An Interview with Leslie Harrison

By Grace Filer and Emily Pursel

Leslie Harrison’s second book, The Book of Endings (U of Akron, 2017), was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry. Her first book, Displacement (Mariner, 2009) won the Bakeless Prize from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A former Roth Resident at Bucknell, she has recent poems in West Branch, The New Republic, The Kenyon Review, Orion and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore.

West Branch: The poems in The Book of Endings are visceral and deeply personal. They are also incredibly polished and refined. How do you control such intense emotions without letting it overwhelm the art-making process? How do you achieve a balance between such raw emotion and such artistic refinement?

Leslie Harrison: I think the very short answer to your second question, about balance, for me is craft. I study a martial art, and my sensei says that form is a way to direct power, to in some ways increase power. I think of Bishop’s One Art, or Tony Hecht’s amazing sestina The Book of Yolek, and in both cases I think the form applies a kind of pressure to the materials of those poems, so that they’re distilled and condensed, but also somehow ratcheted down, pressurized. And when you read them, that pressure, created by the writers’ intense engagement with craft—with sentences and structure and syntax and form— causes a little explosion, a little release of emotion in the reader. Like a fountain maybe, sending water into beautiful shapes in the air using nothing but pressure, containment, and shaped vessels.

But the first part of your question is harder. When I was writing these poems, I was moving through a devastated landscape, moving through a world without the one person on the entire planet I could count on. The first year after my mother’s death, I think I didn’t write much of anything—I was too raw, too overwhelmed. I was holding on to the world with everything I had, and there wasn’t much left over for art. But we’re writers, right? Language is how we encounter the world. Poems were the only tools I had at my disposal to try to make sense of what had happened. In some way I needed to write about it to try to understand it. Otherwise I was just still barely hanging on. But there is a shift, a change when you move from inside a disaster to trying to understand the disaster—I offer you two quotes that have guided my practice for a long time. Wordsworth, in this preface to the Lyrical Ballads, says, “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” I can’t claim any tranquility about anything whatsoever, but I think the recollection part is true—you write about the tsunami, the earthquake after you survived it, not while you’re in the middle of it. And that allows you to shape your art, to craft your experience into art.

And then there is Vincent Van Gogh, who wrote to his brother Theo about his painting The Night Cafe, “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green.” That has always struck me as funny and desperate and true—painters have a limited palette. We have the dictionary. And yet what we are trying to do, trying to capture, is huge and complex and emotional and here we are with our words, our red and our green.

WB: Could you explain the architecture of The Book of Endings? Could you talk a little about your decision to call the sections “panels”?

LH: I spent actual years trying to order and sequence the book, and I was frustrated. Really, really frustrated.

I found myself in this book thinking about and writing poems about God, which, frankly, I had dismissed pretty early in my life. But after my mother’s death, I was really angry, and I think I didn’t know what to do with that, because she had fought hard to live, so I couldn’t be angry with her. So I became angry with God. I think my thinking went something like this—if there is a God then I have the right to be angry with him for taking my only parent away from me. And if there isn’t a God, then being angry with him is totally fine—not useful, but better than walking around in a rage. It was a place to put my anger, I think. But it got me thinking about religion in general which brought me back to my love of, and interest in, earlier Christian art—from the late Middle Ages into the early 18th Century. When I lived in London, years ago, I spent a lot of time at the National Gallery. A LOT of time. And a lot of the early altarpieces take the form of triptychs—three painted panels, with the two on the sides slightly less significant than the one in the middle, which is often larger. Anyway, they often use gold leaf, so they glow in a dark church or in a museum. They’re beautiful even when they’re often depicting painful subjects.

So that was one thing. The next thing was a class I was teaching in poetics. And there is this very old structure to an argument, often traced back as far as Aristotle, but also often referred to as Hegelian, though Hegel says he got it from Kant. Anyway, the structure is also tripartite—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And I was refreshing my memory about this at the same time I was reading a poem by Olena Kalytiak Davis called “A Small Number,” from her second book, and it mentions both antithesis and thesis, though it omits synthesis.

And all of that swirling around in my head, made me realize that the book was three sections and they loosely follow that structure—there is one “subject” and another “subject” and then there are the poems that try to resolve and reconcile these two huge things. And so the book became a triptych. It was, in fact, called Triptych for a time. But after Akron said they wanted the book, and just before it went before their editorial board for approval, I emailed my editor and said, ummmm, I don’t think the book should be titled after its structure, is it too late to change the title? And she said no, not at all. So I changed the title from Triptych, but I wanted the idea of that still present in the book, so I left the three sections named as if they were panels of an altarpiece, and I let the third section be the center panel, which is also the synthesis, which is also where I try to come to some sort of equanimity or peace with the materials of the book

WB: Your form is very consistent. However, you occasionally diverge into a more dispersed, fragmented form, as in “[Imagine]”, “[Pray]”, “[Touch me now]”, and “[Epiphany].” What prompts this variation?

