Editor’s note: Jennifer Harmon is a poet originally from New Mexico and now based out of Astoria, Queens.
In the interview, John Wisniewski talks with Jennifer Harmon about the importance of geography in writing, the influence of her mother, and current projects.
1. When did you begin writing, Jennifer?
I began writing in elementary school growing up in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I remember creating a silly soap opera collection of short stories featuring my best friend Kelli and all of our friends and crushes. Lots of daily adventures and drama! It was kind of like a Dallas or Dynasty for fifth and sixth graders at Sierra Elementary. I adored reading Judy Blume books, Ramona Cleary, and young adult mysteries from Christopher Pike. I loved reading memoirs from an early age as well. I remember my parents got me Shirley Temple’s biography for Christmas. They always let me pick out a new book when we went shopping at the mall. I began keeping diaries/journals in fifth grade. Whether it was a short entry or a long novel outpouring, it made me feel better to write it out, discuss the details of my day and share my feelings, observations.
2. Any poets that inspire your writing?
First and foremost, my biggest inspiration is my mama. I always thought of my mom, Patricia, as an absolute artist and creative spirit in every way – through written words, with her clothing selections/fashion sense and one-of-a-kind jewelry choices. I loved hearing her give captivating speeches. She was entertaining and moving at the same time. From a very young age, I knew she was a gifted poet and teacher. I grew up watching her go to work every day with my dad. They were both teachers at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. My mom taught Braille and Language Arts to primary grade students through twelfth grade. I got to know many of her students and see them as friends and fellow artists in my town. My mom, Patty, put together poetry anthologies/beautiful literary journals with her students. I loved reading these anthologies, taking in her teenage students’ perspectives and personal journeys. The details were so vivid and raw, sharing their honest emotions about specific moments in their lives. I knew I had to do the same thing. On special occasions or for gifts at the holidays, I would help her print poems on special paper, attach ribbon around the magic scrolls, and give them out to friends and family. We would make collages with silk flowers and shells and decorate poems under glass shadowbox frames.
As a little girl in Bergenfield, NJ, my mom was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when she was 10 years old. She received an English degree from the University of Note Dame in Baltimore. Newly blinded from Type 1 diabetes in her mid-twenties, my mom did not let the illness stop her from learning cane travel and obtaining her master’s degree in special education from the University of Northern Colorado. In 1991 my mom earned Blind Educator of the Year from the National Federation of the Blind. It was so thrilling to witness her receive that award when I was 14, the summer we attended the NFB convention in New Orleans.
So, at a very young age, I had the ability to know that “everybody has a story.” My mom did lots of speaking engagements for local clubs and community groups like Lions Club, NFB. She had scrapbooks full of essays, poems, ribbons for poetry contests, newspaper clippings of her with different wild hair styles like her naturally curly frosted blonde hair or extra curly permed auburn afro style. In sixth grade, I became enamored with her red faded folder of poems and personal essays that detailed her experiences of losing her vision, her sometimes challenging relationship with her mom, her fears about raising me as a blind mother, and the difficult realities or of marriage, political and world events like the Iran Contra affair. Sometimes she wrote poems and titled them with someone’s name, and it was about a stranger, dear friend or acquaintance who had touched her life only for a moment. These pieces immediately grabbed me and said, “Yes, Yes, Yes, I relate to this even though I’m a different person and my story is different as a daughter, as me, Jennifer Dawn. Her vulnerability yet fierceness in sharing her truth told me I could do the same thing in my poetry, essays and journal writing.
I remember getting quite emotional and crying in my seventh grade reading class when I shared her poem, “Do You Know Your Mama Is Blind, Jennifer?” because it was so intense and as a pre-teen I was also coming to terms or beginning to recognize that very real, vivid loss and kind of what “being different” meant to me in comparison with my other friends who all had sighted parents. My mom never wanted to be treated differently. I saw my mom as completely normal and independent, and here she was detailing her pain about losing her vision and how it made her stand out in a crowd– the reality of not being able to see her aging face in the mirror. Because of this, I could tell the truth and “be mean” about what I hated about blindness, diabetes, and my dad’s cheating, my parent’s divorce.
