Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Leslie Harrison

LHphotoLeslie Harrison’s second poetry collection, The Book of Endings, part of the Akron Series in Poetry, takes place in a space between the real world (where it’s usually winter), the imagination, language, art, and myth. The poems seem always to be trying to get to the bottom of things, and one of the pleasures of reading them is never knowing where they’ll end up, feeling the mind thinking as you go along. Lines often stutter and re-start: “For I have loved the blade with all my crippled / with all my awkward soul”; “for I have loved / Leviathan for being only for being exactly / what god hated” (“[Wilt thou play with him as with a bird]”). Haunted by ghosts, a mummy, Jesus, a lost mother, a lost love, and pre-lost children, The Book of Endings gives the sense that we need all of the answers—many truths as opposed to the Truth—to make sense of anything at all in this cold world; I kept thinking of Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.” By the end of the book, the speaker, for better or worse, is setting sail.

Harrison is an NEA Fellow and the recipient of the 2008 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in poetry for her first book, Displacement (Mariner). Her poems have been widely published, in journals such as FIELD, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and Memorious. A long-time resident of Sandisfield, Massachusetts, she now lives and teaches in Baltimore.

To me, the poems in The Book of Endings often seem like incantations, a way of killing the silence, staving off absence. They seem constantly struggling against confusion and unknowing—struggling to make the world mean. Would you describe them that way? Is there a better way?

Incantation—from the Latin incantare—to cast a spell upon, or to bewitch; it shares a root with enchantment. So wow, I hope so. I love that this is a word you want to use to describe the poems. I hope it is a true word, that they are even a little like that. So many poems have spellbound me. Ambition and generosity—what others have done I wish to do; let me give to you, dear reader, what someone once gave to me.

And yes, I’ll talk more in a bit about trying to make the world mean, but first the silence question. There are different kinds of silence. Some of them I love. I don’t have TV in my house, and lately I’m not listening to music. I live with two dogs, one of whom is deaf. And one of the things I struggle with now, living in a city, is how damned noisy it is all the time. Sandisfield was so quiet you could hear a raven flying overhead from inside your house. I love that kind of silence.

But when someone dies, a very particular silence infects your life. My mother was in pain toward the end of her life, and mostly confined to her house. So she and I would talk nearly every day, sometimes for hours. We probably spent 10-20 hours a week on the phone toward the end. I grew up with a single parent. My father vanished when I was a baby. We were poor—on welfare, living in the projects. She kept us safe and fed and entertained and taught us to read and bake and ride bikes and play poker (which we did, by the way, with Tootsie Rolls or pennies). My mother was my whole world, and we were close for all her life.

So one way of thinking about the way the poems work is that her death brought a kind of inhuman (and inhumane) silence into my world, and I think the poems are indeed trying desperately not to end, not to fall into silence, even for the space of a period, a comma. They’re me talking into the void, trying to calm myself, trying not to panic.

And yes, the poems absolutely do want to be stays against all sorts of things—confusion, grief, silence, and the terrible sense I have that the world is arbitrary and random and does not mean, in fact, can not mean.

I gave up writing poems in college in part because language seemed so useless, so completely inadequate. When I came back to writing, it was with full knowledge that I would fail, that language is inadequate, that the most I can do is hold back silence, stay confusion for a moment before it all collapses back into chaos. But if I could create moments of trying to make things make sense, or at least make music and beauty and consolation, then it was worth the daily failures.

So even if the world is arbitrary and random, we, the world’s artists, have to try. That is, I think, the work of the artist—to try to speak the world into moments of sense or order or beauty. I think of Olena Kalytiak Davis quoting Vincent Van Gogh, “I have tried / to express the terrible passions / of humanity by means of red and green.” Language is red and green.

Your epigraph is from Heather McHugh’s poem “Etymological Dirge,” which is about unintuitive etymologies, for example in the line “Calm comes from burning. / Tall comes from fast”: the word “tall” comes from the Old English getæl, meaning “prompt, active,” and “calm” from the ancient Greek kaiein which means “to burn.” Coincidentally, I’ve been walking around listening to this Bill Bryson book The Origin of Language (N.B. Bill Bryson books are perfect for listening to while walking or driving—the right pace, the right concentration of information). That book reminds us of things like the fact that the words “brave” and “bravado” mean exactly opposite things—and that both come from “depraved.” I love remembering about the mutability of language—that words are sort of there for the making and taking. It’s liberating. Anyway! The mutability, the possibilities, and the impossibilities of language come up quite a bit throughout your book, for example in “[I keep throwing words at the problem because words]” and “[What I mean].” Is this a preoccupation of yours as well? Could you speak to it a little bit? Maybe I should say it better this way: could you tell us why you chose that epigraph, or what books you were reading, or what your preoccupations were, as you wrote these poems—essentially, where they came from?

Ha! You and me and Heather McHugh—don’t you just love language sometimes? Because, yes, it might be a blunt instrument, but it is ours and it does do things.

I love that poem. I memorized it a while ago, and I say it like a rosary sometimes, quietly, to myself. It has become a talisman, a way to acknowledge language’s mystery, power, and elusive nature. A part of me just wanted to say thank you to Heather. I can’t thank Shakespeare or Auden or Berryman or Bishop or Frost or Bogan. But where I have the opportunity to tell a poet how much their work matters to me, I try.

But also (as you say below) the entire quatrain but especially the final two lines gesture quite strongly to a lot of my obsessions as they play out in the book. It says,

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.

I tell my students that prose writers believe they can say things with words. They spend sometimes 70,000 or 80,000 words saying things. Poets (or at least this one) know that words can’t really say anything. Sometimes they can gesture toward capturing something, but really, language is so inadequate—it changes shape, morphs, its roots are obscured in its branches and it is composed mostly of water— and we say, “I love you” to a mother and the same thing to a beloved and we say, “I love tea.” And they’re three very different things. So yes, I’m a bit obsessed with etymology, with the efficacy and failures of language, with its shifty, clouded nature, its odd lineage.

I don’t think most of us think about it, but I’m well pleased I write in English. It is such a strange mash-up and portmanteau and thief.

Formally, these breathless, unpunctuated poems—each about a page—are pretty different from those in your first book, Displacement, which are shorter and more tightly controlled, punctuated, organized into regular stanzas (although there are hints toward the end of the book that things are trending towards entropy—not that it is ever, of course, entropy. It’s all craft!). How did you arrive at this new form? How does it function, for you?

True story: I thought I had a brain injury.

The formal change happened overnight. I woke up and punctuation was just gone. I literally didn’t use a piece of punctuation again in a poem, barring apostrophes, until quite recently, and then only once, and only a little bit. I’d write and not be able to punctuate. I’d write and not be able to stick two lines together. It made me crazy to see a string of couplets or tercets and I’d be like, NO! nonononono. If I was drafting and didn’t put the stanza break in, I couldn’t go on until I corrected it. (I’m also weirdly allergic to regular multi-line stanzas in other people’s work; I see a poem in stanzas and I have to fight my desire to stop reading.)

