Our Generation: Innervisions, an Interview With Harmony Holiday
When I decided to do this series of interviews based on how poet and scholar Tyrone Williams defines and depicts our "generations" in his intro to mary wants to be a superwoman (Third Man Books, 2017), the second book in my box set trilogy, I knew there had to be a strong female presence, a voice other than mine, to help hold this space we were creating and, ultimately, putting out into the world.
Tyrone and I had several discussions about whom I would interview over sushi and noodles at our favorite Thai place in Cincinnati, Wild Ginger, as well as over thick slices of slap your mama pie at the impossibly good O Pie O. I was conflicted about who to ask to participate, besides Williams himself and brother-poet Tongo Eisen-Martin. I wanted to have conversations with poets who weren't afraid to speak their minds, poets who wouldn’t hesitate to put it all out there, engage with the work and answer the questions with brutal honesty. During one of our last lunch meetings, he suddenly said "Harmony Holiday." An a-ha moment to be sure. This was followed by a text stating, "Harmony does interesting mash-ups with recordings from the Black Arts era with her own work (her dad was r&b songwriter Jimmy Holiday)." A day or so later, I received an email, a sort of gentle reinforcement, with nothing but a link from Fence Books with the subject "Re: The Gospel According to New Cults." He was too late; I was already in.
mary wants to be a superwoman retraces the history of the women in my mother's family, starting with The Trail of Tears and moving into the present. It is a personal history of race in America. My family history is complicated, like any family history in America. mary is all about processing that history, the day to day, dealing with a history that has been passed down, to an extent, stories and memories that I had nothing to do with, and how to live and move on from that history and its implications.
In his introduction to mary, Williams begins what I consider to be a conversation about "generations" of poets, ancestors, and kin, who may or may not be blood relatives but are somehow related. I wanted to continue that conversation with poets of color from the very generations Williams designates, his generation and my generation, and invited a small panel to join us. I am hoping that these four conversations, interviews with Holiday, Tongo Eisen-Martin, and Tonya Foster, in addition to Williams, will lead to wider conversations within the poetry community, inspire new works, or at least allows us to have a family reunion.
Although we've never met in person, I was tremendously excited to have the opportunity to talk to Harmony. Her work is beautiful and fascinating and deep beyond her years. She uses pop culture to suit her needs, to propel the past forward, to make a point, to make undeniably full bodyworks. We were both on the road: me touring through Cincinnati en route to Nashville and L.A. in support of mary wants to be a superwoman, and Harmony touring her new work, Hollywood Forever, and doing a dance intensive at Washington University. Time was definitely not on our side; we communicated at such odd times of the day and night. We rarely talked about the interview itself. By the end, we had decided to meet somewhere between L.A. and Saint Louis, read together, and set the world on fire.
Harmony Holiday (hh): Thank you for being so patient. I've been at Wash U doing a dance intensive in Dunham technique so I've been so off my normal computer rhythms. Have the rest of the night off and gonna focus on this first so expect something in the small hours. More very soon, also really looking forward!
erica lewis (el): Thank you for still wanting to do this. I know how busy you are. I'm trying to do these articles while I'm on tour, so we're both burning the candle at both ends.
Are you going to be back in L.A. next week? If so, I would love to meet up if you have the time. I'll be coming in for a reading at the end of the week at Poetic Research Bureau if you'd like to come (or join me! that would be amazing!). It's on the 28th.
hh: That's the way to do it, right?! Gotta live to write. Makes me happy when we're out making moves. Def wanna see you read and would love to read together. Not back in L.A. till mid-August. Are you making any East Coast or St. Louis stops? Would be fun to plan a joint reading.
I've been trying to keep up with writing life while doing this dance program, but it's taking time to adjust to what that looks like. Getting in the rhythm now. Also Wendy's Subway in New York would be beyond fun and we'd def shut it down. Will see if I can make it over the next couple of days, might have to read in Hudson that same time but might be able to move things around.
el: Got to write to live, too. I feel most comfortable out on the road right now. Just my pup and me. Meeting people. Trying to find that little bit of joy. And man, to see your energy transfer to other people when you perform, that's a gift. This whole journey has been a gift. It hasn't been easy. I've cried more than I care to admit. But what a gift to know that something that you're doing is, in some way, touching someone else.
