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 renowned publisher of some of the most innovative poetry in the country. I am beyond proud of being part of that. AJB both enhanced my life and changed it forever. Through their example, I became the agent of my life.


I'm curious to hear about the female poets you knew and worked with in the early 70s—some of whose names I'm sure are quite familiar to poetry-reading audiences, others less so. Was there a sense of solidarity amongst you?


Among the seven founders, which included two men, Jean Pedrick, Marjorie Fletcher, Betsy Sholl and Connie Veenendaal were my earliest compatriots. Among the poets who followed me into the cooperative and who worked side by side to bring out subsequent series of books (the sales of each, by the way, were put toward the publication of the next: a revolutionary concept at the time) included Kathleen Aguero, Elizabeth Knies, Helena Minton, Jane Kenyon, Ruth Whitman, Joyce Peseroff, to name just a few. Our number grew to include writers of color and LGBTQ poets. We were (and still are) one another's colleagues, mentors, friends. As of now, the AJB list comprises over one hundred poets.


Could you talk about the workshop held at Jean Pedrick's “Skimmilk Farm” in New Hampshire for 35 years?


AJB grew out of a Boston poets' workshop and Jean Pedrick was anxious that it not languish during the summer when she moved to her house in New Hampshire. She invited those of us who lived within striking distance of Skimmilk Farm to gather for an exchange of work. And we'd bring something to contribute to lunch. Beginning in the early 80s, we met every Monday from May till October. We expanded our core group to include more local writers and the occasional visitor from away. Over the years, the work we created and refined found its way into scores of books. For my part, I can honestly say that not one of my poems saw print before it was workshopped under the maples at Skimmilk. Alice James Poetry Cooperative and the Skimmilk workshop were my Black Mountain


(As for the lunches, they were memorable! We published two collections of the recipes under the title “The Groaning Bard,” one illustrated by my son Sebastian Matthews' brother, Will, the other by Kathy Solomon's daughter, Jen.)


How did this workshop experience lead to your ongoing literary “conversations” with your son Sebastian?


By the age of 14, Sebastian was a serious writer. He and Will spent summers in New Hampshire and Sebastian became a regular fixture at our workshops where his poems were given the same careful consideration and rigorous critiques as the older members of the group. Sebastian and I have exchanged our works in progress ever since.


Having recently read two of your earlier books, Weasel in the Turkey Pen (1993) and Your Sun, Manny (1999/2010), I'm interested in hearing you talk a bit about your approach to form, particularly that of the prose poem, which you handle exquisitely in Weasel in the Turkey Pen and push even further in Your Sun, Manny. Unlike many poems in this now-fashionable form, your prose poems sing with the music of true poetry. Can you talk a bit why the form fits your intentions, as well as the differences, for you, between writing in lines and in sentences?


I wrote my first prose poems in the early 70s and included them in the “Wives” section of RAW HONEY. I'm not sure I even understood that they were prose poems because I may not have recognized that as a genre. (Perhaps I thought I'd made up the form!) Soon, though, I began to encounter “official” prose poems—beginning with the French poets like Beaudelaire, Jean Follain and others, and including the dean of the American prose poem, Russell Edson—and I was fascinated by the possibilities. I gravitated less toward the surreal than toward those prose poems that mined narratives while retaining the characteristics of the lyric poem: image and metaphor, internal rhymes, music. As well, I found the form to be uniquely suited to (or be a vessel for) humor, something my dad taught me to value. I'd love to veer off on a tangent about Stephen Potter, but...


Once I completed the last section of RAW HONEY which I subsequently enlarged on and published as INTERSTATE, I turned my attention to the prose poem and worked mainly in that form. So many of my passions and experiences seemed to find expression there. I could tell stories in the language of poetry. I felt at home in the form.


I find it curious that the question continues to arise as to whether the prose poem is a poem. So often it's phrased as a challenge. What makes you think that's a poem? We practitioners of the form are routinely called upon to defend it from being branded a version of the short short or flash fiction. (I imagine the question is also posed in relation to shape poems and concrete poetry for example.) As a poet, I'm tempted to respond: Because I say it is! But the reality is, the form has been in use—especially in Europe—for generations. For my part, I find that the prose poem suits my voice, accommodates some of my poetic impulses. It allows me narrative latitude, and permits me the occasional foray into humor without having it be “light verse.”


