The Rumpus Poetry Book Club interviews Joseph Harrington about his recent collection Things Come On.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Joseph Harrington. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited transcript here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
BrianS: Time to get started. Who’s got a question for Joe?
Thelma: Q for Joe. I wondered if putting the book together from all the documents helped you recall things you had totally forgotten prior to that.
Joe Harrington: Hmm. Good question, Thelma. I’m not sure that it did. The documents are more prosthetic memories, really— filling in the gaps—or trying to. Trying to compose the Whole Story, as though that were possible. But I’m sure I’ll remember some memory I re-remembered as a result of the documents a little later.
Sean Singer: It seems to me that writers of history are concerned with content, never form, and creative writers with form and not content. What ways do you find with hybrid work to combine the two?
Joe Harrington: Well, I think of Olson’s (really Creeley’s) statement that “Form is always an extension of content”—I know there are problems with that, but it intuitively seems right. Or “You go on your nerve,” as Frank O’Hara says. But I wanted those gaps or seams to show, in this book, to emphasize that this is something being constructed—which is true of memory generally, I think. And I love scrapbooks.
BrianS: Were there moments when your memory conflicted with either a written record or with the memory of another person? And if so, how did you deal with the conflict?
Joe Harrington: Oh yeah, Brian—starting at the very beginning, where I list multiple different versions of when the book actually happened.
Sean Singer: So, what formal challenges are there in merging poetry and non-fiction? I see you, David Shields, Simone Weil, and Frank Bidart, for example, in “Ellen West,” handle this problem differently.
Joe Harrington: Well, I think we’re trained by the institutions of literature to think of “non-fiction” and “poetry” as being separate categories, which would have seemed pretty strange to Homer—I don’t see quite the same conflict. Sometimes I’m recounting something that feels prosaic, at other times trying to convey conflicting points of view via dialogue, and at other times, I take a kind of “lyric break” to reflect on the emotional resonance of what’s been going on in the narrative. There’s a weird conflict between generic terms that deal with content and those that deal with form.
Sean Singer: Good points.
BrianS: I read this book without referencing the notes as I went. I know someone else mentioned in the Google group that they’d done the opposite. I wonder how many people did that?
Gaby: I’d be interested in the way Watergate specifically fits into this piece in terms of the way the fallibility of memory works in this book.
Sean Singer: I’m a trained historian of sorts, so I read the notes carefully.
Joe Harrington: Brian: I think reading without notes is OK. The “body text” is the tip of the iceberg. Any text is the tip of an iceberg.
Gaby: Well, first there’s the cover-up, of both the political scandal and the disease. Nowadays people talk about breast cancer openly, but not so in the early 70s. So that wipes out some things I’d maybe remember otherwise. Then there’s just forgetting—whether through repression or erosion or whatever. But I started to be struck by the fact that I was trying to assemble “what really happened” just like the Ervin committee was.
BrianS: How long did you work on this, Joe, and when did you get a sense it was a book, as opposed to a batch of text?
Sean Singer: What is the significance of the ascendancy of the memoir form in recent times?
Camille D: I’m interested in the images. How it was to work with images in the text, at what point you decided you had to have those things in, an if you had any problem convincing your press. At what point did you have the images?
BrianS: And to piggyback on Camille’s question, did you do that part of the design yourself, or did you work with someone?
Gaby: I am so interested in that. It seems to me you are creating something akin to an opera as much as anything else. Which poetry can do . . . I mean that not in the emotive sense but in the way you are creating movements in the piece.
Thelma: At some point, I’d like to know if there was a discussion with your editors as to the best placement of the notes. I was really craving them to be footnotes.
Joe Harrington: I should say this book is part of a much larger project about my mother’s life and times—I’m thinking three more, at this point, but it might be one big ‘un. So, I’ve done the research for the whole thing: a biography plus history, as seen through the eyes of a literary type. I started it not long after my first book came out—2002 , 2003. This one is first because the chronology suggested a ready-made structure, both emotionally and narratively.
Well, the images. I can’t remember a time when that wasn’t part of the deal. Probably because of my admiration for Dictee, by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Of course Cha was a visual artist first, which I’m not. But my mom was, so that seemed right. Plus, who doesn’t commemorate their lives through images? That’s been true for a good 150 years now, and I felt as though I should acknowledge that—some of our principal historical records are photographic. So it was always an integral part of the work.
Gaby: That’s amazing. I was thinking of Cha the whole time.
Joe Harrington: Wow—an opera—that’s really interesting, Gaby —that was the original genre- and media-crossing modern art form, wasn’t it? Thanks! Yes, it’s a lot to coordinate.
