A Conversation Between Joseph Harrington and Kathleen Ossip
“I think we all agree, the past is over,” declaimed George W. Bush, but Joseph Harrington and Kathleen Ossip beg to differ. In 2011, they both published books of poetry that explore history’s dark rich legacy: Harrington’s Things Come On: an amneoir and Ossip’s The Cold War. Both books are fascinated by the past, public and personal. Things Come On weaves the story of the author's mother's death from cancer in the summer of 1974 with that of the Watergate hearings which were happening at the same time. The Cold War explores the repressions, obsessions, and anxieties of that period of American history and traces our trajectory from then until now. The poets explored their mutual obsessions in a conversation that circles around grief, politics, religion, sex, rationality vs. intuition, and making poems documentary-style.
Joseph Harrington is the author of Things Come On: an amneoir (Wesleyan, 2011), a Rumpus magazine Poetry Book Club selection; earth day suite (Beard of Bees, 2010); and Poetry and the Public (Wesleyan, 2002). His creative work also has appeared in Hotel Amerika, The Collagist, BathHouse, Otoliths, 1913, Fact-Simile, and P-Queue, among others. He teaches at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
Kathleen Ossip is the author of The Cold War (Sarabande, 2011), which is a finalist for The Believer Poetry Award and was one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2011; The Search Engine (Copper Canyon, 2002); which won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize; and Cinephrastics (HorseLess Press, 2006), a chapbook of movie poems.
Kathleen Ossip: You and I seem to have several things in common. Maybe the most obvious is an obsession with the past, at least by the evidence of our recent books. In Things Come On, you explore the summer of 1973, when the Watergate hearings were on TV and your mother was hospitalized for breast cancer. You were very young at the time. Have you been struggling to make some sense of that weird convergence ever since?
Joseph Harrington: I don't know. One of the things I try to resist is our (very American) desire to make everything make sense -- to attach a redemptive ending to stories that resist it. Sometimes, a tragedy is just a tragedy.
But I have certainly pondered the coincidence. It seems brutally ironic that my mom would have died on the same day that Nixon announced his resignation -- given that she was Albert Gore, Sr.'s secretary for many years, and a stalwart Democrat and no admirer of RMN. Some people were partying that night; not us.
If I've tried to make sense of anything, it's my mother's death per se. I subtitled the book "an amneoir," or amnesiac memoir, because I don't remember much about that period in my life. One reason is that adults didn't talk to kids about cancer in those days -- the pink ribbons and all that nowadays is like another world. So the term "cover-up" resonates for me in both personal and political ways. When I started looking at the Watergate hearing transcripts, the White House tapes, my mom's medical records, and books about breast cancer from the '70s, I began to see echoes and affinities between the language around the scandal and the language of illness. And certainly those things blurred together in my eleven-year-old mind. That discovery didn't make the events seem rational (quite the contrary), but it did allow me to compose them, to make a narrative. There's something to that old idea of turning grief into art.
So I might complicate your initial observation by saying that we share a concern with the relation between the autobiographical and the historical -- the individual life and the Big Events. But how do you understand that relation, in your work? For instance, where did the title of your recent book The Cold War come from? What does the Cold War mean for you?
Ossip: The Cold War was my parents' heyday, and so I think it has always had a certain sexiness for me, along with a dark underbelly. (And I'm not the only one; look at Mad Men.) When I think about where my book started, I go right back to the little flagstone "foyer" inside the front door of our suburban ranch house where my parents kept a small bookshelf with vintage titles like The Status Seekers by Vance Packard and The Human Mind by Karl Menninger. I'd read anything I could get my hands on, and even better if I didn't understand it. Some of the poems in my book springboard directly from that oblivious but fascinated reading.
The repressions of that era (and of my parents), and what lay underneath all that repression, obsessed me. I especially wanted to explore (not figure out) how it all brought us to our current national mess. I wanted to see if I could find some resolution, some grace.
Harrington: That's interesting -- you write, "The intellect's / a pissy thing, a fortress," in "The Human Mind" (named after Menninger's book); then, a few pages later, "Mom the night is angels don't you see how the night is angels," which seems very un-fortress-like, vulnerable, a-rational. I feel that contrast or tension throughout The Cold War.
