Thursday, November 3, 2011

Leslie Harrison

Leslie Harrison's first book, Displacement, won the Bakeless Prize in poetry in 2008 and was published in 2009 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She is a 2011 recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was the Roth Resident in Poetry at Bucknell University in 2010. She has poems published recently or forthcoming from West Branch, Memorious, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, FIELD, Antioch Review and elsewhere. She lives in a tiny house in a tiny town in rural western Massachusetts.


Their friends looked shocked—said not
, said how sad. The trees carried on
with their treeish lives—stately except when
they shed their silly dandruff of birds. And
the ocean did what oceans mostly do—
suspended almost everything, dropped one
small ship, or two. The day beauty divorced
meaning, someone picked a flower, a fight,
a flight. Someone got on a boat.
A closet lost its suitcases. Someone
was snowed in, someone else on. The sun
went down and all it was, was night.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

My notes say I started this poem in 2004. I began drafting it while living in Irvine, CA. Most of my poems seem to start in some strange matrix of interests and obsessions, and this one was no different.

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

Though poems often start with an idea or a few lines scrawled in a journal, I move them pretty quickly to the computer. I'm a much faster typist than I am when I'm writing by hand, and some poems come very quickly. Even on the keyboard I struggle to get it all down before it fades away. My pattern, once it is on the computer, is to write until I stall, then re-read, and then want to change something. I select all, copy, and paste above the (now) previous version, make the change and go on from there. This happens sometimes dozens of times in the space of a single working session.

I work on it like that until it feels like I have something. Then I'll let it sit, and come back to the document a number of times until the poem on the page comes as close as I can get it.

I workshopped this poem at Irvine, but it seemed mostly done at that point, with four revisions in the file. I remember one more round of revision before I sent it out for publication, so probably a year or so elapsed between the first "public" draft and the "finished" poem.

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

I do believe in inspiration. I have had the experience of sitting down at the computer and walking away some time later and not knowing how much time has elapsed or even where/when I was. And then I read what I wrote and it seems like it didn't even come from me, like I'm reading something someone else wrote, something I don't even understand. My friends and I have joked for years that when I write something in this kind of thrall, I usually have to flee the scene—literally leave the room (and sometimes the house) because this process, this happening, is both magical and frightening.

This poem began in that kind of moment—I looked back at the original file and the bones of the published poem are there from the very first draft on the computer.

But always both before and beyond the inspiration is the craft, the practice. And I did revise, as I do most of the poems I write.

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

During the revision process, I remember thinking that it seemed to want to be a sonnet, and trying to inch it in that direction. I also remember that there were a ton of slant and straight rhymes, and wanting to make them fall at the ends of lines and in regular (sort of) patterns. But in the end, I had the courage to let the poem be what it wanted to be—something not quite anything other than itself. When Eavan Boland wrote the preface to Displacement, I was shocked that she saw the old sonnet bones in the poem. Delighted, but weirdly discomfited, as if I'd been caught in revealing clothing in public.

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

This poem was part of a packet I sent to POOL. It is memorable because it was one of the very rare instances in which the first journal to get the poem accepted it. It appeared in 2006, so I would say at most a few months elapsed between when it was finished and when it was accepted.
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?

I have no rules. Some poems I'm more sure of than others—more sure they've reached their final form, more sure that an editor might look kindly upon them, more sure they might survive on their own in the vasty world. These get sent out whenever I get a submission together. Other poems I've never sent out, or have waited years to send.

Which is not to say anything leaps from the laptop to the submission pile. I am, maybe, the world's worst submitter. On average, I manage one or two submissions a year, and some years, not a single poem goes out the door. When you understand that most submissions end in failure, in disappointment, you begin to develop an aversion reaction to actually doing submissions. And when you regularly work 2-5 jobs, the precious poetry time is more often taken up with writing itself rather than with the business of writing.

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

This poem seems to work the way a lot of my poems do—as a kind of fiction masquerading as fact. Fiction dressed up as fact for the costume ball with its sequined mask and slinky dress, so it can sneak in the door and dance with all the true things poems always wants to dance with. But isn't this what metaphor is, in a way, fiction masquerading as fact seducing truth?

Is this a narrative poem?