I did the “design” in a word-processing program (Pages for Mac). The good folks at Wesleyan and University Press of New England did the rest. But I think I need to learn InDesign and do it myself, just because it’s become such a part of this project.
Thelma—That’s a good point. I generally dislike endnotes. But in this case, I wanted to see if I could form a montage out of the language and images themselves—to explore the resonance of the words and shapes in themselves, before looking at the historical resonances of them (which adds another layer). In the next “installment” I use a combination of both.
Thelma: You make a good point about why to put the notes at the back. I was just greedy to know the sources.
BrianS: I can’t tell you how many times recently I’ve heard poets say just that. InDesign is going to be as much a tool as a word processor in the next few years.
Joe Harrington: That’s interesting, Brian—poets who are interested in concrete poetry,vizpo, imagetext, etc.—or just poets generally?
Sean Singer: I never heard of InDesign until this second.
Thelma: I love InDesign!
BrianS: Joe, poets generally, mainly in the sense that they’re seeing possibilities for visual elements they hadn’t considered before. It’s allowing them to stretch.
Sean Singer: So, if this is part of a longer (possibly four books) . . . How do families trace limits and boundaries to the potential for a writer’s life that’s made by choice and circumstance? What do you do about using facts to tell truths or untrue things to tell the truth?
Joe Harrington: Sean, is that a question about accuracy in nonfiction? I’m not sure I’m getting it.
Sean Singer: I’m wondering about the differences, as you see it, between historical truth and emotional truth in terms of writing about your own family.
Joe Harrington: Thelma—the sources are part of the work, too, I feel. But if it were an opera, that would be a background chorus, maybe, or some of the scores of characters in the back of the stage . . .
Sean Singer: There must be psychological demands of hybrid form that preclude reading events from decades ago (or even from this morning) objectively for the purposes of nonfiction.
Gaby: That’s very good. Yes.
Joe Harrington: Ah—thanks for the clarification, Sean. That’s a key question in each phase of this story. Writing the part about her childhood and young adulthood, when I wasn’t around, has been very different. I have memories of some of the people and places from decades later, and sometimes those creep into the story of the 1930s, say, and maybe elucidate some underlying emotional issues. I also have found myself entering into a weird, one-sided dialogue with my mom of the 1920s to 1940s. But in Things Come On, and in the part from 1962 to 1972, I’m de facto a part of the story.
Sean Singer: Elements that would resolve those problems in a piece of fiction (psychic distance, point-of-view, tone, other voices, etc.) must have special demands of psychological sturdiness on the part of the writer for this kind of project.
Joe Harrington: There was a question re: the rise of memoir back there. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have mixed feelings. I like reading a good story. But it does feel a little—I don’t know—stagey or self-absorbed sometimes. So, “amneoir” means “amnesiac memoir,” but with a dash of “anti-memoir” thrown in.
Sean—psychological sturdiness in the sense of making sense of it all?
BrianS: I like that word, because it acknowledges the limitations of memory.
Sean Singer: “Amneoir” is a prefect portmanteau for this kind of writing, especially these days, when every beginning writer (or advanced one) has a memoir in their bag.
Joe Harrington: I really, really want to be writing a biography—of a person who was not famous. A woman who was not famous.
Sean Singer: Psychological sturdiness in the sense of having bravery as a writer to look at often ugly or upsetting pieces of memory (and family lore) that have great power of the imagination . . . and in the case of Nixon, of the cultural imagination.
Joe Harrington: Oh, well, yes. I remember reading through her medical record, parts of which I use in the book. It didn’t trigger memories, but it did explain what I remembered and added a whole new level of—well, horror. Luckily, my partner, who is a nurse, went through it with me, explaining the various codes. And she was very calm about the whole thing, while my head felt like it was imploding, as I recall.
And I will say that for the first time I feel like I really do have a sense of what “Watergate” was—which I never could quite say up until now.
Thelma: The cancer metaphor certainly worked well. Oh those horrible Nixon years . . .
Sean Singer: Perhaps the scene you describe of having the medical notes explained would indicate the layer of storytelling about storytelling.
Joe Harrington: As it turned out, it wasn’t mine—it was John Dean’s! The “cancer on the presidency” spiel before the Ervin Committee. Believe it or not, I didn’t remember that! Or I did, but wasn’t aware of it.
Thelma: I’m sorry, I know that for you and your family it wasn’t a metaphor but all too real.
Joe Harrington: Thelma—no, of course I understand. But it was clearly a “real metaphor” for Dean. And the business of “cover up.”
