The World Beyond the First Book:
Leslie Harrison & Jehanne Dubrow

Leslie Harrisonn’s debut book of poems, Displacement, won the 2008 Bakeless prize in poetry and was published by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin, in July of 2009. She holds graduate degrees from The Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Irvine. Her poems have been widely published, including the Best of the Web and Best of the Net anthologies, The New Republic, Poetry, Memorious, Barn Owl Review and elsewhere. She as been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and a Bakeless Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She lives in a small house in a small town in rural western Massachusetts.
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Stateside (Northwestern University Press 2010). Her work has appeared in Poetry, New England Review, The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, and Ploughshares. She is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Jehanne Dubrow: The other day, I was remembering when we first met at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a little more than a year ago; we were both in the same position: first books under contract, but not yet published, a sort of limbo for poets. I can’t help laughing when I think of the thousand kinds of angst that we felt (in fact, maybe we should dub this interview “The Anxiety of Neurotic Poets”). I seem to recall a great deal of hand-wringing! Young poets always imagine that once The First Book is accepted for publication, all anxiety disappears. But, I think we both discovered that the opposite is true. In my case, I worried about (1) the limitations of publishing with a small, independent press, (2) the reception my book would receive, if it received any attention at all, and (3) the question of whether or not my book was good enough. Because Displacement won the 2008 Bakeless Prize and was published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin, I imagine that your set of concerns must have been very different from mine, although certainly just as compelling. Now that Displacement is out in the world, can you talk about the sorts of anxieties you felt pre-publication? Were we right to be such nervous wrecks?
Leslie Harrison: Oh, that is funny. We were such wrecks. But I also remember loving that limbo—our books had been taken, and there we were at a writing conference. So there was this lovely feeling of having joined a new community, like getting to sit at the grown-ups table at last. My book had been taken, but nobody could read it yet, so nobody could have an opinion. Now, I think that is a kind of honeymoon—having a book coming out but not out yet.

But of course I was also anxious, and I don't think my anxieties were much different from yours. I too worried about the reception my book would receive and whether or not it would find an audience. And yes, my book won one of the larger prizes, but that really just ratcheted up my anxiety. I think there are certain expectations surrounding the larger contests, so I worried whether or not it was “good enough.” I was pretty sure people would think it didn't deserve to win. Most of the poetry community is absolutely lovely—warm, generous, welcoming and very kind. But as with all communities there are a few people who think someone else's success takes something away from them, who view contest winners with suspicion, who are ready to sharpen the knives. So I worried that my book winning the Bakeless had, in effect, painted a target on my back.

So far that particular fear has been completely unfounded. People have been amazingly supportive and my poetry tribe has grown in surprising and delightful ways.

In a weird coincidence, I was reading a back issue of the New Yorker this week and I came across a lovely passage that sheds some light on our anxieties. David Grossman, talking about the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who was murdered in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942, says, “A new writer is sometimes like a new baby in the family. He arrives from the unknown, and his family has to find a way to connect with him, to make him a little less ‘dangerous’ in his newness and mystery. The relatives lean over the infant's crib, peer at him closely, and say, ‘Look, look, he has Uncle Jacob's nose!’”

So I guess the next question is this: How are you “dangerous” to the family of contemporary poetry, and whom do you resemble? Who is your poetic family?
JD: I love this question. First of all, how did you know that Grossman and Schulz are two of my favorites? I’ve even fantasized about writing a play in verse that imagines the lost stories of Bruno Schulz.

It all comes down to family, doesn’t it? It seems like the more poems we write, the more families we join, each one of them fractured and in need of therapy. Some of my poems might place me in the Jewish American family of poets, others in the tribe of formalists, and others in that chest-thumping, manly group of war poets. Each one of these families is hardly monolithic, hardly in danger of reaching any kind of consensus about identity, aesthetic, or subject matter. Still I would like to think of myself as a “dangerous” poet in American Judaism because I often end up with the job of Bad Jew. I poke and prod at my Jewishness. I tattoo it or cremate it, sometimes enacting piety on the page, in order to challenge ritual and liturgy. Poets like Marilyn Hacker and Jacqueline Osherow have been important role models for me; I admire their intelligence, their wit, their femininity and feminism.

