I wasn't sure. And maybe I'm still not, but I think I have an idea what it is. It came to me when I was reading her answers to my questions. She held nothing back. She put so much into it that it exhausted her. She said the questions "weighed heavy" on her and yet she still did them anyway.
Then it started to fit together for me. The sense of adventure. From Georgia to Arizona to Brooklyn to Key West and on and on. From being a rodeo star, to a tough profession like bartending, to writing and to teaching. Shelly Taylor is fearless. When she does something she steps in 100 percent and goes for it.
And I think fearless is a misnomer, because everybody has trepidation, but certain people, like my friend Shelly, don't care about it. They just do it anyway. They live life to the fullest and without limits.
Read her book. Read her answers to my questions. If you're lucky like I am, get to know her a little.
I think you'll agree.
Shelly Taylor is fearless.
Interview with Shelly Taylor
Bill Wetzel: In a recent interview Cherokee poet, Santee Frazier said: "Almost all of my poems start off as sounds" and later added: "Poems don't have to make sense, they just have to sound good."
When I first heard you read I was struck most by how your poems sounded, particularly through your own voice and Southern accent. They read well off the page, however I think your work is meant to be heard rather than read. I even prefer to read them out loud to myself, rather than to keep the words inside my mind and away from my ear. Can you talk a little about the role of sound in your work? And also, what more, if anything, do you feel a person gets out of hearing you read your poems as opposed to just reading them off a page?
Shelly TayIor: I would go as far to say I reckon all poems are meant to be heard in the writer's own voice--or they're at least best that way. When writing poems of course sound is of the utmost importance--& I suppose I do in many ways preference sound over narrative. Sound is all subconscious though: it's not something you can force. Either you can dance well or you cannot. I dance pretty well I think--maybe a little goofy but I still got rhythm. The poems in Heifer do, however, make sense to me--perfect sense, though I believe I formed some kind of interior language that contradicts linear narrative because I simply didn't want most folks to know what I was talking about as many of the poems felt too personal. The poems make sense to me, but the collection as a whole didn't make sense to me until about a year or so after. I thought the poems were about having this imaginary child, like almost in the sense that I yearned to be a mother, but really they're about me going back into childhood & poetically re-raising myself into adulthood. They're focused on the land of childhood, seeing myself outside of myself as a child out in the world & tending myself into a grown woman, or something like that. The next collection is so vastly different because they're all from an adult woman perspective, out of a woman's voice, like I finally figured out how to be grown with women troubles & those relationships therein--& I have a lot to say there. Yeah, though, I like to give readings for the most part because I do believe the poems are meant to be or are at least better when heard in my specific southern voice. Voice is everything. Sound is second. Those are two different planes altogether.
BW: Related to the first question, do you agree with Frazier that: "Poems don't have to make sense, they just have to sound good"? If so, can you elaborate on that in the context of your work?
ST: Great poems need to do everything well: they need texture, density, subtlety of this & that, & yeah they need to sound good, meaning language is vibrant & sonically interesting (understatement). Great poems & collections must do it all. I don't focus on one thing really--I just write & arrange in whatever way feels best to me--which is all unconscious activity-- & of course sound is preferenced. But a poem doesn't feel right to me unless it's operating on so many different levels, each informing the next, kind of like firing on all cylinders & a poem isn't complete unless it's doing all of this, & no, sound alone isn't enough for my work to work. The concept "making sense" is wide open to me though; there are so many different ways of making or not making sense--& I think Frazier plays around with that poem to poem, as do I & all other writers I admire. I still want my readers to have some concept of what is going on outside of how the poem sounds--I want them to be able to pick up on some kind of "narrative sense' even if they aren't able to grasp a true, linear, story-telling narrative.
BW: Muscogee poet, Joy Harjo says in one of her poems: "The world begins at a kitchen table.." which alludes to a concept that I call "Kitchen Table Theory". Kitchen Table Theory is predominant in minority and rural cultures where much of life revolves around a kitchen table. Family, friends and neighbors visit and tell stories, drink coffee, catch up on all the news (which travels by person faster than the small local papers) at the kitchen table. People grow up and grow old there. The kitchen table was my first exposure to great storytellers and a big reason why I write. There are times in your poems where I feel you could almost be sitting at your family's or a neighbor's table in Georgia telling them stories about the woman in "Three Versions", or characters from other poems like "Tim", "Mama Grace" or" Astrud Gilberto". I see you as a sort of rural storyteller, is that a fair assessment of your work? And how has the "kitchen table" influenced your poetry, if at all?
ST: Yeah, I know what you mean. "Three Versions" involves a story I heard from a friend about this woman a town away from my south Georgia town, how she caught her husband cheating & killed herself in a motel room off Interstate 75. It also deals w/ my mama & then me waiting, while taking the longest bath known to man, on a no-good man who was taking forever doing God only knows what. I have in the past picked winners; most women seem to, & a lot of this tension between men & women inhabits Heifer because I'm so interested in this interaction. "Tim" is in a lot of poems & I adore him. I grew up in a little rural unincorporated farm area called Bridgetown (there's not really any bridges--maybe one") & we had the little Bridgetown Store so folks didn't have to drive the fifteen minutes into town for foodstuffs. Tim worked the counter & fried chicken, catfish, & potato logs & I'd always go down there & get myself some of his food & visit. He lived in the back of the Store--more like a shack w/ the roof nearly falling in, & I liked Tim a lot. I mythologized him. There is no Bridgetown Store anymore--& I have no idea where Tim is--makes me sad. As an afterthought, much of Heifer seems to be me trying to get at some kind of "south" that is passing as our loved ones are leaving & the south is inevitably changing. A lot of southern people mourn the way it used to be & it's true because I've seen it in my lifetime, the south is certainly evolving with the past generations' ideals dying with them. Each generation's "south" is different & the book is largely trying to get at my experience within it, as I spent all but the recent ten years of my life there.