Self-Interview: Clarinda Harriss

Writers agonize over the every word, then painstakingly revise and edit. And visual artists tend to communicate best at the preverbal level. So the prospect of having to spew spontaneous utterances at the behest of a stranger can be unnerving. While some grin and bear it, others find a better way to bare their souls: fabricating entire interviews out of whole cloth. Those documented to have done this include Oscar Wilde, James Barrie, Evelyn Waugh, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Milan Kundera and Philip Roth. However, there is only one master: Vladimir Nabokov, who Paris Review asserts conducted and wrote up every single one of his interviews himself.

It was Nabokov who inspired me to initiate this online self-interview series. Here, creative types are asked to supply both Q and A while I provide phony information on interview site, time-span and the subject’s demeanor. This, after all, was what was included in the introduction to one famous Nabokov interview, which Playboy later admitted was the only nonverbal one the mag had ever run. Only I took additional liberties and mixed it up even more. Here’s what happened when I formulated the first…

Clarinda Harriss Self-Interview

Straight from the horse’s mouth, I had it that the Harriss woman was worth meeting. (Photo: doctored by Ilse Munro)

Always on the lookout for new topics, I elected to look into animal communication. Since I’d once read Animal Farm and had vague recollections of Boxer, Mollie and Clover, I visited some stables near me in Maryland to chat up a literate filly or two. Alas, all any of them wished to discuss was dressage, so I had to drive all the way to upstate New York, where an astute poet I knew lived.

Before arriving at my destination, I needed to stop my car to–well, you know–and saw some mares engaged in lively discourse in a pleasant pasture. Not wanting to put them off, I assumed a similar shape. The one with the most horse sense told me I was wasting my time: when it came to poetry and prose, humans had the edge and none more so that the mother of her vet, who happened to be here.

Before I knew it, I was back in familiar form and ankle-deep in–well, you know–whilst establishing interview parameters with the esteemed Clarinda Harriss. We settled on what turned out to be an unseasonably hot day in May. At the appointed time, we left dazzling sunshine for the relatively cool dark of a 100-year-old barn. The air there was replete with buzzing insects attracted to honeyed straw. I elected to wing it since I needed to use my pristine third-generation iPad, packed with a passel of penetrating questions, to shoo them away. Things soon became sufficiently bizarre for me to start out by saying:

IM: Hold your horses! Why have you donned a beyond-the-elbow plastic glove?

CH: Because I’m about to assist in impregnating a mare, which for all I know could very well require my having to reach–well, you know–inside.

IM: Look here, Clarinda–if I may call you that. I don’t see why you have to horse around with something as serious as poetry.

CH: My Son the [Horse] Doctor and I agreed it would be instructive for me to assist in this activity, a fecund mix of the natural and artificial so akin to my own work.

IM: Well, carry on then, I suppose. I’m hardly one to change horses in midstream.

CH: For the moment, could we focus on rhyme instead of hackneyed sayings?

IM: If you feel that poetry’s about rhyme, though that’s not the prevailing paradigm.

CH: But isn’t it about orchestrating sounds in a manner more sonorous than routinely encountered in casual conversation or even highly refined prose?

IM: I’ll give you that if you hand me the turkey baster your Son the [Horse] Doctor just added to the panoply of medical equipment laid out behind your back.

Clarinda does. I put it to good use targeting pesky horse flies, whose impressive compound eyes are irresistibly drawn to my iPad’s formidable retina display.

IM: Seems this is a tool of your son’s trade. What would you say are yours?

CH: Words, naturalment. And noise—a joyful noise or an ugly noise or a loud, rude noise or simply a sneaky whisper. And an irrepressible sense of play. Suppose I typed “a joyful nose.” A gift from the great muse Accident! Suddenly I’m composing something astounding about how horse manure smells sort of good instead of the solid but pedestrian piece I’d intended. And, speaking of senses, let’s throw in the standard ones. All five plus perhaps Number 5.5: muscle tension. Blake knew it, bees knew it, even horses under trees knew it. If you want to talk to a horse, talk an apple under his or her soft nose. The soft nose is how the horse says “please” and “thank you.” That’s how and why I maintain my Old Gray Mare of Poetry title. The nose, toes, hose and how it all slows. Goes. You knows. They’re doors, doors to perception.

IM: Did you catch Tom Lux and Ed Hirsh’s reading at Baltimore’s CityLit Festival?

CH: Indeed I did. They mentioned that people sometimes ask why their poems don’t rhyme. They’d say, “What on earth have you been listening to? We rhyme all the time.” They meant deliberate echoings: “rhyme” and “time” rhyme. Language plays games with rules poets make often make up after we’ve played by them.

IM: Give me a short example, no more than a sample.

CH:  Here’s a quickie for you, a silly poem that I quote a lot because it’s the only one of mine I can say by heart. It’s called “A Cougar Considers Her Boy-Toy.”

Bless his sweet ass, but
did he have a stroke?
He can’t remember a thing
from when I was young.

The syllables go 5-5-7-5. Twenty-two total, which is why I can remember it. For a lark, I say that it’s based on a form called “vantaydu,” as in vignt-et-deux.

