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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Mathea Harvey

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series / New York City 2012

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

I’m very aware that my mood colors what I perceive as the mood of the city. It’s constantly shifting. On a good day, I see people singing in their cars, a beautiful old lady with braided white hair taking two identical dachshunds for a walk, and I sniff the bacon-and-egg-scented air coming from the deli wafting down into the subway with delight. Those are days when New York seems to thrum with possibility and wonder. On a bad day, people on the subway look angry and tired and everything smells of feet. I gave that realization to Roboboy (a half-robot half-human character in my second to last book of poems—Modern Life). He’s trying to understand the word “subjectivity” and his friend explains: “You know how if you’re in a bad mood a wet dog looks one way and if you’re in a good mood it looks another? It’s like wearing tinted gasses, only on the inside.” It’s really all about where your eyes fall.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Standing on the street and seeing the first of the twin towers collapse.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I wish I could answer this with photographs! There are tiny dramas and accidental and intentional artwork everywhere—robot graffiti, a tiny decapitated Barbie in the gutter, two marble statues posing on the street, waiting to be loaded into a moving van, a black garbage bag with six little legs poking out of it, running along the street in a thunderstorm.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

There are too many to list, so here’s a small and completely not inclusive list of living ones . . . Cathy Park Hong, Brenda Shaughnessy, Jen Bervin, John Ashbery, Lisa Jarnot (poetry). Heidi Julavits, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Lethem, Siri Hustvedt (fiction). Jamie Tanner, Gabrielle Bell (graphic novels/comics). Sophie Blackall, Barbara Ensor, Peter Sís (children’s books).

Is there a place here you return to often?

I’m very much a creature of habit, so there are lots of places I visit over and over again. I love NY Cake & Baking Distributor on 22nd St. (they have excellent figurines for the tops of cakes, or, if you’re me, for photographing), 826 NYC’s Superhero store (where I recently purchased my nephew a red cape), St Mark’s Bookstore, McNally Jackson and Spoonbill Sugartown . . . My favorite museum is the Museum of Arts and Design—they put on wonderful shows that showcase a range of artists working with a particular material. So far, my favorites have been the ones that focused on books (“Slash: Paper under the Knife”), dust (“Swept Away”), and material from animals (“Dead or Alive”).

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

You won’t get any “shoulds” from me. I’ve visited a few writers’ houses (recently I went to Edward Gorey’s house in Cape Cod, but I don’t think I like literary tourism that much). I was most excited to meet descendents of Hemingway’s cats and the current giant white cat living in Gorey’s house, named Ombledroom. But if you mean a literary place that I love, I’d have to say Pete’s Candystore in Williamsburg. They have a great reading series and the room you read in is like an old train dining car.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Recently I’ve been working on a soundwalk, Telettrofono, with sound-artist Justin Bennett (for the Guggenheim architecture program). As a result, I’ve been exploring Staten Island. Walking around, planning our piece, we came across the Atlantic Salt Factory, which is quite near where the ferry lands. All the salt for the city is stored here, and since we had a mild winter, there are these gigantic mountains of salt covered with blue and red tarps. It is one of the most beautiful and surreal landscapes I’ve ever come across. Telettrofono is about Antonio Meucci, an Italian-born immigrant to Staten Island who was one of the first and mostly unacknowledged inventor of the telephone (or telettrofono) and his wife, Esterre Meucci (who I decided was a mermaid). In researching their lives, I found out that Garibaldi lived with them in Staten Island and that he got in trouble for going hunting in Manhattan. Doing the historical research gave me a new perspective on what Staten Island and Manhattan were like in the nineteenth century, which is certainly a past that is mostly hidden from view.

Where does passion live here?

For me, it lives in the arts. I went to the mermaid parade in Coney Island and there was certainly a lot of passion there!

What is the title of one of your poems about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

I wrote “Waitressing in the Room of a Thousand Moons” (which is in Modern Life) after going to Matsuri, a Japanese restaurant located in the basement of the Maritime Hotel. It’s a beautiful space, crammed with lanterns, and the idea of a restaurant with many moons circling around jumped into my head.

Inspired by Levi,“ Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

Of course! Despite being a certified homebody (I painted my front door “gold nugget” yellow to remind myself that there are nuggets out in the world), I love traveling. The experience of being bewildered by a different language, metro system, or a food is essential for me (since I like writing about confused creatures like centaurs or aliens).

Matthea Harvey is the author of Sad Little Breathing Machine (Graywolf, 2004) and Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form (Alice James Books, 2000). Her third book of poems, Modern Life (Graywolf, 2007) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book. Her first children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel, was published by Tin House Books in 2009; and an illustrated erasure, titled Of Lamb, with images by Amy Jean Porter, published by McSweeney's in 2010. Matthea is a contributing editor to jubilat, Meatpaper, and BOMB. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.

Published Dec 18, 2012   Copyright 2012 Nathalie Handal

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