Youtube, Literary Tears, and Hip-Hop Poetry
Finn Harvor’s poem “nHI-lizm” was featured in Issue 20 of The Puritan. Here he discusses his writing process and influences, both literary and musical.
Town Crier: Does your poem or story have an interesting origin story/compositional history you’d like to share? This could include interesting factoids or bits of research that informed the poems or the story.
Finn Harvor: I was reading a lot of comment threads, especially at places like YouTube or weird political sites. A lot of texting argot—also, a lot of bleakness, for example clips of people dying in a boat (THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE) and some guy commenting underneath: Hahaha, LOL, suckers.
At the same time, I was working on a mega-novel project (poems are part of it). One of the characters is a white rapper from Regent Park who signs up for a tour in Afghanistan. He’s Canadian, but culturally his mindset is American … a pretty common phenomenon. America isn’t just a geographic entity—it’s a state of mind. Everyone on the planet is influenced by that to some degree. And so a certain kind of macho becomes “American,” even though machismo, bleakness—well, they’re universal.
TC: What was it influenced by? (e.g., Were you listening/watching something when you began to write? Were you in a meeting or class at the time? Was it after a film, art show, concert? Were you on hallucinogens?)
FH: See above. Also, an album by Cypress Hill called Black Sunday.
TC: Tell us the best thing you’ve read lately, or a poet/fiction writer you’re jealous of, or a story/short story collection you wish you wrote.
FH: I read some good work by Russell Smith recently in Young Men. But I’m not sure I was jealous of that even though I think he’s underrated and deserves a bigger audience. Ditto about a story by Matthew Firth that appeared in The Puritan.
I’ve read several short collections of Korean writers from the mid-20th Century. That was a brutal time: Japanese occupation, followed by short-lived US/USSR liberation in 1945, followed by more occupying governments, followed by around a year or so of peace—then, the Korean War and decades of dictatorship. Young Koreans smile a lot, seem similar to young Canadians, but their historical framework is entirely different. Some brilliant writing was produced around this time, mainly short fiction: The Rainy Spell by Yoon Heung-gil, The Grey Snowman by Choe Yoon, Chinatown by Oh Jung-hee … the list is pretty long. And a surprisingly high percentage of it will make your eyes water when you hit its last lines.
The best Canadian poems I’ve read recently are some works by my brother in a book he put together called “Death Haiku.” I can’t really talk about that in detail because I get emotional (he died). But he was a very strong writer that not many people knew about and he should be remembered. Another is “At Gull Lake, 1810” by Duncan Campbell Scott. That one goes back a bit, but it’s got so much power it’s spooky.
TC: How have things changed for you as a writer since you wrote and published the work(s) in The Puritan? Has your approach to writing, subject matter, style, or whatever changed in good/bad/intriguing ways? How do you look back on past work, with pleasure or pain?
FH: I’m trying to convert some of my stuff into videos.
TC: Because we are running various blog posts on music, we have a question on song lyrics. Did music lyrics have anything to do with the piece we’re publishing? Were any particular lyrics important to you in your development as a writer? Is there any recent lyricist you’ve been digging, and why? Is there any piece of writing, by you or someone else, that you would like see turned into a song? Why?
FH: Oh, it’s a hip-hop poem, I guess, so that’s an obvious music influence. I don’t know where to go with this one except to say it was an influence but I wasn’t trying to be hip-hoppy; I was trying to reach into what I thought was hell. My personal theory about hip-hop is that it originally had no particular self-consciousness—it was purer than that. My impression is that it’s in right now in poetry circles to diss hip-hop type work as poetically crude. I think that misses the point. There are all sorts of good and valid ways to make decent art, but one thing they all have in common is that the result is vital. That’s why hip-hop has become such an extraordinary cultural phenomenon. You can actually feel it viscerally. Maybe there are people out there who just pull a giant blank when they hear it. But people who “hate” it but still groove to it need to do a little more thinking about a possible disconnect between their ideas and their bodies.
In terms of turning a poem into a song, I don’t have any titles in mind but I’m sure there are plenty of good candidates out there. I definitely think poets should experiment with media, though. Not just music-related … poetry and art, poetry and performance. And I think turning poems into image-and-text work à la graphic fiction is a good idea (music could also be integrated with this last one). Some of these ideas, such as performance, have been around for years, and consequently can seem corny. The coolness factor of these approaches fluctuates with fashions. But the main thing is, try to reach a vital place when you’re creating.
Finn Harvor is a writer, artist, occasional musician, and academic. He lives with his wife in South Korea. His work has appeared in The Puritan, Eclectica, Canadian Notes and Queries, The Brooklyn Rail, Dark Sky, PRISM, The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, The Canadian Forum, This Magazine, Rabble, The Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. He has had work broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and won grants and awards from the Canadian Council, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. As an academic, he has written on Thomas De Quincey, William Blake, Yoon Heung-gil, and Richard Kim. He has presented papers to conferences in Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Helsinki, and Jember, Indonesia. He has had group and solo shows of his art, and has experimented repeatedly with art-and-text narratives.