An Interview with Joseph Bednarik

Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison is the author of seven novels, nine volumes of poetry, a dozen novellas, a collected non-fiction, and an illustrated children’s book. He has also written numerous screenplays and served several years as the food columnist for Esquire and Smart magazines. His work has been translated into two dozen languages. As a young poet he co-edited (with Dan Gerber) Sumac magazine and earned a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Mr. Harrison divides his time between northern Michigan and southern Arizona.

This interview, which took place in Seattle in October, 2000, is edited from a ninety-minute conversation recorded as the pilot show for a radio program “Writing On Air.”  The producers asked that the interview focus on Harrison’s poetry—a topic which had never been discussed in depth during any of his previous interviews. What one cannot hear in this written form is Harrison’s cackling, the mutual laughter and over-talk, and the sounds of Harrison drinking a favorite French wine, Bandol from Domaine Tempier, out of a plastic cup. Not to mention the single piece of nicotine gum he pulled apart bit by bit and nibbled thoughout the conversation because he wasn’t permitted to smoke in the studio.

Bednarik: There are characters throughout your novels who are either poets or failed poets. What is it about a poet that you find intriguing as a character in fiction?

Harrison: I hadn’t realized I’d used them that much. The interesting thing, and what old Joe Campbell talked about—I was privileged to meet him early in the sixties—is:  What does it do to a man or a woman when they refuse the call? It creates a kind of explosive negative force in their life. Because they refuse their calling I can create drama with this negative energy in their lives.

Bednarik: Do you think it’s possible later in life to retrieve the call?

Harrison: No, not largely, because poetry just like painting is something that you have to give your entire life to—and that includes all your life. Those people who say it’s never late to start again are largely fooling themselves. They can start again and retrieve some of the essential integrity of the original calling but they all know that time moves quickly and they’ve blown it.

Bednarik: When did you feel that you got your call as a poet?

Harrison: Most definitively at about nineteen, starting at fourteen when I first read Keats. And Whitman and so on. But then really at nineteen it was almost a metaphysical experience: I’m sitting on the roof of our house watching the moon rise over a big marsh—

Bednarik: This is northern Michigan?

Harrison: Yeah, and birds of various species were criss-crossing the moon and I could see them clearly in silhouette. That sort of faux Chinese experience. Anyway, then I heard the call.

Bednarik: In a number of places you talk about taking your vows as an artist.

Harrison: Well, you do take vows just like a priest or a Zen student takes vows. What did Charles Olson say that was incredible? “One must only traffic in one’s own sign.”  That excludes every other thing in your life. To me it’s always been important to belong to nothing, other than my marriage which is forty years duration. But you belong to nothing except this.

Bednarik: The Guild.

Harrison: The Guild of Poetry and Fiction, which has lasted thousands and thousands of years. That’s your primary fidelity in life, and it’s important not to dissipate it in any other human activities.

Bednarik:  Have you ever found that your energies have dissipated?

Harrison: Oh sure. Once when we went broke for instance, my wife saw a strange TV documentary on the homeless—she was sure our daughters would be homeless—so then I betrayed everything and worked very hard for a number of years to save some money, so our daughters wouldn’t be homeless. Which there wasn’t even the slightest possibility that they were going to be homeless, but that’s an almost biological thing that all fathers feel, that you owe your wife and children, et cetera et cetera, some sense of security.

Bednarik: Well there’s an interesting point in your career. You started out as a poet and had a couple of years where you were a Guggenheim fellow, you got an NEA grant, and you were living in northern Michigan, really far away from the cultural centers of the poetry community. And then the grants ended. Is this the time you were talking about?

Harrison: Well that was the most difficult time. We lived ten years and I never made ten thousand dollars a year. Ever. We lived extremely simply, up on a small farm. Dan Gerber loaned me the downpayment, which I think was five thousand dollars and the farm cost eighteen thousand dollars. You couldn’t buy a parking place for that in Seattle. You take so-called vows of poverty and humility, it’s just very religious. And I had many job offers in that time to be poet in residence at colleges, but that was totally out of the question. 

Bednarik: Why was that? 

