Swimming Against the Tide

Two Top Literary Awards for an IS&T Renaissance Man

by Cathy Cockrell

Forget the computer geek with leaky pen touting the virtues of digital imaging or wireless access to the web. Information Systems and Technology staffer Jim Harris can write UNIX code as well as poetry.

 The following poem won the Poetry Society of America's Lyric Poetry Award:




Her fever's broken

but we can't fall

back to sleep

as a noisy cell

of slashing rain


stalls above the house at 5 a.m..

It's loud, she says,

and I, It's wonderful.

I know,

she whispers.


We are both so in love,

in the reckless, proleptic

way of young parents,

with our three-year-old


who's at a friend's tonight.

(Asleep across town she can't

hear what we hear in rain;

has little foreknowledge, no

clear-headed pain at dawn.

Yet old enough to choose this separation.)


What are you thinking? my wife asks

while the rain drums

a splashy nimbus on the house.

And because I am thinking them I say aloud

those lines of Verlaine

about the town and the rain and the baffled heart.


I hold her hand

in the lightening room,

she's tired and her back aches

from lying so long in bed.

- James Harris

He recently garnered both a $20,000 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and the prestigious Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America.

In 1975, as a graduate student in English literature, Harris got his first Berkeley job-doing data analysis and system administration at the Survey Research Center. Twenty years and several campus jobs later, as a principal technology consultant at Strategic Technology Planning in IS&T, he helps campus departments plan and design computer systems.

He is also a core member of the Interactive University Project, where he works to develop a community outreach model that balances human interaction and Internet communication while delivering instruction to K-12 schools.

The effort to humanize an Internet-based instructional curriculum strikes close to Harris' deepest concerns. "I often feel about technology," he says, "like I'm working for the enemy. But I can't be a Flat Earther either."

Harris is fascinated by the resonance of haiku from feudal Japan; he is on friendly terms with Greek mythology, Shakespearean verse, Biblical dramas-seeing his own experiences by their light.

Harris and his wife Karen Garrett, a campus research sociologist, have a three-year-old son, Aidan, and an eight-year-old daughter, Anna.

Harris learned about his NEA award in mid-March. "My two most overwhelming feelings," he recalls, "were very lucky and very humbled." About a week later he learned of the PSA prize, but in the intervening days an "escalating check-up" of his wife's health brought a diagnosis of breast cancer and the elation was dashed.

The two experiences are not equal, though both profound: one is joyful, the other terrifying and full of uncertainty. He says he suddenly understands, in a way he didn't until now, myths in which the Greek gods use the fate of humans to spar with each other, or the echo of that same idea in King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys, we are to the gods/They kill us for their sport."

A trip to New York to accept the lyric poetry prize at the PSA annual awards dinner "took on a different meaning" in the context of his wife's illness. It meant "asserting that this horror would pass. It's an overwhelming confrontation with mortality. But we can't quit the whole rest of life."

The cancer treatment regimen is "a slow wracking of the nerves," he says. "But day to day, we are lucky and busy with two kids growing up in their own time."

He reads Virginia Woolf's essay "On Being Ill" for insights, and is struck by how often haiku describes a stream and flower blossoms being sucked inexorably down the current. "That's the world I'm living in now."



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