Interview: Linda Lee Harper



Linda Lee Harper lives in Augusta, Georgia, born in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her BA & MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She taught there, University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Continuing Education program, and at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. Her published works include:

Toward Desire (Word Works, 1996), 1995 Washington Prize for Poetry, One Pushcart Nomination; A Failure of Loveliness (Nightshade Press, 1994), William and Kingman Page Award; Cataloguing Van Gogh (Tampa Writers’ Voice, 1997), Hibiscus Award; The Wide View (White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 1998), Fall Open Reading Award; Blue Flute (Adastra Press, 1999), two Pushcart Nonimations; Buckeye (Anabiosis Press, 1999), 1998 Winner.

Her poems have been anthologized in: Tea Time In The Oleander Garden: Works By Southern Women (Bear-In Mind Press, 1999); 46/​96 South Carolina Poetry (Ninety-Six Press, 1994); Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry, 1995-96 ed. Alan Pater (Monitor Books, 1997); All Around Us: Voices From The Valley (Emerald Press, 1996); SC Poetry: A Millennium Sampler (Ninety-Six Press, 2005). She has received four Pushcart Nominations and been a Fellow at both VCAA and Yaddo.

Her work has appeared most recently in: The Georgia Review, Nimrod, The Seneca Review, Rattle, and 85 other journals. Her manuscript “Kiss Kiss” was selected as the winner in Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Open Competition for 2007 and was published in 2008.

She currently is working on a collection of short stories and a third poetry collection at her home on Lake Murray, South Carolina, where she never, ever goes fishing.

Linda Lee joined us via email in early January 2013, just before heading out to the lake to patch a roof. And write.

When did you first know that you wanted to write?

In second grade I went around to neighbors to ask questions about the neighborhood…for instance… which was their favorite dog, kid, candy. I then hand-printed a neighborhood Clifton Gazette with all the neighborhood news and distributed it. One neighbor paid me $1.00. I thought it was cool to get candy money for doing something so much fun and that I loved to do. I made one more edition and then school started and my journalism career came to an abrupt halt.
Of course, receiving that $1.00 was very misleading. Making money in the business of writing isn’t always so easy, and it seldom drops from the sky unsolicited. Let’s see…, I wrote and produced a play for the whole school in 4th grade, ” Suzy And Her Wonderful, Magical Horse.” It enjoyed a one night run. And like many gloomy adolescents, I wrote bleak, dreadful poetry throughout high school. Because I sang in show groups, I wrote song lyrics, too. Later when I decided to focus on a degree, I re-discovered that I could earn something wonderful by doing what was fun and that I loved doing…writing. And wonder of wonders, in poetry.

So much of your work is focused on a wry Southern womanness. When did you find that voice, and how have you seen it evolve and develop over time? And I ask that because I’ve seen so many Southern Writers go Elsewhere and sort of renounce their southernness only to return to it full circle. Is that part of your story? And if not, how/why did you avoid it? How does your Southern Woman On The Page depart from the one we might meet on the streets of Augusta?

I grew up in Cincinnati and southern Indiana, technically, Yankeeland. But I also spent much time with my mother’s mom, Ethel, born in Nashville, TN, raised in Florence , Alabama. She spoke often and lovingly of the south, its heritage as one I shared, and that all things were more civilized, less harsh and people kinder there. In short, she left a residual certainty in me that being Southern was a blessing and one I should nurture.
I would say she related many of her stories through a scrim of idealized memory, but the notion I was a Southerner by DNA and a Yankee only by the accident of birthplace, took root early and deep.
One story in particular shaped my attitudes toward work and sun. She, and her girls, eschewed sun. None of us sunbathed, except for a few lapses here and there. Why? A southern bias…In order to earn extra money as an adolescent, Ethel would do field work picking cotton. In order to avoid the shame of a tan which would give her field work away and make her socially compromised, she wore large-brimmed hats and also stockings on her arms and around her neck to avoid getting too much sun. No redneck slurs for her. She warned us all that we had only one face to carry us through a lifetime. “No need to look thirty when you are twenty or fifty when you are thirty by poisoning your face with sun, ” was her admonition. “Spend time inside burning through pages of books with your eyes.” Good advice and ahead of its time. So, Yankee though I am by birth, I’ve always had that feeling if I had to choose sides in that “Unpleasantness” in the 1860’s, I’d be waving a Confederate flag. It took me some time to acknowledge that.
My early poetry feels to me now scrubbed of that feeling of place, a-regional like the talking heads stripped of their accents on much of our television programming. Only in my twenties when my husband and children were transferred to Columbia SC did I experience firsthand what Ethel had instilled in me. I repeatedly told my husband I felt I was home–that people looked more like me and shared sensibilities like me much more than in Pittsburgh, from where we had moved.
That feeling has never changed. I like to think that when considering my work, what you read, is what you’d get if we met on Broad Street in Augusta.

