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A Brilliant Career. An Interview with Michael Harris
by David Solway

Michael Harris

The author of six books of poetry, including New and Selected Poems and In Transit, Michael Harris has edited several anthologies, most recently The Signal Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Poetry. Twice a prize-winner in the CBC Literary Competition, including First Prize for Poetry in 1988, he has edited almost sixty poetry books for his Signal Editions imprint (VThicule Press, Montreal) as well as translated the complete poetry of Marie-Claire Blais (Veiled Countries\ Lives). A selection of his work appears in French as Miss Emily et la Mort (VLB editeur, 1985). His poetry has appeared in Europe, the U.S. and widely in Canadian periodicals. Previously an instructor of Poetry, Literature, Film, and Creative Writing at Dawson College in Montreal as well as at McGill, he was until last year teaching in the Department of Creative Writing at Concordia and running the Poetry Workshop for the Quebec Writers' Federation. He is currently working on a new book of poems entitled Circus. He is interviewed here by David Solway.

BiC: You are, as they say, a man of parts: poet, teacher, translator, editor, publisher, collector of rare manuscripts and memorabilia, owner and driver of a black convertible Saab. How do you solve the time management problem?

MH: It was simple, really. I sold the Saab.

BiC: I'll bite: How exactly does this give you more time?

MH: Fewer trips to the Swedish Garage means less truck with my Bank Manager. I'm now able to cease all teaching¨even sessionally at Concordia; and this, after taking early retirement from Dawson College, thanks to downsizing in the public sector four years ago. Thirty years of teaching! Then I relinquished the editorship of Signal. Twenty plus years of that. Maybe sixty titles. I'm now writing¨and reading!¨with more concentration and pleasure than I have in years. With your permission, I have one more thing to say about that car. A couple of years ago, I was introduced to Martin Amis at Le Cepage after a reading he'd just given at the Centaur Theatre. "Ah," he says, "the poet. All poets own black Saabs and drive badly." I imagine that pronunciamento was based on his experience of life in London. Nevertheless, I'd like to report that he's now wrong on both counts.

BiC: Let's take your various commitments or vocations in turn (we'll skip the Saab). First, what made you decide to become a poet, if "decide" is the right word?

MH: Well, that's an essay question, isn't it¨and one for which there is no complete answer. But I'll try. My mother died when I was a boy; that event alone is cause for a life-time of poetry. My father spoke beautifully¨and sparingly. His speech provided me with a template I could emulate¨or work against, depending on what "voice" I wanted to use. My mother and her procession of relatives were Scottish. My father was British; his accent was what they used to call Mid-Atlantic. I was educated at a British-modelled private school in Quebec: my classmates came from all over. Sometimes I think "Canadian" could be a truly all-inclusive English lingua franca. Sometimes I think it's neutral to the point of anemia. Substitute our received cultures for our melded languages in this dilemma and you have Canada¨generally a nice place for the rest of the world to come to, but without any common tribal culture to engage its poets. To accommodate this predicament, I'd argue that the bar we have to set for ourselves is in the realm not of national, but of international interest. Global television and the spread of the Web will probably make for better poetry among us than have our own short (and scarcely-collective) history or the literary production of particular groups with particular agendas, the most egregious of which is the creation of a standard Canadian Canon on the part of the "national" publishers. The very least we should do is judge Canadian poetry by international standards. Then, who knows, something of interest may come of it. Nobody much cares what the big frogs say, if they're sitting in a little pond.

BiC: You're avoiding the question of¨

MH: Ah. Well, I did write a poem in Grade 10 to get a girl to kiss me. It was called "Rain." It failed me miserably and I had to resort to other methods¨with such success, I might add, that I chipped my front tooth and had to swallow the thing to preserve my dignity. It was at that moment I discovered the virtues of re-writing. If you're in the market for one, by the way, I have a very nice black Saab convertible.

BiC: You've just sold it, remember? Try again!

MH: Alright, I'll give you a break. The truth is that whether or not I write poems down, I think them¨and have done so as far back as I can remember. A series of enlightened English teachers made poetry safe for me, in the sense that their love for literature enabled me to think that what I thought could take the form of being written down on paper and considered with impunity¨not by them, particularly, but by me. It was fun to get something as ephemeral as an insight down on paper¨and get the words effectively to carry the idea. Although I think that at that age, word and idea were much the same thing. As I read more, I found that the words themselves were fun to play with¨particularly if they were strictly to serve the intent of the poem. A lapse in tone, a hiccup in the music of a line, and the poem itself would vanish. A Humpty-Dumpty omelet. I don't think I wrote a decent poem until I was thirty five and most of the poets I edited were over forty when I took them on. I also wrote because I had stuttered since childhood. I couldn't say words that began with a "k" sound, for example. A hard "g" was difficult. A whole, smooth sentence was rarely possible, as I would often have one version of it completed in my head before I could make the substitutions necessary to avoid the sounds I knew I couldn't make. I suspect I read as widely as I did as a child to provide myself with a vocabulary rich enough to communicate with. It got so that I could see whole sentences in my head as if they were printed on paper. The difficulty was to speak them. God knows, perhaps I should thank my first stepmother for having made me a poet.

