5 QUESTIONS with jeffrey harrison

by Woody Woodger | April 2018

Jeffrey Harrison photo.png

Your latest collection, Into Daylight (2014), was the recipient of the Dorset Prize and dealt with the prospect of moving forward in the face of tragedy. As it’s been a few years since the book’s release, has your perspective on coping with loss changed, and if so how?

I would say it’s always changing and never finished. And since the process is long, and complicated, it’s hard to put those changes into words, though some of them end up in poems— and in a sense that is what Into Daylight is about. My previous book, Incomplete Knowledge, dealt more directly with my brother’s suicide, but because my feelings were changing over time, I found myself having more to say, and those poems ended up in Into Daylight. But that book is also about reconnecting with the world, and most of the poems are not directly about my brother, though his absence is always in the background. I still think about himall the time, and he still appears to me in dreams, though in less wrenching ways than before— more as if he were just dropping by for a visit— and I still write poems about him from time to time. I imagine that will always be true. I’ve also been writing a lot about my father, who died in 2012, and with whom I had a close but somewhat complicated relationship.

Beyond Into Daylight’s acclaim, you have racked up a number of other awards, from Pushcart Prizes to Lavan Younger Poets Poets Award to a Guggenheim Fellowship. Why do you think readers, both critics and audiences, have reacted so positively to your work? 

Acclaim? Thank you for that bit of overstatement. I do feel that I’ve been very fortunate, and I’m grateful for whatever readers I have. I can’t really say why some of them like my poems— that is perhaps more of a question for them— though I’d like to think that, from time to time, I’ve found a balance between accessibility and emotional complexity, between clarity and mystery. My poems tend to be written out of my life, and while some readers don’t tend to like that sort of poetry, others do. You might say that the inevitable gap between the author and the speaker of the poem is often, in my case, apparently narrow. And that has an effect on the voice, so that could also be a factor. There’s also humor in some of the poems, which certain readers may But this is all just speculation. 

You studied under Kenneth Koch. What was he like as a mentor, and do you think some of him still lives in your poetry?

Kenneth was exactly the right first teacher for me as a freshman in college, when I had an enormous enthusiasm for poetry but still had a lot to learn. His knowledge was encyclopedic and his energy was inspiring. I didn’t know what a sestina or a pantoum was yet, or what ottava rima was, but he could talk off the cuff in those forms. He was a lot of fun, and he reminded us that one of the purposes of poetry was to give pleasure.  His Imaginative Writing class was a revelation. There were only twelve students in it, andI became lifelong friends with a few of them, and we are all still writing poems.

he other poet I studied with as an undergad at Columbia was David Shapiro, another great and inspiring teacher who expanded my sense of what language can do. Between the two of them I was steeped in the New York School, though that influence may be hard to see, especially in my first few books—maybe just because my sensibility is somewhat different (though I still love them and have a particular affection for James Schuyler). But at a certain point more humor entered some of my poems, and that could be Koch’s influence re-emerging. 

You’re originally from Cincinnati but are now a proud New Englander, and the New England landscape seems to come up in much of your poetry. Can you give us some insight into how and why you use the New England environment in your poetry?

The main reason is kind of boring: I live in New England, and I tend to write about my surroundings. I didn’t actually move to New England until I was in my mid-thirties— first to Connecticut, then Massachusetts (we’d been living in Washington, DC). On the other hand, I’ve now lived here longer than anywhere else. And although I can still feel like something of an outsider among native New Englanders, I’ve come to feel at home in the landscape. When I go back to Cincinnati to visit my mother and sister, I’ve noticed that the landscape and climate now feel kind of alien to me, and there are things I’ve come to love that are missing: tall white pines, birches, massive boulders in the woods, lots of ferns. (Some of these things became part of my life much earlier, from summers spent in the Adirondacks.) Ponds are clear here, whereas in Ohio they’re muddy. I even like the dirt better here. 

Unfair question: you're so busy teaching, but can we expect another book from you any time soon?

I tend to be slow. I take comfort in the fact that some of my favorite poets (Bishop, Larkin, or, in our own time, Robert Hass) have taken a while between books. I put off looking at the poems in terms of a possible book manuscript for as long as I can—I don’t want to be distracted in that way, I just want to write the poems. And maybe there’s some superstition and avoidance behavior involved, too. And then, when I do look, I have to figure out how the poems all fit together, which can take time. Recently I’ve begun to sense that I may be approaching a critical mass, but I’ve been too busy with other things to look. And then there’s the time lag between acceptance and publication, which is now three years at many publishers. So, don’t hold your breath… but one of these years, I hope.