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Author Joseph Harrington discusses amneoir, "Things Come On", live at 1:00 p.m., Tuesday, April 12th

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I love reading memoirs; although I have never been a history lover, there is something about the personal nature of a memoir that I can relate to. Memoirs have always been a blend of historical and personal in my mind, but in Harrington's latest book, "Things Come On", there has been a third, perhaps even fourth, dimension utilized that makes it a more difficult read. Still, it is well worth it.

Harrington has created the term 'amneoir' to describe an extremely personal account of the death of his mother, due to breast cancer, when he was twelve years old - he was ten when she was diagnosed. Set in the same time period as Watergate and the fall of the Nixon administration, Harrington weaves in and out of a distorted sense of reality. He mixes the investigation of Watergate and the Nixon administration with medical records, memories of his mother's diagnosis, and incidental, random happenings that stand out in the mind of a child during such a tragic loss.

Amneoir, a combining of amnesia with memoir, is a fitting term for such a tribute for Harrington's mother. Who hasn't found themselves blurring reality with fantasy and/or historical events during such profound emotional upheaval?

Harrington uses a unique blend of writing styles (referred to as multi-media, image-text, or transgenre), throughout. He incorporates not only prose and poetry, but documents, testimony and haunting drawings and diagrams.

"Things Come On", is THEE selection for your summer book club. It will take you back to poignant times you've experienced. Although it isn't a book you'll likely read in one setting; it is too profound and unsettling for that, you will absolutely want to read it, and then read it again.

Joseph will be on site from 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. today to answer questions about his book, which can be purchased at The Raven (8 E. 7th Street), and Jayhawk Inc., in the Student Union. He will be reading selections from his book tomorrow, Wednesday, April 13th, at Jayhawk Ink (formerly Oread Books), level 2 of the Kansas Union, from 4:00 p.m. until 5:30 p.m., where you may purchase a book and have Joseph personalize it for you.


(Joseph Harrington is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Department of English, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas)

Comments

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

We're getting close to the one o'clock time frame for the interview with author Joseph Harrington about his recently released book, "Things Come On". Are you present, Joseph?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Yep, I'm here. Question: do I need to "refresh" the screen to see new comments?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

OK - now I see how "reply" works - but can I just post a comment without previewing it first?

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

No, it's almost like a built in edit button. Don't we wish we always had one of those!

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Yep, I'm here. Question: do I need to "refresh" the screen to see new comments?

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Welcome, Joseph. Yes, you will likely need to hit refresh in order to see new comments. Do you notice the reply box to the right and under the comments? You may hit that to reply directly to a question or comment.

Thank you for your willingness to share information about your latest book, Joseph. Would you might starting by telling us what else you have written and when "Things Come On" was published?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Things Come On was officially released on the first of the month, by Wesleyan University press' poetry series. It is my second book - my first was an academic monograph on literary history, called Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics (Wesleyan 2002). I'm currently working on a (projected) series of books about my mother's life and times - the next is entitled No Soap.

Excerpts from TCO and No Soap, and unrelated poems have appeared in Otoliths, 1913, The Collagist, Hotel Amerika, and elsewhere.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

I'm going to go ahead and ask a rather obvious question, Joseph. Why this style of writing, I love the term, 'amneoir', and can absolutely identify with that being how a mind stressed by loss functions.

schula 6 years, 6 months ago

Hello Joseph. Thanks for doing this interview with Ronda. I have a couple of questions:

How did you father and siblings (if you have any) feel about you writing such a personal book? Did you ask their permission before you started writing?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Yes - well, I should say that my memories of the period are not all that precise or numerous - hence the reliance on documents and testimony (which is what people were doing to find out about Watergate, too, at the same time). I use different genres - or at least textual forms - in the same work. A lot of it is about silences, so having blank spaces between lines or phrases seemed right. Likewise, it's also about trying to draw connections, so the abrupt juxtapositions (or jump-cuts) ask the reader to go through that same process. In other words, I'm hoping that the form, and not just the content, conveys some of the tone and thematic concerns.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

I absolutely agree that the form lends much to the emotionality of the book. It makes it more difficult to read, obviously, but it also slows the reader down, which is useful with something so difficult emotionally to read.

Christopher McKitterick 6 years, 6 months ago

Joe, I love that you bring in such a disparate set of documents to support your narrative - any memoir is at least partially fiction, so doing this really adds dimension, especially how you handle it.

