Ellen Harvey was born in the U.K. and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin as a teenager. A Whitney for the Whitney at Philip Morris/Altria or I Can Be An American Visionary Too! (2003) combines selected works from the Whitney Museum’s contemporary collection with scaled replicas of the works from the 2001 collection catalog American Visionaries. The images in Harvey’s artist-as-curator endeavor are hand-copied and rebuff traditional art historical practice (they are arranged alphabetically by artist).
The following is Ellen Harvey’s preamble to her conversation with her sister, the poet Matthea Harvey.
Listening to other artists in this exhibition talk about their experiences, I was struck by the wide variety of responses to the one thing we have in common: emigrating prior to adulthood, but after childhood. While there were similarities of course, there were also a lot of ways of using and experiencing what is, after all, a very personal and particular situation. Even in my own family our responses to the change were far from uniform. We moved as a result of my father’s work from Marnhull, a rural Dorset village in England of about a thousand people, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1981. I was fourteen and my younger sisters Celia and Matthea were twelve and eight respectively,
This interview between my sister and myself is an attempt to explore some of the similarities and differences between our emigration experiences and how that experience has influenced our creative work. Some useful background information is that our mother is German and did her best to make sure that we grew up bilingual in English and German and that prior to moving to Marnhull in 1975, our family had moved around between England, Germany and Switzerland following my father’s work, never staying more than two years in any one place. So Marnhull was the first place that we had lived for a significant (seven years) period of time. After we moved to Milwaukee, my mother and my sisters spent the three vacation months of each year back in Marnhull. As the eldest, I spent most of that time traveling elsewhere, but they really tried to live in both places sequentially for several years. Now our entire nuclear family lives in the U.S. while all our relatives remain in the U.K. and Germany.
Matthea Harvey is the author of two books of poems: 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, is forthcoming from Graywolf later in 2007. Her first children’s book, The Little General and the Giant Snowflake, illustrated by Elizabeth Zechel, is forthcoming from Soft Skull. Matthea is a contributing editor to jubilat. She teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence and lives in Brooklyn.
This conversation between Ellen Harvey and her sister Matthea was conducted over May 25 – June 7, 2007.
Matthea: Do you have a good and/or reliable memory?
Ellen: I have a very erratic memory. Some moments from my past feel almost distressingly vivid while large stretches are strangely vague. In general I dislike thinking about the past because the things and people it contains seem so inaccessible. To think about the past is to think about loss – either the physical loss of the person or the place or the loss even of the memory itself. One of the great pleasures of becoming an adult is that you start to have some albeit imperfect control over what you get to keep in your life, although my memory sadly appears to be the exception to that rule. I find it very hard to remember people in particular. Maybe it’s because my childhood taught me that most people are only transient features in our lives – or maybe it’s just laziness. . .
What about you – do you see your past as a coherent narrative?
M: No, definitely not, which is sad because I adore reading long sweeping stories like Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. Sometimes I buy novels solely based on girth. I wonder – if I had a photographic (or at least more comprehensive) memory, would I be more likely to write fiction or non-fiction instead of poetry? I was relieved when I read an article that said that every time you access a memory your brain modifies it in some way. That feels true to me, because my memories are often distant or blurred (or entirely imaginary), as if I’m trying to see some original image through a number of different scrims.
In my poetry, I have a complicated relation to narrative. I love the arcs and through-lines of narrative, but I distrust that as a way of representing my own life. I think that short broken lyrics are the closest I come to conveying what it is like to be me, whereas my prose poems (which I think of as tiny stories on narrative steroids) tend to be more in the realm of the imaginary. My second book, Sad Little Breathing Machine, was very much invested in alternately battling then embracing narrative.
Moving divides your life in such a literal way. For me, there was suddenly an ocean between my past and me. I battled that for a while. When we moved to Milwaukee I learned how to finger knit, and I started a long army-green rope, which I hoped would span the ocean so my best friend (in England) and I (in Wisconsin) could communicate by tugging on either end. The logistics of how I was going to get this rope from here to there eventually made me give in.
