Friday, July 17, 2009

James Harms

James Harms has published six books of poetry, most recently After West (2008) from Carnegie Mellon University Press. His second collection, The Joy Addict, for which he received the PEN/Revson Fellowship, will be reprinted this year in Carnegie Mellon’s Classic Contemporaries Series. Newer work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Oxford American, West Branch, Poetry International, Quarterly West, The Cincinnati Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, Cave Wall, Barrelhouse, and others. A recipient of an NEA Fellowship and three Pushcart Prizes, he is Professor of English at West Virginia University, where he was the founding director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing. He also directs the low-residency MFA Program in Poetry at New England College.


There is only one picture of Gene
that stills the sadness long enough
for me to see it. He sits
on a piece of patio furniture in a shirt
aswarm with blue and gray fish,
slumped slightly as if settling in
before stiffening his spine against
the chair's rubber straps.
There is a streak of shadow
slanting through the frame
and dusting his hair with darkness,
as if the evening at the edges of the photo
is swelling with time,
is rinsing away the years as well as the light.
But there is little gray in Gene's hair,
which even now is clay-colored
and fine, as it's been as long
as I've known him. Unlike my father
or mother, I remember not knowing him,
an empty sleeve attached to a jacket,
which hangs in the hall closet
of a house long sold.
Gene has never listened
to Frank Sinatra or Johnny Mathis.
He has never asked to throw a baseball
with me, for which I am grateful.
The one time I saw him finger a satin shirt
was a moment I imagined as I ordered tuxedos
for my groomsmen, my father
and for him. He stood close to my mother
through the service like a birch
leaning slightly toward the clearing
where the sun strikes first
before spreading to the woods.
For twenty years he took all the pictures.
Which is why there is only one
of the sadness stilled, the patio cooling
and Gene at rest in the play of light
and shadow at afternoon's end, the edge
of evening. Perhaps
he is beside my mother now
in their new house near Modesto,
in the kitchen I'm sure, the windows open
to almond trees, the muffled noise
of branches budding. They seem
to be listening to the threads
giving way in the earth,
the soft rip of dahlias pushing up.
But no. It's music in the living room
they hear, Beethoven I would bet, the sadness
of air blended into song,
a wordless story the two of them
have heard so often they know enough
to stop, to turn toward each other
against the steady pull
of the earth, which spins as always
in the other direction.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem was written in the early spring of 1999. Toward the end of the poem there are actually a few references to spring, which suggests I was trying to imagine myself west, to the San Joaquin Valley, and to conjure up the strange beauty of those endless acres of almond groves that surround my mother’s house in Escalon, California. The first time I visited Escalon it was spring (several years before this poem was written), so the impression of blossoming almond trees seems to be my default image for the place; I’ve used it in several other poems.

Anyway, I think I was trying to do two things in this poem: 1) come to terms with a fairly (if domestically) cataclysmic event: my parents’ move away from our childhood home in Altadena (which is in greater Los Angeles) to their new life in retirement in the central valley; and 2) pay homage to my stepfather, who is one of the most important figures in my life.

My stepfather, like my mother, rarely appears in my poems. I think the two of them are such dependable constants that I’ve never needed to write about them; there’s no problem to solve when it comes to them, no trauma or injury that requires the repair of poetry. So I willed myself to make this poem by remembering a photograph of my stepfather. I didn’t actually look at the picture until after I finished the poem; I didn’t want the real thing to get in the way of my imagination. But just the memory of the photo sent me in two directions at once: to our old home in Altadena (in the past), and to their new one in Escalon (near Modesto, the present). I find that I need poems to exist in more than one place and time. I’m most interested in the simultaneity of the lived moment, how the past and future complexify the present.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

I really can’t remember the process of writing the poem in any specific detail, though if it was in any way normal it would have gone through a dozen or more drafts. I’ve become a fairly fastidious editor, and can keep a poem alive in manuscript form through many edits before I need to kick out another draft. As a result, I don’t put poems through as many iterations as I did twenty years ago, when a typical poem went through forty or fifty drafts. The poem probably took between three and six months to complete.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Writing poems is inspiring; it’s a way of creating inspiration in our lives. So yes, I believe in cultivating inspiration through hard work. I do seem to remember that this poem was difficult to write. There are a few complicated metaphors that were tough to orchestrate, and which required the introduction of a degree of self-consciousness that I’m not always comfortable with. So all of that took some time to work out. But there are a few lines that seemed magical to me as I wrote them, that seemed to arrive out of the air. I love it when that happens. A few.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

