Interview with Joseph Harms
July 9, 2017
What is the significance of demonic entities in your work?
In part the demonic element in all of my work is intuitive, deriving in many ways from the quotidian, a sort of monadic ineffable pulse behind all things: the noumenon, nous, Manitou, orgone, etc. Rilke’s angelic beauty and terror. Also the artistic endeavor itself is ideally demonic in that a draining of the autonomy of the will is its prerequisite—Hopkins’ instress and inscape. Allen Grossman at all times writes wonderfully (with odd critical awe) on this: “Is it possible that, when the demon of the world truly speaks through the voice of any person, that voice will become, first unintelligible, and then too loud or too soft or too subtle to be acquired by any human ear.”
In Baal the demonic element is in the least (topically) twofold. Nature (anything not explicitly human) covers the idea sketched above. The god worshipped by the adults in the boys’ community (nominally Jesus, cognomen Satan, much in tune with Blake’s inversions) in being the abstraction which they, through gross stupidity and dissolution, reify, is like all gods demonic and made superabundant and circumambient via communal focus. Gehenna (the man in the woods who runs St. John’s Boys Center) then becomes an instantiation of both forms of demonism, and the intellectually and developmentally disabled boys therein become Gehenna’s antipode, which is to say the true face of God (in so far as one believes God to exist in any human sense, a wild thought) beyond witness and ineffable.
Cant, an eschatological novel that may as well be set in Eschaton (I’m imagining eschaton as a place more than an event—I can’t help it), allows the demonic its rightful devolve into the comedic, what occurs when the demon becomes human. This is a nasty transmogrification as the awfulness (brimful with awe) of the demonic deliquesces in proportion to the ascendance of human brutality and ignorance. Also, without demonic transcendence tragedy comes into play vying for the terminus with comedy.
The demonism of Hopkins, Rilke and Grossman best exemplifies that in Bel where the obdurate milieu does not allow for far-flung demonic play but rather insists on the wonderful and fearful beauty of everything survived—as well as an inborn longing for death. Sounds pretty melodramatic but that’s that!
Having read Baal, I wasn’t surprised to learn of a sonnet sequence by the same writer. Your prose is lyrical with an acute sense of musicality usually saved for poetry. Their mutual fluency seem to inform one another. Did the two forms develop in confluence for you, or do you consider yourself more ensconced in one or the other? Why sonnets?
Baal was the beginning of a significant formal change for me. A gestalt more than a change—though it felt like an abrupt realization, as it happened one night, as if all at once, that I saw all my previously completed work (ten novels, tons of stories and poems) as formally weightless and ugly, meaning sentence-for-sentence what I’d written was weak, uninspired. It was a shock along the lines of Henderson the Rain King being hit by the truth. An obsession with Robinson Jeffers had a lot to do with this terrible insight. I wrote one more novel and many short stories before beginning Baal and with Baal I began to feel l like I was getting somewhere as goes form and what I consider beauty on the level of the sentence. Whatever this stylistic transformation was, it found something akin to completion in Cant and a new path to the waterfall in Bel, in the sonnet.
While my ideas concerning the sentence and those concerning line/meter/etc. are very different, there is a general approach to writing that remains the same genre to genre and it is best summarized by Pope’s aphorism “maximum concision, maximum complexity,” which I think of as an overly simple and less abstract form of beauty. An even simpler (and less accurate) way to look at this is: Say the most using the least. This is often exactly where the hated “$100 words” with their highly specific and/or foliate meanings come into play.
The sonnet added great depth to this aphorism: when the meter breaks it’s significant; if the line is longer or shorter than ten syllables it is significant; if a line-end word is broken with a hyphen to continue on the next line there is meaning communicated; and so on. Once I began Bel I never wanted it to end; I never wanted to write anything other than sonnets.
Do you consider yourself of an academic writing background, or is your background more firmly autodidactic? How does teaching inform your work?
Autodidactic—while I get how it’s generally used—gives one too much credit. My writing background though is absolutely nonacademic. I dropped out of college after three semesters when I was nineteen and didn’t return (as an undergraduate) until after finishing Cant when I was thirty.
As of now at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program I’ve only TA’d. This fall I’ll be teaching Creative Writing and Composition, and I’m not embarrassed to say I can’t wait, especially considering all the shit-jobs I’ve had till now.
Your writing is, among other things, filthy. You have some of the most baroque language juxtaposed with some of the most graphic imagery. It’s a bit like chasing a fine malted, aged scotch with a swig of rotgut. Where do these two planes meet? And how? To what do you attribute your penchant for hyperverbal audacity?
Funny, that’s not so far off from how I take my alcohol.