I remember falling in love with her poem “Fetish,” because of the beginning stanza, “The power is inside of me, deep deep inside. Everyone has power unique to them. I want to discover mine. To never forget I have it. To fully use it in my life.”
I was already obsessed with time and poetry provided me the opportunity to capture myself at different stages of my life. I had the awareness that I was a little bit different every day and there were different versions of myself I would observe and think about. My mom wrote new poems and so did I as I passed through elementary to junior high, from high school to college, and beyond. From my first job after college graduation to now, change never stops. Today, I read “Fetish” out loud and get inspired from it again.
“I want to find the parts of me I’ve never met, the talents never seen before, the intelligence never used. Maybe I will write a song, play it, sing it….I will love more easily, forgive more readily, judge less freely, share more often, listen quietly and quietly share my thoughts.”
I talk so much about my mom because we are still so close, and her work is part of who I am and my art. My voice! I am meant to share her words and mine with the world.
My mom passed away as a result of complications from Type 1 during the summer of 2012. I hate saying the word “death” because our relationship/our bond is still very much alive. I still talk to her and receive advice from her/connect with her by dropping into that love, “her voice.” Yes, it doesn’t hurt that I have very special emails, letters, cards, clothes and colorful accessories we shared and still share.
Other poets who inspire me: Charles Bukowski, Edna St. Vincent Millet, Emily Dickinson, Tony Hoagland. Tony was my poetry teacher during my last semester in college at NMSU in Las Cruces, NM. I adored his class. We read our poetry aloud, and I remember him telling me to avoid being overly sentimental. He gave me a typewritten letter complimenting my work, especially my piece “A Blessing,” about my mom’s miscarriage and my talk with my mom over coffee when I went home to visit. Doctors advised her against having children because of her Type 1 and how risky it was in the seventies. A few years ago, he wrote a recommendation letter for me to get my master’s in poetry at The New School in New York. I made a difficult decision to not attend, because ultimately, my husband I could not afford to take on the debt at this point in our story. It felt good to know it was okay to say “no” and focus on other endeavors.
I am looking for some changes in my career, which focus on becoming a grief or bereavement counselor. I have a diverse background in journalism and currently work as a receptionist at a hair salon for curly hair in NYC, which has helped me focus a lot on my art – specifically my poetry and storytelling shows.
3. Could you tell us about writing “Celebrating Sound” which includes poems written by your mother, also a poet?
My book Celebrating Sound happened so quickly. It’s a mix of poems and essays from my mother mixed with poems and pieces by me. Her work is in typewriter script to set it apart from mine. To me, it’s a memoir-style collection of what we went through experiencing love and loss as individuals and as a family.
During a three-month period, I made selections from our huge arsenal of poems and essays. Boom, it all happened. It was a whirlwind and very imperfect. I am not perfect. No one is, which is often hard for me to believe. I had to make decisions of which poems would be in each section and be done with it. I wrote a few new pieces. I broke the book into these sections: Mothering, Everybody Has a Story, Beginning Again, and Living.
My husband, Chris, helped me with typesetting and we laid out the book together. I had a friend quickly edit it. What a whirlwind! I remember at the launch party for the book Chris plaid guitar as I read selections. So many groovy layers,,very atmospheric! My poems are kind of always changing when I read them aloud. My mom loved it when I read out loud to her from books, magazines, our poetry. It’s all magic to blend these poetic threads and see what we create in each new collaboration.
I wanted the book to be a collection showing my observations from my mom and me about family, moving from NM to NY, my experience as the daughter dealing with my parent’s divorce. Love and Loss. Loss, Love.
My parents got divorced in 2000 during my last semester in college. After I moved to New York in 2003, my moved from New Mexico back to her home state of New Jersey.
At this point my mom was retired from teaching – she ended up taking over my grandmother’s house in Toms River, NJ after my grandmother passed away in 2006. So, yes, it was another way my mom still taught me about taking risks because she filled a whole UHAUL truck with her favorite belongings and left everything to begin again – to start a new chapter in her life filled with her adventures.
