Thursday, February 8, 2024

TtD supplement #256 : seven questions for Michael Harman

Michael Harman lives in Toronto, where he works as a plumbing apprentice and dedicated writer. Beginning with the discovery of modern poets like Stein, Williams, Zukofsky, Harman’s poetry developed alongside a small group of writers, under the tutelage of Michael Boughn & Victor Coleman. His writing in its present state seeks to marry the alliterative flamboyance of Middle English poetry with the innovations of Oulipian, Found, and other constrained methods of composition. His work has been published in Echolocation, Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, COUGH, and Touch the Donkey. His first chapbook, Brittlestars (2016), was published by Shuffaloff/Eternal Network, and subsequent full-length projects arrived as FIRE (2018, Press Press Press), and Pearl (2020, Spuyten Duyvil). His most recent book is Plumbing Techniques, which will be published in 2024 by Spuyten Duyvil Press.

An excerpt of his “Plumbing Techniques” appears in the fortieth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “Plumbing Techniques.”

A: Plumbing Techniques is my most recent book of poetry. It documents in dramatic fashion my time in trade school, and uses a form of found text writing where each poem is limited to the vocabulary of 1-4 pages from a source text: most often Thoreau’s Walden. I was reading it when I began school, and its sermons resonated with my own reasoning for trying a trade – (he often proposes something like, if you’re a ‘book’ person, you should probably set down the Iliad and go hoe some beans, ... and vice versa).

I chose Plumbing because it is by far the best word of the different trades. And “plumbing techniques”, the name of the program I entered, was a natural name for the book I wanted to write.

The first poem was an emphatic response to my Nana asking why I wanted (would want) to be a plumber. From there I wrote out the excitement and fear of my first semester in this new world. I tried in my adventures to play the parts of both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, at times unabashedly grandiose, and at others deeply humbled, subdued. I praised things that I thought deserved immense praise, and playfully teased what I felt needed teasing.

Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: The Serial poems (larger projects) I’ve written have a special feeling to them, and the writing that happens there is markedly different. Usually for me it starts with finding a new method or interaction with the line that becomes in itself the kind of “subject” of the poems. Gestating between these special periods, I try to read more, and write as a means of keeping the muscle warm, often toying around with Oulipian and other constrained forms. Lately I’ve made some playful poems out of novel instances at my job; (I had fun detailing the carnage of my first sewage ejector pit). But overall I’ve never really connected with occasional poems, and only seem to do my best when I have the momentum of a serial propelling me. I think this is reflective of the poets I admire, and have learned from.

As far as comparing Plumbing Techniques to the other books I’ve completed – they relate in the general way that they’ve all used a specific method unique to each, and they’ve all been projects of transformation.

Q: The binary of the serial/occasional poem sits very much in the Jack Spicer vein; what first brought you to the serial poem, and what do you feel is possible through the form that wouldn’t be otherwise?

A: As far as where I got the serial from: when I was 19 I met Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman, at a time when the bpNichol writers group was humming and producing a lot of really interesting poetry. The older writers there shaped my poetics.

Part of the induction was, of course, giving me the writers I love; Spicer was big for me early on, bpNichol, Ginsberg and Williams – and most of what pulsed around the Black Mountain and Berkley circles. Later it was Duncan, Stein, Jack Clarke, HD, Zukofsky, Marianne Moore, Whitman ... I don’t want to get too off track – but most of these poets wrote in a serial way; or, at least, each poem was part of a greater opus. The poets I was around drew from all these writers, and combined their sounds with emergent formal innovations. So “serial poetry” is what I grew up around as a writer.

The second part of the question ... I can try to give a provisional answer, but I sense lingering the very difficult question of “what is poetry”, which only poetry can properly answer.

Something that jumps to my mind is the idea of a poet as someone who sort of waits around for a bolt of inspiration (a special occasion) to hit them; the poet as someone who takes comprehensible feelings and ideas (that could be relayed in conventional speech) and spins them into unnecessarily complicated, fanciful abstractions. It's the erroneousness of the simile that Williams addresses in Spring and All; or Spicer hits with his enigmatic “Not for their Significance. For their Significant”; or Clarke, “I have created the creative.” In short, poetry is not second hand, secondary, or representational. And that, I guess, is, at its worst, what I take the occasional poem to be: aftermath and lifeless.

I guess then the serial is, for me, poetry’s proper form. It takes poetry as a Life’s work. – that’s a spiritual answer. Maybe historically speaking it’s the evolution of the narrative poem.

Q: I’ve long been fascinated by that group that Coleman and Boughn led. How did you get involved, and who else was around for those sessions?

A: I was in Mike’s class at UfT and showed an interest in poetry, though I didn’t really read much, and only wrote teenager-y poems. He was kind enough to bring me in one evening. At first what I heard read there was alien and mesmerizing. I wanted to be a part of it more than anything, so I started reading and writing poetry fervently. I dropped out of school the next year to delve into my new vocation.

There were lots of great people and artists there, some of whom I’m still in touch with – but in terms of the poetry – it was Brad Shubat, Emily Izsak, Oliver Cusimano, David Peter Clarke (and Mike and Vic, of course) whose poems I was in the most immediate contact with, and who I tried most to emulate.

Q: With a couple of chapbook and book-length publications under your belt, as well as your current work-in-progress, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: It’s taken a long time, but at this point I feel like I have my own tuning and sound; and being able, in my projects, to sink into that sound feels about as good and truthful as anything. One noteworthy change since my early twenties is that I don’t feel I try any longer to be philosophical as a poet (though many of my idols are). I notice also, especially in Plumbing Techniques, that drama and silliness are a big part of my natural voice. I could go into things that have changed aesthetically, but in short I’ve just gotten better.

My reading of poetry keeps going backwards in time, so while I always return to my 20th Century roots, I’ve been really fascinated with ME poetry, and would like to write something longer than what I’ve done before. But generally, going forward, I just want to write the most beautiful thing that I can, and keep growing as a person.

Q: You mention a handful of contemporaries from the bpNichol writers group: are there any other contemporaries that have influenced the ways in which you think about writing, or approach your own work?

A: As far as contemporary poets go, I really haven’t encountered anything locally or popularly that compares to the writers I mentioned. And, as naive as it may sound, I'm not sure I will.

As far as influences, my favourite books always feel contemporary in a romantic way, and close friends who bring out your best voice are invaluable. Then there are people whose poetry comes in another form: comedians, musicians, athletes. I’m happy to take what they do analogically. Most recently, I watched my plumbing mentor dismantle an old radiator valve. That influenced how I think about writing.

Q: Perhaps, then, this question is moot, but who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: Off the top of my head: H.D.’s Trilogy, Moby Dick, Shakespeare, Jack Clarke’s In the Analogy, Duncan’s After the War, (recently) Marianne Moore’s The Fish, Mina Loy’s Song for Joannes, lots of Ivan Illich, and anyone and everyone I mentioned above. And Ralph Waldo Emerson, always.
It’s not a particularly surprising list, but it’s who I love.

I do really want to mention Zukofsky’s Catullus translation. It’s immaculate, and so much fun to read.

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