Derrick Harriell interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Let’s begin by talking about the poems included in this issue of A Poetry Congeries. So, slash marks. I guess the technical term, in this case, is virgule. The slash mark has a specific use when it comes to poetry; that is, it is used to designate a line break when quoting a portion of a poem in an article or academic paper. This is a typical reader’s expectation when confronted with the punctuation mark. However, recently, they are used by some poets in different ways and for presumably different reasons. Claudia Rankine, for example, or Natalie Diaz in a poem like “Hand-Me-Down Halloween." Diaz writes, about the poem, that “they aren't meant to be exciting. I hope they make the readers' eyes uncomfortable, that they physically and musically express the disjointed, jagged experience explored in the poem.” She goes on to reveal that the “text within the slashes can be removed but is responsible for the fractured experience.” That’s not the case, I think, in your poems. Are you using them—as Dickinson may have been using her famous dashes—to somehow roughen the poem’s surface or syntax? Are you using them, as they are sometimes used in written music, to indicate secondary functions?
Great question and gives me a lot to think about! The slash, or the virgule, is a tool I noticed being employed by many celebrated and beautiful writers. While I admired their use and employment of this form of punctuation, I didn’t give it too much thought until my own graduate students started to incorporate it in their own poems. As with most conversations student centered, it became impossible to avoid; I had to think about it and discuss it critically in the classroom. For many of weeks and many of workshops, my students and I had conversations about the history of the slash in both music and literature, the current function of the slash, and how it could successfully be employed. This was my first entry, and the first time I started to consider how it might be useful in my writing. When my students and I first began having these conversations, I had been musing on ways to push my work structurally. My obvious initial instinct was to lean on traditional forms (sonnets, sestinas, etc.). While traditional forms are an amazing vehicle, at that time it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Therefore, when these discussions of the slash, or virgule, blossomed, I knew immediately I wanted to play with it—even at the cost of failing. I’ve always obsessed over the line and enjambment and considered ways in which the line could be pushed, complicated, and do more work. The slash seemed an opportunity to push my lines and their functionality. In fact, Denise Levertov wrote a beautiful consideration of the line in an essay titled, “On the Function of Line.” She opens, “Not only hapless adolescents, but many gifted and justly esteemed poets writing in contemporary nonmetrical forms, have only the vaguest concept, and the most haphazard use, of the line. Yet there is at our disposal no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line-break if it is properly understood.” This essay, I believe, was published in the late seventies, but I didn’t discover it until graduate school. I often return to this essay to challenge my own assumptions and understanding of the line. Obviously, we understand enjambment as successive lines. And for years I pushed and labored over how I might complicate the line breaks in my poems ad nauseam, and when presented with the tool of the virgule, I raved at the thought of enjambment occurring in a single line—if this makes sense. I saw it as an opportunity to add more depth, nuance, and layers to my writing. My hope, and I emphasize hope, is that my readers will see my employment of the slash as a hard line break. That way, I’d hope it’s like killing three birds with one stone: there’s the line itself, the line break emphasized through the slash, and the actual enjambment. Again, that’s the goal.
Given the subject matter of these poems, I am led to believe that you and your wife are trying to begin a family. I love the way “ClomiPHENE” concludes, with that wonderful reference to Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” the anticipation of that parental joy, “this blessing love gives again into our arms.” Does the process of writing about it help with the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of the process? Have you had any success with the medical procedures you describe? How will these poems fit into your next collection of poems? Is it a collection that awaits its conclusion as the process of the experience continues to unfold?
Unfortunately, this question is complicated. I’ll say that writing about family and family goals has always been a source of catharsis and meditation. My hope is, in regards to personal matters, the poems will speak for themselves. This stated, we are very fortunate to have a brilliant five-year-old named Drake.