Sean Singer: I think the images (perhaps the idea of opera, too) are significant. The metaphors are ways of stylistically depicting the memories as well as ways of getting at relative truths: part of this truth is in the telling and part is in the metaphoric reception of that telling.
Joe Harrington: Yes, and a lot of that happens at a very visceral level. There is a reproduction of a plate from a medical book by Halstead, the guy who invented the radical mastectomy, of a radical mastectomy. It’s juxtaposed with a bit from the White House tapes of Nixon complaining of how he’s been subjected to a “brutal, brutal, brutal assault.” There’s a lot of anger in that juxtaposition, when I look back at it.
Thelma: Speaking of opera: Nixon in China. I hated Nixon too much to ever want to listen to it.
Joe Harrington: Hmm, yeah. I have to confess to not being a big opera fan, but even so, that seemed like a bit of a stretch.
Sean Singer: As you move backward and forward in time from 1974 (in future volumes), do other historical events or figures enter your story?
Gaby: The metaphors and the images (and by that I include the documents and the mind’s manner of moving between different kinds of information) also create pauses, silences, and tension similar to opera. I’m interested in general about the ways silence in all its incarnations manifests in this book. I think it’s one of the most important and interesting aspects of this dense book that (I think cagily) looks like a compendium of so much information.
Joe Harrington: Sean—Oh, yeah . . . I read Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream, about race relations in the South. There’s a line that says something like “In your lifetime, a man was lynched—in your county or the one next to it.” My childhood memories of my mom’s hometown in West Tennessee made it seem way too small-time and not nasty enough for that. But sure enough, there was an especially horrific lynching the year before she was born, and one in the neighboring county, as late as the 1930s! And there are other historical events: the “super-flood” of 1937, WWII, and since she worked on Capitol Hill during the Cold War, that opens up to a lot of “big” historical events.
Thelma: There was an elephant lynching in Erwin, Tennessee, in, I think, 1914 . . .
Joe Harrington: Thelma—the one I mean was in Dyersburg, Tennessee in 1919—kind of a cause celebre, as it turns out. I found an account in The Liberator. The question there was whether or not to simply reproduce the article or parts of it, or leave some silences. In the end (well, the current version, anyway), I only use a few of the words to emphasize my own speechlessness before it, but also because the imagination does the rest. I’m still not sure that’s the right decision, though.
Having said that, I am something of an enthusiast for the recent upsurge in “docupoetry”—especially poems that think through the history using the form as well as the content.
BrianS: I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know what docupoetry is. Who should I be reading?
Joe Harrington: There’s a ton of stuff, Brian. Craig Santos Perez’ series of books about Guam. Mark Nowak, who is also stretching what qualifies as “poetry.” Kristen Prevallet’s book about her father’s death, I, Afterlife. Nox, by Anne Carson. Lots of Susan Howe’s work. I’m sure others will occur to me . . .
Thelma: CD Wright’s One with Others is, I think, also outstanding.
BrianS: Okay, so I’ve read some of that. I just didn’t realize it had a name.
Camille D: I love that CD Wright book.
Joe Harrington: Yes, CD Wright—thanks, Thelma! And Thalia Field, and Claudia Rankine.
Brian—yes, I’m not so sure I like the name. Or, anyway, I like docupoetry that questions both “documentary” and “poetry.”
You and me, both, Camille. And her others, for that matter.
Sean Singer: I never heard of that term, but it’s true that labels and genres are meant to kill you, or at least limit you.
Joe Harrington: There is an anthology coming out from Wesleyan of docupoetry—don’t know when it will be released, though.
Right on, Sean. Or at least, they can. They can also be seen as traditions that one can draw from or play off of. As long as they don’t become prescriptions. What if journals, instead of classifying texts as poetry, fiction, or CNF, classified them as romance, tragedy, satire, lyric, etc.? Oh, I don’t know what the title is, to tell the truth. But it sounds like it’s going to be good.
Thelma: They’re calling it that officially? I like to be in the know
BrianS: Necessary to have that information at cocktail parties, I would think. Don’t want to come off as a hobo.
Thelma: Exactly, Brian!
BrianS: Makes me want to start a journal and call it “Writing.” Or maybe “Good Writing.”
Joe Harrington: If you really want to be cool, you shorten it to “po,” right? Docupo, Langpo, etc. Of course, it does make it faster and easier to say . . .
BrianS: Ugh. No, no. No po.
Joe Harrington: You could call a journal “No Po.”
Thelma: No po no mo? Oh woe.
BrianS: Then again, I think my personal history makes me congenitally unable to be cool, so it’s not usually an issue.
Joe Harrington: Thelma you’re a po-et and you kno-et.
Thelma: Oh, thank you!
