A poet speaks about her work, Detroit and how ‘Detroiters are not spoiled’
Find beauty where you can
Published: March 20, 2013
As for the language, it’s about contrast. For most of my life, I have been fascinated with image and contrast. I think that is also partly because of Detroit. My mother and father used to complain that when they drove past my high school, they thought it was so depressing because everyone was “dressed in all black.” That’s where that line in the later poem, “red in the mess,” comes from. They were always pushing me to try and stand out, to be different. Of course, that’s exactly the opposite of what a lot of kids want. I just wanted to disappear and hoped no one noticed. But I think the message resonated. Move around to some of these “nicer” cities, and you realize people fit in, in almost the opposite way. Everything has to be bright and clean and orderly. What stands out anywhere is the contrast and that’s often beautiful. And then sometimes the contrast is in finding something beautiful that isn’t seen that way — wild pit bulls, Styrofoam in the street. The eye wants to find beauty where it can. I think that’s what the poem is about.
MT: How has moving away from Detroit changed the way that you look at and see and ultimately write about Detroit?
Harris: I left Detroit when I was seventeen, and my view on reality shifted drastically. I moved to Arizona. I’ve lived in Chicago, the Northwest, New York. So I’ve lived in cities that people see as some kind of cultural mecca, and I’ve lived in deserts — literally and culturally. It made me realize how limited my scope had been. I think there’s a part of my brain that didn’t understand that anything existed outside the one-mile radius of my childhood home. I was poor, so we didn’t travel any fucking place except once I went to Ohio on a Greyhound for a wedding we didn’t even make it to on time, so that sucked. There’s this weird thing about the brain. Everything is matted square in a magazine, or black and white footage, or old film reel in your head until you’re there. Those people don’t really exist until they are part of your living life. It can’t be any different with the Internet. It’s still not experience. That’s why I tell any kid debating whether or not to go to Wayne State or take that out-of-state scholarship, to go. Get the fuck out. Come back if you want. But let kids in Missouri come to Wayne State. Or upstate New York. (They really need to come, so they can meet some black people to care about). But man, just go get some alternative perspective. I can’t quantify how it changed things. It changed everything. Completely.
Francine J. Harris reads at 8 p.m. Friday, March 29, at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, as part of the Friday Night Live! at the DIA.
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