Harrison: Because somebody has to stay on the outside. And I felt at the time—and still feel—that far too many people are on the inside. The irony in American letters is that in the sixties it was somewhat uncommon for a fictioneer or poet to be truly accepted and embraced by academia, and now it’s the other way around. Can you have a life as a poet or a literary fiction writer outside the academic community? It’s switched in three decades.

Bednarik: There was that essay in The Atlantic by Dana Gioia called “Can Poetry Matter?” where he made the argument that poetry is being killed because it’s being concentrated in the academy.

Harrison: Without question. You know Karl Shapiro, who wrote that magnificent book which doomed him forever called The Bourgeois Poet, he told Ted Kooser—who’s one of my favorite American poets—he said to Kooser, who was just a beginning graduate student:  “Just get out of here. You’ll only write poetry for your peers.” I’ve talked about this improbable post-Victorian sense in American poetry of a kind of breathless nature poem from people totally uninformed about the natural world in terms of botany or ornithology. But it’s a set piece, like in Victorian England there were all these faux sincere set pieces, and we have the same thing now, which is of course unfortunately 99.9999 percent trash. And we accept that fact. That we have a few things that last, we’re very fortunate.

Bednarik: So how do you wade through the trash?

Harrison: I don’t wade through the trash, I try to avoid it. There’s very little room for the durable. For instance, I knew Robert Lowell quite well, James Dickey, those people and you know Lowell was the eminence gris of American poetry but since he’s died I’ve rarely heard anybody mention his name. Fumius flumis: We all go up in smoke. I can disappear that quickly. People can be the dominant voices of their generation, but the next generation doesn’t want to listen to them. For good reasons, sometimes.

Bednarik: To pick up on something you said earlier, about writing for your peers: Odysseus Elytis said that ideally the poet wants three readers, and since every poet had two good friends, his whole task is to try and find that third reader.

Harrison: That’s a fascinating idea, I’ve never heard of that. Maybe it’s some kind of implacable ideal reader with a perfect ear who is sort of a muse. It has to be female, of course. For some reason I can’t take men seriously maybe because I’m a man, you know what I mean? I feel that I’ve responded most deeply even to my harshest female critics. And it’s not the mother thing, it’s not any kind of odious psychologism, it’s just that I think they’re hearing with larger ears. Very big ears, like Dumbo.

Bednarik: Careful with that one.

Harrison: Dumbo was brilliant. Always remember that.

Bednarik: I’ll do my best. . . . There’s a poem in your first book called “Sketch for a Job Application Blank.” You’ve called that your first successful poem.

Harrison: I don’t know. It was written at a time when I was always unemployed and I couldn’t get a job and I would get these application blanks and you look at them and you realize you’re not qualified for anything on earth.

Bednarik: You mention in the poem that you were saved, and also earlier in the conversation you mentioned that at fourteen you discovered Keats. 

Harrison: Well that was a difficult thing to discover Jesus and Keats and James Joyce all at the same time. Your soul is pulling all these other directions. I thought I should be smarter so I was always reading the New Testament and Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.

Bednarik: This is in your mid-teens?

Harrison: Yes. And so where do you go with this information?

Bednarik: You go to New York.

Harrison: Yeah, you get out of town. That kind of thing.

Bednarik: You talked in an essay about the transference of your religious impulses—your fervent religious impulses—into the impulses of art.

Harrison: Well there’s no question that I found out we crave the genuine and life is short. It’s sort of Joycean, where devoutness as a young man easily transfers itself to the religion of art. Because you don’t like the form of organized religion, though as I’ve said before if you’re in New York and admit you go to a “Mind Doctor,” as I call them, but that you also say your prayers every morning, that’s unthinkable. But I do. I can’t stop. I always have. So you naturally say your prayers every morning and then you read and write your poetry. So it’s mythical in origin and the energy behind the mythological transfers from one form to another. And you think San Juan de la Cruz or Santa Teresa, these improbably fabulous poets, who were also very devout poets, but for some reason this is now totally unacceptable. I can imagine going into Elaine’s in New York and saying “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam”—they’d think you’re a lunatic. It’d be fun, I think I’ll do that.

Bednarik: You have also, over the past twenty-five years, practiced as you call it “an inept form of Zen.”

Harrison: Zen is a form of discipline that I’ve practiced almost thirty years, though I’m very poor at it. Very bad at it. That’s a life discipline.

