Joseph Harrison’s books of poetry include Someone Else’s Name, Identity Theft, Shakespeare’s Horse, and Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt Whitman. He is Senior American Editor for Waywiser Press and directs the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize.
Katherine Hollander: Joe, thank you so much for talking with me about your wonderful and impressive new collection, Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt Whitman! Your book has a deliciously audacious title. And in it we find not just Whitman but Dickinson, Dickens, Frost, Shakespeare, Hugo, Hardy, and others. Yet your voice is quite clearly yours—and having heard you read aloud, which was a wonderful experience, it’s very clear how much that is true. Can you say a little about that juxtaposition? What kind of conversation is this poetic voice having with all these other writerly voices?
Joseph Harrison: A rather intricate conversation, after all these years. I have always been interested in intertextuality, even since studying with Harold Bloom at Yale, and, as I have grown older, and especially in this book, I find the ways I am haunted (and I mean that word literally) by other poets and other poems has become central to my work.
KH: Can you say more about being literally (and literarily) haunted? Are the voices ghostly?
JH: Where do poems come from? For me, they often come from other poems. I hear them knocking around in my head, constantly. What I know of poetry I have learned from reading it, at least as much as from writing it. And I will admit, though it sounds a bit extravagant, that I do actually think of myself as a shaman of sorts, summoning the dead, though they only speak through the filter of my own voice.
KH: Tanya Larkin once said to me (about my poems, but I think it applies to so many poets’ poems) something beautiful about “only poetry can give the real consciousness of a real ghost.” I loved that. It sounds like something similar is at work in your process. But at the same time I find this book very awake, observant, and mordant–not dreamy like a haunting...The Whitman in the book actively misses his body, for example, and rejects his own hagiography.
JH: That’s very nice of you to say. Yes, for me the haunting effect, though mysterious, is not fuzzy or blurry or dreamy. It’s quite vivid and forceful. With the Whitman, for instance, I tried to think of what he would think about all that’s been made of him. I think he would be skeptical, and amused. And the Whitman voice, as it came to me, seemed to be articulating that. It almost felt like automatic writing, being that close to another poet’s rhythms and lineation. But of course it wasn’t automatic at all. I threw out more of those poems than I kept, so I certainly didn’t always get it right.
KH: Dora and I were talking about that dichotomy–the mystery of making poems (who can explain it? Automatic writing does capture the feeling sometimes) and then the real and sometimes shrewd work and craft of making them, or making them better, or re-making them. I think it would be sort-of wonderful to be inhabited by Whitman that way. But then the re-working.
About the rhythm and lineation you mention, there is a rainbow of different forms in this book, but if I’m not missing something, each poem is formal, and playing by a set of rules of which, I’m sure you’re extremely tired of hearing, many poets have taken their leave. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how the form and the content of a poem come together for you—three of my favorites, “Stopping,” “The Demon Dinanukht” and “The Retreat,” for example, couldn’t be more different from one another, and each is all the more effective because of its specific formal elements. How do you make choices about matching the vessel to what goes inside it? Or is it more organic than that, and content and form are already joined much earlier in the process?
JH: I believe that, in truth, all poems are formal: they have some sort of shape, some sort of form, regular or irregular. So I tend to resist the “formalist” label (though it does get pinned on me), as it often carries a hint of the pejorative–as if the poems are stiff or stuffy, which I hope mine aren’t. But, that said, much of the challenge for me, in any individual poem, is figuring out what form it should take, given its subject. So form and content are really inextricable, from the get-go. The form is the poem, the poem is the form, the vehicle and tenor should seem inseparable and inevitable, or the poem isn’t going to work. “Stopping” knew where it was going (the last two lines came first), so it had to be in the stanza of the Frost poem. “The Retreat” had Hugo’s couplets to work from, which is a bit different. “The Demon Dinanukht” had to find its own way, and make up its own form. But once I had the first stanza the form was set.
KH: I love the form of “The Demon Dinanukht” and I didn’t know it had been made up specifically for that poem. I’d like to borrow it! Does it have a name?
JH: No, it doesn’t. We can give it one if we wish (perhaps Algernon?), and yes, you would be more than welcome to use it. I don’t know that I will be using it again. But many of the poems in the book are in “nonce” forms, that I’ve invented for the particular occasion.
KH: Thank you! And so The Algernon is born.
