Matt Leverton profiles Matt Harvey
Openmind 153, Sept/ Oct 2008
Poets through the ages have battled mental demons, and mild-mannered Matt Harvey is no exception. Often described as a stand-up poet, Harvey pokes gentle fun at being a modern, liberal, enlightened man, while also being exactly that.
As well as being a regular on Radio 4's Saturday Live programme, Harvey performs at cabarets, festivals and colleges. He is also invited to mental health conferences to provide some "light relief", as he describes it.
His journey to becoming a poet came via the Self Heal Association, a Devon-based psychotherapeutic residential community he attended in his early twenties. "I had been a troubled teenager, with acute unhappiness really," is how he reflects on his experience. "Various inexplicable things happened and I went into therapy to hold myself together. The whole process was very compelling and fascinating, and I jumped in at the deep end."
After his own therapy was complete the charitable community's director asked him to stay on and become a helper. When they put on a cabaret to engage with the local community Harvey went on to compère the event, and this kick-started his love of live performance.
Having experienced both sides of the therapeutic process was one of the reasons Matt was later invited to talk at mental health conferences. "The first conference I was invited to speak at was entitled 'Isolation and Connection' and I thought 'What am I going to talk about?', and then I looked at my work and thought, well, it is all about isolation and connection," he exclaims.
One character of Harvey's who is always well received is Empath Man. "Empath Man wasn't always Empath Man. He took part in a drugs trial that went horribly wrong. It was for an anti-pessimism drug called Optiagra for middle-aged men who find it difficult to get their hopes up."
Dealing with mental health experiences through writing is a common form of therapy but not one that Harvey has benefited from himself. However, he recognises that creative people need an outlet. "If they are not creative they aren't going to feel 'right'. They may not be thinking 'This is my therapy', but by going into other people's points of view and the conflicts that are in drama, we are exploring our own inner conflicts. You can understand your own points of view better through that process."
A by-product of chairing conferences is that Harvey has become increasingly interested in the relationship between service users and staff. "We are all struggling with the human condition in some way, nobody gets out of here alive," he jokes. "I feel we all have an experiences of anxiety and depression, whether minor or not, and whatever our roles."
Harvey also holds some strong views on psychiatrists. "Some of them are very outdated. That isn't true of all psychiatrists but it is of many. I was very surprised that they aren't required to do any work on themselves. At its most extreme they can see each aberration as a chemical imbalance and people's stories aren't taken into consideration." But with characteristic empathy Matt concedes, "They have enormous responsibilities and probably need more support than criticism, so I won't lay into them too much."
Matt Harvey's collected poems The Hole in the Sum of my Parts is published by the Poetry Trust and available at www.mattharvey.co.uk