The Reality of a Working Artist: Alysia Harris
Performance artist Alysia Harris is something else: incredibly wise, talented, passionate and has this mind-blowing (truly!) way with words both on and off stage. And that's just to start. My introduction to Alysia came 5 years ago (by way of a love for Zora Howard) with The Strivers Row and knocked me off my chair.
Since then, she has gone from strength to strength, touring the world and most recently, releasing chapbook, 'How Much We Must Have Looked Like Stars to Stars'.
Our conversation comes after Alysia's Stars to Stars UK tour, which we produced, with sell-out shows and workshops in Birmingham, Newcastle and London. We catch up about the journey and what it actually means to be a working artist.
AS: How would you describe the reality of being a working artist?
AH: Couldn’t do it without God. Seriously. Everyday I live from gig to gig, or, as I like to call it, from blessing to blessing. As an artist, I work as hard as I can to put out quality material for my audience, but I also know that there are other people out there working just as hard, or if I am honest, even harder. There are people who are more talented than me. So I know that there is no gig that I get because I deserve it. I know that I received a particular opportunity because it was ordained for me, specifically. God wanted me to go THERE to speak with THEM. And that is exhilarating because I feel in line with my purpose. However, it’s also very unnerving. Some months I make $18,000. Some months I make none. Sometimes I have a flood of publicity, and exciting opportunities. Other times my inbox is dry, nobody is buying my book, and I have no gig prospects for the next four weeks. It is very much feast or famine, at least in my experience. But I feel overwhelmed with gratitude, because day to day I rely on God to justify my efforts, to provide me with enough and to bless me in the stillness. I think if I didn’t have my faith though, I’d have to have a job that supplies me with a consistent income.
Where did your artistic journey begin?
When I was younger I was interested in so many different things. I danced, I sewed my own clothes, and of course, I wrote. As I got older however, I channeled all my creative energy into poems. I am actually at a place now where I feel less called to write poems and more called to facilitate, to upbuild young people with tools to excavate themselves and ask the tough questions in life. But I hope God will again lead me to return to the page with a new and ferocious singularity.
What about your environment do you draw ideas from?
I guess vessels: the weather, the landscape, the architecture. Things that hold energy, that determine the mood. Even during a rain storm, there is silence. The volume of the landscape suggests the negative. The permanence of the stone still expresses movement; it still conveys the passing of time. As I answer this question, I feel like I’m discovering that I am less interested in the thing itself, the concept, the object, and more interested in what is displaced by its presence. This is making me think a lot, and I definitely want to explore this idea more in my work now. But the question is, can I be interested in a room by writing about what is not in the room? Can the backdrop be the subject matter? I don't know but I'm curious now.
What has been your greatest challenge as an artist?
Pushing myself. It becomes really easy to stick with what works. In 2017, my goal is to fail in new ways. Try different forms, different genres, different styles of performance, edit my work away from my typical voice and tropes. If it fails, it fails but I want to push myself to innovate. If I can’t do that then I will cease to be an artist.
Are there any artists you’re interested in collaborating with?
Yes! Collaboration with other artists not only inspires me but it keeps me accountable. It keeps me reaching for the edge of myself, my limits as a creative. That is super important, especially in a field like spoken word, which is very democratic and can sometimes skew a bit populist. I want to make sure that I am surrounding myself with people who come to my art with deep questions-- people who don't just want to be entertained but who want to be challenged, who want to challenge me, and usually that is other artists. I am very interested in expanding what I am able to do as a poet and writer. I have been talking with Fraser Smith, an amazing producer and songwriter, who has worked with people like Adele, and Sam Smith, and Stormzy about trying my hand at songwriting. So I’d love to learn from him and work with him to adapt a poem to a song. I’d really love to collaborate with some poets again. I truly miss being a part of a collective, so definitely be excited to have the opportunity to make work with poets like Angel Nafis from the States and Siphokazi Jonas from South Africa. Her work in particular is stunning. She is one of the few performance poets who is an equally innovative writer and performer. She puts me to shame!
I am also interested in doing a few cross-medium collaborations. I would sell my blood to be able to collaborate with Fahamou Peccou, a Black painter and performance artist based out of Atlanta who does these larger than life paintings of Black men. Also Chris Antineau out of New Orleans. She makes thread paintings, where she creates these elaborates portraits by sewing and stitching thread and fabric. They are charged with a kind of spiritual and feral energy. I’d love to translate her paintings into poems or have her illustrate a number of poems. But I’m most excited about trying to create synestethic experiences where audiences can have multi-sensory experiences with poems. I’ll need a chef but what I dream about most these days is figuring out a way for people to taste words. I want to create a collective dining experience where people eat the same meal at the same time. The meal will be an interactive performance where the food would coordinate with the words so that people can literally taste the dawn or drink sorrow.
