by Dennis Etzel Jr.
I have the honor in interviewing my mentor from The University of Kansas, Joseph Harrington, about his first book of poetry: “Things Come On: An Amneoir,” (published by Wesleyan Press).
Dennis: Could you tell me where the title comes from and what an amneoir is?
Joseph: Well, the book is about my mother’s dying – and the Watergate scandal, which was happening at exactly the same time. She wrote a letter with some “last requests” – I reproduce the letter in the book – and it begins with “This experience has taught me how fast things can ‘come on’ – and should the bad times come, it is hard to make decisions.” I find this sentence very striking. Here is a woman who knows she is dying, she writes this letter to try to make things easier on her husband, and she opens the letter in this kind of casual, reflective manner. I think that speaks to her character, and to the cultural role of the “Southern lady.” There’s an expectation that she will be stoical and self-composed at all times, and always think of others first. That role is highly problematic. But I do have to marvel at her strength. It’s a complete contrast with Richard Nixon, who is a self-pitying, paranoid, blubbering jerk throughout the entire Watergate era.
I really value these documents and artifacts, because I don’t really remember a great deal about her. That’s where the subtitle comes in – a portmanteau word combining “amnesia” and “memoir.” I’m having to largely rely on the documents and testimony from others to find out what happened – which struck me as very like the Congress and the American people during Watergate. There were lots of “cover-up’s” in regards to both political dirty tricks and cancer. There’s also the shadow-word “anti-memoir” in there, too. I have mixed feelings about that genre. I love hearing people’s stories, but then there’s something a little stagey and even self-absorbed about a lot of memoir writing. I really want this book to be about my mom, not about me. And it’s part of a larger project about her life and times.
Dennis: I know you are working with collage. What kind of approach did you set out with (anything from what you started with to any influences, style and/or poet)?
Joseph: I knew that I wanted to build the book around the record – artifacts, testimony, evidence. In that respect, you could call it a “documentary poem.” Much of my job as author was editing and suturing the various pieces – along with bits of other types of texts, such as the Meditations of St. Ignatius. And reflecting on them and on the process. So, it lent itself to collage. I also have a fascination with scrapbooks – which are I think looked down upon to some extent – and very much “feminized” in our culture. But they are serious efforts to create memoirs and memorials via excerpts and objects. There is a lot about my mom I wouldn’t know, had she not kept a scrapbook as a kid. And I just love the way they look. Somebody called the scrapbook a form of “popular modernism,” and I think that’s right. It seems appropriate to draw upon the scrapbook form for this project.
I am also struck by how much elegiac and eulogistic writing these days combines different genres in the same work. For instance, Anne Carson’s Nox, Eleni Sikelianos’ The Book of Jon, Susan Howe’s The Midnight, Kristin Prevallet’s I, Afterlife, and a bunch of other ones. I still don’t know for sure why that would be, but perhaps the best explanation is in Prevallet’s book: “If the body of the text has suffering at its root, then language will take a fragmented, torn-apart form, as if it too is suffering.” Other influences? Dictee, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Howe’s historical poems, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje – and Charles Olson’s Maximus poems – and all its precursors, Pound, especially. There’s a lot of precedent.
Dennis: When you mentioned elegiac writing, several poetic works came to mind, like Topeka-native Kevin Young’s Dear Darkness and his follow-up editing of The Art of Losing. Your mention of the Modernists up to Contemporary poets shows how the elegy remains a viable, powerful form, while other forms of “mourning” (like Confessional poetry) seem to have “come and went.” Why do you think that is? I’d also like to hear your views about what this means on the social landscape.
