Person of the Week
Two Names, Prolific Talent: Guilford’s Julie Harris
Guilford’s Juliana “Julie” Harris, a prolific poet, novelist, actress, and singer, has just published Murder at the Tavern: A Guilford Mystery while also keeping up her work to support Guilford Poets Guild (GPG) as its president. (Photo courtesy of Julie Harris )
Have you ever met a true storyteller? That person who can transport you to stand next to her and witness the very thing she’s describing, in spoken word or writing? That’s Juliana “Julie” Harris, and it’s just one of many reasons why so many in Guilford treasure this prolific poet, novelist, actress, and singer.
“Juliana is my writer name, and that’s what I use on my books and also as president of the Guilford Poets Guild. I’m also singer, and when I perform there, my name is Julie, and most people know me here as Julie. So I’ve got two identities,” she says, laughing.
Julie was first recognized as a poet in high school with the very first poem she wrote, for a freshman class. It went on to win a state prize. She’s continued writing poetry and essays to this day, having pieces published and recognized nationally. Most recently, in February, she was selected grand prize winner of national publication KaleidoscopeWoJo Reflections on Women’s Journeys Holiday Writing Contest for her essay, “The Great K-10 Race.”
“My paternal grandmother and paternal aunt were both writers and poets. I think it’s definitely genetic,” says Julie.
In 2008, she was invited to join Guilford Poets Guild (GPG), a group of award-winning, published poets who meet regularly to foster artistic fertile ground by sharing works. Now in its 22nd year, GPG also works to promote the craft in the community and shoreline, such as GPG’s Second Thursday Poetry Series. On Thursday, March 11 at 7 p.m., GPG hosts renowned, award-winning poet, author, and past State of Connecticut poet laureate Marilyn Nelson for its Second Thursday Poetry Reading. The event, always free and open to the public, will be held via Zoom, hosted by Guilford Free Library. Pre-registration at the library’s website (www.guilfordfreelibrary.org) is required to receive the Zoom link.
“Marilyn Nelson is such a distinguished poet,” says Julie, who’s now in her third year as GPG president. “We’re thrilled that she’s going to be with us.”
GPG is also in the community this month as part of the Guilford Art Center (GAC) multi-media exhibit of faculty work, Keeping On, which opened Feb. 17 and runs through Saturday, March 27. The exhibit, which shares the spirit of GAC’s 50-person faculty’s drive to continue their work despite (or perhaps inspired by) the pandemic, is being paired with GPG ekphrastic poems (pieces inspired by works of art).
Throughout the month of March, GPG poets’ work will be posted with an image of the artwork that inspired it at www.guilfordpoetsguild.org and www.guilfordartcenter.org under Gallery: Current Exhibits, and also on both organizations’ Facebook pages.
Keeping On also celebrates re-opening the doors of GAC’s gallery to the public. Free, in-person viewing of the exhibit is available Wednesday to Friday from noon to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (facial masks and social distancing are required). The gallery is part of the GAC campus at 411 Church Street.
Julie recently visited the gallery for inspiration to write her ekphrastic poem.
“I wrote a poem about a painting called Portraits,” Julie notes. “In the poem, I say that I looked at all of this artistry, but somehow this painting kept drawing me back. What was it? And at the end, I say, ‘It must have been the arched eyebrow.’ It’s the face of the artist, close-up. It’s a small painting, but it just grabbed me, and that’s the fascinating thing about an ekphrastic show. Everybody is taken by something different. It’s wonderful. So I hope people will see the show. It’s a great show.”
Before she takes off her GPG hat to talk about her latest work as a novelist, Julie has one more thing to note about this great group of community-minded poets.
“We work with the young poets from Guilford High School and I think that’s the most important thing that we do every year,” she says, of GPG’s annual Guilford High School (GHS) Poetry Contest.
Recognizing the constraints of the pandemic, Julie reached out to GHS English Department Chair George Cooksey to find a way to bring the contests to students this year. It usually takes place in April, National Poetry Month.
“He very graciously agreed we should do it,” says Julie of this year’s altered event.
Instead of bringing GPG members into the school to share poems and student works, GHS faculty will be sending poems from those submitted by students and selected for GPG members to review, and the GHS poets who are chosen by the guild will be reading their poems online in May.
“I just think one of the most important things the guild does, is to encourage and support young poets, so I’m very glad we’re doing this,” says Julie.
Inspired by Guilford
Inspired by her hometown, Julie recently wrote and published her first mystery novel, Murder at the Tavern: A Guilford Mystery, now on sale in town at Breakwater Books. In the recent years, she’s also authored and published two fiction novels, A Fork in the Road and Pacific Heights. Julie is delighted with the journey writing fiction provides.
“You get pulled in,” she says, recalling American fiction author Ed McBain once told her, “‘I don’t know how that book happened.’ And that’s the writing of fiction! [American author] Elizabeth Byrd said writing fiction is like groping your way down a dark hallway—you never know what’s going to jump out at you. And that’s so true! Characters would wake me up in the middle of the night, literally. It’s a fascinating process.”
And if you’re wondering if that “tavern” in the title refers to Guilford Keeping Society’s 1803 Medad Stone Tavern, bingo.