I also find it notable that these poems complicate themselves with tonal shifts into dark places. That is, in “How to Effectively Provide a Semen Sample,” you liken the sample to a weapon in your coat pocket.” The exposition of “The In Vitro Myth” sets a tone with allusion to an assassin and drug smuggling, and “ClomiPHENE” tells of medical risk and economic inequality. This is another way to roughen a poem’s texture. That is, are you doing this because these poems might otherwise risk seeming too domestic or straightforward without incorporating the tonal complications?
Great question! Recently, my goal in writing has been to push my writing to more appropriately resemble my internal thought patterns. For example, if I’m driving to the grocery store, there might be a very straightforward narrative of “I’m riding down this highway and seeing and feeling these things.” In the past, this would inform how I approach poems, fairly straightforward narratives. In relationship to my earlier response of how the line might be pushed, I’ve recently become interested in how content might be also be pushed. What I mean is that, most likely, the narrative of my drive to the grocery store will yield countless cognitive interruptions: I might be perusing the grocery store aisles and come across a smell that reminds me of my father screaming at my mother or encounter a sight on the ride that reminds me of Mississippi’s sins. I wanted to push simple narrative and the traumas in our lives that move us to respond particularly to what is otherwise fairly mundane. We, people, are not a monolith, and neither are our triggers or traumas. In “ClomiPHENE,” I was interested in investigating not only the lengths we’ll go in the name of desperation, but also, the ways in which our traumas haunt us. And to additionally complicate our expectations when we believe we’re on moral high ground. We are owed nothing.
As I was browsing your biographical material, I noted that you worked as assistant poetry editor for Third World Press. Any decent student of American poetry knows that the press has played a crucial role in the creation, direction, and publication of texts by black writers since its founding in the late sixties. (I was lucky to get to interview one of its founders, Haki Madhubuti, a few years ago for the Congeries. The press provided the support for Gwendolyn Brooks’ aesthetic transformation and has published other important writers like Sonia Sanchez, Margaret Walker, Gil Scott-Heron, etc. Yet, I think many folks may be unaware of the press in its current manifestation. Can you tell us what role you played there, what projects you worked on, and what the press has meant to you as a black writer?
Third World Press was literally “training day,” although it was for possibly a year, I believe. This was around 2004, and I was a wide-eyed-hope-to-one-day-be-a-writer student in the MFA program at Chicago State University. Third World Press, Baba Haki Madhubuti and Quraysh Ali Lansana taught me so much about poetry, but more so, how to be a professional. When I first started assisting there, I still had clichéd romantic tortured artist notions about my future—I would live dollar to dollar and sleep on couches and pursue art at any cost. Those wonderful mentors and that experience taught me the importance of mental and physical wellbeing and how we can produce art without self-destructiveness. I will never forget those lessons—sorry, nostalgia got me sidetracked. But, to answer your question directly, I really was more of a glorified first reader of submitted manuscripts. Meaning, I forwarded poetry manuscripts I believed Quraysh should consider. I didn’t work on any major projects directly—well one I think. I mostly walked around in awe, soaked up game, and ran errands. I learned life and professional lessons: how not to be hooked on fame, popularity, hurt, or prestige. I learned to treat myself and those around me with care. I learned things that manuscript editing can’t teach.
You are currently the Director of the MFA Program at the University of Mississippi. One might think Faulkner and a lot of other white writers. I know you have been active as a literary citizen by teaching community writing workshops for individuals of all ages and more. You must have thought through, with so much in mind, what this position can mean for you and the future of Creative Writing at Ole Miss. How are you approaching it? How does the job and your sense of what writing can do for a community work together, and how do you balance these things with your own needs as a writer and human being?
