Mary Szybist and Jerry Harp are a married couple, and are professors at Lewis and Clark College. Additionally, they are award winning poets, with backgrounds in theology and literature. Their poetry explores the catholic iconography and tradition in inventive and subversive ways, and their unique voices tell stories and discuss faith—with talk of doubt, love, loss, and so much more.
On Wednesday, February 10th at 5pm PST, there will be an opportunity to join Mary and Jerry, the English Department, and the Garaventa Center for a poetry reading, which will also involve a Q&A and reader/writer engagement. We highly encourage everyone to take this opportunity to hear the beautiful minds of these wonderful poets. As a preview to the event, below is an interview with Jerry Harp.
Q: What is your favorite piece you have written, published or unpublished?
Jerry: My favorite piece is an afterword I wrote for an edition of Thomas More’s Utopia. The translator was a great scholar of Thomas More and Erasmus, Clarence H. Miller, who took over the executive editorship of the Yale Thomas More Variorum project when Richard Sylvester died. Clarence was a dear friend and mentor to me. The work I have pursued in my career is markedly different from what Clarence did, but he was always very supportive of my poetry writing and everything else. I don’t know when I’ll have another chance to share a title page with two such august figures as Clarence Miller and Thomas More.
Q: How do you avoid comparison with other writers, or each other?
J: I don’t try to avoid comparison. I try not to sound like others–not too much anyway–but I think comparison can be a very understandable and healthy part of the process. Of course, if one’s manner of comparing one’s work to others’ becomes stultifying, then it’s surely a good idea to avoid it, or to come up with another way of doing it. An honest and humble comparison can be refreshing and motivating. Of course I can’t do what Milton did, or Elizabeth Bishop, or any number of others one might think of. I can only do what my efforts and talent, such as it is, can manage. That’s no problem. Comparison helps me to understand what I might do that is truly my contribution.
Q: Do you have any major influences on your writing?
J: This list could go on and on: John Milton, T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Jorge Luis Borges, Etheridge Knight, Donald Justice, Jorie Graham. As influences go, it may be that these are more aspirational than actual–I should be so lucky as to be influenced by them. In prose, I have for a long time read William Faulkner and Toni Morrison; I would like to think their influence shows up also–again, I should be so lucky.
Q: How do you influence one another? Do you often find your styles combining?
J: We are constantly commenting on and discussing each other’s work. Our styles are very different, but I believe we are helpful to each other. I know that Mary is always helpful to me.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
J: Read a lot. Get to know the poetry of more than one tradition. Write regularly, and experiment with different styles, different voices. Submit poems to magazines, but don’t get hung up too much–if you can help it–on immediate success, or on success at all. I think the work of poetry is a vocation. We need creative work in our world, whether it catches on with a large audience or not. Make sure you work on getting into a career that you can be happy with. A lot of poets teach, but there are many jobs in the world for poets to do so they can pay the bills while pursuing this vital art.
Q: How does your background in Renaissance literature inspire your current work as a contemporary/post-modern poet?
J: This background has provided me with a sense of a tradition that feeds into my work. At the same time, this tradition has its severe limitations–very few women, for example, or persons of color. Even as this tradition in some ways enables my work, I’m also trying to extricate myself from it. I have a tendency to get stuck in what is familiar, so I’m constantly trying to open myself to new voices as well as new possibilities for what I might do on the page.
The Zoom link for the reading is here (https://uportland.zoom.us/j/96383070975) and on the English department’s Instagram page, @uportlandenglish! We look forward to seeing you there!