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College of Liberal Arts
University of Mississippi

THE DM: Book of Poetry Celebrates What It Means to Be Black

FEBRUARY 22, 2017  |  By Jacqueline Knirnschild for The Daily Mississippian

Derrick Harriell, assistant professor of English and African American Studies, speaks at the Oxford Conference for the Book.

Derrick Harriell, assistant professor of English and African American Studies, speaks at the Oxford Conference for the Book.

Stripper in Wonderland, Derrick Harriell’s third poetry collection, celebrates what it means to be black, with autobiographical details set in a whimsical wonderland.

Harriell, an assistant professor of English and African American Studies and director of the English Master of Fine Arts program, will be reading from the book from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday during Thacker Mountain Radio.

Stripper in Wonderland (LSU Press, 2017) is his most autobiographical work yet, as it portrays a period in Harriell’s life that he’s never written about before–his 20s, when he was living in Atlanta as a graduate student.

Harriell said he was invested in graduate school, especially in research, so he didn’t have much time to write about that period of his life. He was really close friends with an NBA player who gave him opportunities he wouldn’t have had on his own.

“I’m living off $20 a week, and any day he’d fly me out to Vegas on his dime, and we’ll end up in strip clubs and fancy dinners. None of this I can afford,” Harriell said. “Like, if he got a stomachache and had to leave, I’d probably go to jail because I can’t afford this tab.”

Stripper in Wonderland explores his experience and perspective on the “normalization of strip clubs.”

“It sort of investigates that space in the early to mid-2000s where strip clubs became vogue,” Harriell said.

A space normally considered taboo had become “more of a social space,” he said. In Harriell’s 20s, he started hearing songs about strippers and music videos with strippers, which transformed the strip club into a cultural movement.

Wonderland book coverThe book doesn’t only get its title from its portrayal of strippers but also from Harriell’s desire for his poetry to strip down and strip away various shells, guards and barriers, especially those of the speaker.

His vision for the collection was not only to expose the speaker’s eye but to also create a wonderland component.

“I wanted to create a sort of mystical, mythical, whimsical world,” Harriell said. “The speaker in the poems is speaking from the past, present and imagined future, but they’re all connected.”

Growing up in the ’90s in Milwaukee, he was first drawn to hip-hop and the poetry of emcees because their stories spoke to his experiences growing up in a “binary existence.”

Harriell said he lived in a “common inner-city neighborhood” but in fourth grade began going to a suburban school with only 2 or 3 percent black people, which raised many questions for him. His assumption, coming from a more violent, middle- to low-class community, was that they were all rich.

“I just assumed because (the community) was white, and I didn’t see the same kind of violence,” Harriell said.

He was one of the first in his family to go to college, so there was pressure to pursue a career that would make a lot of money and make a name for his family. Slam poetry, however, was what really sparked Harriell’s passion for writing and poetry.

“Rappers like Tupac and Black Thought from The Roots were really the first poets to spark my interest in writing,” he said. “So I first started writing raps. I saw the way these young people were expressing themselves. I saw the way they were using art as a platform to say something about social justice.”

After his first open mic, Harriell said he knew that’s what he wanted to do.

Since that decision, Harriell’s work has appeared in literary journals and anthologies and three collections of poetry.

“I look at books as individual projects,” Harriell said. “A goal of mine is to make sure that each project has its own identity, own thumbprint and own social security number.”

Harriell said some aesthetic aspects are at the core of his writing, but he still tries to “alter and evolve with each project.”

With Stripper in Wonderland, Harriell wanted to explore the musicality of language and create a more sonically driven work.

The book is also very invested in funk culture and the black vernacular.

“Such a style is weird because writers normally like to ‘preach consistency,’ but the language in Stripper in Wonderland is not consistent at all,” Harriell said.

Harriell wanted to write a book using everyday language rather than academic or poetic language.

“One minute we could be talking about high art, and the next minute we could be talking about Future’s new hip-hop album,” Harriell said. “It’s really attempting to celebrate, unapologetically, blackness and black art.”