HONEST WORDS ABOUT RACE AND WAR AND MONEY: a conversation with Tanya Olson

hello, typewriterTanya Olson holds an M.A. in Anglo-Irish Literature from University College, Dublin and a Ph.D. in 20th Century British Literature from UNC-Greensboro. Her first book, Boyishly, was released by YesYes Books in May 2013. Her work has been published in Review, Beloit Poetry Review, Southward (IRL), PANK, Cairne, Fanzine, Bad Subjects, Main Street Rag, Pedestal Magazine, Elysian Fields, and Southern Cultures. Olson won first place in the 2005 Independent Poetry contest and was a runner up for the 2009 Rita Dove Award.

She is a recipient of an Emerging Artist Grant from the Durham Arts Council and was the 2008 Fortner Award winner. In 2010, she won a Discovery/Boston Review prize and was named a 2011 Lambda Fellow by the Lambda Literary Foundation. She helps coordinate Durham’s Third Friday, is a member of the Black Socks poetry group, and serves on the board of the Carolina Wren Press. She lives in Durham, North Carolina and teaches at Vance-Granville Community College.

STEPHANIE GLAZIER: Tonally, your work has something in common with The Dream Songs for its slippage between firmly poetic image and these surreal personae narratives — you’ve got this old southern storytelling melody and lyrics told over a fire — when you think of the voice you have, who’s in it? Who’s formed you?

TANYA OLSON: I love stories, especially stories that preserve voices. That’s almost always the work that attracts me. Berryman is a great example of that. The people I love to read right now? Susan Howe is probably the poet I admire most, who I think of as my model of how to be a poet. She seems to me an artist who has simply followed the work, done what she’s interested in, without worrying about what she “should” be doing. I’m intrigued by Jack Spicer and Hannah Weiner for similar reasons. I think of CA Conrad and Dorothea Lasky as my current “poetic family.” (That’s self-assigned and nominated by the way.) I love writers who are brave enough to feel, brave enough to sit with those feelings, brave enough to come back and report what was there.

SG: Many of your poems deal with citizenship in various realms — with different public and literary and religious figures. What ‘country’ do you most feel a citizen of? Where do you most belong?

boyishlyTO: I absolutely think of myself as an American poet; Boyishly is totally an American book. I’m really fascinated by America — all the Americas we are and have been, what it means and has meant to be an American. I love that we spend time — sometime more, sometime less — thinking about who we are as a country; the more time we spend having real conversation about that, the better. I guess that’s one thing that feels important about poetry, about Boyishly, right now.

We have few models of how to have that kind of national discussion, of how to say honest words about race and war and money. Poetry is one of the places that kind of discussion can happen in a real way, although I don’t think that potential of poetry is encouraged right now. Poetry, in my world, has real and important work to do; when that work doesn’t happen, individuals, people, and countries suffer.

Tanya Olson, 2011 Writers Retreat Fellow in Poetry from Lambda Literary on Vimeo.

SG: I really feel “The Saccades” — imagining the lives we might have had if we had turned out to be different people. I think in the face of all the hatred and bigotry in the world, I sometimes feel pressure to be (or present) this total happiness and satisfaction [as a lesbian], lest anything else be read as doubt of myself, when the truth is what you’ve written — I do sometimes fantasize about that other life, especially when other people call it to my attention. I think there needs to be more room, more examples of the real of it, and I felt less alone reading yours.

TO: In some ways, I believe there are parallel universes where alternative lives are being lived out, that there are key moments in each person’s life where possibilities branch. And sometimes I think those universes touch or you get a glimpse of one world from another. Mostly, I think the world is more mysterious and complex than we can understand. I’m fascinated by the moments we can’t explain and how and why we work so hard to make them explainable. Poetry is a great place where we can learn to live with the unexplainable, maybe even welcome it.

SG: You’ve made your living teaching. Has it been in those rooms that you’ve conceived of some of this material — have you taught history?  I’m thinking of “O Lemuel”; what’s your research process for writing something like this? Or, more simply — what feeds these poems? More moments of revelation appear in these personae poems: “Paired, I come to think,/ is how the Lord keeps us whole.” I wonder if you start with these moments and build poems around them — or do these things happen while you get to know these characters?

TO: I love the research process and it’s one of my favorite things to teach students: how to research, the process and joys of floating around a topic or issue until you find a way through it. ‘Lemuel’ was a poem that came out of reading I was doing about Chang and Eng Bunker, the conjoined brothers from whom we got the old term, ‘Siamese twins’ (they were born in Siam, now Thailand). I read a lot about Chang and Eng just because I was fascinated by their story.

But I would have been hard pressed to say what it was about Chang and Eng that drew me while I was reading about them. It really took writing the poems to find out what the interest was. And I never let the research limit the poem: Chang and Eng wouldn’t have had a Civil War veteran on the ship bringing them to the States; it doesn’t work chronologically. But getting the year right isn’t important; the connection of the Civil War and the conjoined twins is what needs to be served by the poem.

Screen shot 2014-04-30 at 7.31.17 PMSG: Have you waited long for the book to come out? Was the process of finding the right home for it a long one? Has its coming into the world changed your relationships? Has it changed you? Is your work being received in the way you’d hoped? Tell me something wonderful that’s happened during the time you’ve been out reading from Boyishly.

TO: It certainly felt like I waited a long time, but the truth is, I didn’t sit down to write a book. For a long time I was just writing the poems I was interested in writing. I wrote poems for probably 5 or 6 years before I ever started thinking about a book. It was tough to look at those poems and figure out what they had in common and that took a long time. But when YesYes asked for a manuscript, I was feeling good about where the book was. It had just been a National Poetry Series finalist and Arktoi had taken a long look at it as well. I was disappointed and frustrated it was getting passed on, but I could also feel it was getting better. YesYes has really been the right home for the book though. Both the publisher, KMA Sullivan, and the editor, Justin Boening, did great work with the manuscript and understood the book from the start.

I love the book — I think it looks fabulous and I’m thrilled with it — and I love the doors having a book has opened. YesYes has arranged some fabulous readings and having the book has gotten me invited to a couple of series I think wouldn’t have otherwise. But I’ve also felt frustrated by who hasn’t paid attention to the book. My not having an MFA seems to keep the book off the radar in quite a few places; I also feel like the queer and lesbian interest has been non-existent.

All in all though, it’s been a blast. YesYes puts together great reading tours where the same poets read together 3 or 4 nights in a row. That’s been brilliant and a really intense experience. Hearing the same poets several nights in a row is a unique and beautiful opportunity. I feel like those poets are my brothers in some special way and my love for them and their work feels very familial.

glazier bio photoStephanie Glazier’s poems appear or are forthcoming in the Iraq Literary Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, YEW, Calyx, and others. She has been a Lambda Fellow in poetry and holds an MFA from Antioch University LA. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.