Interview with 2015 American Book Award Winner, Peter J. Harris

Photo Credit: Adenike A. Harris

Photo Credit: Adenike A. Harris

Brief Biography:

Peter J. Harris is the author of Bless the Ashes, poetry (Tia Chucha Press), winner of the 2015 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ a book of personal essays, winner of a 2015 American Book Award.  Harris has published his work in a wide variety of publications since the 1970s.  Since 1992, he’s been a member of the Anansi Writers Workshop at the World Stage, in LA’s Leimert Park.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re the founding director of “The Black Man of Happiness Project”. Could you tell us how you started this project?

Peter J. Harris: The project grows from my deep curiosity about an elemental question: What is a happy Black man?

As I’ve matured as a writer and thinker and cultural worker, as a man, this question has become a powerful prompt to explore manhood and masculinity through the lives of African American men, who obviously exist within historical crosshairs. Taboo. Fetish. Threat. Sexual Predator. Sexual Symbol. Prey. In my research, I’ve never found one mention or index item in which Black men and happiness have been connected. So on Juneteenth 2010, I invited a variety of men to attend a video shoot at the Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles. I wanted them to answer on camera the question, What is a happy Black man? Some 20 men answered the question in a variety of ways, as I hoped they would. I was confident that each man would have his own richly individual answer, which is a major goal of the Project: to explore the individuality of Black men’s testimonies about their joy. Since 2010, I’ve created a website, through which you can view the videos, like our Facebook page, purchase the two published books, and otherwise be inspired to search for your own answer. Goals for 2016 include setting up more video shoots, launching a new blog in which I write about what I call ‘wreaking happiness,’ and raise the profile on the books, especially my book of personal essays, The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ which was chosen in July 2015 for one of 15 American Book Awards, which have been awarded for 36 years by the Before Columbus Foundation.

Geosi Gyasi: Has the aim for which “The Black Man of Happiness Project” was set up been achieved?

Peter J. Harris: Some aims have certainly been met. Besides my book of, I’ve published a special book for young people called Gritt Tuff Playbook: Hard Core Wisdom for Young People, by Glenn Harris, my big brother, who’s a broadcaster in DC with a 30-plus year track record of giving inspiring pep talks to young people in the Washington, D.C. region. We’ve co-produced several staged readings of the theater piece associated with the Project. I’ve gotten chances on radio, in LA newspapers, and in events at community organizations and on college campuses to introduce the theme of joyful Black men, as well as ask our driving question of many different kinds of men.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve worked as a publisher, journalist, editor and broadcaster. Are there any links between all the jobs listed?

Peter J. Harris: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? Those are the questions my journalism professors at Howard University drilled into me from 1973-77, and I’ve found that in all the work I do I am trying to answer those questions in ways that I hope are interesting, engaging and illuminating.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to become a writer?

Peter J. Harris: I don’t know. I do know that writing has become the way I express my most uncensored voice. I trust myself when I write. I am my most ethical when I write. I’m in communion with my most visionary selves when I write. I channel my most profound insights when I write.

Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing? 

Peter J. Harris: I’ve been writing in a unique, valuable voice since the 1980s, although I published my first poem in “The Black Scholar” in 1979.

Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?

Peter J. Harris: Resisting my tendencies. To remain in thrall with the craft. In this respect, I’m often reminded by the comments of my friend and colleague Kamau Daa’ood, author of The Language of Saxophones Kamau is co-founder of The World Stage, my literary briar patch in Los Angeles During workshops over the years, Kamau has always reminded us to take linguistic and metaphorical risks. Cautioned us to make sure we don’t settle for what’s been comfortable or functional or startling in past poems. Be aware of word choices that could become crutches. I’ve accepted Kamau’s challenge and I’ve heeded those words, as I’ve also studied, experimented, and dared myself into the mysterious, the subsonic, the ineffable. In fact, after so many years of listening to poets, at The World Stage and in my flow with and among writers of all kinds, I’ve sworn off using in my poems the words heart, soul, spirit, among others; also, I’ve sworn off using mango and other easy food metaphors in my erotic poems and, even, the word ‘poem,’ as in …’This Poem.’ My commitment now is to grapple with language and meanings until I slip into lush, scary, startling dictions that emit a fragrance or evokes/invokes sensations beyond the intellectual to affect as many senses as possible. My greatest challenge is to surprise myself, to never settle, and to never ever fall in love with my writing!

