“The Statues Are Coming Down”: An Interview with Tess Taylor

This interview started via email a month into lockdown here in Charlottesville, VA. Tess had agreed to correspond with me from her home in El Cerrito, CA, well before the public suspected COVID-19 would make landfall in the U.S., and its arrival stateside delayed our dialogue. I sent her the first question on April 4th. I wanted to talk to Tess about her work in part because not long ago I’d moved to this town where her father’s family has deep roots, and because her first book, The Forage House, confronts and reckons with her ancestors’ participation in Virginia’s plantation economy. With each subsequent book, Taylor has turned her attention to new subjects and poetic modes without ever losing sight of history, document, context—her second book, Work and Days, employs an ecopoetic form of the georgic, while her third book, Last West, explores documentary poetics through an ekphrastic examination of Dorothea Lange’s California photographs and notebooks. And with her fourth book, Rift Zone, Taylor returns to questions of race, place, reckoning, and conscience, though this time the poems are situated in the El Cerrito of her childhood. I sent Tess the final question the morning of May 26th, not long after which the video of George Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police went viral and, as Tess suggests in her final answer, prompted Black and indigenous activists in nearby Richmond, VA, to tear down statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and of Christopher Columbus.

—Brian Teare


Brian Teare: Dear Tess — I’m writing to you from my first April in Charlottesville, where all the dogwoods are just now doing their it’s-almost-Easter show of pretty piety. I’m new to this landscape long inhabited by your ancestors, and you grew up and are now living and writing in the region where I came of age as a poet and whose bioregions and microclimates taught me a new poetics. This seems a fitting frame for our dialogue, given we are both poets obsessed in our own ways with place. In preparation for this dialogue, I’ve re-read your first two books, The Forage House and Work & Days, as well as spent fond time with your two new books, Rift Zone and Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange. I found it interesting that the focus of your books seems to have migrated from east to west. I wanted to begin by asking about this: why do you think you had to reckon with your family’s deep history in Virginia before writing about your life in El Cerrito and Northern California?

And more, perhaps relatedly: how did the archival work and research that inform The Forage House prepare you for writing Last West?

Tess Taylor: Brian, hey! What a great question. Writing you back from a rainy Saturday in California during the quarantine. My children are playing with new baby chicks we got just before the shelter-in-place hit, a small comfort in these hard days. The redwood tree in our backyard is blackening with rain; on a day before the quarantine I took the kids out to see Kule Loklo, the recreated Miwok village at Pt. Reyes, where you can see the way the Miwoks lived in huts made of redwood bark—very practical, too, because the bark is so rain resistant. Now, I am here, in the neighborhood where I grew up. I’m as at home as I’ve been here since my children were first born and my world shrank to the circuit of their days, since I was a kid here myself and walked these streets and took bike rides and explored the graveyard up the hill. 

But—to answer your question. My books start in the east because my adult reckoning with poetry started in the east. In reckoning with my family’s history there. That was a first gesture. For context:  I now live six blocks from my childhood home, but when I was growing up here, there was no question in my mind that I would leave. This was a funny working-class town, slightly the wrong side of the tracks. My parents were always stretched, the house needed repairs, and I was an ambitious kid. Whatever our life in our little California bungalow, my dad had in Virginia this fancy, polished family who mystified me; my mother comes from a sort of lofty missionary family in Maine with interesting dusty worldly antiques in the attic. My parents are both historians: My life seemed to emerge at the end of long trade routes. Whatever the strings were, I felt them tug. 

So I went east. I chose the small Massachusetts liberal arts college my grandfather had attended, partly because I’d be the first woman in my family to attend. Wanted that entrance into history and argument. Didn’t want the women’s college. I guess I was trying, even then, to think through how we connect to the past in unexpected ways, how we can’t skate wholly free of it. I also wanted to argue with something. 

In a way the East, its weather, its particular accents, class systems, grumpinesses, ethnic whitenesses (seriously), caste systems, humidity—all of these felt like new countries to me. Maple trees turning colors felt exotic. Birch trees felt exotic. All this jumbled in my mind. Every time I would fly across the country, I’d feel wrenched by crossing the continent. Even now, as I travel, I still feel the amazement of watching a geography scramble, or reading new microhistories.  

In The Forage House I attempt to read myself into my family’s history, to read through its foundation in American violence: What does it mean now to have been descended from this particular slave-owning family from Charlottesville? How do I carry them, even when I don’t know I carry them? What do I inherit that I don’t even know I inherit? How does inheritance work? How do our ghosts haunt us? When does the past not stay past, as Faulkner put it? 

