Youth Poet Speaks on LGBTQ Equality and Following His Dream
Written by: Desirae Lee
Oli Harris is a rising eighth grader at Oceanway middle school. He is an energetic, well spoken, and one of the most confident pre-teens I’ve ever met. I got the chance to speak with Harris about his poetic journey, his experience as a transgender male, and his involvement with the 2016 Jacksonville Youth Poetry Slam (JYPS) team. The team will travel to Washington D.C. this July to represent Jacksonville in an international spoken word and poetry festival called Brave New Voices. The festival is put on annually by Youth Speaks and features celebrity lead workshops, emcee competitions, countless cyphers, a two day slam competition, and much more.
As an artist who is fairly new to the performance aspect of poetry, Harris has adapted well and is optimistic when discussing his expectations, goals, and purpose behind his writing. Harris has a bold and unique perspective of the world and does not shy away from addressing subjects such as sexual abuse, ‘transgenderism’, and world issues. You cannot help but respect and be intrigued by the “old soul” that radiates out of such a jovial person.
When did you first know you had an interest in poetry?
“Around 8 years old we got a computer at my house. I began to go on YouTube and watch different videos and I stumbled across these poetry videos. Although I was eight I would often feel like hey, that a really good poem. Even though I’ve never felt that emotion they made me feel that emotion. It was really inspired me to start writing, even if they were short stories or little clips. It was never really meant to turn into a poem but sometimes I would find myself using poetic aspect and that’s what really started getting me into writing poetry.”
How do you feel you’ve grown since that time?
“My poetry was just kind of to write and to rhyme. I did the classic Dr. Seuss red fish blue fish all that. I got more into spoken word poetry because I was never one to rhyme. I realized that my poems don’t have to just be about a fish or something. It can be about an array of things. As long as it hit and it felt good to me and made others feel good. It actually has grown a lot. Because before the slam and being part of the team, I can look back on my first drafts, some of my strongest indies [poems performed by an individual], and I realized that the growth is really amazing. I was looking back on one of my strongest pieces called “Anatomy” and it just looked like one of those [average] poems you see at an open mic. Now I have a poem that’s headed to BNV and realizing that is really incredible.”
Have your expectations of being a part of a slam team changed or been met?
“My expectations didn’t change because that initial workshop everyone was really caring and nice and sweet. I’m not saying they aren’t now, it’s just that I have a lot more expectations for myself and the team. The first one I went to I just shared a few of my poems I had been working on and written. But now we have certain things we have [to get done] for certain workshops and slam practices. If I memorize a poem like a team piece, I expect the rest of the people in the team piece to have it memorized. It has heightened my expectations for the people around me and it changed my expectations for myself. I went from just writing for the sake of writing, to having my team relying on me. It puts initiative in me.”
How has being one of the youngest members of JYPS affected your experience with the team?
Honestly, I really don’t feel like it does. Most people on the team think I’m older anyways. I’ve been told I have an old soul. I understand that being one of the younger ones would put you at a lower place in the team but really we’re all equal in the team and we’re all together. [Being younger] doesn’t put me in a certain place and limit me because we all amazing writers, we’re all poets, and we’re all working together to help each other.
How would you summarize the dynamic and the energy of the JYPS team?
“We all actually get along very well. At first it was kind of awkward to say the least, because there was no communication in the team. But then once we got into the flow of things and we actually started working on our pieces. You know how that first week of school is when everyone is introducing themselves, and then the second week of school you’re getting straight into work. That’s kinda how the team started out. I would say our energy is really light.
As a poet, would you say you’re new? What has it been like adding the element of performance to your artistry? How is it getting used to being in front of an audience with your words?
Well, I was always used to being in front of an audience because I’m an actor. But now it’s kinda like hitting people with my words. At the Tampa slam I had to stop myself from smiling while I was doing a serious piece because I heard all the “go in young poet”, and the snaps, and banging on the floor. It’s so great to hear that and get feedback on your piece even if it’s just a bracelet shaking.”
What is your goal for BNV? What would you like the team to bring to the table?
