Magic 8 Q&A

Why Richard Harrison's highest and lowest points were right beside each other

The Governor General's Literary Award for poetry winner answers eight questions from eight fellow authors.
Richard Harrison's latest poetry collection On Not Losing My father's Ashes in the Flood is nominated for the 2017 Governor General's Award for poetry. (Keeghan Rouleau)

Poet and essayist Richard Harrison has written about everything from hockey to comic book superheroes. But his latest collection is an honest, poetic unpacking of insights he gleaned while dealing with the passing of his father and the 2013 Alberta floods.

On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood, which won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry, marking Harrison's second time being nominated for the award. 

Below, Richard Harrison takes the Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight random questions from eight fellow authors.        

1. Charlotte Gill asks, "What does your afterlife look like?"

It will be in the way I am remembered.

2. Ian Brown asks, "What was the lowest point in the writing of your latest project? And the highest?"

The lowest points come from outside the writing: my father's and my father-in-law's deaths a year apart. And the flood itself. But to be fair to the puzzle at the core of art, those low and terrible times are times that forced the poetry to grow, to come up with answers I would never have otherwise, in words to what was wordlessly and unstoppably there. So the highest and lowest points were right beside each other.

3. Lynn Coady asks, "Is there a poet, philosopher, musician, painter or any other type of artist outside the world of fiction who has inspired your work in a concrete way at some point or another? If so, who?"

Many. But if I set aside the usual suspects, there are three who I think of together in terms of their specific influences: Philosopher Duns Scotus via Gerard Manley Hopkins in the intensity with which the philosopher and the poet who studied his thought focused on the particularity of things (The philosopher Leibniz was also caught up by this idea).

Once it got into my mind that each single thing was itself and only itself, and not an example of a larger, more abstract category, both the world and what I made in it changed. I found myself always striving to elicit that monadic individuality in the object even though all I had to work with was a language that worked in categorical and abstract terms.

4. David McGimpsey asks, "If a robot wrote beautiful poetry, should the robot be eligible to win the Governor General's Award?"  

When we're at the point where we think of poetry the way we think of chess, it's inevitable that a robot will eventually take its prize. Then we'll think we know poetry the way we know chess and move on.

5. Lawrence Hill asks, "What do you do to steady your mind (if your mind is capable of being steadied), so that you can shut out the world and write?"

What I love about these discussions is how different, even opposite, the ways are that people approach what's called the same thing because it produces the same results. For me the order in this question is the other way around. Writing is the disruption.

There's something in the world, or from it, that you need to do something with because it's been given. Sometimes it's like the news of a death. Sometimes it's like found money. Either way, everything is normal until you look down.

Sometimes I can see part of what I have to do right from the beginning, other times, I don't know what it is; it's just the itch to write, and I write until I find why I have that feeling and then keep writing until I'm at rest with it — at least for a while. The next stages, the re-writing, these are also a form of doing something until my discontent is gone.

I love the uneasiness of the poem in process, that feeling that what I'm building out of words is an unfinished house that stays standing while I'm away from it but which accepts the next round of my labours on it when I return.

6. Alan Bradley asks, "Does the act of writing ever have a physical effect on you? If so, describe it."

This is an intimate question. Writing is the whole body's energy focussed through the tips of your fingers. I talk out loud while I'm writing (I'm told by people who hear me on the other side of my door that it's more often than I think), sometimes to test what I've just written, other times to find out what the next words need to be.

But there's a kind of contained physicality to writing as well: the rest of the body needs to stay still, send its power into the hands, the mouth, like the second engine that makes the freight train possible but faces backwards. So I'll often have a lot of energy to do something after the writing for the day is done and my mind is at rest, and pretty well anything under the headings of work or play is open depending on the day.

7. Marina Endicott asks, "What is the line of prose or poetry that comes to you in the dark night of your soul?"

This too shall pass.

8. Anita Rau Badami asks, "Looking back, can you pinpoint the moment when you decided that you would be a writer? Is it something you had always wished to do?"

That realization came in stages. My father recited poetry to us when my brother and I were children. We got to the point where we could exchange verses with him the way people play with movie dialogue from films they love. That was the ground for poetry, but I didn't think it would be my life. I studied science. I still wrote, but only to amuse my friends.

But when I went to university, I followed up on my hobby and went to hear the writers who came to read: Dennis Lee, Robert Kroetsch, Susan Musgrave, bill bissett — and many others (Trent was very active in bringing in Canadian writers, just how active I only appreciate more the older I get).

Slowly it came on and I can pinpoint the moment in two sentences. One was after a Patrick Lane reading when I said to myself, "I want to do that." The other was, a bit later, when I was staring down a microscope trying to draw a paramecium the way it was in the textbook, and I heard the words, "What is the one thing you don't want to get to 40 never having tried?"

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