Richard Harrison – Interview – Hockey, Poetry and Comic Books

Richard Harrison
LP: You have a new book of essays coming out, a book you co-edited  (with Jamie Dopp) on hockey called Now is the Winter. What can you  tell us about this book?

RH: Let me sell it: if you want to think about hockey inside and outside the rink, inside and outside the arena, inside and outside the hockey world, this is a book for you. It’s a collection of essays about the game as a social, political, environmental and personal bellweather; the essayists here — historians, literary writers, sociologists from Canada and the U.S. (of course) but also from as far away as New Zealand — see in hockey a way of seeing globalization through world leagues, sexual politics in women’s shinny, environmental issues in the Stanley Cup, community identity (a Canadian obsession) in team play. And more. Reading the book is like being at one of those round-table discussions of the game that bring together not just the people you’d expect to be there finding new depths of discussion about the usual topics in hockey, but also unexpected guests with surprising ways of thinking about the game.

LP: Hockey is a big interest of yours. You even belong to a group of  university profs who, what,  teach courses on hockey writing?  You  have conventions with attendees from all around the world. What is  the group all about, what do you do at the conventions? Where is the next one?

RH: The next one’s in Buffalo in June of 2010. I even have the title: “Hockey on the Border.” It’s going to be about the way that hockey is fed by and feeds the distinctions between self and other. That distinction is one that team games like hockey need, of course. But hockey, perhaps more than any other sport except perhaps soccer, another “people’s game”, is embedded in an international consciousness, so I think the distinction between self and other is a complex one for hockey. And that complexity is why it keeps getting talked about. For North Americans, sports like football and baseball are largely single-nation games that are occasionally played on an international level, so the rivalry between teams is the “friendly” rivalry of cities within the same country. But hockey’s rivalries are almost always at least two-nation affairs — not just Canadian/American teams, but French and English within Canada, and now, obviously, between teams that, by virtue of the international make-up of their rosters, somehow become “Russian” or “Swedish” according to the nationalities of their star players.

Soccer has a similar structure, of course, with Big Stars floating above their nationalities to join particular teams, but even so, within the British Premier League, for example, all the cities at play are English cities, so, as Kelly Hewson points out in her essay in Now is the Winter , “You Said You Didn’t Give a Fuck About Hockey,” the NHL, being, somewhat oddly, bi-national under the “National” banner, has a touch of the Olympic event in almost every match.

What we talk about at these conferences is everything we can talk about about the game. We’re there not just because we love the game, but because for us, there’s just so much to see in it. Perhaps that’s the definition of love. But for us, it’s true. Hockey continues to cast up images for the nation, excitement for the fans, metaphors for the so-called higher pursuits, anecdotes that amuse us, tragic situations that move us to pity. It’s the great spectator sport: part theatre, part home life, part battle, part love. All at top speed.

LP: Staying with hockey but straying away from the literary aspect.  What did you think about Theoren Fleury’s attempted comeback with the  Calgary Flames? For those who don’t follow hockey Fleury was a long  time Flame and fan favourite who left the game six years ago and just  tried a comeback this fall. He was cut one game before the regular  season started.

RH: Well, there’s an example right there. To flesh out the story here, even as Theo himself is breaking open all the secrets in his just-released autobiography,
Fleury drank, drugged, and misbehaved himself out of the NHL. He’s open about this now, and about confirming the long-standing speculation that at least one of the demons that Fleury has been fighting by sacrificing his body (both by throwing it into the arena against much larger men, and throwing drugs and alcohol into it against his personal pain and secrets), at least one of those demons is either suffering sexual abuse himself at the hands of the same junior coach who molested Sheldon Kennedy, or his own helplessness in the face of knowledge of that abuse. Both things — what’s done to them and what they didn’t do — can stay within a person their whole life. And while Kennedy took the route of therapy and therapeutic public disclosure of the sins against him (and the guilt he felt for being sinned against), Fleury took the route common among many men of keeping things inside and trying to “man up” his way through the suffering. Whatever the reason, drink and drugs become their own need, and that both caught up and overtook him six years ago was inevitable. But we don’t always see the inevitable coming.

