Andrew Topel

On Scape: An Interview with Joshua Harmon

(Black Ocean, 2009)

Andrew Topel: Scape opens with a dedication to Sarah. Who is she?

Josh Harmon: Sarah Goldstein, the poet and visual artist. (Author of Fables, a forthcoming chapbook on Tarpaulin Sky.)

AT: Why did you write Scape?

JH: I've always been interested in place, in figuring my location via maps, in long aimless drives (or walks) after which I might retrace my route in an atlas, in looking out the window at the shapes of tree branches or rooftops, in weather. That's the why. Some of the how: I started actively writing Scape when I moved to Rhode Island in 2001, jotting phrases and words down in a notebook and then reconstructing them later. I'd been living away from New England for a while at that point, and had been wanting to get back, but once I returned to RI I found that New England no longer seemed as distinctive as I'd fantasized it being during my absence.

On one of the first few pages of that notebook is a note-to-self -- at the top of the same page on which I wrote the first version of what became the first poem in "Landscape" ("Trepanned: in other words, ...") -- that reads, simply, "3+ poems -- 'landscape.'"

When I moved to Poughkeepsie a few years later, the series really took off -- perhaps because I was removed from the "beautiful" landscape of Rhode Island sea and sky to the landscape of Poughkeepsie strip-malls and divided highways and boarded-up buildings. Of course, all of those things existed in Rhode Island as well, and (of course) the Hudson Valley has long been considered one of the "beautiful" landscapes of the US -- and parts of it are very beautiful -- but for whatever reason I found the terrain of my new home oppressive. I wrote most of Scape from late 2004 through 2005, then kept tinkering for a while. (I'm a slow writer.) The last few "Landscape" poems are from early 2008, at which point I forced myself to stop auto-titling every poem "Landscape."

"Summer Letters" is much older -- I wrote it in the summer of 1997 -- but has always seemed to me to speak to some of the same concerns (writing / speaking place) as the Landscapes.

AT: What physical landscapes have you been to that may have found way into Scape?

JH: The physical landscapes informing Scape are those where I was living during the years I was writing it, or those I was remembering: Ithaca NY (and points on the highways between Ithaca and Boston) for "Summer Letters"; central PA for "Summer's Tenants" and one or two sections of "Landscape"; coastal Rhode Island / Massachusetts, and Poughkeepsie, for the rest of the book. But I wasn't interested in the mimetic representation of specific places so much as in meditating on what a "conversation with the natural" might sound like / look like in this constructed, terraformed, post-industrial moment, and in thinking about how repetition and redefinition might alter or expand (or abstract) the traditional artistic trope of the landscape.

AT: Favorite season?

JH: Early November, when the leaves are down -- especially during New England's early dusks, when just before full dark the trees' bare branches at the horizon are outlined with a strip of leftover orange from the sunset.

AT: Do the leftover landscapes remain a frame?

JH: If by "leftover landscapes" you mean the various other poems titled "Landscape" that didn't make it into the book, then yes, I suppose they do: since I was writing these landscapes from 2001 - 2008, there were many "leftovers," some of which had already found their way into print in journals before the book came out.

But a landscape is always a framed view, an interior imposed on an exterior, a deliberate omission / inclusion, something willed.

AT: What influences have you encountered that have shaped what your writing became with Scape?

JH: Because I tend to write poems in notebooks (or on scraps of paper if a notebook's not handy), often beginning with words and phrases or lines that I then revise on the computer, essentially anything became an influence during the time I was writing Scape. I remember a yellow warbler singing from the brush at the edge of the Stop & Shop plaza on Rt. 44, a bus trip from Corvallis to Portland, the view from the (old) Sakonnet River Bridge, a reported phrase from a friend’s cell-phone conversation -- all of which have probably been transformed in the poems to an extent that only I'd recognize those places or sounds or moments now. Also, the poetry of writers who were or are affiliated with presses such as The Figures and Burning Deck has always been an influence.

AT: How has your writing evolved/changed since Scape?

JH: Poughkeepsie, NY, is an unlovely place. ("Ughkeepsie," one of my friends chooses to truncate it.) Eventually, I got tired of abstracting it or otherwise masking its specificities in my poems, and felt compelled to try to start representing it as I experience it (which is only a different way of abstracting it, I guess). Just before the global economy began to collapse in fall 2008, I’d started working on a book titled Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie -- inspired by Baudelaire, of course, and the absurdity of a flâneur window-shopping these streets, as well as the need I felt to vent my own spleen about this place. I was also re-reading (for a course I was preparing to teach) Barbara Guest's version of Minneapolis in her book The Countess of Minneapolis. The media’s reporting about the unfolding economic crisis -- as well as the widespread anxieties about the recession, and the uses to which it was put by those in power -- immediately began to mark the poems, though Poughkeepsie was hardly a thriving economy before 2008.

Though I prefer to keep narrative in my fiction (and am pretty suspicious of it even there), there’s probably a greater narrative element in Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie than in Scape, and there are also several long poems in Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie unlike anything in Scape. Someone other than I will have to decide whether any of this counts as an evolution.


From Scape

Whatever leftovers of night I might
claim: grit, lunar halo, edge of profile
or another fence to let in the cold:
two days later, a survivor replaces
everything: the door that opens or starts
with a single word emboldens scriptures
of snow slipped into the house to blank
the house, a laziness of trees outside
that distracts, an ancient pluck to forget
intention’s fool voice, affection’s cruel move
to some atonal stomping grounds: because
I left I legended not return but
the parallel desire, emptied and
unbothered: so winter’s vivid window
you watch through exceeds the telling surface
or the holdings, the brief entries honored
with skipping sounds: your scrutiny alters
the field unfilled with wanting, slippages
stun-gunned to snowpiles, or my shaky heart’s
cancellations level the hassles I’ve
inherited: to dismantle a breath
until a bargain subdues it, come home