Tanya Grae is the author of Undoll (YesYes Books, 2019). Her poems and essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Best New Poets, AGNI, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has been selected for an Edward C. and Marie H. Kingsbury Fellowship, awards from the Academy of American Poets, and the Tennessee Williams Prize. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and is a PhD candidate in creative writing at Florida State University. Find out more at: tanyagrae.com.
J.M. Farkas: As a fellow-poet, but more importantly, fellow-Floridian, I hope you can pardon my French when I ask: what the %@*# is up with Florida? What are your thoughts or theories of the weirdness of our state? And why do you think it has compelled writers like Lauren Groff (Florida) or Campbell McGrath (Florida Poems) to title their writing after the sunshine state?
Tanya Grae: We’re a land of mythology: the fountain of youth, a second Eden, a paradise. Anything seems possible here: mermaids, manatees, Disney. We’re a melting pot of culture and language. Everything evolves here. Different countries have owned us, the Spanish, the French, and a whole host of indigenous people who were here long before anyone else. We’re one state constantly in flux. Maybe it’s in the water and that’s why things are weird and exotic here. They say half the people on Jerry Springer came out of Florida.
JMF: You have several poems that reference Florida: “Little Wekiva River,” “What’s Bottled Breaks,” “The Unfaithful Housewife,” “After Fifteen Years,” and “The Path of Non-Attachment.” The physical landscape enters your work, but how about the emotional or tonal landscape of Florida—does this translate or enter into your work?
TG: I think so. I write what I see, what’s around me, what I know. Anything that I’m going through or hear about gets folded in. Floridians work hard, but they play hard too. Balancing that hustle, that stress, against the beauty of the environment is a part of the culture, the duality.
JMF: One thing that gives you away or “outs” your Floridian-ness, is how the landscape grows into your poems: your floral/fauna choices and the use of their proper names (I love the proper names of flowers!). One that is repeated in your collection is: bougainvillea, which I found myself listening to repeatedly on Dictionary.com to accurately hear it’s five-syllable pronunciation). How deliberate are you about choosing or inserting floral objects into your poems? Are they chosen because they simply exist in your life, because of the sound/music of the word? Do you do “floral research”? For example, Dictionary.com (rudely) defines bougainvillea as “insignificant flowers,” and I stumbled on this interesting flower-fact: “bougainvillea flower best under stress.”
TG: I write flowers because they’re what I see every day. I love their instant jazz, the way they draw your eye. When I lived in Orlando, in Altamonte, on the Little Wekiva River, I had azaleas, magnolias, gardenias, jasmine, bougainvillea—in the yard, everywhere. Bougainvillea is the heartiest, and it’s a vine. I love knowing that it “flowers best under stress.” They bloom year round along the riverbank. I gave my ex a red-violet one that he planted years ago, and it traveled all the way up one of the largest oaks in the back yard and entwined with the entire tree. And you know, it hasnt killed the tree, it just made that tree into something different, dazzling.
JMF: Okay, last flower question, or rather, an observation. I love that your blooms aren’t merely ornamental; there is fury in your flowers. I was reminded of Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris. There were other things, maybe themes, that cast an invisible line between your work and Glück’s: mythology, the dissolution of relationships, infidelity, the complexity of motherhood. Speaking of mothers, was there any one poet or collection that most informed this book? Which poets mothered this collection? Or, who are your “Poetry Mothers,” generally speaking?
TG: I love that book and the title poem. I have a well worn copy and love that you made a comparison to it. My poetry mothers, sisters—for me, would probably be Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Louise Glück for sure, Patricia Smith, Adrienne Rich, Carol Frost, Barbara Hamby, Anya Silver, and Brenda Shaughnessy. Each for different reasons.
JMF: Your book is dedicated to your mother “who taught me I could.” Is it too personal to ask what “could” entails?
TG: My mom is a force of nature. A quiet storm. She taught me early on that nothing was beyond me, that I could change my life, be who I want to be. That I don’t have to settle for unhappy.
JMF: Where do you think she got that from? From her life and her mother?
TG: From her life and her mother. Yes, they’re both in the book, all throughout the book.
JMF: Yes. I was also very close to my grandmother and I love it when grandmothers enter into poetry in a powerful, not just “sentimental,” way.