That’s what makes the Fleury comeback so intriguing, in that he tried to go BACK to the same place he went to before to redeem himself at the level of hockey player. The substance abuse that may have driven the pain from him for a while drove him from the League, at the time, it seemed, forever. Whatever else he needs to do from here on, I think that he needed to undo the damage of his previous behaviour in order to do it. It’s as if he needed to experience the height of his playing days in order to get on with dealing with both his past and future lives. And as much as it is possible to have done so, he did it. He’s able to say to himself, At least I didn’t lose everything. Whatever we all feel or felt about him as a person, that’s an admirable story.

From the stands, the fans loved him. When he skated off the ice for what ended up being the last time, it was to a standing ovation. That makes sense of his desire — as he agreed with Darryl Sutter — to either be a top 6 winger on the team or not on the team at all. He couldn’t find that sense of himself he wanted in a hockey player having the only the final years of his career that he’d lost: he wanted to feel that sensation of being great; he wanted to touch that greatness again — to feel it from the outside in order to know that it’s there within. Then he could let it go. We all wished him well. I wish him well. His story’s not over, and I’m very interested in seeing what he does now

LP: You’re also interested in comic books and have incorporated this into your work. How do comics fit in? And. You just presented as paper at the San Diego Comic-Con? What is a Comic-Con?  Was your paper a scholarly one?  How was it received?

RH: How about I take these two together? I grew up reading comics. Nothing extraordinary there. Millions of kids did from the late fifties, when I was born, right up to the mid-80s when their quality collapsed just as they were being challenged by video-games. The video-game challenge has only grown, but I’m pleased with the way that comics have regrouped and improved. Anyway: aside from the sense of the comic book producing what all art produces — an escape from reality and a mirror — I think the reason that the poet in me loves the comic book reader in me is that both are entranced by the way that images create the illusion of experience. Both poetry and comics are images (one made of words, the other made of drawings) plus language (one made of words, the other also made of words) combined. In poetry the combination of image-language and the rest is seamless; in comics you can see the two interacting. But both are art forms that offer something to focus on intently at the juncture of two ways of expressing information, and thus they are both, for me, very involving. When I’m thinking about comics, writing them, drawing, there’s nothing else in the world. When I’m writing poetry, listening to it, reading it alone, there’s nothing else in the world.

The paper I gave at Comic-Con was about the connection between the origin story of Superman — which everyone thinks they know and was written in one go — and the origin story of Batman, which everyone does know and was written, essentially in its entirety as the front three pages of a Batman comic in the 40s. The connection is that a key element of the Superman story — Superman’s awareness of himself as the last survivor of dead Krypton — was added to his story 11 years after Superman was introduced. And the man who wrote that essential element into the Superman story was Bill Finger, the same man who killed young Bruce Wayne’s parents right in front of him in order to provide the motivation for Batman’s life. Finger went even further in the Superman story, but (since we were talking about upcoming books) you’ll need to read the paper “The Dark Knight Origin of the Man of Steel” which will soon be published in the book of essays I’m co-authoring with my friend Lee Easton and which will be released in the fall of 2010 in The Secret Identity Reader.

Oh, and the essay, I’m very happy to tell you, was very well received. Comic-Con was amazing. 135,000 people who all love comics and things comicbook — movies, toys, video games, statues, costumes, all gathered for an extraordinarily peaceable conference to think from and about that love in detail.

LP: Do you get a hard time from colleagues who consider themselves more ‘literary’ about your hockey and comic passions?