IM: Speaking of ass–and not just the equine kind–how do you select subject matter?

CH: First off, “ass” is not just about content; there’s my fave sound device, assonance. One of the hotter of my humble contributions to Hot Sonnets, the anthology Moira Egan and I recently birthed ends thus: “The poem writes itself. We lie in trance. But love, fuck, trouble hum their assonance.” One of the reasons that I write poems in English rather than Horse Latin or Basque is that English spelling is so cockeyed that the short “u” sound can be made by an “o” or “ou” as well as a “u.” A wide-open field. Chew on that. But I digress. Where were we? Ass. Can we stretch that to tits and ass? Perhaps the whole body? I sing the body eclectic. I have written poems inspired by my pre-teen titlessness and by later overflow. I have written poems about nyloned legs nuzzled by the knee of a tuxedo. I have a poem called “Knees,” in fact. I love the way knees smell. Neigh, I have written at least one poem inspired by big bony feet, both mine and those of others. When I was a mere groom in the stables of Plath and Sexton, I had a Lady Lazarus thing about long red hair, which may actually date back to the way my bay brown hair sun bleached to a chestnut red. I’m working on a series called “Blasphemies,” in which Mary Magdalene’s long red hair plays a role. You’ll recall that she is sometimes depicted in sexy religious art as washing Christ’s feet with her hair. Come to think of it, feet play a big part in both my poetry and prose. Sorry, Little Girl. (No, not you–that’s what we call this mare.) I’ll do more with hooves, I promise. But you can’t be too perturbed since I have written horse poems. I may even have had your sire in mind when writing this:


This isn’t metaphor.
You can tame a two-year-old stallion
black, sleek and lethal as
a coal train ripping a hole in a mountain
by gripping his velvet upper lip
or better yet his big pink lolling roll of tongue
and holding on
till he goes meek as painted Pegasus.

The veterinarian is about to shoot
the horse with tranquilizers in order to pull
two vestigial teeth that have erupted
in the empty spaces between molars–
grooves evolved over eons–
where the bit fits
in a ‘normal’ horse’s mouth.
This isn’t metaphor either.

The owner, breathless pink in Vermont air,
watches Mister Mexico go
all dopey in the stall but not fall.
Girls love horses. This is metaphor.

IM: Enough with the content, already! Let’s return to form. What about people like you who sometimes use fixed or traditional forms? The rules for sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, pantoums, ghazals and the like were created long before you came along.

CH: True, but these forms beg to be played with! I like to steal the lines I use as the repeated lines in repeating forms like vollanelles and pantoums. I like to write odd sonnets with 13 or 15 lines. George Mason, a Founding Father, invented his own sonnet form. So did Robert Frost, John Updike and others. And looky here: when a writer’s using a form with built-in repetition, that writer often adds even more.

IM. Whoa! Exactly how much repetition would you say is enough?

CH: Consider Dylan Thomas’s villanelle “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The second repeated line, used over and over throughout the poem, is “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” He could’ve said, “Oh, rage against the dying of the light” or something similar. But I speak as one who’s always thought that if Thoreau had practiced what he preached, he’d have said “Simplify.” Instead, he said it twice.

Clarinda’s Son the [repetitious Horse] Doctor approaches, leading a sweet-faced Morgan mare. “Mom, you going to help or what?” he asks. She smiles sweetly and says, “Honey, I’m a poet. You know I love to get my hands into things. Let’s go.” She takes the turkey baster from my hand, leaving me defenseless against barnyard ravagers. “Don’t those flies sound somewhat like Satie’s typewriter song?” she says, ever so sweetly.

Clarinda Harriss

Clarinda, I learn, cleans up nice. Here she is reading from her poetry collection Air Travel.

After what seems like–and actually is–hours, Clarinda is ready to turn in bespattered boots for something befitting the poetry reading slated for later. Since I already look swell, her Son the [hospitable Horse] Doctor offers me a drink while I wait. I opt for a Horse’s Neck. When he asks whether I’d like that made with bourbon or brandy, I request one of each. When Clarinda returns, looking as resplendent as a jockey in purple silk, she waves off libation. “I’ll Have Another,” I say to the Son.

Perhaps because I’m in my cups by now, Clarinda suddenly seems somewhat overdone. I suggest she look in the mirror and remove one accessory, channeling Coco Chanel. When she digs in her four-inch heels, I take it upon myself to undo a superfluous clasp and set aside a glittering necklace of superlatives that adds nothing to her narrative. “Relax,” I say. “As Grace Coddington remarked when I interviewed her amid her many cats just the other day: “…everyone needs an editor.”

If you feel it’s a bit ballsy for two demure literary ladies to take on both Nabokov and Playboy, chalk it up to a good cause: we’re touting the June 23 launch of the LPR Summer 2012 Audacity print issue. But if you’re in the mood for more of the same, check out Bruce Sager’s review of Hot Sonnets, sizzlin’ on this site.

7 thoughts on “Self-Interview: Clarinda Harriss

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