Words are everything for poet The writing life: Clarinda Harriss writes, teaches, edits poetry. "I don't have a non-writing life," she says.

November 29, 1995|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rejection may have helped put one of Clarinda Harriss' first published poems, "For My Father," in the prestigious Prairie Schooner.

The poem had been turned down by several lesser publications, she remembers. "And someone told me to send it to Prairie Schooner. I did. But I accidentally left the rejection slips in the envelope when I sent it out. Well, the editor accepted the poem but returned the rejections, saying, 'I can tell we have better taste than those people.' "

Since then, Ms. Harriss -- poet, editor, associate professor of English at Towson State University and acting chair of the English department -- has had more than 350 poems published, as well as five books and hundreds of newspaper articles. She and her creative writing students from Towson State will read poems at the Coffee Junction in Catonsville tonight at 7:30.

The reading is part of a monthly series featuring local poets and their students, sponsored by the Electric Press.

Ms. Harriss didn't plan to become a poet, she explains on a rainy November day. In her home -- brightened with portraits she has painted, poems, letters (one from H. L. Mencken and one from Ezra Pound to her father), books, music (she loves Beethoven), and dried flowers -- she discusses the place of poetry in her life.

She didn't seriously try to get her poems published until she was in graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University.

Her mother was an English teacher; her father, the late R. P. Harriss, wrote poetry and was an editor for The Evening Sun. As Ms. Harris describes her father in "Like a Child," it's easy to picture him: "loitering over sweet tea / on the porch with the Morning Sun. His black Underwood / chittered the nightsong of my childhood: / poems, fine as frogsilk, while a man's / chores waited to be done."

During her childhood, Ms. Harriss read fairy tales and pretended she lived in the stories. Reading about magpies, she made wings and attempted to fly off the porch steps.

"I didn't fall, I moreless drifted," she writes in "Magpies," a poem she will read tonight: "Drifted past the Althea bushes. / And never got hurt. My god, my god. I must have really flown."

In praise of Ms. Harriss' poetry, Lewis Turco, a well-known poet and critic, has written, "Whatever scene it is that she treats -- the epiphanies of love the death of a father she makes the page come alive with her words."

Sometimes, that liveliness leaps off the page. In "Dancing With My Student in the Summer of '89," she recalls dancing at Meadowbrook Pool in 1954: "The jukebox splashed neon on our skin. We danced. / Is that water or sweat? somebody asked. We sprayed / onlookers as we dipped and spun."

Besides teaching and writing poems, Ms. Harriss, a member of the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, advises poets in Maryland prisons. She is collecting material for a manuscript by female prisoners, and she has already edited "For Colored Guys Who Have Gone Beyond Suicide And Found No Rainbow," an award-winning verse play by male prisoners.

"It's incredibly rewarding working with the prison poets," she says. In "After Writing Class At Jessup Prison For Men," Ms. Harriss wryly comments: "For days / after a night at the Jessup House of Correction / (drab kitchen mouse / princess for a night / at the Big House / with everyone else in whimsical clothes / and elaborate hair) / I wait ladylike before / every door."

In addition to her other activities, she directs the Chestnut Hills Press, Stonewall Series and the New Poets Series, which has been named to the Pushcart Prize List of the Most Distinguished Small Presses in the United States.

Her most recent book, "License Renewal for the Blind," received the 1993 American Chapbook Award.

"I don't have a non-writing life," Ms. Harriss has written. "Everything I do becomes part of the poem."

Her poems spring from her very full life -- students, endless meetings, children, dogs, house and garden -- as in this excerpt from "Planting":

"My little girl and I chill our denim knees / on wet November earth, bending over bulbs, / digging black holes asquirm with worms / fattened on a whole wet summer. / Into each hole our fingers press one voluptuous lump in which / is curled one ancient memory: how / to make a hyacinth or tulip."

Clarinda Harriss

Where: The Coffee Junction, 803 Frederick Road, Catonsville

When: 7:30 tonight

Admission: $2 donation requested

Call: (410) 719-7717

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