on the other hand there’s no shadow; moreover you can be twelve, and it can be twelve. If it’s three, you could be wide awake in shallows of skyscape, or fast asleep in the deep . . . . And the shallows are different every time—sometimes a trawler goes by, sometimes a fox, sometimes an 18-wheeler, sometimes a teenager with a drum; sometimes a wind with a cloud; the deeps are different each night too, each time entirely unredreamed . . . . What could the numbered moment mean, with all uncountability inside one? In one’s senses, one’s undone.
I’m a line-lover but a vector-suspecter. Early and late I found myself resistant to the premises of “Why?” of all the questions—none of its answers free from wishing (washing). I have no gift of memory. I also have no curse of it. Immersed in the present, I’m susceptible to a wealth of shifting senses. History, nailed with whys and wherefores, wanted to put me in my place: now kept moving, and kept moving me. It was all in the eyes and ears and mouth. It was all in the nose. I bloodhounded my way to the arts.
But what a sorry soldier for the front lines such a sensibility will be! What a wasted witness-for-the-prosecution!—with her woofing and arfing; her sense of time and motive, sense of meaning, overlaid and undermined by other senses. When a student asks a book reference, I remember only the red binding and the shaft of light that fell across that volume—pointillistic shivering and sunstrikes. No big help in English 583.
There are capacities, I guess, that attend such disability: given a landscape or field, an art or nature, I’m surprisable. For me experience is all shifting impressions and instances—each moment so many! (Borges says you can’t count days the way you count dollars: every day is different.) To my mind, the crucial sense of the second isn’t ordinal: it’s cardinal. We don’t live in a life-time: we live in a flash.
MH That makes me feel much better about my own sieve-brain. Wouldn’t it be interesting if you could choose to live for one wide second instead of 80 years of partially perceived events?
HM Some people do! (Hey, Matthea, it’s never too late.)
Our being alive at all is a monumental oddity. Such a small band of the spectrum is visible or audible to us—that’s a sort of covenant with beyonds (lower-case b). For most wavelengths, we don’t even have detectors. I grant the lack; I luxuriate in it. The lack’s a luck: I like to study what our narrow bands strike up, light up, from the fabric of the unforeknown. It doesn’t have to be big. As scopes go, the electron micro’s just as exciting as the Hubble tele. Whatever you cast your eyes on (or your vows, or your vowels) keeps deepening into further fractals of unsynopsizability. (We can’t know the mystery, said Yeats, but we are it.) For efficiency’s sake, if we’re half-sane, we edit our experience even before we have it (not only after): we become experts at abridging the endlessness, so we won’t drown; we live the Cliff’s Notes version of our lives. Content’s a good stay against the uncontainable. But it’s not as reliable as its narrators think. And it’s certainly not all there is. Wittgenstein says our lives are endless in precisely the way our visual fields are endless.
MH One of the two epigraphs to your poem “Past All Understanding” is by Jonathan Swift: “For it is the opinion of choice virtuosi that the brain is only a crowd of little animals, but with teeth and claws extremely sharp.” You’ve made up a number of metaphors for the brain, describing it in one poem as “a bright / department store where everyone on earth, oblivious and busy, rushes after hours, / deepening the debt.” Do you think of poetry as a way of thinking about thinking? Where is the brain when you’re writing?
HM When I’m writing I’m hoping to open senses up, not nail them down. I’m tracking a pattern, to see just how and where it escapes—like trying to look directly at where your shoulder turns into your neck: you can’t turn your head so far into your head.
You take a birch for whipworks, lovestuff, keelable canoe. That’s what you see in the tree. You see what you want to make of it. I see what it wants to make of me. I’m looking at the tree no other birch will match: the one the animals have clawed just so—the one the wind last night took the next-to-last gold leaf from . . . . This tree, this moment only, for which deictics were invented—there! there!—no other eye (nor later glance of mine) has a chance to see it: tree in a flash, dappled with undulate, striped by shade, it fades a moment later. And then the tree reforms—or is it the eye?
Seeing isn’t believing: seeing is registering the unbelievable—which is everywhere. And so words fail us; just exactly how and when and where they do is dazzling evidence. Of what, I dare not say. Poetry’s not a way of thinking, except insofar as “I think” means “I’m not sure.”
MH There are very few poets I would call bawdy, but you are one of them—I’m thinking of poems in Eyeshot like “One’s Mons” and “Goner’s Boner.” And it strikes me that bawdy seems like a word that applies to bards—do you enjoy the sexual innuendo and play in Donne, Shakespeare, and the like?
