The Art Corner: Shelly Harder
I sat down with Canadian poet Shelly Harder and talked about intimacy, queerness, curiosity and language.
Poetry is a trip to the poet’s intestines, it is intimacy on paper. It is also a form of rehabilitation; it doesn’t destroy, it grows roots because it comes from a deeply internal place.
In the last years, poetry has made a comeback as a popular art form, and I believe it is so because, at the base, all humans share what poetry puts on the table: vulnerability and empathy.
April is officially the month that celebrates poetry: thousands of people spend hours participating in poetry challenges and the in the world there is a rain of human rawness. Vulnerable truth brings compassion, and this is what poetry is.
On a sunny day, I sat down in the art corner with Canadian poet Shelly Harder, currently pursuing a PhD in English literature in Oxford.
Shelly is from Canada, and living in Oxford, where they arrived just a month ago. They are studying interconnections between the work of William Blake and James Joyce, with a focus on sexuality and gender.
A friend of mine once told me that no one reads the same poem twice, Irish poet David Whyte, with his repetitions, is living proof that one sentence can be heard and felt, in a matter of minutes, in so many different ways. He describes poetry as “a literal bridge between past, present and future”.
One of the more recent projects of Harder is called intimology, and is a two-part text that digs into narratives of trauma and violence, particularly in a familial context, through non-scholarly etymology, and the other a more intimate personal account of dealing with grief through poetry.
“What I found very fascinating was that sometimes these experiences of pain that are so highly unique and personal, when you start to dig into words and realise the connections, you feel this universality.” For example, they tell me the word “Perpetrare” (to perpetrate) goes back to “pater” (father).
“It’s that connection between father and perpetration, origin and genesis, and pain. This is actually built into the words we have”. I am fascinated by their childlike enthusiastic curiosity about their own work.
“Excavation through words from what’s commonly held between people of different times and places to explore the intimacy of what is so particular to our experience and exposure to vulnerability and the pain that happens in interpersonal relationships.”
Harder describes the second part of intimology as deeply personal work, short little vignettes in response to the death of their adopted father a couple of years ago: “It is like a love song, unlike anything I’ve ever written”.
“A sort of melting together an academic and intellectual interest and at the same a desire to have an exploration of language to the problem into the deepest parts of our experiences of grief and pain, and also pleasure and connection,” they continue, “Which for me is what poetry can do.”
how language impacts the world
The multitudinous nature of language also deeply fascinates me, especially when it comes to social justice issue. The root of our language is undoubtedly patriarchal, and to dig into it is a form of reclaiming the narrative around how words are used.
“Once you find yourself seated in a sort of binary structure, say male and female, it becomes so hard to have ways to think and talk that don’t derive out of that structure,” Harder tells me as we sip coffee, “It’s very hard to find a way around it and it’s almost impossible to think and talk in ways that don’t fall into that structure.” Inevitably, the language we have impacts the world we are able to have available to us.
curiosity is a bridge
So how do we break those structures? I believe curiosity has a huge part to play, to be able to sit down in a place where love bears roots, and respect is paramount, with people that have a different contextual existence, and talk without fearing error — I would even say welcoming it.
the language we have impacts the world we are able to have available to us
At this moment of the conversation, the weaving of narrative had four hands in it, and Harder truly helped me see something I hadn’t before. I usually think of curiosity as something we do outside of us, and Harder offered something in the narrative that elevated it.
“I think it’s really important to have a very broad and multifaceted curiosity, so while I might be really curious about details of your experience, I think it’s equally worthwhile to be curious about your boundaries, what is ok for you.”
“I don’t think curiosity just needs to only be this probing of someone else,” they say. What you can do is think in a way that is “I’m not being obstructed on my relationality towards other people, just that my relationality towards other people should be broadening and encompassing enough to engage with their sensitivities and vulnerabilities and their boundaries. Because that is an important part of other people.” What a poetic way of putting this, I thought, and thanked them.
“Intimate experiences of violence and pain can be very hard to articulate in a way that is creating a space that someone else can engage with imaginatively”
We drifted back to their work on intimology and why they chose to explore familial trauma in this way. “Intimate experiences of violence and pain can be very hard to articulate in a way that is creating a space that someone else can engage with imaginatively and that you also can put out into the world in a way that feels ok”.
“There was something about the impersonality of etymology that provided a way to be able to talk about something that’s very hard to express within a public sphere.” The structure of etymology is so impersonal,” they told me, “it allowed me the safety I needed to be able to explore things through impersonality and implication rather than through direct statement. It allowed a venue in which to say things that I didn’t know how to say otherwise”.
At this moment, I was having difficulties seeing etymology as impersonal as I felt that language is so deeply personal. “Yes there is something deeply personal about this.” Our conversation was starting to have beautiful dualities at play: “The cracks between personal and impersonal gets to the core of what we have been talking about. The thing with etymology is that in no way whatsoever does it derive from me.”
“This whole history of words and how they mean and what they are would just exist if I never existed. I am not making it what it is, it is just there, that embeddedness within this whole historical, cultural, interpersonal world that allows us to mean and be persons at all and doesn’t derive from and isn’t constituted by us.”
“This whole history of words and how they mean and what they are would just exist if I never existed.”
“If you think of how deeply structured we are by misogynistic presuppositions, to talk about feminism, or binary gender structure and the misogyny that is so pervasive within those structures. The violence of gender is so constitutive of ourselves prior to and outside of all our choosing. That’s what is both so impersonal and so absolutely personal and intimate.”
“When I talk about the violence of gender I just want to be careful to qualify it and acknowledge that gender for all its problems is such an important part for many individuals in terms of their sense of dignity and themselves. There are many beautiful and wonderful things for people in terms of gender, I don’t want to hate on it. But it is that binary structuring of gender that is inherently violent.”
healing in community
And this last sentence that Harder pronounced reminded me once again about the incredible power of poetry; as an art form it allows dualities, and all feelings to coexist. In a recent article on binary thinking, I argued that binary thinking is often focused on gender, but thinking in “eithers” and “ors” limits us on a deep level from changing and progressing.
When thinking about how to go about these structural problems, we both agreed that a place to find this healing and rehabilitation is in community. “It’s definitely not a thing that can be solved by one person, but in a community by coming together, creating spaces where it becomes believable that we can exist in freer, more playful, and just better ways,” says Harder.
Following this concept, I would like to leave you with a few words on community that M. Scott Peck, as told by almighty bell hooks in All About Love, describes as the coming together of a group of individuals “who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to ‘rejoice together, mourn together,’ and to ‘delight in each other, and make other’s conditions our own.’”
There is no better place to learn the art of loving than in community.