And, of course, that brings me to formalism. Hacker and Osherow are the kinds of formalists that I aspire to be: politically engaged, relevant, ethical, sincere, their handling of craft so dexterous that form becomes almost invisible. They are dangerous because they see form as a way of creating tension, as an uncomfortable restraint of emotion, not as an excuse to avoid emotion altogether. I hope that my work steps away from the detachment that we find in so much of formal poetry. I want my poems to speak passionately and about things that matter.

At the West Chester Poetry Conference this summer, I saw Marilyn Nelson read and thought to myself, She’s the real thing. Nelson’s poetry isn’t a detached, intellectual exercise. To use a little workshop jargon, something is always “at stake” in her work. She writes about race and family and the large American inheritance of trauma. Her poems sound of the moment. My favorite formalists are those who find a pleasing balance between lyricism and plain speech, who know their iambs but recognize the need for substitution in the meter. Unfortunately, there are still many formalists whose diction sounds more like 1609 than 2009 and whose lines thumpa-thumpa.

As for war poetry, I’m just finding my way into that group. I guess, if my military wife poems could be called dangerous, it would be for their uncomfortable ambivalence about the war, my husband’s work, and about our marriage. But maybe, if I say too much about the Danger That Is Jehanne, I risk sounding (a) pompous, (b) overly earnest, (c) dull as dirt, and (d) all of the above.

It’s easy for me to ask you about family. Displacement seems deeply concerned with the splintering of family and the dislocation of the self. I remember hearing you read “Past Tense,” with those incredible, anaphoric lines, was was was was was. That last line is a killer: “Was he loves me. Is he loves me not.” The audience gasped when you finished—so riveted by the music of the poem that the end came as a surprise—and then exploded with applause. In a poem like “Past Tense,” even the syntax feels as if it has been displaced.

One of my favorite poems in Displacement is “How It Started.” I love the opening lines: “At the point you start throwing pebbles / at large bodies of water, you have suffered / an error of judgment. Or scale. // Marriage kept sending me back.” First of all, it’s so funny, which is how I always think of you—one of the funniest people I know. But, then later in the poem, we move toward real darkness: “When he found the limp / bundle of a bird on his plate, / I blamed the cat. // When I told him about the mouse / he reset the trap.” Finding their way into the household, these small creatures seem to reveal the wilderness of the family through their own wildness. Here, I can’t help thinking of Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife, where bats and snakes and birds serve as omens for the dissolution of a marriage. Are there figures in your poems that you view as omens? Are there objects that you see as prophetic and that you often end up writing into your poems?
LH: Well first, thank you for saying lovely things about “Past Tense” and “How it Started.” I'm especially glad you find parts of “How it Started” funny. I can only think of a couple of poets who are funny in poems in the ways I aspire to—the kind of funny that makes you laugh so hard you don't notice you are also bleeding. I want that funny. I don't think I find it often. And I'm usually pretty sure nobody will find anything I say funny.

There are definitely words and seasons that are talismanic in the book. Well, one season, really. But here is the thing: I am the most superstitious person on earth. I think I can safely claim this. Someone once had to explain magical thinking to me and I didn't get it because I didn't actually know until then that there was another way to think about the world. I'm pretty sure Displacement was written entirely under the umbrella of magical thinking, in which everything is a kind of omen or sign and the causes of things aren't the obvious ones. Which is exactly how the world works, for me.

As far as prophesy, well, again we have the thorny but also very funny question of causality. If I say something in a poem I make it true, right? Prophesy implies at least the possibility that the prophesy will be wrong. And that hasn't been my experience with prophesy in poems. Poems don't make nothing happen. Sorry but that old chestnut is a crock. Poems make the world, which is everything all at once and happening. Listen: don't mess with poems. They have power. You will be minding your own business and write a line and then ghosts exist and are everywhere and you are one. Once the woods fill up with snow, that is how they relate to snow for all time, whether or not the woods wanted to be created or recreated in those terms. They're stuck there, filling up with snow. Once you write Ida Lewin into the world, she exists. She exists. Your poems made the most profound thing happen. They made a person, a life, a town.