Some lines from your poem “Inflation” (“Language wasn’t any / funny money I was playing with, / no toy surprise”) made me think of this scene in Love’s Labors Lost:
Moth: Master, will you win your love with a French brawl?
Don Adriano de Armado: How meanest thou? brawling in French?
Moth: No, my complete master: but to jig off a tune at the tongue’s end, canary to it with your feet, humor it with turning up your eyelids, sigh a note and sing a note, sometime through the throat, as if you swallowed love with singing love, sometime through the nose, as if you snuffed up love by smelling love; with your hat penthouse-like o’er the shop of your eyes; with your arms crossed on your thin belly-doublet like a rabbit on a spit; or your hands in your pocket like a man after the old painting; and keep not too long in one tune, but a snip and away.
“Goner’s Boner” ends with “he’s holding sway / against the notion // only good can come.” It’s funny, but also dead serious. James Merrill once articulated a defense of punning in a review: “A Freudian slip is taken seriously: it betrays its maker’s hidden wish. The pun (or the rhyme, for that matter) ‘merely’ betrays the hidden wish of words.” Is that what the fun is for?
HM Yup. The is in the wish, the or in the word. No word-fun should be left undone. Especially in schools. Where otherwise they kill the love of literature.
And thank you, by the way, for noticing that “Goner’s Boner” aims beyond a low blue joke. Certain touchinesses find its upshot flippant or perverse or worse. (If you ask me, calling a poem about a hanged man’s hard-on “flippant” is its own black laugh.) Because we hate the thought of death, shall we never speak of it? I myself give it the figurative finger. Anyway, there’s a natural attraction between horror and humor—people can’t help laughing, sooner or later, at a wake. Giving the body a shudder gives the mind a shake. Physical conditions as surely as psychological ones, humor and horror are only a stone’s throw from rigor. They chase and chasten one another, the way love and death do. My poem’s last line—“only good can come”—was supposed to persist in a reader’s mind past the lesser rictus and into the larger one, and become, if I may say so, a modest refutation of self-righteousness, rebuke to the fiction of man’s overall moral improvability. It maybe means to pull the judge’s leg, a little. Whatever you think God is (even to find a noun or pronoun feels idolatrous), the Thing Itself remains beyond our ken—and is sometimes inseparable from what horrifies us.
Perhaps it’s just my faulty wiring (unable to supply the usual palliatives for experience and making me over-aware, at 3 and 4 am, of the horror; at 3 and 4 pm, of the humor . . . ). Let’s say my poems are untoward. If I love music, it’s not because it’s always of the spheres. I was raised on Yeats and Shakespeare; I got my Donne and Dickinson and Dylan Thomas with my mama’s milk. But with the gleam in my daddy’s eye I got a lot of doggerel and dirty limericks and salt. Remember Donne’s sensational address to God is as to a rough and carnal lover—“Batter my heart,” he prays; I never will be chaste “except you ravish me.” How could God resist!
Oh well. Time to tamp it down. I have to do battle, at every turn, against my cheaper literary lineages—destiny as paid namer for suburban malls (let’s drink a sympathetic toast to the hapless bastard who thought up “The Athlete’s Foot” for a line of shoe stores); or hollerer of ballads about the “pup that pooped in the pulpit,” or the “cat that crapped in the crypt”—my father’s Canadian Army humors, in the service of Service . . . . Between the easy joke and the cheesy feeling, between the landed gentry and the grand intention, every wordworker’s at risk. The enemy of poems can be poetry.
I’m a skeptic, from the word go. There’s a wonderful little Enrique Anderson Imbert piece called “Trap”: “After the last birds died, the cage took off from the patio and began flying toward heaven. It’s coming to ask our forgiveness, thought the unwary angels.” Boom. Or rather, shhhh then boom. A fuse is ignited—the thing goes off a bit later, in the reader’s brain. The bombshell’s hidden in the humblest word—“unwary.”
I imagine a name like BOMB must set off quite a lot of knee-jerks! What I like about the word bomb is the way its shape and its meaning make friction together: how around the hive the Bs (one audible, one soundless) keep an om for their honeycomb . . . . As a celestial instance of language trying to escape its own content, om (which is virtue’s version) ranks right up there with the devils’ chorus in Berlioz’s Faust—which sings irimiru karabrao has has has. Now that’s a pandemonium. Ill-got millions calibrate and cackle. (You can’t get away from meaning, however hard you try. Nonsense can’t be sheer.)
There’s a bombshell that is beauty, and a bombshell that’s surprise—you’re not just stuck with Hollywood’s old stock of thuds and duds. The dictable is dull music; the unpredictable can blast a speaker to smithereens. It’s enough to make a dichter stick his quill back in his goose.
