Prac Crit

The City Admits no Wrongdoing

by Harmony Holiday

Interview

by Natalya Anderson

Harmony Holiday does not stand on her mark. She is a dancer, choreographer and poet, and while she craves the discipline of these artistic kingdoms, she is not so much put off by their most archaic structures as indifferent to them. As the daughter of celebrated musician Jimmy Holiday, she does hold father-figures of jazz, dance and poetry near, as if – whenever she feels it suits the tone of her work – she could pour them a drink and have them reveal their secrets. But that’s as far as Harmony lets old worlds dictate how she tells stories. Read a few of her poems and you feel how much she lets history play through her heart, through her stance on reality. There are saxophones, sometimes trumpets, yes, but more often you feel Harmony has invented new instruments, and their combined sound is constantly rearranging itself on the pages, flowing, slowly warming like bourbon in the hand. It’s as if Harmony’s refutation of industry rules is necessary for her writing to lovingly honour and challenge what her family, and generations of African American families before them, have endured.

Her collections of poetry – Negro League Baseball (winner of the Fence Books Motherwell Prize, 2011), Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues (Ricochet Editions, 2014), and the forthcoming Hollywood Forever (Fence Books) – convey deep knowledge of music, dance and African American history. Harmony has lived in Iowa, New York and California, where she’s taught dance for the late, legendary Alvin Ailey’s youth program. She was educated at the University of California, Berkeley and at Columbia University, and she’s currently working on a book of choreographic notes based on the collaborative projects of Alvin Ailey and Charlie Mingus, which she will also perform.

I call Harmony at her home in Los Angeles during a fleeting break between her teaching schedule and her dance class at one of the great choreographer Debbie Allen’s training centres. She is flying through the door after a hellish day of administration at the end of term, but she’s not the least bit out of breath. What follows is a fascinating look into Harmony’s richly musical upbringing and a discussion of how dance training is inextricably linked to her writing. We focus on a poem from Hollywood Forever, which will be released this summer. In ‘The City Admits no Wrongdoing’, the story appears to be about the tragic saga of an abused music icon, but the depth and meaning of the poem is all in the rhythm of Harmony’s approach to racism and violence. She says the strength of meaningful poetry is in the firmness of the writer’s feet, and how seamlessly they can launch at hateful, bigoted words. With that first leap, she explains, the poet and the poem can unfurl anywhere.

NA

Tell me about your early years, from the music of your father, Jimmy Holiday, to your finding dance and poetry.

HH

I grew up with my dad until I was five, in Iowa. He had had a big recording career in in LA, lived in Beverly Hills, done that whole thing, and then he had kind of a nervous breakdown and that drove him crazy. He moved to Iowa where his mother was living at the time, then met my mother and they had me. Then he passed away. After that we moved to San Diego where my grandparents lived and then eventually to LA. My mom put me in a dance school here that was black-run, sort of like the Alvin Ailey school of the west. Debbie Allen taught there. The discipline there was similar to Ailey. You’re not playing. You may be five years old, but it’s not about cute butterfly ballet. You were strictly trained. That was just how I grew up. I grew up dancing. I thought I was going to be a professional dancer, but this whole thing of having a mind came into play. You really sacrifice everything. I would be on the playground, so confused with cultural references. Kids would be bumping Paula Abdul, and I was, like, ‘Why are you not pursuing excellence?’

NA

I hear you. I understand that culture of dance in the way it’s bred into you. Chronic knee injuries ended my professional ballet career, but I could never shake the ballet world even as I moved into writing. How, for you, was that exchange between academia, poetry, and then back to ballet?

HH

As you know, ballet haunts you in a way poetry doesn’t. You can’t explain to a boyfriend or girlfriend why you’re up doing pirouettes in the living room at midnight… It’s this alienating thing that you can mask. It was around high school that I started pursuing the college path. I don’t know why I made the switch because as of now, especially in the past year, I’m realizing I have to be back in dance in some sort of serious way with my writing. More and more, I’m looking for ways of making those things coexist. For real, not in some theoretical way.

NA

Linking fine art and the discipline of it into the shape of what you write.

HH

Exactly. And also linking dancing to my readings, pushing that boundary without being kitschy or corny. Poetry does link to dance just with the use of the body in writing. I think a lot of the problem I’ve noticed recently is that there’s a lot of disembodied, hyper-clever, theoretical poetry coming out. Social media might be doing some of that. I think dance is a grounding way to stay out of that so dance and poetry can push against each other and enforce each other’s integrity as disciplines.