Oxford Mississippi has been a fresh experience for me. I often say that I had zero experience with the South as an adult until now—I mean, me and my boys would sometimes fly from Milwaukee to Atlanta to kick it, but that was the extent of my southern experience. To be quite frank, me and Oxford and the University of Mississippi kind of just found each other at an opportune time. I’d just completed graduate school and was on the dreaded job market. The University of Mississippi was a dream program. I was elated when I was invited to interview—I was, not my wife; she believed Mississippi meant we’d live on a dirt road. Ha. At the time, I never quite grappled with the idea that we’d actually live and raise a child in Mississippi. I was just overjoyed that they wanted me, that I’d work and write beside Beth Ann Fennelly, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Tom Franklin, and Chris Offutt. What I’m saying is that it might’ve been naivety, or blind youthful optimism maybe, but I came to Mississippi detached from the narratives of the university and or Mississippi’s gruesome history. I came to work with writers I admired. I came to work with brilliant students from all over the world. Now, in the past six years, I’ve become more familiar and understanding of the history of Mississippi and the university. I’ve began to understand the significance and complication of what we’re doing here. What I mean is that my mother-in-law is from a small town in Mississippi, Ofahoma. Whenever she comes to Oxford to visit us, she often mentions: “I remember when James Meredith integrated that school, and now I have a son who teaches there.” The significance and responsibility associate with this is clearly understood. Our work here matters. So getting back to your question, I take my being here very seriously. I’m here to sing and dance and write and drink wine, but most importantly, I’m here to work and evolve with this community. I try and nurture a presence in the community and especially a presence amongst Black Mississippians. It’s been elderly Black Mississippians, strangers, who’ve found me in the grocery store and whispered how proud of me they are. This being seen is invaluable, as I’m very clear of those who’ve sacrificed and endured so that my mama and daddy could even imagine me. I think the future of writing and loving and being creative in Oxford and the University of Mississippi is beyond bright. We have graduate students, who are brilliant and published writers, from all over the world: students who care about this program and its direction. Our program is nothing without them. Additionally, our faculty has grown in the past three or four years, and I now have the privilege to work and write beside the brilliance of Matt Bondurant, Melissa Ginsburg, Kiese Laymon, and Aimee Nezhukumatathil. The future here is fucking magical—unbelievably magical.
Finally, in an interesting personal essay/review of Chinaka Hodge’s Dated Emcees in the Los Angeles Review of Books, you make some confessions. Among them are, “I’ve never read Huck Finn all the way through.” You don’t say why this is. I teach the novel with some regularity because its complicated presence, subject matter and authorial intent gives me a lot to hold forth about and connect to other texts. So, why have you been unable to read it through? I am, of course, thinking about Toni Morrison’s introduction to the 1996 Oxford edition of Huck Finn where she describes how, as a young reader, she found the novel disturbing. She read it again in the '80s, provoked by efforts to remove the novel from libraries and public-school reading lists, and came to understand the novel in a more complex light, writing, “The brilliance of Huckleberry Finn is that it is the argument it raises.” I’m also curious about the citizen’s arrest you attempted, but we can talk about that at AWP or something! Thanks for talking with me, Derrick.
It’s an important novel, no doubt. I didn’t mention it in my review of Chinaka Hodge’s collection to castigate the novel, more so, I was attempting to have a conversation about literary assumptions. What I mean is that for years I was taught and adopted a canon that was not my own and or voices who looked or sounded like me. And for many years I felt inadequate for having not gotten through all the canonical works of people who don’t share my language, voice, or family history. It wasn’t on purpose that I haven’t completed Huckleberry Finn; rather, I discovered Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larson, Toni Cade Bambara, Etheridge Knight, Zora Neale Hurston and countless Black writers who spoke to me and my being more prominently. When this happened, I kind of forgot about Huck Finn and unfortunately haven’t found the opportunity to finish it—but I intend to. In relation to Dated Emcees, I was captivated by Hodge’s audacity to compose a poetry collection in which hip hop was centered and not fetishized or marginalized. I say this because for years I hid from hip hop’s influence over my work. I actually was in a hip-hop band, Black Elephant, years ago—I had hair back then—and probably still got a few bars. I started writing poems in grade school but moved to rhyming, or emceeing, in high school. For a short stint, I was sure I’d be a rapper. I was influenced by N.W.A, Nas, Black Thought, Tupac and Lauryn Hill, amongst others. These artists are just as important to my conception and understanding of language, rhythm, and music as my favorite poets and writers are. Additionally, the Blues and R and B are underpinnings in my understanding of tone and sonics—in fact, I’m listening to D’Angelo right now. I come from a very particular but familiar Black community, and for me to understate the role of said community, and the influence of its art, language, and music, I would be doing myself, the community, and readers a severe disservice. For many years I had the impression that rap was low art and traditional poetics was high art—that’s oxymoronic: language is language—we write and read what we enjoy, or what we believe informs our experiences. In discussing Hodge’s work, I thought the depth of entendre and nuance functioned brilliantly. I applauded her unwillingness to minimize her influences to be agreeable or traditional. Ideally, there’s a teenage version of Hodge who loves Remy Ma, Future, Drake, Migos, and Kendrick Lamar: a young person who writes rhymes and might walk into a workshop someday. I hope that child believes her art is high art and vital to our ongoing conversations about language and its possible permutations.