The editors' prefaces to the excellent anthology THE PARTY TRAIN: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (New Rivers Press) serve as terrific introductions to the range of work possible within the form. A more recent anthology, edited by Peter Johnson—A CAST-IRON AEROPLANE THAT CAN ACTUALLY FLY—offers the reader unusually personal and wide-ranging commentaries by the poets on the form. And the Marie Alexander Poetry Series (White Pine Press) showcases the work of contemporary practitioners of the form.


Interestingly, my newest book—DESIRE LINEShas as many free verse poems as prose poems.


Your astonishing Your Sun, Manny, is billed as a “prose poem memoir” --but to my mind it goes beyond that narrow definition into something sui generis: a hybrid of prose poetry and lined poetry, dialogue and collage—all of them juxtaposed with a sureness of control that results in a book that reads like a long poem, has the heft and emotional power of a long prose work and is as brief and punchy as a strong book of lyric poetry. Would you please talk a bit about the process of writing this book, so rich with nuance and compassionate observation, so variously focused on individual lives and voices—and on the world at large—and yet so clear in its narrative structure? It has the feel of something that took years to write, a long poem whose form had to be distilled and balanced over time. Did it start in journal entries? How did you do it?


The task Charter and I took on when we adopted a 14-year-old Puerto Rican boy turned out to be so all-consuming I wasn't able to do more than take notes and save the “evidence” of the story of the adoption of our son, a mentally challenged, emotionally abandoned boy named Manny. Only when he left our house and began the long struggle to come into the world on his own terms could I think about writing about his years with us. And I realized something early on in the process. This was going to have to be my story, the journey recounted from my perspective alone.


I began by writing it as a non-fiction work, using the material I'd collected over 10 years and which I'd stored in dozens of shoe boxes: journal entries, notes he'd stuck to the fridge to inform us of his whereabouts, watercolor paintings, letters from his teachers, report cards, Mother's Day cards, letters from counselors at summer camps and Outward Bound and the Job Corps...every scrap of paper I deemed a part of the collage that was becoming Manny's new life. I started at the beginning, but soon the “andthenandthenandthen” pattern proved a completely unsatisfactory approach to the telling. Nothing in my experience with Manny had been linear. I would have to find another way to accommodate narrative and some sort of chronology while endeavoring to capture the all the voices that clamored for attention. So I began again and let the actors in our domestic drama speak their lines. Hence prose, prose poems, soliloquies, snatches of song lyrics, epistles. I hit upon the notion of ordering the narrative by category instead of strict chronology and so sorted the corresponding anecdotes into the appropriate boxes. In almost every case, an anecdote stood for the many others like it. Finally there emerged a three-dimensional portrait of our third son...the boy who misspelled that word and then took it for his own. He was truly our “Sun.”

It's interesting to me, in light of what we've been discussing, that the closing moments of the first edition (1999) employ more of what I'd call “lined poetry” than the rest of the book. Is this because there's something in the emotional punch of lined poetry—the silence and stillness of closure that lines can evoke—that necessitated this beautifully realized turn?


I wrote the Epilogue some years after I finished the book because, since I'd left the story somewhat unresolved, I wanted to bring it to, if not a conclusion, at least a hopeful coda. The form the Epilogue took was, like other choices I made in the book, dictated by the circumstances. I appreciate your observation that lined poetry can create a certain stillness and closure, and looking at it from this distance, you may be right in noting that it was how what the final “chapter” needed: to be told: as an acknowledgment of Manny's extraordinary emotional growth and his breakthrough moment of empathy. To be honest, though, I did not think it out beforehand. (Earlier, you asked what “organic form” meant to me. I wasn't sure what exactly that was, but perhaps I've just defined it, at least for myself.)


(As a side note: I've often thought that an illustrated version of YOUR SUN, MANNY would be wonderful, particularly because it could include family photos and reproductions of his remarkable watercolors. A self-taught artist, Manny only paints flowers, and only from life. He is a great admirer of Monet and Van Gogh.


Do any arts play a role in your approach to writing? Have you ever collaborated with other writers, visual artists, or musicians?


Over the decades, I've been fortunate to have been involved in collaborations with artists across genres. My first important one was in the early '80s when NH artist Emile Birch suggested an idea for a sculpture that would include a poem which he would enter into a competition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Sunapee State Park. Emile's design won and, with some modifications to his original plan (issues of site suitability arose), “Sunapee Mandala,” with my words “written in stone” on one of its granite faces, was dedicated in !986. It was the first (and only) poem I've written to engineering specifications.


