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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Process: Featuring Colleen Harris

By Peter Hammarberg

I've known Colleen Harris most of our lives. Her brilliance has only been matched by her charisma and penchant for being a total tattooed badass.

How would you describe your work?

Hrm. It depends on my mood, I suppose – my work is readable for the general public, it’s an exploration of memory, a negotiation of relationships, it’s trying to give voice to the things we don’t say out loud that we wish we could. I do tend to write largely in a woman’s voice, but I think as humans we all have the same general worries, concerns, and yearnings.

Who has influenced you?

I’ve been lucky enough to study under some great poets, especially Alabama writer Jeanie Thomspon, Montana poetry master Greg Pape, Earl Braggs, Molly Peacock, and others. They have helped me refine my work quite a bit. I keep Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Maurice Manning’s Bucolics on my nightstand the way some folks keep their Bibles there, but I wouldn’t say my work resembles theirs in any way. T.S. Eliot and Jorge Luis Borges are a fewmore of favorites. If I had to choose a few poets whose work mine resembles, it would be Louise Gl├╝ck, Lucille Clifton, and Kathleen Driskell. I like to think that I work in a tradition of poets who work with the fabric of their lives, of reality and relationship as we experience them, and try to process it and come to a truce with it as best we can in words.

What made you decide to pursue being a poet?

I used to write when I was a child, and I stopped for many years while I concentrated on college, and getting a job, and various other things that make us Productive Citizens. It got to the point that I felt something in me was withering away, and no matter what I did, there was a barrier to my happiness. Writing helped me reach my inner spaces. I’man avid reader of all genres, from poetry to vampire romance novels, and I appreciate the escape and intellectual or emotional depth books offer, and I desperately want to be An Author. I want to contribute to someone’s reading, in the hopes they’ll find a poem of mine that resonates with them. When I found out that all I had to do to be a poet was to start writing…well, I wrote. I’ve been lucky, since friends and family cheer my hobby (or at least they humor me).

Have you been compared to anyone else? Would you consider that a good thing?

On my brighter days I’ve been compared to Natasha Trethewey, Tess Gallagher and Janice Harrington. I do consider it a good thing – I am always flattered to be held in company with well-established and well-published poets, and beautiful writers at that. And it’s always interesting to me to see which poets other people relate my work to. I consider it a great compliment.

What drives you?

I once heard someone say that when someone asks you why you write, if your answer is anything but “because I cannot not write,” that you’re in the wrong craft. I write because I have things to say, and poetry is the only medium that allows me to work with language in such a way as to say them properly. I write because if I didn’t, I think I would explode from the life that goes on in my head that I don’t live out in reality. I write because I love metaphors, and language, and odd words. And because as both a writer and a librarian, I covet ISBNs. I want to have some of my very own. I want to be immortal and live forever on library shelves, sitting beside Shakespeare and Eliot and Milosz.

Walk me through your creative process.

“Process” makes it sound like there’s a lot more planning than I usually have! *grin* usually I get caught up in writing a poem, and it sparks a certain obsession. With
God in my Throat, I became really attached to the idea of the exiled daughter, and about how God makes decisions about our lives. Sometimes I reach back for a memory, and a flood comes and so I have to write ten poems instead of one. Mostly I sit down and start writing. About seventy percent is crap, and so the challenge is to dig through and find the thirty percent that’s worth salvaging, and crafting it into something that shines around the original idea. Some poems take me years to polish and get right. Sometimes they come out full-formed and need just a minor tweak. I will say that the more I write, and the better I am about writing regularly, the better my writing gets.

You sit down to write a new poem. BONK. Nothing happens. How would you deal with the writer's block? Go around? Climb over? Colleen Smash!?

If I hit a block, I’ll work on some poetry prompts just to get something written and de-grime the gears. Usually those prompts have to do with working in a formal structure, like a sonnet, pantoum, or sestina (if I’m feeling brave). Since I don’t usually work in form, it forces me to exercise different writing muscles. I also keep a “slush pile” of poems I’ve tried to write in the past that didn’t work in one way or another, as well as a file of lines that will sometimes come to me that I think are magnificent, but that didn’t develop into whole poems, and I’ll try to see if I can salvage them. Imight also pull out whatever manuscript I’m working on at the time and go back to revise some work to see if that jump-starts me. I usually have more than one project going at a time, which helps. I try not to break things, since stuff is expensive, and I’m usually broke *grin*

Any new projects?