So that was a reading. A learning in reading. And the truth is—any spot in America is founded in violence. Any spot has its sedimentary layers of hidden and suppressed histories. This place no less than any other. Anyway: we came home. We couldn’t afford NYC, we needed family, I craved this place, there was a job my partner could do. And suddenly the little bungalows I used to want to flee seemed beautiful. But: you can never really go home again. It had always been expensive: now it was wildly expensive. There had always been people living on the streets, now there was an epidemic. California is beautiful and the shift of light in February and the smell of sage off the sea and the upthrust rocks are amazing. But also: now I was older. I read my childhood differently. I couldn’t unsee the racist codes in the escrow files, the fact that I now know (as I didn’t when I was growing up here) that my town was a ground zero for Japanese internment. I could see different shadows. I could read the landscape differently. 

BT: It makes so much sense that your parents are both historians! One of the things I admire about all of your work is its constant shift of focus from the sticky particular to the histories that give a particularity its meanings. You have as deep a love of the telling quotidian detail as you do a commitment to the broader, longer view, one that allows detail to flare into ethical, political, and personal significance. I find myself returning to the poems for the appealing physicality of their imagery but also for the high stakes you bring to rendering that imagery accurately: you work hard to make sure the unspoken, often unspeakable, implications of a detail get spoken, become part of the record.

I read Rift Zone and Last West as sister books, one more committed to contextualizing the particulars of your own life within the broader cultural and natural histories of Northern California, and the other more committed to particularizing Dorothea Lange’s documentary practice by contextualizing it in the present day. Though no doubt that dualism is a bit tidy—both books could be said to be “a book on the conditions of US,” as you write in Last West—I wonder if you could speak to the relationship in these books between lyric and documentary, song and history?

TT: Ah. Thank you. Song and history, documentary and epic: Those are big terms. But let’s look at the roots of those modes. The Greeks believed that everyone who died went to Lethe and their souls were bathed in forgetfulness. They waited as forgetful little polyps in the underworld, until they were called to the cycle again. Everyone forgot, that is, except for artists. Artists were gifted some memory, by Mnemosyne, mother of the muses, goddess from whom we get “mnemonic.” She represents the kind of memory we lodge in the body, the code by which we call back what we remember. I think that this figure reminds us that art itself is our weapon against cycles of forgetfulness. Song is a kind of memory. Song is a kind of monument. 

Anyway: Artists were gifted their remembrance by the muses: History and poetry were two of the three sisters. Equal art forms, complimentary. Epic, lyric, and narrative poetry were three of the nine, equal in the dance, taking up more space than history proper. This is still true: As artists, we are always called to ask “of what am I rememberer, and for whom do I carry this memory forward?” We need not be writing about history as such. Anything we pick up, a rhythm, a cadence, a word, has its past. We must think of the way we do some work for some people because the art itself seems to offer some intervention. In writing our lives, our grief, the violence we saw, the sadness we felt, our places, our towns, our losses, our joys, we also craft the metonym; so that this shard might speak on behalf of the wider whole.

I hope this is true of the collage of memories and stories and songs that make up Rift Zone. It feels true to what I heard in the work of Dorothea Lange—her notes seemed like fragments against forgetting. I wrote lyrics about California because I felt some rupture between the past and the present. I wrote out of tenderness for a lost and confusing childhood. I wrote because what I know now I did not know then, and because we are often haunted by coming to understanding later. I wrote because there is paradox everywhere—I live in a place that is at once so hypermodern (Zoom, the internet) and so ancient (the redwood trees, the earthcrust). A place that promises justice and fails to deliver it. The Lange project began as more of a daydream: I wandered into her work and got fascinated and wandered into her archive and got even more fascinated. And yes, I had twin books, maybe one more “docupoetic” and one more “lyric,” but yes, both built of some desire to sing some memory out. To make some monument of air. 

BT: I love this answer—particularly your sense that your poems remember not just for yourself, but “for something, or some people…because the art itself seems to offer some intervention.” This seems to return us to the root sense of “political,” the polis, and to confirm that political poetry and documentary photographs like Lange’s are made of, for, among the people. The past month has been such an intense one for the people, given the pandemic, and it’s been punctuated by the passing of many loved ones, including the Irish poet Eavan Boland, who chose The Misremembered World for the PSA Chapbook Fellowship.

As I was reading your meditation on Gwendolyn Brooks’s remarkable sonnet, “my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell,” published this week in the PSA’s “Reading in the Dark” series, I was grateful to be returned to Brooks’s A Street in Bronzeville, her lyric history of Black Chicago during WWII. I was also brought back to Boland’s work, which often fashions political poetry out of what you call the “almost unspeakable domestic grief” of motherhood. I’m wondering if you could speak to your sense of Rift Zone as a feminist project that, like Brooks’s and Boland’s own oeuvres, ensures that women’s private experiences of sex and motherhood, shaped as they are by political life, become part of the historical record, sung into the public sphere?

