The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Harmony Holiday about her debut collection Negro League Baseball.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Harmony Holiday. 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 discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
Camille D: What are YOU listening to, HH?
Harmony Holiday: Right now? Cliché like, bumping Miles. Not too distracting so I can focus on the chat
Mark Folse: I will confess I just got to the audio today, and it immediately put me in mind of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s early experiments with mix on The Case of the Three Sided Dream, possibly because of the apperance of “brightmoments” in one of the books early poems. Curious what ( besides Sun Ra) influenced the audio.
Brian S: I’ve gotten so distractable that I can’t have any music on if I hope to accomplish anything.
Harmony: Yeah, we’ll see how long before I have to turn it off…
Harmony: Mark.. Influences for the audio besides Sun Ra…The Black Audio Film Collective, a group out of London, a documentary they made called The Last Angel in History, along with this book called More Brilliant Than the Sun by one of its founders Kodwo Eschun, a guy who writes for WIRE. They were all a big inspiration.
Mark Folse: I’ll have to check this out.
Sean Singer: Do you write drafts in prose and cut down? What is your process like?
Thelma: Hi all–I too am interested in the process. Thanks.
Harmony: Writing process… yeah, Sean, I generally just write a ton then edit and re-order. Sometimes it helps me to just transcribe audio of interviews and stuff I find on youtube or in archives. Was just at the Univ of Arizona’s poetry center doing some work like that in their audio archives.
Sean Singer: That’s an interesting idea
js: Hi can you talk a little bit about the music, the disc that never was …why cd and poetry?
Harmony: Mostly because I wanted to experiment with archiving, mixing that into the writing process and igniting public interest in archival material
Camille D: You should check out the audio online archive from the Poetry Center at SFSU.
Harmony: Ah, thanks Camille. That’s a great idea.
Sean Singer: How do you maintain a unified vision while including multiple voices and perspectives in a poem?
Brian S: Is it becoming easier to access archival material now?
Harmony: I think it is in kitsch ways at least, by way of youtube, dailymotion
Camille D: And for super contemporary writers www.fishousepoems.org
Harmony: Oh yeah, I love the Fishouse site.
Mark Folse: Talk about Miles Davis and archiving a bit.
Harmony: Miles Davis? Well, surprisingly I didn’t use a ton of samples from his interviews, but his catalog has been re-animated time and again by record labels
Mark Folse: Mingus (sorry) From the liner notes
Harmony: Oh Mingus? Mingus was a writer and sort of archivist himself
Mark Folse: Yeah, tried to research the back page liner notes references but the Google failed me (or I wasn’t patient enough)
And Kirk, on stage with a tape deck around his neck pulling up recordings during his performances, If I understand what you mean by archiving
Harmony: His widow sold his archives to the Library of Congress and supposedly there are tons of tapes and the remainder of the manuscript from his autobiography, but the thing I sampled for the audio for the book was a documentary about him. He tried to start a music school in Harlem and was evicted by the city and arrested and a friend of his filmed a lot of it.
Sean Singer: The scene when he shoots a hole in the ceiling is just priceless.
js: What charge was he arrested for?
Harmony: For some drugs they found in his apartment during the eviction I think.
Sean Singer: Is jazz a subject matter for you or a metaphor or what?
Harmony: It’s a subject matter for me.
Mark Folse: More on the subject of poetry (although I think we could chat music for a while)L I find I myself reading your book aloud, or at least with that live-in-my-head voice to find the flow and natural breaks. Can you talk a bit about the prose poem format and pieces that flow like spoken word performances.
Harmony: Sure, Mark. Part of the reason I like the prose poem format is because it allows me to include a lot of different tones and enjamb them. I wasn’t necessarily trying to create the effect of spoken word performances but maybe of dialog, and maybe those things have a lot in common.
Camille D: Gaby says: I’ve been calling the cd a series of soundscapes because it gets at the way sound in both the written and auditory part of this project is thinking about the notion of sampling and its relation to oral history and history in general. Could you talk about how the cd is meant to work within the overall project.
Harmony: Sorry, some pop up ads intervened for a sec
Brian S: If I ever meet the person who invented pop up ads, I’m punching them in the throat.
js: but they’ll just “pop” you back …
Sean Singer: Can you say something about punctuation: sometimes you use chains of commas, and sometimes spaces. What is the function of punctuation in your poems?
Harmony: Hi Gabby! Soundscapes is a great word for it, The CD is sort of meant to be the liner notes for the text in a way. Interacting with the samples that I used in making the audio is what led to a lot of the writing, although the writing came first
Camille D.: Here’s the link for the San Francisco State Poetry Center digital archives. They are pretty amazing. Lots of interviews and chats too, and easily searchable. The future is a pretty amazing place for peering into the past.