Bednarik: It’s not a discipline that you’re talking about relative to writing?

Harrison: Well, it’s a discipline of attentiveness, or else you diffuse all your energies on nonsense. What did I write the other morning:

       You have to pull out the plug of the TV forever
       and cut your telephone cords
        because it’s not proper that you should spend your life
        with you ears stuffed with merde, as they say.

     So it’s a religious attitude to life—every moment. Like Deshimaru, the great French Zen teacher was in China and said, “You have to give your life full attention as if a fire were burning in your hair.”

Bednarik: I never understood that quote. I certainly understand the attention.

Harrison: Well, it keeps you awake. Your hair is burning. I like the idea.

Bednarik: But, there’s also the sense of panic in that for me.

Harrison: Oh, no panic. You just put out the fire. I mean, you just stay awake. No question. Where I live down on the border in the winter, I stepped out of my car and put my foot on the ground to open our gate and there’s a black-tipped rattler, a rather fat, large one a half-a-foot from my foot. And what attention means, even being a burly fellow, I landed on my hood—you know, it’s about five-foot high. I shot through the air, and then said hello to the snake. But you want to be attentive about that, watch your step.

Bednarik: Is that one of the things you see in your dogs: An attentiveness that you admire?

Harrison: They’re improbably attentive and you know dogs are our fellow creatures, as are cats and so on. At my cabin my dog knows if there’s a bear near. One little sniff and he rolls his eyes and looks around. If the wolf howls at night, he just very casually goes up to the loft and gets under the bed because wolves are mojo. Too much mojo for a dog. But they’re very matter-of-fact about that, but we sort of witlessly go through life thinking we’re safe and dissipating our lives on nonsense. We suffocate in trash and wonder why we’re not happy, that kind of thing. 

Bednarik: So if you take your advice in the poem you wrote a couple of mornings ago about unplugging the cord, can the person used to all these things in their life successfully turn to poetry?

Harrison: Oh, sure. Anybody who has the gift, you know. I have such trouble, getting all these manuscripts every year by the hundreds, and galleys and so on, because you can tell right away if a person’s not in touch; if they want sincerity, or to be right, it’s hopeless. If there isn’t a primary intoxication with language and playfulness of their own consciousness, it’s hopeless. If they just want to be right, well then they’d be better off being a professor, wouldn’t they?

Bednarik: You actually provided advice to young writers and said the best thing for them to be was “word drunk.”

Harrison: Word drunk and don’t forget red wine and garlic. Aimless travel. Obsessive reading. Jobs that have nothing to do with written word. It would be better if they worked in a truck garden, growing things, with a knowledge of botany, natural history and so on. That’s all they need—and you certainly don’t need a bloody MFA. Why don’t they just shoot themselves?

Bednarik: I’ve actually guided several young writers away from MFAs. 

Harrison: Well, the trouble is it’s a pyramid scheme, to me. The one good thing about the program is that it teaches people to read and they become very intense about it. But these poor folks—it’s a way of delaying your parents’ opprobrium. “I’m continuing on for an MFA, blah blah blah. . .”  What could it possibly mean? There are no jobs available for them, it’s sort of humiliating for them. They’ve gone now to college six or seven years; an MFA is worth about as much as a BA in English, which means for a buck you could get a cup of coffee.

Bednarik: You had some profound influences on your early writing, Rimbaud and Rilke and Whitman, and claim the first section of  “Suite to Fathers” was actually intended to shed yourself of Rilke’s influence.

Harrison: But you never can. You never can. There’s a marvelous book, Edleman’s Neural Darwinism, that I read for The Beast God Forgot to Invent. When you lay down those maps—if you read Rilke or even Neruda—you lay them down permanently. These people are so powerful as writers that you’ve permanently affected the structure of your brain by reading them, and you can’t get rid of them. It’s just like reading Dostoevsky. That happens rarely in one life—at best, say a dozen people who overwhelm you with the immensity of their work. But you’re laying down, in your twelve billion neurons, a permanent message.

Bednarik: So if you’re reading those poets all in translation, do you read multiple translations?

Harrison: Oh, sure. When I was asked to be part of that project to translate Neruda, I was thinking there are a dozen or so decent Rilke translations, one of the best being the recent William Gass thing. That’s always a fine point. When people say “Oh, you must read it in the original” and I say “Oh, you can’t read English in the original,” for Christ’s sake, and you lived here all you life. Don’t tell me I can’t read this and that.

