Conversation with Tess Taylor

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  • February 25, 2019

RIFT ZONE, Taylor’s third book, is due out in 2020 from Red Hen Press. Her powerful poems trace literal and metaphoric fault lines between past and present; childhood and adulthood; what is and what was. Circling an ordinary California suburb lying along the Hayward fault, these  poems include redwood trees, hummingbirds, buried streams, and the otherworldly cries of new babies. They are also records of American unease, American violence, American grief. They include arson on the site of a Spanish landgrant, white supremacist violence, guns in the local elementary school and the painful history of Japanese internment. 

In this conversation with Ilya Kaminsky, Taylor discusses the roots of the book. 

If you had to choose some lines from your previous work that echoed in your mind, in your inner-ear when you wrote this book–or perhaps the opposite (if it is more helpful), what lines you wanted to shield from, what you didn’t want to hear, as you wrote this book– what lines might that be? If you can give me a couple of passages, that would be perfect. I ask because I would like to explore that idea of mapping into the sound-work in your books, too. Not just content. 

What’s funny about this question is that I do now see how this third work Rift Zone communicates in overt and subterranean ways with works I made before. But I very rarely, if ever, think of former work directly when planning new work. In fact, planning is the wrong verb there, because when a poem or fragment of a poem emerges, it is a mystery to me.  In this book about earthquakes, I write “suddenly upthrust like revelation” to describe the earthquakes in the book, but I suppose it’s a fair figure of mind, too. It’s as if suddenly I’m in the grips of something that feels as it must be part of a poem, and then it comes out, usually on a notebook page; a bit of itself, as a start.  The words emerge as fragment or shard, or some demand or promise from the universe. I actually don’t know what I am working on for some time, or see the wider shape it might take. It’s only later that I see a pattern or constellation emerging, or glimpse something that seems to be somewhere within the dialog between points or poems that are coming into being. I suppose you could say I work out of instinct and baffled passion. This book, Rift Zone, was in progress for 8 years! I began writing it just after I moved back to California from nearly 20 years away, and in the blurry months after my son was born. (These were, by the way, the same time.) I hardly could know what I was doing, or planning to do.

It was only after the book was done, as it became clear that it was a book that excavates the history of my hometown, my backyard—that I could see so clearly: Oh, this echoes all the concerns I had before. This book digs, too.

I wonder if you could answer the above once more, but instead of sound, consider images. What specific images from your past work you were still haunted by as you wrote these new poems. Or, if it helps: what images were so persistent that you had to shield yourself from them as you wrote these new poems.

Because I began these poems after moving home to California after all those years away- these poems felt fresh to me, built away from the other poems. Everything seemednew—I had just crossed the country, just moved back into the suburb I was raised in. I had just become a mother. Before that I was in Brooklyn, and then working on a farm in Massachusetts. This homecoming was part of it: because the California landscape was distinct, there were all these trapdoors of memory—I was thrown back twenty years just by turning a particular corner on a spring day.  I could see my teenage self walking around!   Becoming a parent was also part of it. I remember looking at my tiny new primate and thinking how all of evolutionary time had converged in his body, how he was bearing the dark past of the species forward—into this very odd, confusing, incongruous world.

As we made home here, we bought a house in El Cerrito, a formerly working class suburb, that is now ever more expensive. It happens to be where I grew up and now live again. I hated it when I grew up here, even though it is a very humble place, with bright small bungalows, and lemon trees—built as a kind of post-war California dream.  Yet where is that dream now? For whom is it available? My suburb is uneasy in a new way: We bought the house in the years just after the housing crisis, and even as we bought the house tent cities began to bloom, and the Occupy movement was basically on our doorstep. The poverty has persisted.  There are tent cities under every freeway underpass, it seems. Our neighbors are living under freeway underpasses. Our neighbors are living in tents.

Another question: Auden, when he writes about Yeats, says “mad Ireland hurt him into poetry” What hurt Tess Taylor into poetry? Could you answer this question in terms of images, and sounds, what images show it to us, what sound keeps echoing that specific hurt, in your new book? in your past books?