BiC: How so?

MH: I think of that woman the way Hobbes thought of life in a state of Nature¨as nasty, brutish and short. Whatever abuses she inflicted then were the usual pedestrian ones, though they did result in a serious speech impediment; simply put, she didn't much like children. When my father finally found out, he sent me to boarding school for six years. I was eight. I've had three mothers in all¨and several others who auditioned along the way but didn't make the cut. Whatever else, they were my teachers: my first stepmother taught me something about the arbitrariness of evil. My real mother taught, by indirection, about love and loss¨surely the core of lyric poetry. My third mother shopped.

BiC: Shopped?

MH: At home and abroad. Cash and credit. Coupons, country barns, Bloomingdale's and Bargain Basement. Catalogues. Price Chopper Clipper Sheets, Annual Sales, Discount Drugs, Designer Clothes. A house full of stuff. She raised her own children, took care of my father, did Community Work¨and shopped. My favorite photo of her is of her standing in a ballroom in Manila¨with Imelda Marcos. Evening gowns, little handbags, sleeked-back hair¨and two pairs of tiny shoes peeking out from under their ensembles. We put it up on the fridge when we devolved the estate. And then, when it was all done, I took a portion of my inheritance and bought a second-hand....

BiC: We know exactly what you did. Let's drop the Saab story. You've told us about your Walpurgisnacht of Mothers. Tell us something about your father¨the Uncle Edward of your poem of that title.

MH: My father was a haematologist. He spent his life taking blood out of people and examining it. I've always had a fierce desire to keep my blood where it's supposed to be, the more so as my father was the Medical Consultant for the Canadian Red Cross, which always needs blood. His idea of helping me to become an adult was to take me out to the Blood Depot when I was eighteen "for a pint," he said. After I'd leaked a pint of my life's blood into a bag, I stood up (youth is immortal, youth is without fear), fainted and knocked my self unconscious on the sidewalk. When I went to McGill, I chose Arts. Unfortunately, I failed Arts. Failed English, Spanish, and Women. Excelled, for no apparent reason, in Geography. Had to work. Sold books. Got fired. Sold ski stuff. Got fired. Failed Work. Got hired as a Research Assistant at French-Canada Studies at McGill. Clipped Newspapers. Paid my own way through Concordia night school. Didn't keep track of the number of credits I'd taken. Took more courses than I needed for a degree, and lacked the necessary concentration, so to speak¨wangled a degree anyhow, but one lacking in the requirements to Pursue Further Study. Got into an MA/possible PhD Qualifying Year at McGill. I think they'd forgotten me from before.

BiC: An exemplary career.

MH: It gets better: In 1969, the CEGEPS [Quebec's version of the Community College] opened up. Thousands of jobs. My then-girlfriend had two application forms for Dawson College, but filled her 'rough' one out without a flaw, so that one was left over. The only reason I can offer for my being taken on Staff at Dawson is that I had long hair and what passed for a beard¨and the interviewer was a nun who loved "Poetry" and was, blessedly, charitable. She interpreted my struggle with elocution as a mixture of precision and reflectiveness. My first class consisted of about 60 students sitting banked up in an amphitheatre. It was an hour-long lecture, at the end of which I realized that for the first time in 18 years, I hadn't stuttered. That afternoon I went home in triumph to tell my father of my new job. "Those who can, do," he said. "Those who can't, teach." As a busy doctor, he may have understood clichTs as time-savers. It was four years before my next visit to his house. It occurs to me only now that he didn't remark on the fact that I had lost my stammer. Taught for 30 years and enjoyed all but the last two. All told, over 6000 students. 18,000 Term Papers. It was the last 1000 papers that did me in. I didn't have the heart to look at one more mangled sentence. That and a creeping Political Correctness I thought both offensive and unconscionable in a College/University setting. Not a climate conducive to teaching Poetry, I felt. I'm glad I got out when I did!

BiC: Whatever possessed you to found a press and devote so much time and energy to it? It must certainly have taken away from your other pursuits and eaten into your personal life as well.

MH: If teaching provided me a forum to talk unhesitantly (and volubly!) about something I loved, and which had¨I'm not quite sure how to put this¨become my life¨then editing other poets' work¨for some reason I think of Glenn Gould's tic of humming while he played Bach¨and seeing the books through to publication became a way of honouring what had kept me, in all senses, alive. Whenever I saw evidence of that "life" in a manuscript, I'd take it on, warts and all. The more warts, the longer the poet would stay at my house¨sometimes up to a week; we'd work every poem, every line, every word. Breakfast, lunch, dinner¨and a serious drink when the sun went down. Over 3000 submissions. The ratio of acceptances to rejections was about one to a hundred, given that a number of the poets were published several times. There were days I thought some enterprising rejectee might have made a decent living flogging Editor dolls as pincushions¨though I must say most people accept the odds with equanimity. One German academic characterized the Signal Anthology as containing poetry that looked like it had all been written by me. I still can't figure out whether I should assess that view as praise or damnation. The one "agenda" I had was to provide a solid base of first-rate work for whoever might succeed me as Editor.