Yours is a wonderful experiment that I feel works very well in how you executed it. Writing (and art, and dance, and so on) teachers encourage experimentation, because here's where we discover fresh ways to express ourselves. However, the danger lies in that most experiments fail.

How do you encourage experimentation in your students so that they feel brave enough to attempt it while being aware of possibility of failure? And what to do with that?

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Hi Chris,

I hope things are going well in the sciFi world.

I have to admit that I've been meaning to come back and read through Joseph's answers. That hour interview time frame went awfully fast. I didn't have as much time to actually absorb his responses as I'd have liked. I was busy responding with additional questions.

Truly all of the arts are about stretching our capabilities as much as possible. Joe does that quite nicely here - even though some of his technique seems stilted. For me, it adds rather than distracts from the poignancy of his mother's death and his memories.

I have many questions still - some are difficult to formulate.

What are you writing these days? I know you're putting a lot of work into your yearly upcoming summer science fiction workshops.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for the question, Chris. The real "experiment" is going to come next semester, when I lead a grad workshop in "hybrid forms" - i.e., writing that combines different genres.

I guess it depends on what the criteria are for failure. If it bores the author, well, that's a bad sign. If it's trying to tell a story but nobody can tell what the story is, that's no good, either. But then, most of what one writes fails, anyway, I think, whether it adheres to already-existing generic conventions or not. Or, put more positively, every act of writing is an experiment.

In poetry workshops, I ask students to take each poem on its own terms: what rules of the game is this poem setting up, and does it succeed at them? It's an art, not a science, of course, but it's not a bad rule of thumb - esp. in poetry, where there is such a wide disparity of styles and subcultures.

I do a lot of exercises - that involve cutting substitutions, collaborations, etc. - that turn it into a game. If it's not fun, it's not worth it. And if the stakes and expectations are really high, it won't be fun.

Is this addressing your question at all . . . ?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

@ Schula: I'm an only child, so siblings are not a factor. My dad was willing to talk - to some extent. He's the WWII generation - "Why dwell on the past" - and it's about a painful period in both of our lives. So, he has mixed feelings about the whole thing. But as I say, he has helped.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

I really like the title, No Soap. Is it a book about happier times?

I'm happy to see we're on such a cutting edge in terms of the book hitting the bookstores. Was/is your latest book easier to write and is it also written in the same format?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Yes, No Soap covers the years from about 1890, say (before she was born, obviously), up to 1947, when she left her small town in West Tennessee. It was happier to write - funny, sometimes. Although there's plenty of unhappy stuff that went on in the south (and elsewhere) in that period!

Yes, No Soap is similar to Things Come On, in that incorporates prose, verse, stand-alone dialogue, lists - as well as photographs and reproductions.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Interesting. It is my understanding that you created the term, amneoir. Is the multi media technique new as well? I am not familiar with it from other memoirs I've read.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Actually, it's more common than I would have thought. Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family is one. So is Anne Carson's recent elegy for her brother, Vox. Eleni Sikelianos' The Book of Jon is another (about her dad). Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave, about the Vanport section of Portland (where Japanese Americans were shipped out to internment camps). It seems like every time I turn around, I find someone doing a mixed-genre book, sometimes one incorporating images.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

That is interesting to note. I'll have to check into some of the books you name here - in particular, Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave. Thank you!

When is your latest book, No Soap, due to be published? How long had you been thinking of writing, Things Come On? Has writing it been cathartic?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

It's not just memoirs - but it does seem like memoirists - and elegists - are drawn to hybrid forms.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Is this relatively new - is it trending, or do you feel it is a form that will stay with us?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Hard to say. There is pretty clearly an interest out there - and when a best-selling novel can include power-point slides, you know something's up. But Shakespeare's plays are multi-genre texts - some prose dialogue, a comic speech in prose, then some dialogue and an expository speech in blank verse, etc.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

You make a good point. Comedy, conversation, photos and diagrams have played a role in some literature for quite some time.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

I also noted that, Things Come On, had few photos of your mother and yourself. Was that because there were few, or you wanted to use them sparingly?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

No, there are quite a few such photos extant. I wanted to use all the visuals sparingly - though I may have gone overboard. The visuals are meant to be part of the text - not "illustrations" that refer to the text w/o being part of it. So, the ones where we both appear tend (I think) to relate to both of us, or mothers to sons, or male to female.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Your use of the 'tag' for lack of knowing what to call it, was particularly insightful. It gave the reader a clearly defined visual of your mother's size, shape, etc. That was just genius. Brief, but it spoke volumes.

