Change Seven: I love how various your work is and how widely you obviously read. Who are some of the poets you consider essential to your own work?
Marc Harshman: As you know, that’s a tough question. Knowing I am talking to Change Seven and sitting here as a laureate for the state of West Virginia, I can’t very well ignore how important place is to me. And saying “place”, certain Appalachian writers have been essential to me, and I think I would have to start with them. Having just done a reading in Morgantown, I think automatically of that amazing quartet of women that were there in north-central West Virginia: Fiction writer and poet, Jayne Anne Phillips’s poetry gets forgotten sometimes, but that’s where she started. And her book Sweethearts remains an essential work to me. Curiously, I discovered Jayne Anne long before I settled in West Virginia, because of that book Sweethearts and all the reading I was doing of post-Black Mountain work. That book was published by Truck Press, if I remember right, in the upper Midwest, and they were friendly to a lot of that work. So, Jayne Anne Phillips; my immediate predecessor Irene McKinney…every time I am doing a reading, I like to include one of her poems, and delving through her work it’s hard to find a poem that just doesn’t knock me out.
Then there’s Meredith Sue Willis. Though not a poet, her stories remind me of where I am in this geography of ours. A marvelous writer. And of course, my dear friend Maggie Anderson who is an essential poet for many of us, not only as Appalachians, but she is an essential American poet, too.
I start there, and not going too much farther afield, I admire Wendell Berry greatly — his essays in a book like The Unsettling of America are essential reading for me, for who I am, for how I see this country, how I see this culture. But the poet who speaks to me most is Robert Morgan. He is just marvelous, absolutely marvelous.
My first taste of poetry was with the beats, a terrible influence, although the best of their work is still surprising and whimsical and full of rhythm and sound, and the best of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and Creely is just a delight. And Denise Levertov and Diane DiPrima: such wonderful writing. But the poets that hit me most from America were the Black Mountain poets, someone like Ronald Johnson and a little earlier, Lorene Neidecker. I could go on forever and I haven’t even crossed the water yet!
For my ear, when I started to get serious about listening, it was Pound, but very quickly moving to William Carlos Williams, and from there, over the ocean to Basil Bunting and a group of poets — Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull — then others you can’t categorize, R.S. Thomas, George MacKay Brown, and today someone like Robin Robertson, for instance. There are some names that might not show up normally. But I’m sort of a magpie; I get excited easily and I’ll go running toward someone…
C7: That’s something I can hear in your poetry. I hear that delight in your own language — not in a solipsistic way — but I can hear you at play and delighting in the discovery, and I can hear your excitement to share the discovery with us.
MH: You know it’s funny: when you say it that way, it reminds me, and I’m not very conscious of this, but I do get excited about the sound of things. That’s really important, and it’s important for me to say that. I realize that I rarely write in anything approaching form, nevertheless, interior rhymes and certain rhythms are hugely important to me. I can’t explain that, but it’s true. There is a sonnet, “Seed Bed”, in those poems in Change Seven, though.
C7: Since you mention your poems in the magazine, looking back over them, I noticed that each of them contains weather, and wind!
MH: (laughing) Well, you can take the boy from the farm… You can see where I was raised. Whenever I would talk to my father, the first thing was always, “what is it doing outside?”
C7: I wanted to touch on that: you are a Hoosier by birth and a West Virginia by temperament and choice, I would say. I know that place is important to you, not only in the poets that you’ve mentioned but in your own work. Is there a sense of creating space around that poetic voice? That how you see the landscape is influenced by the poems you read, and the landscape in turn influences the poems you are writing?
MH: To be honest, it is so deeply internalized at this point that I’m not very aware of that. But it’s true, you’re completely right. Place is hugely important to me, it’s almost salvific. I am easily filled with wonder when I am out-of-doors, and likewise filled with wonder when I imagine being out-of-doors, even if I’m stuck inside. There’s that wonderful line from Somerset Maugham that describes not only my love for West Virginia, but for a place that’s not really a second home but that I have visited many times: the Black Mountains of Wales. Maugham wrote somewhere in The Moon and Sixpence: “Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.” That’s place for me.
C7: I notice that the way I look at a landscape is frequently colored by something I’ve read — the Somerset Maugham is a perfect instance of that for you. I’m thinking of your wonderful poem, “Diving for the Drowned”. I can’t cross the Ohio River without your image of it as “green-silver and silent” coming to mind. Part of how I now see the Ohio River is colored by that image from your poem. You’ve changed the way I see it.