Since then I've worked with other visual artists and musicians, sometimes at their behest, sometimes at mine. For example, twice I was invited to participate in public art projects sponsored by the Rochester NH Arts Council. One involved writing a poem on a plaster shoe, one of a dozen placed around town to acknowledge the city's once-thriving shoe industry (mine was a skate in a nod to the old Rochester Humoresque. Another was a response to a sculpture by Diane and Ron St Jean on the theme of “If These Stones Could Talk.” And Diane used my words on a panel that fenced the Barrington Children's Playground. Katherine Doyle's painting, incorporating my words, hangs in the Rockingham County Courthouse waiting room. One of my favorite projects was executed with my photographer-husband Charter Weeks and was one of the winners in the Portsmouth Poet Laureate “Voices and Visions” competition. It began its public life in a bank lobby before it was moved to the Portsmouth Public Library. It's an over-sized, board-mounted three ring binder of photographs of the working boats of the Piscataqua River accompanied by my poems on the working birds of the river.


My brother, the late Basil Harris, put his inimitable music to poems that I wrote for the weddings of family members (epithalamia). Baritone Rawn Spearman set my poem sequence—Safe Harbor—to music and, with his jazz ensemble, performed it at the Currier Museum in Manchester.


In my capacity of NH Poet Laureate, I wrote three poems on commission, two for gubernatorial inaugurations and one for the minting of the NH quarter. And, along with other state poets laureate, I (gleefully) responded to a call from a philanthropist to write a poem for the dedication of the new urinals in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania. The collected poems appear under the banner: The relief you are now experiencing is made possible by a gift from Michael Zinman.


Would you please talk a little bit about your performances of the life of Amy Beach?


While researching New Hampshire women for the “H” letter (Sarah Josepha Hale) in my alphabet picture book, G is for Granite, I stumbled upon the name of Amy Cheney Beach and found, to my amazement, that this Henniker-born woman was America's first female composer. This discovery, along with the fact that her name was not a household word, prompted a more than five year dive into her life and her music via an excellent biography by Adrienne Fried Block titled Amy Beach: Passionate Victorian and the serendipity of the fact that her voluminous archives were housed in Special Collections at the University of New Hampshire Library, not 20 minutes away. I was in thrall. (She, too, kep five-year diaries!) I was determined to introduce Amy Beach to a new public. I experimented with a biography-in-voices. A contemporary novel for young readers with Amy as a character. A verse play. But in the end, nothing came to fruition. (One tangential result of my years of living with Amy was the children's picture book—THE GIRL WHO HEARD COLORS—that put a modern spin on Amy's gift of synesthesia.) Then I met a young woman who worked as an assistant to the North Country Chamber Players. She introduced me to the director. After many meetings with her and members of the ensemble, we created a performance featuring Beach's music for piano, cello, violin and soprano set to my libretto: an oral history spoken in her voice. I don't know when I'd been so excited by a project. For an hour—dressed in a black gown and long, gold-accented tunic, a black cloche tilted over one eye—I became Amy. Later, with the vocal and electronic collaboration of Northwood artist Adi Rule, I took a version of the performance on the road to area libraries. Now that I'm in Asheville, I might explore the possibility of reviving the project.


I'm also interested in your experiences as New Hampshire Poet Laureate


That was a wonderful five years in so many ways. After the surprise of the appointment wore off, I set myself the task of following in the outsized footprints of my predecessors, most recently Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and my close friend, Maxine Kumin, My first endeavor, in concert with the NH Writers Project and Commissioner of Cultural Resources Van McLeod, was to organize the first-ever gathering of state laureates for a weekend of readings, seminars and a gala celebration. We sent the visiting poets, each accompanied by a local poet-host, to venues all over the state from nursing homes to libraries to parks and bookstores...even the state women's prison. Maxine Kumin was the keynote speaker for a day of seminars led by writers and scholars and activists on the theme of “Poetry and Politics.” The National Endowment for the Arts chairman, Dana Gioia, spoke at the closing banquet. That weekend in 2003 marked the beginning of lasting connections among the state laureates and similar bi-annual events.


During my tenure I wrote two children's books—G is for GRANITE and PRIMARY NUMBERS—as part of a series of state alphabet and number books and brought them to schools all over the state. They spawned not a few student written and illustrated books about their own towns. (I estimate that I interacted with over ten thousand kids before I was done!)


After such a fun and rewarding time, my only regret is that I can no longer wake up on a Saturday morning and announce: “The poet laureate goes to the dump!”