Their are certainly moments in your book that cut like a knife emotionally. Your saying a bit too loudly that it's you who is in the room - her replying that she knows who you are. It really captured the confusion and fear for a young child and not having expectations of how he should act - or what to expect.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

No Soap is, as they say, seeking a home at the moment. Actually, I'm revising one of the chapters prior to sending it out again. But I'll let you know!

The idea for the book came about in about 2002, as did the diea for a biography of my mother - then it started getting bigger and bigger, and I realized it would be more than one book - it's about US history as well as my mother's personal history. But I've wanted to know more about her for quite some time - probably since I was a teenager. I kept hoping I'd uncover a great wealth of repressed memories, like in the movies, but it didn't work out that way. Well, I thought, I know I'm a good researcher, and I'm not averse to hard work, so maybe that approach will work.

Obviously, it's not the same - the little details that you and only you would notice are not contained in the documents (though I sometimes remember them).

Cathartic - yes. I can honestly say that. Whether or not it was therapeutic is another matter - we Americans tend to conflate those terms. But i view the book as a tragedy, in the Greek sense of the word - pity and terror. When I first read my mom's hospital record from her last stay - i.e., when she was dying - I could barely breathe. Now I can confront it. Maybe it will be easier to confront my own death. Who knows.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Obviously, the preview function is wasted on some of us - but "diea" for "idea" is an interesting parapraxis, in context!

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Yes it is. Would some say it is a Freudian slip?

schula 6 years, 6 months ago

How many of the memories are real? Were some created for the memoir to make a specific point?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for the question, Schula. The memories are real memories - that's a good way of putting it. If I were testifying under oath and said those things, I would not have perjured myself. However, as we know, memory is not so simple. Neuroscientists these days think it's more akin to imagination than info-retrieval - we "reconsolidate" memories, they say, every time we remember them - so they're different every time, to respond to different current contexts in our lives.

In No Soap, I do fabricate some "memories" - but either they are obviously fabricated (i.e., a poem about my mother remembering something in the cradle) or I identify them as fake in the end-notes. But I only do that three-four times.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

No worries, we all do them! :)

Do you feel our culture has changed much from the time period in which your mother died in terms of accepting and discussing the inevitability of death?

What was it about viewing the actual documents that affected you so painfully?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Interesting. In terms of talking about death, I'm not sure. There were definitely no hospices back then - that's one of the reasons reading the medical record is so painful - b/c she was in such real physical pain. Whether or not the hospice movement has made it any easier for parents to talk w/kids about death, I don't know. I apprehended my mom's dying through the typical veil of euphemisms - the misguided idea of "protecting" the children.

What is a lot more talked about now is breast cancer - and I think that's a very good thing. In 1972, people didn't say that phrase much - in part, b/c most women did not survive it. The treatment is light years ahead of what it was then - in part b/c of activists, who gained visibility for the cause by the openness of people like Betty Ford and Happy Rockefeller (first and second ladies) about their own cases.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

And I would add that a lot of the resonance between the language of Watergate and the language of cancer involved "cover up."

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Your mother's family has a legacy of breast cancer deaths. Is that ongoing within the family? How difficult was it for you as a child losing two aunts to breast cancer and the reality of your mother being diagnosed with it?

I have many friends and a sister who have made their journey through breast cancer and survived, I recently lost the father of my children to cancer. I wanted you to know as much as I felt I knew already, I learned more, was able to feel through your eyes how much of an impact this disease was to your mother and your father, as well as to the young boy you were. That says so much about how well written your book is.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Thanks so much, Ronda. That means a lot.

Clearly, my mother's cancer was largely genetic in origin. There's a couple of places in the book where my parents are telling me about my aunts' deaths, and using the same (euphemistic) language each time. I'm sure my mom was a lot more terrified than I was. And I'm sure she didn't show it.

I've worried about how this book would be received by cancer survivors. In fact, they've been very receptive, some are enthusiastic. It's those of us who have not had the disease who are most terrified of it, I think.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Joseph, in terms of Schula's questions, some of the more poignant aspects of the book were those few, very insightful memories - what was eaten at the hospital cafeteria, how you felt dressed a certain way, an unexplained window exploding next to you.

