Concerning Craft: Clarinda Harriss

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Clarinda Harriss

Clarinda Harriss

Please meet Clarinda Harriss, educator, publisher and poet. She’s a Professor Emerita of English at Towson University and the former department chair, has served as the faculty advisor to Grub Street, the University’s award-winning literary magazine, and is the director of BrickHouse Books, Maryland’s oldest continuously operating small press.

She has authored poetry collections, most recently Mortmain and Dirty Blue Voice, and co-authored the poetry triptych When Divas Dance: The Diva Squad Poetry Collective. She has also co-edited anthologies such as the newly released Hot Sonnets, co-authored the academic text Forms of Verse: British and American and published–among others–books by former prison inmates. Her work has been included in O Taste and SeeTouching Fire: Erotic Writings by Women and The Best of Carve.

Two of Clarinda’s poems, “Postcards from the Beach” and “White Noise,” appear in our Summer 2011 Make Believe issue. Here, she gives us a rare look not only at what went into a poem that was published but also an earlier, discarded version:

The “Postcards…” back-story is too simple to bother telling except to say that the idea had been hatching in my head for decades. Every time I’m “down the ocean,” as Baltimore patois would express it, I think of Shakespeare, Eliot and Arnold looking at the Atlantic from their various locations and times. I’m a story teller at heart, and I love to adopt personae.

“White Noise” has a more process-oriented history. This 15-line sonnet originally focused not on my late “significant other” but on a house-sitter who died young and sadly, hence the version below.

Both people had sincerely enjoyed my snore-blocking machine. But the octave (nonette?) of the first effort mystified everyone who read it. Some of my students–I’d posted it on their online discussion board as an example of a sonnet variant–commented that the poem really wanted to be two different poems. “You know, like you’re always telling us about ours, Professor Harriss.”

They were right. The house-sitter ended up getting her own poem. The white noise poem wanted to be about a different, much deeper connection with the machine, one that genuinely haunted me. So I salvaged what I could from the discarded draft and made a new poem.

This is a process that I often follow. I get a few comments on a draft (sometimes), pay attention to them (sometimes) and create a draft that is essentially a different poem (just about always: my drafts tend to be barely acquainted with one another).

The Published Poem: “White Noise”

He died and died before he died. That’s how it is
with strokes, granted. But death and sleep, to our surprise,
didn’t get along. I had to buy a box of noise
to fool our scared, scarred brains. To lullaby our eyes.
A simple toy. A set of three percussive bass
notes thumped beneath some scrapes and whooshes endlessly—
all night, at least. Make the machine do Train, he’d say.

Train was our favorite. I think what he heard was far-
off tracks curving through Kansas to the coast. I’d hear
the tracks racket underneath me in a Pullman bar.

He died wide-eyed. I don’t turn Train on any more.
Ocean’s shiftless. Breeze blows cold. Brook is near-
by plumbing, disrepaired. And all Night does is smear
some digitty crickets over boxcar, boxcar, boxcar.

The Discarded Draft: “White Noise for the House-Sitter”

She’d often almost die. Did not go all the way.
I’d leave. She’d lay her skinny bones on my fat bed
and never budge till I got back. She was half-dead
on this or that. I paid her to love my cat. She stayed
for the sake of hearing my fancy noise box play.
Sleep, breathing on its own: we wished we heard
or felt it. Imagined its mama-hand on our foreheads.
Set the machine to Train before you go, she’d say.

We both loved Train, but differently. She heard far-
off tracks curve through Kansas to the coast. I’d hear
tracks racketing underneath me in a Pullman bar.

She OD’d. I don’t turn Train on any more.
Ocean’s shiftless. Breeze blows cold. Brook is near-
by plumbing, disrepaired. And all Night does is smear
some digitty crickets over boxcar, boxcar, boxcar.

In the next installment of “Concerning Craft,” Caryn Coyle will consider the process behind the short story she has in our current issue. Derrick Weston Brown will follow in a subsequent piece with some words on the writing of his poem.

8 thoughts on “Concerning Craft: Clarinda Harriss

  1. Alan Britt

    “The tracks racket underneath me” what a beautiful way to say it…the sounds! Beautiful poem by a beautiful poet.


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