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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Derrick Harriell

Derrick Harriell’s third collection of poetry, Stripper in Wonderland, dances. Recently released from LSU Press, Harriell’s collection explores music, religion, and racism while continuously twirling readers through past, present, and future spaces. Influenced by Funk and Funk culture, his poems grip us with their musicality, an undercurrent that keeps us hungry for the next moment, the next image, the next tune. This collection threads a narrative that cannot merely be read, it must be felt. From the first statement that there is “not enough to hold all this     wonder” to the brief images of the hauntingly beautiful final poem, Harriell captures our pulse. Worlds combine, brush against the edges of each other and we are carried along in a world full of wonder that keeps shifting as we move.

In addition to Stripper in Wonderland, Memorious contributor Derrick Harriell is the author of Ropes (Aquarius Press-Willow Books 2013) and Cotton (Aquarius Press-Willow Books 2010). Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Harriell directs the Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Mississippi, where he is also assistant professor of English and African American studies. A two-time Pushcart Nominee, his poems have appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. Harriell also received the 2014 Poetry Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

Throughout the collection you play with form and space in interesting ways. In the opening poem, “17 Floors,” the internal spacing within lines adds a rhythmic, musical element, and then there are poems such as the final poem, “Ascension,” which use / within lines instead of spaces. How do you see internal space working in your poetry versus the / ?

Spacing in this collection was extremely important to me. “17 Floors” ironically was the first poem I’d written for the collection. I wanted to push the musicality in my writing, as well as push the way I presented ideas, images, impressions. While I choose to mostly write narrative, I wanted to complicate my presentation of the narrative. Right. So, when I think about the way our minds work and how in our daily lives we consider our day-to-day narratives (e.g. taking out the trash, going to work, going for a run, having a glass of wine), rarely are the images of these narratives as neat and perfect as we might present them in writing. For example, rarely do I think “I’m going to take out the trash and then make breakfast.” Rather I think, “The trash is full, there’s a woman I used to know, is there food I can make for breakfast?” It’s this internal dialogue and the messiness of it that I wanted to convey in Stripper. Ideally, I wanted to create an imperfect kaleidoscope of images, narrative, and song to leave a more immediate impression on the reader. To this end, I saw the use of the caesura and the virgule as most effective options. How I decided which one to use was a real spontaneous part of the process; meaning, the poem just naturally moved into its form.

The poems overall are very musical with a wide range of sonic devices from consonance to repetition to form. The musicality hums like a ghostly undercurrent and adds emotional depth to the poems that clings to a reader even after the words have faded. Jumping off the poem, “Rapping with Ghosts,” could you discuss the role of music in poetry? Were there any musical influences, or ghosts, you found yourself going back to as you worked on the collection, and if so, who?

What a musically delivered question. Music has always been important in my life and in my writing. For many years when asked about my first poetic influences, I often mentioned Black canonical writers because I thought that I should. And while so many Black literary giants did have a huge influence on my writing, I was equally influenced by the poetry of the emcees (Tupac, Nas, The Roots, No Limit, etc.). In fact, I spent about four or five years in a very successful hip hop group, Black Elephant. To this end, I’ve always been fascinated by the delivery of our great emcees and their ability to manipulate language and to play with consonance, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, etc. For this ability always added an additional layer to the poem (the emcee’s poem that is). For me, good writing is all about delivering layers and creating depth. I see the musicality of language as a tool by which we can do this as writers. This stated, I’d never felt more free to explore my fascination with sound in any of my books. Writing Stripper was the most freeing experience I’ve had writing a book because it’s the first collection I wrote for me. My first collection I attempted to demonstrate my influences. My second collection I wanted to write a book on historic Black boxers. This book was in many ways self-indulgent. I wanted to only write a book I wanted to read and use every writing talent I’ve garnered in all my years of writing. So I intentionally pushed the music. Furthermore, I wanted to play with the idea of Funk culture and Funk poetry. For most of my early career I’d be labeled a Blues poet because I wrote Blues poems. I started to imagine what a Funk poem might look like: what a Funk poem might sound like. Essentially, I wanted to write a Funk collection. And we all know that music is at the center of Funk and Funk culture.

You give us surprising imagery in the collection which shakes up the known world and places us in a wonderland. For example, in “Lifetime of Lap Dances,” you have these beautifully odd images and descriptions such as “I’m burying / a shadow in your collarbone” and “drunken fairy like // you look down,” and yet the language stays down to earth. Could you discuss your use of language in the poems? What is gained when poetry keeps closer to an everyday language?

I find the way we use language so fascinating; and even more so, at what moments do we decide to employ which aspects of the language resting in our language toolbox. Embarking on this collection, I found myself interested in my own everyday language and how I talk. Again, in my previous collection, I’d spent years trying to mimic the language of Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson and hadn’t played with “my” own language in quite some time. For Stripper, I wanted to pursue a language that mirrored my everyday language but pushed, or on steroids. I mean, I wanted to incorporate my own everyday lingo but not abandon the imaginative impulse associated with art. This is how I pursued the idea of a wonderland. I hoped that my reader would feel both stable and unstable. I hoped that my reader would feel undermined any time she tried predicating what’ll come in the next line, hell, which word might come next. And this is how I’ve grown to speak naturally. As a graduate student, I didn’t appreciate the nuances of my everyday language, the language of inner-city Milwaukee, and did a lot of code-switching in my writing. Now, I still wrote Black stories about Black people but my language felt more standardized. In Stripper, I wanted to embrace the diction of Black Milwaukee while embracing all of the nerd artistic aspects of my language toolbox, and now, even some of the southern vernacular that’s starting to be added. I wanted these poems to be an amalgam of all this. I wanted the authenticity of my everyday speaking life: one minute I’m open to discussing Foucault using theoretical terminology and the next minute I’m on the phone with an old friend using Milwaukee hood terminology that you wouldn’t understand if you not from there. And sometimes I’m doing both in the same conversation. This is the complicated nature of my own language I was interested in pursuing.

