Q&A with Michele Harris, a bisexual poet from Western PA about her newest book and her decision to change venues in response to allegations of sexual misconduct by a coffeehouse owner

Michele Harris Poet
Photo courtesy of Michele Harris

A local, queer female-owned bookstore Rickert & Beagle is hosting an upcoming reading on August 16 featuring Western PA native poet, Michele Harris. Harris was originally scheduled to read at Biddle’s Escape in Regent Square, but after learning about allegations of sexual misconduct by the owner, she cancelled in solidarity with the survivors. Rickert & Beagle stepped in to host her reading.

I reached out to Michele because I thought it was important that she took this step to stand in solidarity with the survivors of Biddle’s Escape. I also was excited that she’s supporting a queer owned space as part of her response. And I am quite intrigued by her latest book, Blackdamp. It resonates with my own experiences exploring my family’s history in Western Pennsylvania.

To be a good and honest writer—and person—I think you need to be cognizant of your own privilege.

Your Name:  Michele Harris
Your Age: 33
Your Pronouns: She/her/hers

How do you describe your identity?  Bisexual. Gender plays a role in attraction for me, but I’m attracted to people of all genders.

Please tell us about your very first impression of Pittsburgh: I grew up an hour north of Pittsburgh didn’t often make it into the city.  I relished anytime I got to visit: the museums, the libraries, the musicals, Phipps Conservatory were all attractions that suggested the world was a bigger, lovelier place than what I knew from my small town.  I’ve never stopped being a city person since.

Growing up in rural Western PA could be a stifling experience.  I never felt like I belonged.  I didn’t even fit in with the other people who didn’t belong.

What Pittsburgh creators – writers, musicians, poets, etc – have influenced your work? Is there anyone with whom you’d like to collaborate? I loved Jennifer Haigh’s Baker Towers and would strongly recommend that novel for anyone interested in Western PA literature.  David McCullough’s work has informed some pieces in Blackdamp on the Johnstown Flood.  I also enjoy the poetry of WD Snodgrass, Lucie Brock-Broido, and Beth Gylys.

Please tell us about the first LGBTQ person that you knew and what impact they had on your life. The first LGBTQ person I knew came out shortly before my choir’s trip to Disney World.   I was in eighth or ninth grade. I remember the crushing heat of Florida, even in December, and escaping to the swimming pool, where his friends kept talking—cryptically—about this big news of his.  I hadn’t heard.  He was surprised.  He said I must be the only one in the school.  I sensed discomfort and didn’t push him to tell me.  Only months later did I realize he’d come out as gay.   He was a kind, genuine, and funny person.   He was very tall—I think there was some safety in that.  The bullies generally left him alone.

You were scheduled for a reading at a local Pittsburgh coffeehouse, but you cancelled and moved the reading to another venue. Why the change? Two weeks before my planned reading, an article came out in NPR about the coffeehouse in question, revealing that a number of employees had come forward alleging that the owner had harassed them, made unwanted sexual advances, and retaliated against them when they expressed concerns.  I was so excited to read at this cafe, but I knew I’d no longer feel right about doing so, or supporting their business.  Rickert & Beagle Books was so kind to offer to serve as a new host for my reading, and I’m thrilled to have such a wonderful venue.

How does intersectionality inform your writing? Intersectionality is essential because none of us exists in a vacuum.  Other bisexual people may have similar struggles as I do, but their experiences are also impacted by their gender, race, whether or not they’re cis, economic status, and much more.  To be a good and honest writer—and person—I think you need to be cognizant of your own privilege.

Your latest book Blackdamp has quite an evocative title – it feels absolutely right for poetry about growing up in Western Pennsylvania. Please tell us about the title and the book itself. Blackdamp aims to resuscitate the memory of a place where woods have grown over whole towns, where a flood struck so deadly it brought on fire, and where flowers grow Bunsen-blue among the jagger bushes.  The word itself refers to the collection of unbreathable gasses that chokes all the oxygen in a mine.  My book includes poems on mining disasters, but the title also works metaphorically.  Growing up in rural Western PA could be a stifling experience.  I never felt like I belonged.   I didn’t even fit in with the other people who didn’t belong.

How does queer poetry offer a path forward for the LGBTQ community? It is a way to light candles in the darkness.  To let other people know that you’re there, and help them find their own way forward.

What is your love poem for LGBTQ youth? A Poem for Pulse by Jameson Fitzpatrick

Who are some of the younger openly LGBTQ poets that our readers should be reading, but might not know about? Ocean Vuong, Trace Peterson, and Jameson Fitzpatrick

Where can readers find you on social media? I’m on Facebook, and my twitter handle is @cerulae.  You can find me online at michelewritespoetry.com.  And if you’re in Pittsburgh, I’d love to see you at my August 16 reading at Rickert & Beagle Books at 6pm!

Thank you, Michele.

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