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Intermittent Visitors: David M. Harris

  David M. Harris spent twenty-five years working in publishing in New York, then threw it all over to go to graduate school and become a teacher. He got an MFA in fiction, then threw it all over to write poetry. After living in and around New York City all his life, he threw it all over to move to Tennessee to get married. Now he has a wife and child, a varying number of dogs, cats, fish, and chickens, and a 1972 MGB roadster. Along the way, he picked up some work in film production and some credits as a writer: a published novel, two produced screenplays, a weekly column that ran for about a year and a half in the local daily newspaper, a few short stories, a collection of essays, and a few dozen poems published in places like The Pedestal, Labletter, Pirene’s Fountain, and the anthology 140 And Counting.

 

What is your writing process?

My writing process has evolved considerably over time. When I was writing my first novel, I set my alarm an hour earlier, and devoted that extra hour to writing every weekday on my computer. I also wrote when I got home from work, but most of the good stuff, it seemed to me, came in the morning, when I was fresh and hadn’t already spent the day working on other people’s novels (I was, at the time, an editor for a book production outfit, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, who had also commissioned the novel I was writing). Since then I’ve gotten an MFA (and, curiously, an MGB), switched my emphasis to poetry, and shifted to writing by hand. I do most of my drafts with a fountain pen in a small notebook (they vary, but about 4″x6″), and wherever I happen to be with enough time to write. I carry a portable office in a plastic clipbox, or sometimes just the pen and notebook. I would probably get a lot more done if I had a particular time for writing every day, but I am lazy and undisciplined by nature. Once I’ve got a draft I like enough, I type it into the computer, and edit on printouts. Then, for poetry, my writing groups are an essential step for me so I can do final (there may be several rounds of “final”) revisions.

 

What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Sarah Schulman, who was my advisor for two semesters at Goddard, once said in a letter, “If it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right.” Oddly enough, I got the same advice from my friend Carter Stevens, former publisher of the S&M News. But Sarah was talking about finding the difficult emotional truths of each scene; don’t stop until you’re reaching something that part of you doesn’t want to reveal, and then reveal that.

 

Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

My wife kept noodging me to put a book together, and a woman out in Cookeville (TN) posted a call for submissions for a new press, St. Murgen’s press, specializing in chapbooks by Tennessee authors. So I put together a small manuscript and sent it out, and she accepted it. Unfortunately, she almost immediately ran into various problems and shut down the operation after one book. My book would have been her second. At any rate, I then had the manuscript ready when Unsolicited Press posted its call for manuscripts on the Speakeasy, and they also accepted it to be their second book. There’s no particular theme to the book, though; it’s just a bunch of stuff I’ve written, with a fairly broad range of subjects and styles.

 

Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I’ve always been pretty glib. Good sentences have never been my problem. Working in publishing (which I did for about 25 years), I always saw writing as something that almost everyone did. So I started doing it. Most of what I wrote (other than cover copy and suchlike) was pretty awful because, even though the sentences were good, there wasn’t any heart; blood on the page, as I’ve come to call it. Writing was a mechanical process, aimed at getting published rather than at learning anything. It wasn’t until after I left the business and went to Goddard that I learned about putting real heart into my good sentences, and that’s what I’ve been working on ever since. When I write non-fiction, as I still do sometimes (I published a chapbook essay collection some years ago: Democracy and Other Problems), I’m trying to understand some aspect of the world outside me. My poetry is sometimes external, but even when I’m writing about, say, the 9/11 attacks, it’s to understand my own relationship with that subject. Of course, since I’m also trying to universalize my feelings, I hope it will speak to others and their connections with each other and the world, but if I don’t get my own blood on the page (there’s that phrase again!), I won’t touch anyone else. None of this applies to light verse, of course.

 

Which writers inspire you?

Over the years a lot of writers have inspired me in different ways. In 1976 I rather unexpectedly found myself as the agent for the estate of P. G. Wodehouse, and decided I ought to get familiar with his work. I’ve been reading him regularly since then (many books more than once), and I’ve tried to catch some of his pure joy in language. He’s a good balance for the pretentiousness of a lot of my other answers here, too (or the rest of this one). I read a lot of Anthony Trollope, too, from whom I get an understanding that (despite my professional background in science fiction) real life, real people, are really the only subject worth writing about. Even if you set a story on Mars or write a poem (as I have done) about Disney princesses, everything has to be grounded in real life to say anything interesting. Even Wodehouse is, ultimately, grounded in real life. Among poets, Donald Hall currently inspires me most directly. I read his poems and make notes for poems that I want to write. From Auden I learned about using everyday language. And I learn something just about every week from the poets I read on my radio program (Difficult Listening, WRFN, www.radiofreenashville.org, Sundays, 10 to noon Central Time). I read someone new every week, and learn something from most of them. I also learned a lot about poetry from Tom Disch, whose use of forms helped convince me that formal poetry is not dead, and whose friendship gave me a lot of confidence as a writer. Let’s include Damon Knight and Jane Yolen, too, as friends who had faith in me even when I had considerable doubt.

 

Why do you write?

I’m not at all sure why I write. Oh, I suppose I have something to say that no one else is saying, although I’m not sure that’s enough of a reason to write and try to get published. And I do write, at least in part, to try to get published. It’s still some small thrill to see my work out there where people can see it, a validation and a massage for my ego. And, of course, it was what all my friends did when I was in publishing. Now it’s what many of my friends do in the world of poetry. After all these years, it’s nice to find something I’m reasonably good at (I was a pretty decent editor, too, though), and at which I can get better with some work. But I don’t have that drive that sends me to the desk every single day. I don’t feel incomplete if I haven’t put words on paper each day. I do keep getting ideas for poems, though, so I might as well keep writing them.

My mother was a dancer. She studied with Martha Graham and performed professionally with a couple of other moderately well-known companies. She also played the piano. My father painted as an amateur (he studied at the Art Students League in New York, where he met Sammy, later Zero, Mostel) and worked as a photographer for the Associated Press. By the time I was born he had given up playing the mandolin, although he still owned one. My sister took piano and guitar lessons and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, eventually winning awards for her work with community theater. I was no good at music (lousy voice, no gift for piano, clarinet, guitar, or recorder, all of which I studied at some point), couldn’t draw worth a damn, and couldn’t remember my lines when I acted. So I had to become a writer. Fortunately, I’m better at writing than I am at all the other stuff.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.
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