Joseph Harrington on writing practice, community, craft and style

You are the author of numerous books, including Of Some Sky (BlazeVOX Books) and the echapbook Earth Day Suite (Beard of Bees Press, 2010). You are also the editor of the echapbook Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics (Essay Press, 2015.) Talk about your commitment to writing practice. When do you write? Is your practice different during the school year? The summer? Over breaks and holidays? What do you do to make the necessary room in your schedule for creating, revision, and the intellectual work required to sequence a series of poems?

I’ll put it this way: I am at my most productive during periods when I write every day. But this is a “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” moment. I teach in a university, and during the school year I often get swept away by the torrent of other things that must be done; a daily writing routine is much easier to maintain when school is not in session, I find. It helps to have a “project” – in my case, developing a long poem or longer narrative or monograph – because one part leads into the next, and so one day leads into the next. Working every day is very important for such projects – even just 30 minutes – as otherwise you lose your place and have to go back and reacquaint yourself with what you’ve already written. And accountability helps: I’ve done months where I’ve written a poem a day and a friend does the same – we check in if we don’t receive the poème du jour.

It also helps me to write first thing in the morning – before the cares of the day and press of events have taken over. And habit is a powerful reinforcement. But sometimes it’s a matter of stealing a moment in the afternoon or evening. I’m kind of a compulsive reviser, and I find I revise in the process of sending material to potential publishers; it’s easier to see it through someone else’s eyes when I know that that is about to happen.

Your comments about the necessity of a daily writing routine and finding what works for you are cool. I attended the Nebraska Book Festival last weekend, including presentations on the writing process, the support of the writing community, and peer workshops. As a teacher of the creative writing workshop, what do you seek to instill in young writers about peer feedback? Outside of the classroom, in what ways has the support and workshop spirit of other writers sustained your work? Do you have an active writers group? Another writer with whom you exchange work? An editor who understands your current project, but offers fresh insights, smart questions, and the right push? Talk about the community inside and outside the classroom and how such communities can sustain the writer.  

Well, workshops are great if for no other reason than you have an immediate audience – and deadlines. Both of those are very helpful incentives for getting work done, not to mention revising it. And usually an esprit d’corps forms among members of a workshop, as they get to know one another’s work better – which also helps them know their own work better. For grad student writers, many are in the same cohort and are taking (and teaching) the same classes, so the workshop is an extension of that community.

If you’re not in a workshop, I think it gets harder. I ask friends to look at my work, and sometimes feel like I’m imposing on them. And sometimes I think they feel reticent about offering pointed critique (which is what I’m after); or they like your stuff because you have similar taste (which is part of why you’re friends), and while they can give you validation, they can’t offer you a very different point of view.

As for poetry editors, forget it. Rarely have I gotten advice or feedback from editors – it’s either, Yeah, we like it, or No, we don’t think it’s right for this issue, and nothing else. My previous book, Things Come On, was from a university press, which was great, because they sent it out to peer reviewers; I got several anonymous reports that were extremely helpful as I revised the book.

But I do join some writer friends for cocktails once a week or so; we talk literature and exchange published work, and that is edifying.

We’ve talked about writing practice, feedback from writers, and the writing community. Talk about inspiration and research. How does research inform your poetic projects? Does a new poem inspire research to know more about a subject or does research inspire the poem? Or does something else inspire?

One of my undergrad teachers, the poet Mark Jarman, told his students to “always write about some thing.” That is, no matter how non-representational or reflexive a poem may be, it is inspired by, or has reference to, something outside the poem itself. While my poetics are very different than Mark’s nowadays, I still repeat his saying to my students. Research is one such “thing.” It might be the topic of a narrative poem, or it might be materia poetica, or it might be merely a starting point, like a grain of sand in an oyster’s shell. There’s a back-and-forth between writing and reading (writ large), and it doesn’t necessarily follow a set pattern. In Things Come On, I set out to document stories based on biographical and historical records and allow those records to suggest the form. In my recent book Of Some Sky, I wasn’t thinking about research at all; however, at a reading someone asked me if readers could appreciate the poems without recognizing the sources. Sources? I thought of this as a book of lyric poems. But then when I looked at them with this thought in mind, I saw that there were many many allusions. So I wrote stand-alone notes to the poems, just for fun, afterwards; I ended up with 16 single-spaced letter-sized pages! The long poem I wrote this summer, “Spies in the Living House,” is based on transcriptions of sounds heard through radios and magnetic tape that the observers took to be the voices of the dead, but I completely transformed them in the process.


