Most poets write for the page. Denver poet Gregory SETH (his nom de plume) Harris writes for the stage. "I think most poets start out as closet poets," he said. "I wrote poetry for years without sharing it. I didn't even think of it as poetry. But after several years of jotting things down in a notebook, I decided to start reading it at open mics."
At his first public reading, which took place at Muddy's Java Café in 1988, he met a local poet and musician named Woody Hildebrand, who in turn introduced him to actor/poet/musician Tupper Cullum. As it happened, all three were interested in exploring non-traditional ways of presenting their poetry. Together, they formed a performance troupe called "Poets of the Open Range."
"We called ourselves the 'Open Rangers' because we were open to all ways of presenting poetry," Harris said. "We were also open to whoever wanted to participate. It wouldn't be just us. We brought in musicians, poets, dancers. The whole idea was to make poetry entertaining. For me personally it became a substitute for having my poetry in print. Actually, I was never really interested in having my stuff published. But performance was a way of getting my words out there and of polishing my poetry. Even today, performing anything I write is the best way to polish it. My ear and the audience tell me when a line hits the mark."
Harris grew up in Huntington, Long Island, and studied English and Liberal Arts at Indiana University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His senior year he served as editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, for which he wrote a popular weekly satirical column. "I left college interested in writing novels," he said. "But then a whole evolutionary process took place."
While visiting friends in Denver, he managed to land a couple of jobs writing PR for both ArtReach and Eden Theatrical Workshop. "I learned from these two jobs that every genre of writing can teach you something about the art of using language," he said. "But what attracted me to poetry was that it allowed me to break the rules of syntax and grammar. By breaking the rules, I learned more about why the rules were there. By writing poetry, I developed more dexterity in my use of language."
As a Writer in Residence for the Denver Public Schools, SETH teaches his students the creative side of rule breaking. "I show them how they can break the rules of grammar and syntax and come up saying some amazing things," he said. "There's no such thing as a bad poem. Some are better than others, but none are bad. There are ways to make a mistake sound or seem refreshingly original. In jazz, for example, one of the techniques of improv is that if you make a mistake, repeat it, then go on from there."
At 61, SETH Harris has returned to his first love, narrative fiction. "My main priority now is getting my novel finished and published," he said. "I believe the role of the writer is to be a journalist, no matter what kind of writing you choose to do. You look at the world and strive to understand it as honestly and accurately as you can, and then reflect that in everything you write. I don't believe there's salvation for the collective, but there is salvation for the individual. I don't think you can change the world, but you can help this individual and that individual understand things a little better and therefore improve their lives. My hero was Dostoyevsky. By reading Dostoyevsky, I came to understand myself and why I felt the way I did, which in turn enabled me to heal myself. I figure if I can help others heal themselves, then that will be the greatest service I can do with my life."
Together with his musical improv group "Art Compost and the Word Mechanics," SETH Harris hosts "Jam Before the Slam" every Sunday evening at the Mercury Café.
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