Friday, July 31, 2009

Jeffrey Harrison

Jeffrey Harrison is the author of four full-length books of poetry, most recently Incomplete Knowledge (Four Way Books, New York), which made the Book Sense top ten poetry list for 2007 and was runner-up for the 2008 Poets’ Prize. In addition, a selected poems, The Names of Things, was published in England by the Waywiser Press in 2006. A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, two Pushcart prizes, and other awards, he currently teaches in the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. For more information, please visit Harrison's website.


When I switch on the car radio,
a voice with the singing inflection
of an Indian is saying

that what we call coincidences
are really glimpses
of the cosmic harmony,

and I think of my sister weeping
on the other end of the phone
when I told her the story,

beginning with our older brother
who, five years earlier, called me up
from his apartment in Chicago

to tell me about this poet
from Minnesota he’d met
after her reading at the Art Institute.

He didn’t read a lot of poetry,
and it was unusual for him
to be telling me about a poet,

and he seemed a little disappointed
that I hadn’t heard of her,
but I told him that didn’t

mean anything—that she
hadn’t heard of me, either,
which he laughingly confirmed.

I saw him in Cincinnati that Christmas
and he had her book with him
and wanted me to read it,

but he wouldn’t let me take it home
to Massachusetts so I had to
read it fast, but I liked it.

Then three years later (and two ago),
I met the poet at a book fair in Seattle,
not realizing right away

that she was the same poet,
but when I did, I told her the story.
She said she remembered my brother,

because it was so unusual
for anyone who wasn’t a relative
or friend to actually buy a book

and talk to her after a reading.
She said he’d been sweet
and funny, which sounds like him.

I told my brother, too,
and I’m sure he was amused,
but I can’t remember what he said.

A year later, he was dead.
I found the book in his apartment
among his not many books:

The Green Tuxedo, by Janet Holmes.
There were yellow post-its
next to particular poems,

with notes in his childlike
non-script: “True story.”
I left them there and took the book.

It has the same dark aura
as his video of Sam Shepard’s True West
or his bootlegs of the Grateful Dead.

I told Janet about Andy’s death
and she wrote a nice note back,
but we were not in very close touch,

and another year went by before
I got an e-mail from her saying
that her husband’s son by a previous marriage,

a widower with a teenage daughter,
was dating my divorced sister—
is dating my sister.

Wow, I think, what a strange
coincidence, and I wonder, the way
I used to wonder when I was younger

and less skeptical, if this could
mean anything. So I call my sister
and tell her the whole story,

and that’s when she starts crying,
and I think it’s because I’m talking
about Andy, and I say I’m sorry,

but she says no, it’s because she
really likes this guy, and she had
already been thinking that Andy

had somehow sent him to her
because he wanted her to be happy
after the bad end of her marriage

and the shock of his suicide.
And I say wow out loud now, and I keep
wondering what is at work here.

Who knows what it is or what
will happen, but the voice on the radio
is talking about “quantum non-locality”

and how two particles that have come
into even the most glancing contact
and go off in different directions

are forever related, and if you know
where one of them is you know
where the other one is,

which makes me wonder about
my brother’s non-locality
in relation to Janet, who I know

is now in Idaho—and whether,
from his non-locality, Andy
has anything to do with all this.

The radio guru seems to be saying
yes, that coincidences mark
a state of grace, and we are all

living inside the mind of God,
and I don’t care if he is
promoting his newest book,

I roll my window down and toss
my skepticism out like a bad grape,
and despite all that can go wrong

in a lifetime and everything
awful that has already happened,
right now, at least, I believe him.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I heard the radio show that triggered the poem while I was driving home from a teaching stint in Maine (the winter residency of the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA Program), in the first days of 2004. I had to dig through a box in the attic to find the drafts, and they start with some very sketchy notes I made on a pad I kept in the car—really just phrases from the radio show, not notes for a poem. I’m pretty sure the person being interviewed was Deepak Chopra, and it was the way his phrases and ideas connected to thoughts about my brother’s suicide that sparked the poem. The background is that my older brother had killed himself (completely unexpectedly) a little over a year earlier, in November 2002, and that, for the past ten or eleven months, I’d been writing and revising poems on that grim subject, including a twelve-part sequence about the immediate aftermath of his death. That was, at times, a grueling process, all mixed together with tremendous grief. With all those poems behind it, this slightly more hopeful and perhaps more open poem seems to have come somewhat more easily. The first real draft is written in pencil on pages from a legal pad, and, reading it now, I am surprised to find that it already has the same basic shape as the final version. I often think of narrative poems, with their shifts between various time-frames, as more “constructed” than lyrics, but if that is true, this poem would appear to be the exception. It always started with the radio show calling up the phone conversation I’d had with my sister Ellen a month or so earlier, followed by the flashback (via the phone conversation) to the story about my brother which began five years before. The first three stanzas are almost exactly the same in the first typed draft (dated January 6, 2004) as they are in the final version. The difference is that, in the first draft, there was a period at the end of the third stanza—but in pencil I changed it to a comma and wrote in rephrasings that allowed the sentence to keep going, in an attempt to better represent the way the mind moves through time and is called back to memories.

