Interview with Mikko Harvey
by Zach Harrod
Congrats on your forthcoming book, Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (House of Anansi Press, 2018). How was putting the book together? Was it strange moving the focus from composing individual poems to looking at them as a manuscript?
Thanks, Zach, for your kind words and for asking these questions! How was putting the book together? is something I wish I could go around asking every poet about their first book. If you wish this too, you might like Kate Greenstreet’s First Book Interviews.
Maybe a good way to answer the question would be to offer you facts. I wrote the poems in Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit between 2012 and 2017. Most were written in Columbus, Ohio. Several started out as messages spoken into a voice recorder. I spent a lot of time walking down sidewalks pretending to be on the phone but actually muttering lines to myself. One poem was written on an airplane. Several of the poems act like short stories, or fables, and they would begin with a premise: if a bomb and a raindrop could talk to each other as they fell, what would they say? If anxious children were taught to strangle rabbits to treat their anxiety, what would that world look like? This rabbit question turned into the title poem. I’m not sure where the question came from—probably simply from my own anxiety, love of animals, fear of hurting what I love, etc. My subconscious is always rearranging these primal forces and offering them back to me in the form of weird little narrative conceits. Thank you, subconscious. At least two poems were written while playing basketball.
Indeed, it was strange to shift the focus from individual pieces to a whole manuscript. I think the process makes you confront your obsessions. It’s like, oh really, you’re going to have four poems in a row in which the word “tongue” appears? My personal approach was to mix things up as much as possible—put a bleak poem next to a playful one, put a surreal poem next to an awkwardly real one—in hopes of keeping expectations from calcifying, in hopes of cultivating a certain blur. I kept reordering and reordering and swapping poems in and out until eventually, finally, the collection felt like it was itself. Definitely not perfect, never ever ever that, but able to spin on its own.
At which point you are encouraged to put down the toy you have been fiendishly clutching for all these years, and perhaps find a new one.
One of the qualities I admire so much about your poems is how they will introduce a seemingly familiar situation or term which will then be used in a way that is totally unfamiliar to the reader. You have a bird calling association that turns sublimely murderous, a kid who dislikes cats who then pulls a dead one from his backpack, and so on. In your poem that we published, “There Go Gordon’s Goats,” we are maybe expecting from the title that we’ll be taking a look at British labor party politics, but instead it seems there are literal goats, and a missing son. What drives you to make these sort of strange, but pleasurable, misdirections?
I think all poets, in different ways, are seeking surprise. There are infinite ways to get there. My way, well, yeah—it’s telling that you use the words “strange” and “murderous.” I don’t set out to write dark poems and I don’t consider myself a morbid person. But a certain level of danger does seem to be a feature of the climate where my imagination is able to live. Because of this, it always feels like a miracle when somebody says they like my poems—I tend to assume that I’ll be too weird or jarring. It turns out, though, that pretty much everyone feels like they are too weird. And poetry has this great ability to bridge people’s weirdnesses. You don’t have to pretend to be somebody you’re not. In fact that’s quite discouraged here, whereas it is often (intentionally or not) encouraged in daily life. And if you don’t enjoy reading a particular poet, okay, no hard feelings, you don’t have to walk across that particular bridge. But if you do enjoy it, whoa, what a miracle that we have this form of connecting to each other! And what a miracle for introverts especially. Maybe that’s a reason I keep pushing for more and more defamiliarization in my poems—because if you follow me through all of it, then tell me you like it, you are affirming an inner part of myself, an anxious part that is confessing how estranged it feels. If you like my poems there is a good chance I would like being your friend. And if I like your poems I probably already secretly consider you my friend.
In your review of James Tate’s Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, you write: “Tate will be remembered as a surrealist, but I think of him as a refresher of the real—by spending time inside of his odd worlds, we can then look up and see the oddness of our own.” I know he’s been important for your own work—do you feel that your work takes up a similar project? Refreshing the real through the surreal?
