By Chad Dryden
At 24, Kent State University graduate Kelly Harris has achieved what many poets strive for their entire lives but never accomplish: a publishing credit. Like Walt Whitman and many others before her, she got there by doing it herself.
It is very hard to get published. Period, the Cleveland resident and writer/publisher of two books of poetry said. It doesnt matter how good you are.
Judging by the reviews, her debut, Native Tongue, is far from amateur fare. The 2001 release, which compiles Harris poems from high school through college, was chosen last year as Clevelands Best in Verse by the Cleveland Free Times.
Her work has appeared on television, in an ongoing KSU student production and, more recently, as part of Shaker Heights annual Martin Luther King Day celebration.
Last year, Harris was selected as an honoree of the Poets Writers League of Greater Clevelands annual literary showcase, Writers and Their Friends.
She was the only African American female honoree and the youngest writer chosen to date.
Her second collection of poetry, Sanctuary, was recently released to much acclaim. Like Native Tongue before it, the book explores poetics from the point of view of an African American woman; however, Harris sees Sanctuary as a more universal work than her first effort.
When I first started writing poetry it was based solely on the African American experience, she said. Many times African American artists, writers especially, get trapped in a type of culture obligation where they feel responsible for conveying the struggles and ideas of all African Americans. It was very hard for me at first to find my own voice distinct from other celebrated poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Amari Baraka. Native Tongue reflects me trying to find my voice in the world. Sanctuary reveals a mature writer who has defined her own world.
Harris the host of the Cleveland Classic Poetry Slam Open Mic Poetry Series said this is reflected in the audiences at her poetry readings, which were predominately African American to start.
As Harris began to grow as a writer, her audience grew with her.
I define myself as Kelly, who will never apologize for writing about African American issues but not (be) limited to that subject alone, she said. I want people to see themselves in the words I write.
The daughter and step-daughter of Eddie Harris and Toni Brown-Harris of Ravenna, she has been lauded for doing just that since her days at KSU, where she served as editor-in-chief for UHURU Magazine and organized a monthly poetry reading series that is still held today. Still connected to the university, she plans to attend Aprils reading if time allows.
I always love coming to Portage County and KSU, the 2000 graduate said. It is like a second home.
The months ahead certainly look to be a busy ones for Harris. In addition to running her up-and-coming publishing company, she plans to record her first spoken word album later this spring.
She also is a finalist for the 2003 Cleveland Poetry SLAM team. If selected, she will represent Ohio with three other poets at a Chicago competition.
As for the distant future, she hopes to one day give back to the literary community that has given her so much.
I definitely want to help other writers get established, she said. One of the requirements of success is that you help someone else. I wouldnt mind going from the stage to the classroom. Perhaps someday I will return to KSU as a teacher.