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Samantha Zighelboim

Samantha Zighelboim: How did you become interested in the process of erasure?

Matthea Harvey: I first read about erasures in Heather McHugh’s wonderful book, Broken English. There’s an image from Tom Phillips’s A Humument  (which I adore) on the cover and her essay, “Broken, As in English” discusses, in her characteristically brilliant way (“All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages at every turn”) Phillips’ work as well as the fragments of Archilochus (“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”), Heraclitus and Parmenides.

It’s interesting to think about what the eraser’s attitude towards their text is. Jen Bervin’s beautiful Nets is a respectful erasure—she allows her erased poems to talk to the original Shakespeare sonnets because the poems are printed in grey and her selections are in boldface (or shyface). Someone like Srikanth Reddy, in Voyages (an erasure of Kurt Waldheim’s memoirs) understandably has a different attitude towards the text, as does the artist Ariana Boussard-Reifel. She had a piece in the Museum of Arts and Design show, “Slashed, Under the Knife”—a book in which each word has been individually excised (it’s presented with those words in a pile next to it). Only when you read the wall text do you discover that the book was a white supremacist bible. I also love Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes and Mary Ruefle’s A Little White Shadow. As James Tate once said, “Poetry is everywhere. It just needs editing.”

Before you fortuitously found David Cecil’s book that fateful day, were you interested in Charles Lamb’s works? It’s interesting that he wrote that wonderful volume of Shakespeare (Stories from Shakespeare) interpretations for children, almost nursery rhyme-esque in essence.

To be honest, he hadn’t made a big impression on me, but once I’d erased his biography, I was hooked. Along with the Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary did write a book of poems for children, but none about Mary and her little lamb, since the poem that inspired that nursery rhyme was written in 1830, many years after they published their book). His essays (The Essays of Elia)are marvelous. I love Anne Fadiman’s essay “The Unfuzzy Lamb,” Sarah Burton’s A Double Life: A Biography of Charles and Mary Lamb and Charles and Mary’s letters. It was funny to find tidbits like this one, from a letter to Coleridge: “[Lamb here erases six lines] Is it not a pity so much fine writing should be erased?” Or this to another friend, Thomas Manning: “I have scratched out a great deal, as you will see. Generally what I have rejected was either false in feeling, or a violation of character—mostly of the first sort.” He was erasing himself quite frequently! Or this heartbreaking glimpse into the siblings’ lives in one of Mary’s letters: “You would laugh, or you would cry, perhaps both, to see us sit together looking at each other with long and rueful faces, & saying how do you do? & how do you do? & then we fall a crying and say we will be better on the morrow — he says we are like tooth ach & his friend gum bile, which though a kind of ease, is but an uneasy kind of ease, a comfort of rather an uncomfortable sort.”

Did you expect the poems or the narrative to take the darker twists and turns that they did?

Well, page one (in the original—we selected 100 pieces out of 108 and reordered them)was “Lamb lived in the background” and page two was “Lamb disliked the lark: that little orchestra. The world showed grey as something fallen from the mind,” so I think the somewhat gloomy sieve of my brain was at work from the beginning. It’s probably more of a surprise for the reader—especially given the bright colors of the paintings. That being said, I certainly didn’t expect them to fall in love and have sex!

How much did your own childhood experience (if any) with this particular nursery rhyme influenced the process?

Well, I’ve always been crazy about animals, so I do remember liking the story of Mary and the lamb that followed her to school, when I was little. Until the age of eight, I lived in Dorset, England, where there were plenty of sheep. Ultimately, my immense sympathies for the lamb in the book, probably owe more to my codependent relationship with my 17 year old cat, Wednesday.

Amy Jean Porter’s paintings add layers of complexity to the already palimpsestic process of erasure and composition. When did the idea to illustrate the poems come into play? What do you think that visual element added to the work?

At first, I was just erasing the book for fun. As a story emerged, the characters became very real to me. I had just done a children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake with Elizabeth Zechel, and I loved that process so much that I started wanting to do another book that blended text and image. I was already a fan of Amy Jean’s paintings—there’s no one who works with animals and text like her (right now she’s doing text messages on butterflies) and I liked the idea of handing over my text so that she could then transform (erase, expand, complicated) it with her images.

Do you think details (the love and madness and violence) of Charles Lamb’s life filtered into the poems?

