An Interview with Janice Harrington
By Allison Fox and David Gorman
Janice N. Harrington writes poetry and children's books. She grew up in Alabama and Nebraska, and both those settings, especially rural Alabama, figure largely in her writing. Her first book of poetry, Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone (2007), won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Her second book of poetry, The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home, came out in 2011. She is also the winner of a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for Poetry and a 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award for emerging women writers. Her children's books, The Chicken Chasing Queen of Lamar County (2007) and Going North (2004), both from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, have won many awards and citations, including a listing among TIME Magazine's top 10 children's books of 2007 and the Ezra Jack Keats Award from the New York Public Library in 2005. Harrington's poetry appears regularly in American literary magazines. She has worked as a public librarian and as a professional storyteller, telling stories at festivals around the country, including the National Storytelling Festival. She now teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Illinois.
Harrington's poems "Keening," "Rooted," and "Good Luck Birds" appeared in West Branch 68, Spring/Summer 2011.
West Branch: You open your second book, The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home, with a poem entitled "Bedchecks," which gives insight into two worlds: that of residents and that of nurse's aides. Descriptions of the residents' pasts grant the residents an identity beyond the nursing home, elevating them from broken bodies to human beings. Within this poem and others in the book, there exists a divide between the residents and nurse's aides. Can you expand upon the nature of this divide?
Janice Harrington: The Hands of Strangers draws on my work as a nurse's aide and a medication aide in the nineteen seventies. It also draws on the memories of my mother, who also worked as a nurse's aide, and on research into the care of the institutionalized aged.
The division between aides and the elderly residents is, I believe, a consequence of institutionalized aging. The elderly are turned into objects. Individuals with names and personal histories are reduced to room numbers, treatments, tasks, or medical ailments. Workers see aging itself as an illness.
Institutionalized care puts a premium on efficiency, management, and order, but not on empathy. An aide has so many residents to dress, feed, bathe; so many treatments to give; so many beds to make; so many charts to write. The work changes the elderly resident—for some aides, though not for all—into chores-to-be-completed at a required time and by a required procedure. A nursing home under those circumstances is a place to inventory, store, and (at as low a cost as possible) maintain bodies until they die.
As nurse's aides see the elderly as objects or as separate from themselves, so the elderly must equally see function and not the human woman or man. There are good aides or good "girls" and bad ones, staff who are kind, patient, gentle, and staff who are rough, mean, careless. What happens behind closed doors, as well as what can happen, builds division.
The divide between aide and elder also comes from the imbalances of power. The aides are stronger. They can leave. They implement the schedules, procedures, and routines. They seem to have the power, and yet aren't both sides powerless? Aides are largely underpaid, poorly educated women, and typically minority women. The typical nursing home resident, because women tend to live longer, is an elderly, infirm woman. Women live out "aging" within the physical boundary of a nursing home. Economically and socially disadvantaged women care for other economically and socially mistreated women. The aide may have a little more power if she's a member of a union. The elderly resident may have a little more power if she has an engaged family who visits and cares about her treatment. But both are locked on the bottom of larger hierarchies.
Transience and the reduction of human lives to chore, role, units of managed care mean that neither side really knows the other, but sometimes something breaches the dividing wall: kindness, conversation that leads to connection and empathy, or an aide who looks at the elder before her and sees the elder that she too will become one day. Then the elder sees someone whose name and life she knows and not another menial, nameless "nurse," a threat to her safety, a stranger. Does an aide become an advocate and not simply the one who handles the bedpans?
And yet . . . the division comes as well from the simple human dynamic: the aides are young and strong, the elders are old and (typically) infirm. Young women are hired as aides. They may or may not have the opportunities or encounters or personal skills that ready them for work with the vulnerable elderly. How does it feel to have an arthritic back? How does it feel to be trapped in an aging, painful, or ill body? While caring for strangers, working beside strangers, and working under conditions that create (despite exceptions) a sense of estrangement, how do we bridge the division?
The Hands of Strangers isn't a political tract or a treatise for sociology. As a poet, I'm trying to acknowledge a work life, a moment of time, the lives that I encountered. Memory is my practice and my engagement with life, time, and feelings. In the instance of this book, I'm a storyteller. Where the stories go, or what work they perform in the public imagination, I can't know. I hope someone will wonder, question, reconsider.
WB: You mention memory, which is also a theme in your first book, Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone. In the poem "Traveler," memory is described as "a satellite / numinous / and small / as a basketball," suggesting that it is simultaneously beyond our comprehension yet accessible enough to hold in our hands. What are the challenges of engaging with memory when you write autobiographically?
JH: The largest challenge is to write a poem that goes beyond what I remember, that is more than mere anecdote. I try to shape poems that reach past memory to a larger story. I test every poem by asking, as Carl Phillips has put it, "why should anybody care?" I want each poem to connect the reader, my recollections, and the larger historical moment. So, yes, in "Traveler" I use the memory of an uncle who believed that there was something following him in the sky, and I juxtapose that memory against the launching of Sputnik. Memory—yes. Imagination—yes, but also history, which makes a larger story.
