Miranda Ericsson interviewed Harley Elliott
on October 4, 2006.
ME: Could you share a little about your
background in Kansas? Are you a Salina native?
HE: Pretty much! I was born in South Dakota,
and came here when I was two. I've been here ever since, except
for trips. I lived a year in Colorado, a year in New Mexico,
and four years in Syracuse, New York, but I came back here.
ME: What are your feelings about Kansas?
HE: What aspect?
ME: Yeah, I guess that's a wide question,
HE: Well, I'll tell you, the reason I like
to be here is largely environmental. I like the landscape of the
prairie. I guess it would be more appropriate to say that
I like the landscape of the sky, because eighty percent of it is
sky. I like that sense of space. I like the subtleties.
I've spent a lot of time out in the country, hanging out.
I have an ongoing relationship with five or six fields. One
of the things I've liked to do since I was about 16 is go walk in
the fields and look for flint artifacts. So, over 40 years
these 5 or so fields have gotten very dear to me. I really like
them, and it would be tough for me to sever that tie and go somewhere
else. I like this landscape. In fact, when I lived
in Syracuse for four years, one of the things that made it so negative,
other than the six month winters, was the fact that I couldn't really
see much sky. It was always just irregular patches between
trees and buildings. I really found that I was missing that
sense of horizon to horizon. Space. I didn't know that
I cared that much, but when I got away from it for a while, I felt
kind of choked up in those tight places.
ME: That appreciation for the land and for
nature is definitely reflected in your work.
HE: Yeah, it shows up. But, you know,
people are fond of categories, which we have to have, they make
things simpler. But I was really conscious that if I wasn't
careful I would get put into this box called "prairie poet."
Some poets that I know kind of wanted that title, and went
towards that title, and ended up getting that title. So there
they are, and they're happy with it. I'm thinking of Ted Koozer,
for example, up in Nebraska. You know, talking with him, he
says, "This is my stuff, this what I'm all about." But
it seems like anybody who comes out of Kansas or Nebraska is automatically
labeled. They're prairie poets, and blah, blah, blah.
Sometimes there's not much consideration of their work
beyond that, they kind of get stuck in that identity. It's
kind of like because you're a woman, and you write poetry, you're
a feminist poet. Maybe you're not, you know? Even though
you're a feminist, your poetry may be concerned with a lot of things
beyond that simple category. So, I wanted to write poems about
whatever took my fancy. King Kong, or a candy wrapper, or
whatever. I was really kind of conscious that I didn't want
to promote that idea, that all I write about is the sky and the
plains and critters. Although a lot of that, like you say,
inevitably it's what it's about. A lot of it speaks in those
terms. Prairie terms. But I didn't want to limit myself.
ME: Labels can be restrictive.
HE: Yeah, pretty soon people believe in
the label, and if you step outside of it, it's like, 'Well that's
not his business.' I've been aware of that, of not wanting
to jump into one of those categories, or boxes.
ME: I think that you've done really well
with that. When Tom and I were talking about topics of your
poetry on the way here, that was the conclusion that we came to.
There are so many different things that you write about...it's
difficult to pin you down!
HE: (laughing) Good, good.
ME: You mentioned collecting flint earlier.
Tom told our class about your differnt way of looking for
flint. I think it's really interesting, that you take into
consideration what people might have been doing when they were making
things from flint.
HE: Well, I have a nonfiction book, due
out from Woodley press, called Loading the Stone. It's
about that activity, looking for these objects, and then the speculations
that they call up. When you look at an object you might wonder,
'Why did this maker choose this stone?' or 'Why did he make it this
way?' The objects can give you ideas or clues about the process
of making. That's part of what I wanted to consider in the
book, and the process of finding. I also wanted to consider
the process of fathers and sons. It doesn't aim at one thing,
it goes a lot of ways. It's really kind of a great big sloppy
bastard of a book. But basically it's about the integrity
of process. I'm really happy with it.
ME: It sounds really interesting. I
saw the title mentioned on a web site, but it didn't describe what
the book is about. I'm glad to find out more.
HE: That's what it's about! I could
have done a memior, but I didn't want to write a first person account.
