Northness: Lesley Harrison in Conversation
Lesley Harrison and I met in Manhattan on one of those increasingly common hot October mornings when it still feels like summer. She was visiting New York from her home on the northeast coast of Scotland. The night before I had seen her read at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop in Dumbo to celebrate the release of Blue Pearl, her recent poetry pamphlet from New Directions; she has published several books of poetry in Scotland, but Blue Pearl is the first to appear in the United States. A haunting, incantatory collection, Blue Pearl is also the product of Harrison’s immersive research into the linguistic, folkloric, and ecological web that connects Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, and northern Scotland, where she has traveled widely. At one point she joked, “I don’t usually visit tropical places like Manhattan for the holidays.”
Daniel Poppick: You grew up on the Angus Coast, on the southern edge of what you refer to in Blue Pearl as the North—which I take to mean the European sub-Arctic?
Lesley Harrison: I never thought about it as the European sub-Arctic, but yes it is. All the history and the mythology that I have absorbed or read has been part of that culture. The North, in my imagination, begins where I grew up—just on the outskirts of Dundee looking northwards to the northern seas. The North Atlantic feeds into the North Sea, and ships travel north to Scandinavia and the Baltic and on trade routes beyond. So you’re right, there’s a European north that is distinct from other peoples’ north. I never thought of that before.
DP: What does that landscape engender for you in your work, in its proximity to the North?
LH: There’s a sense of being on the edge of something much greater. I see it very visibly in the weather systems, the currents, and the trading patterns that we are just on the edge of. And the disposition of the people, that sense of being just a bit northwards and outside; historically, we looked out to sea and over the horizon for social links, for trading partners. There’s a lot of research going on into how around the North Sea people were much more interrelated and familiar with each other than with people over land, because of course historically it was much easier for people to travel over water than it was to travel over such rough country. There’s lots of evidence of linguistic links, genetic links, cultural links, you know, that go back into pre-history. My theory is that all that is there in your folk memory.
DP: Folk memory?
LH: Yes. Maybe this is just being over-romantic, but I can’t see how generations and generations of thinking and movement can be suddenly cut off. I can’t see how it’s not there as a residue, somehow, in our orientation to the coast and to the sea. For me, when I’m out walking the dog and I meet somebody, we always stand with our back to the land, facing out to sea. It’s always the first thing that we talk about. People make a lot of jokes about British people talking about the weather, but it’s true. We say, Oh, did you see that sunset? Or, Yeah, there’s weather coming. People are very much orientated toward the coastline and what’s out there beyond the horizon. You’re on the edge of something much greater, not just geographically, but on a much deeper level. And I find it so interesting that when you talk to people in this part of the world these vowel sounds, or sometimes whole words, just reappear on a completely separate part of the coastline with a gap of several hundred miles in between. If you’re transporting language, I think, what else are you transporting as well, you know?
DP: How did you become interested in folk memory?
LH: My interest in this has always been there, but I first started to look into it more when I looked at whaling. Where I stay right now is a village just on the edge of a cliff. That would have been where all the poor people lived. They would have been pushed off productive farmland onto the very edge of the coastline to live a subsistence existence. It’s now actually quite a nice place to live. At the end of our houses there’s a kind of shed, it’s called the lookout, and you can see 180 degrees of coastline there. I find it astonishing that people, probably the women, would have stood there and watched boats disappearing across the horizon to this place where you wouldn’t know if they would be back next week with untold of wealth and riches, or if you would never see them again. Or if you would see them in two years’ time, at which point the men onboard would be horribly maimed, impoverished, or mentally really damaged by their experience of this North. I can’t see how folk memory is not there as an aftermath. That’s how people lived for hundreds of years. It’s only relatively recently, historically speaking, that people started to live inland. And when you add linguistic evidence of people moving around, words that are very old still being retained in the language, place names reflecting an orientation to looking outward to sea rather than looking inward to land—that’s what I possibly incorrectly identify as a folk memory.
DP: As you’re talking about whaling and trade routes, it strikes me that it also gives you a literal, geographic sense of the void on the other side of global capitalism.
LH: Exactly. There’s a real contrast between the consumer lifestyle and that void. It’s a physical void. We’ve talked a bit about weather patterns, but that’s the bit that you see—these huge colors or forces looming up over the horizon. There’s a physical sense of a void there. And for these whalers, then there’s a void of experience. They were going out to encounter forces of nature and landscapes that were entirely contrary to anything they’d ever been familiar with. Twenty-four hour sunlight or twenty-four hour dark, a cold that would literally eat away at them—they’d lose parts of their bodies. So there’s a void there in both a physical and an existential sense.
DP: In terms of your own poems, that void seems to operate for you as a blank space in the landscape and the blank space between a word’s cultural significance and your excavation of it in the poem.
LH: It’s the distance between me and an object. When I started working on this collection I was trying to figure out how to order these poems, wondering where the thread was. I’d started to write in a very fragmented way. We were talking about George Oppen last night—I can see in his later work how he became more fragmented, because the core of our experience of a thing is a hard thing to word. When you start imposing form and sentences and grammar on what you’re trying to describe, it takes you further and further away from the experience of the thing itself. At the moment that’s where I’m at.