NA

Resistance. With dance, resistance can help you appear lighter to the audience. You press into the ground while elongating. The lower body kneads into the stage so that the upper body can express lyricism. In poetry, what you don’t say is almost an immediate relationship to how you pull up out of your spine to elongate, while also pressing deeply into the floor. How you launch off of that and the weight of your body communicate the steps, in the way that restraint in poetry is communicative.

HH

Yes. I find using my core, earth strength, is how I launch into these prose, devil-may-care forms that other people might not use. I will never be one to use form in the ways that some poets do, because of my dance background. The body should move, and the poem should move like the body. The body doesn’t move in couplets, for me.

NA

In your poem, ‘The City Admits no Wrongdoing’, you ground yourself in someone else’s story. It’s very audible, but also very visual. You’re clearly talking about music – naming it through Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Judy Garland – but also avoiding movement in a conventional way. You’re resisting an industry’s expectation. In dance and in poetry we are shaped by industry rules. We have those old father figures who still tell us how to move. With this poem, you’re released there on stage and you’re basically doing whatever you want.

HH

As you know from growing up in dance, in training, once your body reaches a certain strength level, you just trust it to do what it’s supposed to do. You have it in your muscle memory, and you’re not worried about your body giving out on you. You train so those worries can vanish. You can focus on making something beautiful and not just programmatic. That’s where you bring in the subtle aspects. You can go on stage and get all the noise out of your head and just interpret. This poem, ‘The City Admits no Wrongdoing’, is definitely an interpretation. The improvised subtlety in it – one of the most important parts for me in it – is leaping right into this word, ‘honkey’, and the origin of it and the anemology of it, and concealing it within all this other stuff.

It’s a love story about jazz. Imagine yourself as this young girl from the south being put on a train. You become that girl, you become that dancer where you have to make the world a stage because what the hell are you going to do? That was Billie Holiday’s story. She got put on a train with some chickens, let off in New York, and she had an address. So, going to something that is a narrative about a person’s life, to being able to introduce a central theme that is a narrative about the larger race relations in the United States was the dance of this poem. The back and forth between this woman Billie Holiday and what she represents – what a lot of women in Harlem were having to do at the time, and it was just this casual thing. In writing a poem, when things are introduced effortlessly, similarly to dance, they’re able to carry more weight because they’re introduced seeming effortless. The idea that you can then swerve casually into, okay, then she became a prostitute – not blaming, just saying that this is what happened next – is the same way dance tells stories. It’s jarring, but it’s still beautiful. That’s the highest aesthetic I hold for my writing – to be able to take words like ‘honkey’ or ‘nigga’ and say they can be merged with something beautiful.

NA

Tell me about how your form facilitates this merger, because it’s very much yours.

HH

It’s just what comes naturally. I’m not drawn to traditional line breaks. More and more I’m drawn to spaces between words, and even spaces between letters. I’ve always thought it was pretty arbitrary the way that we’re taught to make poems look like poems. I think that poems should sound like poems and behave like poems and think like poems. The whole ‘looking’ part… Some people just do the look, and there’s no rhythm: ‘You know, I’m just going to break this shit into couplets.’ I’m not down with that. My work is pointing out to me that rhythm is what matters. Even tone. I want to focus on people hearing tone. The first thing that comes up in a workshop with other students being trained is ‘Okay, so what form is this then?’ That’s before you look at what tone, what colour, you know? So looking at it more like music, you want people to hear it and feel some way and not really know why or justify it.

NA

Going back to the feelings your poem evokes, when you think of the story of Billie and of the women she represents, and when you think of what any child who goes through a load of horrible shit at a young age can survive, you see where they search for a discipline. Again it’s that resistance. The world of opposites. When you find this channel through which you can purge, you ask the fine art to take over some really grotesque things and make it into something negotiable. Artists inevitably link elbows – musician, dancer, writer, poet. Alvin Ailey used everything in his work – African American history, gospel, blues, jazz, ballet, modern dance. Everything.

HH

Oh yeah.  Before free market capitalism and having to specify who you are in the world as a commodity, the arts were always meant to coalesce. There was a time when artistic talent meant you did it all. Look at someone like Amiri Baraka. The African American tradition is to not differentiate. More and more you’re seeing people who revel in the differentiation because it gives them a career and a stature. That’s something I’m deeply in resistance to. Ailey had this term he taught his dancers – blood memory. That’s where he choreographed from. Now they’re finding, in scientific research, something called epigenetics. You actually inherit memory. So, when you mention my father being a writer, a singer, putting on all his different hats – and he grew up on a farm sharecropping, which was basically reinvented slavery – he is writing about black people coming from a different continent, from a different set of values. We were never connected to this type of society. This is not the type of society that black imagination would have built. This is a society that white colonists built. In Africa, people are naked, dancing. Dancing is the highest level of praise. You have harvest dances before you take your food and you eat it. Life is happening on different terms. In this context, it’s the only way to decolonize – to earn a living doing things that make you more whole. Today, Bill T. Jones is a choreographer I want to mention who’s merging language and dance beautifully.

