Q&A with Jalynn Harris, Winner of the 2019 Poetry Contest

Three cheers for “Phillis Wheatley questions the quarter,” the poem by Jalynn Harris that won the 2019 Pratt Library Poetry Contest.

The Little Patuxent Review judges said, “Such serious playfulness is the heartbeat of this poem. Every question is a humorous interrogation of history, gender, race…. The poem is a marvel.”

Jalynn is an MFA student at the University of Baltimore and the founder of SoftSavagePress, a press dedicated to promoting works by Black people. She was kind enough to answer a few questions.

When did you write this poem? Which part was written first? Which part last?

In class we were prompted to do an object meditation. My partner sent a list of objects and the one we both felt drawn to was the quarter. The 25-cent piece has a lot of circular history. I started researching. Who came up with this design? Why’s each state have a different scene? What can you get for 25 cents? I had a lot of questions. I put them in quarters, aka quatrains.

After I read it aloud, I realized it wasn’t me asking questions, it was an immortal Phillis Wheatley—the first Black published woman poet in the USA. She’s just about to put a quarter in the bubble gum slot when she sees Washington’s face and she’s not impressed, worse, she’s underwhelmed like, “who head of the quarter?”

Did you revise the poem? How much and over how long a period of time?

I wrote this piece over the course of an afternoon. I made a rule that the lines had to follow a thematic pattern. But it had no end, it just kept opening. I didn’t know how to stop it. A week later, Mama Wheatley said the reader has to flip the quarter over to finish the poem and start the cycle again.

Tell us about the kind of speech your poem uses. Some readers will find it unconventional.

This poem is in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). I think it’s only unconventional ‘cause it’s Black speech from a Black speaker—an ancestor—, interrogating in the present. That’s a lot of voices we don’t get to hear from! When I wrote this poem, I was reading June Jordan’s collection Directed by Desire. She likes to play in Black speech too. “Menu” and “Addenda to the Papal Bull” are two influential repetition registers.

Your winning poem is written in the voice of another person. Do you have any favorite poems whose writers were adopting other people’s voices?

Some poets have entire personae books! A shortlist: Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove; A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendolyn Brooks; Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey; Simulacra by Airea D. Matthews.

Which writers inspire you?

June Jordan, Rita Dove, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, Eve Ewing, Claudia Rankine, Octavia Butler, Tiffany Haddish.

When did you start writing poetry?

I have always written poetry. But I didn’t understand that the experiential possibilities of a poem are infinite. “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden put me on. That was in the 9th grade.

Do you have any special practices that help you to write?

I like to write wherever I can comfortably be in a trance. The library is the greatest free museum and office space on Earth.

Read Jalynn’s poem here, and hear Jalynn read it this Saturday, April 27 at the CityLit Festival‘s Poet This! session that begins at 2 p.m.