One of the most telling sentences for me, however, is when you use the phrase, things go on. Not only do they just seemingly come on - as your title implies, but we have to somehow continue on after the fact.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Right. The title comes from a letter that my mother wrote, that detailed her "last requests." She opened it by writing "This experience has really taught me how fast things can 'come on' -- and should the bad times come, it is hard to make decisions." So, she goes on, she's leaving some instructions to make it easier on my dad. I think the fact that she wrote that letter - and could open it in that reflective (and stoical) way - says a lot about her personality (and the culture she came out of).

schula 6 years, 6 months ago

Joseph, thanks for answering my questions. Will you be traveling a lot to promote your book? If so, where will you go?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

My pleasure, Schula.

First place I'm traveling is down the street to the Kansas Union : ) - tomorrow at 4, I'm reading at Jayhawk Ink (the general books section of the bookstore - used to be "oread books." I'm going to use a data projector and slides as I read, to replicate the graphics in the book.

I read in Topeka last week (at Blue Planet Cafe - for the fabulous Top City reading series), and I'm going to Emporia next week - all the hot spots. I'm setting something up - not sure when yet - in New York, and hopefully some other places on the east coast for late this year or early next. And I'm going to Tulsa in November.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

I've got a student coming in for a conference in a minute, y'all. But keep the cards and letters coming, as they used to say - I'm going to check back throughout the day and every day this week.

Thanks, Ronda, for inviting me. And thanks to you, Shula, for the questions!

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Joseph,

I know you only had an hour to dedicate to us, but feel free to come back and give us an update. There will likely be more questions over the next few days. If it is possible, please come and answer them as you find the time. Let us know when your new book finds a home.

Best of luck and thank you!

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Joseph,

Have you found yourself writing your memoir in other ways throughout your life. If so, were you always aware that was the case?

Correct me if I'm wrong, you had two aunts (sisters of your mother) die of breast cancer previously to your mom's death, have your cousins discussed this horrific phenomena with you? Have the female cousins had this same issue? How close were you to additional family members growing up?

I know many in our family had the traditional thanksgiving and Xmas reunions or gatherings, but really didn't discuss such topics - children are so busy getting reaquainted, being shy and showing off.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

I think that everything one writes is a memoir to some extent - an aid to memory. I don't take a lot of photographs, compared with some people, but particular poems I've written remind me vividly of particular times in my life. And in some cases, the content is more-or-less memoiristic.

I have two female first cousins (one once-removed) who are descendants of the other two sisters, and, while this project has put me back in touch with them to some extent, I haven't really talked with them about this. I have to think it's crossed their minds.

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for the response, Joseph. I remember getting into a very heated discussion with one of my English professors about this topic many, many years ago. I suggested (okay, insisted ) that everything one writes had to have elements of the autobiographical element to it. We can only write what we have experienced, 'know'. Although, more recently, I'd disagree with my own cement implanted thinking - I've felt more often than not when it comes to poetry, that I'm more the vessel it passes through as opposed to the creator. Do you have that knowledge or experience with your poetry or other writings?

I'd also been taught that one can not really write fiction freely until/unless they have written their memoir. Your thoughts?

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

Have you read Jack Spicer's Vancouver lectures? They're collected in a volume called The House that Jack Built, but are also available in the original audio recordings at PennSound: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Spicer.html - anyway, Spicer talks about what he calls "dictated poetry," which is an extreme form of what you're talking about - the poet as radio receiver for - what? - the Muse? the Martians? the unconscious? He says it really doesn't matter much, in the end. But it's the phrases that seem to come out of nowhere, or that scare you once you've written them.

Couldn't say about fiction. I really don't do fiction. But even if I've written something that's surreal or "dictated," it still bears the marks of its occasion and creator.

joeharrington 6 years, 6 months ago

BTW, I don't know if anyone will be interested, but a part of NO SOAP has been published, at an online journal called The Collagist: http://www.dzancbooks.org/the-collagist/from-no-soap.html

Also, poet Camille Dungy chose Things Come On for The Rumpus magazine's Poetry Book Club. Here is her explanation of why she did: http://therumpus.net/2011/03/things-come-on/

Ronda Miller 6 years, 6 months ago

Thanks for both links, Joseph, and congratulations on all counts. Your memoir was brief, but each word spoke volumes. I look forward to reading NO SOAP.

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