Joseph: I guess it depends on how broadly one wishes to define the elegy – or “the elegiac.” There is elegy in the narrower sense of a poem mourning the loss of the dear departed, and certainly that is a mode that has never gone away – including elegy in traditional forms. But I think that, in a broader sense, a lot of poetry of the last 50 years feels elegiac in a broader, more indefinite sense. When I read a long poem by John Ashbery, for instance, it seems to partake of a low-grade melancholy for something that has been lost – though it’s never altogether clear what. Ultimately, I think it’s certitude – confidence in language as a communicative medium, in the self as a stable and unified entity. It’s that postmodern sense of belatedness and displacement, I guess. But then, as you suggest, there are more concrete reasons to mourn, like the deterioration of the biosphere, of democracy, of privacy. Sometimes that kind of mourning feels angry and sad at once – as in some of (Topeka-native) Ben Lerner’s work. I guess Things Come On does both – it’s about my mother’s dying, obviously, but also about the Watergate scandal, which was going on at the same time (when I was a kid). So it’s also an elegy for the America I grew up in – the pre-Nixon America, but also for the country that brought Nixon down (and the Vietnam War with him). The entire country was watching the Watergate hearings in the summer of 1973. Can you imagine such a thing today? By the time of Iran-Contra, Watergate seemed quaint.
Dennis: Do you have other works or projects going on?
Joseph: Oh yeah. Things Come On is part of a larger project about my mother’s life and times – we’re talking 1920-1974 – I’m projecting there are going to be three more books in the series. I’ve written one of them, called No Soap, which is about her growing up in a small town in West Tennessee in a family of all women during the Great Depression and World War II. It’s been a lot of research – not only into my mom’s life, but also into women artists in the mid-twentieth-century, Capitol Hill in the 50s, Memphis in the 60s, the experience of being an “older” mother in the 60s, etc. Many ramifications – and now the fun part of trying to turn it into something like a work of literature!
I also write lyric poems – I just had a chapbook called earth day suite published by Beard of Bees Press in Chicago. It’s a free download at their web site. I’m revising a large article about documentary poetry for Jacket2.
Dennis: No Soap sounds intriguing, to include the voices of women not often heard from when we think of history—even of the Twentieth Century. Congratulations on earth day suite, too. You told me you enjoy online publishing because more people have access to poems, and I know there are wonderful lit mags out there online for people to discover. Which would you recommend, and what other advice would you give beginning poets?
Joseph: Thanks, Dennis. Earth day suite is published by Beard of Bees press in Chicago, which provides free chapbooks every couple of months as PDFs (www.beardofbees.com). As to on-line mags – well, part of No Soap was published in The Collagist, a wonderful journal put out monthly by novelist Matt Bell and Dzanc Books. Fact-Simile is fabulous, too – one of the few places that regularly publishes “open-form” (or -field) poetry that uses the white space on the page; they also produce hand-printed books, so they aren’t papyrophobes. Theirs is a downloadable PDF, but you can also write to them and they’ll send you a bound paper copy for the price of postage. Cricket Online Review has a great variety of work, too, as does No Tell Motel, which publishes a poem daily, along with a statement by the poet discussing the poem. Tarpaulin Sky is edited by a different person or persons each issue, which makes for an interesting mix.
The best thing for a beginning poet to do is to go to Selby’s List: www.selbyslist.com – and browse. It’s super easy to browse on-line mags, because you don’t have to go anywhere: you can read a few poems from each and see if it’s simpatico.
And the most important thing for a beginning poet to do is to read poetry – the poetry that is being written now. If you’re writing poetry without reading it, you’re writing in a vacuum – which, in addition to being lonely, means you’re missing out on a lot of work that could stimulate your own imagination. And if you don’t read what’s written today, you’re probably writing stuff that’s “been done” – which is OK, if you do it intentionally, but kind of sad, if it’s by default.
history becomes fate when
it’s over with
no more disjunct
than this world
A gateway timeout occurred
The server / is unreachable
a keeling curve
this starts to be how it gets
love filters : red void
Molly’s mussels live-o
while she dies-o –
that’s the point, see?
is a character too
One remembers that, if not what
The space is more historical
than the stars