In my memories of childhood, there is a dividing line at the age of eight. I still feel like my whole childhood in Marnhull may be a lie because so many of the memories I have can’t be real – i.e. chasing fairies in the hedges, or a Daddy-long-legs spider who waited outside school for me and would float alongside me on the way home. When I write children’s stories, they tend to be directed towards my eight-year-old self.
What are your first memories of Marnhull and of Milwaukee?
E: When we moved to Marnhull I had just turned eight, about the same age as you when we moved to Milwaukee. I remember being struck by the physical beauty of the place – the surrounding Dorset countryside and our house, a sandstone Edwardian, which was by far the largest we’d ever lived in. You have to remember that previously I’d lived in a variety of commuter suburbs – by comparison this seemed incredibly romantic to me, like something out of a book. I don’t remember missing where we’d been living in Kent previously, perhaps because we’d only been there for about a year. I’d been much more attached to our previous house near Frankfurt in Germany. I actually carved my name into the front door when we left, which I remember getting me in terrible trouble with our parents as the house was rented and they had to replace the door.
Since I never really managed to make any friends in the village during the three years I went to the village school, my attachment to Marnhull remained to the physical place itself rather than to the people there. I particularly loved the water meadows down by the mill, which is ironic as they were bulldozed away while we still lived there. I remember seeing the destruction and then vowing that I would never look at them again. For years I drove past them with my eyes shut tight remembering what had been. I think I was probably in my early twenties before I revisited them with my eyes open.
I did miss my friends at the all-girl convent school that I attended as a day pupil from age 11 onwards. Unlike the three years I had spent at the village school (where my lack of a Dorset accent, the intricacies of the English class system, and my general foreignness and lack of appropriate social skills meant that I inevitably ended up as the school pariah) the convent had a wider variety of students (most of whom boarded and had parents living overseas) and it was suddenly possible to transform oddity into eccentricity, for which I was deeply grateful at the time. This made me especially reluctant to move. My acceptance seemed like a fluke that I’d never be able to replicate and I dreaded yet another experience of social ostracism – with reason, as it turned out.
By comparison, my first memory of Milwaukee is of driving from the airport and being depressed by its ugliness and by the incredible heat. I found the flatness of the landscape oppressive and I disliked the architecture. The city was at once too big, compared to Marnhull, and too small, compared to London (the only other city with which I was familiar). Because I was so obsessed with history at that age, its relative newness also told against it for me. All of which is really quite unfair to Milwaukee. Lake Michigan is beautiful and the city has its own particular architectural charm as well as a great civic spirit that I really admire, but I never fell in love with it when I lived there. I feel very differently about it now, when I return to visit our parents: I have years of fond memories. But, at the time I remember painting some scenery green for a school play shortly after we moved and bursting into tears at the memory of how green Dorset had been. I suspect it was in the middle of the interminable Midwest winter when I hadn’t seen green for a long long time. The whole concept of seasons, so radically different from each other as to require entirely separate wardrobes, was a shock. The only thing I could compare it to was the description of Siberia in a book that I had read; I had been very surprised that Siberia could be hot as well as cold.
I also initially found the Midwestern social landscape difficult to navigate. After living in a village with a large variety of social classes, I found the homogeneity of the suburbs disconcerting. I also found it impossible to replicate the kind of saccharine affect that seemed to be expected from girls in particular. Suddenly almost all my friends were boys. After living in a culture that valued sarcasm, the incredible niceness and relentless positivism of the other students was very difficult to understand. On the one hand, people seemed so friendly and yet their friendliness didn’t seem to imply any actual emotional connection. It took me a long time to understand that their friendliness was perhaps more accurately understood as a form of politeness. At the time, my angst-ridden teenage self saw it as rank hypocrisy – all those meaningless compliments about sweaters. . . Again, something that I see very differently now.
Did you want to move? How did you feel about Marnhull and Milwaukee at the time? You also spent several years going to school in both places – what was it like living two lives?