NA

Relating this to ‘The City Admits no Wrongdoing’, I was thinking today about a young white dancer I saw with a ballet company here many moons ago who danced a piece to Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child. The piece was gorgeous and intense for me as a dancer and a viewer, but it completely hit me as a disturbing pairing of Billie’s history and the young, white, privileged dancer. Today, I remembered the piece when I read the lines in your poem, ‘And cook her dope into the chicken. God / Bless the Child. The white actress Judy Garland was sent back to the country to ween off of heroin around the same time Billie / Holiday was hospitalized, handcuffed to the bed,  with no friends allowed to visit and her last five dollars strapped to her garter, and / no candies.’

HH

There was a famous chief of narcotics in the FBI at the time who was hyper-racist. He hired a black spy to go into Harlem and befriend Billie Holiday to catch her doing heroin. That man ended up falling in love with her, but also ended up catching her so she got arrested. Around the same time Judy Garland was also addicted to heroin, and, you know, she went off to rehab.

NA

During the dance boom of the 1960s and 70s, artists from different countries with unbelievably hard upbringings helped each other. You had Tanaquil Le Clercq, who, at the height of her fame was stricken down by polio, so she went to Harlem to teach ballet from her wheelchair rather than just disappearing. Then there was Alicia Alonso, blind from the age of 19 at a time when doctors were still performing lobotomies on young women, and she went on to a celebrated ballet career and, oh yeah, just happened to found and run the Cuban National Ballet. She brought Cuban ballet dancers to the world’s attention in 1960, of all years. And she was completely blind! She danced for 50 years just by memory and a tiny spec of peripheral light from the stage! There are countless stories like this where artists from various cultural backgrounds and hardships – Arthur Mitchell, Judith Jamison, Loretta Abbott, Choo Chiat Goh and Lin Yee Goh, Fernando Bujones, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Gelsey Kirkland – just wanted to help each other and coexist and perform. Do you think Billie Holiday would have had a chance to survive if it had just been a decade later?

HH

Would she have survived? Maybe. I don’t know if poets are as harrowing; sometimes they can be. I think that’s where a dancer’s spirit helps out. Because society looks down on poetry. The western world belittles it. There’s not as much room to be that megalomaniac, or that kind of hero, or even antihero. You’re taught to mechanize. Poetry is being taught in this way professionally now, which is not creating as many individuals. Thinking about artists from Ailey to everyone you just named from the ballet community, they were all individuals with their own personal stories. Poets aren’t being trained as much as individuals. That goes into how important it is to bring your own story and artistic craft into your poetry. If you don’t bring that, then what are you bringing? That’s why poetry is in crisis in a way. We had people like Hart Crane, O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and the mythological creatures that were really out there, living life. It’s becoming too manicured. More poets need to get out of their asses. What happened to all the crazy poets?

The City Admits no Wrongdoing

by Harmony Holiday

Somebody put a golden girlchild on a southern railway in the 1920s, with a satchel of chicken. Picnic for one. Northward  toward a better life. Billie Holiday loved somebody who put her on a railway with a satchel of chicken. When the food ran out, they called them honkeys. The white men who drove up to harlem in fancy lawn vehicles and honked outside of the houses of the goldenchild, praying for sex and no wrongdoing. O’hara loved you. Orson Wells loved you. Miles loved you. You are loved. I love you, too, What is a heroin addiction, really? What does it indicate? What is the difference between a honkey and rapist? Can she live. Can the stage be riddens enough, the begged for bruises, the softly-spoken desire for a frozen pit bull and a club of her own, northern promise enough to make trouble up. Poised suffering. All she had to do was sing, one man wrote. And cook her dope into the chicken. God Bless the Child. The white actress Judy Garland was sent back to the country to wean off of heroin around the same time Billie Holiday was hospitalized, handcuffed to the bed,  with no friends allowed to visit and her last five dollars strapped to her garter, and no candies. She loved candies. We need sugar. We run on sugar. Melanin is carbon. Carbon is sugar. Billie is shook, hurry, you love her. You worship the one you’ve broken. You still cook the fur off, chicken. Sugar, I call my baby my sugar, I never maybe my sugar, that sugar baby of mine. Funny, he never asks for my money…  Put on these amber glasses and all the light ain’t blue.

First published on the poet's blog Nonstophome, 2016. Reproduced with permission of the author.