MH What other obsessions would you identify in your work?
HM Let’s let sleeping retrievers lie. Those are big greedy dogs.
MH Who are some of your favorite writers amongst the dead and the living?
HM I’ll answer, if you don’t mind, as though you asked my favorite artists. I crave documents and documentary—and I don’t mean Michael Moore. I hate talk radio with its rant and tendentiousness, but I love the oddities and orders of Ira Glass’s “This American Life.” I gravitate to movies about Cane Toads and truck-touching contests and Errol Morris’s peculiar birds-of-a-feather in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control. I’d pay the price of satellite TV just to have access to Taxicab Confessions. The world is full of wonders, but it needs a good editor.
Give me early music any day, Gesualdo and Josquin; I’m also big on Scarlatti and Haydn and Chopin and treated pianos. Then too—not to dizzy you too much—there’s lots of country music that warms my cracker blood—you can’t beat a sassy Texas broad’s rendition of “You Can Have My Husband but Please Don’t You Mess With My Man.” And, just to keep the premises hot, if you haven’t heard Nina Simone do “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” you don’t know smokin’ yet. I’m addicted to music radio—KPLU [Seattle’s NPR station] deserves every last penny you can send them. (Online I get sizzling Seattle jazz in the remotest Maritimes. Now that’s miraculous.) What I can’t get enough of is good jazz and blues—the devil of dance rents a room in my affections. Give me a New Orleans funeral band, dear Lord. Let it play “That Sheep May Safely Graze.” In their heyday James Brown and The Artist Formerly Known as Prince were geniuses (so was Ton Loc, but nobody remembers Ton Loc anymore). Mud in your eye. I’m looking for luck in the realms of the rapmeisters these days—there are always more contenders than champs. But you put “shoelaces and syntax” together and you’re halfway to having your socks knocked off.
I’m particularly smitten with Dürer. If I see so much as his A and D together, I swoon. A certain taste for satire (perhaps because an American education undernourishes us there) attracts me to William Hogarth and Jonathan Swift and Voltaire and Sterne. Can’t be a poet and not love Nabokov and Borges and certain turns in William Gass (“On Being Blue”); Dickens for his stylistic accumulations (I wouldn’t give a ha’penny for his plots and characters); Flaubert for his mordancy. Among philosophers, Parmenides and Heraclitus, fathers of my mind’s eye—or the spirit’s glint in it. Prize and praise Sam Beckett till you drop; he’s the master syntactician. Lydia Davis and Anne Carson can blast the fasteners off a genre-fence. And I’ll read anything Cioran ever wrote. Dig me up some more of that man’s hand and mind, wouldja?
Among poets it’s Wally and Em I love above all. Dickinson for her luxuriant abstemiousness—she’s so often mistaken for cute when in fact she’s scarily acute. Stevens when I was 12, for his fire-fangled feathers; at 26 for his nothing that wasn’t there, and his nothing that was; at 57 for whatever else flows from his foxholes . . . . There’s some gorgeous erotic writing they unwound from a mummy in Cologne—even through the tatters of its fabric, you can feel the heat: an account of a virgin’s seduction, its climax the more vivid for having been unwound from around a human frame so many centuries after being bound there. Its transcription of a tremble is to die for.
What logophile doesn’t adore Shakespeare and Yeats and Donne? Herbert, Herrick, the scrupulous and naughty Earl of Rochester? I am attracted to certain austerities in Follain and tsos; architectonic luxuries in Wilbur and in Merrill; exquisite bitternesses in Larkin and Dugan; the play of intellect and incarnation in Paul Valéry; intellect and love in Montale; intellect and spirit in Rilke (now there’s a guy who can catch the moment’s uncontainability). In Amichai and Adelia Prado a certain conversancy with human foibles and their antidotes; comic restructurings in Jackson MacLow; folding and unfoldings, idea and imagework, in George Oppen, Robert Creeley, Gustaf Sobin; Stein’s “Tender Buttons” for its cranky taxonominations; Su Tung P’o for range and depth—his exquisite suspensions of stillnesses, still . . . . As an American word-worker, I got a powerful and chastening jolt from the Eastern European and South American poems given us, in translation, in the twentieth century (blessings on Mark Strand and Charles Simic, not only for their own writings but for having published the seminal anthology Another Republic, yea those many decades ago—and on Clare Cavanaugh for her spirited translations since). Yoruba poems, Persian poems! I haven’t mentioned a bazillion works I cherish, all written by individually dazzled, quill-quicked souls . . . some of whom may well be sons of bitches, too, for all I know. It’s poems we must love, not poets.
