World-renowned poet and performance artist Alysia Nicole Harris is a writer with the vitality of a lion and the carefulness of a gardner. Recently completing her PhD in linguistics at Yale University, the now Dr. Harris is surely not a foreigner when it comes to exploring worlds and words. In what could be considered divine timing, going from an Instagram post to a conversation likened to a tracing of the cosmos from a back porch, I was blessed with the chance to speak with and absorb so much from a Virginia native and major talent filled with nothing less than galaxies for fuel. Joining me for what I would consider the interview of a lifetime, up on The Writer’s Block is the radiant Alysia Nicole Harris.
Willie Kinard: I’m ecstatic to be talking with you and so glad that you were up to chat with me and FTS. I’ve been a huge fan of your work for at least the past 4 years and to have experienced your art, even through YouTube, I am so so grateful. It has definitely inspired me to pick my pen back up. As a fan and an artist, I’m very appreciative of your work and for your appreciation of mine.
Alysia Harris: Thank you. I think it’s important that if art is really doing it’s job, then it’s inspiring other art that then re-inspires you. I think that should be a conversation that all artists have with one another more often.
WK: Earlier this year, you were a guest on the podcast Product Hunt and spoke on transparency and artifice in regards to positively charging older work. In a sense, where a poem becomes new to you again like it may be for someone who has never heard your work. Not asking have you ever retired a piece, as performance artists naturally do, but has there ever been a moment of hesitation that came with no longer resonating with older work? If so, how did you overcome that?
Harris: I think I’m in that place for the first time right now, where a lot of my pieces aren’t emotionally resonating with me. I’m not wholly sure how I get through it. I think I’m in the process of figuring that out. The piece that I’ve felt that with most is “That Girl.” When I wrote that piece, I never intended it to be a poem. To me, it was more of a personal rant that I shared with a few friends that they really liked and they wanted me to perform for a show. I don’t really think that style or delivery or approach is particularly native to me artistically. For a long time, I didn’t perform that poem. About two years ago, I decided to perform it if I felt the audience was in need of it, but I often don’t feel emotionally connected to it, or a lot of my work at this current juncture. Perhaps because of length of time or because I’m not creating any new work right now, as I’m in a period of poetic silence. But, I think it’s necessary for artists to be able to re-experience and reforge their relationship with their craft, so I’m in that period right now.
WK: Is there more of a hesitancy or fear to start or release new work being in that space?
Harris: I think that [fear] is heightened. I hear myself saying my old work and I’m frustrated, but I’m not in a creative space where I’m generating anything new, so it’s really grating on my nerves. When you know you’re a position of rest and that you’re going to be creating something new, there’s always a fear of “What if my new work isn’t good?” What if my new work doesn’t speak to people in the same way? Or, what if they only want to hear me write love poems and I don’t want to write love poems anymore for the current moment? I’m navigating those spaces right now.
I think it’s necessary for artists to be able to re-experience and reforge their relationship with their craft.
WK: Being there currently, I fully understand that. On new work though, your new body of work, How Much We Must Have Looked Like Stars to Stars, in 21 amazing moments, you focus on grief and evolution and the transformation that can happen at those intersections. Following your work for the last few years, I’ve definitely witnessed a growth in you that has been so inspiring. In your words, how does growth and evolution in an artist look to you?
Harris: Honestly, the person that I can probably say is one of the best right now is Kanye West. I don’t really like a lot of what he does, but he is so unafraid to reinvent what his music sounds like. The creative vibe of each album seems so intentional and thought out and crafted. I would say that his desire to craft new things and to experiment is like the essential [part] of what makes an artist who they are. It’s what keeps them fresh and going towards growth and evolution rather than remaining complacent and getting fat off of accolades and past work instead of doing new stuff.
WK: As a creator, intentional experimentation can be nerve-wracking. For you, how do you feel about that towards your own work?
