Interview With Lisa Harris, author of Dwelling Space
Can you share anything about your process in writing the poems in your most recent collection, Dwelling Space?
Susan Weisend, a visual artist, was working on creating prints related to the Cayuga Water Shed, of life forms that are extinct except for their representation on rocks as fossils, and of life forms, which are threatened. This was the spring of 2016, when I lived in western Pennsylvania. She and I have done collaborations previously, beginning in 1989 with Conditions Which Guarantee Existence (a text and image installation that showed at the Rice Gallery in Albany and was “live” at the Bisbee Poetry Festival in Bisbee, Arizona.)
Susan had been at ARTPRINT studio in Spain, and she wondered if I thought I had anything to say about extinction, life, and the precarious balance between the two. You have to laugh here if you know me, because it seems I always have something to say. So we applied to ARTPRINT studio and received some funding to help us go there. We were accepted, and in January, I began reading about insects, geographies, weights and measures, molecular structures, and listening to sounds and feeling colors. I began writing sketches of individual poems.
I was not thinking of a book length poem. I was hoping for insight into the imbalances in our world, and hoping I could write 7-10 poems.
Once we arrived in Spain for the three-week residency, we worked separately—Susan in the print shop and I on the balcony looking over the Mediterranean Sea with the foothills of the Pyrenees behind me.
I tend to write the way I cook or clean or garden. So, for example, yesterday was the day to make yogurt, and while I was waiting for the milk to hit 180F, I also made chicken, black bean and vegetable soup, while cleaning the refrigerator.
I work on several projects at the same time, so at that time I was composing and seeking ideas for what became Dwelling Space, I was also working on two novels, working titles, Imagine a Castle and ‘Geechee Gone, a sequel to ‘Geechee Girls—one a new idea and one an older book that only this past week has made itself known to me in its intention. I was also grieving the end or certainly an abrupt change in a relationship, and I think I needed to write poems so that I could turn that grief into love.
Have writing retreats played a significant role in your writing, and if so, how?
Yes. When I worked full-time as a creative writing instructor, I was a student in Avery’s Interdisciplinary Fine Arts degree program at Bard. I had three summers of 6-week residencies. I changed jobs and went into public education, first teaching and then administration. If I had not received two Saltonstall Residencies and two Hambidge Residencies, I would not have been able to concentrate as deeply as writing requires. The retreats let me have time apart. It was hard to be away from my family, and I had to go. Time apart was spiritual and expansive.
How do the poems in this collection and your earlier books relate to and/or reflect your spiritual path?
Sometimes I think of myself as a 15th century explorer or as Beryle Markham. I just don’t captain a boat or pilot a plane. Everything is a spiritual journey for me. So all my writing is some kind of exploration into the spiritual –I am a seeker–and my ship and my plane are fiction and poetry, both piloted by metaphor.
I think the poems in Dwelling Space are beautifully lyrical and have a liturgical quality when read aloud. I also think they are evocative of a strong sense of place. Can you tell us who and what may have influenced these aspects of your work?
Thank you for hearing the writing as well as reading it, Michael. Growing up in the Methodist Church, I listened to and read the King James’ version of the Judeo-Christian Bible, my mother was a musician (piano, organ and cello) and a music teacher. She was highly concerned with pitch and tone and word choice, and she believed that how you said what you said was important as what you were saying. She used to nudge me with, “Pitch”—when I was half way through a sentence, and I would begin the sentence again, ditto with “Tone.”
So the sound of words was a big deal—talking was perceived as a form of music, with an emphasis on making the world pleasant. My mom believed that singing was a way to open your heart and the rest of your body to take in the Holy Spirit.
I also listened to KJV being read aloud at church, and during high holiday seasons that meant Sunday and Wednesday, at least that is how I remember it. And my grandmother who lived close by, read the Bible daily at breakfast, so when I was with her, she read it out loud to me. At boarding school, we studied the Bible and then in Divisional Seminar at my college, we did as well, not as doctrine but as literature, since it underpins a lot of the metaphors and images in so much literature.
While I was an undergrad, I studied for one semester with Richard Murphy, an Irish poet, and he reinforced cadence and rhythm, rhyme and sound. I think the biggest influence for me was reading and rereading the KJV of the Bible as a child, and then poetry in high school and college—I also began to study world religions and economics and those expanded the economics of my spirituality, giving me a bigger bank account, if you will.
Growing up in what is part of the Appalachian Mountain range, specifically the Alleghany Mountains, I was taught that PLACE mattered, that I was from this place and this place was part of me. I learned the stories of the landscape and the people who inhabited it, it was my movie theatre and my first book. It was my first poem. Recently, I was part of a group of writers who met in Western Pennsylvania (as distinct from Central Pennsylvania where I am from) to discuss a new genre and how to define it: Northern Appalachian Writing. How is it distinct from Southern Appalachian Writing? What makes it distinct?
So place informs who we are. Those of us with a strong sense of place, I believe, are more open to place, to traveling from place to place, to appreciating the similarities of space and place—I think Dwelling Space is getting at that, at loving the world, one space at a time.
What are your thoughts about the relationship of your work being read “off the page” versus being read aloud?
I listened to Eudora Welty recordings, e.e. cummings, and others on records in high school, I had the privilege to work at Savannah State College, part of the HBC system, go to revivals in the north and in the south, and see people go off the page, hear people go off the page—when I heard Eudora Welty read and when I read at a festival with Lucille Clifton, I thought poetry and fiction should always be LIVE. And the child in me, the little girl who hid in the forest with a book, or feigned a fever so I had to stay home on the couch the day after the book mobile arrived, that girl wanted silence and intimacy, and the smell of books.
When I read Toni Morrison, I hear her voice even on the page. I think that is the hope, to be heard on the page as well as off the page.
