The Two Lives of Derrick Harriell

By Derrick Harriell

Derrick Harriell explains how, as a poet, inspiration takes hold—especially when you’re least expecting (or even wanting) it.

Photo by Nadia Alexis.

Before writing my recent collection of poems, Come Kingdom, I told myself I wouldn’t write another for some time. This was spring of 2017, shortly after my previous collection, Stripper in Wonderland, had been released. I was exhausted. I was not only physically exhausted, but my soul had taken a knee and was looking for a proper place to hibernate.

Stripper in Wonderland chronicled two partners who move to Mississippi from Milwaukee and then reckon with the reality of a child born prematurely in a strange, strange land. The thing about creatively writing anything informed by your actual life is the constant internal stir of conflict. There’s what you owe to reality and what you owe to art. Meaning, you want to tell the story, but you want to do so in a way that privileges your contribution to art. And through this you get to watch an imagined life revised on the page. You get to relive traumatic moments that sometimes become triumphs and sometimes become catastrophes. A second life that becomes this offbeat, malleable existence. And no matter how much you revise, both lives begin to weigh on you because both lives are real. You understand. The daily deaths happening in those book pages begin to weigh as equally as anything else in your life. And those fictional characters start to haunt as much as the gas station clerk who claims they’re out of cigars. In spring of 2017, I was exhausted and told myself I wouldn’t write another collection for some time.

We all know the aphorism: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” In saying I wouldn’t write another collection for some time, I made God laugh until He cried. In 2018, I found myself writing poems deeply connected with another strange, strange land. And while this land wasn’t geographic, it existed in the geography of my being. No one prepares you for the hide-and-go-seek soul-searching that occurs when you and your partner begin the difficult journey of a family planning that suddenly stalls. You see, when that first baby goes according to plan (minus the premature birth), you believe it’ll just keep on happening that way. You look at all the couples around you and how they somehow can’t keep themselves from having babies; even the couples who don’t want any more babies can’t keep themselves from having more: “You get a baby, you get a baby, you get a baby.” Furthermore, when you were raised in a hypermasculine environment that claims that man is an invincible jackhammer without flaws, even when you believe you’ve abandoned that antiquated reasoning, it still hits different when you find yourself in the urologist’s examination room watching his apologetic, answerless eyes. This is when you find yourself writing another book before you promised yourself you would.

In 2018, that parallel-page life started to return after only a year. The first few poems of Come Kingdom came prematurely like a baby who just wouldn’t wait. Just two weeks ago I read poems from my latest collection to a live audience for the first time and wrestled with the words to leave my throat. Just this week my mother visited us in Mississippi from Milwaukee. And just this morning, I watched her and my son play in the front yard, as my imagined daughter danced along the spine and pages of my newest book of poems.

Derrick Harriell is the Ottilie Schillig Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi. His previous collections of poems include Stripper in Wonderland, Cotton, and Ropes, winner of the 2014 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Book Award.

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Derrick Harriell’s new book, Come Kingdom, chronicles a Black man’s journey toward an ever-elusive American Dream with poems anchored in the trenches of personal crossroads ranging from child conception to substance abuse and racism. The collection follows a male speaker as he and his partner family plan, hoping to provide their son with a sibling. A tour de force of outcry and courage, Come Kingdom confronts shifting social, political, and musical climates. On a more intimate level, it also follows a couple’s desperate attempts to become parents again.

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