Oh, I say that line all the time, and I love that line so much! Camille Dungy and I have shared that “Virginia hurt us into poetry.”  Our families are both from there— one branch of mine was a white slaveholding family in Charlottesville, hers an enslaved family in Lynchburg; something we’ve talked about a lot over the years.

I suppose part of the hurt is in inheriting a throughline back to that deep violence, of seeing how deeply unhealed it is, of seeing how it spirals and tendrils outward, how it reinvents itself.  Lawrence Campbell, a minister at a black church in Danville, Virginia, who was involved in the Civil Rights movement and knew my grandfather said, “racism is like one of those weeds. you knock it down one place and it comes up some place else.”  I suppose this book explores that “someplace else”. There’s a lot of American violence in this book but it takes place in California. It’s tendrilled its way all across the country, to California. It’s a highly persistent thing, and even travelling 400 years into the future and 3,000 miles to the west can’t quite rid us of it.

As I returned here, I also kept unearthing histories of racism in my hometown and decoding them newly, learning things I didn’t know while growing up here, hidden just below the skin of my childhood. How this town was a ground zero for Japanese internment. How it was settled by Okies and has a history of Klan violence; how much racist violence shaped its settlement patterns.  Look: I wouldn’t have grown up being taught these things, but I could see them newly as a returned adult, and they hurt to see. And—none of them has stopped being relevant.

Meanwhile, Bay Area has changed—from being a bit wilder and hippy-er  and wayward to being so expensive and technological. I mentioned the glaring rifts between rich and poor. But all of us live, insofar as we live, in a precarious balance here—always downwind of fire, ahead of earthquake, ahead of having no health insurance and losing our houses and being out on the street. Some of us have more buttress than others, but I do always feel THERE BUT FOR FORTUNE. My husband was gravely ill, and lost his job because of it and was unwell for nearly a year.  We are ok, but so easily might not have been. We nearly lost each other and everything we had.  I nearly lost him.  Recently we have weathered several devastating fire seasons, with friends losing houses, weeks of toxic air.  I live a roughly middleclass life in the Bay Area. But even that always feels like it’s a fragile miracle.

And, a very direct, almost flat question: what is home for Tess Taylor–and what troubles you about building a home and raising a family in California, United States, in 2019? As you speak about that troubling moment– might you consider answering with images, sounds from the book?

Well, there are a lot of homes in this book. Some of them are the homes of place, of ecotone, of light, of species—the  homes we make in tender proximity to the world around us.  We have a redwood tree in the backyard—redwoods are these amazing, highly evolved organisms—their forests recycle the most elements, molecule for molecule-than any on the planet.  The redwoods should author the Green New Deal, honestly! Or the writers should look to them.   We have this broken economy, but redwood forests actually are these highly efficient ecosystems—a “wise economy” I think I call them, in the book. They can live to be 2.000 years old and be nearly 400 feet high. Redwoods have a kind of wisdom—you’re really getting something right as a species, when you live that way.

Some of the homes are homes of memory. Some of the homes are homes of family, the homes we make with the bodies we are trying to raise and protect in the world. When my son was born I felt so in awe of him; a being, alive at the end of this vast evolutionary and historic journey. Look at his tiny body! Look at the miracle of it. And: I also felt— It’s not his fault, but soon he will become part of the chain of it. He’ll inherit pollution, the internet, the broken oceans, whatever is left of democracy, and so on. He’ll inherit the plastic in the sea.

You’re asking me for images of home. I think I wanted to somehow encompass all these things: my tenderness towards my new primate. My horror and sorrow and grief of living in this violent economy. The oddness of perching here at the edge of the world. The strangeness of enduring one’s life in time.  The solace of redwoods.  These are the things that began to jumble around in my mind.

