Interview with 2015 American Book Award Winner, Peter J. Harris

By Geosi Gyasi

From: Geosi Reads

pjh_smilemedBrief Biography:

Peter J. Harris is the author of Bless the Ashes, poetry (Tia Chucha Press), winner of the 2015 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ a book of personal essays, winner of a 2015 American Book Award.  Harris has published his work in a wide variety of publications since the 1970s.  Since 1992, he’s been a member of the Anansi Writers Workshop at the World Stage, in LA’s Leimert Park.

Geosi Gyasi: You’re the founding director of “The Black Man of Happiness Project”. Could you tell us how you started this project?

Peter J. Harris: The project grows from my deep curiosity about an elemental question: What is a happy Black man?

As I’ve matured as a writer and thinker and cultural worker, as a man, this question has become a powerful prompt to explore manhood and masculinity through the lives of African American men, who obviously exist within historical crosshairs. Taboo. Fetish. Threat. Sexual Predator. Sexual Symbol. Prey. In my research, I’ve never found one mention or index item in which Black men and happiness have been connected. So on Juneteenth 2010, I invited a variety of men to attend a video shoot at the Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles. I wanted them to answer on camera the question, What is a happy Black man? Some 20 men answered the question in a variety of ways, as I hoped they would. I was confident that each man would have his own richly individual answer, which is a major goal of the Project: to explore the individuality of Black men’s testimonies about their joy. Since 2010, I’ve created a website, through which you can view the videos, like our Facebook page, purchase the two published books, and otherwise be inspired to search for your own answer. Goals for 2016 include setting up more video shoots, launching a new blog in which I write about what I call ‘wreaking happiness,’ and raise the profile on the books, especially my book of personal essays, The Black Man of Happiness: In Pursuit of My ‘Unalienable Right,’ which was chosen in July 2015 for one of 15 American Book Awards, which have been awarded for 36 years by the Before Columbus Foundation.

Geosi Gyasi: Has the aim for which “The Black Man of Happiness Project” was set up been achieved?

Peter J. Harris: Some aims have certainly been met. Besides my book of essays, I’ve published a special book for young people called Gritt Tuff Playbook: Hard Core Wisdom for Young People, by Glenn Harris, my big brother, who’s a broadcaster in DC with a 30-plus year track record of giving inspiring pep talks to young people in the Washington, D.C. region. We’ve co-produced several staged readings of the theater piece associated with the Project. I’ve gotten chances on radio, in LA newspapers, and in events at community organizations and on college campuses to introduce the theme of joyful Black men, as well as ask our driving question of many different kinds of men.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve worked as a publisher, journalist, editor and broadcaster. Are there any links between all the jobs listed?

Peter J. Harris: Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? Those are the questions my journalism professors at Howard University drilled into me from 1973-77, and I’ve found that in all the work I do I am trying to answer those questions in ways that I hope are interesting, engaging and illuminating.

Geosi Gyasi: Why did you decide to become a writer?

Peter J. Harris: I don’t know. I do know that writing has become the way I express my most uncensored voice. I trust myself when I write. I am my most ethical when I write. I’m in communion with my most visionary selves when I write. I channel my most profound insights when I write.

Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing? 

Peter J. Harris: I’ve been writing in a unique, valuable voice since the 1980s, although I published my first poem in “The Black Scholar” in 1979.

Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?

Peter J. Harris: Resisting my tendencies. To remain in thrall with the craft. In this respect, I’m often reminded by the comments of my friend and colleague Kamau Daa’ood, author of The Language of Saxophones Kamau is co-founder of The World Stage, my literary briar patch in Los Angeles During workshops over the years, Kamau has always reminded us to take linguistic and metaphorical risks. Cautioned us to make sure we don’t settle for what’s been comfortable or functional or startling in past poems. Be aware of word choices that could become crutches. I’ve accepted Kamau’s challenge and I’ve heeded those words, as I’ve also studied, experimented, and dared myself into the mysterious, the subsonic, the ineffable. In fact, after so many years of listening to poets, at The World Stage and in my flow with and among writers of all kinds, I’ve sworn off using in my poems the words heart, soul, spirit, among others; also, I’ve sworn off using mango and other easy food metaphors in my erotic poems and, even, the word ‘poem,’ as in …’This Poem.’ My commitment now is to grapple with language and meanings until I slip into lush, scary, startling dictions that emit a fragrance or evokes/invokes sensations beyond the intellectual to affect as many senses as possible. My greatest challenge is to surprise myself, to never settle, and to never ever fall in love with my writing! Read Rest of Article Here


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