INTERVIEW WITH Jared Harél by Urvashi Bahuguna
Jared Harel’s poems are quiet records of the layers inside the ordinary days of our lives, exposing the restless forces and memories that power and threaten our most mundane actions. In “Behind The Painted Railguard,” the poet is standing in an amusement park with his mother, watching his young son on a ride. He uses that particular scene to reflect on the past, expectations, family lore, acceptance, difficult silences – the breadth of what he covers is a testament to Harel’s relationship to craft. His crisp lines and clear, effective imagery accompany us throughout his second collection, Let Our Bodies Change The Subject (University of Nebraska Press, September 2023), as we move through poems that are anchored in themes of parenting, marriage, and family, and that contend with the inherent pain of being alive. Harel has won multiple awards for his writing including the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize, the William Matthews Poetry Prize, Diode Editions Book Award, and 2022 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. He lives with his family in Westchester, NY.
FWR: The collection’s opening and closing poems really appear to speak to one another. I love that we begin with a child trying to puzzle out death and end with a child who has learnt that the world is less magical than they first believed. Were you conscious of that implied journey as you ordered the poems? What is your process when it comes to ordering a manuscript?
JH: First off, thank you for taking the time to dig into my new collection! I knew I wanted to open the book with “Sad Rollercoaster” as an introduction to themes of parenthood, mortality, NYC and more. My decision to end on “Dolls Can’t Talk” took longer to figure out.
When giving shape to a poetry manuscript, my process is to print the poems and spread them out on my kitchen floor. Certain poems I know I want close together, while others I want to keep apart. Then I pay particular attention to the beginnings and endings of poems. For instance, does the closing line of ‘Poem A’ link well or create an interesting friction with the opening line of ‘Poem B’? Kinda like train cars. Then I trust this momentum to carry the reader forth.
On a larger scale, beginning the collection with the line, “My daughter is in the kitchen, working out death” then ending, “How long have you suspected/we might be alone?” felt like the right arc and tension for this book.
FWR: As I read and re-read the book, I had this overwhelming sense of witnessing deep love. As someone who writes about central relationships in her life as well, I would love to hear about how you navigate writing about the relationships in this book. How does the personal affect your craft or the lens you choose to turn upon these subjects?
JH: Honestly, I try not to worry about this too much when making poems. My goal is to write the best poem I can—something that feels true and conveys both a passion for language and the experience behind the words. I’ve often been asked about the decision to include my children in my poems. The truth is, I don’t know how to keep them out. Sometimes I’ll be writing and my son will literally leap onto my lap. If I’m interested in writing poems from a genuine place, these people who give shape and meaning to my life (my kids, parents, siblings, friends, spouse) will continue, I imagine, to appear organically in my work.
That being said, I do think there’s a difference between writing poems and the public decision to publish them. There’s one poem from my first collection, Go Because I Love You, which I kinda regret putting in the book. It’s one about my parents, and while I think it’s a strong poem, I’m no longer sure it was my place to publish it.
FWR: “You Want It Darker (2016)” also appeared, if I am not mistaken, in a previous collection. The choice to include it again intrigues me. What brought that about? (I apologize if I am mistaken.)
JH: Good catch! You are not mistaken. I wrote “You Want It Darker” in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. Those were dark days made darker by the fact that Leonard Cohen passed away that very same week. In my poem, I aimed to articulate a collective, community-wide grief I felt around Queens, NY at the time.
Years later, I drafted a new poem in the hours leading up to the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, and titled it simply “January 20, 2021.” That poem felt like a long-awaited exhale and a bookend to “You Want It Darker.” For that reason, it made sense for me to include both poems, one after the other, in this new collection.
To my delight, “January 20, 2021” was the Academy of American Poets ‘Poem-a-Day’ on January 20, 2022, exactly one year after it was written. In any case, fingers crossed there’s no third poem to this series!
FWR: “Our Wedding” is one of my favorite poems from this collection. I am so curious about the genesis of it. Is the speaker many years removed from the event? Why did the poem come to the poet now? Or is it something they have been working on for a long time?
JH: By the time I wrote “Our Wedding,” my wife and I had been married for 11 years, so it certainly wasn’t written on the heels of the event. Actually, we’d just attended my cousin’s wedding, which got us thinking about our own ceremony and party, how young we’d been, and how today – as “proper adults” – we’d do things differently. That opening couplet, “It wasn’t what we wanted,/but we wanted each other” hit me the next morning, and the poem developed from there.
FWR: You’re a drummer. What does that bring to your life?
JH: I’m drawn to the social and collaborative aspects of being a drummer in a rock band. My bandmates and I write songs and play music together, which is totally different from the solitary act of making poems.