RH: You know, the comic book connection constantly surprises me. I can’t believe how many academics come out of the comic book closet to talk about their love for the form, or their sense that they were alone in caring about it. Every time I push a boundary with my work with the comic book, I’m met well. My essay on Superman got great coverage from Mount Royal University; I’ve got colleagues all over the world because of it. I wrote a poem as part of the Calgary celebration of Christian Bök’s  launch of the second edition of Eunoia (a remarkable achievement on many levels). The poem was my entry in a contest sponsored by FFWD magazine to take on the oulipian task of writing a poem without one of the vowels or a poem with only one. It tickled me in a way that knowledge of such things hadn’t in the past, so I wrote a series of dramatic monologues from the point of view of Batman’s villains, depriving each of them of a vowel. Then Batman answered using only words that had “a” in them. My poem about the Joker (he didn’t have an “I”) won, and so I read with Christian. The evening went tremendously, and my own little part was very well received. There’s something about these comic book figures, these tricksters and wish-fulfillment characters, these fantasy men and women who border between erudition and shame that really attracts the mind. In a sense they are empty figures, waiting for us to fill them; in a sense they make us feel small and humbled by the sheer extravagance of their stories.

The hockey/academic connection has been a little tougher to negotiate. I’ve had a lot of good luck, perhaps because hockey players, in their outsized, padded bodies, their colourful costumes, their moving faster than the speed of the land creatures the rest of us are have superheroic qualities and create larger-than-life stories, are also subjects that attract many people inside and outside the academy. I’ve had some dismissal, but largely because hockey players, and the hockey world, is a real world. I’m less clearly writing about works of art (a proper subject for literary people) when I write about hockey. I’m writing about real people, people who are as often (it seems sometimes) as brutal as they are beautiful. And hockey is an ugly business. In writing about hockey through its images, I can and do reach people who live and love the game. I can and do reach people who dislike the game, yet still want to understand it. But I don’t really reach the game’s critics — critics of the game from both inside and out. My hockey work as a poet is more romantic than sociological, so I’ve found a level of acceptance that I never thought I would, and I’m very grateful for that. I’ve also met with the same criticisms that the game has met with. In a real way, now that I’ve written that out, I’m grateful for that, too.

LP: You’ve been a long time instructor at Mount Royal College in  Calgary. Recently Mount Royal was given university status. Has this  changed your life at all?

RH: It’s changed it in the sense that any change in the name of a relationship changes the relationship. College means one thing, university another. Being in a relationship means one thing, marriage another. And that pretty well sums it up. Everything has changed in exactly that way.

LP:  You are married with kids, do any of your family members share  your interests? Do they give you a special connection with your  children? It must be kind of cool to have a Dad whose work includes studying and writing about comic books.

RH: Well, we were just talking about marriage and here it is again. My daughter is an intern animator at a Calgary studio, 15 Pound Pink. They’ve done some great work — Mr. Reaper’s Really Bad Morning, and (with film credits to my daughter) The Intergalactic Who’s Who. Animation is different from comics, the way, perhaps song lyrics differ from poems, but there’s a lot of overlap. She came with me to San Diego and had a wonderful time. My son is just getting into comics. We alternate between the Harry Potter series, single books for children like Safe As Houses, and (currently) Iron Man and Silver Surfer comics for his day or bed-time reading. (On his own he’s reading the sort-of-comic Diary of a Wimpy Kid series).  I wrote Hero the Play, in large part, to explain to my then girl-friend, now wife, why I loved hockey. No poem goes into the world without her OK. So my family is always there in my work, in my consciousness about what I’m doing. I hope it’s cool. I haven’t asked.

LP: Family life, teaching and writing your own work must keep you very  busy but you’ve also begun working as an editor for Frontenac House.  How did that position come about? Will you be editing any particular  genre of book for them?

RH: I’ll be editing Frontenac’s 2011 Quartet series. Frontenac, as you know, launches four books together every spring. For their 10th anniversary next year, they’re launching an incredible 10 books together. And then the publishers/editors are taking a well-earned break. They asked me to come in and do the job for the year; they’re wanting me to both bring a different editorial eye to the press — after 10 years, it’s time to broaden the approach — and perhaps be a new line of communication between the press and other poets. I’ve loved all the editing I’ve done for other houses in the past, and they’ve always liked my work. This is a chance to bring our approaches together, and, hopefully, help expand Frontenac’s offerings. And, of course, produce a suite of books that everyone is proud to see printed and happy to own.

