No forgetting: Poet and performer dissolves trouble in sea of words
“I nurse hatreds to dress hatreds,
marshal squadrons of dogs, locusts, and carrion birds
and send them forth with poignant clarity (they shall run
and not be weary). O drunken momentum. O sun-baked splatter.
Insatiate, they, too, shall devour.”
—“Unfurled: The Pain-Body Speaks in Repose” from Amnesiac by Duriel E. Harris
The power and musicality of Duriel E. Harris’ poetry can strike an audience dumb. The violence in the words reveals real trauma she transforms into a transcendent experience for her readers and listeners.
Michael Antonucci saw the stunned reaction firsthand when Harris gave a poetry reading as part of Keene State College’s Black Writers series. After the event, which was held on a Thursday night, late in the semester, his wife told him she thought the audience was dead, but he saw something different.
“I’ll tell you what, they weren’t dead. They were just blown away because I got these very intimate emails that arrived, even from professors who had sent students, and it was all like, ‘Whatever happened the other night and whatever Dr. Harris did was transformative, amazing,’ etc. etc.,” said Antonucci, an associate professor of American studies at Keene State College in New Hampshire. “She is able to drop some really heavy stuff on, in, and out there. And her audience is able to receive it, process it in ways that find the best landing space and direct and inspire. I guess that is the great poet that is there.”
Classifying Harris solely as a poet—as Antonucci would admit—would be unnecessarily limiting. She is the author of three poetry collections, and her latest volume, No Dictionary of a Living Tongue, published last spring, won the Nightboat Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in several prestigious publications such as Mandorla, The & Now Awards, Ploughshares, Troubling the Line, and The Best of Fence and has been translated into German, Polish, and Spanish.
But Harris is also an associate professor at Illinois State, the editor of a literary journey based at the University, a jazz musician, and a performing artist who has appeared onstage around the world.
Antonucci is a longtime admirer of Harris’ work, who has reviewed her poetry volumes and collaborated with her on academic articles. He was attracted to her poetry because she has a distinct voice that is deeply rooted in the African American literary tradition, black culture, and improvisational experimental art. “She really draws from many streams and she is completely versed in contemporary literary theory. She can at once theorize, execute, and experiment while maintaining a clear and direct contact with the ‘tradition.’”
Harris has been teaching creative writing to graduate students at Illinois State since 2009. She also incorporates them into her work with Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora. Harris is the editor of the semiannual academic journal, which features the drama, fiction, and poetry of the African diaspora and the work of scholars who research the art and literature of the African diaspora.
The magazine was founded at the State University of New York at Fredonia in 1975 and moved to North Carolina State University a decade later. Harris orchestrated the journal’s transfer to Illinois State in 2014, after the publication lost its funding. Harris has garnered support for the journal from Illinois State through the Department of English, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Office of the Provost. A National Endowment for the Arts grant supports the print and digital publication, promotion, and distribution of the international literary and scholarly journal.
“I want poetry to live in more people’s lives,” Harris said. “At this contemporary time, there is a lot of competition for our attention, so I think about how the poems can be more engaging and be not just words on a page to people, but be voices, be videos, be visual images. Be all those kinds of things I think they are anyway.”
Harris grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in a home filled with art, books, and music. Her mother was an elementary school teacher, and her father was a corporate personnel development manager. Harris began creative writing as a child, penning children’s books that would eagerly be read by her nieces and nephews. However, she did not plan to become a writer when she began her undergraduate career at Yale University. Instead, she studied mechanical engineering and physics.
The problem was that her scientific studies could not help her cope with personal trauma she was having trouble dealing with. Unbeknownst to her parents, Harris had been a victim of date rape just before college and had been sexually abused as a child by a friend’s relative.
“What I couldn’t get from physics was any understanding of those human issues,” Harris said. “I needed to be grounded in my humanity in order just to continue. I was not going to continue. I was too fragmented.”
The trauma left her with dissociative amnesia. She had profound gaps in her memory, and in times of stress, she could not be fully present in her life or even recognize her own image. “I’m an amnesiac,” Harris said. “I feel like the stars in the night sky. Then when I talk to people, I cohere.”
Harris eventually switched to literature at Yale University, where she received a bachelor’s degree. She later earned a master’s degree in English and American literature at New York University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Illinois.
Writing allowed her to work through her trauma. Through her studies, she became well-versed in literary theory, psychoanalysis, and critical approaches to literature, which enabled her to view her life through many different lenses.
“I used to put everything on the backburner because I didn’t know what to do with the feeling. So part of the writing for me became a way for me to understand what it is to be a human being. Why continue in the face of suffering? If it’s just going to be like this, why not opt out?”