If you’re as interested as I am in new media for poetry, go to University of Buffalo’s electronic poetry website (epc.buffalo.edu/e-poetry). I stumbled on another lively logophiliacal site recently (elsewhere.org). The Jack Straw Foundation in Seattle invites word-lovers to play around in sound studios. I’m sure in other cities there are hotbeds of literary and electronic convergence. (David Mahler, in a piece called “Who I Just Adored,” radically edits a recording of a woman talking about pets, keeping just the whiskers and tails of words—just the attacks and decays. It’s heartrendingly bestial, a sonata of hisses and licks and chirrups.) A thousand unsung word-workers out there deserve our honor—samplers, dimplers, riddlers, rakes. And there will also be plenty of trash among the new, just as there was among the old, but my instincts tell me these new media don’t threaten but rather extend poetry’s occasion—poetry by nature being intimate with visual and musical design.
A heaven on earth, by my lights, is a room full of artist’s books—places like Printed Matter in New York—where one can fondle one’s brains out on books of beaver pelt, or beware with one’s fingers the books of barbed wire, or wonder at water books, kneel at books nailed open, look one’s heart out at a book sewn shut . . . . The sign of letters is the bloody barber’s-pole, don’t forget! That corkscrew (DNA-style) down an arm—sign of a body well-read. (Or maybe just red.) I’m a fetishist of sorts, but serious. A logophiliac. One look at a stone book and I’m hooked for life.
MH Well, what about this latest book of yours, Eyeshot. Your author photo for this book is a photograph of you taking a photograph. Where would you place your readers in this equation?
HM I place my reader in my own position: that of someone reading patterns in the world, with an eye to his eye. All lineated poems inherently refer to lines—and to ends—thus to the act of reading itself. I can’t get enough of the eyeballed globe, its grid and its careening curves—the planet with its red heart, cool head. (I wax poetical.)
MH You’ve translated a variety of poets—Jean Follain, Blaga Dimitrova, Paul Celan—and most recently, Euripides’s Cyclops. Did this translation influence Eyeshot?
HM I’m not sure that having done translations of other people’s poems makes me do my own poems any differently; both grow from the same impulse: to read a way (away) from commonplaces. For all my love of the literarily literal (the letter-work of language) it’s a poem’s spirit I am finally interested in: and every rub of shrub, every imp of shrimp, is evidence of Logos. (Don’t you love how logos and taxis start out in Athens as ontological conditions and wind up on Wall Street going in circles? Lingo in slingshot. Argot in escargot.) Spirit and letter aren’t at odds in poetry.
MH In your notes on translating Cyclops, you mention that “poetese” is the language of poets, which is not restricted to a particular language. Could you describe the characteristics of poetese?
HM Hmmm. (You know, MH, in a printed Q & A trail, our mirroring initials will boggle our trackers.) I couldn’t sum up English, much less poetese (though its language labs must have plenty of polyphemy exercises). I do know poetese is at work in the whale’s tail, which takes the wake’s shape for its own moves and re-moves; it’s in the kinship between dried-up creekbed and a croc-back; between brain and cauliflower; between fashioned filigree and rotted leaf. Tree with its coat covered; tree with its cover cut . . .
When I cast my eyes across any natural field, any work of art, I’m not looking for meanings, I’m focusing on fields. Patter is empty, but for pattern. Rhetoric is palpable or sensible; you catch it by casting an eye or ear across it, even when your meaning-maker’s quite disabled. I live with a perfectly good working meaning-maker. When my husband (a literary translator most of his life) worked with me on Celan, he was the German scholar—I was the one who kept saying I bet there’s some parallel structure here in the grammar. I kept seeing echo-patterns in the print—and in the semantic sequences as well, as they unfolded. (Sometimes he said yes, by god, there is. And sometimes no, by god, that’s your own eye you’re seeing.)
A student of Moses Hadas told me his lectures on literature were studded with tri-linguistic twists—“This character may be sinister, but he’s never gauche. What’s left to say?” Celan’s like that. His was a global intelligence, hinting at uncontainable things in several languages at once. I’ve studied French and Spanish and a little Latin, Italian, Portuguese at one time; my husband knows Russian and German and Bulgarian and French and more. Together we add up to half of one Celan (weird world currency).
MH I’m intrigued by something you mention in a footnote in your Cyclops translation, “the early 17th-century grammar play, the Heteroclitanomalonomia, based on Andrea Guarna’s Bellum Grammaticale, in which parts of speech are personified and engage in warfare.” This sounds too good to be true! Have you found other such treasures on your walks amongst words?
HM There’s a medieval tradition of monks playing verbal games like this. I think of it as fundamental to religious ceremony—god pours himself into a word or a man, arranging to be human for a while. The grammar plays have the added virtue of being funny.
