Alysia Nicole Harris

Interviewed by Cameron Sharpe

Alysia Nicole Harris is an internationally known performance artist and poet hailing from Alexandria, Virginia. She is a Cave Canem fellow, founding member of the performance poetry collective The Strivers Row, and co-founder of the start-up Artist Inn Detroit. Alysia has toured in Canada, Germany, Slovakia, South Africa, and the UK and has spoken at the United Nations. Two-time Pushcart nominee, and two-time winner of the 2015 and 2014 Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize, Alysia’s poems have appeared in Indiana Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, Vinyl, and Best New Poets 2015. Her work has been anthologized in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. In 2015, she was also selected as the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. 

Her first success as a writer and a performer was when she was a member of the winning 2007 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI). In 2008, she was featured on the

HBO documentary Brave New Voices, a slam poetry competition for kids from 13 through 19 years old. In 2014, Alysia received her MFA in poetry from NYU and Ph.D. in linguistics at Yale where she was a Bouchet Honor Society Graduate Fellow.

I was fortunate enough to get in contact with her through email while she was touring the UK and interview her through Google Hangout when she got home to Atlanta.

What brought you to poetry?

We have ways of thinking and how the world makes sense to us and we do not have a name for these things when we are young. We just know that is how we think. Obviously from training you get better and better at your skills, you get that natural impulse. I feel like with poems, I love writing and love words and I was obsessed with them. I would just write lists of names, but they weren’t really names but list of words. I loved the way they sounded and they launched my imagination to different places and to different ideas and so when my teacher in fifth grade showed my English class what a poem was, I was like “Oh I do that, that’s the name for, what happening up here in my brain.” I was like “Oh, that’s who I am! That’s what I am. I do that” And from there it was just getting better and practicing and spending time doing it. 

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Wade Davis

Interviewed by Geoffrey Gideon

I was introduced to Wade Davis through the University of British Columbia. I was a student in the first introduction to anthropology class he would teach at UBC, and his lectures were unlike anything I experienced in academia. I remember one class we were learning about the complexity and intelligence of the Polynesian Wayfinders, a culture that perfected navigation well before European contact. Sitting in front of me were two twenty year-olds. The first couple of classes they were the backwards baseball cap wearing students who would rather talk about their weekend plans than listen. And in fact that’s how the class started, but midway through the lecture they stopped talking and for the rest of the term they listened.    

Those students never stood a chance. Wade Davis has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, the Royal Ontario Museum, given numerous Ted Talks, and delivered the CBC Massey lectures. He’s also the author of twenty books. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest received the 2012 Samuel Johnson prize, the top award for literary nonfiction in the English language.

Not only can Wade Davis speak in a non-academic fashion, but between 1999 and 2013 he served as Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and is the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at UBC. In 2016 he was made a Member of the Order of Canada.

I sent Wade an email thanking him for his class and asking him for an interview. A couple days later he responded and happily agreed to speak with me about literary non-fiction, anthropology, and even Donald Trump.    

How do you select a project? Do you go looking for a story or do the stories find you?

I think Hemingway said the most important credential for a writer to have is something to say that the world needs to hear. He also said famously that anyone who thinks that writing is easy is either a bad writer or a liar. In other words, book projects are always all-consuming and I’ve always found that the thing that gets me through a project is passion, and I mean that in the sense that I really have to care and feel to some extent that I’ve got some mission. This is not something that I think about consciously; it just seems to be the way that it works.

If you look at all the books that I’ve written they’re always driven by a sense of mission, so for example when I came upon voodoo having no previous experience with the African world view I became in a sense outraged at how this religion had been reduced to caricature. There’s no question that that was a motivation that kept me pursuing that subject. At one level it was a scientific investigation but it was also driven by an almost evangelical sense of addressing that wrong and revealing to the world that voodoo was by definition the religion of Africa. That’s why it was so appropriate that the subject that I was studying, zombies, was a phenomenon that had been used in explicitly racist ways to denigrate what is in fact a remarkable religious world view.

Similarly when I wrote the book One River, I was really motivated by a desire to position Schultes in the historical light that he deserved, and Tim Plowman. In fact that book was literally conceived as I stood at the podium at the Field Museum in Chicago delivering a eulogy at Tim’s funeral service. Other books, such as The Wayfinders, were driven by my concern as an anthropologist and trying to draw the world’s attention to the central revelation of anthropology, the idea that every culture has something to say and each deserves to be heard. So all of my books have been driven by some kind of sense of personal mission if you will.

You just never know where that idea is going to come. I mean, the most important book I’ve ever written, and by far the best, is Into the Silence, and that was almost conceived on a whim on the eastern flanks of Everest when I stood on ground higher than anything in North America and looked up at two vertical miles of ice rising on the face of the South Col. And my friend who had brought me to the valley, Dan Taylor, suddenly began to speak of these Englishmen dressed in tweeds who read Shakespeare to each other in the snow at twenty-two thousand feet. And I was always intrigued by the great war and knew a lot about it.

That little whimsical decision to write a book about these men would end up consuming twelve years of my life, but that’s what books are all about. They become measures of your life. When you pass on as a writer I suspect what people will think about is the books, and that’s why books are so powerful. They outlive the author. It’s like when Faulkner was asked what he thought of what Hollywood did to his books and he just points to his bookshelf and says, “They didn’t do anything to my books. They’re not books.”

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