Interview conducted by Arkana
Transcribed by Thomas E. Moran and Melanie A. Wilson
In November, the University of Central Arkansas’s Fall 2022 artist-in-residence, internationally acclaimed poet Tess Taylor sat down with Arkana editors to discuss poetry, place, and being present in the world.
Arkana: Can you talk about how your experience as a poetry reviewer has affected your own poetry?
Tess Taylor: For me, being a reviewer and a critic is really about praising and uplifting those things in which I have found joy and trying to celebrate the joy I have found in them. It’s also a wonderful way of making yourself stay current with the landscape, who is writing right now, and of engaging a work deeply. Sometimes, something will get its hooks in you, and you won’t understand why, and then you can spend some time digging that out. You can ask, “Is this pleasure?” “Is this discomfort?” and “What is going on here?” Being a critic or a reviewer is a really great chance to put words to your sensation, your story, and your experience as a reader.
I think it’s also really important with what you are doing here, putting out this literary journal [ARKANA], just to have all of these different pillars in the poetry ecosystem and the literary ecosystem. We are in a fragile time, and a lot of arts organizations are struggling. Having the chance to lift up work and to help support literary magazines has given me a sense of taking responsibility . . . has been a chance to do advocacy for the poetry world, as well as just writing poetry.
ARK: How has remaining in academic institutions and continuing to work with students and other professors and experts affected your work?
TT: Well, I’m a hybrid kind of person. I go in and out of academic jobs, and I go in and out of journalistic jobs. Right now, my big-money job is writing a podcast for the Getty Museum about artists’ lives, but I’ve had students at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Randolph College, and Queens University-Belfast in Ireland. I really love being in a classroom. I’m lucky that I’ve gotten to wear a bunch of different hats, and I think it gives me a little bit of distance from any one set of concerns. Some people are very focused on an academic path as a poet, and I feel like that path is not the only one. There are lots of people who are poets, who are priests, childcare workers, or middle school teachers, or podcast writers. It’s really important to build a big, inclusive community.
ARK: Is there anything that you’d really like to do sometime soon, or are you just going with the wind, or are you working towards something?
TT: I think my perfect dream would be to have one or two classes at a university in one of the semesters and then in the other semester to be free for writing and projects. Right now, I teach at the Ashland University low residency MFA program, so it’s almost like that! But I like to teach outside academia, too – I like to teach in the community through community centers. I even offer a private workshop, and the people who come to me at that level are tech workers, nurses, architects, and real estate agents. Poetry is something we can pick up and learn at almost any time in our lives. Poetry is portable. It’s light. I’ve taught in churches. I’ve taught in gardens. It’s important to meet people wherever they are on this path.
ARK: As a poet, you seem to gravitate to the natural world, and you use your geographical personality to storytell and provoke thoughts. So how might you advise writers, poets or not, to ground their own creative work in the land and its various history?
TT: Place is an umbrella concept, and you can’t get to it without thinking about ecology, weather patterns, history, industry, cultural violence, and dialects. All of these things come together in our experience of our time on earth, in our lives. Each of us has a place and a history, a trade route in how we came to be in our places. Each of us has dialect words, and our grandmothers had dialect words. Our relationship to the places we are and to ourselves, to our own histories, and the way that our history comes to match with the history of a place is always really rich. There is always a story there.
Today, looking at the Arkansas River, I said, “Can you swim in it?” And then I was told that it was way too fast to swim in, that it’s a dredged river for carrying barges of corn and grain down through the Mississippi and into the world at large. I’m the sort of person who, when you tell me this is a dredged river, this whole barge is full of corn, this is draining grain from the heartland down the Mississippi out into the world– and then I’m looking at those autumn colors, at the Arkansas River in a drought year in its particular shade of blue—that’s where I get excited. I get really interested in looking at huge systems and our own little particular moments inside them.
I did a project this past year. I set myself a challenge of writing a couplet or a haiku every day. Usually, the couplet or haiku was meant to acknowledge a fleeting and beautiful thing that I had seen in the day. My idea was to string them together at the end of the year and see what they added up to. I loved noticing the very first day of the cherry blossoms. Setting myself an assignment of being alive to some detail of the day—and these details were not often political; they very rarely even had other people in them. I found it to be a lovely practice. I’m missing it already.
ARK: Your poem, “Green Tomatoes in Fire Season,” published in The Nation this year, has moved some of us at Arkana very much. Its theme seems to be about the ethics of salvaging, how to parse in our time, and what is worth saving. Could you speak briefly about the origins of this composition?
