Interview with Michael Harris


C: Let’s say Martians visit Earth and dig up a complete series of your run as Signal Editions editor. If that’s all they had to go on, what would they deduce about this “Michael Harris”? What aesthetic concerns would they ascribe to you based on the poems you published?

M: They would likely never know the most important thing.

C: Which is?

M: The verse I liked displayed a music reflective of my upbringing, namely a father who spoke carefully and enjoyed singing, He was a doctor, and everything he did, he tried to tackle in an honourable and productive way. He felt there wasn’t a great deal of time for waste.

C: He believed in efficiency?

M: Well, he had to see many patients a day. And did so for 50 years, mostly seven days a week. He didn’t do small talk.

C: Do you think of your father as your ideal reader?

M: No, he never read poetry. He thought it was a waste of time.

C: So the poems you liked draw on your sense of…

M: …my father’s spoken rhythms. The cadence of his speech. And also of his songs. His songs were mostly Scottish songs.

C: Let me get this right, the Signal aesthetic was based on your father’s voice?

M: I expect so, because that’s way back in my own inner ear. That’s what I hear, and I inculcated it such that it’s now my voice. Not only his language, but also his emotions. As a doctor he learned to keep his feelings in check. He was a haematologist; he dealt with Hodgkin’s disease and other blood troubles that were painful for the patient. He needed a pragmatic, steely-eyed perspective to do that. But after work he’d sit back with a couple of whiskies and loosen up. That’s how I was raised—those were the two poles that guided my life.

C: Careful speech and unsentimentality—those were the two poles?

M: Well, unsentimentality was what he required in order to get through his day. He couldn’t fall in love with his goods as it were. He had to treat his patients dispassionately. And yet, he was still a very deep well of emotion. He and his whisky would belt out songs with great passion. I inherited that tension.

C: Describe the perfect poem that would stand in for your dad.

M: Before you and I started here we were talking about Seamus Heaney, who it turns out had asked to be buried beside his brother, the one he wrote about it in—what was the poem called?

C: “Mid-Term Break.”

M: That’s a very dignified poem. Very measured. And very unsentimental, weirdly, until the end when it’s absolutely explosive. Though it doesn’t seem so. That poem has precisely the depth of emotion and the steely-eyedness displayed by my dad. Life is very messy. And the one thing that’s sure is death—for us, our friends and our children. It’s just nasty to think about. So how does one get through, day to day, with one’s eyes open to that horrible knowledge? Well, you can do it like my father did—through his microscope, through his measurements, through his elevation of language as a useful, precise tool.

C: That’s what was in your ear when you were selecting these books?

M: I think so.

C: What else would the Martians confront in that series? What would they see in terms of how you edit books?

M: That out of 50 or 60 pages, not every poem will be a plateau poem. A collection will usually have four or five plateau pieces, and the other poems will simply be moments: moments where the poet sees something clearly or puts down lines with a very pleasant music or says something witty—something worthy of inclusion.

C: Why not stick with a chapbook if it’s only four or five pieces?

M: If they’re all plateau pieces, then a chapbook will have a particular coherence, sure. But a book reaches much further. A book makes mistakes, it’s human.

C: So when you’re looking at a manuscript, you’re looking both for the plateau pieces and for evidence of that reaching?

M: You can’t have a book without plateau pieces. Otherwise it’s just self-indulgence. What the plateau pieces suggest, among other things, is that there’s a vision. But the vision can’t always be brought to bear on everything one writes about, though it certainly has to be brought to bear on whatever is central to the spirit of the book.

C: Let’s talk more about the striving, the mistake-making. What do you mean by that?

M: Well, what is it Leonard Cohen says—the cracks are where the light gets in?

C: Yeah, he says that. What does that mean?

M: That if the façade is too perfect there isn’t the kind of humanity we can relate to. All great literature is in some way flawed. Like Sylvia Plath barely pushing past whatever she could control. That’s where “Daddy” comes from.

C: It sounds as if, when you’re editing a book, you’re building a collection of different experiences. You want the book to stand in for the poet himself or herself.