TT: Oh Brian: A Street in Bronzeville. Yes. That book, its idea that you could dignify every house on a block with a poem; for the absent ones, too. For the architecture of it, for its simple claim that each resident speaks. Building by building, voice by voice. I love that book as much as I love any book of poems, and yes—it surely has paved a way for Rift Zone. On the one hand, a woman, circling her far-flung suburb, with her small children. What could be less interesting than that? What could be more anodyne? Her place is pleasant enough, or should be. She is perhaps invisible, even to herself. But what if her town, in its very blandness, was also an epicenter? What if each of our lives, in its own way, were an epicenter; what if each of our seemingly nondescript corners were actually the products of power and coercion and violence? I’m thinking of Rukeyser here: “what would happen if one woman told the truth about her life ? The world would split open.” As I write that it strikes me that it chimes against a later quote by Dorothea Lange:  “No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually… I know what we could make of it if people only thought we could dare look at ourselves.”

I notice the leap I’ve also dared to make, from “woman” to “country.” Eavan Boland’s poems make this leap, too, and model it forward. To enter myth, to dismantle, to quarrel, and to claim. I watched her tribute at Stanford on Zoom last night, and of all things I was also sorting the items in our freezer so that I could make our groceries stretch a bit longer in these hard days. Cry, remember the power of myth, defrost the chicken thighs. I thought she might approve. 

It strikes me that I have written a book that claims domestic spaces and national violence and geology at once and even though I am a feminist I would not have thought to call this feminist in itself precisely because Boland and Brooks and Hillman and Rukeyser and Dungy have laid down paths I can follow. They have said yes to this daring—the daring to put your life in a poem, your home words in a poem, your children in a poem, your babies, your blood, your anger, your stones, your soil; yes to daring to read your life into a tradition, and also to read your life against the violence of the history that produced it. They have said yes to the citizenship of your story. To the citizenship of all our stories. Is this feminism? Yes, I suppose it is. But I suppose I could also just call it the willingness to dare.  

BT: It does feel to me that, with Rift Zone, you’ve dared to fuse together the somewhat discrete time scales of your first two books: the way, on the one hand, The Forage House contextualizes a family narrative in broader regional and national histories, and the way, on the other, Work & Days situates the lyric subject in the ecological immediacy of an earth-bound agricultural calendar. Though I’m offering a somewhat over-simplified reading of those books, I was really gratified by the ways Rift Zone works to bring together geological, personal, and social histories, constantly interleaving different measures of time and politics and scales of change. I admire how effortlessly the poems wear this labor, and how the book leads readers to see the deep interconnectedness of tectonic and social contexts in California. In my reading, Last West builds upon this work that is as much about ethics as aesthetics, which brings me to two final questions. You’ve already spoken about your relation to Lange as a historian, but I wonder if you could speak to how Lange’s documentary practice speaks to your own sense of social responsibility? And I wonder if there are other poets—like Brooks, Rukeyser, Boland, Hillman, Dungy—who have offered role models for your own participation in culture as a maker of poems and an advocate for poetry?

TT: Brian, this is a season of marching. And a season of transformation. I was just talking to a friend about whether we can dare to say we are hopeful. Part of Rift Zone is about the incredible sadness of surviving in a life that privileged you—about the grief of the racism I felt in my schools, the disparities, the policing, the fault lines and unsettled racism of this place. How do we bear ethical witness? I suppose I did look to Lange for that, for guidance in a practice. In following her footsteps through California, I learned some things. Both about poetry and also about work I want to do to advocate for solutions to homelessness. And in looking at her work I also saw the great way light and shadows and bodies and forms disarm us toward empathy, toward feeling. The way her notes echo across time. I keep thinking about where the activist and where the aesthete sit. Keats said that beauty is truth, but what is beauty? Anyway: my activist self and my poet self sit in some kind of Venn diagram. They talk to each other, they quarrel, sometimes they offer different attentions. They need one another, I think; but they do not always speak the same language at the same time. They also are both full of great longing. 

And: again. This is a season of marching. Yesterday there was a full-blown Black Lives Matter march in this sleepy bedroom town which used to be a sundown town. This town which was built on segregation and redlining. This town with its messed-up public schools. There was. It happened. People came and marched a long time. I have spent 30 years on and off here and I have never once seen a march, much less one that was big enough to fill blocks and blocks. This week the local school district cancelled its contracts with the police department. Some slow long exhale happened in my body. 

Where you are, the statues are coming down. We are, in this moment, when I write this, in a moment of reckoning. There is so much work to do. We need to build support for the homeless and for our schools. We need health care. We need all kinds of new deals—for artists, and the environment, and for historic injustice. In the middle of this time of seismic grief and loss and renewed action I think of words from Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue: “In the rift between what we would like to have happen and what is going to happen, poetry holds attention for a space.” We are standing right now in our nation’s rifts. Perhaps these rifts can open new and generative land. I also think of the poem: as a place to hold our attention, as a way of learning to attend, as a place to share human breath, which is fragile, and is also a tool for empathy. Some days we march. Some days we write. Some days, neither. On good days, both. 


Brian Teare

A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow, Brian Teare is the author of six critically acclaimed books, most recently Doomstead Days, winner of the Four Quartets Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle, Kingsley Tufts, and Lambda Literary Awards. After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now an Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.

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