Joseph Harrington: On Listening, Blue Clover, and Rest Stop Inspiration

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Joseph Harrington: On Listening, Blue Clover, and Rest Stop Inspiration

Interview by Sutton Welsh


On April 17, 2015, professor and poet Joseph Harrington visited Bethel College. Harrington is the author of 2011 Things Come On {an amneoir}. In his poems, Harrington combines the events of The Watergate scandal and his mother’s battle with cancer. His book explores the literary category of documentary poetry, which Harrington has spent a great deal of time researching. He also has studied experimental non-fiction, cultural studies, and political philosophy. In 2011, Harrington was a Pushcart Prize nominee, and for the years 2013-2016 he received the Conger-Gabel Teaching Professorship. He is currently a professor of English at The University of Kansas in Lawrence. Harrington spent his day at Bethel by talking about careers in the creative arts at a brown-bag lunch, helping students edit their poetry, and visiting Dr. Siobhan Scarry’s literature class Studies in Poetry: Archivists and Agitators. Although his schedule was hectic, Harrington sat down at Mojo’s for a cup of coffee and an interview with YAWP! editorial staff writer Sutton Welsh.

Sutton Welsh: Who are you reading currently?

Joseph Harrington: Well, a wide variety of things. For my graduate workshop, I just read Aria de Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay, which is a play in verse … which I’ve never read it before. I’ve known about it for a long time, but I’ve never read it. I’m reading a book called The Do-Over by Kathleen Ossip, which I was privileged to read in manuscript before it was out. We exchanged manuscripts. A book called Many Small Fires, which is another book of poetry by a woman named Charlotte Pence. It’s her first book. I’m reading an anthology that just came out called Essaying the Essay. It’s edited by David Lazar, who edits Hotel Amerika magazine. It’s essays about the essay. Weirdly enough, I’m reading it cover to cover, which I don’t usually do with anthologies, but it’s really interesting. I’m getting kind of seduced by the essay as a form. I just read House of Deer by Sasha Steensen, who teaches at Colorado State. It’s about her growing up on the Mississippi — on a back-to-the-land, kind of commune-type place. I recommend all of those. They’re all worth looking at, for sure.

SW: If you were starting out as a poet, what would you suggest reading to spark the imagination?

JH: A lot of different poets, because what’s going to spark one person’s imagination won’t for another — poets and also all kinds of stuff. Marianne Moore subscribed to hundreds of publications, many of which were scientific publications. You’ll see a lot of American scientists’ quotes show up in her poems, out of context. She subscribed to The Journal of American Orthopedics — all kinds of stuff. You can draw inspiration both in terms of material and in terms of putting words together from anywhere. But it’s important to read a wide variety of poets to see what’s being done now, by other people your age, or at least other people who are alive now. We teach English courses as literary history. You take the Romantics, then you take a Whitman and Dickinson course, or you’re studying Yeats. These poets in their time were very ground-breaking. But that was then. Things have changed. You need to get a sense of what’s being written now. One thing I recommend if you want to publish is to browse journals. A lot of journals are online these days, and they’re really easy to browse because of that. The website “New Pages” has a pretty comprehensive listing of literary journals, with links to the web pages, all different styles. Just to write, write what’s happening to you, whatever you’re interested in.

SW: Do you have any creative strategies to help with writer’s block?

JH: It can often help to have a procedure, however arbitrary or random. Whenever I give my class a writing experiment to try, I always do it myself, because I often end up writing something unusual. For instance, our common book next year is A Farewell to Arms by Hemingway. So last week, I copied a bunch of pages, circled paragraphs, gave one to everybody, a different paragraph. Then I said, circle every fifth word, and now, list all the words down the side of the sheet of paper. Everyone had to use two columns. I said, “Now the game is to make a poem out of just those words and use all those words.” Right away, you don’t have to worry about what’s the right word, you’re using these words. I think it takes some of the pressure off, because the way we think about poetry typically is that the muse is going to inspire you, or that you have something inside of you that needs to come out, needs expression. But it doesn’t always work that way, and it certainly doesn’t always work that way by itself. I think having something from the outside to draw you forth to write things that you would not write otherwise. Whether it’s writer’s block or writing at a different vocabulary, games like that can be very helpful. Or even finding a text that has been written and erasing parts of it, so that you create a new text. There’s a book by Ronald Johnson. He grew up in Ashland. It’s called Radi Os. It’s an erasure of the first book of Paradise Lost. He keeps the words and the phrases in the same place where they were in the original, but he tells a completely different story than the original. A much more humanistic — kind of rude — but you still hear some of Milton in there, too. Stuff like that where there’s something on the outside to be a catalyst. That would be my main piece of advice. Also, to read. If you’re reading, or you’re at a reading, it’s more likely that the part of your brain that does poetry is going to be activated.

SW: When you write, do you do it on your laptop? Or, do you prefer notebooks?

JH: It depends on what I’m writing. I do different ways under different circumstances. These exercises in class I do by hand, because I usually don’t bring my laptop. Typically the stuff I write, I write on computer, because I fiddle with them. It’s easy to change the line breaks or the number of lines in a stanza — actually see how it will look on the page. I’m very visual and I’m very into layout, and I like to see how it’s going to appear on the page. For that reason I like using a computer. Also, for some of my work I incorporate graphics and pictures. That’s easier to do on a computer, although there’s no reason you can’t do something in longhand, with a picture on it and scan it. But that’s what I do. That’s just my taste. Or if I’m on a trip, and I don’t want to take my laptop, if I have something to write, I’ll write it down. I keep a little book. I keep a notebook at all times, because in recent years I find that I don’t really like to sit down and just write. We talked about writer’s block, and here’s another strategy: I listen. I listen to what I hear people saying, what I hear on the TV. I notice a bit of computer lingo or computer code, or something that just pops in my head that I find interesting. And I’ll write it down. Or I see something. It won’t all it end up in poems, like this won’t probably end it up a poem, but I stopped at the Emporia rest stop on 335. There was this moth carcass so I wrote, “moth, spotty. shifted in wind, showed natural tan underneath.” It was this dead-looking thing, and it turned over and it was this bright, vivid tan color. Stuff like that happens all the time in your day and you never know when it’s going to happen. Or when you’re driving … that’s the worst. So it’s useful to have this, or to know how to use a recording device really well. Then what happens is I put these in what I call “Word Collection,” that’s the name of the file. Sometimes I will go through and say which ones go with which. And I’ll put them all on a page and arrange them in various ways, maybe toss some out or add something to it. That’s how I’ll compose them all. That’s one way to go about it. I was walking across the soccer field to the bus stop the other day, and I looked down, and there’s this line of blue clover. Of course, it was where they chalked the field. It’s totally surreal if you take it out of that context and explanation. It’s something that I saw in everyday life — green clover next to blue clover. There’s something about that. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that, but I wrote it down.

SW: If you weren’t a professor or writing poetry, what would be your dream occupation?

JH: Oh, Lord. My dream occupation? Well, the first thing that comes to mind is majority leader in the U.S. Senate. [Laughs.] I come from a very political family. During grad school I did political organizing. It’s kind of a sideline, or alternate/default Plan B kind of profession. And I also read Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The title of that volume is… Master of the Senate. He was so good at getting things done with a group of people, which I’m not. Basically, I would never have that job. I would hate it if I had it. But, boy, I would like to have the skills that would enable me to do it, I guess that’s what I’m saying.

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