Prose from Poetry Magazine

I Hope You Like Being Here With Me

An introduction to our William J. Harris folio.

Those who think Black artistic writing of the sixties and seventies was all fiery, serious, and without humor likely never read the poetry of William J. Harris. While he was aware of and at times wrote about the Black militancy of the period, he was quietly developing his skills as a poetic observer, producing thoughtful and playful poems while simultaneously teaching classes and publishing scholarly works on Black literary art.

Born in 1942 in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Harris grew up near Antioch College and invariably credits his fellow students for his artistic and intellectual development. When he was in high school, students at Antioch introduced him to The New American Poetry. A few years later, while earning his undergraduate degree in English at Central State University, students facilitated Harris’s earliest encounters with free jazz, an art form that would later become central to his writing and thinking. Students at Antioch and Central State also gave Harris opportunities to edit student magazines at both institutions.

Among the many artistic and cultural activities Harris attended during this time, one poetry reading from April 1967 was particularly memorable. Students at Central organized a “Black only” event featuring Amiri Baraka, who was then known as LeRoi  Jones. Never before had Harris witnessed such a dynamic, militant, and in some ways frightening Black artist. Baraka raised issues that prompted Harris to ask new questions about Black people, white people, and literary art. In what ways were white Americans suppressing the thoughts and artistic works of Black people? How might Black people use literary art to liberate themselves? While fascinated by Baraka, twenty-four-year-old Harris was still readily offering critiques of his forceful stances. In a 1967 article-review, “Manuals of Black Militant,” he examined “three books which a black militant is likely to read”: Baraka’s Home and Blues People and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Harris acknowledged the promise and limits of Baraka’s writing and positions. He found the writer and his work exciting and intellectually rewarding, yet he thought that aspects of a narrow nationalism would be constraining and uninteresting.

In his 1968 poem “For Bill Hawkins, a Black Militant,” Harris gives a nod to his experience growing up around large numbers of white people. He was becoming intrigued by the possibility of inhabiting Black spaces, which were becoming newly visible as a result of uprisings and African American cultural movements. “Night,” Harris writes, “let me be a part of you/but in my own dark way.”

As a graduate student at Stanford University during the late sixties and early seventies, Harris befriended a group of artists that included Al Young, Ishmael Reed, Nathaniel Mackey, bell hooks (then known as Gloria Watkins), and Robert O’Meally. Within the largely white world of Stanford, Harris was part of a small collective of Black writers and thinkers who would go on to make significant contributions to African American artistic and scholarly cultures. During the late sixties, a persistent discussion in Black Arts discourse addressed the idea that Black writers take on the dual roles of artists and critics. Harris did just that. He envisioned himself as a poet, literary scholar, coordinator of arts events (such as poetry readings), and college professor. He earned his Master of Creative Writing at Stanford in 1971 and then his PhD in English and American literature in 1974.

Beginning in the mid-sixties, Harris published his poems in literary magazines, and soon after, editors began including his works in anthologies, including Nine Black Poets (1968), Natural Process: An Anthology of New Black Poetry (1970), A Galaxy of Black Writing (1970), New Black Voices: An Anthology of Contemporary Afro-American Literature (1972), The Poetry of  Black America (1973), Black Out Loud (1975), and The Garden Thrives: Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry (1996).

In 1974, he published his first poetry collection, Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment, and in 1977, he published his second, In My Own Dark Way, both from Ithaca House. Harris’s poems are easygoing, introspective, humorous, and touching. There are perhaps many reasons why Black poetry like this would escape widespread notice. Of course, among the many poets who emerged during the sixties, relatively few received sustained critical and popular attention.

Nonetheless, while remaining deeply committed to poetry as a writer and reader, Harris made his living as a professor and scholar of African American literature. He began his professional career as an assistant professor at Cornell University in 1972, and from 1977–78 he taught at the University of California at Riverside. He became a leading scholar on Baraka, publishing The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic (1985), and various articles. In 1991, Harris edited The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, a book that would serve as a consequential primer on Baraka for countless readers. Studying, writing about, and delivering presentations on Baraka for more than fifty-five years means that Harris concurrently explored and contributed to critical discourses on the Beats, The New American Poetry, the Black Arts Movement, and histories of jazz, Black poetry, and playwrights.