I guess if you mean does it tell a "real world" story in some kind of order then, umm, nope. I'm never sure what is meant by "narrative" though, and I think all my poems are narrative, and in this case, the book as a whole is also a narrative. It has always been my hope that one of the things poetry does well is find new ways of arriving at and traveling through narrative. I love poems that pretend they are not narratives and when you get to the end you realize you have, in fact, been told a story.

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

Oh, this is going to be a long answer. I think I said earlier that poems often form in a mash-up of whatever the current obsessions are. I know I was reading Heidegger, specifically his Poetry, Language, Thought, which talks a lot about beauty and truth. And I was also reading a copy of the journal Gulf Coast, in which, in an essay, someone linked the ideas of beauty and meaning. Usually we see beauty and truth together, courtesy of both Keats and Heidegger, but I remember thinking, "huh," about the pairing of beauty and meaning. That pairing interested me a lot.

This is what I loved best about grad school. People would constantly recommend reading, and I had the time and the access to a great library, so I would get and read pretty much whatever anyone suggested. I'd be reading several books at once, and so much swirls round in the foggy nebula when that happens. I think I was also reading some theory book about representation that Jim McMichael recommended, probably either The Nature of Representation, or maybe Rural Scenes and National Representation.

How those pieces accumulated or are present in the poem is a trickier question. I think I wanted to write some theoretical or at least thoughtful philosophical poem about beauty and meaning, and, well, this poem happened.

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

In the past I would have said I write for the absent beloved, and he was my ideal reader—generous and inclined to warmly receive, but with mad skills of his own, so able to point out flaws and areas of concern. But there is no longer any such person (that was another country/ and besides...). Now I think I write poems as little messages folded into boat-like shapes, tossed off sinking ships meant to come as treasure and comfort to distant shores. Now my poems are tiny ambassadors, love letters in the sense of Frost's lover's quarrel with the world. And it is into the world I send them, but not, I think, for the world I write them.

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?

There used to be a group of people with whom I shared work, and in this case, it was shared with my workshop at Irvine, as well as a couple of other trusted readers, but lately I do not share poems in that way. It seems that if, as I did, you go through a creative writing program, you are taught to write your first book. We have mentors, and classmates and friends and we are all learning and reading at a furious rate and we are all being taught because we don't know much. We learn a little bit about the tiny engines that are poems, and we begin to write poems. But after the first book, for me, it has felt like I had to start all over again and teach myself how to write, which is to say I had to teach myself how to write my poems. And that is something you can get a little help with, but mostly you're on your own.

I still count on friends and mentors to talk about poetry and recommend books, and when they do see a draft and have input, I find it useful, but that is more rare now, as it feels like I'm on my own path and most of my friends are on their own journeys too. My pattern for the last couple of years is to put a draft up on my blog, which is by invitation only, and leave it up for a day or so. I think that serves one of the key functions of trusted readers—it moves the poem somehow from its interior space of creation a little into the public and that adds just enough distance to let me see it a bit more clinically and clearly.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

There is something gently tongue-in-cheek about this poem, which is highly unusual for me. By which I mean I was writing this poem after a real-world divorce, and the opening lines of the poem come directly from that experience. I've always found this poem hilarious because of that little private joke. I don't think I've done anything similar before or since.

What is American about this poem?

Well, everything I suppose. I've lived abroad a couple of times, but I have mostly lived here, and my education is/was here and the contemporary poetry I read is predominantly American, so it seems very American to me. But that is not to say it is only American. I hope.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Finished. Until it isn't.

I have this fantasy of someday taking a bunch of old poems from a bunch of previous books (that is my favorite part, the part where I have a bunch of previous books), and rewriting them all for a "new" book. I also have this fantasy of finding one poem and rewriting and including it in all subsequent books. I love the idea of poems evolving as the craft evolves, as I get better at it, as my preoccupations change—poems as mutable objects.


  1. What I like best in this wonderful interview is the last thought that poems are "mutable objects." Nothing could offer better hope to "wannabes." Thank you.

  2. I love your answer to the quesstion about fact and fiction: "This poem seems to work the way a lot of my poems do—as a kind of fiction masquerading as fact. Fiction dressed up as fact for the costume ball with its sequined mask and slinky dress, so it can sneak in the door and dance with all the true things poems always wants to dance with."
    I wish I could write, or think, that creatively.

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