“The murder takes place the grounds of the tavern,” says Julie. “I’ll tell you how this all started—it started about 35 years ago. I walking up toward Cox School on a November night, and out of the dark came Rufus Bishop, and if you knew Rufus, you know what a dear person he was. So out of the dark came Rufus, and he was carrying a big walking stick. And he greeted me—you know Rufus was so courtly, ‘Hello Julie’—and asked about my family, bless his heart.
“Well, that stayed in the back of my brain, for some reason,” she continues. “I thought, ‘What was he doing there? That was odd.’ I got to thinking, wouldn’t it make an interesting book, about a well-loved person in a community being framed for a murder. And that stuck in the back of my brain until this past year. And I sat down, and wrote the first chapter.”
Right now, Julie’s working on her second murder mystery, also set in Guilford.
“It’s going to have some of the same people; it’s called Murder at Pinebrook, and it’s all about a murder at the retirement community,” she says. “The people who have read Murder at the Tavern are all Guilfordites, and that’s what they love about the book—I name all the local places. It’s a fun read.”
A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Julie and her family moved to Guilford in 1979 from Wilmington, Delaware—but it wasn’t her first visit to this shoreline area.
“Many years ago, when I was 12 years old, I came east to spend the summer with my aunt and uncle,” says Julie, her voice taking on that lovely cadence that just makes you want to settle in and hear a good yarn. “They lived in Katonah, New York, and we were invited to come and spend a week in Connecticut on the shore. And so we went, and I fell in love with Connecticut. I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, never dreaming I would move here! So fast forward to 1979. My cousin, Jeff, came to visit us in Guilford. And I said, ‘Jeff, what was the name of the town that we were in, in Connecticut, back then?’ And he said, ‘Madison.’ There you go.”
While living in Guilford, Julie performed with Nutmeg Players (now disbanded), acting in several productions on the shoreline.
“Acting has been a joy of my life,” she says. “I’m afraid now the parts are few and far in-between, but in the day, it was wonderful. When I was younger, my dream was to be a movie star. But when MGM hadn’t called me by about age 60, I decided that wasn’t going to happen!”
If only MGM had asked, what a movie Julie’s story would have made.
“I had the great good fortune, when I was 17 years old, to have a theater in my backyard,” she says. “When I was 17, my mother got a phone call from a gentleman [who was] a very well-known interior decorator in Kansas City. My mother was famous for her cooking and he said, ‘Maggie, I know you’ve always wanted a restaurant. I have taken over [an estate] barn and I have turned it into a straw hat theater. And there’s a marvelous house on the property, with a wonderful veranda that wraps around the house, which would be ideal for a summer restaurant, and I want you to come out here.’ Well, we did. We moved out to the country to this fabulous house, and mother had her restaurant, which was her dream, and [he] had his theater, which was his dream. Well, I was a stage-struck kid.”
Julie recounts “creeping down to the theater in the dark of night” to sneak in through a side door to watch rehearsals until, one day, the theater owner called her mom and asked if “that daughter of yours who creeps down here and thinks I don’t see her” wanted a bit part. She went from playing walk-on roles to acting in some productions, then on to studying acting in college. Ten years after that first walk-on, she came back to the theatre to play the leading role in Private Lives.
“Acting, oh my—that was everything,” says Julie.
While she may no longer trod the boards, since 2008, Julie has found another way to perform, as a singer. Pre-pandemic, she appeared locally and throughout the state as part of the Harris/Roane duo, singing with guitarist Stephen Roane. The duo has also recorded three CDs. Julie was inspired to get out there and sing by none other than American singer-songwriter Laura Clapp, who also happens to be Julie’s daughter.
“She’s a very talented singer songwriter, and she has been my inspiration,” says Julie. “I didn’t start signing professionally until I was 62. It was a long-deferred dream I had that finally came true, and Laura has been my guide. She is the true professional musician of our family.”
Julie’s also delighted to have Laura and her husband, Eric, and their two daughters living nearby in Guilford.
“I’m blessed to be able to be with them, they’re my Guilford family. I’m also blessed to have my other daughter, Anna, who lives in West Hartford, so we have not been able to visit as much during all of this,” says Julie, who has also kept busy writing during the pandemic.
“Writing has been a salvation during COVID,” says Julie. “I’ve also been keeping a daily journal, a COVID journal, since last March. That’s a blessing, too. I’m just keeping a daily account of my life, because it occurred to me that we really don’t know that much about the Spanish influenza of 1918. They tried to keep it hushed up. I thought it would be valuable for history to keep a record of what was going on, what we were dealing with.”
She’s also grateful to be living in a wonderful Guilford retirement community with her neighbors.
“I’m blessed there, too, because we have a wonderful group of people. We get to meet with each other and see each other, and that has been a godsend. Family and friends, in this time of crisis, is so important. And I’ve been very blessed with that, every day.”
Murder at the Tavern: A Guilford Mystery by Juliana Harris, can be purchased at Breakwater Books, 81 Whitfield Street, Guilford, or by contacting Harris via the Guilford Poets Guild website guilfordpoetsguild.wordpress.com.