Staff Writer Kent Oswald introduced us to Harry Newman’s poetry late last year. Arresting, spare, and timely, Newman’s poems confront the urban political rather than the pastoral we see so often as editors. Newman doesn’t shy away from looking current events in the eye, and we’re privileged to celebrate his new book, Led From a Distance, released January 1st from Louisiana Literature Press. —Camille Griep
1) Can you tell us about your writing environment? What are the essentials you need around you, if any?
I’ve written in so many places—various apartments I’ve lived in, cabins in the woods, friends’ homes in different countries, hotel rooms, even the middle of rehearsals when I was actively involved with theater—it’s somewhat hard to generalize. When an idea comes, when lines or openings happen, I find it’s best to get them down wherever I am. I’m also currently coming out of a time when I’ve not been writing much, though I don’t know if I should say that.
But thinking about times when I’ve been most productive and writing my best and most fluidly, I’d say the essentials are a desk with a window beside it, which allows direct sunlight, ideally morning sun; a space with enough room to move around in and, if possible, room for a second place to sit, a small couch or armchair; and a place of some privacy, at least a door that closes. I only have some of that now. The room I use is so small and so filled with books and bookcases and filing cabinets it’s dangerously close to the old Vaudeville joke of being so small you have to step outside to change your mind. I find it hard to do much work there. I also like writing at kitchen tables.
2) Where are you from and where are you now? Does sense of place factor into/inform your writing?
I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, long before it was hip. But I grew up in Miami (before it was hip, too). My mother divorced my father when I was 3 and moved back to Miami where she had grown up to live with her mother. I’m now in Brooklyn again. I’ve been back in New York many years, though with extended time elsewhere—Sweden, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Cincinnati—usually for work or when I’ve needed to let myself get lost.
A sense of place is important in my writing, but perhaps not in the usual ways. I’m not wedded to a certain place in my imagination. But when I’m writing the sense and feeling and physical presence of what I’m describing, where I am in the poem, say, is vital. I have to bring it to life in certain ways, or the life of it has to be present in me when I’m writing. That’s probably a better way of putting it. When I was writing plays regularly—I made my living in theater in my 20s and into my 30s, writing and occasionally translating and working on the staff of theaters in New York—I would draw the environment where the play was taking place, like a floor plan, in order to get a true feel of it, to understand and feel the physical space the characters would occupy.
Though I’ve lived in cities most of my life, many of my poems relate to the natural world. While most of my plays are set in smaller towns or rural areas. These days I’m probably most comfortable in the woods, it’s a creative touchstone for me, but I don’t get there nearly enough. I’m quite urban, but something in me lives elsewhere.
3) What are the basics of your process? Do you start with a word or idea? Do you write immediately or let it simmer for a bit? How do you edit? Do you ever give up on ideas?
Can I answer all of the above here? Creatively, I have something of a Romantic disposition. I like being caught up in the flash of inspiration. It’s important for me to get an idea, an impulse, the beginning of something down as soon as it comes. To maintain the emotional connection to it. When I don’t do that and there have been times when I’m almost actively working against myself creatively, I regret not capturing those first sparks and have trouble carrying the idea forward. They’re the bits of energy that start the fire, right? That said, I am often a percolator, as I call it. Those sparks may come but I let those first lines from them sink in for some time usually before writing them out fully. It depends on the form or the scale of the idea. Poems sometimes can be written all at once, meaning in a day or two or three, after the idea comes (which is often a feeling or a first set of words). Though I usually let that finished product sit and come back to it making adjustments over time.
Beginnings are important to me, I like the first lines of something to come first before I go on. I’ve very rarely written the middle of something first and then gone to fill in material around it. I’ve had the opposite experience many times of removing what was the beginning, a first stanza, say, and leaving the rest as the poem. Sometimes you need a running start into a work and you have to recognize that for what it is. I tend to write through. I don’t like to move on to the next line until I’ve finished the one before it. I may have guideposts, phrases or later lines or an ending I’m aiming to get to later, but there’s a lapidary approach involved of rubbing the words together one after the other, getting it right, or what I think is right at the moment, before moving on.
I may have guideposts, phrases or later lines or an ending I’m aiming to get to later, but there’s a lapidary approach involved of rubbing the words together one after the other, getting it right, or what I think is right at the moment, before moving on.
Of course, I’ve given up on ideas. Although, and I’m sure others say this, ideas more usually seem to give up on me. Usually this means I’ve lost the feeling for it, or of it, whatever motivated the idea to begin with. But poems which aren’t right somehow, but retain a kernel of something that works or resonates within them, I’ll keep those around for a long time, going back to pick at them every now and then. Two or three of the poems in the new collection were ones not quite right that I refused to let go of until I finally realized what they needed.
Because of the way I write, that getting all the pieces right in one place before adding the next pieces, often my process of rewriting a poem as a whole involves smaller fine tunings, changing some words, adjusting line breaks. The basic bones and outline of a work don’t tend to change once I think something is “finished.” It’s more a matter of honing. At the same time, that doesn’t mean these are always (or ever) first drafts. Focusing so much line by line, or line by line then scene by scene in plays, means each element has usually been rewritten extensively before it’s the work is done. I say usually because sometimes there’s that gift of a poem that comes to you whole.
4) What other art forms factor into your work? From what or where do you draw inspiration?