You know, 'I found this,' and 'I did that.' In fact,
I wanted to keep 'I' completely out of the story. I have a
journal that I've been keeping since I was in junior high school
of Native American names. I read a lot, I always have, and
I would read a lot about the histories of different people, and
early on I really liked the idea of these names, which were image
names that told you something about the individual. Rather
than Bob, and Mary, and Bill, names that don't really say anything
aobut who we are. Names like 'Mysterious Walking' or 'Her
Holy Door.' They give you a hint of something about the individual,
and I really like that. So, instead of writing about myself
in the first person I gave myself a character name, 'Walker.'
ME: Ooh, I like that.
HE: It tells something about the activity.
Then I was able to write about young walker and old walker,
generations held together by this activity of looking for objects.
And by writing for that name I was able to get away from the
'I' and write more about the objects themselves.
ME: I love the idea of connection between
generations, and the flint that you find is also a connection to
HE: Yes, and when you look at the objects
they give you ideas, or maybe call things into question. A
particular one I'm thinking of is a projectile point that I found.
It was made by people over in Illionis, or somewhere in the
east, who somehow got this far west. It's really nicely done,
and very symmetrical, except along one edge as it comes down to
a point there's a kind of bulge. So, it's not a purely symmetrical
shape. Well, in the area of that bulge the nature of the flint
changes. It's made of grayish, dense flint, then over in that
area is a rougher, more airy flint, a brown color. So when
the maker got over there, and it was chipping, he pulled the flint
off from that area and it went down in and jumped back out, threw
the flake off and left a big divit in the stone. So apparently
in that rough brown area, the stone acted differently when he chipped
it, and it showed him that if he went on he was liable to break
the piece. So, I can see where the maker went on from there,
but his flakes were very light and tentative. He just lifted
off a little at a time. Then he got down into that nice gray
stuff again, and boom boom boom, he was back to work, and it was
all beautifully done. So I posited the idea that the stone
said to the maker, 'well, you're taking a chance with this, if you
go on you might break the piece, and if you go easy around this
rough area you'll have a whole piece, but it's not going to be symmetrical.'
Well, he chose to have an object that is not symmetrical but
is complete. Its an example of the stones as a gateway to
the maker's thoughts, his thought process.
ME: That's really interesting, that the
objects reveal the creative process.
HE: And it is creative! 90% of these
objects you find, like projectile points, are perfectly functional
and utilitarian, they'll do the job great. But every so often
you find one that looks like somebody went way beyond what they
had to do in order to have a functional object. They've chosen
a really pretty stone, maybe a really interesting pattern or color,
and they worked it beautifully and it's so perfectly symmetrical...the
object has been loaded with something. Loaded with some kind
of intent. That's why the book is called Loading the Stone.
Some objects go way past utility, and the question is 'why?'
The book is about that question, too.
ME: What is your advice for someone who
wants to be a writer?
HE: I always remember one of Carolos Casaneda's
books. He says, 'First you find a spot, second you settle
down, third you pay attention.' Well, I think this is my spot,
and I think I have settled down. Now, paying attention is
a daily job, you have to remind yourself to pay attention. So,
I like that as a way of living and writing, 'Find a spot, settle
down, and pay attention.'
ME: Do you think that gets harder and harder
with all of the distractions available to people in modern times?
HE: Oh, I'm sure it does!
ME: You say you don’t use the computer
at all? I know that’s a huge distraction for a lot of people.
HE: If I got computer literate and got on
a computer I probably would never leave it, because it is so seductive.
Anything I wanted to know I could find it, and of course I want
to know a lot.
ME: Of course!
HE: I do have a television set now. I went
for ten years without one of those. My brother gave me an old black
and white that he was getting rid of, so eventually I got into television.
I only get three channels. If I got cable it would be the same problem,
I’d never get up. A little bit works for me, but I don’t
dare get myself 200 channels to watch because I would watch them.
I don’t want to get a computer because I know that I would
get sucked into it. I could go online and find all of the known
prehistoric flint quarries in the United States, and what kind of
flint came out of them. In fact, a friend asked me once, “How
long have you been picking up these things and wondering about them?”
I told him about thirty years, and he said, “Well you could
go on the computer and in a couple of days learn everything that
you’ve learned over thirty years.” And I don’t
doubt that I could learn a lot that way. But it would be a different
kind of knowledge. It wouldn’t have the weather, it wouldn’t
have the animals I’ve run into, it wouldn’t have the
people I’ve met, like farmers that you have to know and ask
permission to go on their land. All of that stuff is part of my
process, and it wouldn’t be there. I could have the hard data
I guess, but I wouldn’t have the context.
ME: Right! You have the hands-on experience.
Knowing facts about something is a lot different from experiencing
it in life.
