A Conversation With Joe Harrington
John Schmidt: A list implies some overarching unity between the parts that constitute it, and language itself is in many ways an extension of this organizational logic. “[A] list is in order,” you suggest, because of the possibility of “[r]epairing the disruption… through the function of ordering and categorizing inherent in language” (7). But Things Come On seems to subvert these basic assumptions about language and/as list-making: lists in the book are polyvocal, discontinuous, and self-contradictory (this is evident from the very beginning of the book, 5, when you provide a list of alternate chronologies of your mother’s fight with breast cancer). Can you talk a bit about lists, their relationship with language, and how both might fail when confronted with trauma?
Of the making of lists there is no end. When things seem disordered, a list is in order. “Cling to a list like a ladder.” Lists are the most basic form of organizing language on a larger scale than the sentence. There were lists before paragraphs. I actually think that lists can be a way of dealing with trauma. Not especially healthy, perhaps – a repetition compulsion. A lot of American poetry is composed of lists without numbers or letters or spaces between items. What does that say about us? It’s not a solution – just a “momentary stay against confusion,” like a poem. A different approach from silence. In the book, the lists are sometimes screwy, disrupted, arbitrary – to show the limits of list-making (or language).
JS: Things Come On is a collage (or, alternately, as you have suggested, a “scrapbook”), drawing from a number of historical, theoretical, and personal sources. It is possible to read and make sense of the text without referring to its endnotes, letting each of the disparate voices get absorbed into a single narrative presence, but there are also moments when the notes themselves reveal something about Joe Harrington—whether as author, as narrator, or as something else (see, e.g., “Everyone has a helluva memory but me,” 83). In either case, a reader might ask—as you have—“where are you in all this? Where is Joe?” (48). What do you think about personal identity in the text? How does the narrator internalize his sources, and how does he divest himself in his research?
I don’t take personal identity as a given. If it were that simple, no one would need a Social Security number. We are all composed of a lot of conversations, hence dispersed. So I prefer to speak of subjects rather than selves. A subject exists within a particular discourse, ideology, or institution (you’re one person at the doctor’s office, another with your lover, another at your military induction). The line between public and private, political and personal, is not as clear as we assume, and I’ve tried to dramatize that in the book. And a big part of personal identity is deciding and articulating who or what one isn’t. Indeed, if you believe Freud, that’s precisely the work of mourning – or the problem of melancholia. The latter involves internalizing that which you’ve lost – and the anger at losing him/her/it. Mourning means the person or thing you mourn is apart from you – otherwise there would be no loss.
JS: On page 53, two bracketed interventions from the “author” seem to identify a polarity that is one of the most insistent themes of the book. On the one hand, “[She is making me do this.]”—“she” there referring to (the ghost of, the memory of) your mother. On the other hand, though, “[I am making her].” How much of the writing of Things Come On was a product of the lasting power of history and memory, and how much of it was a creative “remaking” of that history? What do you think about the intersection between these two forces in memoir—or, to use your own term, in “amneoir”?
Well, history is the record. We don’t have access to “what really happened” – and neither did the persons at the time, with their partial, fragmented viewpoints and subjectivities. And subjectivity is produced by discourse, by the record. History is always remade in accordance with the needs of the people currently in charge, and so the stories we tell about the past (including our pasts) are always ideological. The same is true of memory. Moreover, we can never get our story straight. In fact, neuroscientists now tell us that we recreate “a memory” every time we “have” it – we draw on different neural “circuits” each time. The more you remember something, the more the memory changes over time. And the part of the brain that produces memory is right next to the part of the brain that produces imagination. Forgetting and censoring are not that far removed, either.
JS: Things Come On clearly invites the reader to draw parallels between your own story of devastating personal loss and the broader political climate during the Watergate hearings. However, you suggest at one point that “Perhaps this isn’t an analogy…perhaps it is the record of a person’s death. Or a history coming apart” (44). What are the limits of analogy when dealing with autobiography and lived history, in your mind?
Well, it wasn’t conceived of as an analogy – though people understandably look for one. It was conceived of as an account of the lived experience – in which the events of Watergate and those of my mother’s illness were and are inseparable, for me, both because of the coincidental timing and because we were and are a family with a background in electoral party politics. But the book is, in large part, the record of my looking for the Great Analogy – the Grand Story – that will explain it all. Which we are all doing all our lives. It’s at best a waste of time, and at worst a bad habit. Having said that, there are points of connection. The most salient is perhaps the idea of “cover up.” The White House was trying to cover up the implications of the Watergate break-in (and all of the other nefarious activities it was connected with). Families afflicted with cancer tried to cover up the illness – from children, especially. The first involved understandable fear of exposure; the second, irrational socially-induced shame. Especially breast cancer. Hard to believe, with all the awareness of the disease now. But that awareness was won by hard political effort – which started paying off right around the time my mother died. More generally, I don’t see a great deal of separation between the political and the personal, history and biography, in the first place. And if there’s no separation, no analogy is needed or even possible.
JS: A series of epigraphs at the beginning of the book suggests that “[t]he sum total of our thoughts creates the world” and that “[t]he world is everything that happens to me.” Yet Things Come On is also intensely artifactual, constantly making use of various “illustrations” which are drawn from textbooks, newspapers, the public record, and museum exhibits (among other sources) to serve as visual counterpoints to the poetry. At times, the writing itself even takes on an artifactual quality (as on p. 69, for example, when you write in the ads which are adjacent to your mother’s obituary). Can you elaborate on your use of visual artifacts, and the ways these artifacts may have personal as well as historical meaning? And is there any way in which these images may relate to the epigraphs you selected for the book, which seem to put forward an intensely individual conception of “the world”?
