Poet Jen Harris

When I first walked into Broadway Café, I knew Jen immediately by her bright pink hair. From the moment I sat down at the table, the conversation between the two of us flowed so naturally it felt like I was chatting with a friend I've known for years. She is honest and speaks with purpose and you find yourself captivated by whatever topic she is covering. Honestly, I was lost in conversation with her and time seemed to fly by. She gave me a copy of her book, Slammed, and it is already becoming worn from frequent page-turning.

As a person, Jen is a pleasure to be around. She is the person you wish you were cool enough to be. And as a poet, she is awe-inspiring. She has a way of capturing emotions that I have never seen or experienced before. Come see for yourself at the opening of Kansas City Poetry Slam June 1 at the Uptown Arts Bar. I can promise you, she will blow you away.

Tell me a little about your early writing. When did you start writing and what form did that take? Was the transition to expression through spoken word a sudden one or was it a natural progression?

I’ve always been a writer and have performed the act of writing as long as I can remember, but the word “writer” is so vast and vague. You can be any kind of writer…how terrifying. Couple that with recognizing that the most distinct writers in history each have a style all their own and the only way to stand out is to make your style up as you go…
Hemingway can change your life in 4 words. Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness continues for pages. Anne Lamott mastered the essay, Natalie Goldberg the memoir.
“Poet” is precise. It indicates style, form, a structured art, and when I was just beginning to understand my calling as a Spoken Word artist, poetry seemed like a safe place – a smaller canvas. It’s transformed my life and thereby my writing into anything but controlled, and I am fairly certain that’s how this whole mess got started.
I’ve tried to remember when I first began writing or identifying myself as a Poet (with a capital P) and the only specificity I can narrow my journey down to is – when I was designing my high school class ring I replaced my name with the word “poet.” During high school I’d been too full of self-doubt and rebellion to join the newspaper staff so I instead chose a Literary Magazine program. Drastically underfunded and created entirely by high school juniors and seniors, it wasn’t much, but it was my first experience with working on an “underground zine” (as far as conservative high school publications go).

I also hold Jewel (yes, you read that right) Jewel, the singer, responsible for my initiation into poetry. When her book A Night Without Armor came out everything fell into place for me emotionally. I remember being struck by the simplicity of her words and realizing that my love affair with indie singer/songwriters came from a place of appreciating the lyrics (poetry) far more than the music. I feel the same way about RAP (rhythm & poetry) music. Don’t let mainstream music fool you. In my world, it’s all about the metaphors.

When did you come back to Kansas City? What inspired you to start Pound SLAM?

I’ve been in and out of Kansas City since I was a teenager. In 2012 I moved to San Francisco where I experienced my first slam, Berkeley Poetry Slam. The first time I sat in the audience and witnessed poets splay their emotions and experiences for strangers and compatriots alike, to a reaction nothing less than loving and fully-accepting, I was addicted. Poetry slam became my church and slam poetry, my confession booth.
I was inspired to start PoUnd SLAM in part because once I moved back to Kansas City in 2013, there wasn’t a slam and I was homesick for a sense of belonging. I’d only been on the West Coast a year but I was a completely different person when I returned. I ventured to Uptown Arts Bar for Poetic Underground (the premier Kansas City open mic poetry scene) and found my family -- a diverse group of poets who were fighting the misnomer that poetry is an un-relatable, antiquated art form. I knew I’d seen the answer to low open mic turnouts in Berkeley. So, with the help of incredible community leaders (all of them poets), Uptown Arts Bar owner and management, and a thirsty open mic scene, we developed and opened PoUnd SLAM in March 2014.
To note: I closed the doors on PoUnd SLAM in May 2016 and launched a rebranded slam, Kansas City Poetry Slam (www.facebook.com/kcpoetryslam) as poetry for the community, by the community. I love slam poetry but Kansas City Poetry Slam does not have any initial ambitions to take poets to National Poetry Slam events. I have found that while the ladder does help some literary individuals find a greater calling, my purpose is local community-oriented and aspires to raise funds for events such as the Midwest Word Fest among others.

Describe the process that went into the creation of "Slammed." Were these poems written for the book, or are they a collection of poems written and performed by you throughout the years? Do the poems have a unifying theme? If so, can you describe what that theme is?

Slammed is a strange creature. The poems in the collection span from 2012 – 2015 and are 50 pages of the thousands I’ve written. They are the best of the best, audience favorites, poems that make my best friend Ryan cry, my mother blush, my partner Joy twinkle. The unifying theme in my work is survival. We are so much stronger than we realize. So much braver. We are vulnerable, ignorant, magnificently imperfect creatures and Slammed makes no apologies for telling these truths. When anyone reads my work I want it to touch them in the place that shouts, “ME TOO!” 

I understand you are fundraising to go on tour this fall! Where is the Multiple Personalities Tour planning on going and what can people expect from this tour? What are you setting out to accomplish on the road? How can people get involved and support you?

