Earlier this autumn, Derrick Harriell was a guest judge for the OnMilwaukee.com Milwaukee Poetry Contest and, around the same time, he released his first book of poetry, "Cotton." Harriell will read this week in the performance showcase, Verbatim.
Verbatim, which features a variety of performance writers and musicians, is organized by Milwaukee spoken word artist Dasha Kelly. The late-night performance takes place on Thursday, Nov. 12 at 10:30 p.m. at the Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. The minimum donation for a ticket is $10.
Harriell will perform with other Milwaukee talents including writer Queen Sheba, comedian Rodney Laney and storytelling group, Ex Fabula.
OnMilwaukee.com recently caught up with the 30-year-old Harriell who currently lives on the East Side and asked him more about his new book and his relationship with words in general.
OnMilwaukee.com: How long did this book take you to write?
Derrick Harriell: The book began initially as my MFA thesis (Chicago State University) back in 2005. Upon entering UW-Milwaukee’s PhD program, I started to flesh out the manuscript more and get rid of the poems that no longer spoke to me and add new ones that contributed to the narrative arc.
OMC: What are the main themes in the book?
DH: I’d say there are many themes throughout, the most significant being the revisiting and imagining of my own family tree. The book’s narrative attempts to retrace my family’s migration from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It re-imagines and recreates my great grandfather as a central character. Having never met my grandfather, I used oral traditions and photos passed down, and attempt to reveal this Cotton character. It is through this character’s existence that we are able to come in contact with other central characters. Other themes include but are not limited to desire, death, resistance, music and general blues culture.
OMC: As a poet, do you love your poems forever, or now that they're in the book, and further away from them, do you not like them as much?
DH: I love all my poems, some more than others. Yet, it has been strange to see them all in a collection and watch them -- in a sense -- leave the nest. Unlike before when I had the ability to write a poem and move on, the book aspect doesn’t quite allow me to do this. What may be a three year old poem for me, is a first day poem for someone who’s just purchased the book. This stated, I try to remember the initial feeling upon completion of each poem, and be sure to relay that emotion to the audience each time I read the poem. I’m reminded of a Notorious BIG quote that is often used where he mentions the importance of treating his first song like his last and each new song like it’s the first. I often try to apply similar principles to my own work.
OMC: Who are the poets that inspired you the most?
DH: I grew up a child of the hip hop generation, therefore, I was initially influenced by rappers, most notably Nas and Tupac. However, I was introduced to Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks at a young age. Although I liked what they were writing, now looking back, I feel like I was exposed to their "hit" poems and not poems that spoke to me. I almost liken this to my fascination with Marvin Gaye. I recall being exposed to Marvin Gaye at a young age, but only to his "hit," sexy-time records, and not the ones that through digging I discovered as an adult. The first time I heard "Here my Dear" I almost lost my mind; which is how I felt the first time I read "A Street in Bronzeville" by Gwendolyn Brooks (I digress). To answer the question, the poets who’ve had the most influence on my aesthetic are Gary Copeland Lilley and Ai. The honesty that exists in their work is inspiring, even when it makes you feel uncomfortable. Actually, their ability to make you feel uncomfortable while revealing a narrative and mastering the line is fascinating.
OMC: What would you like people to take away with them after reading your work?
DH: My hopes for the book are quite simple: reach as many people as I possibly can with the actual product, and hope they are able to walk away with a more grounded understanding of their own life experience. My hope is that in these poems readers recognize not only themselves but also aunts, uncles, grandparents, lovers, etc; Or that in some way they’re able to connect to the emotional landscape.
OMC: How / how much does Milwaukee appear in your work?
DH: I was born and raised on Milwaukee’s North Side, so many of the characters in "Cotton" are Milwaukeeans as I remember them growing up.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.