Music, Religion, and Performance

An Interview with Poet Derrick Harriell

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This interview is the first in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by Prairie Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd. On August 15th 2012 he met with poet Derrick Harriell, Professor of Creative Writing and African-American Studies at the University of Mississippi. The following is a brief excerpt from their meeting in the John D. Williams Library’s Blues Archive, one week after Harriell’s move from Milwaukee to Oxford.

Derrick Harriell was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he worked as poetry editor for The Cream City Review. Cotton is his first collection of poems. His next project is Ropes, an epistolary book of persona poems, told from the perspective of historical boxers.

Redd: So you’ve been to the South before?

Harriell: I have. Most of wh ich when I was younger, growing up. You know, a big family reunion thing. From five to twelve, I think seven years in a row. Mostly Alabama. My mother’s side of the family and my father’s side of the family are from Alabama.

R: You read in Atlanta?

H: I performed. I used to be in a hip-hop collective called Black Elephant.

R: Oh, I didn’t know about that.

H: Yeah. [Laughs] Back in my younger, faster days, man. We did the Black Arts Festival down there a few times. With The Last Poets with Jessica Care Moore. Outside of Atlanta, my adulthood hasn’t been with the South much.

R: So that’s why hip-hop, rap, and other musical artists pop up in your work often.

H: Absolutely, I’m a true child of the hip-hop generation. Not necessarily a backpacker. I don’t say I’m an underground hip-hop head, but I grew up listening to hip-hop and underground hip-hop. Guys like 2-pac, Scarface, NWA: all those guys. So that definitely informs my perspective, my aesthetic.

R: That’s really cool. I headed a discussion panel with some writers about writing to music earlier this summer. Have you ever written to music before?

H: Absolutely, it’s something that I spent a lot of time doing years back. It’s been a while. But I first became interested with poetry during that slam poetry movement. This was late nineties for me. The movement started before that, but when I first started to familiarize myself with it was the late nineties. We had these slam poets, so I was all about trying to do everything that they were doing. I was competing and writing poetry to music. Like I said, I hooked up with that hip-hop collective, Black Elephant. I started out as a poet in the group, and then eventually they wanted us to be a bit more accessible, so I started MC-ing. So writing to music was something I used to do a lot of, but not for a while.

R: Earlier you were talking about the blues, and how the word somehow originates from the blue devil. I have noticed how religion, in particular, ritual, pops up in your poetry. That’s one of the things you can’t separate from the South: religion. I wonder, and I’m not trying to make you a Southern poet, but I wonder how religion or religious ritual becomes involved in your poetry.

H: A lot of the Southern sensibilities that appear in my work are coming from resources that were born and raised here in the South. So when I think of my childhood I think of church. My father’s side were Baptists. My mother’s side were Black Muslims, so I spent a lot of time in church, and also time in the mosque. When I think of growing up, a lot of the rituals were not necessarily in the church, but rituals that would occur in the projects, but that had religious affiliation. For example, when I was a child we were living on the fourth floor in a project tenement. When it would thunderstorm, we’d sit in the hallway with all the lights out. We’d be curled up and listen to God talk.

R: Wow.

H: I also think of my grandmother. She’s extremely afraid of snakes, terrified. And that kind of superstition stayed with her. So when I think of rituals, there’s something…I’m a man of rituals. To my wife’s disdain sometimes. I go to the same place to smoke a cigarette, I like to sit in the same stool at my favorite bar, so there’s something for me personally, magical, about rituals, and I don’t know if I can quantify what that is. Going to church is a ritual: sitting down and having prayer before you eat is a ritual. All things that I’ve done growing up. I’m thinking about the poem in Cotton, “The Ritual of Supper.” Sitting and having dinner with your wife every night and how that becomes a ritual: we sit in the same place, and watch the same shows, and talk about the same stuff every night. There’s something religious about it.

R: You often read your work aloud, performance poetry. How does your work change when you read it out loud?

H: Recently I read at the Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. I’ve read at a lot of bookstores. It’s weird: when I think about reading, I think about slamming too. So there’s this duality of poetic lives for me. [He laughs] You perform at the slam in front of crowds and you are the “featured artist” with these theatrical pieces but now—I don’t want to say I’ve evolved—but now I’m just doing something different. When I think about moving from the page to something spoken. Now, I’ve become more interested in the page, perfecting my craft. That was something that was a demon for me. I remember being in a workshop, but I don’t want to say the professor’s name. But I’d been slamming, and I thought really highly of myself. I was maybe a Junior in undergrad, and I’d been traveling, and I thought, “Hey, you guys don’t know poetry. They’re writing me checks to perform poetry!” I was the big dog. And there was this particular professor. She just read my poem in front of the class in workshop and ripped it to shreds: line breaks, syntax, just went to town on it. I was kind of embarrassed, kind of defiant in thinking [confident voice]: “She doesn’t know anything about the new movement of performance poetry.” But once I started to get more involved in graduate studies, somebody told me, “You know Derrick, you could read a phone book, probably, and make it sound good, but your craft sucks, so you need to pay more attention to what’s happening on the page.” So that was almost a demon for me. I started to be ashamed of reading my work out loud. I thought, “In the Ivory tower of academia this is a bad thing. You shouldn’t perform your work. It should just stand on its own. You should read the way everyone else reads: Iambic,” You know what I mean? “Stress, unstress, stress, unstress. [In Iambic rhythm:] We were walking to the store. That’s how I should start reading.” And not do it like I used to do it. So for a long time that’s what I struggled with, but it was just within the last four or five years, that my chairperson back at the University of Milwaukee said — a professor called, Maurice Kilwein-Guevara — I remember him almost shaking me saying, “Embrace that voice! What are you doing? I heard you read ten years ago, and it didn’t sound anything like that. So what are you doing now? You can still do that and focus on the page. What’s happening on the page, that’s important stuff. That’s your craft. But don’t abandon what feels good to you.” And when I read with passion, trying to bring to the audience what I hear in my head, that’s when I’m most myself. So I think, [Laughs] this is one of the longest answers ever, man.

R: No, I love it.

H: I think I’d like my poetry [smacking the chair with his hand in rhythm] to be able stand on its own without my voice for sure. But what Maurice Guevara talks about is, poems were meant to be read out loud since the beginning. So I like that other thing that’s possible, that other magic that’s possible, when you’re at a reading. And sometimes it’s not just, in my experience for me, there could be a person I look at in the audience, and if there’s a certain reaction between myself and that person, pulling me into the collective energy of that audience, that just turns it into something…You’re a musician yourself, I’m sure you can attest.

R: Yeah. I can.

H: There’s this difference between sitting at home rehearsing a song, even delivering it with every thing you got, as opposed to this call and response, there is the blues there: this interaction with the audience. That’s lovely. I love that.

R: Me too. That’s what we’re here for.

A winner of the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Prize for the short story, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Parting Gifts, Thumbnail Magazine and Prairie Schooner’s Briefly Noted.