I remember we did the most spectacular poetry reading at the famous Back Fence bar back in 2008. We were the featured poets one Sunday at a special open mic in the city. My boyfriend and a big group of our friends came out to hear and support us. I can see us now holding the microphone and reading together. We performed what was written but then we also spoke from the heart and created new poems by being together and collaborating in the moment. My mom had her Braille pages of poetry. It was incredible to be in the spotlight together! We took turns reading poems and speaking from the heart. It was kind of like we were telling our life story by intertwining both of our perspectives into one beautiful play.
After my mom passed away, I began attending poetry open mics every week, sometimes more than once a week, sharing my mom’s poetry and mine. I wrote new poems about me calling her on the phone and hearing her advice. I envisioned myself sitting at the table with her back in my hometown or strolling the boardwalk at Point Pleasant at the Jersey Shore. I could travel anywhere and talk to her. So, this open mic I attended, Inspired Word NYC, choice ten 10 poets to have their books published by an art gallery/publisher in Soho. I was one of the chosen poets. I was in the back of a taxi when I received the news and shrieked in delight to my husband, “I’m getting a book!”
I embrace who I am and what I created. Today I would create a whole new mix of poems or maybe slightly different. In the summer of 2014, I married Chris Gersbeck. I always thought my mom would walk me down the aisle. Of course, it was absolutely perfect that my dad did the honors. We were in such a good place since 2007 when I turned 30. I know my mom was content that I had gotten close and made peace with my dad. He knew I wrote poems that showcased how upset I was about his cheating how it affected me as a daughter, teenager and adult woman. He always encouraged me to express myself through my art. He was thrilled for me about the book and proud of me. My feelings had changed a lot since I wrote certain poems. He knew that. I never wanted to hurt him with my words, my poems, and I am grateful I could talk to him about our story in person and over the phone. Those are the moments I share on the page and on stage with my voice.
I love flipping through the book now and owning it. I send it out to poets whom I admire or artists I can connect with at live readings and poetry events. I did a reading at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe, AZ where I sold copies of the book and did a Q&A after the reading. I want to give speeches and continue to do poetry shows and storytelling events in the city. I host a monthly open mic called Rage Blooms Within Me at QED in Astoria and another show, Sugar & Spice Erotica Nite, which is an erotica open mic where anything goes. I’m still growing and letting myself be bold and unapologetic. I keep taking risks. I have to keep sharing my truth.
4. How did growing up in the southwest influence your writing? Do your surroundings effect what you may write?
I was surrounded by desert and mountains my whole life up until I moved to New York at 26. Dry heat, no humidity. We really experienced all four seasons. People are always surprised when I tell them it snows there, and I had quite a few white Christmases. Growing up, I was very aware of the beauty around me, but I was also craving a completely different environment.
I saw poems of my mom writing about where she grew up in New Jersey, so I did the same thing and wrote about my house, the rooms inside it. My town, Alamogordo. I had the natural inclination to write about what I saw – my experiences in elementary school with certain friends and teachers and moving to junior high where all the students from the different elementary schools came together as one. It was a very mysterious and exciting time for me because I was learning about my personal style, my body was changing, and I had crushes on boys I had never met before. I wrote about our family traditions like looking at the Christmas lights and luminarias after church on Christmas Eve.
Right outside my hometown of Alamogordo, I would go with my friends and family to White Sands National monument, an oasis of white gypsum sand dunes. We could go sledding down high hills of sand or have weekend barbecues. My girlfriends and I would look for our school crushes. Before I moved to New York, my mom and I would climb the dunes and have lattes, read Joan Didion essays.