Which is maybe not what you meant by the question? Okay, let me try that again. Closets. Rectangles (don't even get me started on rectangles). Birds. Snow. Trees. The River. All rivers. Lately knives come up a lot. Did I mention rivers? Michael Collier joked once that it is too bad the title was taken because a river definitely runs through this book. But the truth is that winter or the river are themselves before they are mine, and I know this, so even when they make appearances in poems, their role will change. There is nothing in this world that is purely symbol, I don't think. Things are first and only themselves. We borrow them, we ask them to help us make a particular meaning, to make the world a little new, but we always have to give them back to themselves. But within the construct of the book, I think the symbols hold up, have a weird fidelity to themselves and each other. Bats come up early in the book, in the poem called “Firefly.” In that instance, they are not a comfortable, easy part of the narrative. Later, the poem called just “Winter” ends with an image of a bat conflated with the heart and it feels more peaceful or at least resigned, which tracks with the narrative, I think (I hope).

I get obsessed with certain things and their attached ideas. Trees break my heart. Defenseless. Old. Huge. Scary. I mean, seriously if trees invented for themselves an arsenal there would be no more humans and they would be sent to the Hague and absolved of genocide because frankly we deserve it. But I live in a wood house. So when the trees come for us, I don't get a pass for noticing how beautiful and terrible it must be to be a tree.

So, speaking of Ida Lewin, I guess what practically every younger poet wants to know about you is this: What the heck happened? How did you get not one book, not two, but three taken within the space of a year? How does that feel? Where they all being written at the same time, or was The Hardship Post finished and being sent out for awhile while you were working on the other two?
JD: I have no idea how the three-book madness happened. Obviously, luck is the most important answer. I had been working on The Hardship Post for the first three years of my PhD program (there are even a few overhauled poems from my MFA thesis in the book). At the beginning of my fourth year, I began sending the book out, but without much of an expectation that it would find a home; I figured the book was too Jewish and too Holocaust-y to appeal to publishers.

In the meantime, I began working on the project that became From the Fever-World. At that point, it was called AlwaysWinter and was closer to being a novel-in-verse, with several points of view, a very clearly outlined narrative, and chapters rather than sections. I was a Sosland Fellow at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and, in the middle of my research on generational trauma, I began to realize that many of the poems in AlwaysWinter were meant for The Hardship Post, and that AlwaysWinter should really focus on Ida Lewin, my imaginary Yiddish poet. So, I revised The Hardship Post into the book that it finally became. AlwaysWinter became From the Fever-World, an extended, fragmentary monologue in the voice of Ida.

While I was writing fake Yiddish fragments, I began writing my military wife poems. It looked like my husband was about to be sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, a possibility that sent me into a complete panic. In response to my horrible anxiety about my husband’s job, I started thinking about the voice of the “milspouse” in war poetry. The next thing I knew, a year had passed, and I had finished both From the Fever-World and Stateside.

As for the books finding a home, it really was a matter of the stars colliding. In early February 2008, I found out that The Hardship Post had won the Three Candles Open Book Award. Later that year, I went to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference (where I was lucky enough to meet, well, you!!!). At the Conference, I also met the acquisitions editor of Northwestern University Press, who expressed an interest in seeing Stateside. In February 2009, I received the wonderful news from NUP that Stateside had been accepted for publication, and I learned that From the Fever-World had won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize in Poetry. Heady times. I was very lucky that, while my first book was difficult to place, my second and third seemed to find the right presses in a way that felt organic, unforced.

Since we’re on the subject of the world beyond the first book, I was hoping we could end by having you talk a little about the form that your newer work is taking. There are some poems in Displacement which do away punctuation altogether and, as result, play with the line and sentence in really lyrical, appealing ways. But, in your newest poems, I’ve seen you taking this technique to a new level; without punctuation, the poems can be read in a number of different ways, the reader finding different words or phrases to emphasize with each new reading of the text. How does the shape of these new poems speak to their content? And, how does the form of these new pieces speak to the form of your next book as a whole?
LH: Yeah, that. Well, I wish I had a clear answer, but all I have is a story.

One morning, some months after I had sent Displacement to a handful of contests, but before anything had happened, I sat down, opened my blog posting page and started to write. It was snowing lightly, as it often does here in January. I wrote a line, double spaced, wrote another, more. Then I posted it. It felt very very strange to me. There was no punctuation beyond the line breaks. This became, after some revisions, the poem “Dusting,” which I added with a couple of others to the manuscript during editing with Houghton.

Here is the thing: From that day, almost two years ago, to this, I have yet to write a draft with a single bit of punctuation in it. Every draft has taken the same form—lines of nearly equal length, each its own stanza, no punctuation. It is like I caught a virus.