What is your current project? How would you describe it to my grandmother?

My current projects are: a new poetry manuscript and a series of interconnected short stories. Also, old work but exciting: the first libretto I wrote in collaboration with music prof and composer Richard Maltz is being produced and will premiere the first week in May in Columbia, SC. Your grandmother (and mine) would recognize the issues in the poetry ms. as they are about the ironies inherent in aging and sex after forty, and in the the short stories, the clash of human foibles against nature encountered at the beach. The opera is about the curse the Red Sox baseball team suffered for 76 years before winning a World Series because they sold Babe Ruth to their arch nemesis, The Yankees, for me a supremely ironic name.

Who are you reading right now?

D.A. Powell, Cocktail and Useless Landscapes: or A Guide For Boys. Amy King, Slaves To Do These Things, I’m The Man Who Loves You, I Want To Make You Safe, all things Lisa Sewell, Chase Twitchell, Horses where The Answers Should Have Been, Heather Christle, What Is Amazing, Forrest Gander, Core Samples From The World, Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains, Jack Gilbert, The Great Fires, The Dance Most of All, James Wright,This Journey, Galway Kinnell, everything, Rebecca McClanahan, Deep Light, Norman Dubie, The Mercy Seat, James Dickey, Zodiac, Linda Gregg, All Of It Singing, Christopher Hitchens, Mortality, Arguably.

Which writers and genres inspire you? And are you a spontaneous reader, or do you have a formal reading plan?

All of the writers above inspire me, but none more than Jack Gilbert, Cavafy, Linda Gregg, Galway Kinnell, Lynn Emanuel, Denise Dumahel, James Wright and Blake.
I wish I were a more organized, methodical reader like Carol Peters, a wonderful poet and font of knowledge about all things poetry. But I make my choices based on recommendations from friends, friendly and unfriendly reviews (RedRoom a great source) or the serendipity of what one finds in journals and/or on the shelf of local bookstores. Sometimes it depends on what I pick up on the cheap from 2nd & Charles. Or from your recommendations.

Your book is something I read as a series of poetic vignettes that happen in a single painting. The work is textual, but I find it visually inspiring. So I wonder. Which visual artists matter to you?

What a great question. I’d not thought about this in a long time. I’m not a visual artist and until signing up as a docent at the Morris Museum of Art, had little art training other than obligatory art history courses in college. The Morris docent training is like receiving a certification in basic arts education. It really stimulated a latent desire I’ve always had to learn more about the process of visual art making.
Visual artists practice magic, a mysterious and visual sleight of hand that I believe produces an awesome vision of truth unique to each artist. I think it was in graduate school that one of my mentors said that without images in written work what you have is an amorphic hash of language, a sustained exposition in a dark room with no memory of itself. No thanks. So, on my own and with help, I began a more organized study of visual arts. I also took up stained glass to help my eye gain acuity for color and form. . In no particular order, the artists I favor are: Kandinsky, Rothko, Monet, Vermeer, Eischer, Picasso, Gauguin, Michelangelo, de Kooning, Pollack. My favorites:, VanGogh, for whom I composed a chapbook which won the Hibiscus Award from Tampa Writers Voice, and Mary Whyte, an amazing water-colorist from Charleston, SC and Malaika Favorite.

Do you find your style evolving as you continue to write?

