The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Janice N. Harrington about her new collection Primitive, the challenge of working with a real-life subject’s language, and critiquing the use of “primitive” to describe African American folk art.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Camille D: So, Janice, when this book came across my desk, I fell in love with it immediately. For one thing, that cover. And then another, the subject, and then, you know, I’ve long been a fan of your poems.
Janice N. Harrington: Yes, I think what I’ve learned as a result of studying Horace Pippin’s paintings is the importance of our perceptions. What we see or choose not to.
Camille D: I’m always interested in form, and you are clearly interested in Pippin’s form and tools as well. Can you talk a little about your decisions in some of these poems to do things like use a numbering system, or some of your other organizational strategies? “Losing the Way” and “In a Painted Room” are two poems that come to mind as astonishingly inventive and engaging in their form.
And of course,”Why O Why the Doily.” That poem is fascinating.
Janice N. Harrington: Okay, since the computer is not asking me any questions. I have decided to panic. I’ll pretend that the computer just asked: How did you begin this project? I’m so glad you asked, Camille. In the late 1990s, as a children’s librarian, I developed curriculum kits for classroom teachers on African American artist. The work of Horace H. Pippin fascinated. His story stayed in my mind, but especially his commitment to art.
Camille D: I’m happy to follow up on the thread you started in panic. (But I also hope that the question about form and tools has since revealed itself.)
One of the tricks of this platform we use for the chat is that there is always this delay while people are typing, where it looks like nothing is happening. I think we can make this into a question. You say you started thinking about Pippin in a dedicated way in the 1990s. How long would you say you were actually in the process of writing this book? By which I mean, what was the delay between your curriculum kit and these poems going to BOA?
Janice N. Harrington: Form? Yes, one of the challenges of working on Primitive was how to work with the language taken from Pippin’s war notebooks. I think trying to integrate his voice with my voice pushed me to consider the visual form of my poetry. With “Why O Why the Doily,” I thought about the openness of doilies. I wanted to make leaps and challenge space as I feel doilies do.
Camille D: Wow. That’s very cool to think of the poem as a doily. The laciness of both your poem and a doily. And since you bring in the Bishop poem, that sense of the delicate appearing in space that is perceived a muscular and dirty.
Janice N. Harrington: Primitive was a long, complicated project that has taken years to complete. You mentioned “Losing the Way.” As I studied Pippin’s paintings, I thought not only about the painting itself, but what was happening historically at the time the painting was made. Pippin has a series of paintings that are known as the Holy Mountain series. He paints images that comment on historical events in the background. So, his paintings made me think about the foreground (now) but the background as well (history).
Camille D: Is this part of why you didn’t want to “channel” Pippin? That you wanted to make clear the divide between his time and yours? His perspective and yours? There is so much (often quite good) poetry written in the voice of major figures. But I also understand the hesitancy to appropriate a voice that wasn’t yours. Can you define some of the sources of your resistance to direct autobiography and particularly to adopted voice that might not be related directly in the poems?
Janice N. Harrington: I absolutely didn’t want to “channel” Pippin. I think Primitive is actually a hybrid: biography, art history, and autobiography. I wanted to respond to Horace’s life and paintings. I wanted to look for the connections and seams between his life and mine. I also knew that I couldn’t tell the entire story of his life. I performed archival research, visited his hometown, his home, found his grave, and I read the major works about his life. I recommend Judith Stein’s I Tell My Heart especially.
Camille D: Do you think of this book as a kind of docupoetic text? I loved that long list of further reading you include in the book. It provides such an invitation for a continued conversation.
Janice N. Harrington: Docupoetic? I think it may not quite fit that category either in intention. I tried so hard to hold to the historical record and to respect Horace Pippin. But even with the most scrupulous intention there’s always distortion—or maybe uncertainties. The book is a doily-poetic.
Camille D: I’m also interested in the way that the inclusion of that five-page notes section seems to serve both to cast you as an authority on the subject of Pippin but not the final word. This seems important to me. I am always wrestling with what it means to cast oneself as the final, individual talent. What does that mean especially for women and for people of color (for black people in particular) to be allowed to say that they aren’t going to have the final and last or only say on a subject. It seems important NOT to claim to have the final and last and only say on a subject when the subject is one that has been too frequently erased or diminished.
Janice N. Harrington: I’m glad that you enjoyed the list of readings. I want readers to want to know more about Pippin. If readers respond by searching for more about Pippin’s life or googling his art, I’ve accomplished what I wanted.
