Conversation with Tess Taylor

RIFT ZONE, Taylor’s third book, is due out in 2020 from Red Hen Press. Her poems trace literal and metaphoric fault lines between past and present; childhood and adulthood; what is and what was. Circling an ordinary California suburb lying along the Hayward fault, these poems include redwood trees, hummingbirds, buried streams, and the otherworldy cries of new babies. They are also records of American unease, American violence, American grief. They include arson on the site of a Spanish landgrant, white supremacist violence, guns in the local elementary school and the painful history of Japanese internment. 

 In this conversation with Ilya Kaminsky, Taylor discusses the roots of the book.

If you had to choose some lines from your previous work that echoed in your mind, in your inner-ear when you wrote this book–or perhaps the opposite (if it is more helpful), what lines you wanted to shield from, what you didn’t want to hear, as you wrote this book– what lines might that be? I ask because I would like to explore that idea of mapping into the sound-work in your books, too. Not just content. 

I do see now how this third work, Rift Zone, communicates in overt and subterranean ways with works I made before. It’s a book about core sample, about excavation, about digging.  But  I didn’t know it would be this until the end, or near it. I rarely, if ever, think of former work directly when planning new work.  In fact, planning is the wrong verb there, because when a poem or fragment of a poem emerges, it is a mystery to me—it emerges, I follow. It was only after the book was done, as it became clear that, in excavating the history of my hometown, my backyard—I could see that I was in dialog with concerns I had before.

Poems have their own lives, their own beginnings.  They do begin in sound—fricative sound, little vowel songs. Sometimes they begin in absurd noticings:  “I see the cleaners sign has now become the leaners”  or, overhearing my mind reciting the names of the dead while I walk through the town graveyard.   Yun, Kobayashi, Menendez, Revere. Why those names? What lives (and deaths) converge here?

It’s as if suddenly I’m in the grips of something that feels as it must be part of a poem, and then it comes out on a notebook page; a bit of itself, as a start.  But this is often fragment or shard, some demand or promise from the universe.  It’s only later that I see a constellation emerging, dialog between poems. Till then, I work out of instinct and baffled passion. Poems from this book were in progress for 8 years! The first poems came in the blurry months after I moved back to California and my first child was born.  Perhaps the poems circling the suburb begin in the endless walking of the stroller around! Yet these poems also got finished in Belfast, while I was working as  a Fulbright and teaching at the Seamus Heaney Centre—6000 miles away. These poems got finished in the years after Trump, in the years of our own wrenching open. How to sound that ripping?  How do we read our pasts against this present? That also couldn’t help but shape the poems.

I actually literally live on a fault line, one that is so near us, one that shifts uneasily, every year.  I write “suddenly upthrust like revelation” to describe the earthquakes in the book, but I suppose it’s a fair figure of mind, too. Maybe it’s even a figure of politics—pressure, then revelation.   The idea, also of “fault.”  The earthquake seemed like a figure for our political time—an area under constant endless pressure which has a sudden, buckling collapse. In one poem I’m literally tracing out the deep meanings of the word “fault” – stumbling over them, stumbling over where the nubbliness of sound leads, those “bl” sounds making the mouth stumble too.  The poem came out as an etymology poem, an ars poetica:

Fault  we say & what is this but tendril

to fault to foul a falling short a failing 

to blame  to blemish

                        e.g. a damaged place


the word also making visible

at least in part the unimaginable

moving plate:  earthskull                        where it buckles


I wonder if you could answer the above once more, but instead of sound, consider images. What specific images from your past work you were still haunted by as you wrote these new poems. Or, if it helps: what images were so persistent that you had to shield yourself from them as you wrote these new poems.

Because I began these poems after moving home to California after all those years away- these poems felt fresh to me, built away from the other poems.

Everything seemednew—I had just crossed the country, just moved back into the suburb I was raised in. I had become a mother. Before that I was in Brooklyn and Virginia writing archival poems, and then working on a farm in Massachusetts. And because the California landscape was distinct, I kept falling through trapdoors of memory,  thrown back twenty years just by turning a particular corner.  Becoming a parent was also part of it. I remember looking at my tiny new primate and thinking how all of evolutionary time had converged in his body, how he was bearing the dark past of the species forward—into this odd, confusing, incongruous world.

