Tess Taylor on the Qualified Life
Tess Taylor reviews poetry for NPR’s All Things Considered and teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland and published by the Poetry Society of America. Her essay, “The Waste Land App,” published in The Threepenny Review, won a 2013 Pushcart Prize. Her book of poems, The Forage House, is published by Red Hen Press. She lives in El Cerrito.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
It depends. If I feel safe I say I teach and write poetry. If I feel less safe I say I teach. Or I say I’m a journalist, which is also true.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Balancing the part of me that is shy and wants to be home writing or gardening with the part of me that wants to be in the world. I struggle too between wanting to attend to my totally wonderful small child and wanting more alone time. I have to give myself permission to write something through a first phase where it feels crappy and trust I’ll get to another deeper part where it feels interesting. I am working on that as I start a new project. I have to give myself permission to write the bad first draft. Write now, judge later.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Read lots. Write lots. Memorize stuff. Keep going. Be in it for the friendship and also for the solitude.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I don’t really think it’s useful to think in terms of success. It’s better to think in terms of process. Thinking about success often makes you want to compare yourself to some aspect of someone else — a false benchmark. Thinking about process makes you want to focus on the art of getting to work.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Bennett, our son, is 2. So we’re back watching Sesame Street, this time on YouTube. It’s still great. Here’s one of my favorites — Dave Matthews and Grover:
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
There are a lot of ancestors in my book. It’s a book about inheritance and the broken mysterious stuff out of which we make culture. My favorite ancestor is a woman called Emeline who was my grandmother’s grandmother and gathered herbs in a roadless part of Appalachia. She raised 13 children as a widow in the mountains and fished off a rock in the New River that is still called Granny’s Rock. There’s a stone in the mountains where her front step was. Her well is still there.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I wanted to be either a writer or an actress, or a playwright. I used to staple together papers to make pretend books. In a way, I still do.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
I love the Mokelumne wilderness in the northern Sierra. I’d love to go there now as the seasons are turning and stay in a cabin and hike every day. Better yet, I’d go for a month. I’d write in the morning and hike in the afternoon, and I’d also have a geologist and a botanist and a historian and also a terrific babysitter and my husband with me, but somehow I’d also be very solitary. I’d have a pile of books and just pore through them in search of new poems. I’d ask the geologist and the botanist questions in front of a campfire at night. And, despite being out there in the woods, we’d have a fairly nice threadcount sheets to retreat to. Oh, yes, and I’d find time to go fishing and grill the fish and also to make some excellent stew.
What is your fondest memory?
I don’t think memories work as superlatives, but more as spectrums of association. Right now I’m remembering looking for pumpkins in a pumpkin patch up near Cazadero when I was a kid, and fighting with my sister about whether to get round or long and skinny, happy or vaguely villainous, but that’s because of the way the air smells as I’m writing this — all these memories of other Octobers are coming back. It’s fascinating returning to the Bay Area as a grown up: All my memories are locked in my childhood. I think the act of unlocking memories can be intensely pleasurable, as if memories are held in constellations of season or light or place. You know, Proust thought this already, and said it much more eloquently, but it doesn’t make it less true.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I love this poem by Basho that says “Even in Kyoto/ hearing the cuckoo cry/ I long for Kyoto.” There’s this awareness there of being in the body but also outside oneself and longing to feel more. Wanting to want. An engagement with space and time. I think this is the kind of love I fall in often, especially when I give myself time to daydream. The world happens fast — how can we feel it more as it happens? By the way, I do think that’s one thing we all need more of. Time to daydream and let the mind move as it will. To admire its shapes.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
I’d love for our country to undertake a concerted conversation about truth and reconciliation about the violence that is at the root of this country, particularly the racial violence of slavery, and the continuing violence of racism. I think we could do remarkable work if somehow we engaged in a national process of reckoning. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to. I pray we will.
Is art necessary? Why?
Poetry doesn’t just represent the self thinking or seeing the world, it actually creates the space by which we find our thoughts and selves. Poetry is a vector that makes selfhood possible. We live in an era of a great deal of data (“the quantified life”) but, I think, not enough stories (“the qualified life”). Muriel Ruykeyser, the wonderful modernist poet, once said “the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” It’s still true. Our storytellers are the ones that build the universe for us. I’d say that’s fairly necessary work.
What are you working on right now?
Poems about obscure corners of California and about watching my son learn to speak.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Oh, don’t get me started. I’m an urban planning nerd. We need better coherent transit around the bay. We need better waterfront access in the East Bay. I’d drive some investment towards El Cerrito and Richmond — Richmond especially. I’m always daydreaming about green infrastructure. What about freeway caps? What if the freeways were tunnels and over them were green parks and you could get up in the morning and amble over to the bay trail? Why do we have all these beautiful places that we access only by car? We need to build more for the human body and less for the car, in the outer towns, too. I’m so tired of cynical big box development. We all have watched the outer fields get subsumed with sprawl since the ’80s — stuff that’s not good for anyone except some corporation based in the ether. I want us to keep spurring local, body-friendly development. And I’d love for there to be more places to drink wine directly by the bay.
A night on the town: What does that mean to you?
Last night I hosted this event called Flight of Poets at the Hotel Rex with the fabulous poet Hollie Hardy and the sommelier Christopher Sawyer. We invited six really great poets to submit work, and we paired it with wine. Amazing wine. Then the poets are described in terms of the wine. Everyone drinks, the poets feel awesome, the wine is fabulous and afterwards we go out to dinner. This was a blast.