M: I don't think I really understood what it would mean to move. My ideas about America were completely misguided – I remember my English classmates saying that I would have to choose to become a cowboy or an Indian and part of me believed that. When we left Marnhull I missed it not generally, but specifically. I missed the apple tree I liked to read books in. I missed Danny and Percy, our neighbor’s horses who lived in the field next door. I missed pussywillows and cow parsley and the ceiling in the living room, which I liked to pretend was the floor.
Initially I found Milwaukee very bewildering – I couldn’t understand people’s accents in the airport when we arrived. When we first visited our new house, it was nighttime and the floors had just been sanded. We took off our shoes and socks and tiptoed around. The next day we got a call at the hotel where we were staying saying that a gang of thieves had broken into the house – the carpenters had seen our footprints. That feels metaphorical to me: we were intruders in this new place. I pretended to be sick for the first week of school, and when I did finally go I got lost on the way home.
I always hated arriving anywhere – because the transition moment was awkward. I remember hesitating before making that first phone call to my friends when we first arrived back in England. When we went back to England for the summers, I would spend a month back in my old school (since their school year went later). Now that I look back on it, it seems like a strange thing to have done, but it was also pretty great: I could see all my friends and didn't have to do any homework. But, you can’t ever be a puzzle piece that fits in two puzzles – so as I started to fit in in America, I became exotic to my old friends in England. My English friends were always monitoring whether my accent was changing, examining my turquoise alarm-clock earrings and purple Esprit pants.
I think because I was younger when we moved, Milwaukee became home for me more quickly than for anyone else in the family. I already played the flute when we moved so in the U.S. I joined the school band and later a youth orchestra; I still think about what an amazing sense of belonging you can feel when playing a symphony with sixty other musicians. You’re literally inside the music together…
Do you remember a book we read as children about a girl called Charlotte who lived partly in modern-day England and partly in the eighteenth century? I just remembered how much l loved that book.
What did you think about my childhood in Milwaukee?
E: I remember feeling very worried about you. You have to remember that I was a horrible cultural snob at the time. I wanted you to grow up to be English. I also wanted you not to be so different from me. Remember how strictly I monitored your reading? All that Jane Austen! What a walking cliché I was. I suppose I was worried that I’d end up with a sister much like the girls at high school to whom I had such difficulty relating.
How was it for you, did you feel cut off from my past as well as your own?
M: I had your past in the form of you! You’ve always been a great storyteller. I think I romanticized your old life in England. Once I got to the age where you went to school at the convent I would think about what it would have been like to study Latin with nuns, to learn italic handwriting, to wear that brown uniform with beige knee socks. Part of me was relieved to have been spared the nuns and part of me thought I was getting an inferior education.
Because of those summer trips, I didn’t really feel cut off from England at first. But I didn’t stay in the U.S. for a whole summer until my senior year of high school. By the end, I started feeling like those summers in Europe were taking me away from my real life. After my freshman year at college, I spent the summer traveling around Europe with a group of high school friends, but after that I remember deciding to spend my summers in the U.S., so I did internships in New York and Berkeley. Everyone in our family thought this was very boring of me (why didn’t I go and work on a kibbutz in Israel like you and Celia had?), but I think I was truly exhausted by the idea of going to new countries and wanted to put down more roots here. Now that I’m so firmly settled in New York, I love traveling – never for more than two weeks, though!
How do you answer the question, "Where are you from?"
E: The short answer is that I’m originally from England, but I’ve lived in the U.S. for over twenty years and my accent is a historical relic. I try not to get into the details because they’re a bit boring to me. It’s like having to tell the story of how you met your husband for the millionth time. . .
Now that I spend a lot of time in Germany, I find myself having to explain why I speak such good German. In fact, I sometimes find myself making mistakes intentionally so that people won’t just assume that I’m German. And yet, in some way, our grandparents’ and now our uncle’s farm in Germany has remained the one fixed social and geographical point in my life. I spent so many summers there as a child. It’s such a small place – about 60 inhabitants – and it’s the only place from my childhood that’s still accessible to me. It will always be a special place for me. So maybe I feel as German as I do English or American – which is to say, not very.
What about you? You’re the only member of our family with an American passport and an American accent. Do you describe yourself as an American? And if so, when did you start thinking of yourself as American? Was it a conscious choice?