The graphic/analytic/biologic sex scenes that crop up in Baal and Cant are purposefully tonally without transition from or into the scenes at their termini. Sadly, no one makes love in these novels—that angel never lands. Rather, carnality is vested with the same transcendence and gross entrapment (reverence/irreverence) as is every object in the novels. The paradox of this kind of carnality is that the more the body is intensely (if not violently) engaged the greater the opportunity for (a specious and temporary) transcendence, the same being true of any externality or alterity. Sex in this light is not the union of two people but the emptying of two people to the extent that two bodies remain autonomous, selfless and cannibalistically engaged. The mystical experience, the wed of the intrinsic and extrinsic and the subsequent emptying, is quite similar.
Especially with Bel and Cant every single line/sentence, every coupling of words, every word, every moment of punctuation must be perfect, must be beautiful (as far as I can pull this off). This urge has led to an extreme density (see Grossman on Hart Crane) that understandably puts many readers off, more often than not with the pejorative word “obscurantist” on their tongues, this in the main due to the free use of the hated “$100 words” when said words are wonderful in their specificity/multiple meanings/sonic echoes/etc. “Maximum concision, maximum complexity”=supernal clarity (or perhaps madness). The binary (to think in binaries belies understanding, I know) between beauty and communication, their inverted symbiotic relationship, is perhaps as real as anything in this world. I at every turn choose beauty, Nabokov’s aesthetic bliss, betting on the readers out there who choose ecstasy over comradery every time.
And what about your acumen for naturalism/ the aforementioned demonic symbolism? Baal is a Canaanite prince of hell right? I know there are other meanings, but this is the one I thought most intended? Could you elaborate on this?
I recently watched Lars von Trier’s The Antichrist for a second time in hopes of extracting the author’s underlying purpose or meaning (a fool’s errand, I know). I can’t pretend to have done so beyond the vague idea that evil inheres in the natural world, that “nature is Satan’s church.” I look at things in a very different way (though I get how my outlook can often seem similar to The Antichrist’s outlook): nature (that which isn’t human: alterity), even if (or especially because) on a quantum level it exists because we observe it, is deserving of our awe and praise, its evil no more than an alterity that refuses to acknowledge our endeavors in a human light. The human world on the other hand, that of good and evil, might do well to stop procreating and walk into extinction with something like dignity, this as the only viable solution to evil (see Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race).
This is all by way of explaining Baal as an honorific much like “Lord,” one often associated with chthonic or pagan gods. To Cassius’ preteen thinking the worship of any god reported to hold humanity at a level above say a spork or rabbit is in fact the worship of Baal, metonym of Satan, Dis, Demigorgon, etc. Put simply, humanity worships Baal; to not do so one must actively not do so.
The Midwest seems to figure heavily. You grew up in the region?
I spent my first thirteen years in Ypsilanti, Michigan (Baal/Bel), the remainder of my teens in Chelsea and Ann Arbor, Michigan (Cant/Bel). Maybe the best part of my time in Ypsi was spent in the woods (our neighborhood was tucked into a horseshoe of forest and corn field), the neighborhood itself being semi-rough, the pseudo-gang-fights being semi-regular (though to a certain extent I enjoyed the fighting, mainly because I had a good “gang”); and in Chelsea the quaintness of downtown (despite being a hateful teen I could admit to and enjoy Chelsea’s charm) and the railroad tracks one could walk from town to town.
I wrote these books from Brooklyn, NY, and in a large part set them in MI (and Europe) for the same reason I’d obsessively take the train up to Tarrytown to walk the Old Croton aqueduct trail or ride my bike to Fort Tilden: to escape, to see at least something of nature.
What is the writing process like for you with narrative? Is it brick by brick or more like being in the center of a tornado? How is it different from the sonnets in Bel?
With Baal and Cant respectively I took hundreds of pages of notes, tacked them in something like chronological order (usually three to five deep) on the walls of my office and began to write—at all times adding to and subtracting from the wall, rearranging (like the cliché obsessive cop—or writer for that matter). The tornado metaphor is much more to the point—no matter how organized I tried to be before any given day’s writing I could never keep everything in mind and the notes always needed major adjusting before I could clear my mind enough to write a good sentence.
Bel was the opposite. It started as nebulous attempts at sehnsucht, of writing from that feeling, and concretized into something like my take on Romeo and Juliet, so much so that its plot arc could be said to be dramatic, as in much like a play. Despite the often rough or depressive content, the writing of Bel was euphoric—just like that of Baal and Cant but with zero stress. Each sonnet was either a success or a failure—fuck the rest and stab it dead!
You have a talent for writing and humanizing unsavory characters. How, for example, did the protagonists in Baal come about? Are you into the idea of antiheroes, or antivillains? How about young characters? How does Lonely Tony figure in?
