Friday, February 24, 2023

William J. Harris, an Ad Astra poet, is featured in Poetry (Feb. 2023)

A poem from this blog, published May 21, 2010, is among poems by friend, scholar, and poet Billy Joe Harris in a portfolio of lyrics in the Feb. issue of Poetry. I have always had the highest regard for Billy as a poet and as a person. Some of his generosity of character shines through in the Poetry interview that accompanies the portfolio. He was an essential member of the Poetini group that met regularly with Ken Irby, Judith Roitman, Stan Lombardo, Susan Harris, Joe Harrington, Jonathan Mayhew, Beth Reiber, Barnie Warf. Below is a reprint of that May 21 post, also available in the print anthology I published with the Washburn University Center for Kansas Studies, To the Stars: Kansas Poets of the Ad Astra Poetry Project.   (Another poem, "Practical Concerns" by William J. Harris is also on this blog, Nov. 13, 2010). Denise Low, Feb. 24, 2023.

Billy Joe Harris, University of Kansas professor emeritus, spent a sabbatical year studying poets and painters, including artist Giorgio Morandi. He admires Morandi for “muted colors and radically reduced subject matter.” He employs this approach to his own verse. His work suggests narratives, but in such concise form that cultural referents may be minimal. In the poem “Sympathetic Magpies,” the Chinese origin of the legend is secondary to the universal concept of bridges. Further, the stanzas’ own parallel lines suggest intervals of bridge girders. Love creates a bridge between mortal and immortal beings, and the interplay between heaven and earth are universal. The memorable magic here is the bridge made of magpies. The poem has parable-like directness, with love that can defy the decrees of heaven. Like bridges, romance between a young weaver and herder can be set in most times and places. The Milky Way itself is another kind of bridge. Then Harris shifts to present time, inviting readers to also become part of legends through the poem. With a few simple images—lovers, Heaven, and bridges—the poet creates a story, briefly outlined yet complete like a Morandi painting. Harris said of the painter: “His quiet visual drama tells you that you need no more than these few objects to tell the human story.” This also applies to “Sympathetic Magpies.”

There is an old Chinese legend
About a weaving girl and a cowherd
Falling in love and being punished
By Heaven because she was celestial
And he was a mere mortal

Heaven only allowed them to meet
Once a year
On the seventh day
Of the seventh month

The magpies were so sympathetic
Each year
On that day
They made themselves
Into a bridge
Stretching across the Milky Way
So the lovers could kiss

Poems are sympathetic magpies
Bridges between lovers
Bridges between selves
Bridges between worlds

Education: Harris received a BA in English (Central State University 1968), MA in Creative Writing (Stanford 1971), and PhD in English and American Literature (Stanford 1974).

Career: William J. Harris is an emeritus professor of American literature, African American literature, creative writing, and jazz studies. He taught at the University of Kansas, Pennsylvania State University, and Cornell University, among other universities. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. This poet and critic’s books include: Hey Fella Would You Mind Holding This Piano a Moment (Ithaca House 1974), In My Own Dark Way (Ithaca House 1977) and Personal Questions (Leconte Publishers, Rome, 2010). He has published in over fifty anthologies. He is the author of the critical work The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka (University of Missouri Press 1985) and editor of The Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1991, second edition, 2000).