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

It depends how you count: there are eight versions, but a couple of them are very close to each other. The final draft isn’t dated, but it is almost identical to a previous version dated January 13, 2004 … which is a week after the first draft (assuming I went right to the computer when I finished the hand-written draft). This is an unusually short time for me, especially for a poem of this length. Many of my poems go through numerous versions over a much longer period of time … to the point where even a large paperclip won’t hold the drafts together and I have to graduate to one of those black spring clips.

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

I believe in inspiration and work. As I said earlier, this poem seems to have come fairly naturally, and some of the work I put into it I undid later (which is also work).

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

Revision of this poem involved both subtracting (or compressing) and adding (or expanding)… with some of the additions being later subtracted again. One thing I added and kept were place names, because I began to realize the importance of locality (and non-locality) to the poem: there is the interweaving of time-frames but also the web of various locations, like pins on a map. Chicago was there from the start, but Minnesota, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, Seattle, and Idaho (the actual locations of the people and events) were all added in the second typed draft. Usually this just meant adding a phrase like “from Minnesota,” “to Massachusetts,” or “in Cincinnati,” but near the end of the poem, it led to the addition of the stanzas

which makes me wonder about
my brother’s non-locality
in relation to Janet, who I know

is now in Idaho—and whether,
from his non-locality, Andy
has anything to do with this.

This added passage went on for one more stanza, but I ended up cutting it. I knew that length was an issue with the poem—that, while it was in some sense a “loose and baggy” poem (“a shaggy dog story,” as one friend called it), some compression was needed to keep it from bogging down. Oh, one other thing: the poem did not get its final title until the last draft. Before that, it bore the cumbersome working title “A Series of (Un?)related Events.”

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

I waited three months—until mid-April—to send the poem out, submitting it to Image magazine, and three months after that, the editor, Gregory Wolfe, wrote to accept it. Like everything else about this poem, it seems, that went more smoothly than usual, too. I think one reason, besides luck, is that I had a sense that the poem might fit the religious nature of the magazine, though it might very easily have been rejected. It appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Image, so, a year and a few months after it was written. That’s a fairly short turn-around, in my experience. Later, the poem was included in my book Incomplete Knowledge (New York: Four Way Books, 2006).

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?

It varies from poem to poem. I don’t have any rules, but normally every stage of the process is longer than it was for this poem.

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

Everything in this poem is pretty much true, though I streamlined a little by cutting some details. For instance, in real life (and in an earlier version of the poem), it wasn’t until I got home that I realized that the poet I met in Seattle—Janet Holmes—was the same person my brother had met in Chicago, and then I sent her an e-mail to explain. That was too cumbersome to stay in the poem. But the play between life and this poem has been compelling for me. I didn’t meet Matt Greenberg, my sister’s then-new partner, until six months after I wrote the poem, and I didn’t meet his father Al Greenberg—Janet’s husband, and a wonderful poet himself—until three years later, in early 2007. It felt like a momentous occasion.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes, though also meditative.

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

I hate to sound vague, but not really. In this case, I may have been thinking of the real-life players in the poem—my sister and Matt, etc. And my dead brother. Afterwards, at least, I thought he might like this poem more than some of the darker poems about his suicide. He always liked my funny poems, and although this poem isn’t funny, it’s not quite as heavy as some of the others I’d been writing.

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?

I have a handful of trusted poet friends with whom I share poems—some regularly, some irregularly. Bob Cording and I show each other everything, and he definitely saw some versions of this, probably starting around the third draft.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

That’s hard to answer, since I write everything from short lyrics to longer narratives and meditations, from the humorous to the elegiac. I guess it’s a little more “New Agey” than anything else I’ve ever written.

What is American about this poem?

The fact that the speaker is driving a car strikes me as quintessentially American. Also, the way it ends up including locations all across the country… or at least the top half of the country, from coast to coast, with Cincinnati being as far south as it goes.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

God (or Valéry) only knows. I hadn’t looked at it in a while before answering these questions, and there were a few small things I questioned as I read it. But I’m not going to tell you what they are!

“Coincidences” from Incomplete Knowledge, © 2006 by Jeffrey Harrison. Used by permission of the publisher, Four Way Books, Inc., New York. All rights reserved.


  1. Quick plug: Folks in the Fairfax area -- like Brian Broduer himself! -- should mark their calendars for Harrison's appearance at the upcoming Fall for the Book festival. He'll be appearing with fellow poet Terrance Hayes (Wind in a Box) on Friday, September 25, at 2 p.m. in the Gold Room, Johnson Center on George Mason University's Fairfax Campus.

  2. I am so happy to have read this poem today.

  3. Art: Thanks for that plug. I actually had no idea Harrison would be reading at FFTB. I'm looking forward to it!

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