For sure, I hope so! But at the same time it’s a dynamic I try not to project too much intention onto, because the spell is easily broken. If I say “this apple tree is actually a metaphor for the internet!” then the poem tends to come out lifeless. So when I’m writing a poem that takes places in a surreal world, I try to fill out that world as much as possible, and try not to think of it as a metaphor for anything but instead as an entity possessed with the dignity of meaninglessness, or self-evident value, like an actual tree or a person or cat lying in a square of sunlight—just its own thing that hopefully feels good to encounter.
But I’m being a bit romantic in saying that. At the end of the day, yes, I think “refreshing the real” is what it’s all about. And that does take some intention. Surrealism can be a mirror for the psychological, the social, the political. Many of my favorite poems (and pieces of art in general) have a surreal quality to them, but then when I look up from the page I realize that the poem isn’t any stranger than reality is. I love the click of remembering that. The thing about “surrealism” is you can never top what’s right in front of you. You can see it every day on the news. You can look closely at a picture of a turtle. You can think about the fact that somebody gave birth to you. This is all pretty wild stuff, I think. Any poem that opens me up to that wildness—as opposed to reaffirming the usual hierarchies of attention that leave me feeling closed off, disengaged, selfish—is doing me a favor, and is a poem I want to remember.
About James Tate specifically, there’s a lot to talk about, but I’ll just say... I think when we are new to writing, just starting out, and we don’t have any clue what we’re doing yet, certain models come along and show us a path through the woods. I don’t think we get to choose who those models are. I think of it as vibrational almost, like finding someone who exists on the same frequency as you. For me it was Tate. And I get the sense he played that role for a number of other writers, too. When I went to the tribute event for him in NYC in 2016, the auditorium was filled, standing room only, with people crying and laughing. I could feel how many realities he’d refreshed. That was moving, in and of itself, but also for the accompanying realization that such bizarre work could also be so generous.
You’ve spent time editing at The Journal and now, correct me if I’m wrong, at The Fairy Tale Review. How is it juggling between editorial duties and your writing time? Do you feel that editing journals has helped you develop your own poetical voice?
Poetry editing doesn’t always inspire me to write—in fact it often does the opposite, tiring out the poetry side of my brain—but there’s no doubt it feeds my future poems. For one thing I think it helps reveal your own aesthetic impulses to yourself. When you read fifty poems in a row and don’t fall in love with any of them, then suddenly one comes out of nowhere and sweeps you off your feet—that poem has something to teach you about what it is you love about poetry, and is a hint you can bring back to your own writing. Satoshi Iwai, Taisia Kitaiskaia, Christopher Citro, José Hernández Díaz, Caylin Capra-Thomas, MRB Chelko, Sophie Klahr, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Ashley Keyser, Sumita Chakraborty, Gabrielle Bates, Kaveh Akbar, Brittany Perham, Clay Cantrell, Elizabeth T. Chao, Kendra DeColo, Christopher Brean Murray—these are just some of the poets I’d never heard of until I came across their work on Submittable, but whose poems are now lodged in my memory. It will be wild to look at this list in ten years (or five years, or already) and see where these people have landed, and what all they’ve accomplished. Yet there they were, in the queue, with their talent and humanity and quirky cover letters. It’s humbling to get to say yes to poets like this, as they proceed on their path towards receiving far larger yeses than I could possibly offer them.
Who are you reading these days?
I’ve been carrying around Dean Young’s most recent book, Shock by Shock, with me everywhere. I recently moved to NYC so I’ve been reading NYC things, currently Teju Cole’s Open City. I’ve been dipping in and out of Darcie Dennigan’s Palace of Subatomic Bliss, which is an awesome and fascinating book of hybrid poems. Whenever a new “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin” by Terrance Hayes appears I read it. Haruki Murakami helps me fall asleep at night and dream a lot.
MIKKO HARVEY is the author of Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (House of Anansi, 2018). He currently lives in New York City, where he is the Joseph F. McCrindle Foundation Online Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine, and also serves as an associate poetry editor for Fairy Tale Review.
ZACH HARROD is Poetry Editor of The Arkansas International and MFA candidate in the Program in Creative Writing & Translation at the University of Arkansas.