I’m in a totally dysfunctional relationship with punctuation. It’s just not that into me. And multi-line stanzas are over me in a big way.

It isn’t really even a choice, which is why I thought I had a brain injury. So the question of how it functions is a little like asking how my lungs work. I have no idea, but I’m super-grateful to be breathing.

And I expect it to end (the form, not the breathing thing, though, yeah, eventually that too, I guess). I’ve come to believe it is tied to something I’m working out, something I’m dealing with in both language and content.

I’m a weirdly intuitive writer; I don’t want to look too closely at both what I’m doing and how the poems work, because I tend to lose interest in things I think I understand. I could list current obsessions—the sea, especially shipwrecks, the photographs of Ray Collins, huge waves and the men who surf them; the pieces of language we all recognize (childhood games, the wedding ceremony, some psalms, some prayers); knives and blades of all sorts; horses, owls, all birds really; trees; really old living things; glass; rectangles; Hiroshige prints, and certain physical talismans, like a Lego minifigure I often carry around. And I can’t tell you why I love and pay attention to any of them. If I knew, they’d lose their power, like a question the world actually answered for once. And I think the form that shapes the poems is like that—a question I don’t have an answer to, though I may, in time.

I will say I have part of a collection of prose poems about a shape-shifter that has a much more conventional relationship with punctuation. So something is going on and it relates to the content of these particular poems. And when I’m done, I think I’ll be able to move on.

So far though, I’ve got another 32 decent drafts, and 26 rougher drafts toward a new book, and all of them follow the same form, though some are getting longer and some shorter.

The Book of Endings is a triptych—divided into Left, Right, and Center sections—evoking Christian art and altarpieces. Moving through the book, I felt like I was like opening up a painting: first the left panel, then the right, and then seeing the whole picture. Would you tell us a little bit about why you divided the book this way?

BofEI’m so glad the structure is visible in that way! Once I discovered the structure, the book was actually titled Triptych. It was months after it was under contract that I figured out the real title. Then I still had “A Triptych” as a sort-of subtitle. In production we let it fade away, and I was concerned it wouldn’t be read the way you read it, so I’m happy that is still visible. What is that O’Hara poem? “Why I Am Not a Painter.” It makes me laugh because I
did that—I erased almost all of the genesis of the structure of the book. Maybe the book’s real title was Sardines or Oranges.

I think a lot of writers will recognize this frustration: I couldn’t order the book. For years. Displacement was easier—there is a buried narrative in that book—a beginning, middle, and end. But it turned out that knowing how to order that book is not the same as knowing how to order a book.

How did it come to me? It feels a little like something an old photography teacher said to me when I described a classmate as lucky. The teacher said that you have to put yourself in the way of luck. Get out there; do the work; be prepared for luck, and recognize it when it happens along.

I love art, especially painting and early Japanese woodblocks. I have a weird aptitude for theory. I read philosophy. I am a little obsessed with lapis lazuli. I have a AAA membership (TripTiks!). I love architecture. I studied art history a fair bit. I am an obsessive reader. I can’t, for example, point to what I was reading during the writing of the book—on a slow week I’m reading 8-10 books at once.

All of those were swirling around. I was teaching a poetics class and thinking about the tripartite structure of argument credited most recently to Hegel (who credits Kant), but really it’s much older—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And I was reading a lot of theology and yes, looking at early Christian alter pieces, which are often triptychs—threes being a thing in Christianity—and trying to figure out why Mary was often dressed in blue (lapis lazuli!).

And suddenly, I realized the book was a triptych.

Once I had that bolt out of the blue, I ordered the book in about 20 minutes. And for those of you trying to place a manuscript, I can say that I sent it out a lot before I ordered it and it was kicked to the curb over and over again. I sent it out with the final order just 4 times. It was a finalist but not picked by the judge all four times. And Mary Biddinger at Akron selected it for the Editor’s choice. And a couple of the other editors where it was a finalist lamented that it got away, which is a lovely thing to hear, even if I don’t entirely believe it.

My lesson was that, for the next book, I should not beat my head against a very hard wall in frustration, not send the book out until I’m sure it is ready. Do the work, be patient, and listen to what the book wants to be. And (not that I needed the reinforcement) keep reading, looking at art, doing research, teaching—put myself in the way of the luck, the happy insight that might make the difference.

There are many allusions to religion and Christianity throughout the book—in the epigraph, in the structure, in poems like “[God speaks]”, “[Take, eat]”, “[Parable]” (which appears twice), and many more. Greek mythology, too, saturates this book—Sisyphus, Penelope, Sirens—and your last. What role do myth and religion play in your writing process, in your everyday thinking?

Religion, myth, and folklore are all systems of information, systems of knowledge by which cultures attempt to order and explain the world. But they’re also a weird and amazing kind of cultural shorthand. Most people know who Icarus was, who Penelope was. So it is efficient to drop a mythological figure into a poem. You don’t have to explain.

I studied Greek and Roman mythology in college. In grad school I did an independent study in folklore with a very well known folklorist. I am of course fascinated with language and with ritual. And I am obsessed with metaphor. It’s a bit old-fashioned these days, to love beauty and metaphor, but I do. Mythology is also a system of metaphor—metaphor and mimesis are why such systems persist. And sometimes they’re really plausible, like Aristotle believing in spontaneous generation.

As for Christianity, that is a more complicated thing. All of what I just said still applies—I’m fascinated by the stories of Christianity, and the ritual language associated with it. The writing in the Bible, especially the King James, is gorgeous.

My mother died. And then my grandmother died, and then my best friend. In two years. And in that time I also ended an intense relationship, and a couple of close friendships faltered. I spent nine days alone in the dark after an ice storm, and had a serious health scare. People started to joke about my life resembling Job’s. And Job is one of the strangest books in the Bible. In part, I think it is an attempt to account for suffering. So it did resonate with me. And it created one of my ongoing obsessions—Leviathan (not Hobbes’s, though that book does have a very famous triptych frontispiece).

People talk about the stages of grief, and they’re not wrong. At some point after my mother died, I found myself angry. But I had nobody to be angry at—she had fought hard to live, so I couldn’t be mad at her. So I ended up deflecting a lot of my anger toward this particular system. My thinking went like this: if God exists, he is either not omnipotent, in which case, why bother, or he is unbelievably cruel and deserves my anger. If he doesn’t exist, then being angry with him is a kind of healthy outlet.

So a lot of the poems that are directly or indirectly interested in Christianity were born out of that sea—of grief and attempts (past and present), yet again, to make things make either beauty or sense.

In Displacement, we have “Instructions to a Realtor” about moving into a house, and in The Book of Endings, we have “[Things the realtor will not tell the new owner]” (one of my favorite poems in the book). What’s with these realtors?   

They’re agents of change, aren’t they? I’ve moved over 50 times, and I am obsessed with the idea of home because, basically, I never had one. But then I bought my little house in Sandisfield.

