Up North

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Up North with Harry Smith
                     By Eric Greinke

Collaborations between two poets can come in varying degrees of interaction and integration. In my collaboration with Harry Smith, we wrote poems in response to each other's poems. The poems were written individually, but they related to each other through subject, setting and what is best described as spirit.

The idea was to evoke the feeling of being 'up North' through description. Hany's 'up North' was Maine. Mine was Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Harry was in the process of moving from NYC to live full time in Maine. I had lived in the Upper Peninsula as a young Coast Guardsman, back in the sixties, and had visited there most summers since.

Although I spoke to him for many hours on the phone, I never met Harry in person. When we spoke on the phone there were no silent breaks. We often interrupted each other, two dominant males who both liked to opinionate. There was plenty of interpersonal warmth between us, but there was always a dialogue. Our phone calls usually lasted over two hours. Harry was well-known for his strong opinions. He was an iconoclast and a generalist. He was a great story teller, and loved to illustrate his points with his experiences.

Our phone conversations were often about our non-literary shared interests; dogs, fishing, gardening and small boats. Harry was partial to border collies, and his dogs were rescued from shelters. He loved fishing, but didn't hunt. He loved to hoe his vegetable garden. He preferred to grow his own vegetables, or buy them from local farmers. He had a double-ended surfboat like the one I'd trained on in the Coast Guard. We both loved small boats. This kind of sharing was essential to our collaboration. I once told him that I considered him my big brother. It was a sentimental moment between us. Our first attempt at collaboration produced a two-person broadside. My poem, The Run, dedicated to Harry, is a response to his poem The Rites of Fall.

Rites of Fall

I play each season's major symphony.
Its odors & tastes, colors, sights & sounds.
Now autumn & I meld a tapestry
Of life's slow burning, and the earth abounds
With fecund decay. I shall oxidize
Like blazing leaves. I shall be as eiswein
Sweet-tempered by the frost while the vine dies,
Or apples over-ripe: a rich design
Of rot & renewal, preparation
For the spring surge. I shall become compost.
Composition & decomposition
Are one, which is why I love the fall the most.
I fall laughing into soft sphagnum moss
Of fog forest: there is no waste, no loss.
* * * * *

The Run
for Harry Smith

We cannot hope
When the white flame is gone
That other fires don't burn
Under the flags of ancient ice
Beneath the tears of regret
Beyond the edge of light
Far from their overheated dens
Cold men run to the end
Down the darkened passing lanes
To strange gardens of fire
In wombs where they began
Beyond the porcelain moon
We'll feel no pain for what we've been
Even if it's never spring again

Both poems are sonnet variations, Harry's is more formal than mine. Both poems address the subject of life after death. They are apparently complimentary but there is a subtle difference in their scopes. Harry's poem addresses the processes of the earth as a microcosm, whereas mine addresses death from a macrocosmic perspective. Our first collaboration set the format for the Up North series that followed. One of us sent a poem and the receiving poet wrote a poem in response, creating a conversation in poetry.

This type of collaboration could be called 'dialectic'. It differs in several significant ways from the collaborative practice of two poets working together on the same poem. In a dialectic format, the 'parts' have greater personal integrity. The individual poems are realized poems in their own right. The writer of the first poem sets the tone and general subject. The responding poet must decide whether to compliment the other poem as a harmony or react to it as a counterpoint, two opposite but equally appropriate responses. Several variations are possible. A poem can agree in spirit but differ radically in tone and/or style. Or, it could mirror the tone or style of the first poem but differ from it in spirit or message, or there can be more subtle effects. Harry Smith had extensive experience in the dialectic approach to collaboration. In 1981, he had published Two Friends with Menke Katz, which was followed up by Two Friends II in 1988.

Menke was the editor of Bitterroot and author often books of poetry in Yiddish and three in English. He had doctorates in both theology and modern poetry. The Two Friends collections were the products of over a decade of regular collaboration between Harry and Menke. In them, they created an ongoing dialectic, with their poems responding to each other on over seventy subjects.

Dialectic collaborations allow for greater variations of style and content as a collection, but, paradoxically, they do not encourage the poets to stretch themselves poetically as much. They may write as they always do, without having to adapt to another voice and mind invading the poem. The ego-boundaries are pulled in rather than expanded. If a third voice is achieved, it is dialectic, which also means that there is rhetoric. The focus is on the subject itself, which benefits from the divergent arguments of the poems. In the two poems in Example 1, for example, Harry's Axes is an interior monologue. First, the speaker muses on the history of axes and the different types, then as an after note, mentions that his own ability with an axe is questionable, and that you shouldn't use a tool that you aren't qualified for. Harry was fascinated by antique tools and loved to attend auctions and estate sales.

Menke was the editor of Bitterroot and author often books of poetry in Yiddish and three in English. He had doctorates in both theology and modern poetry. The Two Friends collections were the products of over a decade of regular collaboration between Harry and Menke. In them, they created an ongoing dialectic, with their poems responding to each other on over seventy subjects.

In free, formal and prose poetry, their subjects ranged from the nature of God and Creation to vegetarianism. (Menke was a vegetarian and Harry an avid fisherman.) Harry proposed a similar collaboration with me in 2006. The process took about six months, with each of us writing fifteen poems.