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Bless the Ashes”?

Peter J. Harris: Tia Chucha Press’s editor, Luis Rodriguez, now the Poet Laureate of LA, and a colleague since we first met in 1980, has been asking me since the early 2000’s to submit a manuscript. I had plenty of poetry, and I’d even compiled several manuscripts during that time. But in early 2013, I realized I had a collection of work that had coalesced in a mature, personally and creatively satisfying manner. I could hear the collection singing to me! The title poem, dedicated to my mother, who diedat 57 in 1984, sang most powerfully. I was turning 58 that spring. I was poised to cross a profound threshold: I was going to be alive longer than she’d been alive! And I wanted to honor my mother, June Puckett Harris, ‘January mother with the summer name,’ as the poem describes her. I wanted to thank her for teaching me to read, for turning me on to the public library when I was in elementary school, for impressing on me a love of The Word! Bless the Ashes, the title poem and the book, which was awarded the 2015 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, inspired me to lift every one of my voices and ‘sang!’ (as the old folks from my old neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C.,would say).

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us anything about your book, “The Vampire Who Drinks Gospel Music: The Stories of Sacred Flow & Sacred Song”?

Peter J. Harris: Always been scared of vampire movies and stories. Always loved them! Fell in love with the joyful, outrageous irreverence of Richard Pryor’s timeless monologue, Wino Deals with Dracula, from his recording “That Nigger’s Crazy.” Pryor says winos ain’t scared of nothing except ‘running out of wine! Wino could deal with Dracula!’ That monologue ignited my imagination and inspired within me an amazing freedom to let my imagination do its do! I mean the idea of a Black wino boldly, fearlessly, confronting Dracula on a city street, boldly ordering the vampire to ‘go down to the blood bank’ if he wants to suck some blood! I cannot tell you how exhilarating it was to hear this for the very first time, as a 20-something college student searching for his own creative voice(s)! Pryor’s Wino-Dracula monologue struck in me some kind of, like,Storyteller’s Super Chord! Especially when the wino says as an aside, ‘hope you get sickle cell!’ In the 1980s, I began having dreams about vampires who came from an imaginary city outside of Ile Ife in West Africa. And one of them winds up in America, where in the crucible and compression of the enslavement period, an alchemy occurs that leaves the vampire addicted to African American sacred music as much to blood. My goal with “The Vampire Who Drinks Gospel Music: The Stories of Sacred Flow & Sacred Song” was to strike a silly-serious tone that imbedded cultural wisdoms within a joyful, funny matrix, in the spirit of the best of Pryor’s work, which tapped urban folklore and critiqued culture like the cranky elders who helped my parents raise me!

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of preparation goes into the writing of a book?

Peter J. Harris: It varies. I’ve given you a bit of the process for Bless the Ashes, poetry. I can actually work on deadline, b/c of my journalism training, but I don’t have an agent, nor a book publishing contract, so I have the luxury of working at my own pace, and on timelines I set up for myself. For the Happiness book, I’d been writing and publishing essays on the theme since the 1990’s, and nurturing the concept over the years. Among other steps, I’d drafted a thorough outline of the essays I wanted to write for the book. I wanted it personal and I wanted it political. I wanted it to laugh and I wanted it to weep. I wanted to pose questions and attempt to answer the elemental question that drove me: What is a happy Black man? As I think of putting together a new book of poetry, I’m driven to creating and pulling together poems that seek to slip readers into the trances I entered during Afro Brazilian song and dance classes I took during a recent cultural exchange tour with the Viver Brasil Dance Company in August 2015.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific place where you sit down to write?

Peter J. Harris: No. I honestly don’t have any kind of sacred writing space. Frankly, I’m good whenever and wherever I’m focused enough to grapple with the work. If it’s any good, it’ll block out most white noise around me anyway.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about the music/poetry show at KPFK?