Please discuss your experience of editing, with Kathleen Aguero, An Ear to the Ground (U of Georgia Press, 1989)--one of the earliest multicultural poetry anthologies in the US.


In the early 80s, Kathi Aguero and I came across an article in Poets & Writers magazine (called “Coda” at that time) the headline of which was “Is there a Poetry Mafia?” The piece went on to interview the mafiosi themselves who, predictably, vehemently denied it. We were outraged and determined to set that record straight. We began by soliciting essays from writers and scholars questioning the canon as it had been promulgated for decades. That book—A Gift of Tongues: Critical Challenges in Contemporary American Poetry—laid the groundwork for our companion volume, An Ear to the Ground: An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. It includes women, poets writing out of many ethnic backgrounds, gay and lesbian poets, in short, voices that had not been heard in the academic conversation to that point.


As a side note, Kathi and I accomplished this task without financial help (though a grant from a family foundation allowed Georgia Press to cover their printing costs and overprint the anthology in order to donate copies of the anthology to community colleges country-wide.) We had no institutional backing. And, looking back, perhaps most amazing, we contacted the writers, collected their submissions, chose what to include, edited where necessary, obtained permissions, organized bio notes...in short, shepherded two substantial volumes through the process without access to word processors, email, or any of the electronic necessities we take for granted. Shades of AJB!


AN EAR TO THE GROUND was cited as an American Library Association Notable Book in 1989.


I know you served as Administrator of the NH Poets-in-the Schools Project, and I know you've written travel articles and done industrial copywriting. Would you please talk briefly about your work experiences, writing-related or not.


Needless to say, poets don't make a living writing poetry. So if I had to work at a job, I wanted, as much as possible, to work for myself doing what I loved. Besides running the fledgling PIT program, I was one of the poets who taught in the schools, something I continued to do for the next 25 years. Soon after I married Charter, we started a business-to-business marketing company with me as the copywriter. We love to travel, and I discovered that magazines would pay us for our articles and photos. (The craziest assignment we stumbled on was to procure various Corvettes, take them to interesting places, then chronicle our adventures for the readers of Corvette Fever Magazine.)


Another source of income (and a pleasure at that) has been my voiceover work for radio and industry.


In short, work has been, for the most part, fun.


When I asked you if you'd like to be interviewed, you told me you'd not been writing much poetry for the past two years or so. I do think you've been writing other things though. To whatever extent you feel comfortable doing so, could you discuss these works?


My newest project involves chronicling my travels...not this time in articles, but as prose poems attempting to distill the essence of place.


One of the unfortunate but perhaps necessary tendencies of many artists in all disciplines is to embrace a “signature style.” In poetry this often results in the poet writing virtually the same poem over and over. How do you keep your work from falling into such a habit of mind and approach while maintaining a personal style and voice?


I dearly hope I haven't been writing the same poem over and over! May I quote E.L. Doctorow on this:


“I don’t want a style. [...] I think that the minute a writer knows what his style is, he’s finished. Because then you see your own limits, and you hear your own voice in your head. At that point you might as well close up shop.”


Amen.


Please discuss your practice as a writer. Do you try to write every day? What part does reading play in your writing process? As a corollary, how extensively do you revise?


I always wonder whether anyone really cares about how other writers structure their time or which tools they use. For my part, I'm fascinated that Nabokov wrote all his novels on index cards or that so-and-so uses a manual typewriter or that one writes in longhand on yellow legal pads or that another dictates her work to a secretary. None of it, however, influences how I do what I do. Or for that matter, why. Should anyone be interested, I have always hated my handwriting and so first used an Underwood Olivetti to type my work, moving on to a DOT word processor without a hard drive, eventually graduating to laptops connected to nice big screens. When I'm away from my desk, I take notes in pencil in small notebooks to refer to when I get back to the keyboard.


Revision. I love revision! The hard work's been done. Now to hone and polish and tweak. It's one of the reasons I cherish my writing workshop. If I haven't seen where I might improve my lines, inevitably that gets pointed out by my excellent peers. (Now and then, after a heated discussion and lots of opinions, one of us might say: Well, nevertheless,I'm keeping my version.) That said, at some point, when it's done, it's done. Time to move on.


Finally, what qualities do you think most distinguish your writing?


I think that's for others to weigh in on.


 

Michael Hettich’s most recent book of poetry, The Mica Mine, won the Lena Shull Book Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society and was published in April, 2021. His website is Michaelhettich.com.