Harris explored her amnesia and the pain that caused it in her second poetry collection, Amnesiac, published in 2010. In the book, she confronts not only her own past but larger traumas like America’s history of slavery and the genocide in Rwanda. In reference to the latter, she quoted a Hutu farmer who participated in the mass slaughter of his Tutsi neighbors: “It was as if we were taken over by Satan. We were not ourselves.” Through the quote and the poem at the beginning of this article, she illustrated how regular people are capable of committing terrible acts when they are unable to integrate previous traumatic experiences.
“The idea that ‘The Pain-Body Speaks in Repose’ takes it past just the individual to the collective,” Harris said. “The collective pain of our experience that has not been integrated and gives it kind of a voice. My experience of it is like a spirit—like an evil that can be activated and can be drawn upon.
“That is what I’m working with a lot in Amnesiac—dealing with the residue. It is the repository of pain that I would certainly much rather avoid, but that I cannot avoid if I want to be even close to being whole. Because if you ignore it, that’s how it gets you to do what it wants you to do.”
Harris’ latest book, No Dictionary of a Living Tongue, explores how one should live if they choose to continue: “How do we evaluate whether we have lived a good life or not? What is the science of living well here?”
The title derives from Samuel Johnson’s preface to his A Dictionary of the English Language, in which he explains how difficult it is to pin down a language that is constantly changing. “People who write dictionaries are really trying to capture the moment,” Harris said. “They are trying to document what is happening, how people are using these words.”
Harris called the dictionary a “lost cause for a living and evolving species.” “What else is going to happen to Latin? Nothing. It’s dead. There is a security in that. But it’s dead. The only way you get that complete security is in death.”
Harris uses poetry, prose, songs, and illustrations to capture the reader’s attention. Several poems, including “Decorus,” are written as “story cubes.”
“Something I was really interested in was decentering the linear idea that we usually have. That’s what I was thinking with the story cube: What is a three-dimensional sculptural shape that is not going to privilege any particular side, but offer enough sides? And also be kind of common so it doesn’t feel loaded in its representation.”
Harris designed the actual visual object so it does not tell the reader which side is first in order to remove the poem’s linear narrative. “The poem, I’m hoping, gives you an opportunity to engage it, so we ask more questions about the relationships between the parts. How are they related to one another? Because your sense of meaning changes as for the order.”
In the book, Harris is working at the crossroads of tradition, experimentation, and theory, Antonucci said. For instance, she dedicates the poem “In the Space Between Each Breath, a Listening Blooms” to the late bebop saxophonist Fred Anderson and poet Sterling D. Plumpp. “There in that you have her touching these experimental black artists who have deep working knowledge of the bebop tradition and blues and jazz and what you just might want to call black experimentalism,” Antonucci said. “As a reader you can read through and find a lot of different meanings for tradition in her work. That is what is exciting. She is avant-garde all of the way. And nothing says that more than No Dictionary of a Living Tongue.”
Harris’ experimentation extends to the boundaries she crosses as an artist. In 2011, she created a video, based on her poem “Speleology,” with Illinois State School of Art Professor and video artist Scott Rankin (see video below). She is also a founding member of the poetry collective The Black Took Collective, and sings and plays percussion for the improvisational music ensemble Douglas Ewart & Inventions.
Music is a constant in Harris’ work and life. The spectrum of African American-influenced music—from classic blues to more experimental acts like Funkadelic and Sun Ra—inspires her poetry and performances. Harris grew up playing the piano and singing in the choir. Both of her parents sing, as well, and her mother is so good, in fact, she was once invited to join the Count Basie Orchestra.
“Music is one of the fundamental human experiences,” Harris said. “If I don’t have music, I feel impoverished. To me it is one of the most beautiful things about being a human and being alive.”
She brings together poetry, dance, and music in her one-woman play, Thingification, in which she performs the roles of male and female characters including a blues musician, a genderqueer DJ, and a rock star.
The play incorporates ideas from all three of her poetry collections and examines how oppression, like racism and sexism, affects not only the victims. Harris said the term “thing-ification” originates in Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism: “There he explains that colonization diminishes the humanity of both colonizer and colonized, offering the equation: ‘colonization = thing-ification.’
“Drawing upon black feminist thought and the concept of intersectionality, I broaden the scope of Césaire’s initial rendering to recognize thing-ification as the annihilating objectifying force at the core of all oppressions. The play is performed to stomp that annihilating thing-ification. It is performed for us to work together in this ritual co-creation through which we can accept who it is we are and confront some of our demons.”
Harris premiered Thingification in Bloomington with follow-up performances in New York City, and at the University of Missouri’s Corner Playhouse and Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater. She has also performed scenes from the play at the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Ghana-Legon, Kwara State University in Nigeria, and at the Babylon Cinema in Berlin.
“For me performance is really important because it is about connecting,” Harris said. “It’s a kind of love. We can’t just get rid of trauma, but we can dissolve it in a sea of resources. Part of my work is to bring us more of the joy, more of the bounty and abundance of living and love so that we can be better as we work with one another and do better to create the kind of world that people deserve.”
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.