On Thursday evening at the Musky Archives, Bates College welcomed the poet Francine J. Harris to campus. At 7:30pm, students came to listen to Harris read some of the works from her most recent book, Play Dead, that came out in 2016. Harris was introduced by Bates’s visiting poetry professor Myronn Hardy, who told the audience about his first time meeting Harris at an arts retreat. Professor Hardy spoke of how he had been captivated by Harris’ laughter and joy – even amidst the academic challenges of the retreat – and from that moment forward they had been friends.
Hearing Harris’ poetry was incredibly emotionally moving. Many of the poems that Harris read were about sexual trauma. Harris began with a poem about the darkside of a romantic relationship and the audience soon became aware of themes present within the poetry Harris shared: trauma, sexual relationships, and coming to terms with previous experiences. In the first poem the speaker talks of their relationship with someone that became violent and how the speaker struggles to be with their partner sexually and emotionally after that moment. After the readings, Harris spoke about her thoughts on the notions of post-traumatic stress disorder and how people deal with trauma.
Harris’ writing was fresh, gut wrenching at times, and incredibly inspiring. My personal favorite of the poems she shared was a poem Harris wrote to Cyntoia Brown, a woman who, at the age of 16, killed the man that had been selling her for sex. As a result, Brown was sentenced to life in prison. Harris chose to write to her through poetry because she believes that Cyntoia Brown is an example of what self defense looks like for a young girl who has been sold into sex trafficking. The poem was one of sixteen poems Harris wrote to Brown. She chose to write a series of poems to Brown to examine at Brown’s life from a different angle. “I just kept wanting to talk to her,” Harris said after the poetry reading. Each poem shows the momentum of Harris’ thoughts on Brown.
After Harris read her chosen poems, the audience was asked her questions about her work and writing process. Harris explained her writing style consists of listing poems and providing just enough evidence to convince the reader of her intentions and thoughts without oversharing. Harris described her inner monologue during the writing process as, “oh you don’t believe me yet? I’ll tell you some more.”
Francine J. Harris’ poetry reading was an amazing experience to be a part of. Listening to her poetry about sexual violence highlighted Harris’ overarching goal to understand trauma and how the mind and imagination work to get past moments of fear and sadness. Her writing exudes a humility and honesty that I had never before read or heard in poetry. Harris truly captures the uniqueness of each person’s experience coping with sexual trauma and highlights how the imagination is affected by traumatic events. I urge others to check out Play Dead and the rest of Harris’ poetry.