LH: I wish I could say “this is why” when asked about these more fragmentary poems. In one case ( [Imagine], I think) I had the poem in the more familiar style and it just wasn’t working. I think sometimes I put in too much connective tissue—I explain things too much? Maybe? I don’t know. But I started just cutting the phrases that seemed to matter out and leaving them where they fell on the page and then I started hearing them with those longer pauses in them and then I just tried to get those pauses, that space between phrases, onto the page right, so they moved around, but that is how I started with that poem—basically erasing my own poem.

I had never done anything like that before this book. I never really even understood why someone might do that. And so far, working on new poems, I’ve still not done it again. But there I was, doing it. And it felt right though I couldn’t say exactly why. But others of the poems in this strange form began that way—it wasn’t a revision strategy at all; it just felt like that was how the poem belonged.

I will say I was conscious that it couldn’t be just one. You don’t want a single poem in a book to be wildly different from the rest, or at least I wouldn’t want that. That poem would call so much attention to itself, would be viewed by readers as some sort of important landmark in the book, as a linchpin of some sort. So once I had a single poem in that form, I knew it either had to be cut from the book or it needed companions. I didn’t consciously try to force poems into this form, but it became another tool, another choice for the matter of the book, and I was glad of it.

I’ve always been worried that the form most of the poems take would wear on a reader—the poems are mostly all single-line stanzas, with roughly equal line lengths, and all fall in a range for number of lines. And there isn’t any punctuation. And people tell me they’re not “easy” poems—they take some reading, some thinking. So I didn’t want people to leave the book or put it aside because it was all samey-same or because they got bored with the form.

Now you’ve got me curious. I’m going to go back to my notes and see if I can find the original draft of [Imagine] to see what it was like before it found its form.

WB: In your first answer, you made a comparison between form and practicing martial arts. What other non-literary aspects of your life influence your writing?

LH: This is probably a super-obvious answer, but the biggest non-literary thing I do that shows up in my poems is hike. I love being outdoors; I’m actually afraid I’m addicted to it. I do about 5 miles a day walking with the dogs, but I seek out the woods and wild places whenever I can. When I’m not out walking or hiking, I’m likely to be on my bike, gardening, or otherwise using any excuse I can to be outdoors.

I feel a powerful kind of joy in the woods. It is like I weigh less, like I can breathe easier. And of course that second part is true—trees spend their days making oxygen, so you can breathe easier in the woods. Something about the dappled light, the movement over dirt and stone trails, the smells and sights makes me happier than almost anything else. I think sometimes if I couldn’t hike, I couldn’t write.

WB: You’ve expressed how much nature means to you. What are your thoughts on the value of poetry in this digital age?

LH: We give undivided attention rarely these days. We walk or drive while texting, while checking and updating our social media, while talking with a friend beside us.

So when we do give undivided attention it can be terrifying. You have to be fully present when all your attention is in one place. A date. Prolonged eye contact with another human. A real conversation. A poem. You can’t hide behind the small screen, behind the busyness. When I enter my classroom, every student has a phone in their hands. They’re these small islands—not touching each other, not looking at each other. They’re an archipelago with difficult seas between. Nobody attempts the crossing.  It is a small room and they’re seated around a table and they’re close enough to touch and they are not talking, none of them. And I make them put the phones away. Not just face down on a desk, but away. And it makes them nervous. Because now when I call attendance, they have to say the truth: present. Then, and only then, do they talk to each other, look at each other. And for a while they’re bad at it—they don’t know what to do with their eyes, with their minds without that small screen to mediate the world for them, and it is scary.

Poems demand presence. Attention. In his book How To Read A Poem, Ed Hirsch quotes Simone Weil as saying attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul. And I believe that more and more strongly. Poems teach us how to love, if attention is the greater part of love, and it is. They teach us how to love the world, but also how to love ourselves, love the real computers we carry around, our eyes, our language, our emotions and our intellect. They teach us that knowledge and passion and love arise within, are part of us, are indivisible. It is the most important thing, really, to learn. That we’re human. That we’re not alone. That someone is feeling or has felt something like what we’re feeling or thinking.

Poems are a fundamental generosity. They say hey stranger, if you give me your attention for a few moments, you’ll feel like you’re connected to the world, connected to another human, even if that human is lost to time, which also says, hey, stranger, other people have stood where you’re standing and they sent you a message sent you a text to let you know you’re not alone and you’ll get through.

Poems are a gladness, a way across the archipelago, a bridge, a footpath. They’re love. Even when they’re difficult, when you don’t quite understand, when they resist. And so they are themselves a journey, but also they’re a symptom of a cure and a condition, but not a disease. Never that.