I am launching a Kickstarter July 1 in order to fund my tour which spans from Colorado to California. The crowdfunding will also fund the release of my first album, Flaunting Her Mediocrity which includes crowd-favorite slam poems, social justice pieces, musical accompaniment and much more. To get involved please subscribe to www.patreon.com/poetjenharris or www.facebook.com/poetjenharris. That’s where I keep all the details. You can also check out www.poetjenharris.com for events and performances.
My goals on the road include bringing the Kansas City poetry scene to stages across the country. I also aspire to bring (more) nationally recognized performance poets to KC. We’ve had some incredible talent on our stage thus far and it only keeps getting better.
Poetry has made me the ethnographer of a generation tangled in tradition and technology. My work is poetic memoir, a confessional assortment of personal and adopted stories of life on and off the grid; substance use, abuse survival, coming out stories, the New Age shift in mindfulness, the cross-country migration of artists in search of paying work both plentiful and fulfilling, the demise of the corporate culture, the defiance of media-induced prepackaged lives and conversely, the beauty created when people unite on a common front for a common purpose. Culturally, we have never existed in a time with so much need and so many wasted resources. I feel a deep moral responsibility to document injustice and victory alike in an effort to put human faces on the social movements of our time.

What led you to rebrand Pound SLAM and launch Kansas City Poetry Slam? When is opening night for the latter? Will there be any distinct differences between the two?

The rebrand is a fresh start. The defining differences between the two slams is PoUnd SLAM was focused on refining a few individual poets to perform on a national platform and the main purpose of Kansas City Poetry Slam (KCPS) is to accept and celebrate an entire community of poets so much so that nationally-renowned talent can’t HELP but notice the talent we have here and want to perform in our city…be the change you want to see, you know? I aspire to create an environment where art and competition co-exist compassionately rather than fiercely. After working towards a national slam platform for a year with PoUnd SLAM, I began to feel an absence of art in my work because I was required to formulate my poetry in a very structured manner, and you can lose something when you do that. PoUnd Slam was all about giving KC poets an opportunity for a national platform. Kansas Poetry Slam is poetry for the community, by the community.
In my professional endeavor as a spoken word poet who intends to tour all 50 states I anticipate bringing the national spotlight to us. I believe there is an art revolution happening in Kansas City and I want to play my part in making KC a mecca for performing artists.
Competing for Nationals via PoUnd SLAM required me to strip away a poets’ individuality. No props, no costumes, time restraints, and the added pressures of winning or losing, turned art into competition and while I do feel like it gave people something to aspire to it also restricted people’s art in a way that I never intended. It made us pick a best and a worst and I believe that everyone has something to contribute.
While Kansas City Poetry Slam will follow the general rules and regulations of the Poetry Slam, Inc we will also branch out to create poetic endeavors which refine and include anyone interested.
The first official KC Poetry Slam is 9p.m. Wednesday, June 1 at Uptown Arts Bar. 3611 Broadway. $5 cover. Hosted by me and producer-extraordinaire Keith “PRIM 1” Bohannon. First 10 poets to sign up to perform will duke it out for the title of KCPS Poet of the Month, a feature performance at MicroSlam and $50 cash.

You and previously featured loKCal, Ryan Wilks, are launching a podcast called "Ranch Dressing." I would love to know more about your relationship with Ryan and how you landed upon this idea for a podcast! How was the name chosen? When will it be launched? And how can we listen to it?

The story of my genius BFF & I is a long one – spanning 8 years now. Ryan is my rock, my co-collaborator in many art endeavors and a constant source of love and inspiration.
Regarding Ranch Dressing:
In order to make creative living a viable career path, the artist has to maintain a certain level of professionalism that at times can be exhausting. You have to be “on” a lot. Ranch Dressing is a platform for working artists of all practices to come on and have unfiltered humorous dialogues about the realities of our chosen fields. We wanted to start a podcast to allow people to be their real selves. The name “Ranch Dressing” was chosen because both Ryan and myself serve tables and ranch dressing is the thing people always ask you to bring just when you think you’re done helping them. It’s a tip of the hat to doing what you have to do to make the money you need to make. We have not yet set a release date or chosen a hosting platform but keep an eye on www.facebook.com/poetjenharris for more details.

My last question is always the same. What else in KC deserves a little spotlight? This could be a local business, restaurant, bar, artist, charity, you name it!

15 miles outside KC is Interurban Arthouse which is doing extraordinary things across state lines for the arts. My partner Joy Baker is a studio artist there. She works for various charity organizations such as Art for Arthritis and her annual fundraiser for the Roeland Park City Hall’s arts program. Keith “PRIM 1” Bohannon is a Kansas City poet and producer who is working tirelessly to create the Midwest Word Fest, which will consist of multiple venues with music, poetry and Spoken Word events over the course of the weekend.

FeaturesKatie McLiney