MH: Isn’t it funny that great literature does that? Not just poetry, but great literature really does. We often say in our own work that we’re trying to “re-see” something, but the reading of great literature makes us re-see place and ourselves and ourselves in a place. My god, that’s such a transformative experience! There’s something that’s so, if you will, deeply spiritual, however you want to define that term. I’m just about ready to give up on humanity some days when I read the headlines, but a great artistic endeavor of whatever kind — sculpture, art, music, poetry, fiction — makes you breathe again. It makes it worth hanging on.
It’s important work we do as writers.
C7: Theres a question that I keep revisiting of late: what is poetry for? You’ve obviously just said a little bit of what it’s for, that it’s that tonic, that balm, that it refreshes us and can restore hope, but what are some other things you think poetry is for in particular?
MH: In once sense, to riff on the Dryden quote I use so often — “The chief end of poesy is delight” — one thing that poetry certainly does is it can be a kind of written music, and that’s important to remember in our work. I’m afraid I don’t find that music as often as I like in some contemporary poetry, but you can overdo it, too. I have to be careful here, but that “music” can sing without any aspect of the theatrical. I love seeing a great play; it’s such a great experience to me, and the actors and actresses that bring it to life have a great skill that I can only admire. But poetry seems a little different. Every single word on that page must matter. If they matter and sing, then thank your gods, by whatever names you want to give to them, because that’s where the great poetry should tend. But it has to be in the words’ happy relationship to each other, word to word, line to line, so they can come out of the speaking voice as song without much else. That’s enough to enable them.
Storytelling is a slightly different thing, but I never will forget hearing this great Irish storyteller in Pittsburgh. She was an old woman, and I cannot remember her name at the moment, but she came on stage in this large auditorium, hands clasped together, and began to tell her story. Her hands didn’t move and it was all just in the story. And it was mesmerizing. You could hear a pin drop from the moment she came on stage until she finished, twenty minutes later. That’s the kind of presence a good poem should create. If you’ve chosen well, it will be in those words you’ve chosen.
C7: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about poetry as communication, and I think sometimes we expect poetry to do something that it isn’t necessarily always about, which is the communication of factual information. And sometimes I think we don’t expect poetry to do something that it is frequently about, which is the communication of emotional information. And sometimes that emotion is conveyed purely through sound, through juxtaposition that isn’t necessarily predicated on making a literal sense.
MH: Yes, yes. And sometimes there may be a sense there that takes days or weeks or months to take on its full meaning, its full reality. I’m sure you’ve had this same experience; there are poems I’ve loved the first time I’ve heard them or read them, but with each successive reading they’ve taken on even more meaning and a greater sense of gravitas. I hear the singing more clearly. I try to train myself to be not only a better writer, but a better listener as the years go by.
C7: The poet Michael Klein once said, “writing well is impossible without reading well. It’s like playing in a jazz band with earplugs in.”
MH: Very good!
C7: When you sit at the desk, blank sheet of paper or empty screen in front of you, what is the spark that gets you going?
MH: More often than not in recent decades the spark is a random juxtaposition of whatever I am reading shortly before hand. If any scholar wanted to look at my work ages and ages hence, they might be able to trace what I was doing, but more often than not they couldn’t. And I couldn’t! I couldn’t tell you how I got from reading this Michael O’Brien poem or Szymborska poem to what ended up on my page, except in that moment I could tell you I wouldn’t have been able to have written that poem if I hadn’t, in my mind, been wandering down that little path that the writer opened up for me. Maybe it’s just because it’s a little closer in time, but about twenty, twenty-five years ago, a time of some emotional reevaluation of my life, I started reading these prose poems, and for a while they took me over. It was a great release. It wasn’t something I normally had written and the newness of that… I wrote a huge number of prose poems over a couple of years sparked by Jean Follain, the great French prose poem writer, and by William Bronk, and also by the prose poems of the great James Wright. Bronk in his own category and Wright, of course, is in a completely different place than Follain, but it gave me a line that was new and felt fresh.
My themes were nothing like those writers, not particularly, each of those men was very different from me. And in more recent years a lot of work in translation really has me completely spellbound and that, I suppose, began most of all with Tomas Tranströmer. There have been lots of others since then, Zagajewski, Ensensberger, Syzmborska as I mentioned, I could go on.
That spark is often whatever I have happened to have read in the past hour. It doesn’t have to be poetry, it could be anything, a murder mystery. But I’m usually in front of the picture window, if not sitting outside. I probably have fragments of my lawn here in Wheeling in more poems than I would ever imagine! It may be a fantasized back yard with dinosaurs in it, but its my backyard, I know it is.