I am! I'll be in NYC doing a reading at Berl's on 9/16 and I think Wendy's Subway on 9/15. Would you want to read with me? Oh my goodness we would shut it down. I think I'll be reading in Boston around that time, too. I can maybe arrange to make St. Louis a stop in the fall. But yeeeeessssss, we must plan to read together.
hh: I do have some energy reserves tonight, at least enough to do laundry and read and write and think about legacy and continue our conversation.
el: Who do you consider your direct aesthetic kin and why? Can you talk about tracing your lineage (poetic or otherwise)?
hh: The restless ones in black and blue. Amiri Baraka, Miles Davis, Katherine Dunham, Jean Toomer, Nina Simone. And the subtle/grandiose mythmakers like Sun Ra. I resonate most with diasporic artists who manage to become who they are ruthlessly, who are devoted to that kind of against all odds and grand self-actualization. It took some years of relative divestment from the cannon I was exposed to in universities, and the way of relating to legacies that academia tries to foster, to trace a kinship that felt as authentic as I need my writing to be, to realize that I don’t need fancy answers and metronomic nods to Foucault to feel valid. I'm writing this from the St. Louis home of Miles and honorary home of Katherine Dunham, where I'm doing a dance intensive so that I can teach Dunham technique to young diaspora dancers who think all we have is ballet. All the black and blue forces that allowed me to say yes to this experience and to the call to write every day, they are definitely kin kind.
el: Do you feel then that the generations are talking to each other, that their works are in conversation?
hh: Inevitably, yes. But the conversation is a little acrimonious. Everybody failed everybody. Everybody went blind. The shining myopia is upon us, the struggle is real. I'm tired of reaffirming a sense of struggle, but also like Mary, tired of being told that a superwoman, that overcoming, is a liability. The conversation across generations seems to hover in that ennui that I sense we are experiencing collectively. So the conversation is polite, but margined by side-eye. I recently wrote a poem called "Future and Audre Lorde Fall in Love." I think whether it be Codeine or critical theory, that maybe if we recognized the props we use to numb ourselves, or pull ourselves forth, and how they actually align, the conversation might get a little more real. I think we tell each other the truth, we constantly testifying, but rarely does anyone wanna hear it when the truth is a lean addiction or erotic feminine energy claiming its power. Maybe if we fell in love with the truth this conversation could be honest and real.
el: I'm definitely in love with the truth. The poems in mary use Stevie Wonder's music from a very specific time as a trigger (the other two books in the box set trilogy use the music of Hall and Oates and Diana Ross with and without The Supremes). How does music influence your work?
hh: In any time of distress or ecstasy my body has required music to heal or celebrate and ultimately re-access the homeostasis that allows those states to remain functional while being transcendent. I see music and musicians as collaborators and the principle of collective improvisation that drives jazz music as a way of accessing the telepathic energies all human experience is brimming with, and a way of directing the multitude of energies and drives within myself into a productive ensemble that manifests as poem or dance or both. Music allows reconciliation of disparate forces otherwise untended and left to wreak havoc in the subconscious, and the best poetry is that music, is that moment of reconciliation entered or objectified or sighed out as song.
el: My favorite poem is Amiri Baraka's (written as Leroi Jones) "In Memory of Radio." It always does me in. It takes me back to something familiar, something that feels like home but not my own recollection or experience. I always feel like it's an experience my mom would have had because she used to sit with her family and listen to the radio. Is there a poem that does that to you?
hh: Gwendolyn Brooks's In the Mecca, that whole book, does that for me. Takes on the topic of the Great Migration with so much aching genius I feel how it must have felt to go from the plantation to the factory, to have to turn away from minstrelsy again and again in daily life without having much to turn toward. Also Jean Toomer's Cane. I think any work that can deliver historical information free from the shackles of nostalgia, does that for me. Nostalgia is so oppressive sometimes it replaces history. Great poetry sets that straight.