Bednarik: Many critics point to the Letters to Yesenin as a high point for the books of poetry that you’ve produced. Please talk briefly about your contact with Yesenin. 

Harrison: Well, that’s fraudulent. They always compare your current work favorably to work that they never reviewed at all. That’s the Monday morning quarterbacking. I don’t think anyone other than Hayden Carruth even reviewed that book. It’s absurd, and now they all say “Oh, God, why don’t you write poems like that now,” or something like that, that’s easy for anybody to say. Yesenin I love. When I was seventeen somebody gave me some translations by Yarmolinsky, the great translator of Russian poetry in the early twenties, and I read Yesenin, Mayakovsky, Berlyev, and so on like that, on and on and on, Blok. I was so obsessed with Russian poetry. But then Yesenin came from a similar background as I did, a fool from the country, so essentially a farmboy. So then when I went to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, with Dan Gerber I couldn’t believe it, in the hotel lobby they were selling souvenirs and amongst them all these photos of Russian poets, and people would buy, instead of photos of Pamela from Baywatch, they were buying photos of Yesenin and Mayakovsky. So I bought the Yesenin and I was looking at this guy and I knew all about him—I really began to know his work—and I thought though he’s dead, he’s an ideal correspondent because we emerge from the same problematical background. And even were obsessed with our respective Isadora Duncans and that drew on my heart. And I said if I have to write letters I may as well write them to him. Albeit he can’t respond very adequately. 

Bednarik: The book is constructed as a month of correspondence, and I just want to get a sense of how long that book took to write.

Harrison: Probably a month, if I said that’s what it was. But I was overpowered. I had too many old friends write me to make sure I hadn’t committed suicide. But I said “Oh, that was last year,” by the time the book comes out it’s all over. You know that thing, the one suicide poem where I say “My three year old daughter’s red robe hangs from the doorknob shouting stop.”

Bednarik: That’s a beautiful image.

Harrison: What else will stop you? Looking at your three-year-old daughter's red robe. Hanging from the doorknob. No, I'm not allowed to commit suicide. I have to maintain this life of a beloved child. So you stop thinking about nonsense like suicide, which is usually a form of punishing other people, though some people can't stop themselves and I understand that.

Bednarik: And twenty years later, in your book After Ikkyu, you had another poem addressed to Yesenin called "Returning to Yesenin." What was it like to hearken back?

Harrison:Well, you revisit immediately —just like when I wrote this children’s book called The Boy Who Ran to the Woods, about being blinded when I was seven in one eye—when you enter the language you return to the event. So pleasantly or not, you’re right back there. So when I write “Return to Yesenin” I’m back to the same state in our little farmhouse in northern Michigan in the winter that I wrote these poems.

Bednarik: In your introduction to your collected poems, The Shape of the Journey, you said that if you laid out all your poetry books and just glanced over them, you got a sense of what table you would write at, what wine you were obsessed with. 

Harrison: What table in this old granary I worked at. Or out in a tent. In the moonlight. So on and so on. That’s true, you revisit. I try to tell people when a woman leaves them—this is an amusing idea; it’s the same thing—each event of abandonment repeats all the events of abandonment in your life. So, you’re stuck with it. When she leaves you, that repeats every time this has happened in your life. Without question, the same way with poetry. It’s nonharmonic resonance.

Bednarik: You mentioned that the unwritten poem is a force within the artist.

Harrison: The biggest force within an artist, I think, is this restlessness for the work that’s just over the lip of consciousness. You’re waiting. You know that old thing Wallace Stevens said, “Images collect in pools,” which turns out to be somewhat accurate in terms of brain structure. It’s a storage aspect. You’ve stuffed all these images which are filtering down to this pool and when it gets full—then whether consciously or not consciously—you’re prodded to begin. Fascinating idea. Not my idea at all, though I’m not sure where it comes from, but that kind of excess that burbles over. 

Bednarik: You claim to be unable to read novels when you’re writing a novel. Can you read other people’s poems during times when you’re writing poems?