Those two poems are sort of an alpha and omega of my time in the only home I’ve ever had. Weirdly, both poems were very late additions to the books—probably the last poem I put in each book. In the most recent one, I was in the process of trying to sell the house, as I’d gotten a job in Baltimore and had to leave. I knew I’d take so many memories, but I wondered if the house and the creatures I encountered daily would remember me. How did all my encounters with hungry bears (that is redundant, since bears are composed mostly of hunger) change the bear or live in its memory? I saw the same trees, the same creatures, windows and walls daily for a decade. I watched generations of phoebes fledge from the nest in the bathroom eaves, saw deer, goose families who came annually to the lake to raise new goslings, woodpeckers, coyotes—the list is long. And I was so damned grateful for the house, its shelter and light and quiet.

I wondered what of me the house would keep. The trees and animals and the house, which shaped my days and nights for a decade—would they notice my absence? I wanted, very much, for the house to remember me, though perhaps not quite as sadly as the poem says. There was dancing there. And gratitude. And a staring contest with a swan. Misadventures with fences and wasps. And being way too close to too many bears. And the songs of the coyotes. And the milky way overhead like I’ve never seen it anywhere else—a bright ribbon of light. Moons and meteors and a comet and eclipse and every dawn and every dusk for a decade.

And then the realtors sold my house to someone else, and for the first time in my life, I left home.

Interviewer Sarah Trudgeon is the recipient of the 2015 Poetry Society of America 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship for her collection Dreams of Unhappiness, selected and introduced by Don Paterson. Her poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, The Nation, The Paris Review, The TLS, and the anthology Eight Miami Poets. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the MFA program at the University of Florida, she serves as managing editor of Sink Review and director of the Writing-in-Schools program Mastheads Fireside.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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(Non-)Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Peter Orner

Peter Orner is the author of several books, including the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (Little, Brown) and Love and Shame and Love (Little, Brown), and the short story collections Esther Stories (Back Bay) and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Back Bay). He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, and a Fulbright to Namibia. Orner’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The Paris Review, Memorious 20, and many, many other publications.

His most recent book, Am I Alone Here? (Catapult), is a collection of non-fiction essays. Each essay focuses on a favorite book of Orner’s and features an illustration of the book’s cover drawn by his brother, Eric. Am I Alone Here? is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. After all, it’s a book about books and about reading, but it’s also a stunning memoir that uses these books as access points to ruminate on being a son, a husband, and a father. Orner graciously agreed to answer our questions, and talk a bit about his wonderfully unclassifiable new collection.

First, congratulations on the National Book Critics Circle award nomination for best book of criticism! Am I Alone Here? is so delightfully hard to classify, though. Do you consider this work criticism?

I’m not sure. I’ve never been that hung up on labels. I only ever think: is this thing I’m doing fiction or non-fiction? If it is non-fiction, I take care not to make things up. But I’ve always been drawn to books that defy classifiability. Jean Toomer’s Cane is on my desk right now, as it always is. Is it fiction, poetry? Philosophy? A weird short novel? All these things? Or take a book like Calvino’s Invisible Cities. What is it? A collection of strange un-stories? A meditation? A fantastical manual of architectural and city planning possibilities? What is it? I don’t care, I just want to read it. So, I guess I like the idea of a piece of work being what it happens to turn out to be, which of course will be different depending on the reader. Maybe all books should have some element of un-classifiability?

I realized halfway through this book that unlike other writers writing about fiction—think Robert Boswell, Charles Baxter, Frank O’Connor—the personal isn’t working in service of the literary, but rather the other way around. Or so it seems to me. Do you feel like you were using fiction to make sense of your life, or using your life to make sense of fiction?

I’m not sure if fiction so much helps me make sense of my life as it does muddle my sense of my life even more. As it should be. I get very suspicious of anybody—or any book—that claims any real answers to this chaos we wake up to every morning.

You write that Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice is one of the few books about short stories you’ve “ever been able to stomach much.” When writing this book—or even your Rumpus posts—were there certain approaches you tried to imitate? Others you tried to avoid?

I appreciate O’Connor’s old book because his approach is that of a guy who every day tries to write a good story. The view of a practitioner in the trenches. He respects the mystery. He’s also cantankerous and irritable and reverent and irreverent. All these things—he’s definitely a hero to me. Bolaño, I find his essays just wonderful. I like them better than some of his fiction. When he writes essays he never needs an editor. There were a lot of approaches I tried to avoid. In particular, I’m not a big fan of writing about writing that comes from on high. You know what I mean? A kind of know-it-all approach to writing about the work of other people. If there’s a whiff of pretension—and too often there’s a lot more than a whiff—I usually start running away.

I find the way you situate yourself in the telling of these stories fascinating, particularly the use of time markers like “yesterday,” “last week,” “as I sit here,” etc.; so often the essays are presented as if they’re being written in real time. Why was it important as you edited this book to retain that sense of present telling?

Though I re-write and I re-write—sometimes in my head if not on paper—I always do try and keep in mind where I was, what I was doing, when I first began to think about something. And I often do write on the move. In the car, on a bike, walking. Motion joggles my brain. And I always try as you say to retain that moment in a re-write. It’s a way, I guess, of trying to stay a little true to the original impulse of a piece.

In “Upper Moose Lake, 1990” you write “There are certain rare books…Finishing is agony because you know you will never again read this book for the first time.” I devoured Am I Alone Here? from the introduction to the acknowledgments, and like your twenty-two-year-old self who agonizes over finishing Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I didn’t want it to end. I wish I had taken the time to read each piece discretely and ruminated on it before moving to the next. How much of this project relies on the cumulative effect of the book? Or have you designed this collection so that it can be accessed from any point?

Like a lot of writers, I sweat the order of the pieces so much—and then people of course (I do it too) go and read it out of order. There should be criminal penalties for this! I’ll be the first to turn myself in. But cumulative effect is what I’m always after whether it’s here in an essay collection, or a novel, or a book of stories. The parts should stand alone but the whole should mean something different, more, I hope.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! As you might know, our audience is made up of some voracious readers, so we’re often recommending books. Will you share with us a book you recently agonized over finishing?

Ah, thank you very much, Sara, for being such a generous, open reader. I agonized over finishing John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, a remarkable book that can’t be categorized. Another one of these books that cracks open any notion of genre because it is too busy being whatever it is, which is an indictment, a heart-crushing story, a beautiful unearthing of buried truths, and a lot of other things.

Interviewer Sara A. Lewis is Interim Editor of Memorious and Managing Editor of the Memorious blog. She has been an Assistant Editor for the Mississippi Review, and she earned her doctorate from The University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.

Editor’s Note: Peter Orner and Sara A. Lewis are aware that “classifiability” is not a word. We went with it anyway.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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In Memoriam: Fuck Whale

Memorious is excited to introduce our new column, “In Memoriam,” in which a writer pays tribute to the memory of something or someone now gone.  For our first post, fiction writer and poet David Ebenbach tackles the complexities of (that’s right) Fuck Whale.

