FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH WILL HARRIS

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

WILL HARRIS: 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.

FAF: Can you tell us about your development as a writerof poems? When did you first feel you were a poet and how did it go from there?

WH: I want to believe in development, but I don’t know what it means. What am I developing into? Why should I have to develop? As Lauryn Hill says, “Who made these rules?” I used to think that writing was this sacred, higher activity, but that way of thinking only kept me from actually writing and made what I did write bad. Not in the sense that Bob Dylan’s paintings are ‘bad’ – I don’t care about that kind of badness – but in that, as I put it in ‘SAY’, it made me “too scared—too / scarred—to speak. Flow, flow, flow. I wanted to be carried along, not spat / out or upon.” It was when I stopped caring about being a writer that I started saying what mattered to me. Does that make sense? So many people are saying incredibly valuable things right now. More often than not, the idea of the writer – as a vocation, a special category of person – is what’s holding them back.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

WH: A lot! I massively value being part of a community (I have an unpayable debt to the artists I love), and the idea of being valued within that community means more than I can say. But I also know that having a poem picked out like this – and the whole thing of prize-giving – is only a trick of the light. Individual poems don’t exist; neither do individual artists. We’re leaves of grass. And it’s in that spirit I cherish the opportunity to stand in for the vast, swaying Poem of which we’re all a part.

FAF: Could you tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem? And where can a reader find more work by you?

WH: My dad was very sick last year. For a few months I didn’t think about writing; I barely read. Then on a holiday with some friends – on an airplane, terrified of crashing – I started scribbling on the back of my boarding pass and couldn’t stop. Over the next month, I woke up early to tinker with, add to and subtract from this strange poem that felt like it was itching to say everything I’d ever wanted to: about my dad’s breached body; about fear and borders; about our desire for wholeness and purity; and about the illusion of flowthat can only be maintained by violence. If you want to read more of this kind of thing, there’s a short selection of my poems in the Bloodaxe anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation (along with work by nine of my very favourite poets), and I’ve also published a pamphlet of poems, All this is implied (HappenStance, 2017), and an essay, Mixed-Race Superman (Peninsula Press, 2018).

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value intheir work?

WH: I believe in a revolving door rather than a pantheon. There are four books I’m currently loving: Trembling Hearts in the Bodies of Dogs, a selection of Selima Hill’s early poems which is clever, funny, devastating;Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, which is as generous and joyful as its title suggests;Edmond Jabès’sThe Book of Questions which, written in the shadow of the Holocaust, has one of the highest wisdom-per-word ratios I’ve ever come across (e.g. “true solidarity has the question as guarantee”; “Where is the path? Each time it must be discovered anew. A blank sheet is full of paths.”); and Elizabeth Bishop’s uncollected poems and fragments, Edgar Allan Poe and the Jukebox, which show a hundred times over the value in imperfection, in the workings-out of a (beautiful) mind: “Doves on architecture, architecture / Color of doves, and doves in air— / The towers are so much the color of air, / They could be anywhere.”

FAF: What’s next for you as a poet?

WH:Writing, hopefully! I’m finishing a poetry book about what we look at and look past, with the working title Rendang. I’m also writing a prose book about mixed identities in art and culture and the skewed logic of racism. As well as that, I’m doing some teaching for The Poetry School and, later this year, I’ll be going on tour with two amazing poets (Alex MacDonald and Ella Frears – check them out!).

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

WH: Live a good life. Find solidarity in questioning. Resist power. Trust others. Love absolutely (that includes yourself). The microwave radiation of goodness will heat the kernels of your heart and, if it matters, the art will burst forth in bags of endless buttery popcorn.