TT: Well, there has been a lot of fire where I live in the Bay Area. For the last five years in a row, every fall, there were days that were unbearable. One year, there was a week that was unbearable, and another year, almost two weeks that were unbearable. We couldn’t let the children outside, we had air purifiers going, ashes falling on our house. We set up the app on the phone to look at where the air quality might be better, and people who could afford to would rent Air BnBs or hotel rooms and drive to get to better air, even for a day or a weekend. The accelerating sense of apocalypse and climate change is really hanging over our experience. So anyway, amid it all, I really did pick the green tomatoes in the fire season, and ash really did fall on me.
Sometimes when I’m having a hard time, stately language will come. That is intriguing to me, that in stressful moments I can hear in my own mind much more rhythmic, processional language. That poem really got written fairly quickly then. It’s weaving itself into a new collection I am working on that has a lot of food items like this.
ARK: Is there more gardening or something along those lines?
TT: Yes! I’m editing an anthology of gardening poems that’s coming out fall 2023. It’s called Leaning Toward Light: Poems for Gardens and Hands That Tend Them. It is just the most beautifully designed book.
Gardening is hugely important for me. I’ve done it my whole life. Especially during the pandemic, it became something I returned to. I talk about “tendriling” out towards each other like the root hairs in soil. My pandemic poems often have food items because they were poems about what was at hand, places where we could find fascination and joy. On the worst day if you cook up a meal with beautiful vegetables, it can really soothe you; and unlike a poem, if you set out to make a meal, you’re going to have something. When you set out to write a poem, you never really know what will happen.
ARK: In addition to food, what other topics do you like to write about?
TT: Well, you talk about food and place. For me, place also means history. I love archives. I went to journalism school. You go out with somebody and do field work and you take notes on what they are saying. It always excited me. I would often make poems, as well as making the essay I was assigned to write. Often poems will begin in some sort of experiential work. I also think there’s not much of a big line between nature and non-nature, geology and poetry. The language of science and the language of poetry, there’s all these blurry places. I find that poetry often is something that begins not necessarily in a particular topic, but in a place where there’s some sort of blurriness that can be exploited.
This book that I will read from today, Rift Zone—a rift zone is a real geologic feature. It is the way that the land tears open when two continental plates are pushing past each other. All of those words are very precise geologic terms, but they have social valence, as well. I think most Americans would relate to the idea of living inside a tear, that we are living in a moment that feels charged up and divided and torn. So when you say something like “rift zone,” it’s not just a metaphor, it’s also that it’s a proxy for a bleeding into social understanding. Now would you say, “Do you like to write about geology?” Well, yes. I like to write about geology, but what I like particularly is to come up to the blurry place where something in that geologic language seems to resonate against a different register of understanding. That could go for art history or history or archaeology or physics. I like these moments where language sort of surprises us into seeing, Oh, this concept has actually got a poem in it or a poem is near this concept.
ARK: We wanted to talk about a 2010 poem of yours, “Time on Earth.” There’s a line in it:
methamphetamine; medical waste; elaborate cheese;
pandemics; global economic crisis.
You burn your newspaper on cold mornings
watching its turquoise flame.
This is not forever. But also you think
This is my time on earth.
That just seemed really relevant to today. Is that something you find in your poems sometimes, a little prophecy?
TT: Well, I don’t think I meant to prophesy this particular pandemic. It sounds like many different years we’ve lived through, right? But I think there’s this: “Watching its turquoise flame // This is not forever, but you also think // This is my time on earth. // Today, a thumb-sized frog clambered up the screen.” There, the poem shifts very quickly to the register of something small and pleasant.
I do think one of the questions that always animates me is: At what scale do we need to be present? To each other? To the world? At what scale do we need to be present to joy? There’s always this little voice in me: Is it cloying to feel joy for the frog when beyond this, there are terrorists and pandemics and global economic crises? Where in all of this is the role of delight? It is important, always, to celebrate that frog. I think the poem is here to help us steward our attention and to build dialogue between the part of us that grieves and the part of us that asserts that our joy is necessary. The poem exists in dialog between these things.
ARK: That’s lovely. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Tess Taylor is the author of five collections of poetry, including The Misremembered World, selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s inaugural chapbook fellowship, and The Forage House, called “stunning” by The San Francisco Chronicle. Work & Days was named one of The New York Times best books of poetry of 2016. In spring 2020, she published two books of poems. Last West was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art as a part of the Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures exhibition; Rift Zone, from Red Hen Press, was hailed as “brilliant” in the LA Times and named one of the best books of 2020 by The Boston Globe. Taylor has served as on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered for over a decade. Taylor is currently on the faculty of Ashland University’s Low-Res MFA Creative Writing Program. You can read more about Tess Taylor at her website: https://www.tess-taylor.com/
Image Credit: “Border” by Brian McPartlon