220px-david_ebenbach_005Do you know the story of Brigadoon? It’s a movie, actually, and the way it goes is that two Americans wandering through Scotland happen across a town called Brigadoon, a magical town that appears once every hundred years and only for a single day, after which it disappears again.

Fuck Whale was sort of like that.

When I was a junior in college I spent a semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. My reasons for choosing Strasbourg were vague and, in retrospect, not extremely compelling. Number one: I felt that, as a college student, I was expected to study abroad. Number two: I had some knowledge of French. (Specifically, I had studied it in high school but not at all since, which meant that I couldn’t speak the language, and my recognition skills were such that I could usually recognize whether a person was speaking French or not, but didn’t know what they were saying.) Number three: my Ohio college ran a study abroad program in Strasbourg.

So, I went, and, although I found good friends among my fellow students, I was still mopey and homesick pretty much the entire time. For most of my life, I had lived in one place—the inner-city neighborhood of West Philadelphia—and so even Ohio had been foreign to me; Strasbourg was another planet. Plus I was very, very, broke. In order to save money that semester I skipped so many meals (and the student meals were only like two dollars each, somehow) that I lost ten pounds. Plus I was actively pining, because I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman who did not, I think, realize that we were in a relationship at all.

Well, I tried to keep myself busy. I did a lot of journal-writing that semester, and I also took a lot of pictures. In particular, I took pictures of graffiti. I think the graffiti reassured this West Philly kid in the same way that a beautiful mountain range would have reassured a person from, what, Colorado? Maybe. It was familiar, is my point.

There was great graffiti in Strasbourg. Some of it was stenciled and layered and actively beautiful, but the bare-bones freehand stuff was pretty charming, too. Most of the graffiti was in French, of course, like “Quand on est mort, on peut difficilement se beurrer une tartine” (i.e., “When one is dead, it is difficult to butter toast”) and “FAITES CACA PARTOUT” (“Make caca everywhere”). So, that was good motivation for me to learn French. But there was also a little graffiti in English, such as in one half of this mini-debate about public transportation that I found on a wall:

NON AU TRAMWAY!” (“No to the Tramway!”)

“Tramway it is a better machine.”

So, public discourse across linguistic barriers. Even better, at one point that semester, when I was in an underground tunnel in Berlin, I came across “WEST PHILLY 89” written on one wall.

But nothing beat Fuck Whale. Or, I should say: “FUCK WHALE,” spray-painted freehand in black letters on a wall somewhere in the center of Strasbourg. But I mean it when I say “somewhere”—I didn’t seem to be able to find that wall on purpose. I would search and search through all the weird zigzag streets and not find it, especially when I wanted to show one of my friends in the study abroad program. But then, when I particularly needed it (say, on an especially homesick night), I would stumble across Fuck Whale. Out of nowhere, there it would be, like Brigadoon.

It was always a reassuring sight, even though (or maybe because) I didn’t know what the thing meant. Was it an expletive? (e.g., after hitting thumb with hammer: “Fuck whale!”) Or was it advice? Was it a smackdown of a particular whale? Was it actually a species that I’d never heard of? Who knew? Fuck Whale was a beautiful graffiti mystery.

fw1

A very young David Ebenbach

One thing I felt sure of: Whoever had spray-painted those words had what is commonly called joie de vivre (i.e., “not homesick”). I wanted joie de vivre, too. And if I couldn’t have it (I couldn’t), I wanted to be near it, spray-painted on a wall.

And so the semester went like that. I wrote in my journal; I traveled a little bit, as cheaply as possible; I skipped meals; I checked my mailbox constantly for letters from the woman I probably wasn’t dating; I took pictures; the city of Strasbourg moved from winter to spring; I learned some French. And eventually I did figure out where Fuck Whale was. I could get to it reliably when I wanted to. By then—the end of the semester—it was like visiting a former teacher for new wisdom. Though actually the wisdom was always the same:

FUCK WHALE, it would say.

TOTALLY, I would say in return.

In the end, I survived that semester, of course. I returned to the United States with enthusiasm (joie?) that was only slightly dampened by two initial encounters: one with an angry customs official, who was incredulous that I’d spent a semester in France because, if I’d wanted to learn French, I should have done it in America since “we’ve got better schools,” and then my first sighting of a t-shirt with the English language on it, which read Hangin’ and Bangin’. But anyway I made it, and I got on with my life. I was still pretty mopey (i.e., “mild depression that would ultimately respond nicely to therapy and some helpful pills”), but I was mopey at home, and that was nice.

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-9-29-51-pmI have thought of Fuck Whale from time to time over the ensuing years. I still don’t know what it means. I still love it. And when, recently, a student of mine told me she was about
to spend a semester abroad in Strasbourg, of course I told her to look for Fuck Whale. But then she got back and told me she had never been able to find it.

More than twenty years has gone by since my own semester abroad, so the most likely thing is that someone has blasted the words off that wall. But I like to think that Fuck Whale has only temporarily vanished. That it will reappear one day, if ever there is someone wandering through that city, lost and glum, someone who’s missing something undefinable but crucial, someone who really needs it.

David Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. His fiction collections include Between Camelots (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Into the Wilderness. He has also published poetry collections, We Were the People Who Moved and Autogeography, and a collection of essays, The Artist’s Torah. He’s the Fiction Vice President at Washington Writers’ Publishing House and the blog editor at AGNI. His new fiction collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is out now from the University of Massachusetts Press. 

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jacques J. Rancourt

Jacques J. Rancourt is an Issue 26 contributor and winner of the Pleiades Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. His debut collection, Novena, is a coming-of-age and a coming out. Wresting a fractured identity from the past and making of it a gift for the beloved—and for the reader—Novena seeks redemption, wholeness.

Strapped to the “[c]lutched mast” of his ship, Rancourt’s Odysseus in “Song for the Homebound Men” is restrained against the allure of naked male sirens. The tension between the boat’s orientation (the straight, homebound narrative) and the sailor’s orientation (a queer veering, homosexual) runs throughout the collection. It’s dominated by the speaker’s outdoorsman father, by a patriarchal violence the speaker feels exiled by even as he resembles and reveres it. The product of such bound longing is song, of course, “a music box the wind tips open.” But what kind of song? Faith and prayer, myth, nature, role models, and all the other “standards hitherto publish’d” (to quote Whitman)—none of it will do, yet none of it can be done without.

Novena forges a new, unsanctioned song from the materials. “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalms decree. In the first of two “Novena” cycles, the speaker prays to a drag queen Mary to “[m]ove my lips until I believe / a man can kiss a man like this.”

Can you talk about your need for and use of neologism, at least in the sense of using conventional words unconventionally? Might this be related to the speaker’s acknowledged lack of adequate language with which to say what he means? I noticed neologism especially in the “Novena” cycles, such as “a sprout clouts her cleft” or “pummel and surge coarse my throat.”