TG: Me too. If we’re lucky to know our grandmothers and really get to know them as people, their personalities, their quirks, we see them as individuals in their humanity and how they shaped our mothers, and in turn, us. A form of time travel.
My grandmother was in an abusive first marriage, and my mother grew up watching that until one day my drunken grandfather came home to my grandmother pointing a gun at him. It’s one of the poems in the book, “Loaded Noir.” From that point forward, my mom watched my grandmother fend for herself and thrive at a time when people didn’t divorce. It really wasn’t acceptable. Yet she started over, worked an office job in a hospital, and began to self-actualize.
And although my mother gave up a scholarship to Vanderbilt to marry, she did eventually go to school and earn her doctorate in psychology. It was important to her that she could be independent.
JMF: A river begins this collection and then rivers run through this book. Why does the opening poem “Little Wekiva River” stand alone or precede the titled sections?
TG: Well, I guess because I woke up to myself while living on the river. The river’s the reason we bought the house, and I was constantly aware of its presence. The way that it brought every form of wildlife into my otherwise suburban life: owls, eagles, hawks, Great Blue Herons, egrets. I felt I was living between two worlds. One day, I realized it was the constructed self versus the natural self, and that I could take off the dress, and that I didn’t have to stay.
JMF: There is also a thread of deconstructed sonnets: “Facebook Sonnet,” “Black Iris Sonnet,” “Cage Sonnet,” and “Hole Reunion Sonnet.” Each section has at least one of these poems. Can you talk a little bit about the inclusion of this form throughout Undoll?
TG: I like the sonnet form, its compression, even when broken. I like that it has a deliberate turn. But what I really like is the rigor of trying to translate a jolt of something to a reader in only fourteen lines. So, when I think of the book’s music as a whole, if you were to read straight through, the sonnets do a lot of work to keep the book moving.
JMF: One of the most delightful surprises in Undoll comes from the revelation after the “Notes,” that section titles are lifted phrases from Sexton, Bishop, Atwood, and Rich. Is this part of an “invisible-syllabus” of books that you were reading while composing poems in Undoll? Or, are these poems significant for other reasons? Perhaps your poetry go-to’s?
TG: I was super conscious of these poems. You know, I like to see that heritage in everyone’s books. And originally I wanted to include those as section epigraphs; but when I read the book aloud in its entirety, those voices changed the music of the book, so I kept the essential phrases and then noted the lines in their context in the back. I especially liked including Margaret Atwood’s because she wrote that poem many years before she wrote A Handmaid’s Tale, and learning that the dark red was sitting with her long before, it was a thrill. Red is an important thread in Undoll as well.
JMF: I’m a serious sucker for a “Notes” section. Some of the most fun admissions were the fusing of the poetic with pop music. There’s Amy Winehouse and Chicago. There’s a poem lifting lines from Rizzo’s “There are Worse Things I Can Do” from Grease. Do you listen to music when you’re writing poetry? Or do you need complete silence when you write?
TG: I love reading everyone’s notes too! I wish that I could listen to music when I write, but I can’t. I have to have complete silence. I write when the house is quiet, or when I’m alone. Mostly because I feel too much when I listen to music. I get caught up in it. It’s like listening to another voice, and I just can’t write at the same time.
JMF: The poems in your collection play with form and particularly, white space. There’s also blank spaces à la Mad Libs, and crossed-out lines. I think the one poem that most astonished me in this collection, and most compelled several re-readings, is “Gaslight.” Basically, I want to know everything single thing about the composition of this piece. At what point in the writing process did you employ the strike-through technique? I almost wondered if you were actually crossing out lines during the writing process, and then incorporated those “errors” into the final poem.
TG: Thank you for noticing that I’m using the white space in the book, and as an aside, I wrote an article for The American Poetry Review about it last year. I think it’s interesting when people use white space in a poem. Is it a part of the poem or are they doing it just to look poetic? Every time I use white space I need to know why I’m using it.
For “Gaslight,” I love that you read it so close. Thank you. It’s funny, because a lot of people tell me how that poem affected them and that it’s important, but I had someone that read the manuscript draft in its entirety try to get me to take it out.
JMF: Interesting. Why?
TG: She said, “Sadly, this is perhaps too familiar and common a story.”