Example 1:


What is more basic than an ax?
The stone ax preceded our species.
You can mark the march of cultures by their axes:
the Neolithic hunter's fine-flaked flint,
the Olmec or Maori warrior's sharp jade,
the Sumerian's copper for war or wood,
the woodsman's iron ax from Before Christ,
the Viking raider's awesome battle ax,
the ice ax, the ship carpenter's, the cooper's,
the butcher's, the wheelwright's, the coachmaster's,
and all the felling & hewing axes
like Canada broad, Georgia long bit,
Michigan, Ohio. Kent, Kentucky,
New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Hudson Bay,
different bits of such varied lengths & widths.
The big old double-bit ax adorns the barn,
too tricky & dangerous for me to wield.
I use the shorter head long-blade Maine ax -
simplest. Can't say I'm good enough to prove
the saying, "A good ax is a good friend."

Swiss Army

My favorite tool
Is not too heavy,
Not too light.
It's served me food,
Fished out lost knots,
Revealed the intricacies
Of nature, under
Its magnifying
Glass, & more.
It was my only knife.
From Cape May to
Keweenaw Bay,
I reached for it
For all my trusty

Example 2:

Carpenter Ants

Why do carpenter ants decide to move,
as if on signal, out of the old walls
in many companies throughout the house?
Approached, they form motionless dense circles,
disguising themselves as knots in the pine planks.
Menaced, they disperse in all directions —
elusive, quick. Is this intelligence?
And what impels these forays from the nest
on a certain summer day? Do they march,
increase their queendom when their numbers peak?
This species domesticates the aphids,
in much the same way as we tend our cows,
to sup on their rich wholesome honeydew.
A farmer said these ants do not eat wood
but would riddle the house with their tunnels.
Injecting boric acid in the walls,
we also planted poisoned sweets outside
for workers to carry back to the queen.
We slaughtered legions in our victory,
yet I can see the future Age of Ants.

Black Flies

In the north woods, the black flies are as constant &
insidious as time. They circle persistently at high
speed around your head until your attention is
distracted, then they dive in for a mouthful of your
temporal flesh. Only wind & rain bring transitory
relief from their eternal onslaught.

In my Swiss Army poem, I also praise a cutting tool. I develop it as a symbol for being adaptable. The poem says that 'this tool has worked for me.' Taken together, they do share a subject which is greater than the sum of its parts. The same thing happens in Example 2. Harry's Carpenter Ants is an ode to the adaptability of the ants. He is mystified by how they are so organized and also impressed by them. It's a recognition of patterns larger than man in the universe. My poem Black Flies is about time, which is inevitable and unrelenting, like black flies. Taken together, the two poems are 'about' the future and the mystery of time.

Example 3:

Another example of the dialectic treatment of a subject and how it widens the understanding of it can be taken from our poems on the subject of getting lost:

Getting Lost

I've gone off course or gotten lost
not just in blanking blizzards and gray gales;
I've wandered off the well-worn ways,
even home country trails I blazed myself;
a few yards aside to left or right,
a sunless day, one might as well be far
at sea in a skiff walled by fog.
I've done that too. It's best to stop,
to wait for hint of sun, or distant sound,
a clue. Don't get yourself more lost.
You might be close to where you ought to be,
yet sailing through an inland gut,
ten yards can tear your bottom out.
To miss your turn on twisting trail can mean
ten miles of feeling like a fool,
or doom. Beware, every time Adventure
beckons you into parts unknown.

Isolated Incident

Low grey clouds
Breathed a chill warning.
The smell of ice
Was in the air.
As darkness fell
I could hear
Whispers of flakes
Falling in the dark.
Next morning,
From where I stood
On the covered porch,
A series of footprints
Led off toward
The old logging road
That climbs the hill
Behind my hidden cabin.
Someone had stopped
While I slept.
Maybe a hunter
With a head start
On daybreak,
Or did the hunted
Take a break
From the snow
Before the last cold hill?

Harry's poem tells of the ways he's gotten lost, and that it's important to stop to take your bearings when it happens. My poem speculates on the meaning of some snowy footprints, trying to bridge the gap between two isolates in an isolated winter landscape. Together, they expand the subject by coming at it from two different angles. Harry loved F. Scott Fitzgerald's idea that a genius could hold two opposing views without cracking up.

Instead of the development of a third voice that is the combination of the individual voices of two (or more) poets, the dialectic collaboration format emphasizes the differences between them. The effect goes beyond voice to include moralistic and aesthetic differences. The experience for the reader is more like listening to a debate than an expression of one poet, a 'third voice,' that has emerged from the voices of the collaborations. Our poetry in Up North differed in several significant ways. Harry used the first person persona in 80% of his poems. I used it in 40% of mine. Harry's poems all have long, metrically formal lines. My poems have breath-based or syllabic lines of varied lengths. Harry's poems are descriptive narratives. My poems are associative and imagistic. Three of my poems are prose poems with justified margins.

The differences between the poets become the positive value of a dialectic collaboration. The subjects themselves are predominant in this type of collaboration, treated from different perspectives in either poetic harmony or counterpoint. Either way, the poets get closer, and bring the reader to a closer understanding of the subjects of the poems.