Interview: Kelly Harris-DeBerry

Radical Hope and Survival: Annell López in conversation with Kelly Harris-DeBerry

Xavier Review Press, 2020

Annell López: Your poems are breathtaking, not only because of their rhythmic beauty but also because of how swiftly they engage and compel readers to pause and reflect upon the state of this country. The pieces in this collection bridge the gap between the political and the personal as if they were one and the same. Can writers exist outside of politics? Is all writing political?

Kelly Harris-DeBerry: There are writers who try to exist outside of politics. I’m not one of them. I am Black and a woman which means that while I can write about other realities in my poetry, I can’t avoid political confrontation because it is critical to my survival. Not being political is also a political choice. Writing poetry is a way of documenting myself. I know how language is often used as a weapon against me. Toni Morrison explains this much better. She says, “Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.” The older I get the more I understand that the poverty I grew up in is connected to politics. The arts/publishing “community” is political, too. There’s no escaping it, but there is joy in this work.

I’m essentially asking the reader whose side are you on? Do you see what’s happening? Do you care about this country/world you’re living in?

AL: “Who Will You Say You Are?” is the first piece in your collection and really sets a tone. The poem alludes to the current political climate of the United States. Phrases like “bulletproof churches” and “caged children” highlight the straightforward approach of the work as it calls for readers to examine their place in a society that is notoriously hostile toward specific groups. What do you hope readers will get from this particular piece?

KHD: I didn’t want the first poem to play nice. I’m essentially asking the reader whose side are you on? Do you see what’s happening? Do you care about this country/world you’re living in? Sonia Sanchez says the most pressing question of the 21 century is: What does it mean to be human? The last line talks about hearing gorilla feet walking upon us to suggest that we are living in horror.

AL: In “It’s a Girl,” “Due in September,” “September 15,” and “After Birth,” you present readers with a narrative arc that documents motherhood, from pregnancy to after birth. These particular poems are, in essence, vulnerable. Is vulnerability an important aspect of your writing? Does it come naturally to you?

KHD: I believe vulnerability is how you find your voice in your work and stay humble. If you can’t be vulnerable you’re just playing dodgeball with yourself. And no, vulnerability doesn’t come naturally to me. Writing doesn’t come naturally to any of us—that’s why writers are constantly working at it. Vulnerability helps you become a better writer and person.

AL: In “September 15,” you write:

      came down
      my warm slide
      grabbing at cords of air
      as if opening blinds
      looking out at life

The piece captures and underscores the wordless and overwhelming magic of birth. Did motherhood change your writing? If so, how?

KHD: Motherhood is the best writing workshop I’ll ever attend. Being able to see how language evolves from infant to toddler to kid and keeps evolving really confirmed the importance of sound and oral aesthetics. Before reading, we learn language by doing (nursery rhymes, finger play, dancing, etc). It’s like Toni Morrison said, “…we do language.” Once I made doing language a part of my belief system, it unlocked a certain freedom in my work. Once I stopped thinking in terms of being good or and bad, it expanded my creative process.

AL: In “For the Women Who Save Me,” “Grown Women Conversations,” and “Ms. Edna,” you pay homage to Black womanhood by celebrating the support, solidarity, and love found in relationships with other Black women. You show gratitude to your ancestors and to the Black women of your life. As a Black woman appreciative of her ancestors, what do you hope your legacy will be?

KHD: I hope I’ve lived in such a way that my life/work is remembered.

AL: In the collection, you introduce your readers to poems about New Orleans. There is a striking piece about gentrification titled “Strangers Looking to Buy My House (That’s Not for Sale).” The poem is shaped like the blueprint of a neighborhood. The street names are intended to criticize how gentrification is impacting predominantly Black neighborhoods and, in many ways, erasing the culture of Black New Orleanians. At the same time, your poem, “Super Sunday: New Orleans,” celebrates New Orleans Black culture for its beauty, joy, but most importantly, for its resilience. How do you reconcile urgency and hope?

KHD: Well, if you don’t have hope, there’s no need for urgency. Radical hopefulness is a term Carol Bebelle, a mentor and New Orleans culture bearer, often uses to describe what is needed to do the life work of personal and collective transformation. I think radical hopefulness or radical faith is what Dr. King embodied. We can’t keep settling for a world/government that we know can be better.

AL: And speaking of hope, what are you hoping to accomplish in the near future?

KHD: I’m hoping to survive the pandemic and live to keep writing.

Kelly Harris-DeBerry received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and Cave Canem. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Southern Review, Yale University’s Caduceus Journal, and 400 Years: The Story of Black people in Poems Written from Love 1619-2019. She is a community literary advocate and serves as the New Orleans Poet’s and Writers’ Literary Coordinator.

Annell López is a Dominican immigrant. A Tin House Scholarship Finalist, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Michigan Quarterly Review, Hobart, New Orleans Review, Cagibi, and elsewhere. She is an assistant fiction editor for New Orleans Review. She is working on a collection of short stories. Follow her: @annellthebookbabe on Instagram and @AnnellLopez2 on Twitter. Annell is an assistant poetry editor at The Night Heron Barks.