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Something About Something: An Interview with Poet Shelly Taylor

By       Message Bill Wetzel     Permalink
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BW:   From your poem "Drowning miss g":    "I was brought upright & studied in school,  
learnt my geography, stronghold, what could cause a sea to rise""

I don't fully understand why, but when I heard you read that line out loud it stunned me. I am not sure why it resonates with me so much, but I would like to know more about it. It almost seems like you (or the person saying it from the poem whether it is autobiographical or not) feels compelled to tell others they were "brought upright and studied in school".    I guess I would just like to know more about that line. What does it mean? What compelled you to write it within the context of that poem or even your life?

ST: Jesus.   This is a poem that I wrote in Brooklyn a couple months after I wrote its companion piece "Raising miss g"--& it was without a doubt the hardest poem in the whole book to get at & get right.   I was brought upright to be a strong woman by my mama--learn never to settle--& I liked the kind of trick double meaning of the next bit "studied in school" especially because I had so much trouble in school--kind of an anomaly to my parents:   the constant question of when I was a kid should they hold me back or whatnot because I progressed a little slowly compared to other kids when super-young--maybe I was a bit autistic or something that folks in the south didn't know about yet--the next bit & the whole Gabon thing took me back to the image of me sitting in 9th grade geography class where I had to pick a country & do a presentation on that country; I chose Gabon for some reason:   I think I liked the sound of the name--as I said much of Heifer is childhood land--"stronghold" is the child in Drowning G--to drown oneself as child though it's impossible cause you are in your present life still kicking, are grown & not a child--"Drowning" is the companion poem to "Raising"--miss g is my cat Grita though it also is myself as a child--Grita is in many folks in Heifer as well as the new book too; I've had she & her sister Astrid since I was nineteen & they travel & live everywhere I do--what could cause a sea to rise:   I think I had the image of a pregnant belly--the poem ends with dismissing/drowning the child who won't drown even though the adult woman might want her to because the past is at her ass too much.  

BW: Last year, the Pen Open Book Award judges described the work of Navajo poet Sherwin Bitsui as "promiscuous" meaning that he embraces and combines many traditions, visions and landscapes within his work. Or even on one page for that matter. I see some of that in your work too. In short order you can go from places like the Deep South, to Brooklyn, to the Southwest or from topics like horses and coffee to biking, George Clinton, DMX and zuppa toscana. Can you discuss the promiscuity of themes and topics within your work?

ST: Um, everything is subconscious & I allow everything, whatever is on my mind, to come in.   I wonder what Sherwin thinks of his work being called "promiscuous" because I pretty much think sex & not whatever so & so at the Pen Open Book Award thinks it is.   Basically that kind of overreaching is mostly boring to me, honestly speaking.   Everything is anything & anybody's going to call it this & that & who really cares.   In a book-length collection of course your ass is going to be all over the place--you're going to be talking about wanting some soup on pg 13 & you are going to think about George Clinton round pg 62 & if you don't allow all that is your life to come into the poems then why even bother?   The different landscapes came in because I was living in Georgia, Maine, Arizona, and NYC when writing the book--that's nature; people move around a lot I suppose & all of that better come into the work.   The voicing of the poems hopefully unites the disjunction of the constant shifting landscape.   That was my intention anyway.   Now, there is promiscuity in Heifer however, if we are talking about the word in its denotative meaning which I can't seem to divorce myself from--but all that's human nature.   Every book must have a little promiscuity.

BW: I almost hate asking such a general question, but what influences you? Or who? I sense a Southern Gothic influence in your writing, is there anybody in that subgenre who influences you?

ST: Yeah, I heart C.D. Wright & Faulkner & Tennessee Williams & Frank Stanford & O'Connor & about a million others.   Harry Crews & I were both born in Alma, Ga--town of a couple red lights.   The doctor that doctored him after he fell in the pig scalding boiling water delivered my mama--I think that's the right version.   Creeley is no southerner but something about him seemed honest to me at a young age so I've always latched on to him.   Jim Harrison, no southerner, has been huge to me from a young age until this very day.   Letters to Yesenin is the one poetry collection that has had the biggest impact on me in my life as writer thus far.    

BW: Black-Eyed Heifer feels intimate. More personal than most books or collections that I've read. Starting with the cover photo of your grandmother, Norma Jean Taylor, to your dedication to her, this book seems like it was written for your family more than anybody else. In fact, what convinced me to approach you for this interview was the way you interacted with your family after the reading. You all have an obvious closeness and love for each other. Can you talk about your grandmother and her influence on you? The rest of your family? Outside of their support, do they influence your writing at all?

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ST: Family is huge & maybe Heifer was written addressing the family & my family's south.   The reading at Tucson Fest of Books w/ Jim Harrison was the first reading my folks ever attended & I was anxious about what they would think & hoping to hell I didn't piss anyone off, as everyone knows me to not hold back on much.   I wanted to make them proud--it was a cool day & I was happy they were there.   My granny, Norma Jean, always told me I would be a writer--I mean from a very, very young age, I was going to write books.   I'm pretty sure that's how I got into this whole unpractical mess that's ultimately fitting.   When she was diagnosed with ALS, it was "hurry up you got to write me that book before I'm dead.'   Such fatalistic tact granny I was a teenager & when she passed I was twenty & frantic cause now I had to write this book for her & had never even taken a creative writing class in my life, though when people asked what I was going to be I always said a writer.   Funny.   I didn't pursue writing till I was twenty-one & definitely because of her.   I had to write her that book & I had to focus on it with everything I had & I had to get it done (I said by thirty years old I'd do it) & do it right.   For her.   It is her book.   The whole thing, years, was manic feeling.   To answer the last bit of your question, yes my family influences the writing & all I do.   I definitely have relied/do rely on my mama for emotional support in the writing process as she's got a kind of wisdom about her most people don't know.     