There is nothing like the majestic pastel rainbow sunsets back home. My parents and I would drive up to Cloudcroft and go snow tubing. For many years we took family trips to Elephant Butte to go camping and fishing. After I turned 14, we would go to annual conventions of the NFB with my mom in different cities across the country. When we visited Chicago the summer after o graduated high school, I knew I wanted to live in a big city one day. The biggest question in NM is do you want red or green chile with your meal. Red is usually the hottest. My favorite meal there is still the flautas with beef at Margo’s, while my mom adored the red chile cheese enchiladas with a sunny side up egg on top. So, food and location, the little details or every-day life and what happened inside my home because a part of my poems. Poems take me to the quiet moments, the laughter and watching of late-night news shows, VCR recordings of Young & The Restless, the way my bedroom looked with peach carpet and canopy bed, my cabbage patch kids, my ballet shoes and clarinet.
As a teen, some days I wanted to escape the slow pace and familiar faces. I think we all feel that way sometimes about where we grow up. I went to college in Las Cruces, which was a bigger city than Alamo. Lots of poems about social life and going out with my friends to different bars or going dancing in Mexico – the allure and mystery of what might happen. In college, I continued to document the special moments, the magic ritual of walking to various classes like sociology, history of the holocaust, and my photography course. In my poetry course with Tony Hoagland, I wrote about the challenges I never expected to encounter like the news of my parent’s pending divorce during my last semester in college. It was extremely difficult to be present in my classes. I didn’t want to talk to my best friends about it. I chose to talk with a few trusted mentors-journalism professors. Tony’s poetry class gave me an opportunity to be free and not alone. I wrote a lot of poems about endings because I didn’t know what was going to happen after college as a daughter, with my career, where would I go?
I worked at a community newspaper in Belen, NM. It was so interesting and unexpected to cover school board and city council while writing concert reviews and interviewing bands. I took my own photographs to go with my articles. I felt like an adult forming my own way in my own city. I was closer to Albuquerque, which presented new freedom to explore the state and my individuality, plus it was a whole new landscape of desert mesas. I climbed the pilmgramage to Tome Hill often and looked out at the lush green farmland. I think living here gave me the experience and guts necessary to move to New York City. Looking back, I can see the vast space of flat dry dirt that surrounded the newspaper’s main office. Some days I couldn’t look away from the scarlet lavender sunsets. Other days, the desert made me melancholy and I could not wait to get away. I remember moments when I parked my car and knew the days were limited for when I would no longer have this daily view.
Yes, location and place still deeply inspired me. I write about what I’m going through in my life and what I observe and hear on the subway. With my book, I tried to sprinkle it with poems of NM, NJ and NYC. A friend of mind whom I worked with at the newspaper in NM had a friend in NYC who needed a summer roommate in Hell’s Kitchen. I spoke to him on the phone and then gave my notice to the newspaper.
I lived in Jersey City for a few years after Hell’s Kitchen and wrote a bunch of “Path train” poems. I’ve lived in Queens the longest – over 10 years in in Astoria and now Forest Hills so I can say I’m a New Yorker and a Queens gal.
I’m still in a very fulfilling relationship with New York. I never get sick of it even though I may get frustrated sometimes. Another discovery me around every corner. My husband is a native New Yorker. We love to travel. I got to take him to NM in 2013 when I did a special memorial for my mom. I also have poems about my dad and visiting him in Iowa. He went back to his home state after the divorce. He passed away three years ago. I’m so grateful Chris and I got to be with his for his birthday before that and to celebrate him, our relationship. I know I still have more poems to write about him. He would drive us around and tell stories about his childhood streets. I’m blessed to have two storyteller parents who rubbed off on me with their gift of gab and desire to write it all out.
I feel a lot of quiet strength right now thinking about New Mexico and where I am now. I love connecting with new friends and old ones. I’m nostalgic for past places yet I get to time travel and reminisce with parts of myself whenever I desire. So many people feel like they know my mom when I share our poems and essays even though they have never met her. Listeners and readers will thank me for sharing these personal stories, poems.
I also have anger poems when the surroundings upset me because my mom is not physically here with me to walk through Soho to go shopping. I can’t pick her up at the bus station at Port Authority. I am moved every day by my surroundings to express gratitude and truth no matter what emotion I’m feeling – even if it’s painful. I have to write it down in my notebook or on a receipt.
