Matthea Harvey is the author of three books of poetry and a contributing editor to jubilat, Meatpaper, and BOMB. Amy Jean Porter is an artist who has had solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Paris, and has been featured in publications such as Cabinet, Flaunt, jubilat, and McSweeney's. The two collaborated on a project wherein Harvey made an erasure poem from a Charles Lamb biography that Porter then illustrated. The resulting work, Of Lamb, will be published by McSweeney's this month. An exhibition of the work will be presented at P.P.O.W. gallery in New York from June 23 to July 23.
The Morning News: In the end notes, Matthea, you describe the process of whiting out pages of a Charles Lamb biography. How did you know when to stop? How did you select which pages to use?
Matthea Harvey: Originally I didn't use whiteout. I underlined words in pencil, and then as I started to make multiple erasures of each page. I created a master list with alternate versions. When McSweeney's accepted the book, we (Amy Jean, Eli Horowitz, Jesse Nathan, and I) discussed which poems to use and creating a narrative arc. For my own sense of record-keeping, I wanted to make a final version that was whited out, so there's a ghost-book behind this one which has 72 more poems in it. It looks like this and it's fat with whiteout.
I don't really know how to stop. Essentially it's like having a very pleasurable crossword puzzle with infinite answers. In fact, when I re-read the original biography, I still find myself coming up with new erasures. I could keep doing it forever.
TMN: What made you feel the project needed illustrating, and what drew you to Porter's work?
MH: I was excited about taking the poems one more step away from the original. I wanted to see the poems through someone else's lens--to have someone do visually to my words what I had done to Lord David Cecil's text and I couldn't have been luckier in Amy Jean. As the second sieve, she made things even stranger! I was already a fan of Amy Jean's--I love her combinations of image and text and of course, we both adore animals, though she does paint animals in such gorgeous colors that you kind of want to eat them.
TMN: How much influence did Matthea have in the direction the illustrations took? What was the process there?
MH: Really none, which was wonderful. When Amy Jean and I first met up in person, she brought along the image for "Lamb in the midst / of the lake / destroyed the rainbow," and the way she transformed that into Lamb standing in a bathtub chewing on a shower curtain was something I couldn't have come up with--I was too close to my own words. Amy Jean's images are independent imaginative acts rather than illustrations. I was surprised by each and every image when it arrived in my inbox.
Amy Jean Porter: Matthea graciously handed over the entire text to me. The words are brilliant; they're very visual in themselves and I enjoyed looking for ways to stretch the narrative and warp meaning in one direction or another. I always aimed to add a little tension between text and image and have them play off each other in unexpected ways.
TMN: Your depictions of Mary and Lamb seem very lifelike. Did you have real world models for the characters?
AJP: I tend to use bits and pieces and images from my life in all of my paintings. For Lamb, Matthea and I visited a farm in New York one spring to look at lambs. Our Lamb is mainly based on one ram I found there. He was in a separate pen and not really a lamb at all--more a full grown ram that had been closely shorn. He had this incredible face, very weirdly human looking, with heavy forlorn eyelids. Mary was inspired by a photo of myself as a kid wearing a blue shirt.
TMN: A few celebrities show up in some of the illustrations. Is this purely whimsical, or is there some deeper meaning behind these choices?
AJP: Well, we're all pretty hardwired to look more closely at things we recognize, so celebrities are helpful that way. But I did have very specific hopes for these three. Kind of like I cast them each for a role in a film. The first one I did was Manny Ramirez as the lamb-made-human. I used to listen a lot to baseball on the radio while I was drawing. Manny (back in his Red Sox days) was always a favorite. Professional athletes can often seem impossible--how can any human be that strong/fast/physically brilliant? Manny seemed the most human to me, the kind of man that Lamb might become--flawed but a genius with flashes of brilliance and a lot of hair. Then there is Brian Williams. We often watch NBC news with Brian Williams and he always wears a twinkle in his eye. When he guest appears on shows like 30 Rock and The Daily Show, he tends to be Mr. Funny Guy. I think Brian Williams totally wants to be a favorite lamb. And Oprah--I just figured she is always surprising others, and it might be nice for her to be surprised by slippers sometime.
TMN: Can you describe your painting process? Is it the same for every painting?
AJP: Once I get on a roll for any given project, my process tends to be pretty similar across all the drawings. If I have an idea in mind, I'll look for something in the world that corresponds, some kind of reference, either in life or a photograph. Then I lay down a pencil drawing, then gouache, then ink. I don't do much planning/sketching in advance and prefer to hop right in. If you can't go back, it's easier to focus in the moment.
TMN: What can visitors expect at the exhibition at P.P.O.W? Will both of you participate?
AJP: The 106 original paintings from the book will be featured and arranged similarly to the narrative order. It will be a little bit like being inside the book, being inside Mary and Lamb's world. And a very brightly hued world it is. McSweeney's did a fantastic job making the book look amazing, but paintings are never quite the same in reproduction. There are some killer oranges and lime greens and subtle pale shades that didn't make it through the 4-color book process. I'm really happy those bits of color will have their day in the sun. Matthea's original erasure of the Charles Lamb book will also be featured, and we're giving a talk on July 7 at 7pm.
MH: I'm going to be there on July 7th to read a bit from the book and chat with Amy about the process of making the book. I can't wait to see all the originals hung on the wall!
TMN: Are there further collaborations planned? What's next for each of you?
AJP: I would love-love-love to do another project with Matthea. We've batted around a few ideas, so keep an eye out someday. I also have some things percolating ... some involve celebrities, and I have an eye on insects, but it's a little too soon to say.
MH: We've batted around the idea of a comic about a seal called Norma, so once this is all done (we're currently party planning which means I'm baking lots of cakes and stringing little brass lambs onto necklaces), I'll start trying to write some Norma strips. Otherwise, I've been writing a lot of poems about mermaids.