Harrison: You have to be a little careful. Sometimes I doubt these suits about plagiarism. I remember once I wrote a tercet, three lines, which I thought was marvelous, and it looked sort of familiar and then I realized it was something I’d read in Roethke twenty years before. Where are these things coming from? And who in fact is quite that original? That’s that whole Burton thing that we stand on the shoulders. Science is cumulative; art isn’t cumulative, but our vision is increased by our obsession with people who had greater vision than we will ever have. I always wish that of those three hundred novel galleys I receive through the mail every year, I think ninety percent of them if they’d just read Marquez, they would realize their efforts were supernumerary and they wouldn’t have needed to write anything. They could leave it to him.

Bednarik: I was talking with a bookseller down in San Francisco, Paul Yamazaki, who was making the same point. All these folks churning out books are unfamiliar with the territory.

Harrison: I agree. Is that the guy that works at Ferlinghetti’s City Lights?

Bednarik: Yes.

Harrison: I know him. Well, there’s no question of that, but maybe they don’t know at the time. One interesting thing about Rexroth early on was his insistence that poets know the entire history of the traditions of poetry—on earth. So you better know it all. And when I taught unsuccessfully for one year I had this reading list for my course in modern poetics—the only year I taught in my life—and it had like 153 books on it. From France from 1880 to now, here. I didn’t know how the modern poetic tradition could be understood without being familiar with this. And this is excluding what you should read from the Chinese, the Japanese, and so on.

Bednarik: This was an undergraduate course?

Harrison: It was a 400 course, whatever that is. A bunch of people took it. But I thought, oh my God, if you’re not going to give your whole life to it why bother? It can’t be done.

Bednarik: It’s an effective way to get the core group of people who are interested.

Harrison: That was true. A bunch of them bailed out when they saw the reading list, but most of them stayed.

Bednarik: In one of your novellas you described being a teacher as a walking blood bank.

Harrison: That’s true. Everybody’s got to make a bloody living and it’s very seductive to teach at a university. It’s good pay, relatively short hours, until you find out that the hours go on forever, you’re never finished. A professor thinks he has an easy schedule, and then he teaches and he finds out really this is ninety hours a week by the time he gets through with the draw on his own blood supply. So I sensed that rather early—I got to get out of here because how could I get anything done.

Bednarik: There were some pretty impressive people encouraging you to join the University. Herbert Weisenger—

Harrison: Yeah, and Alfred Kazin was a friend of mine there. Roth was there. Louis Simpson. I mean it went on and on, it was a pretty fancy group at Stony Brook and it had the accessibility of New York. But what I couldn’t deal with is I’m claustrophobic, and Long Island is an island. And there’s a bridge to the mainland. And my wife would have dreams—being somewhat a country girl, too—of railroad cars full of burning sheep and so on, because we were trapped on this island, albeit a big island. And we needed to get back home, somehow. It’s sort of that feverishness and too much was going on there for me.

Bednarik: There was a famous world poetry conference at Stony Brook, I think in 1968.

Harrison: I essentially ran that. Double over-budget, and then left. Fifty thousand dollars over budget.

Bednarik: Who did you bring in for that conference?

Harrison: Well, 108 poets, including international poets. It was totally out of hand. Even then I was interested in food and wine, so these poets, of course, should have fresh lobster dinners and good wine. Most academics would just give them a blanket of cold cuts.

Bednarik: After your time at Stony Brook there’s a period in your writing when you had an intense love affair with an antique form called ghazals. I was wondering if you would explain what that form is.

Harrison: It’s funny, I didn’t realize it was a proscribed form. Because it’s an Arabic form, I thought nobody would like it. I know Senghor, the great North African poet, wrote ghazals and Ghalib wrote them and when I read ghazals I liked the unrelated couplets that were metaphoric jumps from one reality to another that centered, though, on a same reality, whether love and death or whatever. It’s just like when you read Rumi. He travels everywhere, but he’s right back there on the dime. And all these metaphors are actually copulating in your head in Rumi. And that’s what a ghazal attempts to do. What’s wonderful about them—I’d been afflicted a bit last night with what they call that fugal state, where your brain is whirling with a great deal of energy, sometimes it’s fascinating, but sometimes unnerving because you can’t control it—and that’s the state most suitable to ghazals. You can’t stop.

Bednarik: For the composition?