C7: Maybe that’s why a breeze or a wind appears so often.
MH: (laughing) Yes! I’m quite sure that’s the case!
The essential part of the creative process is not just re-seeing the world, which we so often do as poets, but re-seeing the words on the page, that is, seeing it again. I’m now talking about revision.
Revision is essential. I’m not one of those who gets it down right the first time, I don’t think there are many who are, though there some who claim to be. For me it’s also important to have a really good reader, that’s been a marvelous gift over the past few years, because I don’t play well with others, I’m afraid. A lot of writers I admire have a writing group that’s important to them, but my group is one. Richard Strauss once said this to someone who criticized one of his scores: “I am very grateful for your energetic intervention.” And I am, I am!
That’s one of the greatest things about being an older guy. I used to have a pretty thin skin, but now…well, my advice to younger poets is don’t be afraid of criticism. It may hurt, it may piss you off the first time you hear it, but don’t strike out. Let it simmer a while. If you heard it from someone with more wisdom than you, you’ll be grateful for that criticism a day or two or month later, how ever long it takes, but don’t burn it up. Look it over again, and if you do, it will be a good tool by which you learn your craft.
C7: It seems to me the best poets can walk a razor’s edge between confidence and humility. They’re able to say” “what I’ve written is important and I’m doing important work, but it’s not so much about me”. That’s one of the things that I admire most about your work. The poems feel important, yet I have so much fun reading them. There is obvious play in your poems, and a sense that there’s a living, breathing person behind them who isn’t a bloated ego.
MH: Something you said just then made me think that — and with my background you know I can’t resist religious language in a way — one of the great gifts in the last two decades for me is I feel like I am increasingly able to get out of the way. To get myself out of the way of what’s coming in the poem. There is a way in which it’s like the old-fashioned sense of devotion a priest has, or a great teacher. A call. And to address that call properly, I need to get out of the way of the poem, especially get my ego out of the way, any kinds of preconceptions, and let the singing of the words on the page take over. That’s not easy, and I don’t know that when I was younger I knew it was possible, but as I’ve gotten older, I feel best about my work when I feel like I have discovered something that had not only not been in my head, but hadn’t been anywhere until those words began to appear on the page. My ability to get out of the way has been a great discovery and a great gift when it happens, and it doesn’t happen all the time. I’m too present too often, but I’m more aware of it now than I was when I was a younger writer.
C7: You mentioned using religious language. You earned a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity. When you enrolled, were you considering ordination?
MH: No. Which is curious because I had been deeply involved with church life much of my younger life — there was a decade or so where I drifted away — but I was constantly asked in those years, “are you going to be a preacher?” which was funny to me. I was even asked that in high school, but it didn’t interest me. Religion interested me, enough that I continued, except for that little straying away, and I still continue to attend services with regularity, though I would be hard pressed to describe why I do that. I freely interpret and translate a lot of what I hear. But I was [at Yale] because I loved the notion of mythology, and religion was the umbrella under which I could study mythology, especially in the sense that Joseph Campbell defined it, and especially in the sense of that quartet of books he wrote building to the final volume which was Creative Mythology in which we use poetry and art and everything in our lived experience to create that myth by which I am going to live my life. And I say myth with nothing small in that “m” in mythology. It can be a full-blown capital.
C7: That brings me to the last question I wanted to ask: how much do you see the landscape of your work — physical, spiritual and emotional — as being the mythos of Marc Harshman?
MH: It is that. It’s one of the things you talked about, the landscape. Someone who read a lot of my work would notice that the language of religion can be found in my work, even the more traditional language. And I have written more specifically religious poems, poems with a Christian theme.
MH: I’m a firm believer that one’s faith, any faith, is dead if you don’t struggle with doubt, which is the nature of our human condition. We don’t know from one moment to the next what might happen, we certainly don’t know what’s beyond the beyond, and all kinds of other questions in between. We don’t even know sometimes what’s morally or ethically right. As writers, we know, it’s a minefield, it’s grey, it’s not black-and-white. And those that pretend it’s black-and-white, those are the ones that scare me, particularly the religious faithful that think it’s all black-and-white.
I never tire of thinking of epiphany as James Joyce would recognize it walking along the shore there near Dublin: that moment when you realize the world is larger than you are. That’s enough. I don’t need to say anything more. If my poems can give testimony to that larger world, then I’m satisfied.