Ossip: Speaking of repression and grace, I believe we were both raised as Catholics?
Harrington: Yes -- Southern Irish Catholic (think Flannery O'Connor). Catholicism is all about the body and embodiment -- whether it's repression of sexuality or the "Real Presence" of the body of Christ in the physical bread of the Eucharist. Also physical suffering -- which is the original meaning of passion, The Passion. Com-passion is feeling suffering in or with another; one of the challenges of my writing a book about a woman suffering from breast cancer was, of course, doing justice to that experience while not in any way claiming that I could know what it was like.
There are mental exercises in the Church -- the Stations of the Cross, for instance -- that are about imagining the sufferings of Christ and the saints. I chose to incorporate sections of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. It doesn't pull any punches -- one is supposed to imagine the pains and physical defilement of (then-untreatable) diseases, as well as one's own death. It's a useful counter-point to the other source material I use. My mother's medical record conveys the same narrative, but in matter-of-fact nurse's notations. And the quotes from the political crisis of Watergate makes it sound like the country was going through the same thing at the same time. But I kind of remember that part -- everyone was watching the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Watergate in summer 1973.
Ossip: Your description of Loyola's Exercises gives me the shivers -- my Catholic girlhood was an uninterrupted state of high anxiety because of the creepy masochistic physicality of Church iconography, especially in the lives of the saints. I guess my imagination was too vivid, but I wasn't at all sure that kind of suffering wasn't right around the corner for me.
I think one of the remnants of my Catholic upbringing is that I'm always trying to get at essentials -- not just in my poems but in my life. I like to pare issues down to the absolutes: love, hate, good, evil, terror, despair, beauty. This makes me somewhat challenging to live with! I don't have much interest in ornamentation or watered-down middle ground.
Harrington: The poems show that, in their compression: "I thought he liked the look of me," floating on its own line, speaks volumes about that girlhood. Or aphorisms: "The more you know about a doorway, the more you know how hard it is to use."
Another thing these two books have in common is the use of appropriated documentary material. In yours, in addition to the books you mentioned, there's a poem built around an email from a former chemical weapons expert, essays of the critic Yvor Winters, as well as (auto)biography. One particularly fascinating poem to me was "American Myth," which chronicles the careers of the pop (quack?) psychologist Wilhelm Reich, on the one hand, and that of historians Will and Ariel Durant, on the other. What about those characters made you want to include them in the same piece -- with that title?
Ossip: Having stumbled on one of Wilhelm Reich's books (again, way too young to understand it, really) -- it was The Function of the Orgasm, I think -- I was attracted to his extreme views of what amounted to a patriarchal conspiracy to deny people their orgasms by raising children who were so terrorized by moralistic parenting that their bodies were almost from birth too tense to enjoy sex as completely as nature intended. As a Catholic teenager, that resonated, and I liked the idea that everything wrong in the world could be "blamed" on this one basic misstep -- a lot like the idea of original sin.
I don't remember when I had the impulse to contrast Reich with the Durants, the married couple who wrote hugely popular volumes of history -- much later, right before I started to write the poem -- but they seemed opposites in some way, though both very American. To sum it up too simply, the contrast was Reich's uncompromising essentialism versus the Durants' genial popularizing. The poem narrates how one got punished and the other rewarded, and I guess it's clear whose side I'm on.
You know, writing this book for me was an attempt to come to some kind of resolution about the past, my personal past and the public past, or if not resolution, at least a moment or two of grace (Catholicism alert again). I know poetry isn't supposed to function as therapy (or we're not supposed to admit it anyway), but I do think the process of sitting with these poems and struggling with them has allowed me to let go of some of the obsessive pain at least. Did writing about your mother's death in this very complex and beautiful way change the way you feel about what your family went through, the pain of losing her?