Harris: With experimentation being one of the reasons that I’m on this kick of needing to create work (and that being a really terrifying thing), I don’t fully think I like experimenting. I don’t mean to make light of it, but I guess what I’m saying is my book doesn’t feel new to me because I’ve worked with those poems for years. They might feel new to other folks, but to me, they’re still very much in an old voice. People will ask, “Aren’t you so excited?” and I’m like, “No, I’m actually terrified because now I have to write the next book.” And, all I have for the next book is a bunch of poems about machetes and I don’t think anyone wants to read my machete poems. [Laughs.] But, I think for right now, when I say I’m in a place of rest, what I should be saying is that I’m in a place of work without production. I want to be in a place where I can screw around with words, syntax, and all of these things and play with them and not make anything final. Then, once I finish playing around with them and seeing what happens, after I feel like I can do that now or that I’ve mastered that now, I’d like to see what kind of work comes out of it. So, I’m in this place of playing around which is hard for an artist, especially a professional artist, because you playing around doesn’t actually put meat on your table. Producing things does. You actually getting better at your craft doesn’t pay you, so I’m in a space where I’m figuring out how do I dedicate the necessary time to play in order to get better and produce better work in the future.
With faith and spirituality, the main [thing] has been I want to understand the Being that created this whole Universe because I want to understand myself.
WK: Is it difficult to find that balance, between time to create and time to perform or workshop?
Harris: I’m not really performing that much right now. I just got back from South Africa and I’ll be performing for the next month, but I didn’t really do much in August and September, given I had just finished my dissertation and I didn’t really want to do anything. I would open my computer and have anxiety and I wanted to just chill. Now, I’m beginning to ask myself what does a good rhythm of work look like. For me, I’m finding that I have to get up before 7am if I plan to have a productive day. There’s no way around it. I need to work out, pray, cook myself breakfast—that all needs to happen by 8. And, I need to actually spend the next 3 or 4 hours of the day working on poetry. Then, I can figure out what the rest of my day looks like.
WK: That’s definitely a transformation that requires some discipline.
Harris: I’m trying to grow, yo. [Laughs]
WK: Speaking on transformation, something that has been radically changing for me is faith and spirituality. I find it as a present theme in your work. That being said, one of my favorite pieces of yours is “Exegesis.” You offer words that explain loving this place, this world, while simultaneously loving God. At the same time, you promote being guilt-free in your spirituality. As an openly queer person of color, that is one thing that I’ve definitely worked to create for myself. How have you worked to obtain and maintain that?
Harris: I don’t know if you ever really maintain faith. And, for the people that have, I’m not one of those people. I haven’t mastered that yet. I think, in general, people misunderstand the purpose of religion. To me, the beauty of religion over personal spirituality is the sense of community that you get with other people. I do believe that human beings are inherently social beings and that we only fully understand things in tandem with other people. Even as an artist, you don’t know what your work means until you’ve created it and give it to other people. I think, for me, with faith and spirituality, the main [thing] has been I want to understand the Being that created this whole Universe because I want to understand myself. Without understanding that Being, I cannot understand who I am. To me, it’s like who is this God, this Being that created things and are They inherently vengeful, or wrathful? Are They kind? Are They omnipotent, are They loving, are They self-sacrificing? And what I’ve experienced is that God is deeply self-sacrificing and that is what astounds me. Like You have everything, You are everything, and You chose to be less than everything in order to create me. I could never do that. That’s why I believe that God is deeply loving. He doesn’t need to do that. He’s like, “You don’t even know who you are, but I do and I want to see you be who you are.” Not because He needs it, but because He loves you and is proud of you. I feel like all things can come and go in my life, but the thing that has always been present is the love of God and I don’t think I could move a step forward without it.
The Southern landscape is so beautiful, it’s threatening. Even in Atlanta, if you drop a seed, you come back two days later, it’s going to have sprouted and grown.
WK: That is awesome. Aside from being a person of faith, you are also a Southerner. One of the things that you’ve mentioned your love for is The South while being a woman and a femme of color. How do you, if you do at all, reconcile that love and has it served as a catalyst or hindrance in any way to the work that you create?