Here’s another quote from Lamb—“You may extract honey from every thing; do not go a gathering after gall…” It’s good life advice, right? But I couldn’t extract only the honey—there’s so much sadness in their biography. Mary killed their mother in a fit of madness and Charles devoted his life to looking after her. When Mary smiled in a strange way, Charles would have to put a straitjacket on her, and the two of them would walk—weeping—back to the madhouse again. They lived with her madness every day (Charles himself spent a short while at a madhouse), so the word “madness” appeared relatively frequently in the biography, and worked its way into the text. I didn’t feel like I was guiding the poems(or that I was consciously blending the nursery rhyme with the siblings’ story) as I erased—more that I was excavating a story that was already there.


by Matthea Harvey, illustrated by Amy Jean Porter

Of Lamb is the rare, special kind of book that is so beautiful one can’t help but keep it wrapped in tissue paper when they’re carrying around, as they might a shiny stone kept for luck. A collaboration between painter Amy Jean Porter and poet Matthea Harvey (Modern Life, Sad Little Breathing Machine), the book is an art object.  Porter’s one hundred paintings become integral to Harvey’s sad, strange love story; they complete it, shading it with whimsy, irony and surrealism.

It’s interesting to read Of Lamb beginning with the endnotes, where Harvey discusses the unique process of the book’s conception. Inspired by other erasures or appropriations of texts like Jen Bervin’s Nets, Harvey challenged herself to pick up the first book she could find and “erase” it. That book was David Cecil’s A Portrait of Charles Lamb, the story of well-regarded Victorian writer Charles Lamb and his sister, Mary, who in 1796, after an acute episode of depression and mania, stabbed their mother in the heart with a kitchen knife, killing her. The courts declared a verdict of lunacy, and, had it not been for Charles—who offered to become his sister’s legal caretaker—Mary would have resided in an asylum for the rest of her life. Details of this devastating tale of madness, filial devotion, grief and tragedy become the presiding specters of Of Lamb, seeping into the narrative and haunting it with melancholic shadows.

Harvey has excavated a surreal, often somber, incredibly weird and passionate retelling of the nursery rhyme most of us are familiar with.  “Mary had a Little Lamb” ends with the lines: “’Why does the lamb love Mary so?’/the eager children cry./’Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know.’/the teacher did reply.” That sentiment of unconditional love found in the rhyme is what is explored most fundamentally in Of Lamb. When does love become conditional? Is it appropriate to love another so different from ourselves? Does it even matter if it’s appropriate? When does love trump all differences, and when are those differences the destruction of love, and of ourselves?

In Harvey’s version, Lamb and Mary fall in love. They even have sex (“They pin’d and hungr’d/after bodily joy”); consider having children (“What did Mary think/of children? Lamb/a father of a dark-haired little girl-lamb?”); and grow old together (“In old age,/Lamb did think/he should be/happier.”). Lamb, longing to be human, is forced to reconcile with the most real and harshest of human attributes, and is never quite allowed to forget who or what he is. A particularly dark moment occurs when Lamb sees Mary eating mutton (earlier, we hear Mary call Lamb “delicious”). The following page has an illustration of Lamb standing on a table and biting his hind legs, hovering over the lines “Actually, Lamb/liked meat.” For Lamb—full of ambitions, dreams, and an undying love for his companion—the desire to love and be loved as a human being is, ultimately, his demise.

For an erasure to succeed, something entirely original must be resurfaced from its source text. This happens on three levels in Of Lamb: first, Harvey’s poem-story, a boggling of the imagination in its own right, emerging from a strictly non-fiction text; secondly, Porter’s paintings, which further resurface meaning from and add trope to Harvey’s text.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this palimpsestic process of removing in order to create—itself the ribcage containing the heart of Of Lamb—mirrors the growth (and destruction) of its characters. Lamb and Mary chip away at themselves by questioning relentlessly just what it means to be human, what it means to give oneself to another—and eventually reveal “the pathetic little pair” that they are.  What Harvey and Porter have made for us is a story that resonates and echoes long after the pages have been turned.  It remains as a constant reminder of the inevitability of human nature and, ultimately, love.

Comrades in Verse, a few notes for your fine ears on this lovely Day of Matriarchs:

1) To those culminating their MFA coursework and Theses, CONGRATULATIONS!  The journey begins now!  Our eyes and ears await you eagerly.

2) May is behaving kindly.  This is *obviously* karmatic, so everyone be nice, and write nice poems, and pet puppies on the street, and drink lots of mint julepy things.

3) Happenings in New York City this coming week to keep us all merry, together, and listening:

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Monday, 5/10:

My dear friend, long-time workshop mate and rockstar BRANDON KREITLER, winner of the “Discovery”/Boston Review Prize, is being presented with said honor and reading from his poems at the 92Y.

http://www.92y.org/shop/event_detail.asp?productid=T%2DTP5MS23

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Tuesday 5/11:

Our own Adam Fitzerald & Bianca Stone’s LADDER POETRY SERIES with a killer line-up of Ashbery, Zapruder and Landau:

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=113026245402591&ref=mf

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Wednesday 5/12:

Columbia: A Journal Issue 48 Launch Reading

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=120168671334296

Featuring Zachary Pace!

