Will Harris on the Idea of Poetry as Interconnectedness
The Author of RENDANG in Conversation with Peter Mishler
For this installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Will Harris. Will Harris is a writer and editor from London. His poems and essays have been published in the TLS, Granta, The Guardian, and the London Review of Books. He received a Poetry Fellowship from the Arts Foundation in 2019 and co-edited the Spring 2020 issue of The Poetry Review with Mary Jean Chan. His debut poetry collection RENDANG (UK: Granta; US: Wesleyan University Press) is a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2020.
Peter Mishler: Is there an experience, a moment, an image, and fleeting memory from your childhood that you think presages a life in poetry?
Will Harris: The idea of “a life in poetry” scares me a little. It makes poetry sound like an institution or a nation state—somewhere you can be kicked out of, that you need the right credentials for. I sometimes have this feeling of being outside of poetry—outside of myself, too—trying to break in. I can only suspend the fear for long enough to write if I tell myself that poetry, like love, is something you do. It’s not a divine state. Not a gift. It exists while you’re doing it.
My mum studied Mandarin as a mature student and when she went on her year abroad to Beijing, she took me with her. My earliest memories, aged five or so, are from that year. We shared a bed in a little apartment on campus with two other students. The grounds were safe enough for me to roam freely and I remember there being this huge pagoda I became obsessed with, mainly because it was permanently locked. I wanted to know what was inside. I had these vivid dreams each night about breaking in and finding something different every time: Ultraman would be waiting, or a set of swords. One time, there was nothing there at all—the pagoda was absolutely hollow—but even without stairs or a ladder I was desperate to reach the top because it had been snowing and I wanted to see the view.
PM: Is there something from your collection RENDANG that represents a “breaking in” to poetry or yourself? I wondered in particular about the process of structuring or editing the book.
WH: The book’s structure came together during an intense final year—and an even more intense final few months—working on the manuscript with my editor Rachael Allen, who has more of an instinct for the feel of a poetry book than anyone I’ve ever met. I knew I wanted the first thing the reader sees to be this concrete poem “REND, RENDER,” which is on the first page—before the contents, before the copyright stuff. It’s a text constructed out of all the words in the OED beginning rend- from the Old English “rend” up to “rendang,” arranged in chronological order of first usage.
For me, seeing those words arranged like that brings out how power shapes our experience of language, flattening signifiers by removing them from their living context. The dictionary, after all, was a key part of the arsenal of colonial domination. I think of Nisha Ramayya’s beautiful work subverting dictionaries in States of the Body Produced by Love. According to the OED, the first use of “rendang” was in The Washington Post in 1948, which is obviously wrong. But that act of lexicographical erasure feels grimly appropriate considering the CIA’s malign relationship to Indonesia in the second half of the 20th century. Dictionaries encode the biases of hegemonic states; they’re molded by empire.“The poetry that matters to me is never just self-expression; it expresses our embeddedness in each other.”
So I think I wanted the first thing the reader sees to be this wall of words because it would force them to experience language as it feels to me sometimes: not a bridge, but a series of barriers that have to be broken through.
PM: Right—and in your life?
WH: I’ve always lived with the experience of people not being able to read my features, thinking I’m Chinese or Korean or Japanese. Language and the body intersect in the process of racialization: what should have content and texture—a person’s identity—is emptied, flattened out. And I have to admit my own culpability. I think of my grandma, Tjandra Sari, who I knew as mak. She died while I was writing the book. I can’t speak Bahasa Indonesia, so we could never really talk beyond the most basic stuff: “I love you,” “hungry?,” “cold?” After she died, I was left with this deep shame and sadness at never having got to know her fully.
PM: How much value do you place on the preternatural in poetry? I am thinking of the beautiful whispering to the pages of your work in the final poem.
WH: I have no idea if that last poem works. I spent a long time on it, and it changed a lot. I wanted to load it with as many specific places, people and objects as I could. To tell several stories at once. To capture this sense of repeated location and dislocation. I had some idea about the relationship between civic kindness and psychic repression, something to do with openness and cordoning off. But in editing—when the whispering came in—I tried to let myself be led by a form of dictation (I might’ve been reading Jack Spicer at the time). That was what led me back to the book itself, to what I was asking from it: some new order out of this jumble of encounters and conversations, an order that might resemble the lived duration of selfhood. But every want elicits an equal and opposite reaction—in this case, the desire to fly beyond the self—and I know that tension is probably etched into the poem, guaranteeing its failure.
PM: To what extent are you conscious of colliding various experiences together in the process of writing?
WH: I tend to be more conscious of time. I think poems are incredibly good at rendering time. Which is why reading a poem is more like listening to music than looking at a photograph. Also, when I see the word “experience” I hear Alice Notley’s words ringing in the back of my head: “experience is a hoax.” I’m interested in how the mind—the mind as a metonym for society—makes an “experience” out of experience, and then arranges it among other such “experiences.” In the process, what happens to those little moments when the self jams at an awkward angle to some emergent narrative?
