What do you do with a grief so complex it's impossible to write? If you're Richard Harrison, you write it anyway, and create something beautiful in the process. Harrison's On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood (Wolsak & Wynn) is a genre-defying work of mostly-poetry that delves into his father's dementia and death, but goes well beyond that difficult time to encompass a fascinating life, including Harrison's father's own love of poetry, which endured even when he was hardly recognizable. Spurred to write when his father's ashes were thought to be lost in the 2013 flooding in Alberta, Richard created something that is simultaneously cerebral and warm, experimental and grounded, grief-stricken and hopeful.
We're thrilled to have Richard on Open Book today to talk about this arresting book. He tells us how and why the writing process doesn't end when a book is published, how his show-stopping title came about, and what colours and emotions have in common.
The emotional landscape of On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood is intense, drawing on your father's life, illness, and his passing, amongst other things. How did you handle this writing process, on an emotional level?
Part of my answer is that I’m answering this question last. I think “writing process” applies to both the writing you do to make the book, and to living with it after it’s done. I think my dad would have really liked this book, and he would have appreciated the puzzle that it would neither exist, nor would he like it as much as I imagine him to, if he hadn't died the way he did. Poetry has a thousand definitions, and each is an attempt to capture what it is for a given poet when the poet thinks “I need a definition for poetry.” Wordsworth reached for “violent emotion recalled in tranquility” and I don’t think he meant calm; I think he meant, as full as possible a revisiting, a feeling-again, of the emotions of a given situation when that situation is no longer there in order to make art out of words that, if you’d uttered them at the time, would have been merely expressions of how helpless we are, but words that, hen you call them up when the world is quiet, you can turn and mine and change to make a situation out of words themselves that calls up emotions in yourself and others. Part of my defence is intellectualizing. But I think that’s fundamentally right. I felt as much as I could. Then, when the feelings were gone, I worked on the words they left behind with as much craft as I could to make a poem. And then I’d feel it all again. Repeat for a few years, and there’s both the poem and there’s me, feeling better for having made something, particularly something that in my father’s case, has brought out the sense of what it was to lose him for others and what it is to have so much of him still close to me.
The title of your book is wonderfully bold and unique. Were you nervous about using a longer title? Were there any other working titles you had considered before this one?
Thank you. I’ve always liked long titles, they have the feel of books that people want to linger over in their reading. This is the first one I’ve been able to get to work. People are responding really well to it, especially in terms of having it call up their stories. What I’ve learned is that ashes are sacred when kept, but they are one of the few such things made even more sacred when they’re lost; we go to a place dear to the dead to release their ashes to the elements, and even though we can return to that place, we’ll never find the ashes there again, and that’s part of why we went there. But when they’re something people want to keep, the idea of their loss is a traumatic middle ground: what’s lost isn’t just the sacred object itself, but the relationship between that object and those entrusted with it. Trauma resonates. Since the book came out, I’ve heard stories of urns packed up in moves and never seen again, or graves feared washed away by the flood the book refers to – and the relief when they weren’t. When I was trying out that title, and comparing it to other candidates (all of them shorter and none of them as particular), I saw that kind of double-desire in people who heard it -- on one hand to know more about the story in the book (which is of ashes lost or not lost depending on how people read the title at first), and on the other to answer the book with words of their own. That told me it was right.
In some ways, this book seemed to defy easy genre classification. Did pulling from different genres to create this collection come naturally or did you set out to experiment with a genre-bending book?
I didn’t set out to write across distinctions of genre. The poems adapted to what changed in me during the book’s time on the writing desk. Over those eleven years, the book took on different tasks: at first to be a book of poems about poems, and then, when my dad thankfully lived a lot longer than we thought he would, to continue our relationship through the poem, and then when the flood came, to include the events there, as well. And not just the events, but the impact of the events. The flood was the first time for me, really, that nature wasn’t just something I was observing. It burst in and insisted not just on its enormity in what I wrote about, but how. It was a power that threw out all the order I thought I had made to last. It was teaching me to write about itself and about death. So when all was said and done, and I’d worked on the final manuscript for about a year with Paul Vermeersch, testing the results in readings and with my own circle of friends, the book as a whole preserved all those purposes in some form or other; now that I’m writing about it, I think it’s like the way you can see sedimentary layers in metamorphic rock but in that rock you can also see the effect of fire.
