Carla Harryman

Urgencies, Temporalities, Memory, and Privacy

I would not or typically do not separate the urgencies of the present from the qualifying aspects of memory that inflect the “now” with absences and histories or that resound with nonaligned temporalities. “Snagged Epistolary,” dedicated to Jonah Mixon-Webster (2015), performs a particularly dissonant version of such nonalignment, with its noisy effects traced in sonic and textual sources that, as described in its introductory missive, include “hidden messages, warnings, auguries, rants, citations, footnotes, obscure references, commands, translation effects derived from techno and house music, skipped beats and irregular rhythms, annoying rhyming, projective fantasy, sheer nonsense, redundancy and noise of legalese in racist police interrogation.”

While sometimes a poem like “Snagged Epistolary” is made swiftly, with its pasts ensnared in a present pulse, there are instances in which the writing itself delays compositional time, or suspends it as if it is waiting for something to happen that hasn’t yet occurred. This is the case with the diptych W—M—completed in 2013 and begun in the late 1990s. It was a writing of contemplation on one side and rebellion on the other, but it was incomplete until effects of the financial crisis were imprinted on the text. 

A reader is in the future, and one of course is often surprised by the urgency of something published long ago. What urgencies will the April 2018 marathon reading of Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, first published in 1984, bring to the book? Will our alarm over streams of school shootings recast the way in which this work of negativity and gender rebellion is read? Will it appear to resonate with or bolster the anti-gun politics of teenagers? Just now I randomly open a page of another work of Acker’s, I Dreamt I was a Nymphomaniac Imagining, and alight on this sentence, “Robert Sheff is a 29-year-old Black citizen who has been incarcerated in the California Prison system for over 11 years. Including 7 years locked up under various forms of segregation.”

In my Poets Theater play L’impromptu de Hannah/Hannah Cut-In (2017-2018), Marion, a surrogate for my mother, tells Hannah, a surrogate for Hannah Arendt, “I find myself embarrassed about the crisis of everything.” Had my actual mother lived passed 2012, such embarrassment may have been unbearable. I sometimes imagine her using her age as an excuse to entirely retreat from the world. In the play, Marion’s comic, self-aware words are confessions directed to the public intellectual, a ghostly presence who is near her but doesn’t seem to know her. Was my mother ever as interested as I in Arendt’s theorizing of evil? The play itself involves a memory of surreptitiously coming into the house, watching the Eichmann trials over my mother’s shoulder. When she refused to explain what I was seeing except in the vaguest terms, she was not, I think, protecting me; she was refusing to paint a reassuring story.

Marion’s self-characterizing embarrassment over “the crisis of everything” gives way to a severe judgment the more I think about it. Through the filter of my mother, I see that there is something profoundly humiliating in the idea of a world that is mediated in and by crisis. Where does this begin for her? With the society in which she lived initially denying the realities of fascism? And which, subsequently persisted in reshaping the world? Consider that the crisis of private possession of assault weapons in part serves as a foil for the on-going, less noticed militarization of the police state. The drama of crisis, its mediated realities, infantilized the private citizen. My mother negotiated her fight-flight reactions, seeking adult responses within her private life. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, she refused to horde canned goods and mocked school bomb drills. Thanks to her, I was not a fearful child even as I was ever confused by Marion’s anxiety and embarrassment. If my mother (inadvertently) made me a poet, then she is in part writing this ambivalent response to the question of the now through her daughter.

My writing often germinates from or is in direct response to a perceived, known, or felt urgency; however, time, the time of writing does not necessarily cooperate with Now, even as it makes demands of it. The future, however, well that’s another story and a bit of an obsession.


Carla Harryman

CARLA HARRYMAN’s recent books are Sue in Berlin (To Series, PURH, 2018) and Sue à Berlin (trans. Sabine Huynh, PURH, 2018); L’Impromptu de Hannah/Hannah Interrupted (trans. Abigail Lang, Joca Seria, 2018); and Artifact of Hope (Ordinance 10), (Kenning Editions, 2017).