Mark Folse: Camille: but there’s so much. The stacked TVs of The Man Who Fell To Earth. So much, to much.
Harmony: buyah! Thanks Camille. Sleepless nights ahead perusing this.
Camille D.: Brian S., troll Hollywood for the pop up guys. Silicone Valley south is really good about trashing up the internet.
Harmony: I have a question if that’s okay? Since you guys are the first people to have read the book and heard the audio, I am curious about how it works together.
js: me too hehe …
Harmony: This is pure experiment. And I’m glad Rebecca [Wolff] at Fence [Books] was supportive of it all but… we don’t know yet how well it works together for readers, so… be honest… if it was a hot jumbled mess, I need to know.
Thelma: Well, many of us never got the CDs and had to download … might be the same experience but maybe not. ?
Sean Singer: I thought the book was terrific, first-rate, demanding work, but the audio did nothing for me.
Brian S: I enjoyed them separately–I didn’t try to handle both at the same time because, like I said earlier, I’m too easily distractable.
js: I thought they were two separate projects [by the same artist]
Camille D.: It makes such sense. So many of us have soundtracks in our brains as we write. During the time that I was most intensively writing Suck on the Marrow I was also very intensively listening to Beethoven (which was appropriate given the period the book focuses on.) For What to Eat… I was listening to Coltrane chronologically. It’s so cool to see a poet giving us a glimpse into this part of the process and letting it live past the production into the reception stage of the work.
Harmony: Word. Thanks for the feedback.
Mark Folse: Well, repeating myself a bit but I thought of Three Sided Dream, how the audioscapes are echoes of the influences of the songs on the record, but I got to the audio late so its hard to say now. And you say it was write first, audio later, but I can’t let go of that anology (but I promise to try if it’s not an apt one).
Thelma: I liked what I heard on the downloads. But unless I missed it you didn’t include your dad’s music and I wondered about that.
Harmony: Hopefully when they come together and don’t need downloading it will be easier to deal with as one project, not that I mind either way
js: I think there were also problems with the technical aspect [multiple formats, track list didn’t match]. Speakng only for myself, i thought the audio had real moments.
Harmony: Yeah, I will make sure you guys get the final version on cd, with the booklet of liner notes.
Mark Folse: I wonder how it would work interspersing the soundscapes with readings of your work.
Harmony: I used sheet music from a song my dad wrote for sonny and cher for the paper in the liner notes booklet but other than that, his music isn’t really included besides some old tapes of him singing on one of the tracks.
Brian S: I’d be really interested in seeing how you work these two together in a reading/performance.
Mark Folse: What B said
Camille D.: I’m all wrapped up in visions of the future right now. My female friend and I are working on our lap tops while our husbands are respectively in the kitchen and caring for our children. But this makes me think that maybe in the future with e-books such audio components won’t be so complicated to attach. And that could change everything. And since most of your poems are prose poems and don’t face the difficulties of e-lineation, that would be cool. Hail the future.
Harmony: Yes! To the future !
js: One thing i loved was the sound of the words in the prose poems, can you say something about how important the physical sound of the syllables was to you in writing?
Harmony: It was super important.. the physical aspect of the words, their joints etc., but not deliberate I don’t think
Brian S: Camille, I think you’re absolutely right on that. If poetry’s going to work in the e-book world, it has to be more than just a recreation of the printed book in electronic form. And with the tools available on a basic laptop now, it’s not even hard to put audio together.
Mark Folse: B: Poemflow or whatever that app is called.
Brian S: Mark, yeah, I’m working on something similar, but a little more ambitious.
Mark Folse: Poemflow is like the first time you discovered Applescript, but it should be so much more: images, sounds…
Camille D.: From Gaby: I always like to think about the various contracts that are put into place and then subverted by/between the writer and the reader. I think that often starts with the title of the poem and the book. I’m particularly interested in this issue in your book, which has a title that brings so many cultural memories/assumptions/perceptions & misperceptions into play. What are we to make of the title Negro League Baseball? Where did you think of the discussion beginning (or picking up)?
Gaby: I’m here! sorry to be on the run and run in late. Hello!
Camille D.: Oh, hi Gaby, now I’ll stop being you and resume being only myself. If there is a sudden barometric pressure drop in SF that would be why.
Gaby: I like you being me. I’m so much smarter that way
Brian S: I was curious about how the cover image worked with the title, since there wasn’t an obvious connection.