Harrison: Composition. Or new metaphors. Metaphor is very unpopular now because it can’t be taught, you realize that don’t you? 

Bednarik: Well, there’s that great scene in Il Postino where Neruda is teaching the postman metaphor.

Harrison: I love that film. 

Bednarik: There’s a number of poems throughout The Shape of the Journey where the first few lines begin “I was commanded in a dream” or “I was commissioned in a dream” to do something, to write something. What’s the connection between your dream life and your poetry?

Harrison: Well, it all has to be. I remember this—it might be an apocryphal story—they gave some old Zen master seven hits of acid. And nothing happened. You see what I mean? You have to accept your dream life as part of your life. Only our culture would neglect the dream life. I mean my God, it’s been paid attention to for a couple hundred thousand years and now we don’t need? We want to waste a third of our life to become more efficient marble players in this world we live in? It’s absurd. Of course you listen to your dreams. They instruct us. You have to be as attentive to your dreams as you are attentive walking the street. There are these messages from them. Don’t. Go ahead. Yes. Stop. Go. Have a good time. That kind of thing.

Bednarik: There are a number of points throughout your books where you make reference to the D.H. Lawrence notion that the last aristocracy is that of consciousness.

Harrison: Lawrence said the only aristocracy is consciousness. And I didn’t used to believe such balderdash, but we know it’s true. If you think about it—and even very rich people will admit it—all I have, in those Zennist terms, is lead by mind. Your consciousness is really all you have, everything else goes away. Probably even your consciousness does, we don’t know that for sure. But that’s your true, unique possession. Your memory, your dreams, your consciousness. Gary Snyder talks about that beautifully. Our biographies are essentially similar.

Bednarik: You talk about Vizenor’s notion that at the wild end we remember dreams not data.

Harrison: Absolutely. And it’s your dreams—that French notion of Foucault that we live in a zoo—your dreams will get you out of the zoo faster than self-help books about psychology, because your dreams are already trying to get you out of the zoo. They give you great beauty—and horror, too, because that’s part of life—but they’ll help you out of this pit that your culture, with your cooperation, has submerged you in. So you get these people gulping for air because they’re buried. They’re trying to stick a little straw up through the dirt to even breathe.

Bednarik: It’s interesting you made the point about Rumi. I find that Rumi is a poet who has entered into the self-help world.

Harrison: Well, almost. Isn’t that strange? But oh boy I was lucky—a couple years ago in Paris there was this Iraqi woman I know that’s married to this famous French screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere. So she stood at dawn on an embankment in this château we were staying on the Loire River—at dawn, with mist down the river—and she chants Rumi in Persian. I mean she’s a beautiful woman, too. You can feel your head wavering in the airs. So her friend Gérard Oberlé goes to Turkey, he takes a cab twenty-eight hours—because she’s depressed—where Rumi’s buried, and he lays down on Rumi’s grave and calls her on his cellular and he says listen to your master. He may be dead but I can hear his heart beat. Wonderful stuff, isn’t it?

Bednarik: That’s fantastic.

Harrison: That’s how people ought to behave. Stop getting to work on time!

Bednarik: Well, you claim to always get to work on time.

Harrison: Of course, that’s my background. I can’t help it. Early, in fact.

Bednarik: If you look at the history of your publications, your first three poetry books were from major New York houses and all the rest of the poetry books are from small presses and independent presses. I’d like you to speak about this decision.

Harrison: Well, the problem is that big publishers in New York they don’t know how to publish poetry. There’s no tradition in poetry, and no response to it. So, with my heart’s work I’m not going to New York and discussing a manuscript of poems with someone who would rather be on the Dick Van Dyke Show than talk to me. Poetry doesn’t belong—as far as I’m concerned—in these major houses, because there’s no attentiveness to production, design, there’s no attentiveness to editing. They just: Here it is and then they flop it out and they forget a day later that they even published it. I remember when Olson told me they remaindered Maximus the day after they brought it out, or something like that. I mean, strange stuff that you don’t think could possibly happen. He says he supposed it was somewhat accidental, but it happened. So why not go to people who care about your work rather than people who don’t care about your work?