BiC: After having passed the mantle as editor of Signal Editions to Carmine Starnino, you've now entered into a kind of emeritus role as an informal literary ambassador to other countries. What do you hope to accomplish by this?

MH: Canadian poetry needs to be exposed to the rigours of the international marketplace. As in any other enterprise, the highest levels of competition produce the most excellent results. We should be vying with Faber, Cape, Farrar Strauss, Norton¨the best poetry presses in the English-speaking world¨to produce books from poets of international interest, whether these poets come from Hong Kong, Melbourne or anywhere in this country. Funding agencies like Canada Council have done much to promote the creation of poetry in this country: I liken the effort to paying the kids' way through school. At a certain point, one has to move into the "real" world¨and compete at that level without the net, the many nets, of internecine reviewing, "agenda-d" hiring in the Academy, nationalistically-oriented subsidization. Any democracy of funding overlooks the fact that a certain city might not have produced a decent poet in decades¨but still the bucks roll in, the books see the light of print, the poets get their grants, the University hires the Creative Writers and their students form the Editorial Boards. How to judge whether any city had produced a poet? Check the international anthologies fifty years from now.

BiC: There is a general feeling or impression that Montreal is experiencing a poetic renaissance comparable to the Fabulous Forties, when Klein, Page, Dudek and Layton were becoming prominent. Do you agree?

MH: The next "renaissance" won't necessarily come from a particular area or literary press or "School" of writers. It'll be spearheaded by individual poets making their way to the international stage. There was only one Yeats in the Rhymers' Club, one Lowell in the chair in Boston. But what an industry followed in their wake!

BiC: Two countries other than Canada have become increasingly important to you over the years, figuring significantly on the map of your poetic itinerary: Scotland and Greece. How do you account for this?

MH: Scotland, because I see who I might have been had I not come here. Greece, because the air is clear, the rooms are affordable, the wine is good and I fall hopelessly in love with myself when I go there.

BiC: What is your assessment of the state of Canadian poetry today, if I can put so complex an issue into such succinct terms?

MH: "Anne Carson lives in Canada."

BiC: Who were the most important influences on you as a poet?

MH: I think the answer you're looking for is "as much of the Library as I've had time to read." I've got a decent library of my own at home; the contents of the shelves vary from year to year. I collect Ted Hughes signed first editions. I imagine that tells you exactly what you want to know.

BiC: One of your poems has acquired a certain notoriety, the one beginning with the line: "I have an enormous penis." You obviously had a particular intent in mind when you wrote it. Would you care to expand?

MH: "Expound," I think you mean. And, no, I don't think I'd care to¨except to say that in the realms of poetry that line is a good example of a metaphor. I never published the poem as I wasn't entirely convinced the general public would distinguish between the literal and the metaphoric. That's a problem, at times, for us poets, don't you think?

BiC: Last question. Would you tell us something about the book of poems you are now completing? It has something to do with the Circus, doesn't it?

MH: Yes. Well, not quite. About fifty years ago my younger brother and I visited one of those gypsy caravans that used to troll up and down the West Coast of Scotland. My grandmother had forbidden us the visit. She said that when the tinkers came to our village, children mysteriously disappeared and were never heard from again. In spite of that sobering news, my grandmother took all the knives to be sharpened and handed out biscuits and tea. The caravan itself was gloriously painted¨big yellow wheels and a huge black horse to pull it. While the man sharpened the knives, my grandmother disappeared into the caravan itself¨for what purpose I couldn't imagine, though she and the gypsy's wife emerged a time later, both of them looking quite pleased with whatever had gone on inside. As soon as my grandmother had gone back to the house, I took my brother around the back of the caravan to see what was what. The gypsy's wife invited us in and offered us a gold coin each, telling us to bite them to make sure they were real. They were chocolate¨an unexpected treat, so we sat and looked around the caravan for a bit. Amazing things in that caravan. In particular, a row of postcards of sideshow freaks¨a very skinny man with tattoos head to toe; the fattest lady I'd ever seen, built like a wedding cake with all the layers bulging and sagging; a man with a split tongue who had skin like a snake. Anyhow, she asked us what we could give her if we wanted our fortunes told. The only thing I had was my brother, so I offered him, even though he was only four. He'd grow, I figured. The freaks, by the way, were Scottish. The gypsies must have thought we were the strange ones.

BiC: The bookÓ

MH: Well, that's where it started. The rest I've been working on since, though the last ten years I've been working more quickly than usual. I'm a charter member of the One Poem a Month Club. Nowadays, I get up at two and potter through the day until about midnight. The actual writing takes place in the middle of the night, when everyone's asleep and my domestic obligations are over, on into the early hours of the morning. Though my plan has always been to behave like an adult and write during the day, like most novelists do. One of the reasons I go to Greece so often is that the time difference lets me work in the middle of the day, when the Greeks have their siestas¨and their cellphones are off. Circus includes doctors and priests, the ex-wife, dead jugglers, an epileptic Chihuahua, and much, much moreÓ

BiC: A decade in the life of a carney then.

MH: Sometimes it feels like a lifetime.

The interviewer, David Solway, is the Associate Editor of Books in Canada.

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