M: I finally became a U.S. citizen last year, but people always assume I’m American so I rarely get asked where I’m from. I think of myself as “american” now – in lower case, not capitals. I probably felt more divided about that as a teenager. What’s strange for me now is that my accent separates me from my nuclear family – I remember once we were all out at a restaurant and the waitress asked me who my guests were. People are always surprised when they first meet my family because I rarely remember to tell them beforehand that we all have different accents. I notice that when people do ask me where I’m from originally, I hesitate. The easy answer is Wisconsin, but that feels like it leaves out a lot and the other answer seems like too much information.
I remember my classmates in third grade always wanted me to say their names in my English accent, which they loved and I hated. On the plus side, it did mean that I was the automatic choice for Mary Poppins in the school play. That was my only starring role. I started practicing having an American accent early on – probably around fourth grade. I have a vivid memory of going into my closet (which had a mirror and a light) and working on saying my nickname, “Matty” with an American accent. I remember wishing my name didn’t have any “t’s” in it, because a name like “Louisa” wouldn’t have been a problem accent-wise, whereas making those “t’s” sound like “d’s” was difficult, and I didn’t like the way it sounded. That’s the reason I go by Matthea now.
E: So tell me about changing your accent. Was it hard? I remember that you had an accent coach after you won that essay competition and had to read your essay on television and they decided that no one would be able to understand you.
M: That’s true – that was right when we moved. I don’t think I had decided to change my accent yet at that point, so I was pretty frustrating for that accent coach. We spent an inordinate amount of time on the word “clock.” She would say what sounded to my English ear like “clawwk” and I would try to say it her way and end up saying “clack.”
Once I decided to change my accent, I didn’t find it that hard – I think I have a pretty good ear. And since we spoke German with half our relatives, I think my brain just accepted this as another language. What was hard was that I would speak in an English accent at home and an American one at school, so when friends called me at home I was embarrassed to have my parents hear me talking in another accent. I finally committed to my American accent (I should have had a ceremony!) when I went to college. It’s very nice to have some more Americans in the family (both of our husbands) because now my accent doesn’t stand out. I may need to write a poem celebrating that fact called “Our American Husbands.”
Do you notice people's accents? Do you find your accent changing according to the accents surrounding you?
E: Strangely enough, I’m pretty tone deaf when it comes to American accents. I can’t imitate them and I don’t really hear them. But when I listen to myself on an answering machine, I’m always faintly surprised not to hear an American accent, because I don’t think of myself as having an “accent.” Of course, now I hear the American accent as “neutral.” I do slightly change my accent sometimes in response to other British accents and German regional accents. I have no idea why.
M: Everyone in our family has a different accent. How did you end up with yours?
E: I think accents in our family are much like musical chairs; the music stops and whatever accent you have at that time is what you’re stuck with. It’s an imperfect analogy because you do have some control over when you stop the music and you can modify what you ended up with – to some extent. In my case, my basic accent reflects my time at St. Mary’s – a moment of content social conformism. It’s not the local Dorset accent, our father’s modified Birmingham accent or our mother’s faint German one. I remember being deeply impressed by how much less loaded of a statement accents are here than in the U.K. when I first arrived. It was a relief really. I think all that nonsense about class and the very fact that we’re spending so much time talking about accents betrays our national origins. Why are we talking so much about accents?
I did try to change my accent about ten years ago. I got really tired of having to explain where I was from and I worried that it just wasn’t “authentic” to me any more. But after thirty years of not pronouncing your “r’s”, it’s very hard to change. Also, there wasn’t any real motivation. There’s no denying that there aren’t exactly any social liabilities associated with having an English accent in the U.S. And an artificially grown American accent seemed equally problematic. At the linguistic level, I’m doomed to inauthenticity.
M: In what situations do you feel English? In what situations do you feel American?
