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Culture Report: The Revenge of Poet and Playwright Dave Harris

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 [1].”

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 [2], and the Wagner New Play Festival [3] 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.”

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