Autogeography Cover and Harris Author Photo

Harris, Reginald. Autogeography. Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2013. 62 pp. $16.95 (paper), $16.95 (e-book).
(Winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Book Prizewebsite)

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Reginald Harris, former IT Manager for the Enoch Pratt Library, has moved on up to the big(ger) city of New York to become Poetry in The Branches Coordinator and IT Director at Poets House. Autogeography, his latest poetry collection which arrived more or less with his departure from Baltimore, shows that at least one of Harris’ feet will remain planted firmly on Charm City soil. Autogeography is, if anything, a book that travels—be it formal trips across the entirety of the page, psychological jaunts across the boundaries of gender norms, or family reunions convened on alternate timelines. “Do NOT let him drive you” Harris writes in the opening poem “The Poet Behind the Wheel.” “Buckle up and hours later/ who knows where you’ll arrive.” While no poet can guarantee where her or his work will lead a reader, Harris was kind enough to answer some of our questions about how he prepared for his book’s journey.

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POST NO ILLS: Aside from the idea of mapping the world through the self—and vice versa—the concept of “autogeography” is not explicitly defined in the book. Would you mind expounding a bit regarding your intentions behind the collection’s title?

REGINALD HARRIS: First off, let me say titles are very difficult for me. So, Auto-Geo may not have any other meaning! I am struck, however, by how we are different people—or are seen differently—depending on where we are. That comes up in a couple of the poems (cf. “What Are You?” and “Trailer Park Self-Portrait”). Travel in some way ties all the poems together, with the individual being focused on moving from one place or one state to another. The young person in “The Star,” for example, is standing on the precipice of change at the end of that poem—and in heels, too.

PNI: In either staggered tercets or porous weaves, your poems in this collection tend to reach across the page. Is that an aesthetic choice tied to the specific aims of this book or is that a poetic penchant that always surfaces in your work? (It’s particularly interesting in the pantoum “The Spinning Song” as the cascading lines grant the short stanzas more breadth.)

RH: Not so much a choice for this book as it is my attempt to make my work more flexible—to literally open it up. I think a lot of my poems start fairly “tight”—left justified stanzas, perhaps with a break to indicate a shift in tone, thought, or point of view, but very [curls fists] balled up. Both my work and my life has been an attempt to [opens hands, holds palms face up] open myself up more, to relax. There was some use of the page and space in my first book, 10 Tongues—in “Walking Around” for example. But in this book, both the subjects and intentions of the poems speak to a need for more space, more play—the poems about travel traveling across the page.

I also have to say, too, that sometimes I get tired of poems that “look like poems,” and thus consciously want to try something different. (I also sometimes enjoy not “sounding like myself,” too.)

PNI: There is some commentary on Autogeography that suggests you reference, among the slew of figures you invoke in the book, Omar Little, a character from HBO’s The Wire. I believe the line that leads the commenter to that conclusion is “[h]andsome men with/ knife scars across the face” from the poem “Approaching Baltimore.” Given that so many people “approach” Baltimore based on what they see through Amtrak windows or in David Simon-inspired television dramas (including Homocide and The Corner), do you feel the need to get ahead of or rebuff those popular perceptions when writing about your home, or is that even possible?

RH: Interesting thing about that line: I wasn’t specifically or consciously thinking about Omar with that “knife scars” line. I’ve known and seen other guys with various scars and wounds, and they were more in the foreground of my mind. That and ritual scarification. Is it possible that being the victim (and perhaps perpetrator) of violence is a kind of rite of passage? That is certainly the case with some gangs in Baltimore and elsewhere. You have to be “jumped in” or commit some kind of violence on someone to become part of the group. So it wasn’t just Omar I was talking about, but also a description of who I saw on the streets.

We have a love/hate relationships in The Wire. (Hate may be too strong a word.) Yes it is Baltimore: yes it does capture very well various aspects of the city, but damn, is that all people can ask about when you tell them where you’re from? And what does it mean that people (dare I say White Liberals) love the show? I worry that people sometimes miss the humanity and complexity of the characters on the show, and especially that whatever sympathy or empathy they may feel while in front of the TV doesn’t follow them out the door when they encounter real life people of color. And what am I supposed to say? Gee, thank you so much for enjoying the depiction of our Urban Despair . . .

What I hope is that I can show that there is so much more to the city (and African-American life) than the usual media depictions. That these people who you lock your doors on as you drive through their neighborhoods are people, and have depth and complexity to them that most people miss—that it is not all despair and drugs and hopelessness.

Baltimoreans can be very disparaging about the city. It worries me that it turns into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy about low expectations, but don’t let anybody outside talk badly about us!  We’ll have to cut ya! [Laughing.]

PNI: Thinking of poems such as “The Secret of Our Success,” do you feel that expressing the common—even mundane—nature of same-sex relationships is the next progression in gay writers writing about homosexuality? (That isn’t to suggest that such writing hasn’t been ventured, but rather that those classified as other are often first burdened with explaining their differences before ultimately suggesting “but we’re really just like you.”)

RH: I do think that we need to depict what our lives are like honestly, showing both the dull “just like everyone else” aspects of it, and how we are creating another way just by virtue of the fact that it is two women or two men shopping, doing the laundry, falling asleep in front of the TV together, etc. Sometimes I think it is just this mundane aspect of our lives that drives homophobes most crazy. Look at the wild-eyed reactions to Gay Marriage, for example.

I sometimes think that being gay is the most important unimportant thing about me. The next step for LGBTQ writers is to write their butts off about whatever interests them, and to not give a damn about trying to explain things to straights.

PNI: Autogeography is a book that remembers but mostly avoids longing nostalgically. (In the poem “Reunion,” you achieve this by bringing the past into the present.) What do you think contributes most to that perspective? Was it a conscious avoidance or, this being your second book, something that came with digging deeper into your writing soil?

RH: We’ll I think remembering is very important, essential even. You have to know where you’ve come from, what happened in the past, both personally and collectively/historically. And I think Faulkner’s “the past is [. . .] not even past” is so true. So much of now depends on what happened or didn’t happen  then (for example opportunities not afforded to people of color and women). Also as a gay man “of a certain age,” it is difficult for me to go to a club and not think about friends and acquaintances who I wished were there but aren’t. Dance floors are filled with ghosts for me, which is a sad but sweet experience.

But blind nostalgia . . . that’s dangerous—easy to fall into, but dangerous. How good were “The Good Old Days”? And how can you move forward if you’re constantly looking back toward some mythical, bucolic past? America—well, some sectors of America—seem obsessed with returning us to the ‘50s, or the Leave It to Beaver version of the ‘50s. But how great was that decade for women, for black people? (We all know the answer to that!) Let’s go back to searching for Commies under our beds, living with the specter of nuclear annihilation hovering over us, and police raiding gay bars . . . No thanks. I believe you can remember, but you can see a great deal more clearly if you leave the rose-colored glasses at home.

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REGINALD HARRIS is information technology director and coordinator of poetry in the branches for Poets House in New York City. The re­cipient of Individual Artist Awards for both poetry and fiction from the Mary­land State Arts Council and a Cave Canem fellow, his first book, 10 Tongues (2001), was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year. His poetry, fiction, reviews, and articles have appeared in numerous journals and websites, including 5am, African American Review, Gargoyle, and Sou’wester Journal; and in the anthologies Best Gay Poetry 2008 and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South.