I wanted this poem to resemble the easy drift of memory and meditation, that state of consciousness that most of us slip into several times a day when a particular image or overheard phrase triggers a reverie. Eventually I arrived at a line that undulates for the most part, and line breaks that are comfortable and emphatic, as opposed to disruptive and transformational. So the form is an extension of tone, a way of supporting mood and atmosphere. I was certainly conscious of working with all those issues as I moved into the last couple of drafts. The technique is fairly intuitive, but I do spend a lot of time considering the shape of the finished product, and I’m not averse to taking a poem I’ve thought of as finished and completely disassembling it, changing line length or getting rid of breaks all together (most of my prose poems start out as lined poems). This particular poem found its shape fairly early and easily.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Well, this could be an embarrassing answer, though I’m betting it’s not all that unusual. I sent this poem out regularly for two and a half years before it was accepted by Poetry International, a journal that has been very kind to me over the years. For whatever reason, Poetry International tends to publish the poems that matter most to me, and I’m very grateful for their support. (I’d send them more work but that would be trading on that support.) The only other journal that has published more of my poems is Crazyhorse, another terrific magazine.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

No rules. I'm certainly more patient than I used to be: I remember regretting the publication of some early poems, most of which were either revised before inclusion in a book or discarded. Then again, I can't say that I'm sure I'm always right. The reasons I like or don't like my own poems are often very personal and subjective, and don't always have much to do with the overall success of the poems. So I tend to trust certain editors and friends; if they think a poem works, I'll hold onto it or even go with an earlier version that they prefer.

But back to the original questions: nowadays I often wait months, even a year or more to send out work. I just don't feel the same urgency to get the poems into the world. Rather, I enjoy fiddling with them for a long time, seeing how they hold up to different moods, different seasons, whatever. Who was the painter who used to sneak into museums and galleries after hours to continue work on his paintings, paintings that were supposedly finished? Yup, I get that.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

Well, I have a mother and stepfather who live near Modesto and used to live in Altadena. Beyond that, most of the details and situations in the poem are invented, even if they resemble the actual. These distinctions aren’t all that important to me.

Is this a narrative poem?

The poem is descriptive and meditative, and is controlled by a clearly defined voice. This gives the impression of narrative because we’re very aware of a narrator performing acts of memory and description. But there’s not much in the way of linear story telling. So yes, it’s narrative to a degree, but not plot driven.

There are all sorts of ways to enact meditation in poetry. Since I favor situational enactment, and love the sound of a voice on the page, my poems will resemble narratives even when they don’t do much in the way of story telling. When a poem is less connected to a situational reality, it seems more lyric, even if the degree of story telling isn’t all that different from one of my poems. I find these distinctions (like the ones in the previous answer) fairly unimportant. My students are devoted to the bifurcation of poetry into camps, and those camps are usually defined by their relationship to lyric versus narrative disclosure. It seems to me that every poem requires its own specific tools, and I like to make sure my toolbox is as big as possible.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I don’t remember who I was reading when I wrote this particular poem, though I know that the book Freeways and Aqueducts, which contains this poem, was informed by my deep reading of W.H. Auden (one of the epigraphs for the book is from “In Praise of Limestone”), as well as James Schuyler, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hass and David St. John, among others. And Ashbery, whose importance to my work is central: I’ve learned more from his poems than I can say.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I really don’t think about audience when I’m writing. I assume that if I’m satisfying my own demands for the poem that it might prove worthwhile to other readers of poetry. I tend to feel that poetry that lacks access at the level of the phrase is probably overly concerned with the wrong things; in other words, I’d like for a general reader to be able to understand my poems phrase by phrase. I’d like for them to hear a voice on the page. That’s about it.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Not anymore. There were years where I showed many of my poems to a small circle of fellow poets, or mailed them off to friends, but that’s not the case anymore. Occasionally I’ll email something to a friend for a quick look. And I do show my wife most of my poems for her impressions. But I don’t expect the sort of intense critical feedback that was so necessary years ago.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

It resembles one sort of poem I enjoy writing, which might be described as a meandering meditation. I like poems that surprise themselves as they proceed, that explode out of narrative tracks and find ways of moving into different temporal and spatial realities without losing their way. But I also enjoy writing other sorts of poetry, so I hope that this poem is both similar and different.

What is American about this poem?

Most of my work is concerned with the way place shapes identity, and I think that’s a very American notion.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Ah, yes: Valery. I tend to agree with him. I’d like to think I finished the poem and that’s that. But the truth is (as I suggested in an earlier answer) I could probably fiddle with a poem forever. At some point I just stop, usually when the fiddling seems less productive or interesting. But is it really finished? Who knows?


  1. Thank you, I absolutely enjoyed the poem. And I identified with most of the answers in the interview. I am always pleased to see similarities with my process in other poets I admire, so thanks again.

  2. Here is the line that gripped me: "He stood close to my mother through the service like a birch leaning slightly toward the clearing
    where the sun strikes first
    before spreading to the woods." I don't have a stepfather, at all. . .but if I did, I'd like to have one like this. . . like him.

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