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. 

Yeah, it is amazing to see how people do poetry because I did one poem and it was not that good, but your poetry is very effortless. 

No, it is effortful, but you can spend time getting better at your craft, you can spend time plateauing, and spend time getting worse. I feel like right now, I am spending time getting worse because I hate everything that I write. But it is a process. 

What were the books or the people in your life that encouraged you to use your voice?

My mother was a huge encouragement. My mentor, whom I met when I was 16, always encouraged me to write because he always encouraged me to be myself, which included writing. I would say I never really read much poetry until I got to college. I read Anne Carson’s work. I read a lot of Arabic poetry and those were like “Oh my god, these people are so much better then me,” and that was great. I was like “Wow, you are a master and I am a novice.” We really need that because I know I’ve gone through periods of, “I’m good. I do not really need to do anything else,” and then you end up losing your craft because you are not really working on it. So now I am in a place of being a baby writer. I am going to take my little steps. Especially after the chapbook came out, I feel like I do not have a lot of poems in me at the moment. So I am taking baby steps and maybe the poems will come. 

Baby steps are key for most things. When was the moment when the type of poetry you are writing became your voice? Like this is the poetry that I am going to be writing for the rest of my life? 

I knew what my creative voice was earlier on; I would say it’s moved all around. Like a lot of twisting and turning. And also very sexual. And then I went to graduate school and I lost all sense of myself as a writer. Now, especially after the first chapbook came out, I really don’t want to write those types of poems right now. Not because I do not feel like they are interesting but because I want to find a new music. I want to find a new way of expressing my thoughts and I do not know what that is right now which is why I am having trouble writing. But I think of it like Picasso. If you look across his 90 years of creating work, his stuff in his blue period does not look like his stuff in his cubist period and it does not necessary look like the stuff he did in the latter portion of his life. But they all really interesting and stimulating and I feel like I do not want to be a kind of artist who finds one thing and rides out with that. I want to be more experimental in my work. Like right now, I am writing a lot poems that do not really feel like poems to me because my natural bent is to be very lush with language and right now my poems are much smaller and that is not good, because it does not fit the sense of my ear, and so I am just powering through.

I do not know if you listen to the rapper Childish Gambino, but the latest album does not sound like other work, but it was also an amazing album. Just trying not to be complacent. 

Yes! That is what I am exactly what I am struggling with. Especially when complacency is highly rewarded, why would I risk something? With performance work as well, in particular, I have new pieces that I don’t bother to memorize because I know when I go on stage, I know what they want to hear, I know what they expect to hear and I know what works. So why take the risk that people may not like it or it may not make the same impact? That is something I have to earnestly fight teeth and nail and often times I lose. My goal for 2017 is to just take more risks. Both in my performance and my writing. 

This leads into the next questions about performance writing. Like what is the feeling of being on the stage and people listening to your writing? I know it is a very vulnerable, very intimate moment between you and the audience, but what do you feel? 

People assume that I am much more vulnerable then I actually am. In a way the stage feels like home to me. Especially with poems that I have done over time. They have a life outside of me that I just have get into sometimes. When I am on stage now, I wouldn’t say this in ‘08, but I don’t think about the trauma or the hurt or even the experience that produced that poem. I think about the words as they are coming out of my mouth. I try to allow those words to have an effect on me in this particular moment as if I am an audience member and I am hearing them for the first time. I do not want to relive an experience that I lived four years ago. I want to think about it differently and have a different association. So sometimes I may perform a poem like Paris in the Rain and I may not be thinking about Paris. I am thinking about where I am right now in London or Atlanta and those feelings that are able to translate through space and time because they are particular, but they are talking about universal things. So I am trying to allow the particularity to influence and guide me through what I am experiencing right now rather then what I experienced when I wrote the poem. 

You kind of touch on being in the MFA program and now you’ve received your Ph.D. So how did you find your footing after graduating the MFA program?

It is hard. I still do not feel like I found my footing creatively. The MFA program is an amazing thing because other writers are around you and you are reading their work constantly and you are readings so much work. In my MFA program, I probably read like five books of poem in a week, you know. And then you are constantly getting feedback from other writers and you are hearing poems all the time and you are thinking about poetry all the time. And then you graduate and that community disappears because a lot of people do not go on to careers of professional writers. They may have a regular nine to five and then publish a poem on the side. Ultimately, poetry becomes this side thing and people are no longer thinking, talking and reading poems all the time, they are just living. And then they have to find time for poems which is very hard to do. At least for me, I went to an MFA program that I felt underprepared me because the people in the program with me had studied Creative Writing in undergrad or worked in publishing and I have never done that. So on one of my first days at my MFA program, people were talking about Adrienne Rich and Anne Sexton and Elizabeth Bishop and I did not have a clue who those people were. So I was like “Wow, these people are so much better read than me and they have all these terms to talk about poems.”

