Taylor Byas’ poems made me dork out for real, they’re that good. They’re funny and insightful and painful in all the right ways. Here we talk about word play, character, form and who we’re in communication with when we write.
MM: Okay, I’m gonna just jump in. A real strength of your poetry is what I would call a unity of vision. That is, there’s almost always a strong central scene or image. Would you agree? And if you do, how do these scenes come to you, how do you pick out what image to focus on?
TB: I would definitely agree with that, and I think it comes from my background as a fiction writer first. I wrote and studied fiction for my entire undergraduate career, and out of that came this narrative-focused poetic voice that seeped into my poetry. A lot of time, poems are these tiny stories in which there is a central scene where the action or conflict is unfolding. But also, I pay a lot of attention to the images in my poems. I think a carefully crafted image does a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to bridging the gap between author and reader and finding that common ground of experience.
MM: Absolutely. And that fiction/prose background makes me think about your approach to character. There are all these people in your poems! Lovers and family and hostile strangers and beloved strangers . . . Do you feel your poems address them? Or do you have a clearer distinction between who’s in the poem and who the poem is for?
TB: I want to argue that my poems both address those that I write about, and that they are also written for others. When writing about people in my life, I do feel like I speak to them through my poems, and oftentimes these sort of poems will actually start in second-person because I need to sort of talk TO them in a first draft. My poems often feel like conversations I wish I could have had or conversations I still remember, and perhaps that plays into that direct address. But because I am talking to that lover or hostile stranger and family member, does that also mean that the poem must be FOR them? I don’t think so. I think there is also a distinct audience there, other Black women/girls, other daughters of alcoholics, who these poems strive to comfort, and even warn.
MM: That makes sense to me. Writing is communication, which, to me, is fundamentally about ending loneliness. So of course you’re reaching out to not just people in the poems, but people like you, who need to hear and see themselves in your poems.
Along those lines, many of your poems begin with an acknowledgement of poets and writers and other people you’re responding to, or are patterning yourself after, or paying tribute to. What does intertextuality like that give your work? Why is it important to you to cite?
TB: A lot of the things we write are inspired by other things, especially by those we read. And that level of inspiration differs, but I cite when I feel like a) it’s necessary to do so to make sure I’m correctly paying tribute as opposed to plagiarizing, and b) when I feel like that citation or acknowledgement adds another layer of context or understanding to the poem. There’s a lot of tension surrounding the “after poem” and I always air on the side of caution when I feel like my inspiration is more direct. But I love when an epigraph can put my poem in conversation with another. For example, my poem “You’re It”, which is a golden shovel inspired by a quote from Joy Priest’s poem “Nightstick.” To put my poem, which considers white violence against Black bodies, in conversation with her poem that is considering Blackness in juxtaposition to a symbol of white violence, creates a new experience of reading the poem.
MM: It really does. And places you in a tradition of Black poetry, while also being didactic about that tradition. The citation says, “Have you read Joy Priest? Claudia Rankine? You should have.”
TB: I love that.
MM: Along those lines, I’d like to ask a question about AAVE in your work
MM: So I was reading your poems, and trying to find a pattern to the use of AAVE, does she use it only in dialogue, WHEN does she code switch, that sort of thing. But then I realized that we could have a much more interesting discussion of what even constitutes AAVE. So that’s the question: what are the borders of AAVE in your poetry? Do you code switch in your poetry? Or would it be better to say that since the poem is an authentic you, that there is no code switching involved?
TB: I think part of this question goes back to character. When I portray different people in my poems, I try to portray them in a way that is authentic to me, which includes capturing the way that they speak. Sometimes those characters are speaking in AAVE. I tend to work with dialogue a lot in my poems because I love that interruption of another voice, as it then begins to feel more like a conversation with the speaker of the poem and these other characters. When it comes to the speaker talking, and the question of code switching, yes I absolutely code switch because there isn’t an aspect of my life that doesn’t request that sort of labor from me. It’s built into my life, and therefore it manifests in my poetry.
MM: That conversation is crucial, those interruptions. I’m thinking about your poem “Hypothetically Speaking” which is literally just in my notes in all caps with exclamation points because I knew I was going to be thinking about it for days. In that poem, the speaker is juggling so many other people’s interruptions and expectations: the partner the poem is addressed to, the waiters at the restaurant, the white child and white parents asking her to “play dead.” How did that poem come to be?