E: I felt very English when I first arrived in the U.S. and for a long time after. I was quite ridiculously adamant on the subject. And, at the same time, I remember going back to England as an increasingly fraught experience, with people challenging my “Englishness” almost immediately. And that has only increased over the years. It’s as though being English is such a fragile social construct that any contamination would immediately ruin it and you. I spent a lot of time defending my Englishness before I decide to give it up. Which was particularly ironic in my case as being English was in many ways always a deliberate rather than an inevitable choice. I could have just as easily been German if I’d made that choice (German law then required children of German mothers either to accept or renounce German citizenship at the age of seven). My attachment to being English just reflected a desperate desire to belong. I look back and wince to think of my fifteen year-old self madly cheering on the troops in the Falklands. It’s interesting how seductive nationalism can be. Interesting and terrifying.
It took me until my late twenties before I relinquished the idea of myself as English. Now I feel more American in some ways, especially when I’m in Europe. I smile too much and I’m friendly in that American way that I used to despise. I’ve even become quite sentimental about the American constitution. At the same time, I frequently find myself becoming increasingly outraged by American actions. I think that the more I care about the U.S., the more upset I become. I wouldn’t describe myself necessarily as American, but I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as English anymore either. I’m much more emotionally invested in the U.S. now.
In some ways I feel more like a New Yorker than any actual nationality. This is the place I’ve lived longest in my life and it’s also the first place that I’ve ever lived where I feel that I belong. There’s something incredibly relaxing about living in a place where national origin isn’t as important as it is almost everywhere else in the world. There are so many national hybrids here that it’s almost impossible to seem exotic or alien. Anyone can be a New Yorker, that’s what I love about it. Even when I lived in London, the question of whether or not I was really English constantly came up. Here it just seems like a non-issue.
In an art world context, I’m very flexible. I don’t really care what nationality I get labeled with but it’s always interesting to watch people struggle to decide which is more important, residency or nationality. Does the passport trump the artistic context in which I live and work and where I’ve now spent the majority of my life? If I had my way, it would just say, “born in U.K., lives and works in New York.” After all, New York is where I built my career as an artist and I did it in a way that I’m not so sure would have worked equally well anywhere else. I just met other artists and started showing. It was all very informal in a way that really depended on the fact that New York is full of openly ambitious people networking madly – it’s very easy to meet people. Of course, actually connecting is just as hard here as anywhere – it’s just the first step that’s easier. I’m always amazed that in Europe you can stand next to someone for hours at an opening and they’ll almost never introduce you to the person that they’re talking to. It’s as though it’s just too risky. New York by contrast takes social connection very lightly – which is both good and bad. It’s all about weak social ties – quantity trumping quality –
some might say; and yet it does provide access. Of course, some might say that the increasing importance of MFA programs is changing all that. I’m more and more of a rarity in that I’m not a product of that system.
What about you, do you ever feel English? Or German? Do you think that nationality is meaningful to you at all? How does it feel to go back to England or Germany, now and earlier? How do you feel about New York?
M: I feel the same way you do about New York – it’s my home, and I never want to leave. I’m passionate about it, down to the hot flying trash that signals the start of summer. I’d like to say I’m a New Yorker, but you always hear that you have to have lived here a certain number of years before that’s really true. This is my ninth year here – do I qualify yet?
I don’t feel English anymore. In fact, when I go back to England now I tend to feel a bit uneasy – it’s a place where I once fit in, but don’t anymore. I remember feeling very English as a child (I was probably around twelve). I was in a store in London with my cousin, and an American woman came in and said, “Oh, isn’t that the cutest doll” really loudly. At the time, I felt disapproving of the way she wasn’t adapting to her environment, but now that seems silly. There’s also a tiny English child trapped on my tongue. My favorite foods are still English children’s food – English sausages, prawn cocktail crisps (See that? I can't call them potato chips even though I know that's what they're called here) and aniseed balls.
I don’t feel German, but since German was my first language (I was born there and we moved to England when I was two), I do have this strange tug on my heartstrings whenever I hear German out of context – on the subway, for example – there’s certainly some imprinting that went on with the language.
Do you think your relationship to nationality has had an influence on your work?