DP: That seems to be what you’re trying to address in the rune poems. You’re trying to find some detached etymologies from particular words.
LH: Yeah. We impose language on the very top of experience like the icing on the cake. I find the flimsiness of language very interesting.
DP: What made you interested in the form of those poems in particular?
LH: This is part of a project I did for Creative Scotland—formerly known as the Scottish Arts Council—I got a grant to work with an anthropologist and a water engineer, and we were walking a river in Aberdeen from the source down to the sea, we did a transcription of our conversation. The place names I found really interesting, because when you look at them in situ, they record actual moments of noticing. For example, in the transcription, when I looked at it afterwards there were a lot of compound words. There was a place called Hawkhill. Somebody at some point in the prehistoric past had walked down this path, looked up at a hawk, looked at a hill, and so now the place has become Hawkhill. And there were loads and loads of these compound words, once you started looking at them, in our conversation. For example, the water engineer was talking about the outflow. And I thought, well, somebody looked at this water going out and flowing, and so someone noticed this particular behavior of water and it got this word, outflow, which we now use so casually. But the first noticing is there implicitly in these words. This got me fired up about place names, the words we use almost glibly, there’s a whole history of experience packed into that word.
DP: Geologic landscape is the etymological root of a lot of these words.
LH: Exactly. But when I went to Iceland, it astonished me that the etymology and folklore in many of the places was older than the landscape. It was a complete reversal of the process. In Scotland, it’s a very ancient landscape geologically, and the Scots have a very grand idea of their own heritage. (The Celts and so on.) To be somewhere where the people were older than the surface of the ground reversed the whole process. It was quite mind-blowing. The whole Sagas—there’s a whole theory, I don’t know if they’ve been able to substantiate it archeologically, but—the thinking is that the Icelandic Sagas were influenced by the first settlers in Iceland, which had no people on it until monks came. In the early Christian church there were a lot of monks that went off exploring in boats, and the earliest sagas refer to the first Nordic settlers coming across them in Iceland. These chronicles were written some time afterwards, but mention briefly how when the first Norse people arrived in Iceland, Irish monks were there, but they left when the Norse came. The theory is it was part of their faith to live in a very remote place—practicing their faith required solitude—a bare, physical confrontation with nature, or God. But they left this tradition of writing, of storytelling, so in the Icelandic chronicles the mythological part is deeply rooted and structures them completely. The Lindasfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells—beautiful illuminated manuscripts—are also linked to this era. The idea that the myth, these story structures, is older than the surface of the ground is strange altogether. It just reverses your whole understanding of everything. You have to think from back to front instead of from front to back.
DP: That’s crazy.
LH: It completely is.
DP: We’re used to thinking of the human as being post-geologic.
LH: Yeah, exactly.
DP: One of the things that you do throughout Blue Pearl is weave together various folkloric strains to create your own mythology of Northness that is larger than the sum of its parts, and more idiosyncratic. I wonder what Northness means to you beyond the sense of a void that you mentioned earlier.
LH: Well, I don’t usually travel to tropical places like Manhattan for the holidays [laughs]. I like to travel north. I like to go up hills, and to go walking. We’ve always used the North as a place to project onto. For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster went north—actually went to the Orkney Islands, which cracks me up as I used to live there—or Andersen’s Spitsbergen. But it amazes me that also you can actually visit this North as a real place.
DP: When I first started reading Blue Pearl I thought you were creating an inventory of extinction in the way that Inger Christensen does in her own way in Alphabet. But as I got further into it I realized that wasn’t really what you were doing. But it’s interesting because when we talk about the North now, the arctic, we can’t think of it outside the specter of impending extinction. I wonder how climate change and the destruction of the arctic figured into your writing of these poems.
LH: I remember when I went up to Ilulissat, in Greenland—that poem is preceded by a quote from William Carlos Williams—and I think the actuality of these places, the anti-myth of it, the pure materiality of it, is quite shocking. To see this mythical place exist as a physical, tactile place, for which we have a responsibility, which we impact just by walking across it. I personally feel quite depressed about the horrible mess we’ve made. I don’t know if it’s reversible, or if it’s avoidance to retreat into myth; to think about the North as a metaphor. I don’t know if poets can step aside from their social responsibility. It’s a big debate. Do you call it ecopoetry over here? Ecopoetics?
LH: An easy word.
DP: What in your mind is the problem with that word?
LH: Well, I don’t know. I shy away from poetry that’s too instructive. That’s my hang-up with ecopoetry.
DP: You mean didactic?
LH: Yes, exactly. But I do think it’s a retreat, or an avoidance, to just concentrate on North as metaphor. And that’s something I have to come to terms with. Going up to Nuuk, confronting the truth of it—that might be the beginning of something else, an authentic artistic response.
