Here is an interview I conducted with the poet, novelist, essayist, and gourmand Jim Harrison for the Lansing Capital Times back in September of 1990. Much of the interview seems as timely now as it did more than 25 years ago. Many thanks to Jeff Garrity, who published LCT, for giving me permission to post this now. In the future I plan to post other interviews with writers I did for the Capital Times, including those I did with Gary Snyder, Richard Ford, Linda Hogan, Judith Minty, and Michael Moore. The following is a somewhat edited version of what originally appeared in print.
Marc J. Sheehan: What do you think of the current mood of censorship in this country?
Jim Harrison: The threats against personal freedom and the First Amendment in recent years have usually been broached by the government, and now it’s religious groups. I don’t believe anyone should be able to infringe First Amendment rights.
MS: Have you personally had any run-ins with censorship in your own work?
JH: Oh no. You know, just small ones. Certainly nothing of the large scale they’re proposing now. There’s a way to handle the current situation if it goes any further, too – through irritation suits. If someone wants to abridge your freedoms, then you sue them on the basis of First Amendment rights. If anything it would cost them an inordinate amount to defend themselves.
MS: That would also put a burden on the writer.
JH: You have to do it if they’re going to behave that way. For instance, it’s usually religious groups who want an unlimited amount of freedom and prerogative for themselves, but they don’t want anybody else to have that kind of freedom and it has to be met on every single basis. It’s just stupidity. It’s the kind of pressure they put on 7-11 so they won’t carry Playboy or something like that. It’s just absurd. But they’ve been very successful at the because the 7-11 owner wonders, “God, well maybe I should buckle under,” because they don’t want to lose their business. But when you come to a novel or a book of poems – it would most likely be a novel – people don’t keel over that easily. Vonnegut, for instance, is currently taught in a lot of places, so he’s gone around individually and met and testified and I think he’s won in nearly every case.
MS: I guess it’s just the general atmosphere…
JH: Well, the atmosphere started nine years ago with that dingbat Reagan and the Moral Majority people. A good bumper sticker for that group would be, “We’re proud we’re stupid, and we want to make you stupid, too, in every possible way.”
MS: In the title novella from your new book, The Woman Lit by Fireflies, did you have any political intentions in the fact that Clare, the main character, is a woman escaping from the insulation of her upper-class, Republican life?
JH: Every novel is implicitly political. I’m against death by suffocation and that’s what she ran into. When you look at anybody, the kind of death of idealism that you had beginning in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s, you’ve been tuned-out to the plan by a nationwide systematic greed. For the last 10 years or so, more obviously, the single preoccupation of our whole society has been greed.
MS: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the way that the country, with the National Endowment for the Arts controversy, is headed?
JH: You’ve always had people like [Jesse] Helms, but you used to have people like [former U.S. Sen.] Phillip Hart. Now we don’t have very many Phillip Harts; we just have a lawyers’ club they call congress.
MS: I recently read your essay “Poetry as Survival,” which was published in Antaeus. There you sound as though you consider yourself to be essentially a poet – is that really the case?
JH: I don’t think there’s any difference in my mind. If you’re not just another of the enormous legion of Red Guard MFAs stroking yourself there’s no difference.
MS: Not any difference between the forms?
JH: No. I mean I use one form when it’s called upon and another form when it’s called upon. I don’t think if we were European, for instance, the question would come up. I think people here get confused by the public personae of the poet/novelist.
MS: Do you think one form is harder to write than another? I was thinking about Faulkner who said that poems were actually harder to write than novels.
JH: He was just saying that in the sense that people don’t understand them [poems]. Once you learn how to write a novel, which is a readily available form, anybody can do it. But for most people it’s a matter of running on at the mouth. If someone tells me they spent ten years writing a 1,000-page novel I say, “Why didn’t you spend six weeks writing a 200-pager first to see if you can do it?”
MS: Do you enjoy working in one form more than another?
JH: Oh no. It’s all the same to me, just whatever’s in me. Archmo, Archibald McLeish, at Harvard was having a hard time with a group of a dozen graduate students who are – there like everywhere – impossible smartasses. He suggested that by the following week their assignment should be to write an eight-line lyric in the form of Andrew Marvel. So of course by the next week they were totally humiliated. They couldn’t do it. The ultimate test is a lyric poem.
MS: A lot of writers make their living in the academy. Do you think that’s a good thing?
JH: It can be; without them what would we have? At least they have some devotion to literature. I mean, the good side is that a writer in the academy is a benefit to the students because he’s someone who’s actually intimately involved in making literature, and they’re generally quite popular teachers, frankly, because they love what they do. I just found myself temperamentally unfit for it. There certainly are some exquisite teachers around.
MS: You may be Michigan’s most recognized and recognizable writer. Does that kind of recognition make the job of actually getting words down on the page more difficult?