M: Not all poems create the same reaction in people. The readership of any book is a mixed bag: young, old, male, female. A collection should therefore create a variety of channels whereby different readers can get to different poems. So if there’s a range of offerings in a book, then that’s nice. That means we’re walking into a supermarket as opposed to a specialty shop. Supermarkets are a lot more fun. You still get everything that’s in the specialty shop, but it’s a richer experience. I think it’s very easy to come up with a template, like Eunoia, and write poem after poem that exhausts the template. Books like that do very, very well in terms of regard from critics and prize-givers because they’re so simple. Not so simple is the book that deals with a wealth of knowledge whereby readers have to tap into their own store of wisdom.

C: Did you look for manuscripts that had a range of experience?

M: I wanted stuff that I didn’t know or I didn’t understand initially. I wanted a perspective on the world where I would learn something. If I published the work of a woman with three husbands, I would be very interested to know how she worked that out.

C: The series has a high confessional streak. They’re books about children, marriage, divorces, cancer, old age. To move from one book to the other is an interesting experience. Really kind of like…

M: Like a cocktail party. You’re meeting different people.

C: Exactly. But I’m curious about the editorial process. What does an editor need in order to do the job properly?

M: A bullshit detector first, a good ear and a very good background anthology of top-rate poetry from all over the globe.

C: Describe how the editing sessions worked.

M: Out of the 60 manuscripts I published, maybe half -a-dozen I didn’t touch. They were perfect. Presentable from stem to stern. But for the bulk of the manuscripts, particularly from younger poets—gosh, I corrected everything from mistakes in grammar, spelling, and over-exuberance.

C: You would sit down with the poets?

M: In some instances they stayed here for a couple of days.

C: At your home?

M: Yes, and we would do this 4-6 hours a day

C: Near the end, did you edit by email or internet?

M: No. I did try once by phone. It was a disaster. I had come up with 147 emendations. The phone call took between 5 and 6 hours—at my expense, I might add, when long distance was expensive. At the end of it, the poet said she would call me back after considering everything. She phoned back an hour later, and said that she was going to reject all but one of the suggestions. Then I got another call 10 minutes later. Apparently, after consultation with a grammarian friend, that last suggestion wasn’t useful either.

C: Did it frustrate you when people bucked your advice?

M: No. But in that instance, it was just plain silly.

C: Before you started at Signal, what kind of editing had you done? You worked at New Delta?

M: Yes.

C: What did you do there?

M: I acquired manuscripts from Robert Allen, Ann Diamond, Bob McGee and David Solway. I’m not sure I did a great deal of editing. Mostly because Rob and David both wrote very well. They understood what they were doing. Bob McGee required some work.

C: How did you start at New Delta?

M: It began with Michael Gnarowski’s Canadian Poetry class.

C: How old were you?

M: Far too old to be in a class like that, but 19 or 20? Early twenties, I guess.

C: Gnarowski invited you to be an editor at the press?

M: No, a poet. I had a manuscript and showed it to him. He said why don’t we put it out? He showed it to his co-editors Glen Siebrasse and Louis Dudek. The story I got at the time was that Louis left the press because he disagreed with Glen and Mike about my manuscript. He simply didn’t want to publish it.

C: Dudek’s departure made room for you?

M: Yes. I became the third of the Delta editors—it was called Delta at the time.

C: Where did you get the moxie to start editing other people’s work?

M: Well, that’s an interesting question. I had always felt at home around language, around reading. And I could always figure out what bad writing was and what good writing was. When I was in the reserves, I shot very well because I could keep my breathing under control. We were shooting 303s at the time which gives a helluva kick in your shoulder. The kick didn’t bother me, but it was a problem for other folks on the firing line because it altered their breathing. I discovered that I could teach somebody how to hold one’s breath and how to put the rifle snugly in one’s shoulder. I could pass that information on. Same with poetry.

C: Did your editing influence your poetry?

M: It was a consistent reminder to try and apply the same perspective on my own work.

C: Why did you start Signal?

M: David Solway.

C: Signal started because of David?