Joe Harrington: So were any of you put off by the form of this book initially? Or did it draw you in? I’m curious.
Thelma: Two thumbs enthusiastically up.
BrianS: I wasn’t put off by it, but my selection for the Book Club a couple of months ago was Jena Osman’s The Network, so this was in that same ballpark.
Sean Singer: I am drawn to this kind of form regardless of the content.
Joe Harrington: Thelma—so what grabbed you? The appearance? I ask because I thought people would have a much harder time approaching (because of form and content) it than they have.
Sean Singer: I find the crimes of the Nixon administration to be somewhat quaint in terms of the Bush years or what is happening politically now, yet the horrors of cancer are as prescient as in 1974. There has been little progress, it seems, there. Do you find that the way breast cancer is gendered (e.g. pink ribbons, teddy bears, walkathons, yogurt, etc.) somehow has a broader meaning in our culture politically? Are there more insidious connections between a cancerous politics and the politics of women’s lives?
Lisa: I wondered if you had tried to work with the material about your mother’s death in a different way before this project and what led you to the form.
BrianS: Sean, I’m with you, though I wouldn’t use the word “quaint.” The difference in recent history is that fact has come to mean less in political discussion today, at least I think that’s the case. I distrust nostalgia.
Sean Singer: I agree with you.
Joe Harrington: Sean—yes, quaint! That’s exactly the term I think of. Quaint by the time of Iran-Contra, even. But I must say as far as cancer research and awareness goes, we’re light years ahead of the mid-70s. In fact, it was really the year or two after my mom died that breast cancer became a national topic, with Happy Rockefeller, Betty Ford, Shirley Temple, et al., “coming out.” What a weird way to think of it now!
BrianS: Joe, about the form, I’ve been drawn to hybrid forms a lot more in the last couple of years, and I think the work by a lot of presses to get this sort of work out there has made it more acceptable to a larger audience.
Thelma: The appearance appealed to me—I love a good collage. But I also very much liked the way your family history could be superimposed (or underimposed) on the history of that time.
Sean Singer: For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s a video of Nixon playing the piano in 1961 on television:
His own composition apparently.
Thelma: Must miss! Sorry.
Joe Harrington: Hi, Lisa—thanks for the question. As I said (well, wrote) earlier, this is part of a larger story, and I was always thinking about it as part of that larger story. The entire thing has been a real challenge to approach, in terms of structure. The Watergate mess has always been fused in my memory with my mother’s dying, so I guess one day I just said “Oh, of course—this is a parallel narrative.” Which it was, in fact. I started looking at the primary texts, with a hunch that I’d hear some resonance between the two, and sure enough. As I say, I’d repressed any memory of the Dean “cancer on the presidency” speech.
BrianS: That term “coming out” has really become widespread, and in a good way, I’d say. People are coming out in all sorts of ways.
Joe Harrington: Yourself included, no? From a cultural/religious point of view?
BrianS: Is that to me, Joe? Yes, though I don’t look at what I did as particularly brave or as having cost me in a social sense. In a family sense, certainly.
Kathy: Joe, in response to your question on the form. I think the non-traditional form was not difficult to approach because the text was not dense. I was able to read it through and get swept up in the mood of the story without having to stop and to decipher.
Joe Harrington: Thanks, Kathy—that’s extremely helpful, in thinking about the rest of this project as I go forward. I use a lot of the primary materials: that may make it easier to navigate, though the reader is putting the story together alongside me, I feel.
BrianS: We’re at nine o’clock. Any last questions for Joe before we call it a night?
Camille D: I just want to thank Joe for sharing his work with us and for joining us this evening.
Sean Singer: Thank you for chatting, Joe. Good talking to you all. Good night.
Joe Harrington: Thank you, Camille, for choosing it! I am honored. And thanks to everyone else for hosting and participating!
BrianS: Thanks Camille for choosing this book, and for introducing me to Joe.
Camille D: No problem. The book just leaped out as remarkable.
Thanks, group, for all your great input this evening.
Thelma: True story: I finished the book and was paranoidly (I guess that’s not a word) giving my physique the obvious exam when the phone rang. It was a group wanting a donation to help poor women get mammograms. Of course I donated.
BrianS: What a great story Thelma.
Joe Harrington: Thelma, I assure you I did not put them up to it! But thanks for donating (what was the group, btw?).
Thelma: Dang, their name escapes me—but they call every year.
BrianS: See you all next month with Dean Young. Thanks for all the great comments and questions.
Thelma: Thanks to you all again and to Joe for the book!
This Rumpus Poety Book Club interview was edited by Rumpus Poetry editor Brian Spears.