Harrington: I had that hope when I started -- that I'd be writing this, and suddenly it would uncover memories and open floodgates of emotion (healing, of course)! I certainly wept a good bit over this book and still do, sometimes. But it's not so much healing as catharsis, which I think is rather different. When Aristotle talks about tragedy's evoking pity and terror, he's not talking about a therapeutic effect, as we understand it. It's not about making you normal or healthy. It's more like an acknowledgment of the unavoidable sadness of the world -- the things that can't be fixed, despite our best efforts -- and an identification and compassion with those who end up on the short end of the stick.
There's a moment in Things Come On recounting the day after my mother died: "Writing all this was supposed to make him [i.e., me] feel better, to solve the semantic puzzle, remedy the ontic ache." That's the desire: for resolution, redemption, convergence, closure. That desire is represented in the book by an imaginary interlocutor who pipes up at various junctures in the text. And it's a voice I resist, because I think it flattens and dishonors the reality of situations that really are tragedies. There is some positive resolution to the Watergate story, via Nixon's resignation. But my mother's decline and death was indeed a tragedy, and I won't turn it into something more comfortable. Nixon lived (quite well) for another twenty years after he resigned. My mother did not.
I really admire the book I, Afterlife (by that fiercely lapsed Catholic Kristin Prevallet) not least of all for its refusal of "closure," when it comes to memorials and mourning. For her, mourning is an ethical and political act, and the pressure to "put it all behind you" is a denial of the dead and what they stood for. And she links that to the form of her writing: "If the body of the text has suffering at its root, then language will take a fragmented, torn-apart form, as if it too is suffering." That's as good an explanation as any I've heard of why I felt the need to compose this book as a fragmented, broken-and-reassembled hybrid of forms.
I don't believe one can separate form from content. One of the things I admire most about your writing, Kathy, is your insistence on that inseparability. In the title poem of The Cold War, you use the word "craft." At first, I thought it meant craft as in "the writer's craft." But you write that "[c]raft is a synthesis: thought in the service of understanding" -- and you end the poem (and book) with the line "Craft will take us through this wood." Those lines make it sound like your notion of "craft" goes beyond the writing of poems.
Ossip: I'll try to talk about what I mean by craft! But first I want to say that I work mostly by instinct. Then I can go back and justify and intellectualize what I've written and sometimes realize (thank you Anne Sexton) that "music sees more than I." In other words, I'm teaching myself through my writing. I'm trying to figure out "how to live, what to do" through my writing. I hope it's smarter than "I" am.
I admire poets who have a passionate commitment to a certain poetics or to a particular lineage and I often feel inadequate because I don't really have any firmly held beliefs about poetry -- except that it's worth making. But I'm willing to use whatever methods, heritages work.
So I have tried to think about why people do have such passionate beliefs about what makes certain poetry "good" and other poetry not. And the conclusion I came to is, that it's a way of testing out what they themselves are doing, of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow, of feeling like what they're doing is "right."
But if I don't have that kind of credo, I asked myself, what do I have? And the answer I came up with is: craft. If I end up with something that feels well made to me, then I can feel at peace with it. "Well made" having a very elastic definition, so again, I'm working by instinct.
But it seems to me, when it comes to poetry and life, that intuition is a better guide, at least for me, than a painstaking thinking-out. I'm thinking all the time (we all are) but when the chips are down an open heart and a sixth sense probably land you in a better place (with the thinking as prep work). So that's what I meant by "craft."
This reminds me of an article I read in the New York Times this summer, about a study done by some French social scientists. They found that rational thought, far from being a path to truth, really is just the most efficient way to win arguments -- a form of aggression, in other words. And Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink also supports this idea, that logical reasoning doesn't get us any closer to truth than our intuition -- and often leads us astray.
Did you have a model in mind for your book? I'm asking because I did have a very specific model in mind for my book, so I want to hear your answer before I talk about mine.
Harrington: No one model in particular, but certainly the whole tradition of the modernist collage poem. And the "documentary poem." So: The Cantos of Ezra Pound; Charles Olson's Maximus Poems; The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser. And Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, is a huge influence for me -- especially for the way she works images into the book, not as illustrations, but as part of the text. And she combines genres, and combines documentary evidence, testimony, with her own words, as I do in Things Come On -- and, I would argue, as you do in The Cold War.
