News and Interviews

"My Goal is to Surprise Myself" Debut Mikko Harvey on Cat Poems, Favourite Reads, & Promising Scraps

Mikko Harvey

For the poetry nerds amongst us, it doesn't get much better than House of Anansi's spring poetry season, an always-packed line up of new and established authors. It's no surprise to find Mikko Harvey's debut collection Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (House of Anansi) on that list this year; even though this is his first full length collection, Harvey has been widely acclaimed for his witty, playful, utterly inventive poems.

American poet Mary Biddinger lauded Harvey as "able to transform ordinary experiences into revelations about the world and our place within it", while former Virginia poet laureate Kelly Cherry noted "I kept coming back to [the poems] and enjoying them all over again".

In Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit, a bomb and a raindrop chat as they fall, a child transforms into a piano key, and other moments of wonder and strangeness spread across the pages. To celebrate this innovative, wonderfully strange collection, we're thrilled to welcome Mikko to Open Book today to talk about his life in poetry as part of our Poets in Profile series. 

He tells us about the best cat poem out there, the importance of surprising himself while assembling a collection, and the value of promising scraps. 

Open Book:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

Mikko Harvey:

I’m tempted to apply a revisionist history and name some poem that aligns with my current tastes, but the truth is you really have very little control over what poem first affects you—you haven’t developed your defences yet, so you’re exposed to whatever poem winds happen to blow on you. I think for me it was “A Sea-Change” by Derek Walcott, or “Scarecrow on Fire” by Dean Young, or “Clown” by Chelsea Minnis. Or maybe the book The Lamp with Wings by M.A. Vizsolyi, or American Primitive by Mary Oliver.

OB:

What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?

MH:

“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” from Jubilate Agno, by Christopher Smart.

For it is the greatest cat poem.

OB:

Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?

MH:

I start by writing stand-alone pieces. The idea of the poems joining together to become a collection arrives later—I try to keep that at bay for a while. If it arrives too early, I end up writing poems because I feel like I should write them—like, this collection really should have another poem about capitalism, or something—and my writing gets brittle when it’s filtered through that should impulse. My goal is to surprise myself with each new poem, and let the trajectory of those individual surprises gradually determine the shape of the whole.

But that’s just me and the arrangement I have reached with my own chemistry and limitations. As a reader, I love poetry books that revolve around a particular concept or story or form just as much (these often get called “project books,” though that’s an unfairly narrow term). Some of my favorite examples include Isa the Truck Named Isadore by Amanda Nadelberg, A List of Famous Men and What I Had On by Khadijah Queen, Destruction Myth by Mathias Svalina, Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, The Book of Frank by CA Conrad, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes, Short Talks by Anne Carson... And actually, the list could go on and on, because it’s operating according to a somewhat bogus dichotomy I’m applying for the sake of convenience. The truth is that even books consisting solely of stand-alone pieces, written with little thought given to the coherence of the larger collection, often still feel like “project books” in that they are held together by a writer’s distinctive voice or set of obsessions.

OB:

What do you do with a poem that just isn’t working?

MH:

Put it down and return to it in various moods—maybe a different angle of approach will help. Or put it down and imagine never seeing it again. If that feels okay, then let it go for real. One of the beauties of poems is that you can throw them away and know another one is coming. Or if it feels wrong to throw it away, think about why. What part of the poem would you miss? Isolate that aspect or fragment and delete everything else. Maybe all you really love about the poem is two little lines in the middle. Hold onto those lines: they might end up being the perfect ending to a poem you will write six months from now. Allow for collage and the fact that poems don’t always arrive fully formed. Keep a document of promising scraps.

Or maybe the poem isn’t working because you have a good impulse but aren’t quite ready to execute it, in which case wait. Eventually you’ll be ready to write that poem; you will have no choice but to do so, in fact, if it really mattered to you in the first place. When I look at what I consider my successful poems, often somewhere in the past there lurks a similar but less successful poem, one in which I was trying out the impulse but wasn’t prepared to pull it off yet. Those are useful failures and it can be freeing though sad to embrace the possibility that the poem you are currently writing may be one.

OB:

 What is the best thing about being a poet… and what is the worst?

MH:

The best and worst thing about being a poet is spending so much time orbiting and honing the qualities in yourself that make you different from “other people,” making it increasingly difficult to function in society.

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Mikko Harvey was born in Boston, Massachusetts. His poems have been published in DIAGRAMIowa ReviewKenyon Review, and Maisonneuve. He attended Vassar College and the Ohio State University, and he currently serves as a digital poetry editor for Fairy Tale Review. He currently lives in Berkeley, California.

Buy the Book

Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit

Oneiric, fabulist, hilarious, surreal. No single term seems to sufficiently contain Mikko Harvey’s delightful, cheeky, absurdist, inimitable debut collection. A bomb and a raindrop make small talk as they fall through the air; a trip to the phlebotomist evolves into a nightmarish party; a boy finds himself turning into a piano key. Reading Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit is like spending the day at the strangest amusement park you've ever seen. At first the rides appear familiar, then you realize they possess the power to not merely thrill and terrify, but also to destabilize your very notion of “amusement.” These poems veer sharply away from what’s normally expected from poetry, landing readers instead in that awkward, lonely, interior space where we may be most ourselves. Along with beauty and humour, there is menace here, the threat of disfigurement and death around every turn. But somehow, Harvey manages to make that menace, too, a place of wonder.