M: He was certainly one of the prompts. David had been publishing very well internationally at the time, and I didn’t understand why his work wasn’t being handled by a Toronto press that would make his output national. I realized we needed something in Montreal that could do that.

C: So Signal started as a kind of home team thing?

M: Very much. I mean there were small presses here but nobody with the sort of shelf clout McClelland and Stewart enjoyed. And if there was no shelf space, then David could never hope to be as well known as say Michael Ondaatje even if—for sake of argument—he were as good or a better poet. And of course the idea stuck: why not publish other poets whom I felt should have bigger, or better, exposure? One thing that was glaringly obvious was that there was little-to-no crossover between French and English poets in Canada. Cohen got published in France, not Quebec. I was the first English poet translated into French in Quebec. Can you believe that? It’s so bizarre that even as I say it I think “That’s bizarre.” So we published a good number of bilingual books by poets writing in French; how this effort affected our “two solitudes” I don’t know, but I’m glad we tried.

C: If Signal did not exist, how would things be different now? What would be missing from the Canadian scene do you think?

M: No idea. An academic has to answer that. My feeling is that what many of the Signal poets offered—still do, probably—are a number of fairly intimate, visionary moments delivered by a competent, clear-headed writer, such that any perceptive reader might be able to sit down with a range of poems and have an enjoyable variety of encounters. No answer is also an answer, n’est-ce pas?

C: Do you feel that any other presses, or any other editing practices, weren’t delivering books with moments in them?

M: What I found in Canadian poetry generally was that there was a kind of fashionableness—ecologically minded things out west, Toronto as the hotbed of the new and experimental. I found it all tedious.

C: Any international press that you modelled Signal after?

M: Well, I’ve much admired many of the offerings of Faber over the years, certain poets appearing with Cape. And, weirdly enough, City Lights. It offered an American vision but coming out of San Francisco. It was one press, one editor, quite a number of interesting voices.

C: What makes a good poem?

M: I heard someone speak on the CBC recently about what makes a rock-and-roll song, how it is that certain songs become classics almost instantly. And the person—I don’t remember who it was—was studying the lead-ins to the Rolling Stones songs. Literally the first 5, 10, 15 bars. He was trying to figure out what makes “Paint It Black” a masterpiece, what causes it to immediately stick to your memory like Velcro. And apparently, it’s as simple as the rhythm of a ballad to which you can put any words and any emotion—it’s a very simple skeletal structure. Sometimes, for example, it’s a matter of starting with major chords and then diminishing things to a minor chord and then re-kicking the major chord and doing it again and again and again. It hits the obsessive-compulsive button in particular adolescent brains such that they begin to dance, making it a number one hit.

C: Sounds like it’s a bit of a mystery, though.

M: Well, it has to be a bit of a mystery, or else everyone would make hits. But the formula is actually not that difficult.

C: The way you describe it, it sounds like surprise is part of the principle.

M: In the Stones’ records, absolutely. There’s always something a little off centre, a little off-putting, and then it resumes its major concern. But there’s always a little minor concern that has to be booted around a bit and then the music starts again.

C: What would you say is the take-away for editing?

M: I was trying to think of how a first line literally has to have one hooked immediately. Without a first line that either leads in immediately to a second line hook or a third line hook, there isn’t any poem, you don’t get down to the fourth line usually. It has to be something that doesn’t throw one off. It has to actually bring one in. Reading a poem is a little bit like falling in love. Ten years on, if it was a correct falling-in-love you’re still with them and if it was an incorrect falling-in-love, you’re not with them anymore.

C: Does that thinking affect arrangement in a book? For example, the first poem you place in your manuscript?