Of course you are right about the associations that attach themselves to what gets called “formalism,” which I find funny–think if we felt that all figurative paintings or realistic novels were stiff and fussy, simply because abstract expressionism had been invented? I mean, I know some people do feel that way, but it’s a minority opinion, it seems to me, and plenty of novels continue to be linear and have recognizable plots and things. I like the idea of erasing–or rendering or revealing as less useful–that divide by insisting that all poems have a form. We’d all do well to keep that in mind, as poets.
JH: I do think those false dichotomies (form vs. freedom, personal vs. impersonal, etc.) are traps of a sort, that keep poets from appreciating, and attempting, different kinds of poems than the ones they are used to reading and writing. We’d best move beyond them, if we can.
KH: Yes. What you say about the form and the content being one, and the poem not working if those two things aren’t working together is really true of every poem. That said, as someone who certainly is aware of metre and sound and sometimes rhyme in my poems but, “aware” in this case really means in a kind of subconscious way, where I go back and say, “Oh! That sounds good together, now I know why,” I am impressed by the clarity and regularity of what you are able to achieve. I recall you saying something about not liking poems where you can anticipate the next rhyme from a mile away, and I find that in this book, those kinds of elements always surprise me, in the best way–the exact opposite of being able to anticipate.
JH: Again, that’s kind of you to say. One does want to surprise the reader: I think the poems we most remember do that. And the best moments in writing are, for me, when the poem surprises me, when it seems to have a mind of its own and takes me someplace I wouldn’t have imagined going. That’s where I find rhyme often helps to open things up. I’ll write a line, then think “What the hell am I going to find to rhyme with that,” then I will think of a word that does, one that I wouldn’t have thought of putting in that particular poem, but suddenly it does fit and turns the poem in an interesting new direction. The poems are often smarter than I am. Luckily for them.
KH: Is there an example from the book of a rhyme that surprised you?
JH: I’ll confess that the poems are far enough in the past now that I don’t recall most of the struggles of composition. But one example would be in “The Compromised Ventriloquist,” section two, when, in describing the ventriloquist’s dummy, I concluded a line with the word “puppet.” I then thought, “Well, that was a mistake: how am I going to get out of this one?” Then the phrase “one up it” arrived, and it seemed to fit the repartee between straight man and clever dummy.
KH: Ha! I like it.
Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss?
JH: It’s very difficult. I feel this book is the one I’ve been working toward writing all my life, the one everything else has led up to, so to have it come out on March 15 seems a rather cruel blow. But of course it’s a much less cruel blow than so many have suffered in this horrible crisis. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, though. I had a whole series of readings scheduled that I had to postpone or cancel. And I very much enjoy reading, so I miss the chance to perform. But I have started doing some Zoom readings. These aren’t ideal, of course, but they are something. And they have the advantage of being accessible to people wherever they are. So there may be ways to make lemonade from those lemons. We have to try. And I am grateful to Dora and yourself for providing this platform for some of us stuck in this strange limbo.
KH: It does hurt, it’s awful. And I’m sorry.
Before we wrap up, can I ask, What’s a question you would want to be asked about your new book, and how would you answer it?
JH: You’ve asked wonderful questions, and I don’t think I could improve on them. But the question one does always want to be asked is “How can I get a copy?” And the answer is through the Waywiser Press website, or through the website of SPD, our American distributor. I would urge curious readers not to buy the book on Amazon, for all the convenience, because once they’ve sold at their price and taken their cut the press gets literally pennies on each volume. Bookstores, distributors, small presses are all clinging to the side of the cliff at the moment, so anything that can be done to keep them alive is worth doing. I hope that’s not too self-serving an answer.
KH: Not in the slightest! We need our bookstores, our presses, our distributors. We need to help them so they will be there after the pandemic resolves. I think we are all missing the real, the in-person, the physical object–getting a real book, that the person who sold it to us or delivered it to us was paid something like a real wage for…we all need that, and to support that, more than ever now. And poetry can ground us in real sounds and real ideas and images. I found that in your book!
JH: Thank you. Poetry has been around a very long time. It has survived many things, and it will survive this. And though presses and distributors and bookstores only last so long, the art itself continues, as it has for millenia. Feeling a part of that history is a privilege. A responsibility, too.
KH: I think you, and Waywiser, bear that responsibility well. And I hope that your book will find its readers, even in this moment of history. Thank you so much for talking with me about it!
JH: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Find Joseph Harrison’s Sometimes I Dream That I Am Not Walt Whitman here.