An Interview with Poetry Contest Winner Alysia Nicole Harris

poetry_winner_summer_2015You are currently pursuing a PhD in linguistics at Yale. In what ways do you see overlap between your work as a linguist and as a poet? In what ways do you see these as distinctly separate fields? 

My linguistic work and my poetic career are both sourced in the same love of language. I am fascinated by what language is capable of, how it works, why it works the way it does. In linguistics I get to approach those questions within a scientific framework. Poetry allows me to explore the expressive and creative power of language from an aesthetic angle. But that is where they diverge. Dealing with formal semantics is dealing with proofs, logic, argumentation, and math. Dealing with poetry is like dealing with a bird, or some kind of living thing with a will of its own. So there is always more of a risk involved and consequently more of a payout.

Martha Collins said about your poem, “Omnipotence”: I delight in this poem for its surprises, its mysteries, its structural and emotional complexities, its narrative fragmentations and juxtapositions. In what ways do you see structural complexity and fragmentation as part of your work? 

The poem isn’t the proof. That’s what I keep telling myself when I write. Ultimately I am trying to get away from argumentation in my poems and more towards capturing the raw pulses of emotional energy. Fragmentation is the lens through which I think, and emotions are fragments, in the sense that they aren’t arguments. They don’t follow; they merely emerge. That is effortless. The effort or the skill comes in when you try to make those fragments, which are often dissonant, cohere in a generative way. The same process is involved in discovering metaphor. The two objects that make up the metaphor are themselves fragments, and putting them together is the work. So I guess I see the metaphor as the argument, and that argument is an inherently empathetic one. The metaphor cares more about the relationship between its two objects than it cares about accuracy or semblance. Therefore the only argument that should be in the poem is the one that argues for intimacy. The juxtapositions created by that intimacy generate tension. The reason I write poems is to explore the tension and paradoxes in my everyday life.

You are currently working on a manuscript titled, Heaven is a Bruise that Won’t Turn. Could you speak a little bit about your manuscript and how you see it coming together?

I’m really struggling with the correct order for it so how it’s coming together is still an unanswered question. Ultimately though, I’m interested in exploring both what is personally sacred and socially sacred. To talk about what is sacred you have to talk about what is taboo and blasphemous. So what has emerged in the manuscript are three loose sections where the poems alternate internally between exaltation and lament. The first section explores identity, specifically racial and national identity. It’s personally sacred because it weaves my family together though sequences of trauma and triumph. But it’s also taboo in America given our unwillingness to deal with our racial past. The second section explores war, violence and love. My partner is a marine who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Socially, we revere veterans but also shun them. My partner hates war but is still caught in its rapture. I love this man and at times fear him. Violence protects us and also pierces us. It may not be sacred but it’s at least ecstatic so it deserved some space in the project. The last section explores grief, loss, and belief. These complex things that form my constitution, can any of them be holy? Can language do the work of purifying them? Probably not, but I’m exploring it.

Who or what are your most important literary influences?  Which books have mattered most to you in your own development as a writer?

The Bible, and pretty much any sacred text I’ve ever read. Also Richard Siken and a lot of Arab poets, Khalil Gibran, Al-Bayati, Nizar Qabbani, Hafiz, etc. Spoken word artists such as Saul Williams, Buddy Wakefield and Rachel McKibbens have also really influenced me. I think I am more drawn to texts that take the soul as their primary interlocutor rather than the intellect, though Anne Carson’s Eros The Bittersweet does both and is probably one of my favorite pieces of writing. She succeeds in constructing an argument that uses the mind as a vehicle to act upon the soul. It’s mesmerizing.

What are some of the social, political and/or spiritual concerns that have influenced your poetry?

I care about the posture with which we approach the world. We can’t be delusional with respect to one another, so obviously I mourn the way we as a society talk about race, the ways we have woven together a set of fantastical narratives to obscure the humanity of Black folks. When your roots are planted in the same soil, it is impossible to poison your neighbor’s field without jeopardizing your own harvest. White folks really have to understand that. So I write poems about joy, love, rage, grief, which are also poems about Black joy, Black love, Black rage, and Black grief. These in turn make implications about white joy, white love, white rage, and white grief since as a nation we have chosen to define the two as binaries.

I also care about the way we as a society express grief, which I think is both a social and spiritual concern. The act of pausing and the ritual of lament are necessary for change or repentance, whichever word you want to use. I think poetry, along with prayer, is one of the best spaces for engaging those practices. Lastly, I am really interested in re-engaging a largely secular audience on spiritual themes and topics. The spiritual realm is coexistent with the physical. Empathy is a spiritual practice but also has a neurological interface. Resurrection, rejuvenation, rebirth is a spiritual truth that has reflexes in the seasonal year. I don’t understand why we have to think the existence of one truth negates the existence of the other when they point to the same conclusion. As poets we study the physical world and I think that study should have correlates in the spiritual arena as well. Words are the metaphysical bridge between the two. I want to create language that reminds folks of the existence of deep magic.

 

 

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