Interview with Derrick Harriell

By Karen Sherk Chio

Derrick Harriell is the 2022-2023 judge for Bayou Magazine’s Kay Murphy Prize for Poetry contest. He is the author of Come Kingdom (LSU Press, 2022) and the Ottilie Schillig Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi where he directs the African American Studies program.

His previous poetry collections include Stripper in Wonderland (LSU Press, 2017), Cotton (Aquarius Press-Willow Books 2010), and Ropes (Aquarius Press, 2014), winner of the 2014 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Poetry Book Award. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chicago State University and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

When I picked up your 2022 collection, Come Kingdom, and I read the first poem, “Come,” about pregnancy loss, I was immediately wowed. Tell me more about this poem. Why did you position it first in the collection?

I wanted to write as honestly as I could with this collection, and “Come” was the poem I wanted to write through the woman’s voice. The majority of Come Kingdom is written through a male perspective and persona. I wanted to think about how other voices might intrude on the narrative. In the book we’re talking about male infertility, we’re talking about a couple’s efforts to try to have a child. A good majority of the poems are informed by real life experiences. “Come” is grounded in an experience of losing a pregnancy very dramatically on a mundane Sunday afternoon. 

It was the hardest poem for me to write. Haki Madhubuti, who I studied with at Chicago State for my MFA, said, “if you don’t have anything to say, get off the mic.” It was a reminder not to run from things that matter to us, that might be political, or that might shake up imperialism, capitalism, power structures. I also heard that statement to mean: say what’s most important to you as soon as you have the opportunity. 

Because “Come” was the hardest poem to write, and I think the most important poem in the collection, I wanted to position it as close to the beginning of the book as possible. Maybe someone puts that book down after reading that poem and doesn’t get to the other poems, because it can appear traumatic for a lay reader. I am okay with it being a shocking way of entering the book. My favorite movies are the ones where you get the high-speed chase in the first 30 seconds of the film. The stakes are presented immediately. Thinking about the collection as a story, I wanted to thrust my reader right into the highest of stakes from the moment they opened the collection.

That poem drew me in immediately. I love that you come out of the gate with it. Regarding high stakes, Come Kingdom grapples with the important and interwoven themes of infertility, fatherhood, race, masculinity, and religion as well as the motifs of kings and kingdoms. How would you describe the connection between these themes and motifs? 

A lot of the motifs in Come Kingdom were informed by the painstaking initial moments when you’re trying to create a child, you’re trying a family plan, and it’s not working. You start asking yourself the fundamental question, why me? Why us? As I’m constructing these poems, I’m initially thinking that this is a book about my inability to live the promised American dream. 

With friends [having babies], I found myself experiencing deep jealousy, profound bitterness. We’re trying for a year, a year and a half, for two years, and it’s not happening. That bitterness manifested into this idea of “American Dream Kingdom.” That was the initial title of Come Kingdom. The two concepts just kind of pair naturally, the American dream and my nuclear family as some kind of minuscule kingdom. I knew that, especially within the capitalistic principles of our nation, I wanted to talk about the struggle of [being told], if you do XYZ, you shall receive XYZ. If you marry your high school sweetheart, which I did, and you work hard, you tough out marriage and stay together, then you will have two and a half kids, the white picket fence, a dog, and Range Rover right?

I’m thinking, how come this shit isn’t happening the way y’all promised me it would happen if I did X, Y, and Z? And how come Black men are dying around me? And how do I talk about that to my son? And what kind of fear does that create for me as a father, knowing that he’s growing up in this space that I hope [would be] better for him and better for us? It became this bitter undertaking writing these poems. If this is my kingdom, then why am I not receiving the benefits and the abundance that are explicitly and implicitly promised?

How does this relate to the reoccurring command/invitation, “come!”? 

Initially the collection was titled “American Dream Kingdom” but I didn’t want to center the cliché “American Dream.” One of my dearest friends [writer] Kiese Laymon and I were chatting one day, and I’d recently been listening to Jay-Z’s album “Kingdom Come.” I was talking to Kiese about how much I like the album and how I saw parallels between what I was doing with “American Dream Kingdom” and what Hov is doing in “Kingdom Come.” I read “come” as a command there, too, “kingdom, come! Come on, my kingdom, come!” When I think of a kingdom, I don’t think of just one lonely person, I think of many kids, heirs, pets, family, long tables filled with food, laughter, all that fun. 

I said [to Laymon], “well, I can’t call my book ‘Kingdom Come.’ I can’t bite Hov.” And he was like, “you could flip it. It works both ways.” I got chills. And I said it for the first time, “Come Kingdom,” and the command in it sounded even more urgent than it did the other way around. It felt like a summoning, like a chant, almost like a spell.

I also noticed that many poems in Come Kingdom and Stripper in Wonderland are in conversation with other artists, including, in Come Kingdom, rappers Nas and the late Nipsey Hussle. What is the relationship between music and your poetry? 

Growing up, music was always being played in my household: Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, Marvin Gay, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield. More than poetry, music was my first experience of how to tell stories that allow us to understand our existence. Before I was reading poetry, I was thinking about language through music, and the ways in which assonance, emphasis, rhyme, and rhythm all work. 

In my teenage years, I became obsessed with hip hop. That was when I was introduced to Nas, Tupac, Lauryn Hill, Foxy Brown, and Jay-Z. I started rapping, and that’s when I became a poet.  One day in college, I walked into a poetry slam. That just seemed like home for me. And I found myself in a creative writing workshop as an elective. And so, you twin in the workshop experience with me hitting up an open mic, I’m learning the craft components for the first time in my life, and then I’m working with the stage. And there’s just a great tandem. 

I really resist the ways in which we compartmentalize art and oftentimes that’s due to how we can commodify the art, right? You can’t tell me Nas isn’t a poet, Nas is a damn poet! If you sit down and read his rhymes, he’s a poet! I think if we thought more about the ways in which our work connects to other genres, if we allowed all creative work to intersect more, I think we’d be better off.

It’s really easy and convenient for me to forget how important music’s been to the trajectory of my writing career. I was warned that academia will make you run from that part of your identity. That’s something I reject and resist. When it comes to writing, I know I’m still a rapper at heart.

Biblical references and themes interplay fluently within non-religious, quotidian, and, at times, illicit topics in your poems. How does religion influence your work?         

My grandfather on my mom’s side was Muslim, Nation of Islam. He opened the first and oldest mosque in Milwaukee and was friends with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. My father’s side of the family were Baptists. Growing up, I might be in the church one week, and then the mosque the next. 

My work grapples with the duality of being fascinated by my grandfather, who was very loyal, committed, and a humble servant of Allah, and by my father, who was committed to the night, you know what I’m saying. That duality of me finding wonder and value and curiosity in both; it could switch on the hour. One hour, I want to be just like my grandad and the next hour it’s like, no, I want to go to the bars and be like my dad. So, you find that conflict in my work where I want to be spiritual, but I also want to be with the lay people, with the secular blues community, and just doing what blues people do.

One last question. As you are this year’s judge for the Kay Murphy Prize in Poetry, what makes a poem stand out to you? What do you find in the poetry you love?

I’m drawn to work that’s sure of itself, with a clear, authentic voice created by the writer. I like juxtaposition, and I’m often drawn to how we can juxtapose very serious conversations with play. I believe a lot in play, that we can take on very serious things and also add levity to those conversations, because I think life should be joyful at the end of the day. 

I’m also drawn to work that subverts my expectations. Frost said “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” And I also believe he said “no surprise in the writer, and no surprise in the reader.” I look for work where the writer surprises me, possibly through surprising themselves.