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This Kansas City Poet Sets Her Mental Breakdown, Cheating Fiancée — And Recovery — To Music

Jen Harris
Poet Jen Harris launches her new book, 'Unconfirmed Certainties,' in two acts with a jazz trio.

Kansas City poet Jen Harris has 2,200 followers on Facebook, and she's open with them about her sexuality and her relationships. So they didn't hesitate to let her know when they saw her fiancée with someone else.

"People were messaging me on Facebook saying, 'Do you know your partner is at this bar with this person? Look.' It was pretty brutal," Harris says.

The timing was especially rough. Earlier this year, Harris had what she calls a mental breakdown. She'd been diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from years of various types of abuse but refused to accept the diagnosis, so she wasn’t in treatment.

But Harris says she's fought the good fight and come out on top. She takes the stage for a book launch this weekend ready to tell her fans everything, and has lined up a jazz trio to assist.

"I'm willing to stand fully in the sun of my failures and say I definitely made a lot of mistakes that I wish I could…" Harris says, trailing off. "I have a lot of regrets, but at the same time, I'm incredibly grateful that I finally am at a place of peace where there is no going back to certain things again."

Rather than simply reading her poems — Harris is a slam poet — she and Take Five Music Productions have orchestrated an evening in two acts with musical accompaniment courtesy of Eddie Moore (of the Outer Circle) on keyboard, Jason Emmond on bass and Brian Steever on drums.

Moore describes Harris' work and the resultant music as dark. He and his bandmates created original jazz phrasing they'll improvise around, much of it filled with dissonance and minor chords.

"Dissonance makes people feel uncomfortable in a way where it invokes certain emotions," Moore says. "But then the drummer, it's like, how does the beat feel if she's talking about her childhood experience with men, and it's this bad thing, and it's like, is that going to be: 'du-di ding-ding'? No, it's going to be like: 'crash, kujuh,' you know what I mean?”

Credit Daniel Hogans
Eddie Moore worked with drummer Brian Steever and bassist Jason Emmond to create an accompaniment to Jen Harris' work.

Moore and Harris had met only in passing before they teamed up to work on the show together. Lori Chandler, co-owner of Take Five, connected them; Moore was comfortable accepting the challenge of dreaming up a musical version of Harris' emotional points because he'd already done that for poets Glenn North and Angela Roux.

Harris describes the first act as being "pre." Pre-undoing, pre-self-revelation, pre-now. In the first poem, she writes:

love has made a fool of me. made me a believer of so many impossible things – convinced me I could make a wife out of a cheater - taught me how to welcome a lie home with open arms and pretend it’s always been this way.

But act two is "post." Everything she truly is, she says.  

"It's a lover of poetry, it's an activist, it's someone who accepts a diagnosis. It's someone who accepts their mortality and their impact on the world and wants it to be a positive one," she explains.

Harris says she thinks the tendency of a lot of artists and writers is to keep their personal lives separate to create some sort of mystique. But, she doesn’t see a separation as serving anyone very well.

And as an activist, particularly for the LGBTQ community, she wants to take every opportunity she sees to allow others to learn from her mistakes and how she's overcome them.

Through writing out her experiences, she sees that she has created a lot of her own chaos, sticking with destructive relationships far too long, for instance.

"Now I feel at 34, like perhaps for the first time ever, I've stepped into a full mode of responsibility. I'm really willing to own my part in my experience, and also change my behavior so that my experience is what I want it to be."

Poet Jen Harris and the Fellas: "Unconfirmed Certainties" book release party, 7-9 p.m., Sunday, September 22 at CaVa, 4149 Pennsylvania Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64111. Tickets $35.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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