“Both in transition and stuck”: A Conversation with Tanya Olson

Photo credit: Ruth Eckles.

Tanya Olson lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is a Lecturer in English at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County). Her first book, Boyishly, was published by YesYes Books in 2013 and received a 2014 American Book Award. Her second book, Stay, was released By YesYes Books in 2019. In 2010, she won a Discovery/Boston Review prize and she was named a 2011 Lambda Fellow by the Lambda Literary Foundation. Her poem 54 Prince was chosen for inclusion in Best American Poems 2015 by Sherman Alexie.


Erica Charis-Molling: Stay is your second collection of poetry (congrats!) with YesYes Books. How has this book been different to write and/or publish than your first?

Tanya Olson: Stay seems a million times easier than Boyishly. I started writing poems in 2002 or 2003 and I just wrote the poems that were in my head. It wasn’t until 2010 that I started thinking about putting poems together into a book and it was difficult to look back through stacks of poems, try to figure out what held them together, which poems to include, which ones to cut, how to make them talk to each other. That was a difficult and slow process.

With Stay, I began with the idea it was going to be a book on Day 1 and so, while I still just wrote the poems I wanted to write, I already knew the ideas the book was batting around and sometimes, I even knew where I thought the poem was going to go in the book.

ECM: In Stay, readers begin on a boat, on a journey, but “we know we can never arrive.” We end on a ferris wheel that goes “round while you sit still.” In a variety of ways, the speakers/actors in these poems are in transition, but they also seem to be stuck, suspended in one long moment in between. How did you think through poems, or an entire collection of poems, that would both take the reader somewhere and leave them stuck in place?

TO: The idea Stay began with was what it costs to stay in a place, idea, or identity and what it costs to leave those same things. I was thinking about this on a personal level (I left Durham, NC, after 13 years there, I started a new job, my father died) but it’s a foundational American question too. Who gets to go? Who has to stay? When do we change? When do we persist? What are the rewards and costs of either? We are, as individuals, as groups, as a country, often both, as you perceptively call it above, both in transition and stuck.

ECM: Such a common experience and yet such a tricky dynamic to capture in a poem! Are there ways you thought about that tension as you were forming the poems themselves?

TO: I often feel like my style is very circular and repetitive, in that way that interior thoughts and monologues can be, the way you can keep mulling over ideas or phrases in your mind. That feels very close to “stuck” me and I like when the content and style can mirror each other in those moments.

ECM: Ah! I often think of repetition as obsessive (which now that I think of it is a kind of “stuck”) or incantatory. But yes, now that you point it out, I see that creating the moving-but-not-moving effect in your poems.

In poems like “Bobby Bare,” “txt me im board,” and “Sheep Boy of Templeogue,” you’ve created such distinctive voices, and those voices really tell a tale! Where did you learn to tell stories, and how you integrate storytelling into your poems? And how, or does, storytelling help us navigate a loss of identity, belief, or home?

TO: A lot of why I started writing is because I love people’s voices and stories and think it crucial to preserve them. I’ve always been a big reader too, and I’m a sucker for a good narrative. And I do think there is something to the idea that the South is more of an openly story-telling region. When we first moved to Maryland, I had to remind myself every time I walked into a store that I was no longer in the South and I did not need to ask how anyone’s day was or find out what they thought about the weather or anything else. Stories and voices are absolutely a way we keep or revisit place and identity; losing a story or a voice is devastating. I would do anything to be able to hear my mother’s actual voice again and I’m afraid one day I’ll forget what she sounded like. But the same thing is true on a larger scale. We fight over what stories to preserve and pass on; what will we remember and how; these are important fights to have because they shape the story we tell to and about ourselves.

ECM: You mention in another interview that “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” was the poem that took the most time to rework into a “stable version.” There’s so much to take in when I read that poem, but a few pairs of lines particularly jump out at me as keys to one of the collection’s most striking choices: the lack of punctuation. Can you talk a bit about how you came to that particular craft choice in this book?

TO: Punctuation was really never present in these poems. A very early version of “Zeno’s Boat” had punctuation but I stripped it out of there pretty fast. “son of a son of a son” was an early poem that never really had punctuation and I thought it worked well. The poems did what they were supposed to be doing when the punctuation was gone.

Apostrophes kept showing up in places though and I briefly tried to rewrite lines to get rid of them, but that wasn’t working. So I thought about why apostrophes were appearing when other punctuation wasn’t—it didn’t seem right to have apostrophes but no commas, periods, or anything else. Would a reader feel like I was cheating? I didn’t feel like I was cheating, but why not? So I thought about it until I realized that apostrophes have 2 jobs—(a) to show who thinks they own something and what they think they own, and (b) to mark what is missing. I was using apostrophes because they reflected the questions of the book. And just so a reader wouldn’t get hung up on “Why are apostrophes in this book?” I included that explanation in “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.”

ECM: Capitalization almost serves as the ghost of punctuation, marking where it was or might have been, highlighting what’s missing. It also helps keep the phrases and units clear, I suppose. Is capitalization serving a different sort of function in these poems, or is it working in support of the punctuation choice?

TO: For the “interior voice” poems (poems that are kind of recording the chatter in someone’s head) capitalization helps set the rhythm of that chatter and show how ideas relate—why does one thing make us think of another? For the “exterior voice” poems (poems that have a voice talking to someone else or the outside world) capitalization is really there for the reader—when do ideas stop and start?

ECM: How, if at all, do you think about “queering” the text on the page, or “queering” the narratives of staying in or leaving a particular conception of self? This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit in my work, but I wonder if the idea of “queering” resonates for you, and if so, in what ways.