The book is filled with tenderness, and fear, and there is also a very specific strain of grief in this book–an American grief. When we speak about literature we rarely touch upon this — an American grief. It seems to me that grief for Americans, especially white middle class Americans, is always other people’s thing, other people’s trouble. I think your work points very much to the American grief. I wonder if you had only a paragraph, how would you phrase it, or show it, or sound it: American grief. That is, very simply: what is American grief according to Tess Taylor?

You mention American grief. When I look for a way to answer this question I think of EM Forster famously saying “only connect.” I often wonder about our real ability to connect, to be human with, and for, one another, to be, as Gwendolyn Brooks put it, “each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business… each other’s magnitude and bond.” Perhaps the grief is living in this society which, in failing so many people, fails all of us.

And: Only connect!  Tech companies have tried to use that as their slogan, but what can foster the kind of conversation that touches us, and changes us, that makes us more open to one another, or helps us open ourselves to reconciliation, to justice, to understanding? We live in an era of furious soundbite, of bon mot; where the very engines of conversation—I’m thinking of Twitter here—actually profit by feeding off and amplifying anger and discontent.  Yet what will amplify our tenderness? What will amplify our sense of being responsible for one another?

We share this delicate, difficult place, these cities, our children, our planet. We share our fragile air.  We share the oceans. Yet we are living in many ways in a deeply savage time, where all us who are paying attention are seeing such traumas to the bodies around us—through gun violence, through poverty, through brutality. One small example: Recently when I was riding BART with my son who is now seven, we saw a very ill and unhoused person, someone who needed deep care. There are many people like this now, but this person’s affect was very bad, and it was painful to be walking around him, though I couldn’t immediately think what more to do.  Afterwards Bennett told me that the situation made him sad.  I asked him why and he told me “I am sad for him, but I am also sad for all of us that no one is taking care of him. That’s what scares me.” I think this gets at it somewhat. To be enmeshed in this society that abandons people, that so frequently erupts in violence—even if one is privileged in that society, even if one seems to be surviving—  does not allow us to escape its sorrow, or its threat. There is a grief that one must feel if one is to be a moral human.

Your book gives us a vision of an American suburb. When you hear this phrase, “American suburb” — what emotions occur to you? And, what images and sounds from your work speak most vividly to those emotions? If you had to choose just 3-4, images/sounds, 

what would they be? Would they change from book to book? how? Why?

Well, the book does start out describing the suburb, my place. Here’s a section of San Pablo Avenue a couple miles north of where I live:


San Pablo, old trade route, widens there

peppered by papusa stands.

Passes the crumbling mission and the corner


where Donte, who my sister loved, was shot.

Blackberries choke the bike path;

schoolboys squall like gulls or pigeons.


What’s funny when you say American suburb, it seems like an anywhere, but of course I am always interested in very specific histories. In plant names. In specificities. When you say American suburb, American dream, American violence—well those things do mean something, but it’s also true that there are no ideas but in things. Under my suburb is Spanish conquest and a land grant, and genocide and also survival of the Huichin Ohlone. And in my suburb are paved over streams and small modest bungalows and lemon trees and lavender and rosemary bushes and this really strange wonderful light that makes the whole thing blaze to life after a rain; racist codes in escrow files, cleaners that for a long time lost the “c” and so looked to be the “leaners.” Down the street is the very crumbling bungalow where Credence Clearwater was founded with some guys from El Cerrito High. Why did they make that funny almost Southern son of a gun sound in California, on my street? Around the corner are where the Rosie the Riveters worked building ships in World War II.  There is fog in July and there are frogs in October in the few places the streams are daylighted. The streams would once have had coho salmon!  In the winter the light is bright tangerine, with these long persimmon dusks. Some of those things are deeply American, some site specific. I think it’s this jumble of violence and tenderness; of not being able to resolve those things; never quite being able to pull them apart.  I suppose there’s some puzzle in that, some longing that emerges within this jumble that makes me want to write.  A faultline is under constant pressure, and sometimes that pressure makes itself visible. That’s a figure for American violence, but maybe it’s a figure for writing, too.  And I suppose this is the moment in my life, in my hometown, when I want to do that writing. I want to name  “what did I notknow” that     “was already happening.”

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