M: A friend of mine, the Quebecois poet Michel Garneau, once told me, “Lead with your best piece.” And that makes a kind of sense. He is, amongst other things, an actor and a playwright. And theatrically, what’s interesting is to have something very strong at the beginning. But I don’t think the first poem in a book has to be the best poem. It has to be a poem that is absolutely solid, that doesn’t push one away, that says, “Here I am. I’m a decently written piece. I have subject matter that’s of interest. I have a couple of oddities. A couple of interesting tropes that tell you I’m an interesting poet beyond what one might normally read.” And by the end of the first page, you have to have read something of import. Then the second page and the 3rd page and the 4th page, you can fool around a bit. By the time the 5th or 6th page, then you have to have a plateau poem, a decent poem, a very good poem. Something that’s so good that, had you put it first, you might have lost the reader; it’s a little bit like getting introduced to somebody you don’t know and coming on too strong. That’s how Shakespeare managed the plays. Very seldom is the huge speech in Act 1. The magic develops slowly. By the time you get to Act 3 or 4 there’s strength, power and explosiveness.

C: You don’t want to come on too strong?

M: You want to be absolutely present and inevitable, but you can’t whack somebody over the head and say this is genius. At least, that’s how I would organize the seduction.

C: When you read a book of poems, do you read from beginning to end? Do you jump around? One page at a time?

M: When it comes to Ted Hughes — or Seamus Heaney, for example — I read any new book one page at a time, never more than one page a day, from the beginning. I never permit myself to go ahead. There is such a wealth of joy in reading a fine poem I need to vouchsafe the pleasure by reading it slowly. Curious, isn’t it, that the finest of poems require one slow reading, and maybe one reading more, to be committed to memory for a life-time….

C: And the manuscripts you worked on?

M: I initially read the manuscripts from start to end. And then go back and along the way pick out what I think are the plateau poems with an eye to mixing them in judiciously, peppering the book with them, as it were.

C: So you see the books as being orchestrated.

M: Yes, you can’t just take all the poems and dump them in there. There has to be some continuity—a thematic continuity, or a continuity of tone. Or a charivari of some sort: some funny poems, some serious poems, some lighter poems. The ideal reader is one who can take the serious with the comic, take the light with the dark and appreciate each piece as it reflects human experience. Not everything is hugely tragic. Not everything is merely light or clever or comical either.

C: Are there touchstone books for you that you use or return to? Is there a perfect book of poems that you –?

M: I think the first book I got gobsmacked by, or one of the first, was Louis Gluck’s Firstborn. The reason I liked it was that it seemed so effortlessly terse. Many of the poems were shortish. And they just packed such incredible punch because there wasn’t a syllable out of place. It was extraordinarily well-crafted. And I hadn’t seen anything like it.

C: You were impressed by it as a book — or by individual poems?

M: Both, though some poems more than others. But as a first effort, it was astonishing. I don’t know how old she was when she did it. She was young. And hauntingly beautiful, I should add: so much so, I got on my motorcycle and drove down to Provincetown to meet her. I was smitten by whom I imagined the poet of such brilliance to be. It turned out that, well, anyhow. Some other time, perhaps.

C: Any other book? If you were teaching a class on editing, could you put together a short list of books that you think of as exemplars of good organization, good pacing, good variation?

M: I particularly like Ted Hughes’ Season Songs. It’s a book of nature poetry, purportedly for children. Hughes seems to be not only outside of himself and the world making pronunciamentos, but inside the very objects that he’s writing about. It’s a marvelous marriage of poetic craft and human insight. I mean, so much so that the text at times glows.

C: And you would ascribe that to the book’s shape? I’m trying to get at books that become events not just because of poems, but because of astute editorial choices and arrangement and selection.

M: Well it’s called Season Songs because it deals with the four seasons. To see a professional observer, a very good observer, go through each of the seasons one at a time, dealing with the simplest things—like weather and animals, the solstices, how human beings relate to all of this—is a joy. We all live it, we all experience it, but he says it better. He says it more profoundly, more acutely. What I’m suggesting is that Season Songs’ order is natural and expected. This book is built like a ballad, manifesting an infrastructure everyone can relate to. When you’re engaged with a ballad, you expect the rhythm, the spirit of it. And after that’s understood, it’s possible to pay better attention to whatever the poetry offers, to whatever the metaphors suggest and to whatever the ballad’s about. The best poetry plays against expectation. I think I’ve just contradicted myself.

C: It seems as though you’re making a case for keeping things simple, and inside that simplicity going deeper.