TO: Identity is definitely a thing we stay in or leave and for people of my generation, personal identity was often a huge part of geographical leaving or staying. I grew up in a small town in Georgia and I think leaving there was a part of my coming out process. I felt like I had to go somewhere else so I could find the space to eventually come out. And when I found a place I could live as myself, I stayed and built community out of what was there. That seems a pretty common story for queers of all sorts in their 50s and older and I think there was a time that story was true for other identity-based communities as well.

ECM: My wife and I will sometimes shout “No pants!” when one or the other is half naked around the house, so I immediately texted her the poem “Never, Never Pants,” and we both laughed

ourselves to tears. You manage to do a lot of work with humor, applying it to serious themes. Did you have particular role models for that, either in everyday life or in the life of letters?

TO: Kay Ryan, Dorothea Lasky, and CA Conrad are three poets that I’m always interested in what they are doing next; part of that is because I love the way they move between funny and sad, light and heavy, serious and humorous. I love poems that set a trap for readers and have them laughing before bringing the hammer down. Sometimes, it feels a little unfair when that happens in a poem, but mostly that’s life. You better laugh at what you can because something around the corner is ready to take your legs out from under you. Rehearsing that move in a poem is good practice.

ECM: You’ve mentioned that you love the research process. As a librarian-poet, I’m delighted when the research and creative worlds converge. What, if any, research helped bring the poems of Stay into being?

TO: Stay didn’t have one research question that kicked it off, but there were a lot of little places my interest got caught. When we moved to Silver Spring, I quickly fell in love with the National Portrait Gallery and the courtyard between it and the American Art Museum. At the time, the Portrait Gallery had a nice exhibit about Walt Whitman and his time in the space when it was a hospital during the Civil War. I loved (and still love) going to that part of the museum (the old patent office) and just thinking about Whitman being there; a great advantage of living here is being able to do that kind of spatial research—being in or near a place to feel it. More traditionally, I spent time in the Library of Congress reading all these things about Fannie Lou Hamer, maybe my all time favorite American. The LOC had materials I had never seen before and to dive into Ms. Hamer’s words and work was an important aspect of thinking about leaving and staying in places, but more importantly, how to convince people to leave ideas. Finally, my local library branch (Long Branch Library in Montgomery County) is a place I go to feel a part of the community. They have great quiet rooms available to work in and it’s a place of such life and ideas.

ECM: One of the pieces of writing advice you’ve offered other writers is: “Your poem should please you. Your poem doesn’t have to please other poets or your writing group or your teacher or your audience. It has to feel right/done/accurate to you and no one else.” Is there a poem in this collection that feels like it hits closest to that mark for you? How do you sort through the revision suggestions you’re given, and how do you sense when a poem is right/done/accurate?

TO: The only poem that doesn’t feel 100% done to me is “o camerado close.” The last stanza isn’t quite right yet, but it’s a key poem for the book and it’s done for now. I do expect at some time in the future that poem will end differently. As for when I know when a poem is right or when a change is accurate, I only have the very unhelpful “When it feels right/done” advice. While I make the common mistake of loving a poem or a line too much and hanging on to it when I shouldn’t, mostly I’m able to look at a piece and know whether I’m making the poem move closer to its essence or further away. That all sounds very mystical but it’s true and part of the reason I love writing—that moment when you know you are making the right decision for the piece. Nothing feels better than when a poem finds its own pace or sound and starts to run from its own engine.

ECM: We’re told in the poem “txt me i’m board” that “God takes no poet / until his best poem is written,” which makes me a little concerned for some of the poets I love who I can only hope continue to best themselves! Whose “best” work is inspiring you right now?

TO: One of my favorite things about country music is the way that institution looks backwards as well as it looks forward. Country music award shows often feature numbers where old and new musicians perform pieces together and concerts often feature a segment where the musician covers a song by an earlier artist who influenced them. I’m determined to introduce this to poetry, so I’m going to look backwards as well as forwards here. (a) Aziza Barnes is a writer who always intrigues me and while I thought their first full-length poetry collection i be but i ain’t got nowhere near as much love as it deserved, I still believe their best work is ahead of them. I caught BLKS (their theatrical debut) when it played at Wooly Mammoth and I’m super-stoked to read their fictional debut the blind pig this fall. Aziza’s work is a huge influence on me and I know i be but i ain’t influenced my use of punctuation, capitalization, and vocabulary. (b) Susan Howe is the poet I think most about when I think about having a poetic career and following my interests. Her work is just crackerjack throughout and while our writing has little in common stylistically, I so admire the way she does the work she thinks important and lets the writing and poetry world catch up to her. The methods she uses to think about America have been a huge influence on me. She is one of America’s greatest artists.

ECM: I know Stay was just published, but assuming the new release isn’t taking up all your time, what are you working on now? Or do you have thoughts on what might be next?

TO: I’ve been thinking a lot about country music, the radio, and the intersections of those 2 things. Just like staying and going felt very timely to me personally and as an American, these 2 things feel very much a way to think about where I am right now and where we are right now as a country. I’m a little hard-pressed to succinctly say why these seem the right lens for me to write about where I am and where I think we are as a nation at this moment, it has something to do with preserving what is gone and the importance of shared cultural experiences. So I’m reading about the history of radio in America and watching, listening, and thinking about country music, especially in the 1970s. But I have no idea quite yet what that is going to produce.


Erica Charis-Molling

Erica Charis-Molling is a creative writing instructor and librarian at the Boston Public Library. Her writing has been published in Presence, Glass, Anchor, Vinyl, Entropy, and Mezzo Cammin. She’s an alumna of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is currently pursuing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Antioch University.

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