In 1978, Harris and his wife, Susan, a literary scholar and professor, moved to New York City. That year, he became a professor at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, where he taught for fourteen years. From 1992 to 2002, he taught at Pennsylvania State University, and from 2002 until his retirement in 2014, he taught at the University of Kansas. Over the course of their careers and employment at universities across the country, Harris and his wife maintained a residence in Brooklyn and returned there in 2014, when they retired from the University of Kansas. Their residence in Brooklyn has been vital to Harris’s decades-long engagements with the arts—going to poetry readings and book release events, attending Broadway plays and jazz concerts, taking long walks through parks in the city, and visiting exhibitions at various museums.

Two of Harris’s poems in this folio, “The Beauty of Bareness” and “The Black Cardplayers: A Collage,” offer a brief glimpse into his attendance at museum exhibitions, as he wrote the poems in response to different shows featuring Romare Bearden and  Jacob Lawrence. Here is an artist-scholar who has demonstrated a long, abiding interest in supporting the arts and humanities.

For decades now, Harris has read and reread works of post-WWII avant-garde poets, including Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Diane di Prima, and Ted Joans. He is “enraptured by their commitment to continually make art new, make it contemporary,” as he described it one of our recent conversations. But he hardly restricts himself to poetry. He has been deeply interested in “post-war American music, especially jazz and the visual arts from the late nineteenth century through the 1980s, in both Europe and America, roughly from Cézanne to Basquiat.”

Although Harris covers multiple subjects and takes on many tones in his poems, humor remains central in his writing. “Since I am a comic poet,” he noted, “I am always on the lookout for funny, deeply funny, humanly funny poems.” He also finds value in clarity. “My poems are as straightforward as I can make them,” Harris explained. “I come out of William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes. I want my poems to make the reader feel, understand and laugh—it is nice when a poem does all three.”

The poems in this portfolio span more than five decades. From the 1968 “For Bill Hawkins, a Black Militant” to the 2022 “Alice Neel’s Late Self-Portrait” (published for the first time), the poems show Harris ruminating over a diverse range of subjects. He writes about humorous interactions with friends and strangers. He recalls the fierceness of his mother and he writes about losing his father to Alzheimer’s. He offers these many subjects in his own way.

As a graduate student, I studied African American literature with Harris from 1999–2002 at Pennsylvania State University, and my younger brother, Kenton, studied African American literature with Harris at the University of Kansas. Since our first meeting, Harris and I have had a long-running conversation with each other about Black literature, literary history, jazz, and visual art. Our discussions have now persisted for more than two decades.

We spent so much time talking about Amiri Baraka and Black Arts poetry that I initially knew little about Harris’s poetry and experiences as a poet. His works represented intriguing alternatives to the many solemn poems that I typically encountered. I was drawn in by the playfulness of his poems, and the insights have stayed with me. In recent years, I have been particularly interested in Harris’s poems and commentary about his visits to museums in New York City. His poems prompted me to think about Cézanne, Jacob Lawrence, Alice Neel, and many others.

So many outstanding and unique Black poetic voices are overlooked. When I learned that Poetry magazine was accepting submissions for folios of poets who may have been largely underrecognized during their careers, I thought of the work and career of William J. Harris. This folio will introduce his work to national and international audiences in ways that have eluded Harris for much of his career. What a perfect time to showcase his writings and notebook sketches now as he looks back on over six decades of writing and studying poetry.

Editor's Note:

This piece is part of the portfolio “I Hope You Like Being Here with Me: The Work of William J. Harris.” Our grateful thanks to William J. Harris, who provided the permissions to publish the photographs and poems in the portfolio, and to Howard Rambsy II for his curation. You can read the rest of the portfolio in the February 2023 issue, which will appear online February 1st.

Originally Published: January 30th, 2023

Howard Rambsy II, a distinguished research professor of literature, teaches classes on African American literature and comic books at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In