HE: Well, it’s like that old joke that
says there’s a crossroads with signs pointing in two directions.
One sign says ‘To Heaven,’ and followers of Eastern
religions go that way. The other sign says ‘To Lectures on
Heaven,’ and that’s the way Western cultures go. You
can just learn words about something, or you can go out and live
it. And then write about it.
ME: Sometimes I think that technology separates
us from the humans behind what is being written.
HE: And from the hands-on experience. When
I write, I always write in pencil, in longhand, and do four or five
drafts until it’s ready to be typed up on the typewriter,
which is the apex of my technology. I like the idea that my thoughts
are coming out of this stick and leaving a trail, my hand is connected
to my ideas. That’s why it’s really vital to me to do
it that way. I can’t compose on a typewriter. A word processor
would be even worse. It’s like there’s a wall between
me and the thing, I know that my hands are still involved punching
keys, but that’s not like the trail that comes from the end
of my pencil when I write. There’s something refreshing and
reassuring to me about that.
ME: I understand what you mean. I always
write poems in longhand first, and then transfer them onto the computer
after I feel that they are coming together. Sitting down in front
of the computer is not nearly as productive for me as sitting down
with paper and pen.
HE: Do you draw?
ME: Not for others to see!
HE: To me writing is directly related to
drawing. I’m drawing symbols, words. It’s a body motion,
a dance, that I think gets lost when you start typing everything.
ME: I’ve spent a lot of time with music,
and I find a lot of connections between that and my writing.
HE: Making music? What do you play?
ME: Clarinet and trumpet, and I sing.
HE: Ah! I’m a guitar player, and I’ve
written a lot of songs. There is a connection there.
ME: Yeah! Rhythm and sound. Sound is very
important to me in what I’m reading, and when I’m writing.
The way something rolls off of the tongue…
HE: Absolutely. In fact, that’s one
of my last tests before I say that a poem is done. I need to stand
up and read it out loud. If there’s a false word or phrase
in there, my voice will feel embarrassed saying it. That’s
a pretty good indicator to me. If I read it out loud and something
in me cringes, then I know it’s not really what I meant to
say, that it’s not really my language. That’s where
I ferret out a lot of the false notes.
ME: I think that’s always a good test.
HE: Works for me!
ME: What inspires you to write a poem? A lot of your poems seem to be inspired by particular moments.
HE: For me it happens two ways, whether it’s a visual piece or a poem. There are some times when I have an idea, and I decide that I’m going to make a thing to express that idea. So I consciously set out to develop what I want to say about that concept. The other way is when they grow out of a moment. A phrase or an image shows up, or something gets noticed or recognized as a possibility. That happens below the conscious level, and those works are usually more successful to me. I feel happier making them and happier with the result, I think they’re more effective than the ones where I started out with this conscious idea like, ‘I’m sick of war, so I’m going to write a poem against war.’ Those poems are more thought-bound, more stilted and harder-edged. I prefer the ones that grow out of a moment’s image. Sometimes I’ll be driving and an idea will come into my head, and I don’t know what it’s about, but it has some kind of allure, so I write it down. That might be the seed for something creative to happen.
ME: I have a lot of those that I haven’t developed. I’m not quite sure what to do with them yet!
HE: Well I get a lot of those too, and they end up in a folder, and I do believe that work makes work, so if you mess with that stuff a little bit, things start to happen. With visual pieces, if I just get the materials out and start messing around, a little purple, or some stain here, then connections start to happen. Pretty soon the work starts giving me ideas about where I want to go next. With the poetry I end up with this folder of one or two line things that haven’t gone anywhere, and I can sit down and go through that, start rewriting them, rearranging them, and messing with them, then something else might come up. A line can get added, and it’s like a mud ball that keeps rolling. The process is what generates it. If I just sat around and thought about it, nothing would happen. I think play is a really big part of it. Forget about thinking and just play!
ME: Do your poems usually come out pretty much done when you first write them, or do you do a lot of revisions?
HE: I’m a big believer in revisions. I’ve found that if I keep whatever first comes out, I’ll end up with some cliché language, or something that just doesn’t sound right. My mind will throw me a cliché sometimes, something like, ‘Dark as night.’ It maybe works, and you go on with the poem, but in the revision you hit that cliché and say, ‘Geez, that’s awful!’ In revision I can get rid of that flat language that has somehow slipped in there, it’s almost always a process of subtraction for me.
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