Camille D: Doily-poetic! Once again I have fallen in love with Janice Harrington’s use of the language. You’re a librarian, and a poet, and a professor. I see all of that in play in this book. A care for the archive and the primary texts, and also an ability to transcribe those materials into something newly creative, and ALSO, a way to engage while you instruct. That’s not a question, really.
Janice N. Harrington: I would never say the I’m an authority on Horace H. Pippin’s life. I would say that I’m a student and an observer. The sources are there because I wanted to know more, and I wanted to present an accurate response to Pippin’s life. Unlike a historian or a biographer, I searched for details, stories, images that would trigger poetry, an imaginative response.
Camille D: Here’s a way to cast that as a question. Can you talk about what decisions went behind choosing all the quoted material you use before each section of the book? That seems to me to be an example of this synthesis of librarian/archivist, poet, and professor.
I think you may have been answering my question even as I typed it 🙂
Janice N. Harrington: I wanted the book to give a full picture of Pippin’s life. I want readers to hear what his contemporaries said about him, what scholars say, what the journalist said. Re-reading the book, I’m pleased with the quotations because they expand and enrich the reader’s understanding of Pippin. It also gave me another way to bring in Pippin’s voice and use his actual words.
Camille D: To follow another path set in this book: love. The poem “Commitment” tears me up (both pronunciations) every time I read it. I love how you describe this love. And the pain that must come with it.
Another poem I keep returning to is “Surface, Decoration.” Again, I am interested in the form of this poem and the way that certain aspects of the language are highlighted as a result of the form. How long did it take you to discover the form/shape of this poem?
Janice N. Harrington: It seems that Pippin and Jennie Ora had challenges in their marriage. The record is riddled with gossip and misconceptions. But regretfully his wife was committed to an asylum. In fact, she would die there. When I look at Pippin’s paintings, I believe that I also see Jennie’s art: her doilies, her cut flowers, her order. I have to resist commenting on their relationship too much because I can’t rely on accurate records. But I found a newspaper clipping which describes the two of them dancing on their wedding anniversary. It’s not more than fifty or so words, but it breaks my heart. There is a heartbreaking letter from Pippin about his loneliness and difficulty after his wife is committed.
Camille D: That line: “Now I know how you feel alone” in the poem after “Commitment.” Is that from that letter? Wow.
And even the play of the title “Commitment” to commit his wife to the asylum, but also to remain committed to here. The doubleness of so much of the experience you portray in this book.
I meant committed to “her” not committed to “here.” But I think here works too in this case.
Janice N. Harrington: Yes, I like “Surface, Decoration” as well. I might still tweak it a bit, but I’m a poet. I found this really cool graphic layout, which I cite. I saw how the visual form permitted me to draw attention to Pippin’s words and created an energy in the lines. Also, I liked what the form suggested about Pippin and his art. Self-taught artists are often obsessed with texture and detail. Pippin invented. He created pyrographs, and I wanted to express that inventiveness.
Yes, Pippin writes “Now I know how you feel alone.” There are three poems that address their relationship, and I tried to be respectful to both. I also tried to write Jennie into Pippin’s story. She has received an unsympathetic reading in some accounts, and I suspect it should be questioned.
Camille D: Hmm. I’m thinking about this idea of inventiveness, and its dangers as well as its rewards. The ways we must question what it means to be inventive. In “The Subtlety of Blue” you do such an interesting job of pushing against the criticism that he has not created worthy art. (As defined in that poem’s cutting epigraph.) The risks (and, yes,) rewards of using what you find/create. There is so much you question in this book about the readings we give/have given to Pippin and his life and art.
You say you might still tinker with a poem. Do you feel like you have said what you want/need to say about Pippin? If so, what’s next?
Janice N. Harrington: This is an odd way to answer your question, but somehow this addresses the concern for me. I respond to Pippin because he had every reason not to make art. He wasn’t wealthy. He had a handicap. He didn’t have an art’s degree. He lived during a time of vicious racism. Yet despite all of the challenges—he made art. I wanted to critique the label of Pippin—and of many African American folk artist—as primitive. Clearly, Pippin’s paintings show his perceptiveness and his resistance to demeaning images of African Americans.
Camille D: That is a fantastic way of answering that question! I really appreciate the opportunity to talk with you about this book, Janice. Thank you for writing it, and thank you for sharing the hour with us.
Janice N. Harrington: No, I didn’t say everything I wanted to say about Pippin. There are many poems that I didn’t include in the book. But I also feel that I want readers to search for Pippin on their own. What next? More poetry… better poetry… more writing and re-writing.
Camille D: We’re at the close of the hour (spilled over a little because I wanted to squeeze out the last drops), so I’ll let you get back to your life, your poems. Thanks so much, as I say, for this book! I am ever grateful to have come to know your work.