Thinking about similarities though, there’s definitely the element of rhythm to both. Whether writing or drumming, I’m driven by cadence and beat. When revising, I’ll read and re-read my poem-draft out loud, tapping my foot to underscore certain rhythms. I often find myself tapping my foot while in the audience at poetry readings as well.
FWR: Whose work (they don’t necessarily have to be writers) are you invigorated by at the moment?
JH: Reading and writing are fairly simultaneous activities for me. Most of the time I spend “writing”, I’m actually reading from a stack of books on my desk. Sometimes my poems begin in dialogue with what I’m reading, or something I read may trigger a memory. Some poetry collections on my writing desk today include Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert, Judas Goat by Gabrielle Bates, Hard Damage by Aria Aber, Previously Owned by Nathan McClain, If Some God Shakes Your House by Jennifer Franklin, Might Kindred by Mónica Gomery and Mouth Sugar & Smoke by Eric Tran. The works of Elizabeth Bishop, Wislawa Szymborska, Lucille Clifton, Larry Levis and Terrance Hayes seem to be permanent fixtures in these stacks as well.
Musically, I’m all over the place. I also find that good stand-up comedy really keys in on important poetic aspects such as rhythm, specificity, word-choice and subverted expectations. What makes poems and jokes work are often one and the same.
FWR: I would love to hear more about how standup comedy influences or challenges how you approach your writing.
JH: To be clear, I’ve never tried standup, and am by no means an expert on the subject! I simply get inspired when I see it done well, much like reading a great book makes me want to write. You might’ve heard the phrase, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Both comedians and poets seek, as Dickinson put it, a kind of slanted truth—a fresh way of getting at shared experiences through the particulars and peculiarities that make life interesting.
FWR: On a related note, are there poets who use humor in their work whose work you enjoy?
JH: Yeah, Natalie Shapero writes some of the funniest – and sharpest, and most heartbreaking – poems around. Shapero has one poem from her latest collection, Popular Longing, that begins, “So sorry about the war—we just kind of/wanted to learn how to swear/in another language” and another poem with the lines, “Last week I read a novel about a man/so awful that when he died I wept/because it was fiction.” Much like a great comic, Shapero utilizes line-breaks and enjambment to dictate pace, build set-up, then deliver the punch-line. Carrie Fountain is another poet who writes these brilliant, humorous meditations on parenting, love, God, etc. They’re funny because they feel so accurate and lived in, and because humor isn’t so much the “goal” as it is a natural byproduct of writing about this strange, sad, wonderful world.
FWR: “Birthday” (which appeared in Four Way Review!) is such an incredible combination of restraint and impact. I am really curious about the editing process for this particular poem. Was the first draft pretty similar to the final version of the poem? Would you talk us through it a little bit?
JH: I appreciate that. Restraint is the right word here. A friend of mine, the excellent poet, Rosebud Ben-Oni, instructs her students to “be careful not to edit before you write.” Great advice, but that’s exactly what I wound up doing with this one, taking it line by line and slowly working my way down the page. So often, writing is an act of discovery, but with this particular poem – based on a conversation I’d just had with my daughter – I knew my target. It was just a question of hitting the mark and paring back language to make sure the poem didn’t spiral into sentimentality. By the time I’d reached the last line, the vast majority of my editing was done. My first version and final version of this poem are nearly identical.
FWR: Is there a poem in this collection that you were surprised to find yourself writing?
JH: Despite what I just said about “Birthday”, some of my favorite moments as a writer are when I surprise myself, or say something I didn’t know I knew. One poem from Let Our Bodies Change the Subject that took me completely by surprise was “Survival Mode.” That one is nearly a word-for-word transcription of one of the stranger conversations I’ve ever been a part of. I found myself more or less writing it in real time, in my head and on a napkin. Then I raced upstairs and typed it out. It was one of those rare occasions where a poem appeared before it even registered that I was writing one at all.
FWR: A poem I return to over and over is “The Other Side of Desire.” I could see an argument for placing a poem like this — one that establishes conflict and ambivalence — in the middle of a collection and I am fascinated by the fact that it comes so close to the end. Can you talk about that choice a little bit?
JH: That’s an interesting question. I guess I don’t think of “The Other Side of Desire” as a poem about ambivalence, but about commitment and love in the face of imperfection and the dailyness of existence. “The Other Side of Desire” directly follows “Spring Crush” and “Slow Dance” in my collection, both of which are poems about young, early and first loves. “Slow Dance” concludes: “Whatever I hold close begins then.” Of course, what sustains a strong relationship is more than just infatuation and attraction. It also takes work, mutual respect, and these constant, almost invisible decisions to be present in your life and the life of your partner. Placing this poem near the end of the collection, for me, was less about establishing conflict than owning up to the responsibility of our decisions, maybe especially our best decisions.