One thing I want to take from this experience is better performance skills. I look back at the videos that they took at the slam [in April] and already I’ve gotten so much better. I want to continue to improve that. I want the team to be their very best. I wouldn’t want the team to be forced into doing anything they’re not comfortable doing. I want them [JYPS] to bring their very best. I don’t want them to bring another team’s best, I want us to bring our best.
Have you used any other platforms to express your views?
So in seventh grade a few friends and I put together a play for our drama class and it was called “equality”. It was a play about everyday struggles that LGBTQ people go through. Because they go through constant struggles and they are discriminated against every single day. I feel like if I can do that through writing, acting, or even just talking to my peers I feel like I should try to raise awareness because it’s such a widespread issue.”
What do you think the biggest difference between acting and spoken word performance is?
“During most shows I have done as an actor you don’t hear the “Mmmmm” or the sounds to tell if the people are getting the words. At regular shows you hear clapping after the scene is over or after the show is over. Throughout poetry [shows], no matter what, people are always snapping and clapping to show that they’re really getting into the words. That’s one of the biggest differences I’ve noticed. I prefer it because it’s good to know that people can relate to my work, and know what I’m talking about in my work. It’s good to know that they can really enjoy it and relate to me. It makes me feel really good.”
What do you write about the most and where do you draw inspiration?
“I write about personal experiences, but I also know they are experiences that people can relate to. I have a piece about sexual assault called “Anatomy”, and I have a piece about my cousin which we have turned into a team piece [poem performed by multiple members of slam team] and it’s about us missing our family members and remembering them before their disease took them over. I write about pretty relatable things but they are also personal. I have another piece about mental illnesses, I wrote about problems in the world. I have a piece about equality. I write about things in my heart, things I’m very passionate about.”
What do you want your listeners to really know and understand about your work? What do you want the next person hearing it to know and understand?
“I want people on the other end that have gone through it to know that they’re not alone and that they shouldn’t feel put down because it happened to them. They should feel strong because they survived something like that. They should know we’re not just victims. I want the people who haven’t experienced it to know that we don’t need their sympathy. I have a line from the poem I mentioned earlier; “Our stories do not make us who we are. When we say we are victims, people say they are sorry. They hug is and tell us we’ll be okay. We are survivors who cannot be classified under numbers or time frames.” What I’m trying to tell them is thank you for caring but we can overcome this. We are not just what happened to us. I want people who have not experienced that to know that we are a lot stronger than we seem. We are still people. We are not just our stories.”
How do you get past the labels people have placed on you in the past and currently?
“I have a piece about equality that’s about LGBTQ people and I feel very passionate about that. I don’t necessarily try to get past the label because although I don’t necessarily care for the label I am proud of who I am. I’m proud of being transgender, being a part of such a loving community such as the LGBTQ, I’ve learned to calmly explain and address any questions people ask me. If people ask if I’m transgender I don’t say no, I’m a guy. Although I am a male, I also explain to them I’m a transgender male because I’m proud of who I am and I’m proud of finding myself.
I found myself whenever I came to terms with the fact that I was transgender. I was fighting it for so long. I thought I was just a tomboy. I cut my hair really short and I gave the excuse that it was because my long hair was getting too annoying. Then I went to the gay pride parade in Jacksonville and I discovered the community was so loving. Then I talked to some of my friends and finally came to terms with the fact that I am not a female. I felt so free and I didn’t feel so trapped in myself.
Although I know there will be people who don’t accept it. Even If you don’t accept me, I want to explain what it means to me as a person who has gone through it [transgender transformation], as a person who is currently going through this. Even if you don’t support it.”
Do you see any similarities, parallels, or differences between the two communities that have given you support throughout your life; the LGBTQ community and the poetry community?
I’ve found similarities. One, both are very supportive. Two, there are people that will, instead of randomly assuming and calling me a male or female, they’ll ask for my pronouns. This happened quite often in both communities.
Do you have any closing remarks or advice for other artists?
For any other poets out there, or any other content creators, and you think that you’re not good at something just keep pursuing your dream. Don’t let it fall into another box, don’t put it on a shelf, keep pursuing your dream. I’m thirteen years old and when I was nine I thought that I wasn’t good at writing; and here I am. Four years later, and I am on a [slam poetry] team on my way to BNV in July.