el: Borrowing a term from the pop music world, how do you feel about poetry "crossing over"? Someone I thought was a very good poetry friend asked me one day, "why do all the white guys like you?" I don't have an answer for that, and although it was a year or so ago, I'm still very much offended. It was like her telling me to stay in my place or that I must be doing "something" besides writing good poetry to get their attention. Have you ever had a similar experience in the poetry world?
hh: "I love the ones who get over, for they are the ones who have gone under," the homie/alien, Nietzsche once wrote.
I haven't had that experience, but only because I blatantly ignore the etiquette of lanes in that free market capitalism sense, which is really about "brands," and trying to sell yourself, which when you transcend that it really incites a lot of toxic envy in some, usually those frustrated by how come they followed all the rules and aren't satisfied or gratified. Which is often because there are quiet and hidden rules, like to go under if you want to get over, to not front, to be authentic on your own terms, etc. Also how can you cross over as a black woman, the most ancient human on the planet with all that DNA crammed into our spirits like a mandate. Others can get across to witness us but we are the oracles here, duty bound to be real and contain multitudes. Not to be all self-aggrandizing, but in defense of being ourselves when whatever forces try to threaten that, or when we even threaten that in one another out of some misguided idea that there isn't room enough for every black woman on the planet to make her own unique imprint, sometimes you have to be extra to ward off the b.s., to make what can't congratulate at least fall back. Mary in the song, who Stevie accuses basically of not staying in her lane, of being too much, is really just being her beautiful, great, many-layered self. And maybe that stresses him out but that's his issue, not hers.
el: I love that you said that, that Mary "is really just being her beautiful, great, many-layered self." That's exactly it. There are so many Mary's out there. So many throughout the book, because I'm telling all of these stories about the women in my family who had to be great and multilayered just to survive. Speaking of survival, what's for dinner?
hh: I'm raw vegan whenever possible and vegan no matter what and I'm in St. Louis doing a dance intensive, which means classes from 8AM to 6 or 7PM with a couple breaks in between, daily. Today, we were let out an hour early and me and a homie in the program went to a local, all plant-based spot called Seedz where I got a vegan chocolate shake, the most satisfying lemonade I’ve ever had, a massive salad, and some kinda raw brownie. A treat yoself kinda day cause we are usually let out too late to even go out to eat. The meal might sound a little blasé, but eating anything fresh and nourishing after so much dancing and sticky 90-degree humidity is an ecstatic release.
mary wants to be a superwoman uses the music of a (once popular) pop artist that I grew up listening to—each poem takes its title from a line of a Stevie Wonder song—the poems are not “about” the actual songs, but what is triggered when listening to or thinking about the music. I’m thinking about what happens when you take something like a pop song and turn it in on itself, give it a different frame of reference, juxtapose the work against itself, against other pop music, and bring it into the present.
Harmony Holiday is the author of Negro League Baseball, Go Find Your Father/ A Famous Blues and most recently Hollywood Forever. She is also the founder of Mythscience, an arts collective devoted to cross-disciplinary work that helps artists re-engage with their bodies and the physical world in this so-called digital age, and the Afrosonics archive of jazz and everyday diaspora poetics. She worked on SOS, the selected poems of Amiri Baraka, transcribing all of his poetry recorded with jazz that had yet to be released in print and exists mostly on out of print records. Harmony studied rhetoric at UC Berkeley and taught for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. She received her MFA from Columbia University and has received the Motherwell Prize from Fence Books and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship. She is currently working on a book of poems and lyric essays on Reparations and the body, and a biography of jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.
erica lewis was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her books include the precipice of jupiter (2009, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), camera obscura (2010, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), murmur in the inventory (2013); and the first two books of the box set trilogy: daryl hall is my boyfriend (2015) and...