TB: That poem was actually inspired by a real life event in which I watched a white child loudly play with a toy gun in a restaurant. And from watching this child, I started to think about these sort of freedoms that we mindlessly grant white children, and of course I thought of Tamir Rice who had a toy gun when he was killed. And I began to think about the actual violence, the many different acts of violence taking place while this white child is allowed to tote this gun and point it at others and pretend to shoot and kill others in a public space. White children are taught they have this power, that they can wield it whenever and wherever they choose. And how then, as a Black woman and a black body, how then am I forced to interact within this dynamic? So that poem was then me thinking about how I would be pressured to react if that child pointed that gun at me. How my anger would be seen as a direct threat to this child, a direct threat to his white imagination in which I’m supposed to fall at his feet when he pulls a trigger.
MM: It’s a stunning piece. And the realism that comes from, again, all those conversational pieces, those other characters.
If I can switch tacts here for a moment, can I ask you about forms and repetition? Because you’ve done some amazing things with the pantoum, and with repetition. You also seem to be really intentional about say, couplets vs. stanzas, and I want to know what the significance of these forms are to you
TB: Form really helps to break me out of my own comfort zones. I always say that it changes the landscape of my mind and even the landscape of the page as I come to it, because now there’s a specific space I have to work in. It’s like if you’re building a home, and you think you’re going to have this large open space, but then you get a call and you realize that you’ll only have this oddly shaped part of that field, you have to now rethink the whole construction of the house and get creative, right? That’s form for me. And with repetition, I love the challenge of making something new over and over, which requires me to bend language to my will. It’s the challenge of it that thrills me but also the control that it requires, the preciseness with which I have to play with words and what they can mean and how those meanings change depending on what’s around them. When it comes to how I decide on couplets vs. stanzas, that usually depends on the pacing of the poem and how I’m feeling about my line breaks. I tend to shoot for larger stanzas/no stanzas when I want to sit in a scene or image for a big chunk of the poem. I tend to break lines more or go for couplets when I want to amp up the surprise or draw attention to the possibility of the line breaks
MM: I think that thrill for you really comes through, it reminds me of language as a game, as play, even as you’re covering these intense topics, love, violence, race. Which again, back to the tradition of Black poetry, is reminiscent of all the wonderful word play that is hip hop, that is the Dozens, or is a poem.
So you’ve got these two poems, “My Twitter Feed Becomes Too Much” and “Growing Pains,” which very frankly and matter of factly deal with the emotional affect of being on social media. So I wanted to ask you about writing from that virtual space, as opposed to from the so-called real world. What are the challenges and rewards of writing about social media and other online experiences?
TB: Social media is such an integral part of society now, it’s a part of who we are. And on any given day, you could scroll through Twitter and find dozens of tweets about its effects on mental health and on relationships, and oftentimes I’m surprised that I don’t read more poems about social media! It almost feels odd to separate it from the so-called real world because it IS the real world, especially right now in a pandemic. What can be challenging about social media is rendering it in writing. Trying to capture in-person relationships are hard enough, but then trying to capture the complexity of social media relationships and how we navigate that space emotionally can be tough. But it’s also made space for a bit of experimentation. For example, in “My Twitter Feed Becomes Too Much,” I leaned into the scroll and refresh aspects of Twitter and created a life for them inside of the poem, and I love the effect that produced.
MM: Yes! The urgency that the repetition of “the page refreshes” brings out
TB: Yes, urgency. And the scrolling itself often feels urgent! The doomscrolling, we’re drawn to these spaces while simultaneously wanting to take breaks from these spaces. They’re so unique and complex and I think trying to portray them in poems could be a lot of fun
MM: It is! I also think about the way the world shrinks to the boundaries of the phone or the laptop screen, the “little black box” of our attention span, and how that’s described as sinister by so many people shaming millennials and zoomers for being addicted to our phones, but could also be something comforting. What is a home but a little black box that cuts out the rest of the world?
Okay, unfortunately, I’m running out of time here, but I could go on and on, your work is endlessly thought provoking.
One last thing, I’m gonna pick two images from your poems, and make you choose, okay?
MM: Jarful of beads or Henna tattoo?
TB: Henna tattoo.
MM: I agree with you, but the jarful of beads has so much potential.
Things I wish I had asked her: Why be funny in a poem? What highways are her biggest inspiration? What secret power is there in writing about Beyonce?
Taylor Byas is a black Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is now a second year PhD student and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati, and an Assistant Features Editor for The Rumpus. She was the 1st place winner of both the Poetry Super Highway and the Frontier Poetry Award for New Poets Contests. Her chapbook, BLOODWARM, is forthcoming from Variant Lit (July 2021). Her work appears or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Glass, Iron Horse Literary Review, Hobart, Frontier Poetry, SWWIM, TriQuarterly, and others.
Mordecai Martin is a New York Jew, a writer, and a loving husband living in Philadelphia. His work is available at fine purveyors of literature all over the internet, visitable at http://linktr.ee/MordecaiPMartin. He tweets @mordecaipmartin and blogs at http://www.mordecaimartin.net.