M: Yup.

C: Make it a simple and almost predictable structure, then, inside those structures, provide surprise, variation, unexpectedness.

M: Yes, I’ve noticed reviews of various of the Signal books that suggest that there’s too much light and too much dark, too much variety within the 50 or 60 pages of the book as if it were not getting properly edited, which of course, upsets me entirely. If there’s a good reader or a patient reader, then one can play a little bit as if one were turning the page, and oh! Here’s something a little light and here’s something more….demanding.

C: Is that how you see things? Light and dark? Tragedy and Comedy?

M: Oh yes. I wanted the Signal books to come through the door with bells and whistles and sirens—all of the many-sided faces of drama and comedy and foolishness. You know, T. S. Eliot and Old Possum producing both The Waste Land and a whole book devoted to the naming of a bunch of pussy-cats; MacBeth and a Comedy of Errors; and so on.

C: One interesting example for me of what good editing can do is Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, which seems a terrific job on Ted Hughes’s part.

M: Well, one must be chary of saying so. Or, rather, one must say now that there was a time when one would have been in a literary-critical climate in which one ought not to have said so.

C: So much of Plath’s present reputation comes from the impact of that book and that book was edited by Hughes. And in many ways, it was improved on by what Plath was trying to do. And we know this now because we can compare the two versions. Did you often see yourself in situations where you were taking a manuscript and improving it?

M: Yes, no question about that. That’s what my job was.

C: Where you were turning a B+ book into an A+ book?

M: That was my aim. I hope that was indeed the case. I would always initially have had to see a “plateau” poem of some sort, or two or three. But there were a few instances where I would take a good, capable poet and work the poetry such that it raised itself into an A-level book. I put several poets’ work up into a level that the work didn’t initially warrant. I hasten to say that I understand precisely what an arrogance that sounds like. But I did. And they had careers. Lifelong careers. Grants. Jobs. Academic posts.

C: What does that mean? I mean, how far would you have gone to improve a book?

M: I did my best with every book I took on; every manuscript I selected, I did so because I felt there was something of promise about it. With very few exceptions, the poets that I selected for Vehicule, and worked with as editor, had at least a good handful of really solid poems at the outset, to bring the rest of the 60-page book along.

C: You’ve mentioned 60-pages a few times now. Most collections are much bigger than that. Do you find Canadian books too fat?

M: I much prefer the British models, which are much slenderer – that sounds awkward: more slender. There are exceptions, of course, but very few people can crank out the amount of poetry Hughes or Heaney did. Just the sheer number of decent pages those two turned out is phenomenal.

C: Any disappointments in how Signal books were treated?

M: Oh there are certainly several poets I thought should have been taken more seriously.

C: Like who?

M: Well, Arthur Clark, for example. There are maybe half a dozen poets who simply have not received any recognition whatsoever. Maybe more. Out of the 36 poets that I dealt with, I would say a third, or thereabouts, simply weren’t reviewed or otherwise acknowledged at all because they weren’t particularly well known to start with. If a reviewer or periodical editor has a choice between reviewing the work of someone familiar to them or someone unknown, I’d suggest the odds are that they’ll tackle the already-known writer.

C: Have you thought about what you created at Signal, what your legacy is?

M: Not really. I taught for almost 30 years; on my last day I closed up the office and walked away. I haven’t looked back. I haven’t regretted the experience, but I don’t really think about it. The same thing applies with editing. 3000 submissions, 50-odd books produced. It seemed I’d done enough.

C: Why did you stop?

M: For 20 years it was fun and then it was no longer fun. I found I could no longer suspend my disbelief as to the structure of the literary-critical world I felt I was subjecting the Signal series to: for starters, it was difficult being an “anglo” literary entity in a nationalistically “francophone” province . (As an attestation of the support Quebec offers poets writing in French, during the time of my affiliation with Signal, the provincial Ministere des affaires culturelles put out a pamphlet, in French, that listed some 140 prizes given out by a variety of local and provincial organizations annually; that same body listed – if I remember correctly – 2 prizes destined for poets writing in English – and one of those prizes or grants was offered by Canada Council, a federal granting agency.)