A great question in that I’m laughing as I read it. Cassius is more or less a version of myself, Max a conglomerate of youth’s best friends (our neighborhood was diverse, my friends diverse, racism the norm). A big impetus in writing Baal—and Cant and Bel—was to capture these wonderful, beautiful people whom I was lucky enough to know well, whom I was lucky enough to call best friends. Sadly, life has rarely been savory but I do think at that young age we all were, despite the violence etc., on the side of kindness, of love, and I hope we’re all still somewhere at least adjacent to that realm.
What’s so nice about writing about young people is that they are always more or less good and understandable; they still take joy in simple beauty and often rebel against quotidian bads. When they themselves act in horrendous ways one can by dint of their tiny lifespan point the explanatory finger, although said finger is pointing at the infinity between 1 and 0.
Lonely Tony is a paternal trope of reasonable goodness—and yet I loved him most (to be an idiotic writer about things) and did everything in my power to move him away from said trope. I wish he were based on a real person.
I want to talk about the characters in the sonnets.
Bel and Az, their respective lives, the Michigan and NYC in which they transpire—all of this (arguably like all creative writing) is antinomically my life and an invented life derived from a strong sense of sehnsucht and the nostalgia and longing inherent in sehnsucht. I deeply wish I had a lifelong on-and-off love affair with someone as wonderful as Bel, another conglomerate character half myself and half based on girls and women I’ve known. Perhaps even more so than the characters of Baal and Cant those of Bel, in the way in which they relate to each other, are inventions. Far less invented are the ways in which the crummy world destroys their love and ultimately destroys them, abets their terrible destructive and all-too-normal behavior.
Cant is a work of monstrous ambition. I can’t fathom the monomania it took to complete it.
The writing of Cant almost broke me intellectually, emotionally. It was about three years of constant writing (often just a single paragraph in five hours) and constant fear that I wouldn’t be able to maintain a pitch of thought and feeling previously foreign to me and currently only available now and then when I’m lucky enough to write a poem (with Bel I only had to get to this place once a week). I wanted to write three novels in one, the first apparent, the other two liminal yet ever extant. I wanted every bit of narrative to be chiseled, beautiful, that one might open to any page and find beauty and a multiplicity of meaning. Maybe Cant did break something in me, as I have not been able to write any worthwhile fiction since.
If one can consistently write at one’s highest register, perhaps transcending one’s idea of what this is, why ever descend? even if it makes for an odd kind of monotony, which in the least is a form of self-sabotage? Do we have to come down (to mediocrity)? Do we have to keep the reader (accessibility) in mind? My God, reader, I’m sorry, but you’ve not been on my mind—although I want your head on my chest, my hand in your hair, and I want the same from you.
Tell me about the images throughout Bel, both the figurative and the photographs.
Even in the NYC parts of Bel I imagistically wanted a very (too-often-attempted?) ultra-American, Hopperesque celebration of the small town and its purlieu of corn fields and wilderness, and I wanted this celebration to be directly in the face of human pettiness and evil—and sometimes love, sometimes tenderness. No matter how awfully their parents treat them and, maybe more heartbreaking, how awfully they treat each other and themselves, I wanted these sadly normal crimes set against the wonder and beauty of dumbass American towns and the insuperable landscape.
The photographs are close-ups of rocks I found on Lake Geneva and on various Spanish beaches, the idea being that they appear to be long-shutter shots of the universe, this to represent the Eleatic concept of the world as wholly solid, the myth of time being but different angels of the same solidity (a way too simple explanation of this mad and convoluted yet frighteningly right-feeling concept/belief). The pervading sense of irreality in all the books (Whitman’s greatest fear which he ridiculously solved by belief in one’s body), the sense that nothing has ever transpired and nothing will ever transpire, the great fear that what’s been done will always have been and so is always—these rocks, these mini-instantiations of our frozen, irreal world wherein the human is a myth, they speak to one of the deeper currents of all three books (and will be appearing in Expat’s reissues of Cant and Baal—my biggest thanks for that, Manny).
What does Joseph Harms read?
Every author mentioned in the above—my God, they’re all great. My reading has mostly been so traditional as to be typical. Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky meant everything to me as a teenager—and it was around that time Flannery O’Conner, James Baldwin and Ernest Hemingway joined forces to form an odd triumvirate of megaliths. Then came Robinson Jeffers and Jung. Recently James Salter’s Light Years killed me—a perfect book. Also the newish poet Joe Wenderoth—maybe I’m reading too much into his work, but I think we’re coming from pretty similar places. My God, one often overlooked godsend of a magnificent writer is Malcolm Lowry. I came to him shortly after finishing Cant and began to feel as if I were that poor bastard’s reincarnation—it’s as if I ripped half my approach and half my concern directly from him, and the same is true of Allen Grossman, a recent discovery (see Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence). Milton’s Paradise Lost cannot be topped.