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9 Questions for Jim Harrison

PUBLISHED: March 25, 2009

harrison_jimJim Harrison was born and raised in Michigan and is the author of thirty books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. His work has been published in twenty-seven languages. Our Spring issue features his poem “The Golden Window,” from his new collection, In Search of Small Gods, due in April from Copper Canyon Press.

1. How does your new collection In Search of Small Gods fit within your entire body of work?

I’m unsure how the book fits into the entire body except that once we disturb the surface we tend to go deeper into the questions that continue to haunt us. In this respect poets tend to resemble the terrier breed of dog.

2. Can you describe how you decided to structure In Search of Small Gods? (The three sections unfold beautifully, moving from meditative narratives to prose poems to gorgeous lyrics, always compelling the reader to consider each line.)

The best structure never seems to be chronological because our brains aren’t linear like a clock or calendar. My editor at Copper Canyon Press, Joseph Bednarik, visited me in Montana and we spread out the whole manuscript on a large table and thought about it for a couple of days.

3. “The Golden Window,” your longer poem at the end of the first section of the book (and in VQR’s Spring issue), seems full of small gods: memories, vision, dreams, nature, stories—is this a poem written in praise of slowness, curiosity, and consciousness?

I had been immersed in a near depression for a long time and “Golden Window” is a record of deliverance which is never far away but often quite invisible. It is a process of revelation.

4. Before Saving Daylight (your poetry collection published in 2006), it had been a while since your last book of poems. Does your recent publication schedule (Saving Daylight, the novel The English Major, In Search of Small Gods) mirror your writing process?

As the T’ang Dynasty poet Wang Wei asked, “Who knows what causes the opening and closing of the door?” With me it is either feast or famine. All that is asked of us, as Char says, is to be there when the bread comes fresh from the oven.

5. What’s your idea of a “nice thing”? (For example, twenty-six years ago in your interview in the Paris Review, you mentioned turning your pasture into a jungle of wildflowers and bushes.)

Well, I’m already doing my “nice things.” I trout fish sixty to seventy days a year but it’s more the rivers than the act of fishing. I’m obsessive to a not very healthy degree in the processes of the natural world. I walk the dogs everyday in fairly wild country. I’m pleased to split my year between an area of the Border where there are a few jaguars and hundreds of species of birds and Montana where there are more than a few grizzlies and many rivers.

6. Who are some of your favorite poets?

I can’t answer this. As a poet I’ve been reading poetry everyday for some fifty-five years. It is my food and water. I have hundreds of favorite poets. In recent time it has been Antonio Machado but I’ve run quite a gamut of favorites from Sappho to Vergil to Gaspara Stampa to Whitman to Yvan Goll to Clare and Smart, to Rilke, Yeats, Pound, Lorca, Paz, Neruda, etc. It’s hopeless to remember them all, and of course King Shakespeare.

7. Whose Chinese translations (any poet or book) do you admire the most?

Burton Watson, Red Pine (Bill Porter), Jonathan Chaves, and more.

8. Are there any young poets whose work has recently impressed you?

Recently I’ve been very impressed by the work of Joseph Stroud. I have no idea how old he is. Also an unknown poet Chris Dombrowski, Wayne State will publish his book. Also Bill Holm, Taya Kitaysky, and Emily Walters.

9. What is the single most important thing you would tell a young writer?

Read a great deal and widely, ignoring the silliness of national boundaries. In my travels I have found young writers to be under-read compared to the past. Stop fiddling with your computer and read the best in the entirety of world literature.

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