You mention that your father always remembered the poems he memorized as a young person, even when he was afflicted with dementia. What is your opinion on the value of committing poems and other literary work to memory? Do you have any favourite pieces you know by heart?
I think it’s invaluable. A head full of poems – or, as you rightly say, literary work – is a mind ready to speak to the unknown, the future, to things ordinary speech quite literally has no simple words for. Sometimes I think about it this way – every poem is a distinct emotion. It’s said we can discern about 5000 separate colours; I think we can feel that many emotions, too, but ordinary language has about 30 words to name what we feel. So we make poems to give the out-loud reality to feelings we have felt but lacked an easily found vocabulary to describe – or, if not for what we’ve felt, for what what waits for us to be felt in future. This is the wisdom of learning a culture’s wisdom by heart. It’s why we apply intellect to emotion. You could say, and I often have over the last five years, that my father learned “Fern Hill” so that he would have the words he needed to die with. I have favourites that are just mine and have been very influential at various times, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, “If” by Patrick Lane, “Ozymandias,” but my favourite favourites are the ones I share with others, the ones that mark certain relationships or times in my life: the soldiery poems with my father, “The Second Coming,” Anthony’s speech over the body of Caesar – “Oh pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth”; the imaginatively excessive ones with my children, Dr. Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (which my daughter and I recite), and with my wife, Lisa, Lennon and McCartney’s most lyrically poetic song, “In My Life,” and e.e. cummings’ “somewhere i have never travelled gladly beyond.”
What were you reading while working on On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood? Were there any books you found influential during the writing process?
Eleven years’ worth of reading. Hmm. And which books were influential? Hmmm again.
The longer I think about this, the longer the list gets; I just realized how much, for example thematic books of the kind that I’ve written in the past (and which this book borrows part of itself from owe to Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue, which I heard him read from when I was an undergrad at Trent – and how influential that complete experience of poet poetry was). So let me answer it this way: here are eleven of the books (and articles) I’ve called on or been urged on by when I needed to know something about writing in the broadest sense -- from our the technical to poetic, from the philosophical to the linguistic:
Writing with Power, Peter Elbow
“The Twofold Character of Language,” and “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles”, Roman Jakobson from Jakobson and Halle’s The Fundamentals of Language
Anne Carson’s Introduction to Red
Unflattening, Nick Sousanis
The Father, Sharon Olds
Poems New and Selected (1978), Patrick Lane
Best Words, Best Order, Stephen Dobyns
“Kyorai’s Conversation with Basho” from The Essential Haiku, translated by Robert Hass
“What is a Poem?” Carol Muske
Monochromatics, Ward Maxwell
Visiting Hours, Shane Koyczan
What will you be working on next?
I try not to think about that in the year a book is out. I think of that time as the time when the book is teaching me what it means as something separate from my own intentions, something outside my ability to change it. It’s when I ask myself, “What have I done?” or rather, “What does what I’ve done tell me about what I should do next?” It’ll take about that long, living between “After over” and “Before begun” for me to get a sense of what that is, but it’s a time I love living in.
Richard Harrison's first comic book was a Marvel Tales collection of Spider-Man’s first battle with the Hulk, Thor vs. Sandu, the Human Torch vs. the Sub-Mariner and a scary cautionary tale told by the Wasp to a kid in the hospital, “Somewhere Waits a Wobbo.” Four fantasies for a quarter: it was a steal. He’s been reading ever since. Richard is a nationally recognized poet (Hero of the Play,Big Breath of a Wish), editor and essayist on topics ranging from philosophy to prayer, literary criticism to mathematics, and poetry to hockey – as well as his work on superheroes. A professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, he teaches English, Creative Writing, and courses in comics (with Lee Easton) and the graphic novel.