E: One of the things that really struck me listening to the other artists in the 1.5 Generation exhibition is how difficult it was for many of them to bear the burden of representation – the idea that they were inevitably seen as cultural ambassadors of a kind and that there was a lens of exoticism through which they and their work was perceived whether they wanted it or not. That’s not a burden that I’ve really had to contend with. In a culture where, for all its diversity, white Anglo-Saxon is still seen as the physical norm, I’m not even recognizable as a foreigner until I open my mouth. And even then being English is just not seen as being that exotic.
It may also have something to do with issues of center and periphery. If anything, Americans have traditionally had a feeling of cultural inferiority vis-à-vis Europe and certainly, Real-politick aside, there is no shortage of feelings of cultural superiority in the other direction to this day. There are also so many European artists dominating the international art market that the idea of being obliged to represent my culture seems utterly ludicrous to me – to say nothing of what a terrible representative I would be. This is obviously a very different situation from that of an artist who comes from an underrepresented country whose cultural traditions are not part of the Western art canon.
So, for me, my confused sense of nationality hasn’t been a direct source of inspiration for my work. And yet, a lot of my work has been about the impossibility of creating a coherent artistic persona – not just because I work on a project-by-project basis and so have entirely failed to come up with a “brandable” recognizable style but also on a larger more theoretical level. In general, I think failure is much more interesting than success. Art is so much about dreaming the impossible unrealizable dream – the constant experience of failure is what connects art emotionally to the larger human condition. My current project, The Museum of Failure, consists of an ongoing series of rooms that contain different kinds of artistic failure. There’s a room of Invisible Self-Portraits which are self-portraits in which I can’t be seen because the paintings are based on photographs taken by me of myself in a mirror so that the camera flash obscures my face. There’s a Collection of Impossible Subjects which consists of a mirrored wall rear-engraved and rear-illuminated to show a collection of empty frames hung salon-style. It’s the ultimate victory of context over content. The viewer sees only him or herself in the frames.
I’m also really interested in how the art world is organized – who gets to be an artist and what makes something art, which may be related to remaining a bit of an outsider in some way. The New York Beautification Project, where I spent a year painting small oval classical landscapes in oils directly onto graffiti sites throughout New York City without permission, is really an exploration of what makes people understand one piece of illegal pigment as art and another as vandalism. Is it the demographic of the artist (something that I think definitely plays a very large role)? Is it the aesthetics of the work (make something conservative enough and you can get away with murder)? What is it?
The piece in this show, A Whitney for the Whitney at Philip Morris (Altria) / I can be an American Visionary too!, also reflects this interest. In some ways it’s a bit of a joke about institutional validation and my frustrated desire to belong to a canon, to a nationality. It was originally made for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s exhibition space at what was then called Philip Morris (the name was changed to Altria during the exhibition). It was in part a response to the fact that Philip Morris had been supporting the space for twenty-five years and getting a lot of exhibitions of less established artists like myself – I thought that they might like to finally get the thing that they’d been paying for – the Whitney itself. I also kept encountering bewildered tourists wandering over from Grand Central Station who misunderstood the sign outside to mean that this was the Whitney Museum. I like giving people what they want – after all, isn’t art all about desire, no matter how ludicrous? But mainly the piece was a mad one-woman attempt to take on the entire American canon, as represented by the Whitney’s recent catalogue of its collection, titled American Visionaries. It was my attempt to say – see, I can be an American visionary (despite not being an American) – by copying all 394 images in the catalogue, I can be all the American visionaries. Of course, it’s also a ridiculous version of the canon in some way – it’s all painting – and not photo-realistic painting at that. Each image is painted just to the point where it should be recognizable to a viewer who’s seen the original. It’s a bit of an homage to those great old paintings of painting collections, like Zoffany’s painting of the Uffizi gallery, when painting was the only way you could document a collection; not that photography isn’t a problematic and unreliable form of documentation in its own right. It’s been interesting to try to install it as a painting here at the Queens Museum and I’m curious to see how it will work. Originally it was installed to form a walk-in painting. The viewer walked through a gold frame into a room made up of the painted panels. The seven artworks that the Whitney had bought immediately after publishing their catalogue were installed behind the openings in my painted panels (so that my museum would have an exhibition, and would compensate the artists who’d just missed their chance to be in the catalogue). Now those openings are filled with mirrors so that the viewer can be the next subject of the Whitney’s attentions. It’s a bit more inclusive that way.