Harmony: Gaby I got the idea for the title from a song by the hip hop group Natural Resource and I think a lot about the link between baseball and jazz, America’s two primary inventions in my opinion, besides the Negro. So I wanted to bring those topics into a more taut conversation.
js: But we don’t keep score in jazz … [do we?]
Gaby: Yes. all of this was on my mind.
Harmony: We sorta do. Downbeat magazine has jazz polls. Mingus used to be outraged, saying that they never subject white musicians to polls like that.
Gaby: I just love that this is going on from the get go. The title making us think of so many things and our place in them.
js: Well, but that’s the press. I guess someone could win a jam session, but it’s not the point.
Sean Singer: This got lost in the mix, but I think it’s important, so I’ll try again: Can you say something about punctuation: sometimes you use chains of commas, and sometimes spaces. What is the function of punctuation in your poems?
Harmony: Sorry Sean. May be disappointing, but I didn’t have any fixed method for the punctuation. I’m drawn to commas because they seem to be the right device to propel what I’m trying to say without distracting from it too much
Camille D.: I wonder, since you were also a dancer, if you find yourself moving more fluidly between media than you think other poets might.
Harmony: That might be the case. It’s harder for me to see boundaries between genres.
Sean Singer: Your work seems both expressionistic and impressionistic. Do you attribute this to tone, rhythm, form, or something else?
Harmony: Because of the way I was raised, in the dance studio, in my dad’s recording studio, it all seemed like a matter of discipline. I think maybe tone is the point of departure.
Camille D.: We were on the cover and the title. Did you have an a-ha moment when you found that cover image? How did that work. I know that we should be talking about what’s going on INSIDE the poems, but with this book it seems the whole packaging of everything is part of the experience of the poems.
Mark Folse: Sun Ra: Forget freedom–discipline.
Gaby: And Camille’s question makes me wonder about this: Can you talk about the MFA experience? So many of us work within one art form but you work within three (!!): poetry, sound composition, dance. What made you decide to go to Columbia? Did it help all aspects of your work? Were you ever challenged to have to prioritize one mode of expression over the other?
js: Sun Ra!
Harmony: Yes, Sun Ra! and the MFA
Sean Singer: In 1971 Sun Ra was artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley and apparently taught a course listed as “Sun Ra 171” but also called “The Black Man in the Universe,” or “The Black Man In the Cosmos.” This is a lecture from that course. This site lists the reading he required.
Harmony: I chose Columbia because I wanted to be in New York at first… had a job teaching in Alvin Ailey’s summer program, but I soon found out that Lucie’s hands on approach to helping assemble the thesis was what I needed, so I’m really happy I came.
Mark Folse: Reading you aloud there is at once a certain tension, the moments when the lines just stop in your head, and then the sonic fluidity of the lines between that made me wonder if there is something of dance in that. (I have three left feet but my daughter was a dancer and I was the one nerd dad who didn’t go golfing on dance competition weekends.)
Camille D.: Yeah for nerd Dads, Mark.
Harmony: It helped me focus on one thing at a time.
One single thing.
Gaby: For me too. We’re both Columbia babies.
Harmony: Still I ended up trying to combine everything though.
Gaby: Yes. I love that.
Harmony: I didn’t know that Gaby
Gaby: You didn’t know. I kept it quiet but we’re of the same lineage in that way.
Harmony: Did you enjoy it too ?
js: Yes- one single thing is not the vibe I get from your work.
Gaby: I really did. Lucie taught me how to get spare and tough on myself and let the ghosts in and Richard taught me how let the ghosts talk through all the masks. It was deeply important to me..,still is. I was very excited when I read the book and then saw that you went there. And I wondered about how it all worked together.
Camille D.: Reading out loud is what helps you focus on one thing at a time? So if I’m hearing this right, one of the casualties of having a mind that flows easily between media is that it can be sort of hard to focus on the here and now moment sometimes?
Harmony: Mark.. about the tension and how it relates to movement in dance.. I think thinking with the body is something that I try to do sometimes, and that probably comes more from dance than from training in academia, but one probably wouldn’t succeed without the other. I’m really happy to have had access to both.
Mark Folse: OK, given the epigram you’re going to have to let us in on Columbia and ghosts.
Harmony: hahah. No ghosts that I know of. Reading Richard Howard’s translation of Barthes’ Lover’s Discourse right now.
Gaby: He is the friggin man. I think of your book and the soundscapes as being full of ghosts. That the pauses between the layers of narrative create so much tension…a kind of haunting that makes the reader have to face their own complicity.