5. Could you tell us about your open mic night that you present, with Drew Eliza in Astoria, Queens?
My dear friend Drew Eliza and I started Sugar & Spice in August of 2017 at QED. It was our desire to create an open mic in Astoria where artists and guests felt safe to express themselves in a playful, sexy, and honest way. Storytelling, singing, poetry, comedy, dance – anything goes at this special monthly show. I even painted her body with poetic prompts at our final night hosting together. After just over a year with Drew, I continued to do the show on my own at QED. I was scared yet knew I needed to keep doing it for my own growth as a poet and host. I’m still learning how to express myself and my erotic side through my art. I usually read one of my poems to kick off the show and then the featured artist will share his or her work. Next month I’m having a burlesque dancer as the special guest and I’ll have a fun Q&A with her after she performs. I get a lot of regulars mixed with newcomers. It’s like monthly church for all of us to come together in this sultry, deep way. I think the show is helping comics even get more honest and creative. Sometimes we are super descriptive and explicit, and other times we say so much through soft voices and minimal dirty talk. There is no one way to be erotic or to write a poem.
A few months ago, I started Rage Blooms Within Me: An Anger Open Mic. I was inspired by an art exhibit I witnessed at the Whitney Museum a while back. I can get through any situation or experience if I am honest about what I am feeling, including anger. Often, we are told to hold back our anger, push it aside or “forgive” right away in order to make things better. This show is away that anyone who desires can write and talk about what is bothering them from their past – years ago, last week, or today. I had a lovely artist change costumes from a green poison ivy type dress. She put on a strapless blue gown and hit the head off of a Barbie with a baseball bat. It’s so wonderful to see what happens at each show. I did a whole story on discovering my dad’s cheating and how that impacted my view of sex. I also did one last month about challenges and hardships I faced at work with a couple of co-workers.
6. What may inspire you to write, Jennifer?
I’ve been married for over five years now. Today, I still get inspired by what is going on around me and what I am moved to say about my personal relationships. The ritual of cleaning out my purse is a poem, walking with Chris through the beautiful neighborhood of Forest Hills Gardens and imagining living inside one of these castle-tudor style homes.
Seeing my in laws savor traveling together and enjoying retirement – their partnership inspires me to write. My husband and our fun daily rituals & triumphs make me grab my pen and tell the world how grateful I am to be here. Yes, it’s all about personal relationships, my challenges and positive experiences at work inspire me to write.
I’ve written poems reacting to articles about specific families, headline cases, real worldwide tragedies in the news. I haven’t written yet about what’s happening right now with the Coronavirus and panic sweeping the nation. The deaths. My older half-sister in Iowa from my dad’s first marriage has been in and out of the hospital. That, on top of the news, is hard to cope with but I keep going like everyone else. We do the best we can. I don’t know if I’m truly letting myself drop into the fear of what could happen with the virus. The election depresses me but I’m still trying to believe we will get through this with love and respect without Trump being re-elected. Being of service to others and how New Yorkers, strangers, acquaintances, friends and family everywhere help one another and how we impact each other’s lives. I am skyping with friends and relatives to let them know they are not alone during this scary, chaotic time.
7. Could you tell us about any upcoming projects or poetry collections?
My desire is to do a one woman show of poetry and storytelling about my life. I might call it “Rooms.” I also want to do a season two of my podcast, Conversations Continue, where I interview a different guest every week who has physically lost a loved one. I will talk to them about how they continue to have a relationship with this person, because it doesn’t end. It’s more than memories. We will discuss how we deal with grief. It’s all real. The pain, the heartbreak, the love. The person is still with us. I don’t think we talk about that enough. That doesn’t mean I am sugar coating anything or only talking about the positive aspects of our relationship. It’s all layered and nuanced. I am still learning from both of my parents and they help me keep going. The first season was a hodgepodge of me talking about my mom and dad, reflecting on the past and sharing about my life with my husband in NYC. I can’t wait to do more and see what happens next.
Traveling speeches, storytelling, poetry, I’m excited about all of it!