I hope that people come to my and other people’s readings and that they also keep buying books, however they access them.
How do current events and the events in your personal life affect and inform your writing?
Oh boy! Well, they are my writing. I am part of the world and the world is part of me.
Do you start out with a sense of an arc or overall trajectory in your works or does that evolve as you go, or is it a little bit of both?
Well, Michael, you got me to laugh here. It is a LOT of both. So here are two little stories to show two different approaches.
Example of NO ARC: In the late 1990s, I was having a lot of trouble with bronchitis. We had a wood stove, I had allergies and I had a lot of unresolved and harbored grief I had never worked through regarding my father’s change in occupation, which led to his violent death. I began sleeping in a loft where the air was cooler in our old farmhouse. Every night for about a month, I had a dream where I was under water holding my breath trying to untie red ribbons that tied a gray steel box closed. Each time I would grab the ribbon, it would bleed, and the box was too heavy to lift. Then I would wake up coughing. And because I was not able to sleep, I would write, little dreamscape sketches. At that time I was fascinated with “sudden fictions,” also known as “flash fictions.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I had begun writing a book, BOXES, which won first prize in Bright Hill Press’ Fiction Chapbook contest, and then when the book grew up, it became ALLEGHENY DREAM, the second book in The Quest Trilogy.
Example of BIG ARC: While I was in Spain at the residency with Susan, I had another dream. My room had a huge window and no one uses screens. It was very hot and so I slept with my window wide open. The window faced the foothills of the Pyrennes Mountains toward France and Switzerland. I didn’t know that at the time. I had been thinking about Jeff’s mom’s family, the Deyos (D’Yeaux), their persecution by the Catholic French king, and that history since his mother died and I inherited her family books. About a year before, I had looked up the fort/castle that had been part of that family’s life. I woke up at 4 am with the title, Imagine a Castle, and a scene of a great-great x 8 or 10 grandfather I had read about. I wrote it down.
With uninterrupted time, I read about the Huguenots and his families escape from France to Mannheim and then on to New Paltz, using my laptop to access the history. I could see how this could honor his mom. Then I saw how the book could be a love story that would also honor my family. I have been carrying all my mother’s and family’s stories around with me in my head and heart, of course, but also all my mom’s research since she died in 1984 when I had promised her, I would turn it into a cohesive piece of writing. I planned the structure for the novel/creative non-fiction/memoir so that the lovers have alternating passages, and are only known as he and she. I have been weaving the two family histories together, and you guessed it, adding the landscapes as another one of the families. So this one I saw as a book right away.
What does your poetry share in common with your novels and creative nonfiction?
All of the writing I do is about a search for spirit and truth, philosophically speaking, when any one of us identifies a sliver of spirit and truth, each of us is made brighter. So all my writing is about locating light by looking at the darkness and the light, by looking at the ugly with the beautiful. I also weigh words and try to make the sound perfect (Thanks, Mom) especially in the hardest parts of a poem or story or essay.
My MFA program was interdisciplinary; I wasn’t required to declare POET or NOVELIST. So I work across genres. That was hard in applying to graduate school, if the program wanted you to study one or the other. It was hard in one professional setting where I was supposed to be one or the other. I am both. I guess the downside in some folks’ minds, is if you are both, then de facto, you are neither. I am both.
You have a history of actively collaborating with visual artists. Is that something that you’ve actively sought out or has it been more of a spontaneous, organic evolution?
I think Freud, or someone, would say that this is second child, youngest child boundary disorder. Gotta laugh. Well, at its worst, it is that. Thinking that my own work, on its own, is not sufficient. I think I out grew that pretty early on.
Putting a positive spin, and the more truthful one at this time, I get lonely, and I like to think with other people. If I had been given paints as a kid, I think I would have been a visual artist because I love color and broad strokes. But I was given words and music, so I became a writer. I was given stories and melodies, tone and pitch, cadences and pockets of silence.
Some people have sought me out, and sometimes I have sought them out. Maybe it is the teacher/student in me—too—likes to give out assignments and be given them.
But I love other people’s art, so I have worked with other artists. It may be my form of a dish to pass dinner.
How do fables, myths and the oral tradition of story telling inform and influence your work?
I have always been a reader and a listener. So I talked a lot about the church I grew up in and the KJV Bible; however, equally important in my life, were fairy tales, fables and myths, and told stories around the dining room table or a campfire. Words were valued and truth was valued, with the understanding that truth was usually complicated and best explored through metaphors.
People in my family, especially on my mother’s side were storytellers, memorizers of long poems they could recite. On my father’s side, there was a heavy emphasis on truth and wisdom. Stories were what people share, fables were lessons, and fairy tales were puzzles with truth hidden in them. I tried to give stories to Jeff’s and my daughter and my grandchildren as well, to give them multiple lenses with which to view the world, themselves and their places in it.
So I was read to a lot, and I read a lot. I was taught to respect and value differences in people’s religions and cultures. I was also blessed by a loving small town and the privilege (which should be a right) of an exceptional education. In fact, any time I have not known what to do with myself, I have gone back to college.
Colleges and universities replaced the church for me for 30 years.
I knew if I could find something new to study, or find something old to re-imagine, I would work through whatever was in front of me, that by reading and writing and thinking I would take grief and anger and turn them into knowledge and love, I would give them somewhere to go other than residing in my heart. I would try to make something beautiful and true out of something painful. That is what I was trying to do by writing Dwelling Space.
Lisa Harris writes poetry, short fiction, novels and creative non-fiction. Her latest book is Dwelling Space and she is the author of another poetry collection Traveling Through Glass and five books of fiction: Low Country Stories, Boxes, ‘Geechee Girls, Allegheny Dream, and The Raven’s Tale. She lives and writes in the Finger Lakes region of New York.