In terms of "big name" artists: Drake and Lacrae. I will always want to collaborate with JP Cooper. There is something so natural about creating with him. But of course, he’s super busy because he’s blowing up right now, and I couldn’t be happier for him.
What are your thoughts on artists thinking of themselves as entrepreneurs?
I flatter myself when I say that I am an artist-entrepreneur but I’m not. I think there are very few people who are blessed with the natural innate ability to do both without sacrificing the rigor of their artistic process/product or their professionalism and business tact. Artists are visionaries but they may not be good at carrying out the sequential steps necessary to realizing the goal of growing your brand, finding the right opportunities and capitalizing on them. Personally, I hate networking. I hate promoting myself. I hate posturing and branding. I like talking with people. I like doing what feels natural. I also like silence. I like taking time out to be still both socially and creatively. Entrepreneurs are always at work. Even their silence is carefully calculated. That drives me mad.
But at the same time, artists need to recognize that they are providing a service, that their craft is worth something. People don’t always treat artists with respect. They think that they are the ones doing us a favor, that we should be grateful that they want to use our art for something. I don’t have time for that. My art is valuable. I bring a valuable skill. Sometimes though, I am not the best person to communicate that to clients, venues, or potential partners. If you negotiate too hard, people think you are a bitch or a fraud or full of yourself, especially if you are a woman. But if you don’t advocate for yourself, people will take advantage. That’s why I think it is really important to have a manager or an agent, someone who can take care of the nasty details so your art still feels pure, untainted and generous. You don’t want the sharing and receiving of art to be transactional. But you do want to make sure your value is recognized by others.
How does your work translate when you travel around the world? Why do you think there is such resonance, in say South Africa or England?
Yo, my favorite experience so far has been in Jordan. I write my poems with young women of color in mind. I was in Jordan teaching workshops for Black History Month on behalf of the US Embassy and I had a reading at a local arts cafe. In the states or even in the UK, an arts cafe would have been filled with 20’s and 30’s something hipsters, and Afro-punks, or with young trendy corporate folk who want to seem edgier than they actually are. In Jordan, NAH! This cafe was filled with mostly Arab men, with an average age of probably 45-50. Most of the people were Arabic-dominate, and I was worried about how my poems would translate. But I got up to read anyway. My best friend translated one or two lines and the cafe resounded with “hilou” “jameela”, meaning "Sweetness", "Nice", "Beautiful". They all wanted copies of my book, and they wanted me to take copies of theirs. I read a few lines about my mother and some people wept. This was the power of poems, of vulnerability, of honesty. It didn’t matter that I was separated from my audience by age, culture, ethnicity, religion, gender, and language. What mattered was the commonality of our obsessions and our terrors. What mattered was the fragility of our hopes which we held in such breakable vessels. I blinked back tears because I was moved. And I had to repent. I had to repent of the belief that these people would be too different from me for me to connect with. I do not want to make judgments like that about my audience again.
What is the role of art in protest and resistance?
To fuck shit up. To heal shit thorough. I mean, we have been talking about this so much in relation to Trump, as I am sure y’all have in relation to Brexit. But really the mandate is the same as it's always been. The artist interrogates, prosecutes and prophesises. If we aren’t bringing our whole political and spiritual selves to our work, we are not sculpting a new earth. We just playing in the dirt.
What are you working on at the moment? Future plans?
I’m working on a project with a UK based artist and writer, Kamil Mahmood, to create an anthology of poems and illustrations focusing on the experiences of refugees and displaced persons. It is important to both of us that refugees be seen in the light of their full humanity, not as possible threats or sites for western pity. We want to give refugees from all over the world a place for them to represent themselves in art and verse. We hope to include different stories from less covered regions so that people realize that not all refugees come from one place and that not all of their stories are the same.
I’m also in the process of creating new work dealing with faith and violence. These will be most likely a collection of poems and essays.
Lastly, I’ll be in Europe this summer for the month of June. I’ll definitely be in Amsterdam, Berlin, and the Czech Republic. But I also hope to come back to the UK. And I hope to be able to put on a show or two and work with some of the great talent y’all have here.