James E. Harper: 2 (Lyrics of the Month: April 2015)

by Nic Olson

“A story has got to have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” James told me over the phone from his care home in his small city in Arkansas. “That’s it. I don’t care if it’s a song, a novel, or just a story you’re telling your friend.” He coached me even though we’d essentially known each other for three minutes.

I met James E. Harper (a.k.a. Poet) nearly four years ago with a friend in downtown San Francisco. James was introducing himself to people on the street, selling his book of poems, three or four roughly photocopied pieces of gold-coloured paper, so he could afford to grab a meal or some hygiene products for his wife. He mentioned that more of his work was available if you searched his name on the internet. In doing so, I couldn’t find any writings, so I transcribed what he sold me and posted it here. He deserves credit for his work. His poems are powerful and real. Read them.

As simple as it sounds, this is the writing advice I’ve needed for months, years perhaps. James’ advice, to simplify and be natural, speaks to why I find his writing to be worth noting. Honesty. No bullshit. I spend hours at the Bernal Heights Library, staring into the eyes of Antonio Banderas encouraging me to read, while I try to sort out the several dozen metaphors I have choking every story. When really, all the story needs is a beginning, middle, and end. I am mid-read of Crash Landing on Iduna by Arthur Tofte, a sci-fi paperback I found in a Wyoming truckstop for $2.99 with incredible cover art. In contrast to my overcomplicated way of thinking, it is the perfect example of oversimplified writing. Now to find the middle.

Comments have been posted regularly to James’ poems on Balls of Rice over the past three years by people who also stopped to chat with James and searched his name upon arriving home. A comment arrived in February stating that James now lived in a care home, and included a contact number.

“When you write something, you want to strike the chord. There’s a tuning fork in all of us, and you want it to feel like you’ve hit that,” he said. “If you haven’t lived it, you can’t write it.”

I told him that I am a writer and that I was in San Francisco to finish a few stories, which were giving me some trouble. “It sounds like you are forcing it. You heard of that song, If It Don’t Fit, Don’t Force It? Well, that’s just it.”

I hadn’t heard of the song. Now it is in my head when I need it most.

Just waiting to hear the end of the story.

If it don’t fit, don’t force it
If it don’t fit, nah, don’t force it
If it don’t fit, don’t force it
Just relax and let it go
Just ’cause that’s how you want it
Doesn’t mean it will be so

I’m givin’ up, I’m leavin’
Yes, I’m ready to be free
The thrill is gone, I’m movin on
‘Cause you’ve stopped pleasin’ me

I can’t stand bein’ handled
I’ve exhausted each excuse
I’ve even stooped to fakin’ it
But tell me what’s the use

You’re tryin’ hard to shame me
‘Cause you wanna make me stay
But all it does is bring to mind
What Mama used to say

I know there’ll be no changin’
We’ve been through all that before
I’m all worn out from talkin’
And now I’m a-headin’ for the door

C’mon stop your complainin’
Someone else will come along
You can start your life all over
Sing her your brand new song

You’re tryin’ hard to shame me
‘Cause you wanna make me stay
But all it does is bring to mind
What Mama used to say

-Kellee Patterson, Turn On The Lights/Be Happy, If It Don’t Fit, Don’t Force It