BW: I love your innovative use of language. Words like "slush-puppying" or "paisley-legged". Or the change in dialect with words like "learnt" and "granny".    Can you talk a little about your style and how it has evolved over the years? You mentioned in a previous interview that at times you felt misunderstood in grad school workshops, can you elaborate on that, and how did you work through it?

ST: That's just how I think & talk I guess.   Southern people tend to naturally break, manipulate, & invent new words without even meaning to.   If you're southern you probably know what "gommin' means, though it's not a real word.   It means you're messing around & not doing what you need to be doing.   The voice part is natural & subconscious mostly, which is lucky because you simply cannot force a voice on the work:   it best be natural.   The style bit:   yeah I'm a much different writer now, partly because I got out what I needed to get out in Heifer, the whole childhood bit, & the new work is much different in that I feel more grown now; the voice is much more womanly.   I still prize the same ideals that I always have--the difference is that I'm older & so the poems follow that age trajectory thing.   Yeah, I didn't have all that much fun in grad school though I suppose the whole thing is not supposed to be all that enjoyable.   There was a lot of tacky behavior going on & so I mostly put my head down for two years & I wrote.   How did I get through it?   There were some amazing poets & women in the MFA program, namely Mara Vahratian & Ari Zwartjes.   And I had some great teachers:   Jane Miller, Tenney Nathanson (my thesis advisor), & Barbara Cully.  

BW: You seem like a hopeless romantic to me. You make frequent references to Miss Kitty and Marshal Dillon in your book. They, of course, are characters from the radio and television show "Gunsmoke". Marshal Dillon and Miss Kitty had a special relationship, yet, famously, he was reluctant to marry.    Miss Kitty loved a man she could never really be with so she was destined to always be alone.    Can you talk about the love themes in your book? Also who is Miss Kitty to you, maybe yourself or someone you know?

 ST: I liken myself to Miss Kitty because in a lot of ways I don't think I'll marry unless I can finally pick a good man & I haven't seemed to do that kind of thing in the past.   I idolize Kitty in a way for her bravado & vulnerability when it comes to her Mr. Dillon.   Plus I just love "Gunsmoke."   I have been with Marshal Dillon all my life save the couple of men who weren't Dillon enough, & I didn't exactly want to marry Marshal Dillon had he got down on one knee.   Disaster:   Miss Kitty was probably lucky as are most women who don't marry their Dillons though they usually do & it's some messed up stuff to see.   I don't really think I'm a hopeless romantic at all.   Which probably means I am.   Anyway my relationship to most men has mostly been tenuous at best though I poetically admire women characters/figures who express great vulnerability as does Miss Kitty, who no doubt yearned for her figurehead to settle with her into some kind of Wild West utopia that couldn't have been because people [men] don't change much.   A lot of these types of women make appearances Heifer even if I do not name them.   I like these women.

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BW: You write: "After kissing they don't turn, he packs his things, she will never make a family, she might have used to, she's now a horse".

As I wrote in the introduction, you sold your horse so that you could move to Tucson and attend grad school. In the previous question I say you seem like a hopeless romantic and here you seem to be comparing a woman looking for love and a family to a horse. Is the horse a metaphor for someone who is, in a sense, discarded by a person they love? What other themes does the horse represent throughout your book? Loneliness?

 ST: The horse is everything.   I'm still not over the horse I sold to help out w/ grad school costs & I probably shouldn't have done it.   I didn't necessarily have to but I wanted to not rely on my family so much financially & so I did it.   I wish I hadn't cause the people I sold the horse to ran the horse into the ground & he's probably dead now.   [Southern women are often fatalistic.]   The family & love thing has to amount to the horse's worth & that's a big thing, hard to come by--I could grow old with my cats & my horses & good friends, though I don't give up some "hope" for a good male figure; I just don't see it work for most folks out there that I love/d & all that of course comes out in the poetry because that's life.   Last week while in Bridgetown, I had a dream mama & daddy bought the horse back for me & so I awoke & put the coffee on & walked down to the barn & he wasn't there so I wept a little bit.   I'm still not over it.   Me discarding the horse haunts me & I think I pay for that a little bit every day, so there's that kind of regret shot-through Heifer--"when you sell a horse he will not come back, no; put a carnation in your buttonhole" from "Keylight".   My bike in Brooklyn was the horse.   The horse is mindfully there when the man fails.   I cannot help it--when I sit to write the horse always comes out because I hold space (& regret) for him in my mind.   The second book is still dealing w/ the horse.   Maybe by book six I'll have sorted it all out.

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Bill Wetzel is Amskapi Pikuni aka Blackfeet from Montana. He's a former bull rider/wrestler turned writer and a coauthor of the short story collection "The Acorn Gathering." His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the American Indian Culture (more...)

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