A few months back The New Yorker printed the following astonishingly awesome poem by poetess Matthea Harvey:
The Straightforward Mermaid
The straightforward mermaid starts every sentence with “Look . . . ” This comes from being raised in a sea full of hooks. She wants to get points 1, 2, and 3 across, doesn’t want to disappear like a river into the ocean. When she’s feeling despairing, she goes to eddies at the mouth of the river and tries to comb the water apart with her fingers. The straightforward mermaid has already said to five sailors, “Look, I don’t think this is going to work,” before sinking like a sullen stone. She’s supposed to teach Rock Impersonation to the younger mermaids, but every beach field trip devolves into them trying to find shells to match their tail scales. They really love braiding. “Look,” says the straightforward mermaid. “Your high ponytails make you look like fountains, not rocks.” Sometimes she feels like a third gender—preferring primary colors to pastels, the radio to singing. At least she’s all mermaid: never gets tired of swimming, hates the thought of socks.
I know. So of course I felt it was my duty to contact Matthea and see if this poem was an anomaly for her or if she has a larger interest in mermaids and/or mermaid poetry generally, and it turns out she is mad for mermaids! And that she is writing a whole series of prose poems, which she sent to me in its current form and which is so gorgeous and lovely and strange I fell asleep immediately after reading it and then woke up days later with glittering fish scales on both hands. Well, figuratively.
She also sent said poems in a Word doc entitled “mermaidsforcarolyn” which I secretly think should be the title of every document, especially those created by poetesses. I cannot of course reprint these mermaidsforcarolyn poems on this blog, much as it resembles The New Yorker, but here is just one teeny tidbit from one of them, “The Backyard Mermaid,” which is about a bored mermaid in a bird bath and contains lines like this one: “On days when there’s no sprinkler to comb through her curls, no rain pouring in glorious torrents from the gutters, no dew in the grass for her to nuzzle with her nose, not even a mud puddle in the kiddie pool, she wonders how much longer she can bear this life.”
So my interview with Matthea is below and here, too, is a picture of her as that less appreciated and perhaps before-its time hybrid, the human-rabbit.
So Matthea, how long have you been writing about mermaids?
“The Straightforward Mermaid” was my first poem about a mermaid. There was a year and a half interval between the first and the second one, and then I wrote mermaid poems all fall (“The Backyard Mermaid,” “The Homemade Mermaid,” “The Tired Mermaid,” “The Impatient Mermaid,” “The Deadbeat Mermaid”, “Inside Out Mermaid” and I’m still at work on “The Morbid Mermaid.”) They arrived in a flock. What do you call a group of mermaids? A school? A flurry? A frenzy? I guess if you put my mermaids together they’d have to be a mob, since they’re all pretty badly behaved.
What is it that draws you to them?
I love that when mermaids die they turn into sea foam. More generally, I’m intrigued by hybrids, though I dislike unicorns. My last book, Modern Life, featured centaurs, griffins and some invented hybrids: gazelleboy, catgoats and Roboboy (a character who is half robot and half boy.) Hybrids are fun to write about because they physically embody the divisions and contradictions we all experience on the inside. Imagine if we looked on the outside how we felt on the inside. Yikes.
Can you describe your mermaid poetry?
They’re prose poems (since prose poems are hybrids of poetry and prose it seemed like the right form) and they circle around a mermaid who is labeled with an adjective which has to end in “t” or “d.” I made that rule up arbitrarily since I wrote “The Straightforward Mermaid” because I liked the sound of that pair of words. My mermaids are the opposite of Ariel, the Disney mermaid—one is unsure of her gender; another abandons her children (“The Filets”); another has her organs on the outside.
What do you think the appeal of mermaids is generally?
Well, we learn about them usually when we’re quite young and can still believe in things like mermaids and fairies, so I think that’s a large part of it. Also, maybe it’s a case of “the seaweed is always greener…” I’m mixed about them now—on the one hand, they’re these powerful mythical figures whose beautiful singing can make sailors go off course and drown, so they’re the ultimate distraction—like the internet! On the other hand, the Hans Christian Andersen story of the little mermaid is so sad. It’s beautiful, but she gets a terrible deal—to live on land she has to lose her voice and have legs that pain her (feminist symbolism anyone?), and leave behind her family and friends. Then, after all that, she tries to kill herself (rather than kill the prince which is how she could become a mermaid again) and instead is made into a spirit and told she will eventually go to heaven. It’s romantic to imagine giving everything up for love, but not very practical. Have you read Barbara Ensor’s Cinderella (As If You Didn’t Already Know the Story?) and Thumbelina (Tiny Runaway Bride)? They’re illustrated with marvelous papercuts and have main characters with more volition, which I like.
Do you yourself have any secret (or not) mermaidly aspirations?
In a way, I’ve already been one! My sister Ellen Harvey is an artist and many years ago I was the hand model for this painting of a mermaid in her “Low Tech Special Effects” series.
We went to Chinatown and bought this large fish, which she then laid on her messenger bag and had me put my hands (note the blue nail polish) in that mermaid-y pose. She took some Polaroids and then made this oil painting, which I love. Ellen and I made a joint new year’s resolution that this year we’re going to go to the mermaid parade in Coney Island. Her son Toby, age three, has an amazing babysitter/jewelry designer, Molly Rose, who participates in the parade every year. Once he licked her and told her that she tasted “like a mermaid.” She was very pleased.
Do you have any favorite mermaid art/writing/films etc?
I adore Aimee Bender’s story, “Drunken Mimi,” about a mermaid who can get drunk by having her hair in a beer. The second movie I ever saw was The Water Babies, a nicely hybrid animated movie in which the “real world” was filmed and the underwater world turned cartoon. I don’t remember the water babies having tails though, so they’re not technically mermaids. Underwater small humans. Later, the movie Splash made a big impression on me, though I’m not sure whether I was more envious of Darryl Hannah’s curls or her tail.
I knew Yeats’ and Tennyson’s mermaid poems, but since writing mine I’ve found some great contemporary mermaid poems. I particularly admire Paul Muldoon’s translation of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s “The Mermaid in the Hospital”(when the mermaid wakes up with legs she calls them “two long, cold thingammies) and Douglas Kearney’s “Swimchant of Nigger Mer-folk (an Aquaboogie Set in Lapis).” I’ve just ordered a copy of Paul Muldoon’s translation of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s The Fifty Minute Mermaid.
What about mermen, do you find them inspiring as well?
Apparently not. I seem to have no desire to write a merman poem. But then I had no desire to write a Robogirl poem. Sometimes these characters just arrive with a gender. Why is it that mermen seem somewhat ridiculous? Maybe because they seem a bit neutered? I do have Triton in a poem in my first book, but somehow it’s different if you’re a god.
Do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Aspiring mermaids should practice swimming with their legs tied together and acquire a pet seahorse.
Come back Monday for some valuable advice from the Millionaire Matchmaker herself.
So I love every show on Bravo, so what. (Next month I’ll put up my interview with Tabatha, too!)