Poet Of The Week

Reginald Harris

     February 13–19, 2017

Reginald Harris, the director of library and outreach services for Poets House, won the 2012 Cave Canem / Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for Autogeography. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a recipient of Individual Artist awards for poetry and fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council, and his debut collection 10 Tongues: Poems (2002) was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year. An associate editor for Lambda Literary Review and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Harris has been published in numerous print and online journals and anthologies. He lives in Midwood, where he pretends to work on another manuscript. “Retired” is forthcoming in the Brooklyn Poets Anthology.

Retired

 
                 (for Ernie Shavers)

After the final bell, the terrible
arithmetics of hitting, getting hit,
erased your speed. The warring past
followed you like ghosts, long train of rounds
old seconds hovering just outside the ring.

The fans remain, unable to resist your pull,
the auras of force that cloak you always. They
long to see you, reach out, call you Champ,
lay thin trembling fingers on the silenced cannon
of your arms, shake the once-deadly weapons
of your hands, remembering.

True power never goes away. They feel
its constant racing beneath your tailored
suit, see the snap that spites a weary body
as you stand, nod to cheers, applause,
respect:

               Plant your feet, tuck in your
chin, turn on the thickened pivot of your waist,
put your body’s bulk into a flurry, release
an unslaked appetite for hitting to the air,
unveil a face still yearning, still
too intimate with the wrath of God.

 

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was looking at a photograph of older boxers being honored at an event, and it spoke to me about how time often collapses, and who we were suddenly appears under the suit of who we have become. These men were being honored for their pasts, and one could sense that they wanted to let people know they “still had it” and thought they could still climb into the ring.

What are you working on right now?

Trying to turn the various notes, drafts and false starts into actual poems—with a (lazy) eye toward compiling a new manuscript.

What’s a good day for you?

I don’t know, Tuesdays or Fridays are usually pretty good—what’s a good day for you?

(Any day when I feel like I’ve actually gotten some of my own work done and not been pulled in a hundred different directions by other things—that’s a good day)

What brought you to Brooklyn?

Work! Got the job at Poets House and wanted to live someplace “more real” and more affordable than Manhattan.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I live in Midwood, and have been here about six years. I like that it is quiet and family-oriented. The neighborhood is predominantly Jewish, which is very different from where I’ve lived before. Like the rest of New York, my street and building are a mix of a lot of different nationalities, religions and backgrounds. It is really fascinating, especially coming from predominantly African American neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

South Asian teenagers carrying cricket bats on the way to a weekend match, singing along to the rap that’s playing on their iPods.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

Community is having a group of like-minded (but not too alike) people to hang out with and discuss everything under the sun, including poetry. I’m not sure a poetry-only diet is a good thing—one needs to have the world flow into the work, and be able to discuss all the arts, high and low, and even be totally frivolous. Although it sometimes isn’t easy to get people together face to face, I do have friends like that and feel like I’m part of a real community.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Uncle Walt Whitman, of course, and Hart Crane swooning over sailors and the Bridge. Also, even though he’s mainly associated with Detroit, I know Philip Levine got a lot of his swagger from Brooklyn.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

My mentors were the books themselves, the poets I loved, starting with Poe and Lorca and Neruda. I really didn’t have a community or mentors until I went to the Cave Canem retreat and discovered that (Brooklyn’s own) Gregory Pardlo and I could both recite the opening to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that I realized I wasn’t totally strange and that there were other poetry-struck people out there. Since then, the poets of Cave Canem have been my mentors and influences and guides.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Two books that really impressed me recently were Chronicle of a Last Summer: A Novel of Egypt by Yasmine El Rashidi, and Natalie Diaz’s chapbook from Belladonna, The Hand Has Twenty-Seven Bones—: These Hands If Not Gods. In both cases, their exquisite language just drew me in and held me in its arms.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

There are a lot of “classics” I haven’t gotten to yet, sadly. I don’t know a lot of Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell, for example … one day.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I’m usually reading two different books, a fiction and a nonfiction, until one of them totally grabs me and I have to finish it. Like a lot of people, I have a huge “to read” list, which I look at from time to time. But more often something intrigues me and I pick it up. I prefer physical books to digital (although reading nonfiction digitally allows me to get through the work faster … not sure what that’s about). I don’t usually take notes but I do underline often.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

I’d love to be able to pull off a crown of sonnets one day, à la Marilyn Hacker or Marilyn Nelson. They always take my breath away.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

The number 2 train! The ride from Flatbush Avenue–Brooklyn College into the city is perfect for uninterrupted reading concentration. As for writing, like a lot of people I have difficulty working at home, so I have a couple of coffee shop hangouts where I go to work on firming drafts. And no, I’m not going to tell you where they are!

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

As crazy as it is, I love Coney Island on Sunday afternoon / early evening, in the spring and summer. The multitudinous crowd of people out enjoying themselves and the mix of styles and music makes me glad to be alive.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the small, the daily, the overlooked,
And what I herald to you becomes large, an unexplored universe,
For every moment I point out that strikes me as good shakes and
     wakes and arouses a once-indifferent
you.

Why Brooklyn?

I love the neighborhoods and “livable” scale of Brooklyn. The encroachment of towers in Downtown Brooklyn from the Bridge to Barclay’s disturbs me—I don’t want us to be Manhattan Jr.!