The Map and the Territory: An Interview with Michael S. Harper

Article excerpt

The interview that follows was produced in a three-part process. The initial question-and-answer sessions took place in Providence, Rhode Island, during June 1997 and August 1998. Audio recordings of these meetings were made in Harper's loft, in his office on the campus of Brown University, and in his car while driving through the narrow streets of Providence, and subsequently transcribed. Professor Harper then reviewed the raw transcripts, editing and elaborating on his answers as he saw fit. He was also kind enough to provide written answers to questions that emerged during this revision process. On February 12, 1999, Professor Harper was satisfied with the interview and returned this text to me along with a note which read:

CODA: I am attaching several poems which are meant to elucidate some of the ideas in my responses. 'Let the doing be the exercise, not the exhibition' (Jean Toomer).

Antonucci: We can start by going back. In the 1973 interview with John O'Brien from Interviews with Black Writers, you state that the poem "Zeus Muse" "is about the making of grids, the relationship between horizontal and vertical axes and dominion." You continue, "Essentially it's about imperialism; it represents a gaze over all things, dominion over all things. But black people can't function in that particular vision of the grid. They're expendable, they've been annihilated; and not only black people but nonwhites, or pagans or Indians or anyone and anything in the way of this particular vision with its armies, navies and its technological system." Could you speak to the way that this and other poems challenge dominant notions of American identity in their mapping of the American cultural/historical landscape?

Harper: In the twenty-five years that have passed since the O'Brien interview the notions of a renegade commentator from without the magic circle have changed. The best answer to the question is attitudinal. Robert Hayden's poetry exemplifies the psychic landscape of the stranger. I share that resonance as an outsider; it is a condition I prefer to belonging, however comfortable that status might be.

Antonucci: Robert Hayden describes America as "a problem in metaphysics." In your interview with James Randell you call Hayden a great historian and symbolist poet. Would you care to elaborate on the idea of poets as historians?

Harper: Hayden says in his poem "[American Journal]":

america as much a problem in metaphysics as it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our galaxy an organism that changes even as i examine it fact and fantasy never twice the same so many variables

Pay attention to the lineation, the gaps, and the tentative feedback of an extraterrestrial come to observe us (see brackets around title) as a message given to us "Americans" as perceptions subject to enhancement and revision. This is a dynamic process. Perhaps our closeness to the intricacies of identity, including race and gender, blind us to what we have in common with humanity. And as Hayden reminds us, the "unknowable essence" is what we, as Americans and extraterrestrials, have in common. This means to me that we have neglected the largest part of our inheritance, the efficacy of religion as a faith in the future that might bind us all.

Hayden wrote the important essays on the presence of Black Americans in the State of Michigan for the Federal Writers' Project, even though the assignation of these essays was anonymous. If one would compare the poems Hayden wrote in The Black Spear sequence, in which Hayden took on Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body," the linkage and responsibility Hayden absorbs into American Literary Historiography provide a good example of technique, a kind of personal shorthand which reviews and extends the insights of our predecessors as a living monument to the present and future. Hayden's poems continue to resonate long after his death, providing a usefulness for coming generations: a place to start, looking backward and forward to the metaphysics in Hayden's admonition:

america as much a problem in metaphysics

as

it is a nation earthly entity an iota in our galaxy

Antonucci: With respect to John Brown and his legacy as a literary figure and historical subject, your poetic commentary appears to be part of a larger discourse that includes works by Benet and Hayden as well as Robert Penn Warren and Du Bois. …