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Thursday 5/13:

PROJECTION Reading Series curated by Zachary Pace with an bad ass all-star headline including Tim Donnelly, Jimin Seo, Natalie Eilbert and Matthea Harvey

http://www.cprnyc.org/publicevents/projection8.html

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Friday 5/14:

EARSHOT Reading Series featuring Matt Rohrer, Karyna McGlynn, Danniel Schoonebeek, Julia Elizabeth Guez, Max Ross

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=104003139645191

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Saturday 5/15:

Metro Rhythm! Series Featuring Anwyn Crawford, Ben Pease, Bianca Stone, Ben Mirov and Monica Ferrell

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=121777664501517

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See you out in the world, lovelies!

Song of a Man Who Has Come Through

Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the
world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the
Hesperides.

Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

-D.H. Lawrence

When they say, “Spring is in the air,” they aren’t kidding.  New York City is fully abloom–and it is most certainly in the air.

Yes, the tulips and daffodils are afoot in the city! Perfectly coiffed Park Avenue flower arrangements trumpet out enormous lilies at pedestrians. Petunias and pansies galore! Primped poodles in their fluffed white glory don’t give damn about signs directing them away from the flower plots, it’s all the same to them—they’re just happy to be out of winter coats. Bees of all kinds are quite busy. Poets are everywhere with little black notebooks, scribbling furiously at the crocuses sprouting up around trees in the parks.

But most New Yorkers (poets included, we just persevere and suffer later) are walking around in a Claritin daze, and it’s worse than ever.  Itchy eyes, sneezing, throats ablaze. Doctors are saying this year’s pollen boom is the most prolific one in years.

Lately, reading poems about spring, and flowers, I’ve concocted a new fantasy “condition,” or maybe it’s a genre (same thing?): The Pollen-Poem.  What does this marvelous thing entail? First and foremost, the Pollen-Poem is occasional: it is written only in spring and concerns only spring, in depth.  And I mean obsessively in-depth, full-on obsession, rapture (if you will). Dysfunctional relationships with flowers, things of that nature. Then, think of the effects of a severe pollen allergy. Heightened sensitivity! Irritation of specific registers of the body (being)! Moodiness! Sometimes, a good Pollen-Poem will make your eyes itch. Couple all this with a poet’s faculties and the Pollen-Poem is born.  I exemplify here for you some of the most perfect Pollen-Poems written to date (At least the ones that appeal to me–and not just in my fleeting, second-dose-of-the-day, non-drowsy, appetite-suppressed opinion).

Little Lion Face
by May Swenson
Little lion face
I stopped to pick
among the mass of thick
succulent blooms, the twice

streaked flanges of your silk
sunwheel relaxed in wide
dilation, I brought inside,
placed in a vase.  Milk

of your shaggy stem
sticky on my fingers, and
your barbs hooked to my hand,
sudden stings from them 

were sweet.  Now I'm bold
to touch your swollen neck,
put careful lips to slick
petals, snuff up gold

pollen in your navel cup.
Still fresh before night
I leave you, dawn's appetite
to renew our glide and suck.

An hour ahead of sun
I come to find you.  You're
twisted shut as a burr,
neck drooped unconscious,

an inert, limp bundle,
a furled cocoon, your
sun-streaked aureole
eclipsed and dun.

Strange feral flower asleep
with flame-ruff wilted,
all magic halted,
a drink I pour, steep

in the glass for your
undulant stem to suck.
Oh, lift your young neck,
open and expand to your

lover, hot light.
Gold corona, widen to sky.
I hold you lion in my eye
sunup until night.
(211)
by Emily Dickinson
Come slowly—Eden
Lips unused to Thee—
Bashful—sip thy Jessamines
As the fainting Bee—

Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums—
Counts his nectars—
Enters—and is lost in Balms.
Nothing Stays Put
by Amy Clampitt
In memory of Father Flye, 1884-1985

The strange and wonderful are too much with us.
The protea of the antipodes--a great,
globed, blazing honeybee of a bloom--
for sale in the supermarket! We are in
our decadence, we are not entitled.
What have we done to deserve
all the produce of the tropics--
this fiery trove, the largesse of it
heaped up like cannonballs, these pineapples, bossed
and crested, standing like troops at attention,
these tiers, these balconies of green, festoons
grown sumptuous with stoop labor?

