Culture Report: The Revenge of Poet and Playwright Dave Harris - Voice of San Diego

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Culture Report: The Revenge of Poet and Playwright Dave Harris

UCSD MFA student Dave Harris writes about revenge, racism and his father in a new book of poetry.

Dave Harris
Poet and playwright Dave Harris at UCSD / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

What does it mean to want revenge? That’s what poet, playwright and theater MFA student Dave Harris asks in his new book of poetry, “Patricide.”

The book’s four sections, “Forefather,” “Father,” “Son” and “Patricide” move incrementally toward a point of revenge, but the closer to the target, the more the West Philly-raised Harris realized that this was not a story about any particular enemy. “‘Patricide’ is about what’s at the end of that journey, and what’s at the end of that journey is always just gonna be me,” Harris said.

Harris is making a splash for himself not just in publishing, but in theater circles nationwide. His play, “Everybody Black,” was recently honored at the impressive Humana Festival, and the Wagner New Play Festival will host a reading of his new play, “Incendiary” this Friday at UCSD, just three days after the release of his debut book.

Patricide Dave Harris
“Patricide” by Dave Harris / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

To Harris, writing poetry and writing plays are different ways of approaching an integral relationship with an audience. The poems in “Patricide” are as much about the way narrator and audience interact with language and truth as they are about revenge, race and a troubled relationship between a father and son. But ultimately the narrator turns inward for answers.

“The thing I found really fascinating about revenge narratives is that the person who you want to get revenge against is often the least interesting person in the story,” Harris said, citing Bill in “Kill Bill.” “If there’s an obsession with revenge, that’s my obsession. Nobody’s making me do that. If I keep writing about racism, nobody’s making me do that. There’s a lot of reason to feed into that. There’s capitalism. There’s the social currency of blackness.”

In the poem “TO THE EXTENT X BODY INCLUDING ITS FISTS CONSTITUTE ‘WEAPONS,’” Harris explores this social currency. He borrows the title and first line verbatim from court documents detailing Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s list of admissions after he fatally shot Michael Brown:

The word weapon is
vague. All bodies weapon.
Some bodies weapon louder
than others. Example: to find
freedom you cross the street
when you see me.

Much of the way Harris tackles race has evolved since he first discovered his ability to “be loud” about it. The target of his work was often white institutions and racism, and in writing about these things, Harris realized that he had the power to write toward something that’s expected or planned, or to write away from it.

In “Patricide” lies a powerful introspection that engages not just with his own interiority, but in constantly reckoning with the idea of audience, he implicates the audience again.

“I started from a place of I’m angry at white people, I’m gonna tell you that I’m angry so that you change,” he said. “That stopped being interesting to me. So then it became I’m gonna rebuke whiteness by writing away from it and writing into something that’s ostensibly personal, but then I was like, wait, no I’m still responding. I’m still giving up my agency over the page.”

Harris wraps similar words about his obsession with his father.

“I have the agency to write about anything in the world and I’m always coming back to racism. I’m always coming back to my relationship with my father,” Harris said. “And at a certain point I had to reckon with the fact that I was choosing that.”

As the book and his quest to understand his father unravels, Harris chases both a tenderness and a violence. The book is often humorous and riddled with elements of pop culture and horror. At its heart, “Patricide” is a story of a boy abandoned by a father for decades. The poem “My father’s hands” is explicitly nostalgic, a little sad and sweet, in which his father massaged his infant cone-shaped head after a vacuum birth. Through the middle sections of the book, Harris explores co-existing with his mother and his family, the community, with academics and with white people. He explores love and intimacy, and in this way, the poems disarm. Harris disarms.

Violence, though, is never far from Harris in this book. The terror-riddled final section, also named “Patricide,” is actually eight final poems, each named “Patricide,” that invite an audience in to the idea of the narrator literally walking in on his father’s new life, his father’s bedroom, and smashing his head with a hammer (“Common, / hard, the type used to build / a home.”).

Harris said that it explores the fundamental act of questioning why: “Nothing was done to me to make me be this way. I’m choosing to be this way which I think is kind of like a source of power but also a source of reckoning.”

Into the Woods, a WOW Preview and More News for the Culture Crowd

  • Artist-in-residence Bruno Silva continues his Wednesday lecture series at Porto Vista Hotel in Little Italy. This week’s topic: “Apparatus.”
  • FilmOut San Diego hosts LBGTQ ShortFest at Landmark Hillcrest on Wednesday, with a screening of 20 (!) shorts.
  • Dorrance Dance takes the stage at UCSD’s Mandell Weiss theater on Wednesday evening. The project, “ETM: Double Down,” features dance and instrumental exploration of analog and digital sounds.
Dorrance Dance
Dorrance Dance presents “ETM: Double Down” at UCSD. / Photo by Thomas Bowles
  • On Friday, in collaboration with several local arts organizations, Hoover High School students present their photography, film, theater, dance and musical works at their “Life in the Heights” showcase. (Hoover Cardinal)
  • Do you have old family snapshots that include historical local places, events or people of interest? The San Diego History Center hosts two “public scanning days” this Friday and Saturday.
  • All day and night Saturday in their woodsy Felicita Park space, A Ship in the Woods’ Music Residency Benefit features live performances from a bunch of innovative San Diego projects, ranging from crowd pleasers Baby Bushka to experimental noise artists, plus a Corona + Grize exhibition, “Dither.” Eh, tiptoeing through a dreamlike art-dotted wilderness beneath a twinkling sky sounds OK I guess.
  • SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organisation) announced its 2019 People in Preservation Awards, and at the end of the month will formally recognize 11 individuals for their work protecting architectural, cultural and historical landmarks, artifacts and stories, including a handful of Girl Scouts who spent over 300 hours restoring Lemon Grove’s historic stucco neighborhood pillars at Cuyamaca Avenue.
  • Speaking of history and houses: the 21st annual Old House Fair kicks off in South Park on Saturday. Don’t miss the vintage cocktail party at Kindred that afternoon, co-hosted by Bad Madge. I guarantee you’ll see some tweed and suspender outfits.
  • The La Jolla Playhouse just announced the program for its 2019 Without Walls (Wow) Festival, featuring a wide variety of globally-renowned works, including several with local ties, like San Diego Dance Theater’s “Senior Prom.” The festival runs Oct. 17-20.
Without Walls Festival Senior Prom
Featuring at this fall’s WOW Festival is “Senior Prom,” by San Diego Dance Theater. / Photo by Manuel Rotenberg

Food, Etc.

Annie's Canyon
Annie’s Canyon / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans

What’s Inspiring Me Right Now

Eames puzzle toy mingei
An Eames puzzle toy at the Mingei Crafting Opportunity Exhibition / Photo by Julia Dixon Evans
  • San Diego writer Karen Stefano’s memoir, “What a Body Remembers,” comes out in June. In literary Twitter circles we call this a galley brag: I am holding an advance copy in my very hands. The dedication: “For my assailant.”
  • Becca Schuh (erstwhile San Diegan!) reviewed a collection of short stories by Kristen Roupenian, the author of the recently polarizing New Yorker short story, “Cat Person.” In the process, Schuh reviews … the reviews of it and review culture in general. “After reading 20 or so reviews of the book, and countless tweets, my brain began to feel like it was oozing out of a sieve.” (LA Review of Books)
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