JMF: Obviously, I strongly disagree with that critique, and if anything, because violence against women is “too familiar,” that only means that more poems need to be written about it. But you made the familiar so unfamiliar through the form, and I’ve never seen anyone use strike-throughs the way you did.
TG: That poem is really the epicenter of the entire book. When I was writing that poem, I would write lines, and then strike them out. I found that I was constructing a dual narrative, and realized it’s the thing we do in trauma. It’s also the distance from ourselves, like, it didn’t happen to me. It happened to her. Or, it happened outside me. It didn’t happen to me. But that event changed the course of my life. Anybody that’s touched by something violent—it’s a scar. You learn to move away from or move around it, but forever after, you have to navigate that.
JMF: You’re pursuing a PhD at Florida State University and teaching while taking courses. What has been your experience of blending academia and poetics? Are teaching and writing symbiotic or parasitic relationships for you? I think everyone needs to experience being a teacher so they can understand the amount of energy it actually takes. What’s your experience of being a writer-teacher?
TG: I’ve really enjoyed pursuing the PhD, but it’s a crazy amount of work. I’ve described it as climbing a mountain that no one but you see. Like many things, unless you’re going through it, it’s hard to understand or empathize. And yes! Everyone needs to experience being a teacher. But
I love to teach. I think academia feeds the poetry. New concepts, theories, histories. The tangents. Teaching and writing are more symbiotic, I think. Writing is so solitary, I feel selfish sometimes when I write. When I teach I feel like I’m giving back. I try to make lessons a gift, to make them fun, to engage everyone. I try to find ways to make the material personally relevant to the students. And I’ve always felt this way, regardless of whether I was teaching middle school or college.
JMF: I absolutely love the title of your collection and happen to have a thing for words that begin with the “un-” prefix. Can you tell me a little about how this invented word became the collection title? Were you already writing about dolls with “Matroyshka,” “Doll, House,” and “If Barbie Had a Brain”? Or did the title-poem essentially “breed” more doll poems?
TG: Undoll is an invented word. I was thinking about how I felt objectified in a particular relationship at times, restrained and boxed in. And it made me think of a song that my aunt used to sing me when I was little, something from the radio, “The Clapping Song,” a remake of Ella Fitzgerald’s “My Wubba Dolly.” My aunt taught me the lyrics: “my mommy told me if I was goody that she would buy me a rubber dolly.” On a tangent, I got I hung up on the word “dolly,” and the idea of not wanting to be one, not wanting to be a girl that needed to do things right, to do things the right way. Originally I called the poem, “Undolly,” and eventually changed it to “Undolled,” which is how it came out in Adroit. And then I saw the word “undoll” was working as a verb, it was working as a noun, it was working as an adjective. And then by snipping the “-ed” off of it, it felt more like an imperative: don’t be a doll.
JMF: Poets seem to have a thing for dolls. Mary Ruefle and Amy Gerstler write about dolls. Victoria Chang has a Barbie-titled collection. There’s Denise Duhamel’s “Florida Doll Sonett,” that seems triple-y up your alley. S. Brook Corfman’s Luxury, Blue Lace includes “Procession: (eight dolls).” Margaret Atwood, in “Five Poems for Dolls,” writes, “A doll is a witness / who cannot die, / with a doll you are never alone.” I vividly remember being very afraid of one of my childhood dolls because her glass eyes seemed to be winking at me in the darkness. Any seminal doll poems that I have missed?
TG: I would include Marge Piercy’s poem, “Barbie Doll.” It’s a really great poem. “Her good nature wore out / like a fan belt. / So she cut off her nose and her legs / and offered them up.”
JMF: Why do you think poets are so drawn to dolls? What’s your personal relationship to them?
TG: Probably because we were raised with them. I mean, I don’t think I was aware of that as a kid, but it’s also about the objectified self. I wasn’t really a “doll kid.” I was given them at birthdays and holidays, baby dolls and Barbie dolls, but I would give them away, much to the chagrin of my mother. They just weren’t my thing.
I have two daughters and a son. My daughters were always stripping their Barbies down. And then the Barbies would stay naked after because it’s so difficult to put their clothes back on. And they’re always losing the shoes. I wanted to hot glue them to their feet. I mean, really, Barbies are a pain in the ass.