“My house holds sound / like the sea inside a shell,” writes Lesley Harrison in the poem “Convergence.” And this is the sense one has while reading Kitchen Music, a poetry collection filled with as much sea and wind as a house on the coast of an island. Conversing with a variety of artists and historical narratives—John Cage, Marina Rees, Johannes Kepler, and nineteenth-century whaler Captain William Barron, among others—Harrison’s sixth book of poetry, and her first to be published in the US, feels both eclectic and also pre-utterance. Her work exists on the border between language of natural clarity and human silence, where white space buffs against stanza to produce its own music. As Kirsty Gunn writes in the introduction on her experience of reading Kitchen Music, “I also heard voices, speeches; here were folk tales being recalled and recounted, and songs, music […] the forms indeed took shape as sets of notation, pentatonic in scale, reaching and keening.” Like the whale, which serves as the cetaceous heart of this book, Harrison’s primary mode of communication is sound, whether it be daylight or rain clouds, old prayer or the birth of a new island.
I spoke to Harrison over email about writing new poetry, her relationship with whales, the influence of climate change and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to ask about your history with the whale as an animal. Were you interested in them when you were a child, or is this a relationship that started later in life?
I am very lucky to live on the very edge of the North Sea, along the high red cliffs of the Angus coastline [in Scotland]. This is a quiet landscape: on the one side there are fields, then trees, and the gray shadows of the Grampian foothills; on the other, open sea. At many points the coastal path overhangs the ocean below, and depending on the light you might see dolphins, or the row of giant wind turbines eleven miles out, or even the black back of a whale rising briefly, like a dark sunken moon.
I grew up just south of here in Dundee, which was in its day a major whaling port for the North Atlantic. Over the 18th and 19th centuries those waters were progressively fished out, and by the beginning of the 20th century only Peterhead and Dundee, and then only Dundee, were sending ships to the ice. As a young child I remember visiting our local museums, one of which had, suspended from the ceiling, the massive skeleton of a humpback that had swum into the Tay estuary in 1883. The other had an array of whaling irons, many bent or corkscrewed from the thrashings of the harpooned animal.
Though there is no longer a north water fishing fleet, the sense of being at the southern edge of a much larger, colder world, remains as a layer in our collective subconscious as a reflective, cautious way of thinking; a watchfulness, almost a prehension of the cold. Already in October there is a sense of winter waiting just over the horizon. Daylight has a pearly feel. “What surprised me most in the Arctic Regions,” said a young Arthur Conan Doyle, surgeon on board the whaler Hope of Peterhead in 1880, “was the rapidity with which you reached [sic] them. I had never realized that they lie at our very doors. I think that we were only four days out from Shetland when we were among the drift ice.”
There is a way in which whales (for me) prove beyond that there are truly more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies; that the world is more vast and strange than we can ever possibly imagine. And that the limits of our imagination, and our hubris, are the most damaging and dangerous aspects of our presence on the planet. These poems, I hope, point to the very finite nature of our ability to know, and the frail edges of our sense of “at homeness.”
In your interview with the Poetry Foundation in 2018, you talk about whalers “going out to encounter forces of nature and landscapes that were entirely contrary to anything they’d ever been familiar with.” You also go on to discuss the significance of folk memory and lore. As a modern poet, do you feel a connection to these storytellers of a more ancient kind? And do you think their language and how it has been handed down to us, helps to make a creature like the whale “familiar? to us in some way? Or is familiarity impossible?
Ahah. Good question. I see language as a perpetual, endless and always provisional struggle to frame, to define. Language is a continual process of recycling and renewal: we coin new meanings to try to make them adequate to the now. (I am certainly not the first to say this! See Julia Kristeva on the transactional nature of meaning, and many others.) Don Paterson has talked about the job of poets being the renewal of language, to make sure it is adequate to its purpose.
Yes, I feel a connection to the writers of the whaling journals, in that in their voices I feel a sense of reaching for language to try to fit something so unfamiliar to the world in which their language had been forged. In my readings, I see them reaching for local references, or using dialect or familiar turns of phrase, to try to give a sense of scale, to help the reader/listener find their feet in this strange world – but also to (perhaps inadvertently) point to all that is beyond its reach.