JH: Well, it can, but I have a real talent for avoiding things, if you get what I mean. The sign in my driveways says, “Don’t stop unless you call first,” and they can’t call first because I have an unlisted number. It’s the same in the Upper Peninsula. I like to communicate with anyone that wants to see me or talk by letter, generally speaking. Then can think it over whether you want to do it or not. But I think a lot of artists doom themselves by accessibility. I mean, just sticking their fannies out and that’s that.
MS: Are there kinds of recognition you either particularly like or particularly dislike?
JH: I like my books to be in print. And they are now, so I’m feeling okay about it. At least when your books are all in print then you’re available to anyone who’s curious about your work. So that’s about the level of success I’m interested in. Nothing that I can say can add or subtract to my work. I always like when Miles Davis would try to tell interviews that “It’s all in my music.”
MS: I recently read a poem of yours in the Amicus Journal, the publication of the National Resources Defense Council. It was a nice poem, by the way.
JH: Thank you. Was that the one about the herons and the loons?
MS: Yeah. In light of that poem, your book A Good Day to Die, and your poem “The Theory and Practice of Rivers,” I wonder if you would apply the term “environmentalist” to yourself.
JH: Oh no, because I came from a farm family and my dad was a county agent in soil conservation. I don’t think the term “environmentalist” means much of anything. I think you’re just trying to defend what you love, which is the earth. I think for reasons of temperament, in my own life, the closer I’m tied to the earth the better off I am, because that’s where my home is. In other words, I really feel more comfortable in the Upper Peninsula than I do on the Columbia lot in Burbank. In a way, the so-called “environmental movement” was pretty dead for about nine years after being squashed by that fatuous, inane actor Reagan and the crew of slime that just about crushed the country, and now’s coming out from under those nine years.
MS: Do you really think we’re coming out from under…
JH: Oh yeah, because a level of consciousness is what it takes and it’s certainly beginning to be there – I mean, relative to what it was. There’s no question. I’ve got a bunch of cronies in Earth First! I’m not much of a political activist, mainly because there’s nothing good to eat in jail. That’s my fear. There’s no garlic.
MS: In your novel Warlock, the title character is often dismayed at the kind Yuppification of the area where you live part of the year, the Leelanau Peninsula. Is that your feeling, too?
JH: Every area that’s somewhat beautiful – it’s happened in my own lifetime – has a tendency to be Yuppified. That’s why I tend to be in the U.P. half the year now. When we moved here, of course, when we bought this small farm, it wasn’t so. And it’s still not so that you can’t ignore it. But that’s just the manner of sociology and real estate, and that’s not necessarily true of the U.P. because it’s too far away.
MS: So you go up there to escape all that.
JH: Well yeah, of course to escape, that’s what I like. But there are many places to escape. That’s what I love about Nebraska. I never heard anyone say “Donald Trump” in Nebraska. It’s just that in most places you’re utterly bombarded by lint nowadays. So any place you can go to do your work, which is basically to be an amateur naturalist, you go there.
MS: So you’re not particularly tied to Michigan?
JH: I’m tied to the landscape. I don’t care what they call it. In many respects Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan are the same place.
MS: Is that what Gary Snyder is talking about when he talks his rap about bio-regionalism?
JH: I suppose that’s what it is. You know, I didn’t understand that for a while. He’s an old friend of mine, but when they come up with a new term like that it takes me a while to catch up. I suppose that’s what it means. My affection is for the area, the Upper Midwest, not just the state.
MS: You write about food.
JH: I write that food column, you know.
MS: Do you have any sort of new discoveries with food?
JH: No, I think anything you do two or three times a day should require your absolute attention. It’s always amused me that the second position to the Roshi, or master, in a big Zen monastery is always the Tenzo, or cook. That’s a recognition that’s important. One of the reasons that people are inattentive about universities or politics is that they’re also inattentive about what they eat, so what would you expect?
MS: A couple of times now you’ve made references to Buddhism. I understand that you’re involved in Buddhism.
JH: Yeah, I have my own, how can you say it, ‘unreconstructed’ Zen practice. Two of my favorite authors and friends, [Gary] Snyder and [Peter] Matthiessen, are involved, so it’s all the same thing. I think it’s less a religion than an attitude. Consciousness and attentiveness are the only magic we’re ever going to get, anyhow.
MS: That must go along with doing any kind of art, I suppose.
JH: I would think so. I tend to be a little more comic than some of them, you know. But that’s part of the tradition, too. You’re not serious just because you say you’re serious, or that would put George Bush right at the top.
MS: And it doesn’t work that way.
JH: No it doesn’t seem to. “The verities of the human heart in conflict with itself.” That’s what I like to say when someone asks me what I write about, and I say, “Love, suffering, and death.”
MS: I guess there isn’t much else.
JH: You can slowly add to it. Food.