One of the models that I had in mind was the scrapbook. I'm using my mom's scrapbook, and thinking about that as another form of memorialization. The notion of having images, captions, text, objects -- all on the same page -- and then taking them all together as being the narrative of this particular person's life in this particular time period. So I started looking at other scrapbooks and getting ideas. But it isn't an especially neat form. The new computerized ones have a way of standardizing it that I don't like -- I like the messiness.
Ossip: So in that way, it's similar to Nox [by Anne Carson].
Harrington: Yes, but messier.
Ossip: Messier than Nox? There's your cover copy!
Harrington: I tried to do the same for that book: "Nox -- it's a book in a box!" But nobody seemed to like it. But seriously, she alternates the definitions, the narrative prose passages, the single lines of poetry --
Ossip: -- so it falls into a pretty regular pattern.
Harrington: I think so. But there was something about a scrapbook -- this non-canonical, feminized form -- that just seemed right.
Ossip: When I think of Dictee, or I read a book like yours or like Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, I think "I've got to get me some images in my poetry!" I don't consider myself a very visual person.
Harrington: Part of what held me back for a while was the sense that I was "cheating." Susan Howe, in The Midnight, says how the image and the word are always rivals. And part of me thinks that's true. But then I realized: You know what? I'm chronicling lives in the twentieth century. And what do we use to chronicle our lives? Photographs. And my mother was a visual artist, for heaven's sake...
Ossip: I think that photography is the art form of the twenty-first century. Think of how many still images we look at in a day. I'm sure some people go days without reading any substantial text, but you can't exist in this country without seeing still visual images, photographic images every day.
Harrington: But do you feel like you can do something with graphic images that you are not doing with purely written work?
Ossip: I'm really a word girl: I've always been a bookworm, and that's kind of how I take in and understand the world. So, I'm not convinced that I could, but I get excited when I see other people doing it, and that makes me want to try. But maybe this is what you were talking about with the cheating -- images are so immediate, and they have so much impact, that they might distract from the words or make the words seem less powerful. And, hubristically, I like to think that I am doing it all with my words.
Harrington: You do have to relinquish some authorial control when you incorporate pictures, especially if you didn't make them. But then, I really want the focus to be on Lib Peoples Harrington -- I don't want it to be on me as much, except where I figure into the story.
Ossip: And I do tend to be pretty controlling, so maybe I wouldn't want to do that. But it's interesting that you say that you want the focus of the book to be on her, rather than on you. And that made me think about something that I read recently that Susan Wheeler, my former teacher, said about elegy. My new book (not yet completed) is about death, basically -- and a lot of it is a series of elegies to someone whom I loved who died, my stepmother-in-law. That doesn't sound like a very close relationship, but she was a dear friend, and she died about four years ago of lung cancer, so I was moved to write the series of poems about her. And of course, I can't filter myself out of those poems, being partially about me. So I read this comment that Susan Wheeler had made, which is that the peril of writing an elegy is that you're going to insert yourself into it and make it not about the other person but about your own grief. Which made me feel awful -- made me feel like I'd better toss all these poems I'd been writing -- because she's right. It's a form of narcissistic display. But then I thought (I convinced myself, anyway) that it is honest -- you are part of the story -- your grief is part of the story, too. So that's maybe an honest way -- or another honest way -- of approaching an elegy, because you know your own grief in a way that you can never know another person.
Harrington: I think that's true about elegy; it's about surviving the other person.
Ossip: And it's about the voice of the bereaved. And it would be dishonest to pretend that you could make it a "pure product" in some way, by removing that voice.
I wonder if you still feel your mother's presence. And do you wonder what her reaction to the books might be?
Harrington: Yes, I do and I do. I have this self-portrait that she did, in pastel. I have a candle by it -- like a little ancestor ofrenda. And I asked her at one point, "Is this okay?" I didn't hear a voice from the clouds, but I did have a sense at some point that Yeah, this is okay, this is good. Part of it was talking with friends -- especially mothers -- and asking them the same thing.
Ossip: Do you intend or want the juxtaposition of her personal story with the larger national story to have any particular resonances, or are you just happy to have them kind of jostle up against each other in the book? Do you see her life or experiences as in some way emblematic of what was going on in the larger culture?