God, I hope so. Better than devolving, I guess. I think most poets try everything to keep from becoming intolerably predictable or stale.
I began, like an ice skater learning school forms, with traditional, fixed forms only. Then, almost organically, I began to move into free form once I learned from what I was freeing myself. I worked with free form for a long time, then began writing prose poems, but awkwardly, I think.
Now, I never limit myself by insisting on a certain mindset for form. That’s not to say I don’t require discipline and rigor in regard to form. I just have come to trust my instincts as the poem takes shape. Sometimes it emerges fully formed and sometimes it’s a matter of trying on different forms the way we might different outfits for a formal or casual occasion. In this case, the poem doth proclaim the apparel.

Do you set out to Work in a Certain Form, or do you just write?

I read, read, read before beginning a new project, but things unrelated to poetry…like science texts, linguistic theory, engineering manuals. Or I focus on information related to the topic I almost always plan ahead of time. It saves me from wandering desperately around the house or lake waiting for an profound IDEA or IMAGE to descend from the heavens in a blaze of white light and clash of divine cymbals. The closest I’ve come is getting caught in a thunder storm on a pontoon boat.
I wish I had more faith in impulse writing. But I rarely ever sit down for what I call a “magic 8 ball session” where I just go with whatever surfaces as an image, phrase, word or idea. I love the world too much to do that to it.
And yes, I often begin with a notion of fixed, traditional form or not, but allow myself the option to back off if it doesn’t seem to be working. Sometimes though I’m stubborn and keep pressing against false starts.
Occasionally, what starts as a poem morphs to fiction, and vice versa. Not often though. At least for me, fiction and poetry live in related, but different spaces.

You also teach, and you’re part of a beautiful writers’ group in Augusta. Where do you find the intersections between teaching work, and workshops as a sort of social extension of teaching (forgive me for seeing it that way at times), and your creative work, if you draw connections or lines? Is there significant bleed-through? Does one feed the other, or do you find that one takes energy the other needs?

One reason I shifted from teaching after 24 years, to writing full-time is that I discovered after a certain number of years of doing both, unlike those lucky folks who can, I can’t. I just cannot do both concurrently as enthusiastically or effectively as I need to do. I miss the give and take in a classroom, the sparks. However, like/unlike many folks, by day’s end, all I had left for the page was a few sputters, then ashes. Giving up sleep to write in the morning, watch the sun rise, sounds like exquisite torture to me. Can’t do it. For better or worse, I’m a 9-5 writer.
I do love my writing group, which is populated by gifted, prolific and diverse poets. I believe that over the years the members have helped each other grow as readers and writers. The criticism of work we present in group is honest and informed. I’m so lucky to be a part of the group. We teach each other without lines dividing student pupil. We’re all students.

However, while I do agree that a group,with mixed skill-sets is invigorating. Obviously, a successful critique in any session depends on group dynamics, intent and comfort zones. Unless that is my role, I don’t like to feel like a teacher instructing a poet to go back and study grammar, etc. because those basics should be a given. When I am teaching, it’s exciting to see minds open to the possibilities that writing poetry and fiction can bring to one’s life.

Your work is so metaphorically rich. And funny. Have you considered straight nonfiction, or does that seem too … outright and upfront? Or unfunny and direct?

You say the kindest things. Except for that newspaper I wrote in second grade, and essays in college, nonfiction doesn’t grab me by the collar the way poetry, and periodically, fiction writing always has.
I wish I could write the brilliant nonfiction Christopher Hitchens has left us as his legacy, or be as hilarious as Nora Ephron. Alas, I cannot. I discovered a long time ago that learning one’s limitations and acknowledging them as they apply/don’t apply to my goals, saves time and prevents the tragedy of me diving into shallow waters.
However, humor is what keeps us all from taking ourselves so dreadfully seriously. The universe certainly does not, so why should we? When we cease to be able to laugh at ourselves, we truly capitulate, maybe irreversibly, to the dark side. So, I welcome humor in when it knocks on my door.

Which animal would you be? Why?

Either a hawk or a frog. The hawk because it looks like it would feel incredible to ride thermals over highways all day. But the eating of small, furry things doesn’t sound as incredible. And a frog because I take particular joy in knowing just coming in contact with some people’s hands might make them believe I would give them warts. And then there’s the frog’s enviable, longish, quick-snapping tongue, and the possibilities of being kissed by a prince so I can turn into royalty. I wouldn’t mind living in a castle, nor having footmen to fetch the morning paper or a Big Mac if I were so inclined.

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