This particular one was staged, they say, in 1583—before Elizabeth, no less—and had characters like Queen Oratio and Absurdo, a peddler. With the help of William Lily (the grammarian), the queen tries to persuade the noun and verb to make peace. Absurdo tries to sell Ignorance some verb tenses. The verbs serve under a character named Volo, who says, “We’ll have no laws.” You get the gist.
You see such playfulness in a later European poet like Christian Morganstern. (Similarly, contemporary Mexican-American Day of the Dead celebrations owe their origins to fifteenth-century European antecedents—all those upright skeletons, dancing merrily around their coffins, decked out in cheery intestinal scarves and gaping grins.) So much contemporary American poetry is deadly serious, reeking of the NPR virtues: back-to-the-earth soup eaten fresh from the woodstove, all its spices listed, then some admirable thoughts to put to paper when we get home. Hey, Romanticism isn’t dead—it’s simply being turned to public pap. Against that tedium, a little unholiness comes as a big relief—the skeptic skeleton, the romping rump. You know that little mallet the neurologist has, with its hardened rubber and three-sided head? Well, logophiles have mallets too, grommets, grammar hammers . . . .
MH How do you start writing a poem?
HM I start with an uneasiness. Somewhere a pattern’s undersung.
MH What are you working on right now?
HM Too many jobs—i.e., too little of my reading and writing is free. Dear god, give me a patron. There’s a book of essays I’ve been dying to do for 15 years. I haul all over the countryside, to places where I teach, the boxes of notes and lecture-versions I intend to whip into shape—but shape takes time, and I don’t have enough cat-o-nine-tails yet. And now my health’s increasingly under siege. Remains to be seen if I beat decrepitude to the punch. (May it be spiked.)
MH When I first met you, in Iowa City, you were very intrigued by anagrams. Have you got any new favorites?
HM I saw recently, in some little literary magazine, what purported to be a coherent anagram of the entirety of Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Now I don’t know if it was a scrupulous production, letter-for-letter, nor how one would check so long an anagram for accuracy; but if it’s exquisitely iced, that would be a virtuoso candidate for cake-taker, in my book. (Precision counts incalculably, in cake-taking. Precision, and a rubber pocket.)
English is particularly rich in anagrammatical opportunities. “Postmodern” is “modest porn.” “Irish poetry” is “ripe history.” “English poetry” is “nightly repose.” Having run a lot of poet and philosopher names through the anagram generator (Heather McHugh is “thug charm, he-he”), I finally got around last year to thinking I’d run God’s name through there as well—God’s name, you know, in English: “I AM THAT I AM.” Well! Imagine my delight when the Online Anagram Generator (contemporary oracle) gave me back the earthshaking truth. I’m going to reveal it to you now: God’s secret name is TAHITI MAMA. Run that up your flagpole.
MH After spending some wonderful weeks with your words and ideas, I’d like to be able to look through your eyes and hear through your ears for a day. Would you be willing to take notes on the things you notice for one day?
HM The notes on my noticings would bore you to distraction. I’m assailed by the world’s lesser arrays of detail: its edge-ignoring arrangements, center-infatuated arrangements, utterly disorderly arrangements, ordered but inefficient arrangements, etc.
What to do in the face of all this? I rearrange things. I note, I nitpick and I needle. I flail. I fill with phlegm. I hack. I hock my pickpocketed supplies. I hurry home with wherewithal, and there I hew. I hem. I haw anew. Your word-worker is just an addict. Better to watch your language.
MH Interviews are all about words, of course, but I’d be interested to know how you feel about silence—in the world and in your work.
HM I’ve always wanted to do one of those monastic retreats where nobody talks at all for a month. I’m a recluse by nature. In person among persons, I burn too fast: for excess of misanthropy or terror I find myself overcompensating. Seems I’m full of unseemly desires to please, self-defeating flurries of words. (Frost said talk was a hydrant in the yard, and poems were a faucet in an upstairs room. Opening the first takes the pressure off the second.)
I fear God will curse me with a long life so I’m down in the dooryard way too much. If I could afford to stop teaching, I’d gladly shut up. Writing is my way of being quiet—being quiet and looking around, here on earth, where things in fact (as not in our cheapened attentions) are extraordinarily strange. I take to heart the little caveat in Chekhov’s journal: “She had too little skin to cover her face. In order to open her eyes she had to shut her mouth, and vice versa.”
I write to keep my eyes open.
—Matthea Harvey is the author of two books of poetry: Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form and Sad Little Breathing Machine. She is the poetry editor of American Letters & Commentary and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.