Bednarik: Right. If you read your collected poems from cover to cover one can see that as a young poet you experimented a lot with different forms—you have the ghazals, you have lyrics, you have long suites—and as you read on, you seem to have settled into an almost discursive style. Do you think that’s a result of your concentration in fiction, do you think you’ve settled on a style?

Harrison: No, I don’t think it has because I find already it’s changing. I have a new reincarnation: Jaime Harrison Walgren. And I think it returns to the lyric. Just the straight, irrational lyric. We are lead throughout Earth by women in blue shoes. Who knows where we’re going? You know, that kind of thing.

Bednarik: So who is Jaime Harrison Walgren?

Harrison: I’ve decided to become a Mexican poet because I’m tired of living constricted by our Empire, which I think of the United States now as this vast, horny Empire subduing the Earth. I was sort of friends with Ginsberg, and I don’t think that’s my propensity, his attitudes, but I see it now. Empire, Empire, that sense of Empire is beginning to drain our souls from us. So that’s what’s the relief to be in Mexico and France: You get out of the plane and you’re not in the Empire anymore. You can say to-da-lee-do and sit in a café half an afternoon and watch a leaf blow along the street. Watch the ankles of working girls. 

Bednarik: There’s that great poem that you have in After Ikkyu, “Sonoran Radio,” where you’re living in the Empire but on the very edge. 

Harrison: In both north and south I live on borders, which helps. You know Duncan’s marvelous poem “The Song of the Border Guard,” I always think of that. That’s true, that gives me a little escape. It’s really gotten almost insufferable. All our interests properly should be subsumed in venality. They keep yapping about moral values, even “values” is an economic term. Everything is related into economic terms. Absolutely everything.

Bednarik: There was this interesting discussion on the radio yesterday about French culture. How every Frenchman hated their teens, but they all loved their thirties, forties, and fifties. That they really mature into people who understand what life is about, that the goal is to retire at fifty-five and actually—

Harrison: And they get this four-day work week. I wonder about it sometimes. It’s fascinating to think at least you have an idea of what's essential on Earth. You know that old joke the priest tells: The old Italian dies and he has all his family together and it’s wonderful. The old Frenchman dies, all his family gets together and they talk about all the beautiful meals they had all their life. The old American dies and he didn’t accumulate enough money. He’s dead meat.

Bednarik: The work that you’re doing now is a poetic correspondence with Ted Kooser.

Harrison: Ted had cancer a couple years ago and his poetry became really overwhelmingly vivid. He was always a good poet. And then we decided why not correspond in terms of these short wakas or haikus, because that was the essence of what we wanted to say, so we’ve been doing it for several years and we hope to publish the book with nobody knowing who wrote each poem. It transcends the ego. Just publish it collectively.

Bednarik: I like that because what you’re focusing on is the actual poem.

Harrison: Sure, and everybody gets tired of this continuing cult of personality. Bobs get tired of being Bobs, Janes get bored with being Jane. On and on. Why would you want to be the same person everyday, all your life? My God.

Bednarik: Your first novel, Wolf, was subtitled “A False Memoir” and it was initiated as a challenge from Thomas McGuane, if I remember correctly. So, there you were a poet with three books under your belt and then faced with writing a novel.

Harrison: I was injured. I fell off a cliff above a river while bird hunting. OK, and you know where the clay looks like it’s dry but it’s not dry and you step on it and there you go. I had ripped muscles away from my spine. Tom—we talked all the time, I think he was out at Stanford at the time—so he said “Why don’t you write a novel?” I outlined the novel musically, first. 

Bednarik: What do you mean by that?

Harrison: I outlined the structure of the novel, and I outlined the highs and lows like Yeats used to do with poems. He hears the rhythm of the piece first. And then I poured myself into this drawing of the structure. So it was basically a poet’s novel. That first paragraph runs two pages or so. And I was lucky they even published it. It had even been lost. The only manuscript had been lost in the mail for almost a month. There was a mail strike at the same time and I had sent it to my brother, because I couldn’t afford to have it copied. Sent it to my brother who was a librarian at Yale and he was going to copy it for me. But he’s a bully and he went down to the post office after about a month and he explained the situation and they let him dig through the packages. And he found the novel package. 

Bednarik: In your author notes, it makes mention that your work is published in twenty-four languages. How many languages is your poetry translated into?

