Joseph Harrington's essay "No Soap" appeared in the September 2010 issue of The Collagist. Here Marie Schutt talks to him about the larger project the essay is from, as well as researching the work and coining the term "amneoir."
1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "No Soap"? What was on your mind while you were writing this story?
Well, it’s part of a larger project about my mother’s life and times (she lived from 1920-1974). No Soap goes up through 1947, when she was 27. The piece that ran in the Collagist was the very first, chronologically, although I found myself going back a good bit before my mom was born – like, to the Civil War, which looms large in the white southern imagination (including my mom’s). One thing I was thinking is what people in West Tennessee would think about what I was writing. What my mom would have thought – of the way I’m presenting it. I even wrote some of those (imagined) responses into the text. And I end it with the first page of a heartbreaking letter that my great-great(-great?) grandmother wrote her husband at the front during the Civil War.
2. I’m very interested in the process of researching and piecing this work together. Were you doing these things simultaneously? Were there any aspects of this which were more challenging or frustrating than the others?
I’d completed most of the research before composing the ms. – I say “composing,” because there was not only writing, but also editing and graphics involved. When I started this big project about my mom, I didn’t think I had enough stuff for a book. Then I started researching – talking to people, going to libraries, riffling through boxes in my dad’s attic – and pretty soon I had way more than I could possibly deal with. Add to that the secondary research, and we’re talking about an even bigger challenge. But, in a way, the book is really about finding out – re-searching. And listening. Those are big themes in the work.
The most frustrating thing? Well, there are the documents I wish existed – like what if my mom hadn’t stopped keeping a journal in 1939? But it’s really all the stuff you have to leave out. I love details – like what people in 1850 ate for breakfast (if they did), or knowing Lib’s family had to drive on gravel roads all the way to the Gulf Coast, in the 1930s. I’m sure that’s one reason I just juxtapose parts of documents in a lot of places – I want the people to tell as much of their own tales as possible.
This leaving out business is not just a narrative issue – it’s also an ethical issue. For instance, there’s an account of an especially brutal lynching that happened in my mom’s hometown the year before she was born. I’d never heard about it before! And I’m sure she hadn’t. But the fact that it was never in our consciousness doesn’t mean that it’s not part of her (our) story, and vice versa.
3. This piece, as well as “Things Come On: An Amneoir” (coming out this April*), both contain themes of family, history, and remembrance. Could you talk a little about this, and the intersection of personal experience, research, and writing nonfiction?
I remember the first time I walked into a library archive and found stuff my parents wrote. My mom worked for politicians; she was Sen. Albert Gore’s (pere) secretary in the 1950s, for instance. That fact alone opens the story out to a broader history. But that experience brought home to me the distance between now and then, between document and memory. The past is a strange place, and every moment turns into it, momentarily.
My mother died when I was 12, and while I remember her, I don’t have very detailed memories about her. But I’m a researcher, so I figured I could know more about her that way – and maybe some memories would also surface (which they have). As I got further into it, I realized the extent to which a life is really part of a network of lives – not only people you know, but those you share the world with at a given moment in history. For instance, my mother was dying while the Watergate scandal was unfolding (or unspooling); so, in Things Come On, I draw from the medical language of cancer (including her medical record), and the language of political scandal (Senate hearings, White House tapes), and it turns out there’s a lot of resonance (and intersection) between the two.
So the biography is turning into a history, as well – of the mid-twentieth-century U.S. – the country my parents imagined they were bringing me into. I don’t want to make it sound like DeLillo’s Underworld or something, but there is that intersection of the personal and historic.
4. To follow up on that last question, you probably get asked this a lot, but what exactly is an amneoir? How is this related, if at all, to your work across genres?
“Amneoir” is, as far as I know, my coinage – a “portmanteau word” combining “amnesia” and “memoir.” The book takes place when I was 10, 11, 12, and as I say, my memories of that time are pretty sketchy. So I had to rely on testimony and documents – which is what the Senate committee and prosecutors investigating Watergate had to do, too. And there was a lot of cover-up involved in both. People didn’t talk about cancer in them days.
I should say, for those who haven’t seen these books, I’ve been thinking a good bit about the relation (if any) between elegy and mixed-genre books. (And by that I mean books that mix prose and verse, dialogue and art works, etc., in a single text). There seem to be a lot of them: Vox, by Anne Carson; I, Afterlife, by Kristin Prevallet; The Book of Jon, by Eleni Sikelianos; Susan Howe’s The Midnight; Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje. I don’t quite know why that would be. Part of it may be that a typical way to memorialize lives is the scrapbook – which is the ultimate mixed-genre and –medium collage. But Prevallet has another explanation in her book: "If the body of the text has suffering at its root, then language will take a fragmented, torn-apart form, as if it too is suffering" (p. 50)
Obviously, my work is composed of heterogeneous materials, so it’s no surprise my work is in more than one form. I think any life is a composite of disparate stories, perceptions, relationships – I just let the seams show, instead of trying to smooth them over. Sometimes you need to state the facts, just the facts. Sometimes one needs to stop and write a lyric about the feel of those facts. And that may bring in other voices. And so on. You can call it the lyric essay or whatever, but it’s really just what Creeley and Olson say about form being an extension of content.
5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?
Well, between No Soap and Things Come On, there’s still 25 years of my mother’s life to cover – from leaving her small town for DC in the McCarthy era, then to Memphis in the 1960s – where she tried to be happy as a housewife and mother (in her 40s - with mixed results). I’m thinking of it as two separate books, but we’ll see. Besides that, I just came out with a chapbook called Earth Day Suite, from Beard of Bees Press (it’s a free download on their web site, btw). I’m also putting together a poetry ms. and just finished an essay on documentary poetry.
6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
Lee Ann Brown, Sasha Steensen, and Susan Briante are all apparently working on interesting-sounding books that combine family stories and “big” history – and mess around w/genre at the same time. I’m looking forward to those. CD Wright’s new book is fab. Essay Press devotes themselves entirely to experimental nonfiction, and all their books have been great – most recently Thalia Field and Abigail Lang’s playful A Prank of Georges. Khaled Mattawa’s Tocqueville is quite amazing – not least of all given recent events. And I can honestly say I love the other books Wesleyan poetry has put out this season (and check out Tan Lin’s book w/the very long title from last year!). I could go on, but . . .
* The official release date is April, but it’s available now. (Don’t ask me)