First and foremost, Derrick Harriell is a poet. Although this Milwaukee native has experienced success as an educator, musician and essayist, he identifies most strongly with his poetic roots. His first collection, titled Cotton was recently released on Aquarius Press-Willow Books, and narrates his family’s migration from Alabama to Milwaukee.
The title is not only his grandfather’s last name, but also calls to attention the history of African-American labor that shaped our nation. In Cotton, Harriell shows how names can affect identity. The poems and characters stem from his experiences growing up on the city’s North Side.
“I’m interested in offering a voice that may sound familiar to anyone, but specifically resonate with folks from marginalized communities,” Harriell said. “I tend to not shy away from the appalling or the tragic. Those are the voices I capture and those are the voices I try to lend authenticity to.”
Harriell is currently working on another manuscript of persona poems that will be a collection of letters between various African American boxers. Imagine Jack Johnson writing Joe Frazier letters, who writes Mike Tyson letters. Harriell pens poignant and powerful exchanges between boxers throughout history and creates a dialogue that speaks to their personal stories, as well as comments on the pulse of the nation at that time.
Derrick Harriell has been published in many journals and anthologies, including The Cream City Review, the Lamplighter Review, and Main Street Rag. He reads his works across the country; he has read at Chicago State’s Gwendolyn Brooks Conference, Atlanta’s Black Arts Festival, and Meir Festival Park’s Summerfest. He is a dissertator in UW-Milwaukee’s English Department and also teaches Creative Writing. Currently, he is Poetry Editor for the Cream City Review.
Derrick Harriell’s readers and fans can see him perform Nov. 11 at 10:30 in a fundraiser for local arts, Verbatim: Season Nine, sponsored by Still Waters Collective (SWC), together with Milwaukee Repertory Theater (The Rep). The fundraiser will make many SWC and Rep art programs possible throughout the year, including writing workshops, performing arts programs and visual arts exhibits.