Harrison: I don’t know, quite a few. All the poetry books—I think six of them—are out in France now. I just don’t know. I’m a failure at that because I really don’t keep track of anything. My energy to persist and go on depends on me ignoring almost every aspect there is of literary life. There’s just not time for it, so you just plunge on doing your work. So I never know about that kind of thing.

Bednarik: Is it true that your novels reach best-seller status in France?

Harrison: The Road Home got up to number three. It did quite well like that in Italy, too.

Bednarik: You’ve also published a children’s book. How did that come about?

Harrison: My grandson Will asked me how I was blinded in one eye and I thought we’re back to Simon Ortiz saying there are no truths, only stories. The only way I could explain it to my grandson who was very curious was to tell the whole story. Which wasn’t necessarily pleasant. It was difficult. I did numerous drafts of it, bearing ever deeper into how it actually happened.

Bednarik: And so you’re trying to tell the story of a blinding and the healing, to—

Harrison: Because everyone has traumas. We always share unendurable traumas. What I’m most amazed by, when you start talking to a person, are the almost fatal blows. But what’s unique—what can be unique—are not the blows, which are the donné, the given in life, but our cures. How do we endure these things? How did we draw ourselves out of this what we think of as unpardonable suffering? 

Bednarik: So the cure for the little boy in the book is to go into the natural world and become attentive.

Harrison: He escapes into the natural world. Because I had thought—God, I had an unpleasant time this spring thinking about it—because I dreamt that after sixty-two years of looking at the natural world from the outside, that for some reason I was inside looking out. 

Bednarik: I don’t understand.

Harrison: Well, I was inside the natural world looking out at the culture. And it was an important jump. Inevitable jump, probably, but albeit an uncomfortable jump.

Bednarik: Well, you talk in a couple places about becoming trees, becoming rivers. Is that the kind of thing you’re talking about?

Harrison: True. That’s from Dogen. Obviously to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to become one with ten thousand things. You don’t become one with ten thousand things, ten thousand things become one with you. That’s what happens. So it’s unavoidable if you see a bear not to become a bear. You know, that whole shape-changing thing. To fully imagine a bear is to become the bear. 

Bednarik: You have a poem that talks about eating a bear’s heart and then having bear dreams. 

Harrison: Well, you do. I’ve eaten bear a half-a-dozen times merely because hunters in northern Michigan kill bear and abandon the meat, or give it away because they just want the skins of the bear. I hate to see it go to waste, so I try to cook bear. Sometimes successfully.

Bednarik: In an essay on Zen you had talked about bears as a dharma gate.

Harrison: Oh, sure. What our local Annishinabe call a “mugwah.” It’s such a great name. When I was in Montana recently, outside our little house we rented, there was a bear in a crab apple tree, he was a young bear eating apples all night, and sort of crapping out of the tree on the ground, and he’d look at the window where I was watching, Linda and I were watching him, and he’d go—very tentative little—grrowl. He really didn’t want to be interrupted as he just ate away. In the late fall they become what they call hyperphagic, they’re just obsessed with eating enough to get them through the winter, like some of these guys on the NASDAQ. I don’t know what it means. The craving. But of course bears are a dharma gate. So are possums, too.

Bednarik: How so?

Harrison: You know that woman who wrote that book Women Who Run With the Wolves? I’d sort of looked at that, but I thought how about Men Who Walk with Possums. That kind of thing. We have a sense to dramatize. In reincarnation they’re always telling you I was once Pocahontas or Mary Queen of Scots, when we all might’ve been microbes in a dog turd in the Middle Ages. Let’s stop being so dramatic. Where is humility?

Bednarik: Well, where is humility?

Harrison: It’s knowing that we’re all here together. Ego is meaningless. Personality is essentially meaningless. Of course, that’s the trouble with literary life. The work is what matters, not somebody’s personality. I once was able to do an imitation of an important novelist walking into Elaine’s, looking out over the heads of everybody. The ego is utterly destructive that way.

Bednarik: I appreciate that you came in to talk about the work.

Harrison: It wasn’t too hard. If only I hadn’t eaten that granola this morning.

Bednarik: Why?

Harrison: The granola was very sharp and it punctured my gum. Now I’m having a problem with it. Be careful, gentle readers, of granola—it can be dangerous.