Getting to Know Mikko Harvey, Author of Let the World Have You
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
When I was about 18, I developed a weird hunch that I wanted to write poetry, but I didn’t really know how to get started. One problem was that I hadn’t found any poets whose writing I loved yet, which meant I didn’t have any real sense of how I might want my own poems to look or act. My solution was to sift through the poetry section at my college’s library. I spent a lot of time opening books to random pages, reading a few poems, seeing if I felt a spark, and putting the books down if I didn’t. This definitely isn’t the ideal way to read poetry, but as a crude method for identifying some poets whose writing excited me, it worked. Whenever I found myself connecting with the poems I was reading, I’d read more by that poet, and I’d look them up online—their interviews, reviews, etc.—which led me to other, aesthetically similar poets. Through this process, poetry gradually began to feel like a more approachable and vibrant space to me, populated by a growing number of poets whose work I could sincerely say I enjoyed. My own poems began to take shape and accelerate in response.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I’ve never been able to sit down and make myself write poems on command, at least not very interesting ones. The main way I’ve been able to write poems that I find interesting has been to wait for them to find me. The way this usually happens is that a certain feeling takes hold of my mind, and everything starts to feel chewy, interconnected, and rhythmic. In that state of mind, writing a poem feels quite natural. The hard part is finding my way into that state, and part of my work as a poet has been to pay attention to the factors that influence the likelihood of slipping into it. Sleep, conversation, exercise, reading, music, movies, museums, caffeine, weather, driving, parties, forests—I’ve noticed how these and other forces can sometimes lead me into writing. In a way, my writing routine is just to encourage the conditions that seem to encourage my writing—even if those conditions may seem unrelated to writing on the surface—and then hope for the best, keeping an eye on my mind to make sure I notice that elusive creative feeling when it comes, and trying not to waste it when it does.
Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Sometimes a poem will come from a single image, phrase, sentence, or scenario that appears in my mind out of the blue, then the rest of the poem follows from that initial spark when I start digging into it, and a draft of the poem is finished quickly. Sometimes a poem is a result of collaging together scraps of language that occurred to me separately over the course of years; the scraps begin to gravitate toward other scraps, slowly congealing into a poem. Sometimes it’s a mix of these processes. I remember for one of the poems in Let the World Have You I wrote 90% of the poem in a single burst one afternoon, but couldn’t figure out the ending. Nothing I tried felt quite right. I keep trying and failing and waiting for a year. Then one day I came across a separate scrap of language in one of my old notebooks and realized it was the exact ending I’d been searching for. Mary Ruefle says “the lines of a poem are speaking to each other, not you to them or they to you.” Every poem comes together differently, and I try to play the role of listener, instead of letting my own wishes or expectations sidetrack the conversation.
Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
The answer to this question is always changing, but I think, at least for Let the World Have You, some influences were James Tate, Mary Ruefle, James Schuyler, Eileen Myles, and Henri Cole: Tate for his sense of surrealism, pacing, and humor; Ruefle for her inventive yet empathetic attunement to non-human animacies; Schuyler and Myles for the satisfying way they sometimes run conversational language across very short lines (for instance in a poem like Myles’ “Peanut Butter); and Cole for his clarity and psychological probing. My friend, the poet Jake Bauer, was also an influence in the sense that he was the first reader of all the poems in the book.
What excites you most about your new collection?
At one point while working on this book, I wrote down the phrase let the world have you, not intending to use it as a title or include it in a poem, but simply as a note of self-encouragement for my day-to-day life. I liked how the phrase was a quick way of challenging myself to be more open, honest, and brave, and less guarded, avoidant, and retreating. I need this type of encouragement because I have a way of drifting into the latter qualities if I’m not careful. Eventually, I realized that this psychological tension was at play in many of the poems in the book, and the phrase began to feel like a fitting title. And I do like the title, but what excites me most about it has less to do with aesthetics and more to do with the fact that this phrase is now installed in my life as a permanent reminder. I’m looking forward to trying to take its advice. And when I inevitably fail, hopefully, I’ll see my little purple book looking back at me from the bookshelf (or the nightstand or the floor or Twitter or wherever I happen to see it) and it will remind me to try again.
Mikko Harvey is the author of Let the World Have You (House of Anansi, 2022) and Unstable Neighbourhood Rabbit (House of Anansi, 2018). A graduate of Vassar College and The Ohio State University, he has received the RBC/PEN Canada New Voices Award and the Philip Booth Poetry Prize, as well as fellowships from MacDowell and Yaddo. He currently lives in Western Massachusetts. www.mikkoharvey.com