Yet I believe till this day that in the first draft of a poem, I can get a lot closer to the poems compared to my counterparts. Like if we were doing a free write, I feel like what I came out with at the end of my free write is better then what they came out with, however, that process of perfecting and editing, they may come out with a poem 20% or 30% done, but they edited up to 95% or 100%. I come out with a poem that is 80% from the first draft, but I cannot get to 80 to 90 or 95. I still feel that way. I was relying on other writers to catch my mistakes, and after I graduated, I was like “Oh my god, what do I do? How do I work with poems?” And I think insecurity ultimately crushes your creativity because you are afraid of it not being good or afraid of it not being right and just do not write it. So the goal is to be braver. 

The most difficult thing is to be brave and courageous. This is a good point in the interview to ask this question. It has been the first month since Donald Trump has become president and there’s a lot of hate going around in America between different subcultural groups. So, do you think poetry is needed now more than ever? 

Well I think poetry has always been needed. Mostly because, and I am being a hypocrite as I am saying this, we need moments of self-reflection and moment of pause. I feel like at a time in a culture where people pray and meditate less, there are not opportunities for people to connect their lived experience, their inner lives to the larger story that’s at work in the world. And poetry brings that practice of reflecting, writing, asking questions, fleshing them out, relying on yourself with language in a new way to investigate the interior of ourselves, right. And I really believe in the power of empathy but I think it is impossible to be empathic if you not willing to explore yourself and other people. I think now more than ever, we need to be more empathic towards one another. I feel like I need to be more empathic too. So that means even though I disagree with my enemies, I still have to extend empathy towards them. Not for them, this shit is for me. I need to be able to do that because I am trying not to become them, and I think poems are a way to practice that. 

So I have a two-part questions now. What has been the most mind blowing experience you have had so far and what has been the most “I am done” moment?

I have great moments. I wrote a poem called Look at you without speaking, I am drawing a map and when I wrote I was like, “Wow, I wrote better then I can actually write in that poem.” I do not have that much skill and that poem came out. Then there are moments performing where you can collaborate with other artists. Collaborating with JP Copper has been one of my favorite performance moments where his voice and his song gave my poems a context. And I was like “Wow, I was actually writing in the context of your song” and I did not know that. That is another amazing experience when you can see your work be taken to another level through the artistry of someone else. And then like, I was in South Africa at a club and the DJ shouts out “Alysia Harris is the in building!” and I was like “Oh my god, I made it! I am in South Africa! This is crazy.” Those moments are so strange. Especially for performance work, which is different, I feel compared to paid poems, but you know that if you are a performance poet, you are not famous. Like you ride coach, you struggle to pay your bills. You know you are not, but people are having these deep emotional experiences with you and it feels strange that people think of you in ways that may not be true to the whole you actually are and you also feel estranged from yourself.

Then there are the moments when I do not want to write anymore. When I am not creatively producing or I am not writing or writing enough or when I feel like I do not have the questions to begin probing. Like, right now I am super calm and I do not have some deep question where it is bubbling up or digging at me so I don’t feel like the poems are urgent and they are a waste of language. I know that’s not true, but that’s how it feels. And this is where it sucks. Other moments are when you are on tour and you have 8,000 engagements and everyone expects you to be nice and friendly and kind and generous and you are like “I’m tired and I want to go to sleep.” Like I am on the cusp of introverted and extroverted and in those moments I feel very, very deeply the need to be in withdrawal from everyone. And traveling by yourself is glamorous for a while and then I turned 28 and I was like, I am over it. You are going to a place for 16 hours, and they have all have very strong emotional responses to your work, but no one actually knows you and you do not know anybody. For me, it is very difficult to have non-authentic meetings with people so I don’t network; I don’t small talk.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were 14, 15 years old, knowing what you know now, would you recommend the journey you are on? 

Absolutely. I feel so blessed. The things I wanted to do when I was 13 and 14 are the things I am. I made a list when I was 13 of all the things I wanted to accomplished by the time I turned 40 and there were 25 things on that list. And I look at that list two years ago, and I have done all of them except for one. Which was to be a laureate of the United States. And so I was like oh great, I am on my path! I feel like so blessed that the path that I am on has been the path I wanted to be on since I was 10, 11, 12, and 13. I made two constant choices. I made the choice towards language every single time and I make choices towards God. Those are the choices I continued to make and I am still making them.

Cameron Sharpe is an African American undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia. His is a combined major of Public Health, Social Work, and Creative Writing. His goal is to bridge the gap between these fields and bring understanding to the issues going on in this world. His primary focuses are creative nonfiction and podcast.

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