Peter J. Harris: Inspiration House: VoiceMusic for Whole Living was a weekly radio show on KPFK-FM, Los Angeles, that featured writers in studio reading spoken word to recorded music. It aired on Monday nights from 1999 to 2004. Guest poets reflected the cultural and stylistic vitality of the LA lit community. Music ranged from aural landscapes to legacy-and-contemporary jazz to ‘gravy,’ which were old-school Motown, Stax and other R&B music tracks that I ‘poured’ as punctuation or spice or accent to whatever the poet was reading. Hippest characteristic of the show: it was improvisational. I didn’t know what poets were going to read. Poets didn’t know what kind of music I was going to play (neither did I, for that matter!) It was an hour-long program that demanded we listen to one another to create, in real time, what I call VoiceMusic, a flowing, aural sequence that listeners could feel had a beginning, middle and end — no I should say that the best shows had a great feeling of resolve at the end of the hour. Guest poets did not read titles to their poems, and were prohibited from introducing the poems in any way shape or form. Results: a seamless format that allowed listeners to really hear the poetry without the annoying, often long-winded set ups of the poet. Since the show ended its run on KPFK, I’ve produced many public presentations during which I ‘stand the radio show on its feet!’ I select 3-5 poets, and 3-5 musicians, and we address a theme using the same improvisational principles that guided the radio show. The addition of live audience adds even more VoiceMusic to the presentations, since audiences are encouraged to testify if the poetry and/or music inspires them to respond during the performance of the work.

Check out this Podcast:

Geosi Gyasi: Do you read reviews of your own works?

Peter J. Harris: lol! I have read the few reviews of my work, but for real though this is a very minor concern of mine.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your best work so far?

Peter J. Harris: The last good line (poetry or prose) that I’ve written! Of course, I’m quite proud of the Happiness book. It opens up a new aperture in Africana studies.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?

Peter J. Harris: Anyone who’s accepted the challenge of uncensored self expression!

Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as the best part of writing?

Peter J. Harris: The private challenge to write something valuable for public engagement.

Geosi Gyasi: Why are you so much interested in the lives of black men?

Peter J. Harris: First off, I’m inspired by my own journey into manhood from boyhood in Southeast Washington, D.C.  My hungers, hopes, fears. Sociologically, I seek to celebrate and explore my humanity and the complexities of living as a man of African descent in America. It doesn’t take a genius to know that our American journey (from chattel servitude to the White House, from taboo to fetish) has been fraught with too many fractures to enumerate here. Yet, we’re at minimum, some of the most culturally influential creatures on the planet, so I’m drawn to the magnetism of our existence. My work exploring Black men and joy, through which I’m seeking ‘ecstatic insight,’ is currently the most refined calling of my overall interest and curiosity in the resonant individualities of Black men.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Hand Me My Griot Clothes: The Autobiography of Junior Baby”?

Peter J. Harris: Junior Baby is my elder alter ego (much in the spirit of Richard Pryor’s elder alter ego Mudbone). Junior Baby’s ‘autobiography’ is a series of 10 narrative poems, monologues about ethical living that pay homage to the best of my father, Pleasant Samuel Harris, Jr., and the hard-working, hard-drinking, cranky men who helped raise me in D.C. These men were complicated and flawed, but always handed out a story, or proverb, about doing the right thing. These men, like Junior Baby, stood for right living to the best of their limitations and potential. This book was published in 1993 by Paul Coates (father of journalist and authorTa-Nehisi Coates) and Black Classic Press. Griot Clothes also won an PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award.

Geosi Gyasi: What books are often found on your writing table?

Peter J. Harris: Something About the Blues, by Al Young; Zero to Three, by F. Douglas Brown; Anonymous Soldiers, by Bruce Hoffman; The Secret Game, by Scott Ellsworth; SOS–Calling All Black People, edited by John H. Bracey Jr, Sonia Sanchez and James Smethurst; Nanotechnology, Indigenous Wisdom & Health, by Kweli Tutashinda;Poems for the Millennium, Volume One, edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris; The Vandana Shiva Reader, by Vandana Shiva; The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson; among others. (I’ve long ago become my mother, who used to read several books at a time, which used to astonish me as a kid!)

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us something about your education and that whether you studied writing or not?

Peter J. Harris: I studied journalism and radio writing/production at Howard University, from which I graduated in 1977. I’ve never studied in an MFA program. Well actually I was accepted into the new MFA program at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, but I dropped out in order to deal with some personal challenges that were keeping me from fully concentrating on my studies. I truly have been forged mostly by reading reading reading, writing writing writing, and listening listening listening!

Geosi Gyasi: Are you working on any new project?

Peter J. Harris: Magnificence, a novel that picks up some threads from the Vampire Who Drinks Gospel Music;Trance, an evolving collection of poems; and I’m researching Black male tenderness for a book I’d like to write that explores how we use ‘baby talk’ to express intimacy (to lovers, to children, to loved ones, in social settings, in songs, etc).



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