My father is Quebecois, and my early introductions to language were garbled with roughly-pronounced Franglais phrases. Even to this day, lines come to me from the occasion of mishearing bits of dialogue or misreading lines in novels. I’m intrigued by what I think I hear or see that the actual meanings of these sentences often disappoint me. This is an experience I’ve tried to replicate in my poems. It’s a way of allowing sound to drive sense, despite having a narrative backbone to most of my poems. It allows a bit of my private world into the poems.

Can you talk about your experience publishing and the journey of the first book?

Like most poets, I sent my book out too early. I felt that because the poems themselves were done that their sum meant the book was publishable. I had no sense of the book’s structure, of the story it wanted to tell, or how to tell it. The first time I sent it out, I had the weird luck of being named a finalist for a dream contest. And then for the next two years, I received nothing but a solid flow of form rejection letters. It wasn’t until after that—after I had written some better poems, took out others that I was holding onto for superficial reasons—I went back to ground zero and restructured the whole book. Only then did I finally understand what each and every poem accomplished in the greater movement of the book. I read somewhere that you know a book is done when it feels that if you were to take out or add in just one more poem, the whole structure would topple; I think that’s as good as any advice I’ve heard on the matter. It would take another three years for the book to be taken, but I knew that it was done and that if I made any more drastic edits, I would only end up dowsing its spark. I had to trust my gut—and not the contest model—that it was done and to give myself permission to keep working on the next project.

The speaker in Novena grew up in what might be called the country. Where, specifically, did you grow up, and to what degree do your neopastoral motifs come from actual experience with “nature”? Part of the reason I ask is because, as you’ve probably noticed, foxes, wolves, and horses seem to show up in everybody’s poetry these days, country or no.

Before I was born, my father built an off-the-grid cabin in western Maine, and so I spent many of my formative years on the foot of a mountain playing by myself in the Appalachian woods. When I give readings, I do sometimes feel a compulsion to clarify that once a baby fawn really did lick my hand while I was jogging through the forest, or that one winter we really did find a barred owl frozen in the rafters of our wood shed. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, for Novena, is how far removed the speaker is from an urban gay utopia. He is isolated spiritually in a dangerous pastoral that’s rife with animals and hunters. This lens is key to understanding not only Novena but also a part of the larger gay narrative that’s spoken less of these days.

There’s a different type of closeting that occurs in the rural parts of America, which feels mostly like they’re held back in the 80’s or 90’s still. The media and even the gay narrative wants to propose that we (the queers) have been pushed beyond that and assimilated fully into the fabric of the mainstream. And yet, you go into the outreaching places of the country, and more than just the fact that coming out is still a life-risking act, there’s the pervasive toxic masculine culture that prevails there. In poems such as “American Shrapnel” and “Field,” I wanted to write toward that toxicity, to the places that have been left behind, and the sharp shred of fear implanted in all the young people who grow up there. My hope was that Novena would capture both the beauty and tenderness and oppression and fear that coincides in these communities far from the cities.

Who is the Deerman? He seems somewhat demonic, satyrlike.

Part of the project of the title sequence was to recreate a mythology: I recast the Virgin Mary as a drag queen as a way of writing a love poem that would give hope to the queer outcast but highly devout kid I was as a teenager. She represents a sort of an aloof chaste compassion, merging both divisive parts of the speakers’ identity—his faith and his queerness. The Deerman serves as her foil: a brute masculine sexuality that, at one point, literally eats the speaker up.

Where do you think you’d be as a poet without your presumably Catholic upbringing?

My family wasn’t particularly literary—or in some cases, even literate—but they were deeply religious. We studied theology in lieu of studying hard history or science (a concept that scares the hell out of me now). It did, however, instill in me the weight of symbolism, the endless interpretations and literary analysis that drives theology. When I was a teen, I used to drive hours to go to the Cathedral in Portland where in its crypt they’d hold the “Dead Theologians Society.” These conversations would be as close to poetry or literary conversations I’d have until I got to college. Even now, when I scan my lines for meter or rhythm, I trace how much I learned about syntax from these religious texts or rote prayers.

Novena’s speaker seems anxious about predecessors, and in particular about his father. He struggles to claim an identity separate from him. These concerns can’t but make me think of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence (you even kill off the father at the end). Who are the poetic parents and peers you’re split from?

I can’t help but think of Bloom’s theory as being part of a queer aesthetic. In Gay World, anxiety surrounding a rupture between generations is par for the course. Coming out has historically meant estrangement, and attempting to maintain a connection or severing that connection with family is one of the defining decisions in a gay person’s life—second only to coming out in the first place. I am interested more, though, in your question of poetic lineage, which is something I always ask my students to consider. I had a teacher who found it terribly important that a poet be able to “place themselves” in the larger conversation of who came before them. I feel a strong impulse and even obligation to recognize in the work itself those who came before and paved the way, who made the work possible in the first place. There are poems (I won’t name which) that are direct tributes to other gay poets as a way of acknowledging the path they’ve blazed and the opportunity they’ve created.

Originally from Alabama, interviewer Austin Segrest writes and teaches at Lawrence University in west-central Wisconsin, just south of Green Bay (up the north-flowing Fox). He reviews poetry for Southern Humanities Review. His poems have recently appeared in Image, Ecotone, and Grist.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Forgotten Writers: Deborah Willis on Shirley Faessler

debbieAccording to the foreword to A Basket of Apples, Shirley Faessler’s stories began as tales told around a kitchen table. Faessler ran a rooming house for actors in Toronto, and would entertain the entertainers with stories of Yankev the Bootlegger, Henye the Hunchback, and Raisel the Galloping Consumptive. This “witty and uncompromising writer”—as she was described by Alice Munro—spoke of a time, place and people that have slipped away: the 1920s and ’30s immigrant Jews of Toronto’s Kensington Market, who lived and worked, who teased and danced, who loved and married and mourned, who sipped tea through sugar cubes, who spoke accented English and passionate Yiddish.

I can never know this world, but am hungry for it because it is close to the world of my grandparents and great-grandparents. The Jewish side of my family is from Latvia and Galicia (a region that is now part of Poland and the Ukraine), whereas Faessler writes of Rumanians and Russians, but I try to imagine my people brushing up against hers—perhaps my great-grandmother knew of Mottele Blabbermouth or Misha Liar. Perhaps my great-grandfather sometimes joined “his buddies in the back room of an ice-cream parlour on Augusta Avenue for a glass of wine, a game of klaberjass, pinocle, dominoes.” Or perhaps not. Maybe the Yiddish spoken by Faessler’s characters would have been incomprehensible to the Yiddish speakers in my family. And perhaps it doesn’t matter, because Faessler’s stories are, quite simply, moving and funny and dramatic.

