Alysia Harris ‘06
The Gift of Language
By Chumani Chamberlain '21
June 2019 Profile Issue
With a relaxed body posture, Alysia Harris is a breath of fresh air who sees the benefits of failure and finds treasure in the simplest things the world has to offer while staying true to her core beliefs. She explained the beauty she sees in language as “looking at beyond what it can do, how it functions as a tool to serve our purposes, in terms of not just efficient communication, but how language actually becomes a way for us to explore the world around us, and explore ourselves.”
Alysia began her journey as a poet with Shakespeare and Upper School English Teacher Mary Fawcett. “Ms. Fawcett exposed me to many variations of writing and poetry,“ Alysia said. “she always encouraged me to keep writing.”
In February she was excited to return to St. Stephen's and St. Agnes as the Poet-in-Residence for the 28th Poetry Week for sophomores. She spent the week working with tenth grade English classes, guiding them through a hands-on workshop. One exercise required students to take lines from their favorite songs and use them as guidance to convey their thoughts. Alysia wrote five suggested lines on the board. She then asked the students to use a song lyric as the first line and write continuously for two minutes. She was adamant that the students could not stop writing during any point of the two minutes. When the two minutes were up, she told them to write the next line from a song and keep going for two more minutes. This process continued one more time.
After the exercise, one student stood and read, “If life is like a movie, then you're the best part. I'm just a traveler, watching you every week, sitting on a plane, admiring you. Traveling across the world with you was my goal. When I watch, I don't notice anything. You take my breath away. I can't keep track of the amount of times I wished my movie was as good as yours. I could never look away. I don't know how to explain it, but your movie is perfect.”
Alysia’s use of language exemplifies its complexities. Her rich vocabulary brings to life the emotions of her audience, as well as her own, which in turn, creates a ripple effect of vulnerability for her community of listeners.
Another student shared this piece of writing: “I'm just a traveler on a long trip. I'm just a traveler, wandering around not knowing where I will go next. I'm just a traveler with no boundaries, no end, and no restrictions. I've traveled to high places and low places far and wide. If you wander and explore and dream of traveling to greater places to make my world complete. You travel to see the beauty this world has to offer, to gain knowledge and experience because you're just a traveler on the road. Just a traveler.”
Alysia responded, “That was awesome! I like the refrain. What's a refrain? Something that you repeat.”
Being in her workshop allowed me and my other classmates to experience what it takes to dig into your own mind and express your emotions more specifically. At the beginning of the workshop, she asked the entire class: “So how many of you guys read for fun?” About half of the class raised their hands. She engaged a student who did not in the following conversation:
“Okay, and why don't you read for fun?”
“There's no reason,” the student stated.
Alysia questioned, “Why?”
“Because it's boring,” the student responded.
“Nope. Why?,” Alysia pushed.
“I don't like it,” the student stated.
“Why?,” Alysia questioned again.
“I don't know why,” the student said.
“Well, then that's not a very good reason, right? If you can't explain why you don't like something, then you probably don't really have a good reason for why you don't like it.”
Her goal in asking the question was to make the students “work [their] creative brains.” She explained, “There's more to life than just figuring out the correct answer. Some questions don't have correct answers. You have to experience things and you have to go through them. Language and poetry allows us, gives us tools, to really process and understand what we're going through, which might not have super easy, clear-cut answers to them.”
Alysia wrapped up her workshop for the sophomores with a reading of Joy Priest’s poem, “No Country for Black Boys,” which narrates the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman confrontation from both perspectives. “I hope that maybe I have helped you see that poetry is actually relevant,” she concluded. “That it can be about current events. It can be about feelings. It can also be about having fun and I hope you did have fun writing poetry. ”
For Alysia, the only path for her life was writing. “There's no other option,” Alysia said. “I feel like sometimes people decide on a calling or decide on a career. For me it was the moment I knew what a poem was and realized that's how I think, so why would I do anything different? The world will have to change if there's not a way in which I can make a living as a poet. I've been getting paid for poetry since I was 19.”
“I think poetry was a sort of therapy for me, journaling, kind of processing the majority of my life. After I finished my poetry degree and I was doing more formal academic work, it really changed the way that I thought, and it changed the way that I related to language, pretty radically. And so for two years, I didn't write creatively.”
Alysia has traveled nationally and internationally for the past five years performing her poetry. When asked how she differentiates between reading a poem and performing a poem, she dove into the importance of ensuring the audience understands what she is conveying. “As a performance poet, I have to make sure the audience gets what I'm saying, as I'm saying it...It has to be manageable. We talk about cognitive load, it has to be low enough that people can get it, without feeling exhausted by it.”
“But when you read a poem, or when you have something that's mostly in text form, you don't expect your audience to read it out loud,” she added. “I expect my audience to read my poems out loud to themselves, but I also expect them to be able to sit with the text that's in front of them and meditate on it, take more time with it, maybe go find some other sources, come back to it. And so I feel you have much more freedom, in terms of how much pressure you can put on the language and how much twisting of the syntax you can really do in your poem. Because the audience, if they're reading a poem, will work more for it, in general. If they're listening to it, maybe not so much.”
Within her performance work, Alysia also believes emotions should shine through her performances. “Vulnerability should be something that we can share with one another,” Alysia said. “And I think performance work actually allows us to do that.”
At the moment, Alysia said she is “just getting back into” poetry. “I would say that now I'm just trying to play with language, just trying to have fun with it,” she said. “I will read a poem that I like, and then I'll write it down by hand so that I can figure out what the author doing that I can steal, or pick up on, or manipulate in some kind of way.” Alysia’s focus within her poetry sticks with “themes that are consistent with hope, and reconciliation and living up to your values, and living up to your morals and spiritual integrity.”
Alysia spoke about working on her second collection. “The collection explores faith, from a Christian perspective, but for a secular audience. Because I think as a poet, I recognize that sometimes we rely, as religious folks, on stock phrases, that can, over time, lose their meaning. And so as a poet, I'm interested in reviving language in a way, to make it more alive.”
BIO: A successful poet, Alysia Nicole Harris describes herself as a performance artist, activist, and founding member of The Strivers Row poetry collective. Don't have to mention the website. Born in Fremont, California and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Alysia studied linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and earned her master’s in creative writing at NYU. Alysia is currently finishing her doctorate in linguistics at Yale. Her first chapbook, “How Much We Must Have Looked Like Stars to Stars,” won the 2015 New Women’s Voices Series Contest and is available on Amazon.com.