I have a few new projects burning – I’ve got three book manuscripts I’m working on, in various stages of development.

Gonesongs is nearly complete, it’s a collection focusing on how our understandings of relationships, love and betrayal change as we grow from children into adults, and how we reconcile the family relationships we want with the ones we get. A good portion of this was my creative thesis for my recently completed MFA at Spalding University. I’m still lassoing a few stray poems into their proper places, but I expect this one will be done by New Year’s Eve.

The second one is tentatively titled
The Green of Breakable Things, and it’s a very different sort of poetry from what I usually write. If I had to jam it into a sentence, I’d say that it’s a series of semi-surrealist meditations on the objects in our lives and the impact of memory. I lived in Kentucky for nearly ten years after leaving Long Island, and there are a lot of echoes of Kentucky’s landscape and weather in this collection.

The third manuscript is a collection of persona poems, which vaguely resembles my first published book,
God in my Throat: The Lilith Poems, which was a full length collection of persona poems in the voice of Lilith. This one is so far the least formed. I started out with poems from the perspective of various goddesses, then started including fictional female characters, and now some real people and some men’s voices have crowded in. I’ve decided I’m just going to keep writing as they come to me, and I’ll deal with getting it into decent manuscript form once they peter out and stop haunting me!

Any advice you could give to someone starting out?

I would tell any writer starting out that there are three keys to success.

First, read. Read as much poetry as you can get your hands on – new poets, the old canon, everything. You’ll get a better sense of craft, of why you like the poetry you like best, of the art of the line break, of form and free verse, all of that. Too many poets refuse to read poetry because they think it will affect their work – it’s
supposed to affect and inform you. The master painters first trained by imitating their masters, and picked and chose from the skills they learned before developing their own masterpieces, and poetry is much the same.

Second, community is essential. Find other writers in your community to share your work with, to develop programming like reading series and workshops with. Having like-minded people with which to share your writing dreams is essential. Developing within your community an audience to appreciate writers’ work is essential to everyone’s success! Other countries give much more support to their artists than the U.S. does – poets read to sold out soccer stadiums in Russia and other countries, and writers can be fully funded and make a living off their work alone. It tends to be harder to do here in the United States, where we have the freedom to say whatever we want, but often lack the support to make a living out of it. Building relationships within the writing community and then connecting that to your larger community or neighborhood is essential. Your work doesn’t come alive unless someone is reading (or listening to) it. Cultivate appreciation of the arts.

Third: Submit, submit, submit. Unless you don’t want to be recognized until after you’re dead, in order to participate in the published-writers world, you have to submit your work. It helps to read the journals to see where your work will best fit, and this helps you get to know various editors. You can’t make a splash – big or small – unless you toss some stones into the pond.

Lastly, I would remind new writers that writing is not a competitive sport, for all that the contests would have us believe that. We are a family. Writer and MFA program director Sena Jeter Naslund has said countless times to her students that our competition is not beside us in the classrooms, or workshops, or readings. Our competition is in the library. Don’t write to “beat” your contemporaries. Write to
join your literary forefathers.

Ultimate Goals?

I would love to be able to make a living with my writing, or to work as a creative writing professor, which would allow me to write and to teach writing. That’s my ultimate goal. My intermediate goal is to be a full time academic librarian (as I am now) and teach a creative writing course or two, until I can afford to be poor *grin*

Now for the serious stuff!

Who would win in a fight...

Kurt Vonnegut or Hemingway?

While it might be a tie (they could bore each other to death), I vote Hemingway. Crazy people have incredible strength. Plus, he had a shotgun.

William Blake or Virginia Woolf?

*torn* I’ll have to go with Blake. He was a virtuoso and a real Renaissance man.

Bea Arthur(before returning to The Force) or Optimus Prime?

Bea Arthur, hands down. She wins at everything.

Shameless Plug Time:

Colleen S. Harris is a librarian at North Carolina State University. Her poetry has appeared in
The Louisville Review, Appalachian Heritage, Wisconsin Review, descant, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, 66: The Journal of Sonnet Studies, and various others. Her first full-length poetry collection, God in my Throat; The Lilith Poems, is available from Bellowing Ark Press. Colleen goes by “warmaiden” on most online social networks, and can be reached at warmaiden [at] gmail.com

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