They take place in kitchens with peeling linoleum, around dinners where tables aren’t set but cutlery is tossed down, where the burnt edges are scraped off the honey cake. The language is as plain as the setting, but the modest people that populate the book have huge hearts, surprising the reader with their loyalty and fervor, and the dialogue crackles with humor:

“I don’t even get to drink l’chaim to the couple?” Haskele protested.

“With water,” Fenya said. “I see how people which they have weak stomachs drink l’chaim with a glass of water. And people which they have weak heads should do the same.”

Shirley Faessler was sixty years old when she published her first story in the Atlantic Monthly in 1967. She went on to publish a novel that apparently gave her difficulty (what novel doesn’t give its author difficulty?), and a collection of stories that was universally praised, even by the likes of Munro. Her work emerged from a lost world in literature, when an editor might drop by a writer’s house to ensure that she doesn’t burn her manuscript, and when a writer would give typewritten pages—the only copy of the manuscript in existence—to the editor to carry home.

Bfaessler_cvr-3d-300p-196x300ut of course, so it goes in this life (as Faessler’s sly and resigned narrative voice might say), her work fell out of print for years. When my friend, who is Faessler’s niece, handed me a copy of this collection at a dinner party, I had never heard of Shirley Faessler. Her collection is only available now thanks to the dedication of her editor, Lily Poritz Miller, and Bill Gladstone, a publisher who created Now and Then Books to preserve Toronto’s Jewish History.

Many of the stories in A Basket of Apples are told from the perspective of Sarah Glicksman, the author’s alter-ego, raised by a Rumanian father and Russian stepmother. These stories are linked, and are about the links between people: an aunt and her long-lost nephew, a stepmother and orphans, sisters and brothers. Faessler is a particularly keen observer of flawed marriages that begin with a marriage broker and end when one partner dies. She takes a long, honest look at the way Sarah’s father, who has all the economic power, is capable of harming his wife:

“More than once with one swipe of his hand my father would send a few plates crashing to the floor and stalk out. She’d sit a minute looking in our faces, one by one, then start twirling her thumbs and talking to herself. What had she done now?

“Eat!” she’d admonish us, and leaving the table would go to the mirror over the kitchen sink and ask herself face to face, “What did I do now?””

But Faessler also shows the toughness of Sarah’s stepmother, the miraculous way this woman maintains her wicked humor and sweetness. And she shows the vulnerability of the husband, who despite his temper, will soak his wife’s feet and “scrape away with a razor blade at her calluses and corns.”

Faessler is also marvelous when she writes about the ways mothers and daughters love and irritate each other:

“Why doesn’t she cut down on the bread, does she have to drink twenty glasses of tea a day? No wonder her feet are sore, carrying around all that weight…” reflects Sarah about her stepmother, only to state, a few pages later: “She breaks my heart. I want to put my arms around her, but I can’t do it.”

This relationship between stepmother Chayele and her children is the heart of the book. Tragedy doesn’t strike in these pages, but there are devastating scenes of Chayele’s stepchildren arguing over how to tell her that their father, her husband, has died—after he refused to inform his wife that he had cancer in the first place, in an attempt to spare her feelings.

the-dark“What kind of life is it to be alone?” this book asks, then starkly shows that when a wife dies, the husband will mourn her and remarry. But when a husband dies, the women deal with a more profound loneliness, struggling on in houses that are too big for them, with housework they are no longer inspired to do, relying on children who nag and adore them but are unable or unwilling to take them in.

This is a terribly realist book, unapologetically specific to its setting, but also a book that shows us humanity at its most universal. Through its tender and ironic depictions of Auntie Chayele, Pinnie the Intellectual, and other characters who are somehow both larger-than-life and humbly real, these stories capture the deep love and heart-stopping grief of ordinary lives.

Deborah Willis was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. Her fiction has appeared in The Walrus, The Virginia Quarterly, The Iowa Review, Lucky Peach, and Zoetrope. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was named one of the the Globe and Mail‘s Best Books of 2009, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Award. Her second collection of short stories, The Dark and Other Love Stories, is out now. 

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Big Loves: Jeneva Burroughs Stone on Sir Thomas Browne

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Photo by B. Farbo

Let’s face it: No one wakes up one day with the epiphany, “I must read Religio Medici!” Sir Thomas Browne’s works are funky, antiquated gems, somewhat obscure even for those who study 16th and 17th century English Renaissance Literature, as I did at Columbia University from 1987 – 1994. Browne clings like a barnacle to the hull of the old literary canon as it sails away from contemporary life.

Nonetheless. While diverse literary voices give me joy and it may sink my writing cred to embrace some dead, white British guy, I ❤ you, Thomas Browne, because I love the quirky, the strange, the cross-genre, mixed-genre, absent-genre, the unexpected, complex, contrary, and undefinable. Long, wandering sentences light me up.

Ted Tayler, a mercurial and beloved professor at Columbia, introduced me to Sir Thomas, who unwinds and rewinds “those wingy mysteries in Divinity” according to his own peculiarities of thinking, and then settles these into the commonplaces of Renaissance as though he were a geometrician explicating a proof: “I love to lose my selfe in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an o altitudo.” Browne, a physician by profession and a radical Protestant, enjoys reconciling the sciences with religion, art, and ancient cultures. He’s a consummate individual, searching for his own truths in an age dominated by the dictates of a religious establishment.

While this all sounds arcane and old-fashioned, Browne’s facility with language produce heart-rending bits such as these: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible Sun within us” [Urne-Burial], “That whom we truely love like our owne selves, wee forget their lookes, nor can our memory retaine the Idea of their faces; and it is no wonder, for they are our selves, and affection makes their lookes our owne” [Religio Medici].

browne-book-coverProfessor Tayler was obsessed with the passage about that o altitudo (I confess I never quite grasped the whole of that), while I was entranced by a long passage which begins, Natura nihil agit frustra, or Nature does nothing in vain: “There are no Grotesques in nature; nor any thing framed to fill up empty cantons, and unnecessary spaces; in the most imperfect creatures, and such as were not preserved in the Arke, but having their seeds and principles in the wombe of nature, are every-where the power of the Sun is.” I won’t see this for a long time, but here Browne touches lightly upon an idea that Darwin will later call natural selection, and geneticists will understand as DNA replication and recombination.

The seeds and principles of my first book, Monster, sprouted from my son Robert’s sudden onset genetic illness at the age of one (which left him with profound disabilities). Suddenly, I was plunged into the mysteries of the body, medicine, and disability. The only way I could reconcile these new fields of knowledge was through literature—old and new, what I was once and what I must grow to become. My approach has been much like Browne’s, to meditate upon mysteries and unexpected connections.