Thelma: What was the editing process like for your book? And did you choose the cover image or did Fence?
Camille D.: I’d love to hear the answer to Thelma’s question. Also, I’d like to know what drove the decisions NOT to go with prose poems in the times that you do choose to use line breaks. Those feel like a very different style of poem.
Harmony: Hi Thelma. I chose the cover image. It’s a fabulous photo. The editing was really liberating. I just took a stack of poems I had written that I knew intuitively needed to be in the same manuscript and slashed em and moved em around like legos til they fit and that was that. And a year or so later I added the last poem.
Camille D.: Did you sit around thinking you needed a last poem, or did it knock on your door and tell you that you needed it?
Harmony: More of a knock on the door to complete the cycle of thinking that I hope comes across in the book.
I think when I moved out of the prose format it was to make comments that were a little more childlike, to say things I was more shy about saying, not be in command. Usually those poems were a relief for me after all the words in each prose poem. Hopefully for the reader too.
Gaby: Along with those amazing questions would you even go so far to talk about the business of winning a prize, particularly a prize that is meant to bring work into the world that might not otherwise find a space (a mission of the motherwell)?
js: I thought that was a strength of the collection, the combo of prose and poetry. Well, prose is not right, but I hope you know what I mean.
Brian S: I wouldn’t call them a relief so much as a break–too much of anything can wear on you, you know? I don’t want to sound like it wore on me at any point, just that the variation is a good thing.
Harmony: Thank you! I think you’re right, if I had kept in all prose, just might not have worked. Though I know a lot of it is.
Camille D.: Thanks for that answer re:the lines. That helps me see what’s going on really well.
Mark Folse: Frankly, I love the density and complexity of the prose poems. This is not a book that’s going up on the shelf after tonight. It’s going back on the bedside pile for a while.
Harmony: To answer Gabby’s question about the Motherwell…
was not expected at all, so I was obviously really happy about it, and then I felt a responsibility, because of the aim of the prize, to complete the vision, find the right cover, include the audio even though I’m a novice at it, things like that.
Gaby: This is what I was really interested in knowing…thanks. The project and the prize fit so seamlessly.
js: Hey- I give you tons of credit for aiming high.
Harmony: hahah Thanks j. Gotta take risks in life, right?
js: Haha, yeah- just ask some of those jazz guys.
Brian S: How did you produce the audio? Did you mix it yourself? Or did you get some professional help on it?
Harmony: Yeah, did it all in Garage Band, no help. Prob sounds as such, lofi.
Brian S: Not really–that’s the great thing about garage band, you can do some pretty amazing stuff on it.
Harmony: Yeah, pretty intuitive program, but I hope to improve and turn readings into dj sets, mixing the readings of the poems with the audio and improvising with beats and things.
js: You will- lots ahead of you!
Brian S: If you do some more of that, will you let us know so we can listen to them?
Harmony: Def will Brian
Thelma: I like how the cover recapitulates your idea of “isolated togetherness” that is on the verge–we hope–of “all of us just being us.” Or maybe beyond verge, though it was the 50s.
Harmony: Yeah, I really loved that picture when I saw it at first, thought maybe it would be a bit spike lee-ish and sensational, but then I grew to love it despite that
Brian S: Just a couple of minutes left in the chat. Any last questions for Harmony?
Thelma: Next project?
Harmony: I’m working on a myth, an imaginary pirate radio station using the U of A archives and Mingus’ and a few others, not just youtube this time. And multigenre: essays, poems, sun ra! Really excited to see what comes of it
Gaby: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! amazing!
js: Excellent- I’ll be lookin out for that!
Thelma: Yeah, his Arkestra might hold a lot of pirate water.
Camille D.: So for sure check out the SFSU archives. Sounds like they could blend well with the U of A stuff.
Brian S: Sounds like a good candidate for a fully-engaged e-book.
Gaby: Did you all hear the Sun Ra lectures from Berkeley?
Harmony: Yeah on Ubuweb. Just listened to them a couple weeks back.
Gaby: So good
Harmony: I know !
js: Space is the place !
Brian S: I think Sean linked to them earlier as well
Sean Singer: Thank you all… Good night.
Mark Folse: For something like that, I’ll have to succumb
Camille D.: Harmony, thank you so much for joining us. Fully engaged chat. Love it.
Brian S: Maybe I’ll try to listen to them while I’m editing this transcript.
Harmony: Thank you guys. I’m a slow typer so sorry if I missed some questions.
Thelma: Thank you!
Brian S: Thanks for coming everyone, and especially Harmony. Loved the book.
Harmony: Loved chatting. Thanks Brian!