As a writer, how do you think immigrating to the U.S. has influenced you? Does it have something to do with your interest in hybridity? Do you see yourself as part of the American or the English canon?
M: It’s hard for me to know how much moving here has influenced me. I’d love to be able to see what my life would have been like if we had stayed in England (like in the movie Sliding Doors, where in one version Gwyneth Paltrow catches the train and in the other she misses the train – you see how her life is affected by that one tiny difference). Logistically, the path to becoming a writer in the U.S. has clearer flagstones here: you can take creative writing classes, go to an M.F.A. program, etc. (not that this is the only path). I think there’s something a bit useful about feeling like an outsider when it comes to writing, but who doesn’t feel like an outsider? I certainly don’t think I’ll ever feel part of a canon, but I’ve been classified as an American poet (i.e. I was in Best American Poetry before I was a citizen). I’d like to get to know more English poets – there’s less crossover currently than you would think.
This month, I’m going to Germany to do readings for an anthology of young American poets translated into German (Schwerkraft : Junge Amerikanische Lyrik, edited by Ron Winkler). It was an intense experience to read my own poems in German, because what frustrates me when I’m in Germany is my inability to talk about poetry, about abstractions. Having these translations (by Uljana Wolf and Jan Wagner) was a bit like being given a key to my German adulthood, or to my German poet-self.
I think we can officially upgrade my interest in hybridity to an obsession. A favorite recent discovery is Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, which describes creatures sighted in Wisconsin and Minnesota lumber camps – The Hide-Behind, the Axehandle Hound – alongside animals that appeared in the dreams of Kafka and C.S. Lewis. Before this interview, I never consciously thought about my interest in hybrids as being a correlative for being between cultures. However, it’s definitely one of the main subjects of my new book Modern Life, which is populated by catgoats (my own invention), centaurs, a robot-boy and ship figureheads trying to figure out if they’re more head (human, animal, etc.) or ship. Halving in all of its forms has always been something I’ve been interested in. And isn’t everyone a fraction or a hybrid from the simple fact of having two parents? I’m half narrative, half lyric; half melancholy, half mischievous; half head, half heart. And so on. I love the part in Plato’s Symposium where Aristophanes talks about how “primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle” and that after they begin to attack the Gods, Zeus decides to “cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair.” This then becomes an explanation for the fact that humans fall in love, into pairs – that we’re just searching for a lost wholeness.
Do you have any particular attraction to hybrid animals?
E: Does really liking mermaids as a child count?
M: Definitely! If you were a hybrid animal, what would you be? (You can be made of more than two animals if you want...)
E: Actually I really don’t want to be a hybrid animal – maybe because I already am one. I would like to be a seal though – they seem to have a really good time living in two elements . . . .
M: What a good idea to choose a seal – I think that demonstrates being at peace with your own hybridity. I would like to experience being a hybrid animal so that I could feel what it was like right at the point where, in the case of the centaur, I changed from human to horse. Does the breath change as it crosses that divide? Does the head have ideas that the body won’t go along with? One of my favorite things is to stand in waist-high water and think about how that divides the body in two.
HOW WE LEARNED TO HOLD HANDS
We halved them because we could. It turned out anything with four legs could wobble along on two, Anything with two could hop along on one. Leopards. Horses. Kangaroos. Front, back, it didn’t matter. Mostly it was teenagers with their parents’ Christmas knives who did the cutting. No one knew where the Keepers came from, but they favored covered wagons with billowing sheets tucked in at the edges, puckering like a healing wound. They tied scarves tightly around their chins—men and women—as if to hold the hemispheres of their own heads together. At first they hid the hybrids from us. Their first, clumsiest attempts were the most marvelous—front ostrich, back deer, wind ruffling through first feathers then fur. And the catgoat, all front, who patrolled the shop windows… When the sun hit at a certain angle, the battle would begin—cat wanting to see its cat reflection, goat wanting to see goat.