Jeffrey Harrison’s fifth full-length book of poetry, Into Daylight, was published by Tupelo Press in April 2014 as the winner of the Dorset Prize. More recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in New Republic, Yale Review, and elsewhere. An excerpt from his poem “Politics of the Dead” can be found here. The full poem appears in the Fall 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Could you tell us a little about “Politics of the Dead”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Writing about a family member is an endeavor that is always emotionally fraught, but this poem presented even more difficulty, both because my relationship with my father was complicated and because my father had recently died when I began writing the poem. On the one hand, I wanted to be honest about the contentious side of our relationship, but on the other hand, I wanted to honor him—or at least not to dishonor him even while I was mourning his loss. Whether I found the right balance is not for me to judge, but if I didn’t find it within this poem, I like to think I am finding it across poems, when this poem is considered alongside some of the other poems I have been writing about my father, which celebrate other aspects of his life and of our relationship.
“Politics of the Dead” mentions by name the TV stations Fox News and the Tennis Channel. When you’re composing a poem, what goes into the decision to drop the specific name of an institution or product, rather than discussing your subject generically?
Well, it’s not “product placement,” as in the movies. I think most poets find a pleasure in naming things, and usually specificity has more impact on a reader than something more general. At the same time, proper nouns add a different texture to a poem. Place names, for instance, can be very evocative. The names of television channels probably don’t have quite that same effect, but I think they give the reader more to go on than if I’d just said my father was watching TV. And they might have slightly more resonance beyond their literal meaning. As with most things, I began with the literal: Fox News is in the poem because my father was actually watching Fox News. At the same time, the fox in “Fox News” might strike a chord with the “feral outbursts” of the poem’s previous section, as well as with the “snarling dogmatists” that appear later in this section. The Tennis Channel, on the other hand, has more calming implications for me, and tennis is something we could have watched together (and that we had a history of watching together), since it isn’t charged with the political contentiousness that often triggered our arguments.
The poem makes figurative use of underground cables and electric fences. Can you tell us a little about your use of currents as metaphor?
I was thinking of voltage as a metaphor for intense, sudden emotion. My father and I got along pretty well for most of my adult life, and there were many occasions when we had fun together. But every five years or so we had an ugly fight that was often triggered by politics. Enough time would go by between these incidents that I was always caught off guard by his sudden outbursts, and my reaction (probably a rush of adrenaline) always felt physical, as if my body had been shocked by an electrical current. (At the same time, it felt primal, plunging me back into our earlier history.) Vines and wires entered poems about my father very early on—often as emblems for our tangled, charged relationship. I came to realize that these dangerous cords were also the ties that bound us together.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I could say a lot about my writing process, but not necessarily anything that has changed over the last five years. I believe in writing the poems that come naturally but also (paradoxically) in a certain restlessness that might lead one into new territory—so that what comes naturally might actually change over time. Of course, life itself also plays a role in that process: a brother kills himself, and that changes your poems. As to the writing process of individual poems, I tend to like not knowing where a poem is going, so that it might go somewhere that I’m not expecting. This approach, of course, leads to a lot of failed poems, or poems that go nowhere. As for the others, with the exception of the rare short lyric that might come whole, or close to whole, most of my poems go through a long process of shaping and revision.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
First, my family. Although they don’t come up in that many of my poems, my wife and two children are the grounding principle of my life. The other thing would be the Adirondacks, where I have gone every summer of my life, and whose lakes and mountains feel like part of me at this point.
In the 1950s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” If you were to write a credo, do you have a potent piece of advice, either from yourself or from another writer, that you might use as a jumping-off point?
I believe, with Auden, that the root of poetry is awe and that, in one way or another, its main function is praise. The passage I’m referring to goes like this:
Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct—it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.
I still remember exactly where I was (on a rocking chair on the porch of a friend’s summer home, overlooking Buzzard’s Bay), when, over three decades ago, I read this passage in a copy of The Dyer’s Hand that I had lifted from a relative’s bookshelf. Countless memorable and important statements have been made about poetry—from Basho to Keats to Dickinson to Stevens to Frost to Mandelstam to Paz to Heaney and many others—but I have never found a better passage than this one to serve as a ground base for my poetic beliefs.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I have been writing a number of poems about my father—his life, his struggle with cancer, his death, and my relationship with him over many decades. At this point, I am not sure what shape these poems will take together—I’m just writing them as they come and seeing where they go. At the same time, I’m writing other poems in my usual way, one by one, without much thought as to how they add up—that comes later for me.