Using memory as an engine of invention also means addressing ethical questions. Do I have the right to a story or an event simply because I remember it? Can I trust my memory or should I challenge it? Should my personal memory serve the public good, or my own satisfaction? Can it serve both? We can never answer these questions; they represent ongoing frictions each time I face the empty page. By using memory as a starting place for a poem, I risk sentimentality or nostalgia. Steering away from those poetry-killers requires exacting attention, repeated revisions, and a commitment to going beneath memory's pleasant surfaces.
WB: Some poetry is an act of catharsis that is purely personal for the poet, yet what you're expressing takes into account the reader's response. What enables a reader to connect with, or care about, a poem?
JH: It's going to vary with every reader, every poem, and every poet. Horace may give us the best answer in his "Ars Poetica": the purpose of poetry is to instruct and delight. The poems that I connect to as a reader offer truth. Hayden's "What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices?" Or Bishop's "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free." Poetry also owes its reader delight: imagery, syntactical invention, form, meaning, and the dizzy high-wire act of vibrant language.
WB: Setting is a full, tangible presence in your first book. In "Superstitions That the Mulatto Passed On to Her Daughter," Alabama is characterized as "cotton fields, a cast-iron bed, / the kitchen—where day begins / in a wood-burning stove, a dough / board, and a beating fist." Throughout the book, "the dust of place" permeates the life of each character. What role does setting play in your writing?
JH: Engine, theatrical space, compass, container for memory, archive, mythological field, and labyrinth . . . to name a few roles played by place. My poems are the cartography of place and all that its cartography implies. Every poem asks, what was the place that created these stories, memories, events, emotions? What did it look like? What grew there? What was the weather?
The geography that is memory and history, as well as the physical locations where I have lived, shape my writing and identity. I'm not who I am without the dust of place. I'm not who I am without Alabama's red soil or the black soils of Nebraska and Illinois.
At the right time of day, if I walk near my house, I see small bats. Like those bats, I'm blind and using echolocation, small sounds bounced against the walls and angles of "place" to guide me and give direction to my writing.
WB: Alabama is also the setting in two of your children's picture books: Going North and The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County. These books share many qualities with your poems, such as rich lyricism, simile, and metaphor. Can you speak on the similarities and differences of these genres as well as how each writing process works?
JH: A work of fiction has a structure that I don't typically use as a poetry writer: characterization, dramatic arc, subplot, etc. Yet I do have narrative in many of my poems. Going North is actually a long poem, but my intent was to "show" a story and to use the tools of both poetry and fiction to do so. Yes, in Chicken-Chasing, readers will see many of a poet's calling cards. Is it a poem? No, although I hope that readers find it a poetic work of fiction for children. My next children's book, The Busy, Busy Chick (spring 2013), retells a folktale from central Africa. The Busy, Busy Chick has really shown me the difference between the needs of a poem and the needs of fiction. Originally, my draft was highly lyrical and suitable for operatic read-aloud sessions. The language play, the repetition, the rhythmic language had to be pared away, however, to make a story with a pace suitable for a young audience. The needs of the reader for plot had to come before the poetry. Heart-breaking? Absolutely, but those are the choices that surpass everything else. When I'm writing fiction, characterization is everything. When I'm writing a poem, language (diction, syntax, sonic texture, figuration, and so on) is everything. The camera's eye/author's eye falls in a different place.
My processes for writing a poem and for writing a children's book are fairly similar. But maybe I feel as if I'm following the poem down the page (or across a visual field) and trying to see where the poem wants to take me. When I write a story, I have an idea or a memory that I actively shape into a story: arc, character development (motivation, problem, change), beginning, climax, denouement, etc. The process feels different to me, but I suppose the same things are happening. First, there's an idea, a memory, an inspiration, a question, or a seed of figuration. I take that moment of internal generation and shape its language. The next stage (the longest, most frustrating, and most challenging) is revising, reworking, purposely breaking, and restructuring the language to make it paradoxically stronger. Revision is where most of the writing and the imagining take place whether the work is poetry or prose. I've never written anything, but I've revised more times than I can say.
But there is a sharper difference between writing a poem and writing a children's story. When I'm writing a children's book, I can never distance myself from the reader. I have to think about the age of the child, the reading ability of the child, the developmental levels of the child: the best words in the best order for the best audience. When I'm writing a poem, the reader becomes a potential. The will that I answer to when I write a poem is more often my own, the poem itself, or perhaps that immense backstory of tradition that accompanies any poem. I hope that the poem will find readers. I hope that I've said something that will connect with readers or with future readers. I hope that I've anchored the poem in the local and extended its reach beyond my own story.
All writing is writing. There are no impenetrable barriers. We cross borders every day, on every page, and at every word processor. Writing poetry strengthens my prose, my fiction, my retellings of folklore, and my nonfiction essays. But other forms of writing also strengthen my poetry. This makes sense to me. We live in a time of hybrids and hybridization: your phone is your camera. As writers we move between the various realms of writing, shape-shifting as needed.