(United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1989)
BiographyWill Harris’s poetic talents are matched by his commitment to honesty, complexity and compassion: “It took me years of not-writing to realise I couldn’t write from an invisible, vantage-less perspective. I had to write out of my own confused, mimicking, mixed experience.” His first full poetry collection, RENDANG, is forthcoming from Granta in 2020.
In 2017 a selection of Harris' work appeared in the Bloodaxe anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation. He has performed around the UK with Ella Frears and Alex McDonald in a live poetry show ‘What Days We’re Having Now’, produced by Jaybird Live Literature. His poem ‘SAY’ was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2018 and he won a Poetry Fellowship from the Arts Foundation in 2019.
The poet's pamphlet, All this is implied (Happenstance), was also published in 2017 and was joint winner of the London Review Bookshop Pamphlet of the Year and shortlisted for the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award by the National Library of Scotland. Mixed-Race Superman, an essay, was published by Peninsula Press in 2018 and appeared in an expanded edition from Melville House in the US in 2019.
He contrasts essay-writing to poetry stating that he sees “poetry as a separate domain of play [...] defined by a lack of rules […and] associated more with the subconscious mind” (Faber Poetry Podcast). He talks of the enjoyment in starting to write poems:
It was quick, easy – fun! In my mid-teens, I was into hip hop, naturally lazy, self-conscious, sad. My grandparents died suddenly when I was fourteen and that made me confused about what the point of anything was. Then one day, I sat down at a school computer and started typing – I invented a word (‘lucidation’) and rhymed others (‘cold heart/happy fart’) – and a few minutes later I’d written a poem. Not much has changed.
(interview with the Forward Arts Foundation)
Born and based in London, Harris’s mother is Chinese-Indonesian and his father is British. Race has become central to his work across genres, though he says it was something he at first avoided. In a period of writer’s block he “started reading into Indonesia’s history […] and thinking more about my own family”. These considerations are apparent in Harris’s 2017 pamphlet All This is Implied. In ‘Cured’, a container filled with rendang grows mouldy hidden at the back of a cupboard because of embarrassment.
Poems such as ‘Self Portrait in a Small Mirror’ and ‘Halo 2’ probe the idea of identity, self, appearance and representation. ‘Bee Glue’ is typical of Harris’s ability to construct a complex narrative in a small space, to fix together threads of thought that take us in unexpected directions. However he also has a particular talent for longer pieces, such as ‘Yellow’ – a complex narrative which manages to be comic as well as considered. This longer format is used in the last poem, ‘Allegory’, where dream-like connections and collisions allow Harris to explore more apparently personal material:
[…] If I cannot speak to you,
at least I might speak at or with
or through you; in spite of absence,
so to spite it better.
Harris is eloquent in defending the wide-range of poetry which is often dismissively called ‘identity politics’:
[…] what does it mean to divide identity from politics? What does it mean to put them together? – maybe I should just say: the idea that art is, or can be, anything other than identity is ridiculous. The imagination, so far from being opposed to identity, is the sum of our experiences, recollected and rendered in legible form – it is identity. This should be self-evident, tautological.
(‘The Ethics of Perspective’)
This is an approach which leads Harris to self-reflexive poems such as ‘From the other side of Shooter’s Hill’:
[…] Don’t you dare think about using me
in a poem, making me into some sad female cypher, my life
a series of symbolic events: the ambulance representing mortality,
my niece—I don’t know—a hysterical desire for kids.
But the poem goes on to make a plea for continued communication in spite of – or perhaps because of – these complicated ethical issues:
I reject the possibility of narrating any life other than my own
and need a voice capacious enough to be both me and not-me,
while always clearly being me.
‘From the other side of Shooter’s Hill’ also appears (slightly amended) in the forthcoming collection RENDANG. Here Harris continues to pursue a desire to make human connections, to communicate – a quest which persists despite the limits of language and empathy and the acknowledged ethical problems of speaking ‘for’ or ‘as’. But while language has its limitations, it is also multi-faceted and full of possible connections:
In West Sumatra they call rendang
randang. Neither shares a root
with rending. Rose and rose
have French and Frisian roots
you can’t hear. Context makes
the difference clear.
(‘In West Sumatra’)
Harris also employs form to manoeuvre the many barriers to connection and communication. RENDANG opens with a concrete poem of the same name and ‘Object’ which appeared in his pamphlet is transformed into words arranged around a photo of a mask. The long poem sequence ‘The White Jumper’ is led by the subconscious, allowing the reader to navigate the computer-game like architecture of a dream and make meaning for themselves. ‘Seven Dreams of Richard Spencer’ seems to consider the radical empathy made possible in a dream-state, even for the neo-Nazi and white supremacist. But Harris’s particular power is to be found in his narrative and conversational poems. ‘Holy Man’ refigures the encounter of Gawain and the Green Knight in London, investigating the way myths and beliefs grow from real life encounters and coincidences:
[…] I told him it was my favourite
colour, or had been, and as I did I saw us from a distance,
as we might seem years from now – scraps of coloured fabric
draped across a hall which, taken out of context, signified
nothing – and I flinched, waiting for the blade to fall.
In ‘My Name is Dai’ our poet-narrator encounters “a type of Ancient Mariner”. This reference chimed with me because I had already been thinking of Coleridge’s framed narrator in relation to Harris’s work, as well as Wordworth’s poetic encounter with a leech gatherer; it is as if the poets of Lyrical Ballads had been more fully aware of the complications and complicities of their identities, while retaining the directness and sentiment of their poetry.
A final long poem in parts ‘RENDANG’ has a larger cast of characters. It’s a virtuosic performance of Harris’s ability to balance complexity and narrative drive, where conversation and thought are as much action as physical movement or occurrences. Complex, subtle, funny, serious, clever and feeling, RENDANG demonstrates the great abilities that Harris brings to the vitally difficult tasks he has set himself.
Will Harris’ website
Video of Will Harris reading for The Complete Works III
Bee Glue as Poem of the Week in The Guardian
Video of Will Harris reading ‘SAY’ on the Forward Arts Foundation website
Will Harris on The Poetry Review Podcast
© Emily HaslerAll this is implied (Happenstance, 2017)
Mixed Race Superman (Peninsula Press, 2018)
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère