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Book End - Marie Harris Interviewed by Michael Hettich


Marie Harris was NH Poet Laureate from 1999-2004. She is the author of five books of poetry, several chapbooks, and three children's picture books. She was awarded fellowships by the National Endowment for the Arts and the NH Arts Council. She served as Visiting Writer and had numerous residencies at the Vermont Studio Center. She has worked as editor, anthologist,

Since you recently moved from New Hampshire to Asheville, North Carolina, I'll start with a question related to Black Mountain College: Have any of the poets, writers, or artists associated with Black Mountain had any influence on your practice of poetry?

Of course I was aware of Black Mountain in the 60s and familiar with many of the artists who passed through that extraordinary place. Like most young writers, I read the poets. But honestly, they were too experimental for me at the time and, looking back, too male. I remember, though, reading and loving the book Centering by M.C. Richards. What she had to say about the craft and discipline of making pots had special resonance for me as a beginning poet.

When did you start writing?

I almost can't remember a time when I was not writing. I had a series of 5 year diaries with red or green or deep blue, gold rimmed covers and locks fitted with tiny gold keys. The diarist, as even then I thought of myself, could write a fifth of a page entry for each day, leaving four fifths blank, waiting for the next year to come around. I can't remember how faithfully I wrote, how many I filled, or how I managed to say anything at all within the confines of those diabolically small spaces. But I wish I'd saved them.

Could you talk a bit about your education? To what extent would you consider yourself an autodidact? Do you see any advantages, as a writer, to being that rather than a writer who has followed a mainstream educational route?

I think the impetus to write poetry sprang from the rather lopsided education I received over eleven years at the Convent of the Sacred Heart where the pedagogy was firmly grounded in theology, literature and languages. (Years later, my brother-in-law talked about starting The Remedial Technical Institute for the Graduates of Catholic Girls' Schools). We read, memorized and recited poetry from the earliest grades and from the start I fell in love with words, their sounds and rhythms, their provocative meanings, their endless possibilities, from Walter de la Mare and Edgar Allen Poe to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson.

I loved to write letters. I remember most the epistolary relationship I had with my Great-Aunt Helen who encouraged my poetry. (I've acknowledged her in an ekphrastik poem that I've included here.)

In high school I began to discover women poets like Edna St Vincent Millay, HD, Mina Loy (and idly wondered why they weren't included in the anthologies I was assigned).

I ended up at Georgetown University because my parents insisted I go to a Catholic university and I insisted on a city and boys. But Georgetown didn't accept women at the time, so the Foreign Service School it was. I had not the slightest interest in foreign service; I insinuated myself into as many of the university's humanities classes as I could. That system worked until, at the end of my sophomore year, I married.

College thus interrupted, I continued my studies on my own, using my young husband's curricula at Yale, then at UNC Chapel Hill. When he got a teaching job at Wells College, my informal education continued, and, subsequently at Cornell, was enhanced by an in-person parade of visiting poets the likes of Robert Bly, William Stafford, W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, John Haines, Donald Hall. This new generation of poets brought a charge of energy to the literary scene. They were all, it seemed, starting magazines. All ambitious. All men. Much as I was caught up in the excitement, I knew I'd never really be a part of it. I felt doomed to a life as the poet's wife, making casseroles and beds.

While raising two young sons and teaching part time in an alternative public elementary school (this was the 60s, after all), I completed what formal schooling I would have by getting my BA at Goddard College's Adult Learning Program. And then I packed up the boys, some books and furniture and left.

Looking back, I see the gaps a “mainstream” education would have filled, but on the whole it seemed to work out and my life during those years was nothing if not interesting. An interesting life and walls of books...what more does a writer need?

Did your move out of that marriage somehow lead you to connect to the Alice James Poetry Cooperative. How did that move change your life?

A divorce and a move to the woods of New Hampshire marked a sea change in my life and in my perception of myself as a writer on a par with, or at least on the same track as my male counterparts. And Alice James Books was crucial to that realization. My first book had been accepted by the fledgling press and with it came an invitation to join the cooperative, a press committed to publishing mainly the work of women.

The story of the founding and extraordinary growth of Alice James Books is a book in itself. The poets' then-revolutionary decision to take control of all aspects of book production—from selecting manuscripts by consensus of the members to learning the basics of design, typesetting, editing, printing and distribution—matched my own impulses toward self-determination and experimentation. After all, they reasoned, if the male establishment was determined to bar them entry, then a parallel establishment had to be established. And a far more equitable one at that. AJB has gone from a group of writers working out of a tiny donated office in Cambridge to a reno