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Something About Something: An Interview with Poet Shelly Taylor

By       Message Bill Wetzel     Permalink
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The southern poems in Heifer are rooted in family & community.   There is some "kitchen table" kind of activity, but really it's all just my take on my surroundings as a kid.   I'm not sure if anyone else in my family or community regarded Tim in the ways I did, & if he knew he had some poems written about him, I'm not sure how he would feel about it.   He'd probably be shy about it.   It's just the little mundane things I carry with me.   Women are important:   there's a lot of my mama in the work & some of my sister, so I tell some of the way it was then, only I didn't want anyone to know directly, so much of the true narrative is buried in dense language.   But being southern you can't help but treasure stories & family stories because that's all the older folks talk about, around the table & elsewhere.   There's a lot of Norma Jean, my deceased grandmother & she was probably the best storyteller I ever met.   Children in the south are meant to be seen & not heard, or at least be very polite, & so I listened well & no doubt all that is integrated into Heifer & probably all I write.


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?

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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?

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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.  

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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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