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Memory, history overlap in collage-style writings

Monday, April 24, 2017


LAWRENCE — University of Kansas English Professor Joseph Harrington has been writing about his mother for longer than they lived together. Elizabeth “Lib” Peoples Harrington died of breast cancer in 1974, when Joseph Harrington was 12.

As an adult, Harrington has sought to come to terms with that in his creative writing. It’s been the focus of his 2011 book, “Things Come On (an amneoir)” (Wesleyan University Press) and a 2015 chapbook, “Goodnight Whoever’s Listening” (Essay Press). An excerpt from the latter was published in the new book “BAX: Best American Experimental Writing 2016” (Wesleyan).

“It’s all part of a larger project that I’m terming ‘a bioelegy.’ It’s both a biography of and an elegy for my mom,” Harrington said. “The project is designed for me to get a better idea of who she was. The entire manuscript combines verse, prose, dialogue, found materials and pictures.”

In “Things Come On,” the Watergate scandal, culminating in the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon, is interwoven with the biographical material, Harrington said, because that’s how it is in his memory. Likewise, in “Goodnight Whoever’s Listening,” there are excerpts from the child-rearing advice writings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, whom Joseph Harrington says he conflated in his young mind with “Star Trek” first officer Mr. Spock. His childhood hometown of Memphis and its social and cultural history figures into the narrative, too.

Joseph Harrington’s parents met while both were working as aides in the Washington, D.C., office of Albert Gore Sr., who served from 1953 to 1971 as senator from Tennessee. Elizabeth Harrington served as the senator’s personal secretary before giving it up to move home and become a full-time mother and housewife.

Joseph Harrington said he read many early feminist writings to try to relate to the discomfort his mother felt after giving up her Washington career.

He explained his post-research writing process:

“I combine different genres – found materials, (audio)tape transcripts – and the poetry reflects on it all,” he said. “People making up their own genres represents a growing tendency among writers. It’s even getting into the mainstream today — combining different genres within the same work, or coming up with something that doesn’t fit into any genre at all. Every so often, artists get tired of what’s going on and say, ‘I’m gonna see what happens if I do this.’ . . . I see these different forms of writing as different forms of knowing, different angles on the same subject matter.

“When dealing with a person, that’s a complicated subject, and I need all the help I can get. I tell my students: Don’t worry about fitting into a genre; start writing and see what makes sense for that particular material.”

Harrington, whose first book, a work of literary criticism and history, focused on early 20th century poets like Wallace Stevens and Allen Tate, likened his method in writing the “bioelegy” to a collage.

“I take material from different sources and collage them together,” he said. “I leave gaps and seams showing. That’s one connection between the critical work I do and the way I write. It’s not avant-garde. It harks back to 100 years ago in a very recognizable tradition.”

Harrington said he used materials from his father’s attic, the Tennessee State Library, the Gore Archive, his mother’s scrapbooks and more.

“I think about how they create an implicit narrative through found objects,” he said. “It’s a grassroots version of what somebody like Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot was doing. I write and write and write and cut and cut and cut until it resonates with me.”

Photo: Elizabeth Peoples Harrington sits at far left in a family group photo from the 1930s. It was featured in “Goodnight Whoever’s Listening (a bioelegy),” the 2015 chapbook from which an excerpt was taken for Professor Joe Harrington's chapter in the “BAX: Best American Experimental Writing 2016.”