Maybe my concept of time slides into an obsession with context. There’s no text without context, and no context without recontextualization. The book’s second poem (after “REND, RENDER”) is an elegy for my grandma that has this line: “context makes / the difference clear.” It took me a long time to realize the obvious truth of that. I used to think I was writing lyric poems that were concerned with what Helen Vendler calls “a sudden freeze-frame of disturbance, awakening, pang.” But that left out so much. Where does the disturbance come from? Really, where? For Vendler, the lyric is “the voice of the soul itself… souls are independent of time and space.” The novel, by contrast, is the “gesture of the historical and spatial.” But I could only understand my experience if I saw it as “historical and spatial.” Every time someone shouted “chink” at me or said “ni hao” in a bar I was returned to my racialized body, to the “historical and spatial” parameters of my experience.
PM: In what way has your experience of a racialized gaze or of the racialized body informed your poetics, your experience of making or revising, or your attention to language?
WH: That gaze—before I recognized it in others—I felt in myself as a kind of heightened self-awareness, then as a desire for self-effacement. I remember going to a party as a teenager and saying the usual stupid things, but it wasn’t like it was me speaking. It was like I was hovering above myself, an invisible eyeball over a talking mannequin. I connect experiences like that to being asked repeatedly as a child if I could speak “Chinese,” or where I was from. Even at the time I could feel all these adult assumptions being projected onto me, onto my child’s body, when all I wanted was to blend and blur.
I don’t think of this as sad or unusual—it’s not—but it probably informs my poetics, how I relate to language. Are those the same thing? Maybe theories of poetry are just byproducts of our childhood attempts to make words, bodies and selves join up.
When I started reading poems, I loved the mix of directness and obscurity—the spell-like way of disclosing knowledge—which felt like it was tied to the ambiguity of the lyric “I.” It must’ve hit me for personal reasons. I was a gawky, grieving teenager. I wanted to write about myself without feeling like I was writing about myself. In RENDANG, there’s this poem called “From the other side of Shooter’s Hill” where the speaker says they want “a voice capacious enough to be both me and not-me, / while always clearly being me.” In a way, those lines contain the seed of the whole book.
PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
WH: The strangest thing about poetry is you. By which I mean the word “you”—in all its local and abstract power—and the pronominal attitude it implies: you, reading this now; you, at home in your body; you, listening to the rain or its absence; you, scared, lighting a candle; you, institutionally; you, bound together in rage; you, who breaks me; you, who I miss every day now we can’t talk; you, who hears me talking; you, other in me; you, waiting for your life to begin; you, who wants to believe.
PM: Which could also be applied to the lyric “I.”
WH: Recently, I was having trouble sleeping and listened to an old recording of John Ashbery reading “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” a poem I loved as a teenager, and these lines almost made me cry in my semi-insomnia: “How many people came and stayed a certain time, / Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you / Like light behind windblown fog and sand, / Filtered and influenced by it, until no part / Remains that is surely you.” Which reminds me of Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry”: “I am all of them, / they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children / to float in the space between.”“Though words may only foster the illusion of connectedness—they can’t (or shouldn’t) replace real connection—they’re also borrowed things.”
The poetry that matters to me is never just self-expression; it expresses our embeddedness in each other. “I” and “you” are markers for that. They hold—with numerous slips and spillages—the light and dark speech that becomes us, the manifold quirks and cadences, fantasies and faults. And I don’t see this as naively utopian. Any coming together entails a breakage—a loss of wholeness—which can be painful and disillusioning.
PM: Could you point to a specific poem from RENDANG that is representative of this?
WH: It’s important to me that the book is read as a whole, as one long poem. You could really get the wrong idea if you quoted bits out of context. But maybe “SAY” gets across the most, or “The White Jumper” in a more scattered form. “SAY” was prompted by my dad’s illness and a period of not writing when I was trying to figure out… what to say, I guess, and why and how. I had these two master-concepts swirling around, flow and break, which turn up elsewhere in the book too. They helped me frame a crux I’ve always felt, in myself and in relation to poems: on the one hand, there’s this desire for coherence and flow (“to be carried along”); on the other, there’s this feeling of irresolvable brokenness. Both are violent generalizations, two parts of a grinding dialectic. You have to find a way to live with and between them.
PM: Would you be willing to talk about the remarkable poem “Buddleia Not Buddha” in any way you’d like?
WH: That poem was in a very different form for a long time—much prosier and with more narrative and explication. It came out of a fixation on glitches: little errors in communication or language. I now see it as a counterpart to the opening elegy for my grandma. Both take visual rhymes—or false cognates—as their starting points: “rendang/rending” and “buddleia/Buddha.” Though “rendang” and “rending” are spelt similarly, they’re unrelated in origin and pronounced differently. It can often feel like my link to Indonesia is just as arbitrary, a visual rhyme and nothing else, my knowledge derived as much from books and distant conversations as lived experience. So in that poem I say to my grandma: “I call you wrongly.” And there are other wrong links and mistakes in that poem too, like the reference to Bahasa Indonesia as “Bahasa” (language), which is meaningless on its own.
I don’t know how to use language rightly to address my grandma, let alone to talk to the part of myself she represents. That’s a sad thought, but then the variable depth of words can work in lots of ways. On one level, a word is a flat object composed of letters and sounds. On another, it’s as deep as all its usages over time and across cultures, as every mouth it’s passed through. Poetry demands we read both ways. So though words may only foster the illusion of connectedness—they can’t (or shouldn’t) replace real connection—they’re also borrowed things. And it’s on that basis I hold out some hope that the subject (“I”) might be able to overcome itself and speak to you directly, because original speech was never possible anyway.