John, you seriously asked great questions. I will see you in Portland at AWP, and I will tell you about the failed citizen’s arrest—hopefully over red wine.
How to Effectively Provide a Semen Sample
they’ll tell you to wait three days
then make a wish
in a tiny specimen cup /
tell you shit
about healthy and unhealthy sperm
about how many millions are required /
you’ll do what you’re told
because these days you adorn desperation
like a robe / these days you carry a child
in your throat and a fistful of seeds
in your abdomen / you’ll wait three days
ignore the breeze across your lap
when your favorite Memphis weather girl
declares today there’s sun /
they’ll tell you the dangers of contamination
of how you’ll repeat the process
until it’s done / you’ll have a half-hour
to transport the sample from your home bathroom
to the hospital lab / there you’ll pass a woman
wearing pain like the flowered
scarf on her head / you’ll wonder if she knows
about the weapon in your coat pocket /
you’ll wonder if she knows
you have a million darlings
in this tiny cup of yours
The In Vitro Myth
I know a man who’ll commit murder
for fifteen thousand dollars / he’ll wait
in shadows / approach a stranger
cock the hammer and release
a pot of gold in your dreamy head /
once I was watching Locked Up Abroad /
Zoe was captured in an Ecuadorian airport
wearing six kilos of heroin / she’d spend
eight years in an Ecuadorian underworld /
she’d perish on her back with a shank
in her side and a wish on her mouth /
she’d never get fifteen thousand dollars
because the dope never landed in London /
I tell my urologist all this
when he whispers the price of in vitro /
tell him my parents once divorced
over fifteen thousand dollars and a bad
addiction / tell him my father once drove
a fifteen-thousand-dollar car into a decade
of ache / say how worthless I feel each time I pray
a Kardashian loses its wings /
once a rich friend took me to a South Beach
strip club / we drank champagne
and rained bills / sat at our table until
the moon waned / I never saw
the damage that night / never counted
the money I threw / only watched it cloud
around me like a field of dandelion seeds
in a tornado / fifteen thousand wishes bleeding
from the clouds / unborn dandelions on the floor
of this champagne room
my urologist says he’s unsure
when asked about side effects / says men
haven’t been test-monkeyed
long enough to know /says everything
has a side effect / everything
is a side effect / the woman of your dreams
has a side effect / oligoasthenozoospermia
is a side effect / when I was fifteen
I rubbed Retin-A on my face
for a whole summer / each morning
ran to the mirror for evidence
of disappearing acne / the next summer
my mother warned me
of having babies before I was old enough
to buy tequila / said a baby could ruin things /
said a life of drab and blue
is a side effect / when I was fifteen
I carried golf bags for wealthy white men / I remember
a brutal sun that summer / I remember
how my Retin-A-residue-face burned
holes through a season / I’ve been told
God created most things before creating
us / that maybe we weren’t created
at all / that humans are merely a side effect
of rain and wildflower / that at the root
I’d accept a seared face
if it meant she’ll believe in miracles
like her mother / how each night her mother
places a delicate pill in my hand and releases
a bouquet of faith / how each night we dream
of footsteps / like Galway’s poem / we dream
of footsteps after making love
and all the promised side effects