The exotic is everywhere, it comes to us
before there is a yen or a need for it. The green-
grocers, uptown and down, are from South Korea.
Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly
fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are
disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias
fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli
likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson;
as well as, less altered from the original blue cornflower
of the roadsides and railway embankments of Europe, these
bachelor's buttons. But it isn't the railway embankments
their featherweight wheels of cobalt remind me of, it's

a row of them among prim colonnades of cosmos,
snapdragon, nasturtium, bloodsilk red poppies,
in my grandmother's garden: a prairie childhood,
the grassland shorn, overlaid with a grid,
unsealed, furrowed, harrowed and sown with immigrant grasses,
their massive corduroy, their wavering feltings embroidered
here and there by the scarlet shoulder patch of cannas
on a courthouse lawn, by a love knot, a cross stitch
of living matter, sown and tended by women,
nurturers everywhere of the strange and wonderful,
beneath whose hands what had been alien begins,
as it alters, to grow as though it were indigenous.

But at this remove what I think of as
strange and wonderful, strolling the side streets of Manhattan
on an April afternoon, seeing hybrid pear trees in blossom,
a tossing, vertiginous colonnade of foam, up above--
is the white petalfall, the warm snowdrift
of the indigenous wild plum of my childhood.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we're
made of, is motion.


(Achoo.)

(Achoo.)

(Achoo.)

A Green Crab’s Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like–

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
–size of a demitasse–
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this–
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
similarly,
revealed some sky.

-Mark Doty

I’m currently in a class concerning Animal Studies in the Comparative Literature Department in which the word “anthropomorphism” is a swear word.  The argument is that anthropomorphism is anthropocentric, and thereby undermines the possibilities of the animal’s consciousness by placing the human in a superior (and dominating) role.  It should be noted that while I think this all well-argued and slightly interesting, when it comes to poetry—it’s a large load of nonsense.  We’d have to knock out some pretty significant poems in our extended canon were we to castigate anthropomorphism the way they are proposing. At least for me, and for a long trailing history of ancestor poets behind me, anthropomorphism is the stuff I (we) live for.  And if it’s a profane thing, then @#*& you, Comp Lit people. (It should also be noted I am the only poet in that class, and I am looked at at least twice during every session as if I were a really cool but leggy and crawly beetle that you’re grossed out by but can’t look away from.)

But you haven’t failed me completely, pedants.  You’ve brought into the sphere of my vocabulary a new term that I am finding far more interesting and applicable than the “horrors” of anthropomorphism: ZOOMORPHISM.  Of course it exists the other way around!  Why shouldn’t we, egotistical, dominating humans that we are, take animal traits and ZOOMORPHIZE ourselves to further some exploration of consciousness, personality, experience, etc.?  Now this—this is good.  And now that you bring it to my attention, my esteemed scholars across the way, it’s obvious that it’s zoomorphism that is the most interesting, and the poetry that has been most profoundly affecting for me is that which ventures to gain perspective by putting on another set of eyes entirely not human, kicks up the dirt with its daring hooves, flares its nostrils and doesn’t give a damn about drooling or snorting.

And then comes Mark Doty, with this genius little (enormous!) poem, which anthropomorphizes a crab shell to aid in the zoomorphism of the reader.  I mean really, the man has DONE IT.  My temptation to pass out this poem to my peers in Pedant Class as a semi-guerilla act of poetry warfare is barely tameable.  But I’ll refrain from my nerdling rebellious impulses and just be tickled by the possibilities of what once could have been in this grand ruin of a crustacean edifice that Doty has given me.  Beyond that imagining—beyond “what color is the underside of skin?”—just those remains, just that royal palace of a shell, with “such lavish lining!” is so enchanting, so incredibly enticing that I can’t help but want to go beach combing this instant and stare into a crab shell as I never have before (Wanting a reflection?  Wanting my own to make a home out of?).  This is the kind of poem that changes how you proceed in the world after you read it.  A crab shell is NEVER just a crab shell after this, nor should it ever, ever, ever be.  If you catch my (sea) drift.

If ever I was called a hermit crab by overly-social friends pressing me to leave my precious lair (and oh, it has happened!), I wish I’d rebutted with this poem. Who would ever want to leave their shell if it were anything like that shell? (Though Doty’s crab isn’t a hermit crab, probably just a common littoral crab. Still.)  Magical creature that he’s shown us!  Imagine it in life, scuttling around, clickety-clacking on shore pebbles, a little magician with electric green wands!  Sigh.  Call me crabby, call me (a) hermitic (crab), certainly call me crazy—but thank you, my dear Mark Doty: I forever welcome it all.