Harris: I think it’s served as the best catalyst. The point is not to live in a safe space. The point is to live in a brave space, which doesn’t mean you that you don’t face danger. It means you learn how to move through danger and against danger with grace. For me, I flourish in tension. That’s where I do my best stuff. We all hold everything in tension. None of us are unproblematic. None of us have a perfect set of politics or are perfect people. If we’re living in or looking for a perfect place, we’re living in denial or some kind of projected fantasy. I don’t understand how we can talk about being American without talking about the American South. It is the nexus of all of our contradictions about who we are, who we hope to be, and the dreams of our founding fathers coupled with the reality that they owned human beings. The ability to say I want look at its face, I want to hold it up, explore its nuance, and not just see what parts has the South gotten wrong, but what parts has the South gotten right and can we complicate these narratives? Being to able to think “Yes, this terrifies me, but I’m not going to look away from it.” I think that’s why the South inspires me. The Southern landscape is so beautiful, it’s threatening. Even in Atlanta, if you drop a seed, you come back two days later, it’s going to have sprouted and grown. Life comes out of the earth and it’s kind of terrifying how fertile things are. The weather, the trees, I feel like the landscape in the South has a personality of its own or personalities of their own and it’s interesting to engage with that. With the people, there’s a cultural richness, a depth of pain and also, a desire to know one’s neighbors that I feel like the Northeast doesn’t understand and I like it. [Laughs]
WK: Do you have any Southern guilty pleasures? Mine particularly would be sitting on a porch in a rocking chair with a bag of boiled peanuts.
Harris: I do like those particularly Southern desserts like chess pie and buttermilk pie and all of those disgustingly sweet things that you shouldn’t eat because you’ll get diabetes, but you do it anyway. I didn’t like sweet tea until I removed back to Atlanta and for some reason really enjoy sweet tea now and I never liked it. Even in Virginia, where I lived, they didn’t put enough sugar in the tea. [Laughs] They didn’t brew it right! But, those things, being outside more, and Southern foods. The way we eat grits–sugar, hot sauce, butter–I eat them all. Something that I really like doing is sitting outside on a stoop, not necessarily in a rocking chair, and if the place happens to have crawfish, then pulling the heads off and eating them. That’s probably my favorite thing.
WK: My grandma always said that if you can’t taste the diabetes in the tea, you ain’t doing right, so I get that. [Laughs] But, aside from the South, where else are you a local?
Harris: I’m a local in Philadelphia. I love Philly. I think it’s my favorite city in America and if someone talks badly about it, I will jump across the couch. I do not care. I’m a local in New York City, though I’m not a fan of it. I’m a local in New Haven, Connecticut, and obviously in Alexandria, Virginia, DC. That’s just in The States. In other [countries], I also feel like I’m a local in places that I’ve only been in like 5 times. [Laughs]
WK: I now feel the need to go renew my passport. But, being a poet, a linguist, and a semanticist, I’d guess it’s fair to say that you love words. One of the running jokes at FTS is that we’re all proud members of Word Whores Anonymous and we meet on Thursday evenings. If free, what word could we count on you to bring to the winter holiday potluck?
Harris: What word? There are so many. I think I really like the word “opulent” because the “O” and the “P” feel like fullness. You have to open your mouth to say it. Then, with “opulence,” it’s trailing off, the ending is holding on. It’s full and filing out and trailing out of your mouth when you say it. I like a lot of words, but I like that word a lot. We all have words that tend to be our current obsessions. [Laughs] I try to avoid them but in my book, the word “water” appears a lot.
WK: Thinking on the line from the piece “Spigot” that reads “One day I want to rise the way an albatross / comes up / for air,” I can definitely see that being a common thing. I think I read that piece 3 times over.
Harris: Aww, thank you.
The best work is done when the best people collaborate.
WK: You’re more than welcome. For the past few years, you have been one of my creative mentors in my head, alongside Solange and Ava DuVernay.
Harris: Then, I’m in great company.
