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Harris expresses herself through poetry, music

ISU seal projected

Invention and experimentation are not words that quickly spring to mind when discussing poetry. But poet-musician-singer-scholar Duriel E. Harris of the Department of English is all about inventing and experimenting in writing and performing poetry. Today Harris teaches creative writing and poetics at Illinois State, but when she was an undergraduate she initially wanted to become a mechanical engineer.

“I was encouraged by my father and my love of physics to major in mechanical engineering,” she says, “but at Yale University I ended up being drawn to literary theory as a means to find language for what I experienced negotiating the world I met, the world I newly recognized upon leaving the sheltered reality of my home communities.”

Following a series of challenging events in her life, Harris turned to creative writing as a means of self-expression. She earned a bachelor’s degree in literature from Yale. Then she completed her master’s degree from New York University and found her way to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she met and studied with her doctoral advisor and life-changing mentor, blues poet Sterling D. Plumpp, a professor of English and African American studies.

“The majority of my formal ‘training’ or education has been in poetry,” Harris says. “Music and song – elements that are essential to poetry – are my passions. Professor Plumpp led me to embrace and formally acknowledge the role of music, performance and sound in my work.”

Harris points to poet-author-educator Charles Bernstein, who asserts that “poetry needs to be sounded.” He writes “Unsounded poetry remains inert marks on a page, waiting to be called into use by saying, or hearing, the words aloud.” When Harris reads her poetry to audiences, she says, “the work is imbued with presence. I am able to convey inflection, cadence, gesture, texture, embodied knowledge that the print text can only suggest. The poem becomes an event.”

Harris’ 2003 debut poetry collection, “Drag,” is “a 21st-century literary text,” according to her mentor Plumpp, “emerging out of the prism of race, gender and social class.” For several years, she has been doing research for “Amnesiac,” a four-part media art project (book-length poetry collection, DVD, Web site and sound recording). “Amnesiac: Poems” will be published this year by Sheep Meadow Press.

“’Amnesiac’ deals with memory studies and trauma studies: intersecting interdisciplinary fields exploring human memory and the impact of physical and psychic trauma upon human experience,” Harris says. “I am particularly interested in the effect of trauma on human memory and the diverse and multifaceted ways in which the extremity of war and state-sponsored terror, genocide, domestic and sexual violence and various types of oppression structure and inform individual and collective experience and identities.”

Harris is co-founder of Black Took Collective, a group created in 1999 by young black post-theorists who perform and write in hybrid experimental forms, embracing radical poetics and cutting-edge critical theory about gender, race and sexuality. Since 2001, she also has been a member of Douglas Ewart and Inventions, a Chicago-based experimental and improvisational jazz ensemble.

Local residents experienced Harris’ work when she was the special guest reader at TheatresCool in Bloomington.

In the classroom, Harris exhorts her students to read, read and read, while thinking and questioning their inclinations and values. She encourages them to move toward subjects and research issues that have energy for them but to use a critical eye to explore that material: turning their attention to what they love and also what they resist, what holds negative energy.

“I hope to facilitate writers’ journeys toward self-actualization, encouraging self-interrogation and discovery, investigation of the self and the larger social world,” Harris says. “In addition to creating a community conducive to the exchange of ideas through seminar and workshop, I work with students as individuals, shaping assignments and prompts to foster independent critical inquiry and growth.”

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