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Exit Thru The Afro: The Speculative Poetry Of Jalynn Harris

Justin Harris (used with permission)

What would it be like if people like Ida B. Wells, Tracy Chapman, Phillis Wheatley, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Bessie Smith were able to talk, dance, drive, drink, and sing with each other across boundaries of time and space?

That's a question Baltimore poet Jalynn Harris answers in her book Exit Thru The Afro. She describes her debut poetry collection as a museum charting the lives of Black women and trans people from different moments in history. 

"I wanted a space for all of their voices to speak," she told WYPR. "Black people, queer people, queer Black people are written out of museums all the time, and I wanted a place where we were represented." 

For Harris, placing real life people in imagined situations is a way to play with character and suspended reality. Her work is inspired by the world building and speculative fiction of Star Trek and Afrofuturist writers like Octavia E. Butler.

"I really wanted to give these women and queer folk, trans folk, a space to live outside of the now or their past," Harris said. "Speculation gives an opportunity for joy and humor that I don't think talking about things as they are always do."

Jaylnn Harris is not just the author of Exit Thru The Afro, but also the designer and publisher of the chapbook. They founded SoftSavagePress, an independent publishing house, last year with the intention of promoting literary and visual work by Black writers and artists.  

Harris grew up in Woodlawn, which they call "the greatest suburb in Baltimore," and recently received their MFA from the University of Baltimore.

"Baltimore is a super special place," Harris said, calling it the Mecca of Black queer joy and imagination. “It’s been a very organic community being built around mutual interests and mutual love for queer life and art. There's no place like Baltimore, there's just no place." 

Listen to the audio above for more from Jalynn Harris and to hear her read the poems "Origin story" and "The original L-Word pilot: Joan Armatrading corners Tracy Chapman at a juke joint." Recorded in May 2020.

Mark is a producer at WYPR