Michael Harris: I was trying to think of how a first line literally has to have one hooked immediately. Without a first line that either leads in immediately to a second line hook or a third line hook, there isn’t any poem, you don’t get down to the fourth line usually. It has to be something that doesn’t throw one off. It has to actually bring one in. Reading a poem is a little bit like falling in love. Ten years on, if it was a correct falling-in-love you’re still with them and if it was an incorrect falling-in-love, you’re not with them anymore.
Carmine Starnino: Does that thinking affect arrangement in a book? For example, the first poem you place in your manuscript?
Harris: A friend of mine, the Quebecois poet Michel Garneau, once told me, “Lead with your best piece.” And that makes a kind of sense. He is, amongst other things, an actor and a playwright. And theatrically, what’s interesting is to have something very strong at the beginning. But I don’t think the first poem in a book has to be the best poem. It has to be a poem that is absolutely solid, that doesn’t push one away, that says, “Here I am. I’m a decently written piece. I have subject matter that’s of interest. I have a couple of oddities. A couple of interesting tropes that tell you I’m an interesting poet beyond what one might normally read.” And by the end of the first page, you have to have read something of import. Then the second page and the 3rd page and the 4th page, you can fool around a bit. By the time the 5th or 6th page, then you have to have a plateau poem, a decent poem, a very good poem. Something that’s so good that, had you put it first, you might have lost the reader; it’s a little bit like getting introduced to somebody you don’t know and coming on too strong. That’s how Shakespeare managed the plays. Very seldom is the huge speech in Act 1. The magic develops slowly. By the time you get to Act 3 or 4 there’s strength, power and explosiveness.
Starnino: You don’t want to come on too strong?
Harris: You want to be absolutely present and inevitable, but you can’t whack somebody over the head and say this is genius. At least, that’s how I would organize the seduction.
- Michael Harris, former Signal Editions editor, in interview with current Signal editor Carmine Starnino, over at Canadian Notes & Queries. You can read the whole thing here.