Writers and teachers of writing often talk about craft and style and the ways the revision process with attention to craft can compel creative ways to re-see a poem. Do you give yourself projects or assignments? Do you seek to do something different with each new book? Or does each new book compel a new way of approaching a poetic sequence? How does craft figure into your creative process?

Wow – a lot in there. I do tend to give myself “projects”; sometimes it might be very programmatic, sometimes it may just be a sense that “there’s more than one poem in this.” I do think that I write in a lot of different kinds of ways – satirical, procedural, narrative, non-representational lyric, prose poems, literary criticism. Maybe that means I’m ADD; maybe it just means I have a lot of interests. A lot of really great poets find their groove and stick with it throughout their careers – and I think readers like being able to say “oh, so-and-so – she’s a _____ poet” or “Yes, Whatsit – he does thus-and-such.” But having a background in literary history makes one realize all the possibilities, and I want to try them all.

As for craft and style, sometimes the style/form comes first. For instance, I wrote a series of poems where I just wanted to emphasize a sense of movement, of motion – nothing else. Lots of verbs, prepositions, conjunctions. In other cases, I have a topic, perhaps involving found texts or research materials; in that case, I allow the material to suggest the stylistic approach. Or the poem itself does. I wrote one where I realized the first four lines were falling into a terza rima rhyme scheme, and two of the lines were about 14 syllables long. So it became a poem in terza rima in iambic “fourteener” lines – kind of a bizarro combination.

In my workshops, I ask students to engage in a variety of wacky writing experiments. Last time, it was to begin free writing, then pick a sentence from the bag I passed around, and to incorporate that sentence into the piece. We did that two more times. I think workshops are about revision; so I grade based on the depth and extent of the revisions. I call it “re-version” – it should look like a completely new version – with the knowledge that you can always revert to the original.


How do you define chapbook? – I’m cool with Merriam-Webster’s definition.

What makes a good chapbook? – I like ones that have some kind of internal coherence, something that unites them: a common project, narrative, voice, style, etc.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days?  I continue to be blown away by Essay Press. They’re committed to narratives derived from the actual world, in any genre or combining several, and the range of forms and styles is incredible. Some of the best poets around have contributed work. And they’re FREE.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Hmm. That’s a tough one. Maryrose Larkin. Various Flarfistas. The collaborations between Gnoetry and human authors. But really, I think more in terms of writers than in terms of presentation-context. I often can’t remember whether I read a particular piece in a magazine, chapbook, or collection. I think the chapbook vs. bookbook distinction is a little sketchy, anyway.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? See #2.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? Not sure I see myself as a “chapbook poet” – or any other kind of poet, for that matter. Just trying to be a better writer by writing.

What’s next for you? In terms of projects that could be chapbooks? I’m doing a piece on Hugh Cameron, the Kansas Hermit, who lived in a tree in the town where I live.

Current chapbook reading list: Too numerous (overwhelming, guilt-inducing) to mention.

Number of chapbooks you own: 116. Not counting ones I’ve given away.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Jeez – no idea.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. Hadn’t really thought of it as a community, but I guess it is, if you think about all the people publishing chapbooks these days, as well as writers (sometimes the same people). I certainly try to egg my students on to write them and make them. I did a reading with one grad student recently, and he produced a chapbook of what he would read, so people could follow along. I liked that idea!

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Reviewing them; mentioning their chaps to others. I also donated quite a few of Fact-Simile’s chapbooks to our rare book library – they are truly objects d’art.

Your chapbook credo: “Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book – in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards.” And chaps. (Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street)

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Haha. Right?

Your chapbook wish: See # 13.

Residence: a split-level in Lawrence, KS

Job: Literature Processor

Chapbook education: Autodidact

Chapbook Bio: Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics (Essay Press 2015); Goodnight Whoever’s Listening (Essay Press 2015); earth day suite (Beard of Bees 2010); and DIY selections and one-off’s I made and gave away.


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