LP:  About your own writing. You’re primarily known as a poet. What  are you working on these days?

RH: I’ve got new poems on the go. I’m really letting them come as they do. Three of my books (four if you count the 10th anniversary editon of Hero) are themed: Hockey, My daughter’s acquisition of language (which I was told the other day passed the test of being read by a linguist), and faith & violence. This one is a bit like a first book, a map of the world. I find most first books are like that, maps of the world that the young poet draws and then spends the rest of their writing filling in. Whatever the next book will be (and I don’t want to rush it, I’ve felt that at least some of the flaws in my earlier work has come from wanting poems made too fast), whatever that book will be, I’ll just keep writing till I find it. There’s a real mix of prose poems, rhyme, poems taken on, like that Batman series, on an impulse or a whim. I’m having fun.

LP: Do all your other activities connected to writing interfere with  the poetry or fuel it?

RH: I think that a person’s art is always fueled by their life in the same way that their happiness, or lack of it, is fuelled by the lives they lead. I’ve had several “careers” or opportunities for the same. I could have been a biologist, or a philosopher, but I chose to go this way instead. There are times I wonder what behavioural biologist Richard Harrison is doing on his world that’s parallel to mine, or what lecture the philosopher I could have been is giving. And sometimes I regret not being either of those men, or someone else. But the moments of regret are few and shorter all the time. To me the poetry — and all that’s followed from my writing — is where everything I ever have been goes to live. I think that may be less a definition of art (though for me it’s art that defines my life) than it is of happiness with life itself. But in the end, they’re one thing — the life you choose and the life you want to be happy with.

And I think that, contrary to what a lot of people believe, it’s often the life that looks like it has too much interference in it that produces the artist’s greatest art. Look at Annabel Lyon: mother of two children writing The Golden Mean between naps, bathtimes, feeding, changing etc etc (any mother will tell you how much young children need from you). You’d think that would be a formula to bring creative work to a standstill. But there she is with a book about Aristotle and Alexander inspired by the attacks of September 11 and a great gnawing need to make sense of it all. I don’t think there’s an “interference” there; I think that Annabel’s life made writing that book necessary, even as she folded it up in tiny packages and sent it into the world. Likewise there are enormous numbers of examples of writers producing work as a way to balance the demands and pressures, the cacophony of the world: Melville writing Moby Dick when he had a bunch of kids to feed (someone can tell me how many), Balzac fighting off debtors, Dostoyevsky scribbling Notes From Underground in the gulag; domestically, Audrey Thomas writing her GG-nominated Mrs. Blood in the same spaces that Annabel wrote. And on and on. In my own little work, it’s the one I wrote about Emma learning to speak while I was the house-father that gained me the most critical attention for the way I was working with the language. I know there are opposites, even within these examples. Every one of these periods of intense involvement with “the world” that interferes with writing is balanced by a disciplined period of time away from it. But being able to use the time away comes AFTER the period of involvement. Honestly, I’ve never clutched a blank book and taken that kind of a break from My Life in order to write and had anything decent come of it; such a time only works when I’ve got to bring with me are pages choked with writing that I wrote during my involvment with the things that people say interfere with writing. Then I’ve got something to work with in that quiet space. I love the quiet space, but, here’s the thing: without the things that interfere with my writing, I’d have no writing.

LP: Who’ll win the Stanley Cup this year?

RH: The Cup Final will come down to whoever’s in 3rd place in the Western Conference (or Calgary) vs whoever’s in 2nd place in the Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference at the end of the season. The Cup will be won by whichever of those teams has the best record from February on. Or Calgary.

Listen to Richard Harrison read his poems here.

About the Author

Leave a Reply