Poet won't be stuck in box

Evening Standard 8 Nov 1997

[Paula Harris]

Palmerston North: Provincial hick town where excitement is awaiting takeaways? Well, one of the public librarians has published a book of intimate poems on sex, love and life. Her own experiences of sex, love and life. Is this brave? Is this mature? Does she regret it?
LEE MATTHEWS talks to Paula Harris about
woman, phenomenally, and her first 24 years' journey through life.

Paula Harris is waiting at a table in Clark's Café. I've met her before, but her shaved head and black-purple-red clothes statement of style makes her stand out anywhere.

Staff bring bowls of latte and hot chocolate with trim milk. We eye each other, smile, and I wonder how to start.

"So, Paula, tell me about your sex life," seems a bit bald and clinical, with overtones of the psychiatrist's couch.

Two evenings before the interview, Harris launched her book, woman, phenomenally, at a function at the city library. The launch went well, with only a few preliminary jitters and the inevitable finding of a misprint the day before.

"It struck me, the day before the launch, that this was real. That people were actually going to read it," Harris says. "I was nervous. I thought: Oh God, what have I done? But it went well."

The oldest of the poems was written three years ago. The most recent was done in the past two months.

"Doing the book was going back and seeing where I've been. If I'd done it in a year's time, it would have been different."

She isn't sure whether it was incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. But being open about sex and relationships is part of Paula's philosophy. "No regrets. Ever."

And she is adamant that readers will bring as much to the poems as she has. Everyone arrives carrying their own emotional baggage, and this has its own impact.

"The poem everybody laughs about is To Number Twenty-Eight. Some people will never get beyond the fact that, genuinely (at age 24), I've had sex with 27 men. But that's not the point of the poem, for me."

Why did she write the poems? Why did she spread intimate thoughts about experiences, emotions, on cold paper? Publication in all its public clarity.

Was it to provoke? To get a reaction? Merely to shock? To add to the literary body of work?

The answer is all of these and none of these. Harris uses poetry as a personal mapping tool. It is her way of examining where she is, has been, and might be going. Although an actual destination doesn't matter, as such, it's the getting there and the learning en route that is important.

"I wrote most of the poems to deal with things, to find out about myself," she says. "(The book is) like going on a little journey with me.

"This is the reality of life. I'm a young, single woman. This is my life, this is the mirror of my experience.

"It's about me at the time of writing, but it's not about me now. I've moved on."

She doesn't think the public expression of one woman's sexuality will bother pastoral, patriarchal Palmerston North, either. A few people might be a tad shocked, perhaps.

"Look, compared with where I was in the States earlier this year, Palmerston North is a wild party town," she says.

"There's a tolerance for difference here, a tolerance for other views and appearances."

Harris spent a month in a small North Carolina town, having followed her African-American boyfriend back to his home. Her shaved head, pierced navel and in-your-face dress style stuck out like a sore thumb among the other white women in the town. Their de rigueur was jeans and high heels, a mane of swishing hair and, on daringly amusing occasions, a Mickey Mouse T-shirt. "I felt really sorry for them."

Isolation. Almost alienation. Harris was so different and so outrageous in that setting that she was ignored. A Paula-shaped hole over which people's eyes would waver, then skate away.

"After a month, I knew it wasn't working. It was time to come home."

The trip taught her things. About being an alien, about depression, struggling with a relationship, being dependent. "It was a shock, and it was not what I wanted."

Back in Palmerston North, people accepted.

"Okay, you might get a dirty look from someone when you walk down the street, but there's tolerance here. 'She's weird, but that's her business'."

Harris knows Palmerston North. She was born and bred here, went to Awatapu College ("dropped out at the end of form six"), bummed around, worked at jobs like manifesting deliveries for a courier company and selling jewellery, and spent time on the dole. She now works part-time at the city library, although she is job hunting again as her hours have been reduced.

She is also an aromatherapist. She kickboxes. She doesn't smoke or drink alcohol, but indulges with hot chocolate drinks. She's into the environment and drives flatmates mad with nagging about recycling. Her favourite writers are African-American women authors. She has no ambition to marry, have children or settle down in the conventional social sense.

And she is a poet. She has strung words together since she mastered the alphabet. Her worst punishment as a child was having her pen and paper removed for naughtiness, until she established secret caches of emergency writing supplies.

"I'm not just a single aspect. No stereotypes. I won't be stuck in any box. I am whatever I want to be."

This can be difficult in Palmerston North. Her family is established and her father, district promoter Russell Harris, is known by many people in the city.

"I'm generally introduced as Russell Harris' daughter. I spend a lot of quality time saying: My name is Paula. He introduces me as 'my daughter who kickboxes'."

What does her family think of woman, phenomenally?

"I didn't invite Dad to the launch," she says. "Letting you Dad know about your sex life?"

"I suppose there's some rebellion there still. Like saying: You told me I could not have sex, but I did anyway; and what's more, I enjoyed it."

But Harris says sex in itself has changed. In her late teens, it was about proving her own attractiveness and desirability.

"Now it doesn't matter so much."

Where to from here with her writing?

She wants to write another book about her experiences in America, but that depends on finances.

woman, phenomenally had a print run of 100, vanity-published under the imprint Streetwomen. Earlier this year, Harris and another Palmerston North poet, Philippa Elphick, published a poetry book called Sweet Clarity.

Where to from here in her life? A shrug.

"You have feelings, you break hearts, you make mistakes... and the sun will still rise tomorrow."

Which sounds like a great exit line.