Demonstrating this idea of language as mapping, as providing footholds, in this otherwise unlanguaged space, was what led me to include poems using erasure & collage.
My favourite quote on the subject is from Scottish poet, multilinguist and translator Edwin Morgan: “Hugh MacDiarmid used to speak about the human brain being largely unused. I’m sure that’s quite true, and I think language is like that too.”
In regard to whales and the dangerous nature of humans, I suppose it’s an almost too easy jump to Moby Dick, and much of the material in Kitchen Music concerned with whaling, you found in records from the 18th and 19th centuries. But when it comes to form, or the more literary history of the subject, do you feel your collection necessarily owes anything to Melville?
I first read Moby Dick in 2012, for an additional class I was taking while studying for an MLitt as a mature student. So, no debt or direct inspiration from Melville. Neither do I look for any deeper/symbolic value in the phenomenon of the whale, or the process of whaling—their literal truth is enough to amaze.
Though I do owe one debt to Melville: in my pamphlet Beyond the Map (Mariscat, 2012), the poem “Bowhead” borrows some phrases from Moby Dick.
Another American author your writing and philosophy bring to mind, is Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson wrote that “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” Does this ring true to your experience of writing at all? Would you consider a completed poem and a whale calf to be a ‘new thing’ in the same sense?
I like the idea that a poem has “an architecture of its own.” The sculptor Henry Moore said, “Every idea has its right physical size.” Poems do insist on their own form, and their own voice (or the ones worth keeping, at least). It is a matter of attention to craft, and of self-discipline, to give space to this.
Adorning nature with a new thing: this idea makes me uneasy in that I don’t feel that a poem is a material object, an intrusion or intervention. I see a poem more as a point in flux, or a sharp synthesis or crystallisation of thought and language. Is it organic, like a living thing? With natural phases of growth and decay? Does it exist independently of ourselves, of our thinking it? I don’t think so.
You wear your influences, or original inspirations, on your sleeve, whether it’s the whaling journals of William Barron, or Marina Rees’s C-E-T-E-C-E-A exhibition. Do you see the act of writing a book like this as collaborative, in some sense? Or is that not quite the right word?
I wonder if “collaboration” requires the other person’s knowledge!
Maybe “dialogue” is closer—but not dialogue with that writer/artist (again this implies their knowledge, or at least consent), but rather a dialogue with what they have contributed culturally to what and how we think about the whale, or about our porous, fraying habitat. In a sense our cultural habitat is by definition porous and fraying, as it is in a constant state of flux, and renewal. Nothing is old—the Scottish poet W.S. Graham talked about being one among many constant voices, all equally present.
You wrote in your essay “Accent, Elaboration, Spontaneous Invention: Whale Song and Subliminal Sound” that, “There are obvious reasons why we empathise with the plight of the whale above other species, and why they offer an easy barometer to the health of our seas, and our own porous, fraying habitat.” Similarly to the whale and its life as a symbol of the oceans and their health, among other things, do you think the idea of the poet is changing due to our fraying habitat? Do you think climate change has altered what it means to be a poet?
I don’t think the poet is morally bound in any way to address climate or other issues; and I imagine you too have read some poetry that really should have been a monologue or a film script or a poster or something. I dislike the terms ‘ecopoetry’, or ‘ecopoetics’. On the one hand, it would feel naive to only write Romantic-type poems about my surroundings; my latent anxiety and alarm about the largely unknown range of human impact has altered my empathy in a very fundamental way—has made me perceive it differently. This is reflected in my poetry, I think—but not just my poems about whales. It makes me tentative about my use of language across the board to frame or describe.
New Directions Publishing Corporation
Published May 02, 2023
Connor Harrison is a British writer living in Montreal. His work has appeared at Lit Hub, Evergreen Review, LA Review of Books, and Poetry Wales, among others. He has work forthcoming at Action, Spectacle.