The third and final epigraph, of course, is from Kierkegaard: “I prefer to say, I know that I am a human being, and I know that I have not understood the system.” He’s talking about the Hegelian system, but it could be any system that promises to make sense of the world. How much simpler to limit the world to everything that happens to me – or, better yet, to think that my thoughts create the world. Artifacts are another form of record. And since we have all kinds of visual imaging technology nowadays, it and they become more ubiquitous. To me, it seemed perfectly natural to include pictures, including facsimile documents, for instance. Our lives are largely composed of them. Artifacts can serve as fetishes, though – substitutes for something absent, lost. They can lead us to think we know more than we do, in other words, so compelling is the immediacy of the palpable object. The one way in which the world (humans’, anyway) is a unified system is as a system of signification – in which objects and pictures participate as much as words.
Maria Damon: Can you place Things Come On in the landscape of contemporary docupoetry?
There seems to be a marked increase, in the last few years, in the number of poets working in documentary forms. That includes poems presenting a more-or-less linear, representational narrative in a unified speaking voice or voices (e.g., Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow is a fine example of this mode), but it also includes poems in the tradition of the collage (or montage) poem – which harkens back to modernist long poems like the Cantos, Paterson, or “Book of the Dead.” These are poems that acknowledge and foreground the mediated nature of our understanding of the past – and the materiality of the mediating language. Perhaps “research-based poetics” would be a better term: sometimes it’s hard to know what, precisely, is being “documented.” In any event, there are a lot of montage docu-poems around – Jill Magi’s Slot; Brenda Coultas’ work, like Handmade Museum and “Marvellous Bones of Time”; Craig Santos Perez’ books; Khaled Mattawa’s poem “Tocqueville”; Green-Wood, by Allison Cobb; The Network, by Jena Osman; Kathleen Ossip’s The Cold War; Mark Nowak’s books, etc. etc. Even a book like Ventrakl, by Christian Hawkey, contains a lot of biographical material, alongside uncanny and hilarious homophonic translations and imaginary dialogues. And I have a shelf-full of poetry books that qualify as research-based that I haven’t gotten to yet!
MD: Why is poetry a genre that is particularly agreeable to documentary projects? What does poetry have to offer the documentary impulse that traditional print journalism, film, and other conventional documentary genres don’t?
Well, I operate from the premise that generic boundaries have become much more permeable in this century than in the last. So you have categories like the “lyric essay” or “poetic documentary [film]” to try to account for texts that don’t fit into one or another already-recognizable slot. And one of the great things about poetry these days is that it’s the category that contains anything that people can’t readily place in any genre. Which means that if you call what you’re doing poetry, you have a lot of latitude as to form, as well as material – which means you can develop the former based on the latter, rather than trying to hammer square pegs into round holes. You can even embed video into your book, these days, if you want. But documents per se are perhaps more easily represented in writing than in film.
There has been a lot of debate among historians in recent years about what constitutes “good history.” On one end of the spectrum, there are the traditionalists, who believe the historian’s role is to discover and present the facts as coherently as possible, and on the other, the constructivists, who believe that because facts are always mediated, the manner in which history is told effectively constitutes the content. Some historians (e.g., Robert Rosenstone and Simon Schama) have turned to a more novelistic style of storytelling. I was trained as a literary critic/historian, and I see the “creative” work that I’m doing as employing the same research skills I learned in graduate school. However, what I do with the research material breaks out of the very rigid generic conventions of academic writing (or journalistic “best practices”). I attempt to bring out the emotional, psychological, and ideological implications (sometimes unconscious) in the way that I compose the text; and I use methods that aren’t available within academic prose to produce shocks of recognition or non-cognitive understanding.
MD: I was hoping you could talk about the reception of Things Come On across a range of audiences. How did poets, history buffs, cancer families, and so on respond to the book?
The reception has surprised me. I was expecting the unconventional form of the book to scare off some people – esp. those used to reading “mainstream” or representational poetry. And I was expecting the more experimental poetry audience to see it as being schmaltzy, because it deals with emotional topics. In fact, I think what’s happened is the opposite: that the mainstream folks get interested in the material – the story – and then become intrigued by the way it’s written, and want to know more about that. Those interested in experiment are drawn to it because of the form, and then become engaged by the narrative. Which is to say that you can’t divorce form from content.
I was afraid of showing the book to cancer survivors. But I must say they’ve been some of the most receptive readers. One said she was reading it and said “Oh – I was on that drug, too!” A student was reading the book for class when her parents were in town – they said that the part of the book detailing the experience of diagnosis and treatment was true to their experience. And a friend said she got a mammogram after reading my book, and subsequently was successfully treated for breast cancer. That wasn’t my intent, but hey – it doesn’t get any better than that!
And then there’s people who are interested in Watergate. After the first public reading I gave of the book, one of the first people to come up afterward to thank me was a political historian at KU. And I always hear stories from people who “lived through” Watergate and remember it quite vividly – everyone was watching the Senate Investigating Cmte. in the summer of 1973 – it was one of the few experiences in modern US history that the entire nation shared.
John Schmidt is a student at Wesleyan University. Maria Damon is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.