I’m not sure what you mean by “factor into your work.” I can say there are other art forms that are important to me, that I enjoy and move me greatly. Music, for one, all different genre. Painting, mostly from Modernism on. I’ve spent a lot of time with art and music, as well as with musicians and painters. I read a fair amount of novels, see a lot of films. Mostly non-American of both. I’m also quite interested in dance. I studied dance over a year or two in college—or as I say, many years and kilos ago—and have created a couple of pieces with choreographers. I admire the precision dancers bring to their work. I’m not sure if any of those factor into my writing exactly, or at least directly. I don’t recall mentioning a dancer in a poem, for instance. This may seem overblown but what brings me to any work is the pursuit of meaning and emotional engagement. It’s those I take away from work regardless of art form and which inspire or add to my understanding. I like when new worlds or new ways of seeing are revealed to me.
Two areas that have contributed to my writing, at least in how I approach writing have been science—my education is in science, not the arts, I graduated from MIT—and left politics and especially political activism. Though I haven’t been very active this past year, I frequently take part in protests and demonstrations. Recently these have mostly been environmental-related, anti-fracking and global warming and the like, but I’ve also been involved with anti-war protests (too many anti-war protests), protests against torture and Guantanamo, against corporate corruption and trade pacts like TPP, against police violence. This has been true since I was in college. The question of justice and injustice is something that engages me as a writer.
5) If you had to give a good friend three books to read while spending a dark, iced-in winter in Nome, Alaska, which books would you give them and why?
This is a much better way of putting the “desert island” question. If it were a desert island, I’d suggest a book on fishing and one of those how to survive anywhere guides and maybe a cookbook of coconut recipes. But Nome. Six months of darkness. It would have to be either a very large book (or set of books) or work that could bear repeated reading. I’d probably start with one art book, if I could, say, the Late Work of Claude Monet, the catalog from the Gagosian Gallery show from a few years ago, which transformed my view of Monet. He was always too pretty, almost decorative, for me, from what I’d known of his work. And too bourgeois, you could say. But those extraordinary vivid reds and oranges, the bold colors of the late paintings, especially the Japanese bridge paintings, their intensity. It’s good in darkness to be reminded of the range of light that exists in the world.
I’m not good at these kinds of questions generally because it’s hard for me to narrow things down, there’s so much different work I like or value. I recently read Ciaran Carson’s translation of The Inferno by Dante, which impressed me very much. I was amazed by how he managed to sustain the terza rima throughout, as well as maintain a jauntiness, the playfulness of the language he uses. It seemed faithful to the original in its content and, more, in its spirit, how it must have seemed to readers of the day. Every other Inferno I’ve read, or more precisely tried to read, had such academic stiffness to it, I couldn’t get through it. With this one, I found myself re-reading parts of it as I went along, for the fun of it. In fact, as I think about it, I may have done that so often, I didn’t finish. That’s something I could see an Alaskan shut-in returning and returning to.
Now, for the last one. I probably would say the collected poems of Tomas Tranströmer. His work is consistently beautiful and sad, simple and deep, like a chord struck on the lowest notes of a piano. It resonates far beyond the page. Most of his work was written in similar long, dark winters, is my guess, and therefore with a lived understanding of those conditions. Which make it a good fit.
The Front at Home
I remember that day sitting
on the couch in your apartment
the war was supposed to be over
we’d heard that on TV a few weeks
earlier the president speaking about
toppling a regime the first of many
we’d come to learn but that was later
on this spring day when we had just
started dating war was far away and
it was safe enough to love we thought
the television was on and soon we were
watching a reporter maybe half a mile
from that mountain the last enemy
stronghold a network of tunnels with
hundreds of fighters the reporter said
as the camera zoomed to an entry way
on the mountainside every few seconds
missiles would flash across the screen
then detonate and it was silent enough
to hear stones skittering afterwards
we were silent too watching missile
after missile hit closer to the entrance
murder televised so casually while
the reporter talked about payloads
throw weight guidance systems
with the cool practiced anticipation
of a golf announcer this is the world
we’re making I think we’re part of this
and nowhere felt safe or far enough
not the couch we were on not the home
we would build not love as a missile
struck and the entrance exploded
“The Front at Home” originally appeared in Rosebud (December 2006). It also appears in Newman’s collection Led From a Distance.
it used to be one mendicant
monk now there are three
bowls to their sides walking
single file in the direction
of the station everyone rushing
by them on the way to work
briefcases brushing their robes
heels perilously close to bare feet
they move together without
interrupting the flow around them
their even steps more like gliding
as if the world truly were illusion
or they were or both two dreams
blurring through each other
to a dream larger still and
I find myself thinking about
spiritual commuting the empty
offices they’d go to no furniture
phones carpeting bare except perhaps
a framed koan or two on the walls
about motivation or would they wait
every morning on the platform
instead for a train that never comes
I remember the mornings then
well before sunrise alone
in the street walking the dog
I’d see the oldest one coming
out of the darkness towards me
as if he’d been crossing the city
endlessly taking the measure
of the night are we more blessed
by three now or more in need
I wonder as two Thai girls near
the corner the only ones who notice
bow before them hands together
in gassho one kneeling almost
to the ground then rising to give
their offerings a quart of soup and rice
the monks stop and whisper to them
back in the world for a moment
a street in Queens cars honking
planes overhead the restaurant beside
them selling platanos while the rest
of us continue in the stream having
only ourselves left to offer the day
the city this illusion of our lives
“Offering” originally appeared in Rattle (Summer 2015).
they sure know how to stand
these leaders of the world
all in a line are they posed like that
I wonder or is it natural for them
to be in formation men and women
who’ve forgotten how to smile but
bare their teeth only as affairs of state
each one capped and filed eyes only
top secret confidential how happy
they seem how intimate shoulders
caressing fingertips brushing against
each other as the shot is taken
whispering sweet nothings
about bombs and body counts
Easy Street is proud to debut “Summit Photo,” which also appears in Newman’s collection Led From a Distance.
Photo Credit: Eva Orzech