WK: Most definitely. Speaking of the latter, DuVernay, one of her biggest bits of advice and epiphanies has been, and I am paraphrasing, “stop asking for cards, stop asking for coffees, stop asking for permission.” Ultimately, start using the resources that you have to create the work that you’ve been wanting to see. For you, what are some of the biggest lessons that you have learned as a millennial and as a #blkcreative?
Harris: I think, kind of along those same lines, is to tell them what you are going to do and tell them what they’re not going to do. I’ve worked with some people who owned companies that wanted to collaborate but wanted to make me feel small. I’m like, “No, that’s what’s not going to happen.” Basically, knowing what you have to offer and knowing what it’s worth. Know when to say no to a project. One of the things that I always try to tell folks, especially the kids I mentor, not everything you do is going to [result in] pay as in money, but know when to be paid and know when you can be paid in kind. Know when you need to be compensated for your work and if you can’t be compensated, then you’re not doing it. Artists, especially spoken word artists, we drive down the price of our art every time we do stuff for free. You know who you will do things for free for, like your friends that want you to speak at their wedding or those that want to you to write captions for a gallery opening—the people you love, in collaborative or honorary spaces. But, know when to say, “You need to come up off these dollars.” Tell them what you are going to do and be real about what your dreams and aspirations are. I think telling people the value that you’re trying to add to what they’re to create and then demanding how you want to be treated in return and setting the expectation is really important. One other thing that I’ve come to terms with knowing is share your resources with everyone! When anyone eats, you eat. You know what I mean? People are so stingy with their connects, but it is still a benefit to you that a black creator goes out and gets money. I’m always trying to connect the people that I know, because honestly, the best work is done when the best people collaborate. I have the best time when all of my family is with me.
We don’t become masters because it’s easy. We become masters because it’s difficult and we persevered and came out the other side.
WK: Going back a bit to discipline and things, you once said of craft and practice that “not everything I write is a poem—it’s me practicing poems.” My platform, For The Scribes, is dedicated to being a safe space and positive resource for writers of color that work tirelessly at their art. What words of advice would you give to those folks still practicing, but not necessarily seeing the results? Having a bit more famine than feast or a bit of stagnancy, if you will?
Harris: That’s hard. It’s hard for me to even put in the work when my work feel stagnant. But, I feel like we don’t become masters because it’s easy. We become masters because it’s difficult and we persevered and came out the other side. We live in a culture where we highly praise and value youth, where if we haven’t made it by 30, then we’re just not going to make it. The reality is we have a lifetime to produce, a lifetime to create and a lifetime to develop our work. Maybe you aren’t the poet that peaks at 30, maybe you’re the poet that peaks at 75. Be grateful to be that artist because you have the rest of your life to keep expanding and keep going forward instead of writing your best at 30 and fizzling out, trying to chase a dream that no longer exists.
WK: If you ever put that on a shirt or poster, I’m throwing you my money.
Harris: [Laughs] One of my favorite poets, Richard Siken, published his first book of poetry at 36 and it took him 10 years to get that book published. He took that entire time and then he didn’t write another for 10 more years. But, the first book of poetry is one of the best books of poetry that I’ve ever read. Maybe it’s a 10-year book, a 10-year album. Who knows how long it takes to craft? Staying relevant is terrifying, truly, but it’s not helping me produce better poems. I don’t want to make work that I feel is mediocre because I was terrified at not staying relevant. I want to make work that I’m like, “No, this is how I meant it to be,” and if you don’t like it, screw you. [Laughs] That’s the growing stage in I’m in right now. It’s humbling. As for responses, it would be wrong of me to try to control my audience’s response of the work. Ultimately, the job of me is to put out work that’s true, rigorous, important and asks some questions that need answers and if people don’t want to read it, then that’s also an authentic response.
WK: I feel like you’ve dropped so many gems, I’m just trying to soak up all the knowledge shared today. Thank you so much for your time and for everything. This was literally like a dream come true. Before we wrap, in three words, could you describe Alysia Nicole Harris?
Harris: Thank you so much. In three words, I would say: Frolicker, Combatant, Poet.