This February marks the 34th anniversary of the Writer-in-Residence program at Vassar College, this year honoring Joshus Harmon, a former professor of English here at Vassar. The program started in 1979, when the Department of English lecture committee obtained a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to initiate the program with the double residency of American Indian novelist Leslie Marmon Silko and award-winning poet Phillip Levine. Since then, a remarkable array of fiction writers and poets from all over United States as well as England, Ireland, and Australia have visited Vassar through this program.
Writers-in-Residence give public lectures, guide senior English majors who are writing theses, and visit a range of classes.
According to Assistant Professor Hua Hsu of the English department, “The Writer in Residence is an unusual honorific, in that it is an honorific with considerable strings attached. You’re supposed to come and share all your writerly secrets with us. You counsel our students, read and edit their work.” Many of the former Writers in Residence have earned literary honors—Pulitzer prizes, National Book Awards and MacAuthur Fellowships—often after a Vassar residency. On Feb. 12, Harmon gave a reading from his book, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, in Sanders auditorium.
Harmon has published dozens of poems, short stories and essays in publications like The Believer, Bomb, the New England Review and the Normal School. He is also the author of five books, including the novel Quinnehtukquta finalist for the Cabell First Novelist Award – and the poety collection Scape, which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. In 2011, he published Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie, winner of the 2010 Akron Poetry Prize. This year, Dzanc Books will publish two new collections, History of Cold Seasons, a collection of short fiction, and The Annotated Mix-Tape, a collection of essays about music, collecting and the 1980s.
Harmon currently lives in Western Massachusetts and teaches at Clark University.He has also taught at Vassar until last year. Faculty and students alike expressed excitement for Harmon’s return.
According to Professor Hsu, “When Josh was nominated to be Writer-in-Residence, we had a harder time deciding on a time to hold our meetings than we did deciding on his candidacy.”
His former students also remembered him as an enthusiastic professor. Kiran Kawolics’15, who took Short Forms with Harmon as her Freshman Writing Seminar, recalled,“Short Forms was the class that I looked most forward to that semester…In addition to being really great at facilitating class discussions, Josh offered extremely constructive feedback on papers and encouraged people to push their writing and analytical skills to their full potential. He achieved this while still being a very approachable and understanding professor.”
Hsu supported these abounding comments, stating, “Josh was a brilliant and inspiring teacher whose classes were regularly overenrolled. I always love having his former students in my classes, because I know they will be careful, disciplined readers with weird taste.”
Adding onto his praise of Harmon, in his laudatory introduction to Harmon’s reading last Tuesday, Hsu remarked, “Being asked to introduce Josh is a unique thrill for me…I still miss the conversations Josh and I shared while he was here—about reading, writing, the Red Sox, record collecting, anything, really. Nobody has been more of an influence on how I teach writing, and this place really hasn’t been the same without him. It’s truly awesome to welcome him back.”
Hsu was excited to have Harmon back not only on a personal level, but on a professional one.
“I know of few writers as versatile as Josh, as careful and serious about language, the possibilities of a word or a sentence…He is serious without being pretentious, ironic but rarely cynical,” he said.
Harmon’s selected readings from Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie were followed up with his musings about life in the Poughkeepsie city. He confessed that he decided to write a poem about Poughkeepsie,“the Queen City of the Hudson” as he ironically calls it, because he thought, “If I don’t unburden myself about Poughkeepsie, I might never write again.” He went on to confess, “[I] plundered not only the details of my life in Poughkeepsie, but also yours,” drawing out smiles from the many students and other professors who attended the reading.
Drawing upon Patti Smith’s comment that “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling, but there are still other cities like Detroit and Poughkeepsie that they can go to,” Harmon ended his musing on Poughkeepsie with a sarcastically light note:
“You guys don’t even have to go anywhere!”
Harmon then pulled open his Mac and went onto play music videos from the eighties: Def Leppard and the Flock of Seagulls. Harmon claimed that the main singer’s postmodern dilemma is “the inability of a representation to satisfy his longing…wishing only for the intimate presence of the real, but realizing that a photograph is only a pseudo-presence and that desirability is enhanced by distance.” In this era (even more so than the eighties) of superfluous photographs and images that collapse time and distance, what is the meaning of writing? What is the postmodern dilemma of our generation? Are we doomed to be pretentious without being serious, and cynical without understanding irony? Harmon ended the lecture with a provoking thought that “writing is all about looking in the mirror…how to reflect ourselves to ourselves…writing is a luxury, because nobody really needs to read and write, but it is a desire for self-display and disclosure that propel us to write.”
Kawolics, who also attended the reading, said, “The reading event was so authentically Josh, which was why I enjoyed it so much. He always talked to our class about life in the 1980s, and he would sometimes show us clips from the music videos he grew up with, much like the ones he played during his reading. I actually got a little emotional at the reading because the event reminded me so much of my Short Forms class, just with more people there and Josh wearing a suit. I thought that his personality, energy, and talent really came through at the reading.”
Kawolics added that she is thrilled to have Harmon back.
“Joshua is a brilliant writer in addition to brining a great energy to this campus. He’s a completely inspiring person and I think that anyone at Vassar who is interested in writing or literature should read his work,” she said.
As the poet John Yau remarked about Harmon, “the flaneur of Poughkeepsie” is back for another saunter in town.”