Any able-bodied person coming to an enlightened understanding of disability must confront all the stereotypes that accompany it: ugliness, brokenness, irreconcilable difference, monstrosity. These wound. But in Religio Medici, Sir Thomas offers another way of parsing these insults that turns them inside out:

I hold there is a general beauty in all the works of God, and therefore no deformity in any kind or species of creature whatsoever: I cannot tell by what Logick we call a Toad, a Beare, or an Elephant, ugly; they being created in those outward shapes and figures which best expresse the actions of their inward formes; and having past with approbation that generall visitation of God, who saw that all that he had made was good, that is, conformable to his will, which abhors deformity, and is the rule of order and beauty. There is therefore no deformity but in monstrosity, wherein notwithstanding there is a kind of beauty, Nature so ingeniously contriving those irregular parts, as they become sometimes more remarkable than the principall Fabrick. To speake yet more narrowly, there was never anything ugly, or mis-shapen, but the Chaos; wherein notwithstanding, to speake strictly, there was no deformity, because no forme …

Granted, Browne sets his arguments within the context of Christianity—and I respect those who question religious belief, particularly Christian hegemony—yet when I read this passage, I skip the Christian context and read it as a statement of ethical humanism. That is, strip away the era’s reliance on the structures of religious faith, and that’s what I see: Be cautious as you deploy the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, which may be at all times false.

monster_cover-copyBut returning to “the seeds and principles in the wombe of nature,” the more I studied genetics and genomics, the more I knew about DNA’s role in nature, the more I understood that DNA is the original and only monster: Its sole purpose is to replicate and produce variation, mutation, difference. As I write in “Notes on Creativity & Originality,” a meditation in Monster, “Evolution, therefore, might be an opportunistic engine expending energy in multiple directions simultaneously—not a progress toward perfection, if that’s what art is—or the making of it—revision ever onward toward an ideal.” So, yes, art may and must be monstrous, too: mixed-genre, asymmetrical, filled with irregularity, nonconformity, and difference.

I’ll always search for ways to speak of (but not for) my disabled son, and to complicate and unsettle disability stereotypes. For that, I have had Thomas Browne as a model of contrariness and individualism. Think freely; think for yourselves, no matter what norms or conventions you must overthrow or redefine.

Jeneva Burroughs Stone’s Monster, a linked collection of poetry and essays, is out now from Phoenicia Publishing. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the Colorado Review, Poetry International, Los Angeles Review of BooksPleiades, and other magazines. Her work in nonfiction has been honored with fellowships from the MacDowell and Millay Colonies. She holds an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers, a PhD from Columbia University, and a BA from Middlebury College. She does volunteer work for Rare Genomics Institute and CareGifted, the first dedicated to helping families of undiagnosed children find answers, the second to long-term caregiver respite. She is also a contributing editor to Pentimento: Journal of All Things Disability, which is dedicated to promoting the voices of caregivers and writers with disabilities. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn

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Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four seasons, it is also a love letter addressed to a daughter lost to miscarriage. The poem is vividly, beautifully awake to the world, which has been reconfigured by absence, but also by a sense of being stranded, being caught in the act of becoming. Just as the poem questions how to grieve for a child who both was and was not here, so it also struggles with the aftermath of that loss. How can someone be a parent who has never had a child? With whom can he share the strangeness and wonder of New York, if not the expected child, whose hand he will never hold? A sparrow, music from a foreign instrument, a wild creature navigating the streets of New York, a Chinese day of mourning—everything becomes a form of attention, and a kind of prayer, and everything becomes something the poem wants, desperately, to both love and share.

In addition to Dear Almost, contributor Matthew Thorburn is the author of the full-length collections This Time Tomorrow (Waywiser), Every Possible Blue (CW Books), and Subject to Change (New Issues), as well as two chapbooks, A Green River in Spring (Autumn House) and Disappears in the Rain (Parlor City). Thorburn is a former Witter Bynner fellow at the Library of Congress. His poems are widely published in journals, including Memorious 16 and 26, and his work has been recognized with fellowships from the Bronx Council on the Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He writes a monthly feature for the Ploughshares blog and lives in New York City with his wife and son.

My first question has to do with form and structure in your poems. Subject to Change, your first book, was as formally inventive as any recent book—stanza forms, prose poems, experimental forms, poems in sections, a section of a poem written as a numbered list. Dear Almost is a long poem in sections, and it is formally consistent, so I was wondering about how your relationship to form has evolved since you wrote the poems in Subject to Change. 

Looking back on it, 12 years after it was published, Subject to Change seems like a lot of first books in that it’s a bit of a miscellany, put together from the poems I’d written during grad school and in the years just before and after. I was definitely interested in trying new things then (and still am, though what makes them “new” might be less obvious now). I also think in many of those poems I was maybe driven more by my interest in experimenting with language than by a desire to say some particular thing, to tell a specific story or convey a certain feeling or mood.

Dear Almost has its roots in the opposite situation: a very particular and difficult experience—the loss of an unborn child in a miscarriage—that I wanted to shape a meditative narrative around. It’s also a book that sets out to answer a question: How do you mourn for someone you never really knew, never met or saw? In a subtler way, there is a little of that experimenter’s spirit in Dear Almost too, though. The second section of the book, “The Light that Lasts All Summer,” is one continuous narrative book-ended by two haiku. Also, though the reader probably can’t tell, I wrote the whole book-length poem in bits and fragments in a completely non-linear way, then pieced it all together like a mosaic, framed by the changing seasons, from one spring to the next. So the actual writing and construction of the poem—Will it all fit together? Will this odd assembly work?— felt like a major, multi-year experiment to me.

Dear Almost is a season suite, with each section corresponding to a season. This seems to me to be a more far-eastern approach to organizing a poem, and in fact, early sections mention Shanxi Province and Qingming. I know you have traveled in China and that your wife Lillian is Chinese American, and the acknowledgements of the book reference lessons in Mandarin. Could you talk a little about Chinese language, culture, and poetry, and how (or if) they influenced the writing and the final shape of Dear Almost? 

cover“Season suite”—I love how that perfectly captures what I’d never really thought of as a form before. Something I learned from classical Chinese poetry is how poets like Meng Hao Jan and Wang Wei would write about the seasons as a way of describing their own inner weather. From what I understand, there’s almost never a first-person pronoun in Chinese poems written in that time. I talk about this a little in Dear Almost. While I didn’t try to avoid the “I” in my book, I did focus on the changing seasons as a way of amplifying or echoing emotions, and to convey the passing of time during the period of mourning the poem describes.

I want to be clear, though, that I’m not an expert, not even a student of classical Chinese poetry. I’m an amateur reader who has been moved by, and tried to learn from, certain translations of Chinese poems. What I’ve learned about Chinese poetry has come from reading books like David Hinton’s wonderful anthology, Classical Chinese Poetry (which I had a chance to write about here) and their introductory essays. I’ve also had the chance to talk with my mother-in-law, who is a great reader of Chinese poetry in Chinese, about different English versions of certain poems, and to hear which translations she likes better, and why—and to try to put into words which translations I prefer, as poems in English.

