Your Own Back Yard – Michael Gillan Maxwell

Visual Art – Creative Writing – Social Commentary


Poetry Book Reviews/ Random Poems

Interview With Lisa Harris author of Dwelling Space

Interview With Lisa Harris, author of Dwelling Space

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 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.


Review of Dwelling Space

Dwelling Space                                                                                                                            Poetry by Lisa Harris  Cayuga Lake Books  2019  69 pages

Book Cover






“Love the earth and sun and animals, Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, Stand up for the stupid and crazy, Devote your labor and income to others….Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book; Dismiss whatever insults your own soul; And your very flesh shall be a great poem.” Walt Whitman

“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 especially in the hardest parts of a poem or story or essay.”   Lisa Harris

 Dwelling Space is Lisa Harris’s seventh book and her second collection of poetry. This is the work of a mature artist in full voice. The poems are statements about observation, creative process, and spiritual development and explore universal themes of time, place, love, seasons and life cycles, geography, nature, the planet, and the cosmos itself. The word cosmos rather than universe implies viewing the universe as a complex and orderly system that is the opposite of chaos. Dwelling Space is about this complex and orderly system. It is a book about microcosms and macrocosms, the interconnectivity of all living things, life on the cellular level, and the place of sentient beings within the larger context of the cosmos.

The book is thoughtfully organized and laid out in five parts: I. Journey From Rock To Flight, II. A Gardener Of Time And Dust, III. Deserts And Oceans, IV. The Color Of Mercy, V. Sermon Of Light. The poems within each section are simply numbered, and not individually titled, so it reads like one continuous poem without the encumbrance of titles that might interrupt the flow. Dwelling Space is a book length poem that harkens back to other long form poems such as Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass with its sense of transcending time and place and offers a universal, ecstatic celebration of being alive in the world in the present moment.

Lisa Harris’s command of the English language enables her to render vivid imagery that evokes authentic emotional response. The poet leads readers along a path that has been traveled by Hildegard von Bingen and Rumi, Rilke, the American Transcendentalists and Walt Whitman, TS Eliot, and contemporary poets Gary Snyder, Ellen Bass, Marie Howe and Mary Oliver. The work’s lush, evocative prose serves as a bright beacon and antidote to the diminution of language in this age of newsfeed sound bites, Twitter-speak and social media slang.

Dwelling Space claims its rightful place in the lineage and company of other poems and poets I’ve mentioned above. Dwelling Space is Earth’s house hold.

“All beings, seen and not seen                                                                                                            are part of Earth’s household                                                                                                microbes and ions, bees and ants, people and stones.”

 I am reminded of Gary Snyder’s 1969 book Earth House Hold, which explored many of the same themes. “As a poet,” Snyder tells us, “I hold the most archaic values on earth. They go back to the late Paleolithic; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying intuition and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe.” Fifty years later Dwelling Space is remarkably aligned with the same values.

The poetry in Dwelling Space does not fit neatly into any of the classic categories ~ lyrical, narrative or dramatic. I view it as a hybrid between lyrical poetry and narrative poetry. Largely written in the third person, it puts the reader in the position of looking over the shoulder of the poet to observe and to make their own meaning from this multi-sensory experience. While it reads well off the page, it rings out like music when read aloud and resonates like a symphony with different movements. Envision Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

The rhythm of the language is hypnotic and the cadence even sounds liturgical at times. A Gardener Of Time And Dust ends with a blessing.

“Waves sweep against sand, making the word;

Shantih, shantih, shantih.”

Shantih, a Sanskrit word meaning peace or inner peace, is prayed at the end of an Upanishad and also appears in TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. The rhythm is sometimes reminiscent of shamanic incantation:

“Locate constriction. Writhe. Slither. Pant.

Rain falls. Sun dries the backs of throats.

Sun burns retinas. Heartbeats throb in temples.

Stand firm. Welcome anger and fear.

Welcome pain and doubt, too.”

The imagery is cinemagraphic and dynamic, with multiple things intertwining and occurring simultaneously. In this way it reminds me of the descriptive prose of Richard Ford and the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu. Dwelling Space is a multi-sensory experience that evokes a sense of synesthesia that is, at times, dizzying, kaleidoscopic and psychedelic.

“Bullfrogs bellow love songs.

Fireflies blink encrypted messages.

A coyote barks in the far field.

Bats swoop and skim the pond’s surface

searching for food.”


“She can taste green and hear it.

She can feel green and smell it.”

Dwelling Space is deep and heady stuff, but by no means obscure or inaccessible. This is not a “one and done” read. There are levels and layers and new things to discover each time you return. This is a book that will hold up over time. Like any work of art with complexity, depth and nuance you’ll want to revisit it time and time again.

Dwelling Space is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble  and at Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca, New York

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Lisa Harris writes poetry, short fiction, novels and creative non-fiction. 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.

 Front Cover by Nicholas Down: A Harbored Memory                                                            Nicholas Down lives and works as a painter in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

 Cayuga Lake Books was founded in 2012 by some authors from the Ithaca, New York area who were looking for alternatives to mainstream publishing. More information and their catalogue can be found at












To Do List

To Do List

Before enlightenment

Haul water Chop wood

After enlightenment

Haul water Chop wood

In between

Haul ass

Mister Paul
Mr. Paul


Summer Solstice 2016

From North Beach

North Beach (1)

Like Quicksand

We walk the streets of North Beach
follow the footsteps of Ferlinghetti
and the ghosts of Ginsberg and Kerouac.
In Washington Square Park,
under St. Peter and Paul’s twin spires,
an old hippie sits on a bench,
finger picks a vintage Epiphone guitar.

Next to him, another man
stares off into space,
cradles his mandolin, listens.
Joe Dimaggio marries Marilyn Monroe
in that church, she lifts her veil,
steals a kiss on the granite steps;
here in Joe’s home town.

Italian restaurants and coal fired pizza,
storied nightclubs and tattoo parlors,
psychic readers, butchers, bakers
and kite makers.
The City Lights Bookstore
stands like a shrine, a beacon.
Ground zero for a revolution.

A man lies fast asleep on the ground, under
a sparkling, golden sky and a pile of clothes
in the middle of the afternoon.
Some changes happen before we notice,
others sneak by under our noses,
but Time, a slow train runnin’
creeps up like quicksand.

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