Harrington: Well, hmm... I think the answer ought to be yes, but in truth, it's no, not really. However... I had totally forgotten about John Dean's "Cancer on the Presidency" speech during his testimony before the Senate Select Committee until I started this project. And even after I started finding these resonances between the Watergate stuff and the cancer stuff, I didn't remember it --
Ossip: Interesting -- so it must have been "out there" in some way --
Harrington: -- or in my unconscious. But the whole metaphor of the body politic was bound to suggest itself and get taken up again. I got some feedback at one point -- part of it is in the book -- "What kind of metaphor is building here?" -- like there has to be some kind of Grand Analogy.
Ossip: So the readers thought that the similarities should be more overt?
Harrington: Or that I should have an overarching metaphor, but I didn't. There's an epigraph from Kierkegaard, where he's talking about the Hegelian system. I left the first part of it off: "An Hegelian will tell you, 'I don't know whether or not I am a human being, but at least I have understood the System!'" To which Kierkegaard responds, "I prefer to say: I know that I am a human being, and I know I have not understood the System." I'm with him -- I do not see any teleological development here -- especially given everything that's happened since.
I'm a real believer in letting things come forward, in poetry -- the Jack Spicer thing: if it scares you, you're on the right track -- or if it's something very different than you intended. There are all these weird gender reversals in the book: Mary seeing Christ during the Passion, disfigured -- whereas, at that point in the story, I'm seeing her disfigured. And toward the end, there's this little poem based on the Persephone-Demeter myth, but it's the mother who's in the underworld.
Ossip: So for you, the wondering is enough. Putting it out there.
Harrington: That's part of it. And it's a book written by an adult trying to reinhabit the point of view of an eleven- or twelve-year-old who has terror and tragedy coming at him from both sides (family and nation), and having them get all mixed up together, mentally and emotionally. What happens sometimes is that I'll write something and say "I have no idea what that means," and then later I'll come back and say, "Oh, well, this clearly means thus and such."
Ossip: I'm most interested in my work when I don't know what it means. I like to think the poems can know better than I -- or are smarter than I am. Because otherwise, why would I be interested in it? I already know what I know consciously. But I like the idea of your writing critical commentary on your own work and putting that in the book.
Harrington: Okay, now your turn: what was the model for The Cold War?
Ossip: One of my most indispensable books of poetry is The Cantos by Ezra Pound. And what I delight in with that book, and what I can't do without, is how inclusive it is -- how he put everything in -- the whole of world history, his nuttiness, his destructiveness, his regret about that destructiveness. Everything is in there. And I'm very attracted to work that includes everything. I think that's one of the reasons I value poetry at all, is that it's a place of utter freedom that I haven't been able to find in any other facet of existence. So, I really have always loved The Cantos and am constantly rereading them, and I pretty consciously set out to do a mini-version of them. He did the whole of human history, and I just decided on the Cold War period and the United States -- which is less ambitious! And that choice of a model didn't really feel like a choice, it just felt organic to the whole process. It influenced certain collage-like techniques; I think I even stole lines from The Cantos and put them in there, and I feel like some of the lyricism of some of the poems is a nod to Pound. And also his unabashed pursuit of a worldview. I am someone who's constantly trying to formulate a worldview, which is because I feel so bereft of one.
We've both written books that meld the personal and the political, which seems to bring up a more general issue of intellectual versus emotional poetry. There's a lot of interest right now in poetry that offers both intellectual and emotional pleasure, where maybe twenty years ago there was more of a divide between the two kinds of poetry. Let's face it, that kind of separation is just as false as the mind-body divide, and poetry that does appeal to the mind and the heart is just about the only kind I'm interested in. Anne Carson is a stellar example, as is Jennifer Moxley.
Harrington: Yes, the mind and the heart at the same time. The rare thing is a poet who can find the emotional valence of ideas (in the way the philosopher Walter Benjamin could, for instance) or who can think about the emotions she or he experiences. There are poets -- or rather, poems -- in North America who do just that, but I think they're the exception rather than the norm. But those are the ones I read for.