Beyond that, as you mentioned, I’ve been grateful to learn about and experience Chinese culture through my wife’s family, and to share that with Lillian and our son. Some of those experiences naturally found a place in Dear Almost. Qingming (or “Tomb-Sweeping Day”), for instance, is a time to honor ancestors and visit their graves, which found its way into the book pretty naturally. As for the language, I think I studied Chinese just enough to get a sense of how extremely difficult it can be to learn, especially for adults. I’ve picked up some words and phrases of spoken Chinese as my son advances in both languages (he’s three)—so that I can sometimes get a sense of what he and Lillian are talking about—but not enough to hold up my end of a conversation.

I know that Elizabeth Bishop is one of your touchstone poets—someone whose work you return to again and again. And it seems to me that you share her interest in writing about travel, her interest in place as an idea that can shape poems. Dear Almost looks, physically, on the page, very like some of Bishop’s poems—I’m thinking here of “At the Fishhouses” and “In the Waiting Room.” Both depend on fairly short, loosely syllabic lines and a strong rhythm. I have a two-part question about you and Bishop. The first part is what you learned from reading her work, especially what you learned about long poems and the shorter poetic line. 

You’re absolutely right: Bishop is one of my touchstones. I admire and keep coming back to many of her poems. I love her attentiveness, her way of staying with something and looking at it from different angles, and how she conveys a sense of the mind in motion, working through things on the page. Her “Poem,” which is my favorite of her poems, is a great example of this. How she studies and thinks about this little painting, carefully, meditatively, and then suddenly: “Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!” I love that moment of amazed recognition, and the way the poem takes a turn into more personal territory there. I had the thrill of seeing the actual painting that “Poem” describes in a show of Bishop’s own paintings and a few items she had owned at the Tibor de Nagy gallery here in New York some years ago.

I try to emulate that kind of attentiveness in my own poems, and something like that way of showing the mind at work. Her poems about Brazil, and the way her work embodies the possibilities that travel and cross-cultural experiences can offer for a writer, have been important to me too. There’s an affinity between the traveler and the poet: for both, everything should be new and strange, and require and reward careful study and consideration. I wasn’t conscious of emulating her use of short, syllabic lines, but it’s not surprising to suppose I might have done it without realizing it. I definitely do admire how that kind of tight, crisp line can propel the narrative in a poem like “In the Waiting Room.”

The second part is about content. She was, famously, resistant to the confessional mode of her peers. And yet her most well-known poems are her most deeply felt and personal ones—“One Art,” which tackles losing a love, “Sestina,” which seems to reference her childhood in Nova Scotia, and “In the Waiting Room,” which references places and events we know are part of her childhood. I think of her stance on autobiographical content as a kind of poise, or reticence maybe, or some sort of distillation of feeling through both craft and time. Obviously, Dear Almost is a deeply felt book, but it is also a deeply crafted book. It engages with the deeply personal in ways your previous books do not seem to. Can you discuss how you negotiated, in the writing and editing of Dear Almost, your own stance on autobiographical content, time, and craft?

I agree—I think Bishop sometimes conveys a feeling of intense, deeply felt emotion by seeming to hold most of it back, so that that restraint suggests the overwhelming emotion welling up behind her carefully chosen words. That’s not something I’ve tried to emulate very much, if at all, but I admire it in her poems.

While Dear Almost is not an especially formal poem, the frame of the four seasons—knowing from early in the writing that it would take place over the course of a year, and be shaped by that progression from one spring to the next—provided some necessary boundaries to work within and against in writing about this very personal and painful experience. As I mentioned, I drafted most of the poem in bits and pieces in my notebook, because that was the only way I could approach this experience at first, in a kind of glancing way, a few lines at a time. Then I did a lot of work to fit those pieces together into a narrative within that frame. Without that frame, or some kind of similar constraint, I could see all these lines and images just spiraling out away from me.

In addition to your full-length collections, you have published two chapbooks. One of them, Disappears in the Rain seems to be your first published very long poem, though even in Subject to Change, you have a couple of longer poems—“Three Part Constructed Form / For M. Duchamp” and “The River.” By contrast, A Green River in Spring is a collection of very short poems. What draws you to the long-form poem? What does a book-length poem afford as far as challenges and rewards in contrast to shorter poems? And specifically, at what point in the drafting process did it come to you/did you decide that Dear Almost was a book-length poem?

I sometimes daydream in the abstract about books I’d like to write—a book of prose poems, for instance, or a book of 26 poems named after objects that runs from A to Z. So I had had the idea for a while of a book-length poem that follows the seasons over the course of a year, though with no idea what it would be “about.” This was a couple years before we experienced the loss Dear Almost centers around. On the other hand, I truly don’t remember exactly when I started writing about this loss, addressing lines and images to our “almost girl.” I just remember being in the midst of it. Once I got going, though, it seemed clear pretty quickly that this could be a long poem—and that the thinking I’d already done about what a book-length poem might look like, the shape it might take, could suddenly be very helpful. I wasn’t sure for quite a while whether this thing I was writing would work as a book, or even as a poem, but I could see that what I was doing would at least be book-length.

Because I had never written a book-length poem before, in some ways Dear Almost is also about writing a book-length poem, and includes some references to its own writing within the narrative. While the loss at the center of the poem was difficult to keep facing up to, the actual work of writing and revising, of shaping the poem into a four-part narrative, was something I really enjoyed. I would carry a print-out of the manuscript in my briefcase when I went to work each day, so I could re-read it and mark up line edits on my commute, and during my lunch hour. I liked the steady work of this long poem, of being able to just stay in it for so long, to live with it and within it, and keep trying to make it better. I also enjoyed figuring out how all the different pieces of the poem could work together—for instance, how variations and repetitions of certain images or phrases could create connections between different parts of the narrative.

One of the things I love about epistolary poems is that they willfully exclude the reader, putting audience on the outside of a kind of a conversation, of a deep intimacy. We are meant to overhear, to learn from overhearing, from being an audience. In this, epistolary poems seem to be closer to theatre than other kinds of poems. Epistolary poems afford access to drama, to a kind of withholding and release of information. And again, a two-part question: When did you know Dear Almost would be addressed to this lost child? Did the choice arise organically, or did you, at some point, decide to make the book an epistle? 

Leslie, that is a wonderful way to think about epistolary poems, as being like theatrical performances. Some of the earliest lines I wrote for Dear Almost addressed our lost child as “you.” I don’t think I thought about it objectively at the time—I just started writing and that was how I wrote. It felt natural to me. What I wanted most of all was to have some kind of contact with this person I had imagined and looked forward to, but would now know only in my imagining. This was my way of trying to deal with my feelings of grief and heartache over this sudden, staggering loss. I wanted to talk to our lost child, to be with her in the only way I could—in words. I knew of course it was just imagining, and possibly not a “healthy” way to deal with grief, but this was my way of holding on. Even in the short time we had been expecting, it seemed like we had imagined so much of what our life together would be like, and I wanted to keep imagining a little longer. The book is, as you suggest, very much a letter, starting with its title, which the reader gets to read over my shoulder.

Leslie Harrison is the author of The Book of Endings (Akron) and Displacement (Mariner). Recent poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in Baltimore. 

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