Monday, February 23, 2004

Michael S. Harper - Providence, RI

A poet's office is every bit as personal and idiosyncratic as a poet's home. So I'm embarrassed to admit that this morning, after setting up in one of Michael Harper's offices on the campus of Brown University, I couldn't stop myself from exclaiming - "Your office is exquisitely messy!"

If I could have added context to all of this, Harper would have known something of the terrible mess of my own workspaces - at home, at work, even in the RV. But I really was a little astonished. Envelopes, manuscripts, books, and files pile on every flat surface, at least six inches high on the desk. It overwhelmed me. Harper told me he had other offices on the same floor where - when we visited later - I was equally as alarmed at their order and neatness. But in this leave year, Harper has let his own office go a bit. After my comment, Harper grinned and said, "I work at it, man. That is to say, I don't waste any time thinking about it." And during my visit, he had occasion to pull out a handful of things, a student's book, a book by one of his old pals, and his hands always went right to them.

I should have known better, because Harper's heart is that of a true jazz artist. I should have seen through what I saw as messy to what is really there, augmented chords, flatted 5ths, a gigantic hand making that minor 7th.

We turned to the project at hand, and I was swept away and overwhelmed at Harper's storytelling. He's the champ. His tales are terrific, enjoyable, vital, and - in the end - astonishing in message and resonance. Time and time again he pulled me through memories that all hit hard at the belly of the reason why a poet is what a poet is. He told me about being 5 years old and riding the subways in New York. About his move at 13 to California. His time in Iowa, a place where he could get into the influential Writer's Workshop, but where his toughest applications were for apartments where he could live.

He talked about his students, about how the ease of laptops and laser printers are hiding some of the gifts that revision will give them as they develop as poets. I know that Harper will find ways to show them what they're missing.

In a blink, almost 90 minutes had passed. The tape had long run out, and I was just listening to it all.

He's a force of nature, as anyone who's read his work already knows, and I could have sat there all day. His students, pals, and family are lucky to have him. His readers, too.

We wandered out to the hall to get some photos, and Harper signed a book for me, shook my hand with his soft but gigantic mitt, told me to say hello to a pal of his I'm seeing soon, and wished me well on the road. As I packed my stuff, Harper disappeared into the stacks of papers and books, content, back to work, knowing where everthing is.