And though this is, pretty much by definition, how I write right now, I can't claim to understand any of it. I'm just riding it out, seeing where the poems want to go. Which is not to say I'm not pleased with the new poems, because I find that they get at things I haven't been able to say before, but they do so in ways I still find quite strange.

Fairly recently I started doing the hard work of figuring out what the book wants to be. It has a title, “The Lost Are Like This,” which comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, one of the terrible sonnets. So clearly it continues the themes begun in Displacement. As for the relationship of form to content, and form of poem to content of book, well, that is a really complicated question. I guess the short answer is that I don't know. There is some imperative at work in the poems, some need for the material to lay out this way.

I spend a lot of time believing I've gone off the rails. I spend brief moments thinking I may be doing something a little bit right. Mostly I'm weirded out and trying to trust it. So I guess the best answer is what I tell myself: wait. trust. stay tuned. see what unfolds. (apparently my allergy to punctuation is limited to poems).

But since we are on the subject of the next thing, I was hoping we could end with a question about your new projects. Your book Stateside is in production right now, and I know you've been writing essays in a similar vein. I also know you've started a new book of poems, which you are calling Red Army Red, and that it is loosely based on your adolescence behind the Iron Curtain. So I was wondering if you'd talk a little about these two projects, but also, in a bigger picture way, about the body of work so far. I hesitate to use the word political, but much of your work seems to be mapping what it means to be female and what it means to be a Jew. I wondered if you would talk a little about the ways you see your work as political and what your best hope is for what the poems and essays can accomplish in the world.
JD: Last year, after I submitted Stateside to NUP, I began asking myself, Now what? Pretty quickly I realized that I wasn’t done writing the stateside experience. I still had “milspouse” stories tell, certain anecdotes or meditations that didn’t seem feasible as poems. So, without reflecting long enough to freak myself about genre-switching, I began taking notes. The next thing I knew, I had written 50+ pages of polished prose (as well as enough notes to map out the rest of the book).

What I found strangest about this process was how easy and natural it felt to move from the poem to the lyrical essay. I’ve always enjoyed working in expository prose—I like writing book reviews and performing close readings—but I was still surprised to learn how little space exists between the lyrical essay and the poem. Extended metaphor. Image. Musicality and meter. On an intellectual level, I understood how prose can compress language and play with narrative as a poem does. But I had to draft these nonfiction pieces, in order to really feel that writing poetry can make for a good prose stylist (which I hope I’m becoming).

A few months after I began the essays, I started working on Red Army Red. As I’d learned with my other projects, I really prefer working on two books/series/ideas/madnesses at once. With Red Army Red, I started with the plan to write poems that simultaneously celebrated and critiqued an aesthetic which we might think call “Communist kitsch.” Slowly, these poems—Poland, circa 1987—became girlhood poems. Two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I hit puberty. Within a few months of working on this odd, tacky series of Iron Curtain poems, I saw that I was using the language of the Eastern Bloc as a metaphor for the tyranny of the adolescent body. There are poetry collections that speak about female adolescence, but I don’t think they’re embarrassing enough. My teenage years were a heroic parade of humiliations. I want the book to explore the awfulness of adolescence while using language, imagery, and metaphor that is specific to my coming of age on 65 Dabrowskiego Street, in Warsaw.

I think it’s true that my work is political. I’m not a historian—no head for dates—but historicity is important to me. Blame it on those Polish poets I read at the age when I was just beginning to fall in love with poetry. And then there were all of those artists and intellectuals my parents used to have over for cocktails and dinner parties. The night Martial Law was declared in Poland (December 1981), our house was filled with members of the intelligentsia who couldn’t go home for fear of being arrested. I was six at the time.

Perhaps, my understanding of what it means to be Jew also has something to do with the politics of my writing. A central principle of Judaism is tikkun olam; the world is like a broken vase, once perfect and clean, and it’s our job to glue the shards back together. Tikkun olam happens through our performance of the commandments. I am not the kind of Jew who does her best work in a synagogue. Instead, I hope that making—or trying to make—beautiful things can be my way of helping to repair the world. And if those beautiful things have a social conscience, so much the better.

Well, now that I’m nearly done typing smarty-pants stuff, I better grab my cell phone. I don’t think we’ve had our weekly snarkfest, do you? I have my usual list of Gossip To Tell Leslie. I’ll call you in five minutes!

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761