In the second section of the collection, “Astronauts in Mississippi,” Mississippi plays a role, not just as setting, but almost as an entity in the mystical world you’ve created. At times the repetition of Mississippi in poems such as “Space Cadet” and “Mississippi Striptease” even gives the word a mantra-esque or spell-like quality. Could you talk about how Mississippi—where you currently live—plays a part in your poetry and in this mythical world?

Yes! I don’t believe I could’ve written this book without Mississippi. What is there not to say about Mississippi? I’ve been living in Mississippi for almost five years now and if ten years ago you told me that my first child would be born in Mississippi, I would’ve called you a damn lie. I moved to Mississippi to teach at the University of Mississippi and not necessarily to live in Mississippi (see how much I’ve already repeated the word—it is a spell). I kid.

Before moving here, the only thing I’d known about Mississippi was what I saw in old Civil Rights documentaries. Mississippi was hot, backwards, and racist. This stated, Mississippi did have this mystical quality to it that I was somehow drawn to. I knew that Mississippi was the home of the Blues and that the South, as a whole, was home for Black people in this country. While I may not be able to name the country in Africa my ancestors are from, I can tell you that I have a great-this or a great-that from Alabama, and that both my wife’s mother and father were born in Mississippi. I hadn’t stepped foot in Mississippi ever until I did five years ago. And while I was initially resistant to fall in love with this place, this place immediately took a hold on me. It’s a bit hard to quantify, but there’s that ghostly past which ironically has made me feel empowered and creative. The air and the land does seem to be haunted but not in a negative sense (at least in my experience). I can’t help but feel the presence of courageous Black folk who believed that through love and perseverance, I was possible in the future. In many ways coming to the South feels like a reclamation project: that we as Black folks have unfinished business down here. As aforementioned, I think about my child being born here, and what that means for him. I walk freely around campus and think that just sixty years ago, I wouldn’t be permitted. I may be negotiating my feelings about the South and Mississippi for quite some time. I know that I’m currently enjoying the rollercoaster of experiences, both seen and unseen, of a Midwest boy from Milwaukee. Mississippi is an active character in Stripper. The question becomes, is speaker in Mississippi or is Mississippi in him?

In “Thursday,” your speaker says, “don’t ask me about futures,” but I can’t help it. The speaker often seems to be coming from combinations of past, present, and future which complicates the idea of life as a clear narrative. The final section of the collection in particular seems to merge memories with present moments and imaginings of possible futures. In poetry, is it possible for a speaker to speak from only one place and time or is the past, present, and future always there even if it’s not acknowledged? And how do you balance these three temporalities in your own work?

Damn, you really read my book, great question! I’ve been interested in the scientific ideas of quantum theory and of string theorists for quite some time. And while I don’t understand the equations and the entire scientific lingo, I’m often interested in the ideas and the dumb-downed explanations of some of these edgy hypotheses. The idea of time is one that I’ve been interested in for years after hearing so many quantum theorists propose its illegitimacy. I won’t bore you with a bunch of sloppy science talk from a writer guy, but I knew at some point I wanted to pursue this in my writing, I just didn’t know how that might look. Stripper, a collection in which I visit some aspects of my past initially, seemed like the right opportunity. Additionally, I felt it could add to the boldness of Funk and Funk culture (I’m thinking of Funk musicians like Sun Ra who claimed to be from another planet and who also questioned many of our standard universal assumptions). I knew I wanted to write about Mississippi too (which in many ways is a present rendering). I then started to play with the idea of the ever-present Now (meaning there is no past, present, and future, there is only Now and all things are happening in that Now). If this is true, I thought, then what’s happening right Now in my own “future:” perhaps my son is getting married, perhaps I’m celebrating thirty years of marriage at this very moment. Expanding on these ideas and fleshing them out further, I labored over the manuscript to ensure that every aspect was connected. And if all of these narratives exist at the same time, how are they informing and affecting one another? This is the question I complicated throughout the revision process. I labored over this question at nauseam until each poem felt, both contextually and spiritually, connected.

To answer the second part of your question: I’m not sure if we as poets or writers can simply speak from only one place. Our perspective of that one place is informed by so many other experiences that invade the space of a right Now moment. I would imagine that our articulation, both contextually and emotionally, of a specific moment is a fluid thing that shifts depending on the other parts of ourselves and our histories we find ourselves accessing in that moment. For example, I can try writing about an experience, however, since I’m not writing about the experience while having the experience, how I articulate the experience will depend on where I’m sitting and what I’ve had for breakfast at the time I try to write it. I would imagine that whatever’s happened between having the experience and writing about the experience will inform how it’s articulated and what receives emphasis. If that makes sense at all? In Stripper, I wanted to collapse time so that my reader might experience reading the book backwards or starting in the middle. While we should read most collections more than once, I hoped to create a body of work that moved my reader to keep coming back for pleasure, but also, for those subtle temporal connections that are stretching across the various “past,” “present,” and “future” moments presented here.

One more future question to end on: what are you working on now?

I’m just beginning to play with some concepts in the form of notes but I’m not writing any poems at the moment. Thank you for these well thought out questions!

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse is a PhD student in creative writing at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Fairy Tale Review, New South, Sou’wester, and Bayou Magazine, among others.

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