DP: Well, I don’t know if I would be so quick to dismiss it in that regard. Part of what’s so devastating about climate change is that poor and indigenous populations are of course going to be the ones who feel these effects first, and they’re going to feel them hard. We’re all going to feel them eventually, but they’re going to bear the brunt of it in the near future. And I see what you’re doing, in the way that you’re thinking about historical capitalism, and what you do with various strains of mythology, as a kind of record keeping.
LH: You know, I never thought of that, but I suppose it is a record keeping of a state of thinking in the 21st century now, of how these things start to percolate through. It’s a record keeping in that, you go back and look at original sources and frame them in a contemporary way of thinking. But it’s also a record keeping in that you’re keeping them alive as well. Updating them with your consciousness, so that they’re there. Pia Arke—there’s three poems in there that I wrote after her that I called “Nude.” She’s dead now, unfortunately, she died of breast cancer. But she was very interesting—her father was Danish, and he went there when Greenland was more heavily dependent on Denmark. He married a Greenlandic woman. But when Pia Arke started to mature as an artist, she was concerned with the politics of colonization. She traveled to different points in Greenland, and she looked at how local habits, local practices, understandings, myth, were being commodified and packaged for people who now controlled the place. There are some videos on YouTube of her at work. I called my poems “Nude” because of her exhibition “Arctic Hysteria”—because that was the name given by the colonial authorities to the trauma that Greenlandic women sometimes experienced when the men of their colony went away to work, or went away hunting. When she was putting together this exhibition—some were performance pieces—she worked in the nude. At first I thought, why? But then I realized, of course, that clothing packages who you are and where you’re from, and symbolizes lots of things. As local women changed the way that they clothed themselves, that was a statement straight away about how they saw themselves in these new colonial relationships. What they needed to survive in bureaucratic or colonial settings. But you’re right, it is a form of recording. This golden age thinking is something we need to break down too.
DP: What do you mean?
LH: Well, at home people love poems about the hills and the Highlands—if you’re going to write about nature you have to be very careful. You have to take a stance on that whole political, historical, emotional issue of ownership, access and so on very early on. What you’re going to celebrate and what you’re going to sidestep, how you look at yourself in that whole landscape tradition. Will I write about landscape in a romantic sense? Or on a deeper, phenomenological level? An instinctive response to landscape as it is now?
DP: There’s a new Boston Review forum that operates under the assumption that a lot of ecopoetry has been downstream of Romanticism. I wonder if you can think of a way in which poetic writing about nature can address climate change in novel and useful ways.
LH: I suppose if you look at poetry as a form of recording, then I guess in a sense it does. Looking at the ecology not just in a biological sense, but if you look at the psychoecology of a place—
DP: The psychoecology?
LH: If I’m allowed to use that word.
DP: I love that.
LH: If you look at place in that sense, then in my opinion maybe that’s a more authentic form of ecopoetry.
DP: There’s a long sequence in here about William Barents. I’m interested in your interest in whalers—and your emphasis on the Barents story particularly stands out. With the exception of the Barents poem a lot of Blue Pearl eschews narrative, at least on an explicit level. What was it about the Barents journals?
LH: I became aware of those when I became aware of the work of Siân Bowen. She was an artist in residence at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for a while. Specifically, she was to look at the printed materials that were relics from the Barents expedition. Barents in the late 1500s was commissioned to try and find a route around the northeast of the European and Russian landmass into what was then called the Orient, a trade route. Like all good fairy tales, he tried three times, and on the third time everything happened. He got frozen in, and had to overwinter on Novaya Zemlya. But in the 1870s a trapper found that actual site of the house that they built. In the 1930s some of the relics were brought back. That created a huge interest in the Netherlands, because by then this story had become so much a part of their mythology, and then suddenly there were artifacts to prove it had actually happened. It was like if someone had found the pebbles from the story of Hansel and Gretel. What interested me in the journals was that there were so many layers of interpretation, layers of integration of the story into our consciousness, specifically in the Dutch national history. You start to wonder which one is the real one. The primary source itself was written a few years later. So it’s actually a secondary source, albeit written by someone who was there—but it was written as a story, not as a diary. And then we have the historical interpretation of the artifacts. And then we have artistic responses. And then we have the museum’s juxtaposition of journals, drawings, and artifacts in a cabinet that’s air-conditioned, behind glass. How do you get back to the primary experience? Have you read John Ashbery’s “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror?” When I read that I thought, now I understand what I’m struggling with. Because you know he presents all these levels of looking as equally present. Is it Parmigianino looking at himself? Is it the painting? Is it Ashbery looking at the painting? Is it us looking at him looking at the painting as an extension of himself? All these layers are completely authentic and valid at their own level, and they all intermingle with each other. And it becomes impossible to tell which is the most authentic—which is the most real.
We’re not being true to ourselves if we think we can extract, from narrative, our core experiences. We have to come at it a different way.
Daniel Poppick is the author of The Police (Omnidawn, 2017). His poetry appears in BOMB, the New Republic, Fence, Bennington Review, the PEN Poetry Series, and other journals. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Kenyon College, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Coe College, and the Parsons School of Design, and has been...