And then there was the situation of working out of Montreal in a Canada that is (to be very specific, and if I could coin the term) “socio-literarily” Toronto-oriented. As I didn’t know, live or work with, any of the Toronto literati of stature, I had no strings to pull and, if truth be told, no desire to want to be thus engaged. I felt that the longer I kept on at Signal, the more I’d be letting people down by not being politically effective, both in the context of francophone Quebec (in spite of the number of translations we published!), or abroad in the rest of Canada. Like I said: I just ran out of fun.

C: But while you were doing it, what were you trying to bring about? In your introduction to the Signal anthology you wrote that you were looking for poems that showed “life lived and captured.” That’s a critical statement, no? A vision of how to write?

M: I think what I was trying to do was to take voices that spoke to me and that exhibited a way of life I felt I could honour in some way — or that should be honoured by being published and more widely read. So I did whatever I could to make sure the best of that poet’s work was presented in a way that was accessible to an intelligent reader. Poetry – reading the stuff, producing it, editing books — kept me alive for years.

But then so did playing squash. Cooking for family and friends. Good booze, too. All in all, if I may, being alive is a very strange business. The ridiculous thing about living is that, although we come into the world alone and depart it all by ourselves, we manage to convince ourselves that there’s a communal effort between the coming and the going, and that there’s a communal richness that matters. Amazing that we can actually suspend that particular disbelief – I mean, that we can forget entirely about mortality — and go about our lives so astonishingly capricious, carefree, absolutely mindless…. You have more questions.

C: Did you think of Signal as a Canadian press? Did you think you were putting out Canadian books?

M: Sure. I wanted very much to contribute to the mosaic or the quilt or the long string of lights along the American border or whatever it is we have here; I wanted Signal to be a gathering of poets from coast to coast, as well as from here.

C: Did you feel your attitudes were shared by other editors? Did you feel the way you handled the manuscripts was an anomaly?

M: Short answer is yes. The long answer is editing is a bit like religion. If one believes in a group of credos, it’s very difficult to take somebody else’s group of credos and suggest that they’re not the correct ones. As editors, we’re all involved in putting books out. But we all come from vastly different places.

C: Any credos you feel close too?

M: Well, I do notice that I appreciate Don Paterson and Robin Robertson’s efforts at their particular presses.

C: And what do you notice in them?

M: That they’re Scottish.

C: Scottish?

M: I think there are equal measures of joy, wit and irremediable dourness inflecting not only their own poetry but quite likely the people they edit. March, strathspey and reel celebrating the daily round, is what it is, but with a pibroch lamenting, in a slough of despond, just about everything else in the background. Like I say: Scottish.

C: Can you recognize an editor’s fingerprints on a manuscript? Do you see Paterson’s mark on the Picador series not just in terms of the poets he’s selected but the ways in which he’s edited them?

M: I would guess so. As with T.S. Eliot. Or even with Charles Monteith, for example, who took over from Eliot. I imagine there’d be some sort of common tone or spirit over the range of these particular editors’ “stables”. But not any iron-clad aesthetic: the nice thing about poetry is that there’s such a variety of worthy voices!

C: And do you feel that how they edited was an extension of how they wrote their own poetry? They edited like poets rather than like editors?

M: Paterson’s a musician. Clearly he’s got a good ear for music; in his own work his lines balance from line to line, from image to image, from stanza to stanza. It’s lively, active, alive. Clearly he brings that sensibility to whatever editing practice he has and clearly that’s going to improve a poet who’s less musically adept. Fact is, editing might look like the simple daisy—you take somebody’s poetry and clean it up, make sure the commas and the grammar work and put it out. But the activity is actually a multi-foliate rose. There’s a huge amount of innate knowledge that informs how one approaches a manuscript. What a good editor does is to suss out that which is of interest, that which is truly poetry. Above all, as Hippocrates at some point advised my daddy the doctor: first, do no harm — though I’m not sure that notion’s trainable.

From CNQ 90 (Summer 2014)

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