How do we read that past against the present? This particular, very ugly present?  There’s a poem in there about a time a girl brought a gun to school and nearly shot us. My mind went over and over again my sorrow about that— for all of us, for her, for me, for this world. Then, I suppose, my desire to excavate. My mother is a historian! I guess that narrative is always in my head. I live now in a formerly working-class suburb.  I live on land that was Ohlone, and then Spanish, and then Mexico—I literally live on top of a buried stream which I hear in rainstorms. The figure of these alternate realities, their reality, stream’s reality, the stream’s bed—these were important to me too.

This town, the light on its walls, its little houses—in many ways a humble place, with small bungalows and lemon trees— a kind of post-war California dream. Dorothea Lange photographed it.   Yet where is that dream now? For whom is it available? My suburb is uneasy in a new way: We bought the house in the years just after the housing crisis, as house tent cities began to bloom, and the Occupy movement was basically on our doorstep. The poverty has persisted. There are tent cities under every freeway underpass, it seems. Our neighbors are living under freeway underpasses. Our neighbors are living in tents.  This is also a part of it.

Another question: Auden, when he writes about Yeats, says “mad Ireland hurt him into poetry” What hurt Tess Taylor into poetry? Could you answer this question in terms of images, and sounds, what images show it to us, what sound keeps echoing that specific hurt, in your new book? in your past books?

That line is so important. I think about it often. Camille Dungy and I have shared it– “Virginia hurt us into poetry.”  Our families are both from there— a branch of mine was a slaveholding family in Charlottesville, hers an enslaved family in Lynchburg; we are likely some kind of distant cousin. We have both have written about that place, and its codes, and its violences. It’s something we’ve talked about a lot over the years.

Part of the hurt is in inheriting a through-line back to that deep violence, of seeing how unhealed it is, of seeing racism spiral and tendril out to reinvent itself.  Lawrence Campbell, a minister at a black church in Danville, Virginia, who was involved in the Civil Rights movement, and knew my grandfather said, “racism is like one of those weeds. you knock it down one place and it comes up some place else.” I suppose this book explores that “someplace else.” There’s a lot of American violence in this book, but in it has tendrilled its way all across the country, to California. That violence is a highly persistent thing, it is the story, and even travelling 400 years into the future and 3,000 miles to the west can’t quite rid us of it.

I suppose when I missed California from the east coast (especially in the winter!) I would think of it as  sunglazed, kind of charmed. But when  I returned here, I kept unearthing old histories of my hometown and decoding them newly, things I didn’t know while growing up here, hidden just below the skin of my childhood. How this town was a ground zero for Japanese internment. How it has a history of Klan violence. Each of these things still reverberates with us today.

Meanwhile, Bay Area has changed—from being a wilder and more wayward to being so expensive and technological.  I mentioned the glaring rifts between rich and poor, the savageness of our economy right now.  But all of us live, insofar as we live, in precarious balance— downwind of fire, ahead of an earthquake, or health insurance, or somehow losing our shelter. Some of us have more buttress than others, but in every case, we are there but for fortune.  A few years ago my husband was gravely ill and nearly died and could not work for quite some time. We are ok, but so easily might not have been. Recently we have weathered several devastating fire seasons, with friends losing houses, weeks of toxic air.  I live a roughly middleclass life in the Bay Area.  But daily I know this is a fragile miracle.

And, a very direct, almost flat question: what is home for Tess Taylor–and what troubles you about building a home and raising a family in California, United States, in 2019? As you speak about that troubling moment– might you consider answering with images, sounds from the book?

There are a lot of homes in this book. Some of them are the homes of place, of ecotone, of light, of species—the homes we make in tender proximity to the world around us. We have a redwood tree in the backyard—redwoods are these amazing, highly evolved organisms—their forests recycle more elements, molecule for molecule, than any on the planet.  We have a broken national economy, but redwood forests actually are highly efficient ecosystems—a “wise economy” I think I call them, in the book.

Some of the homes are homes of memory. Some of the homes are homes of family, homes we make with the bodies we are trying to raise and protect in the world. When my son was born I felt so in awe of him—a being, alive at the end of this vast evolutionary and historic journey. Look at his tiny body! Look at the miracle of time emerging in this new thing! I also felt— it’s not his fault, but soon he will become part of the chain of it. The grisly past, the grisly present. He’ll inherit pollution, the  super bizarre internet economy, whatever is left of democracy, and so on. He’ll inherit the plastic in the sea.

You’re asking me for images of home. For me it encompasses all these things: my tenderness towards my new primate. The solace of redwoods. My horror and sorrow at this violent time. The oddness of perching here at this edge of the world. These are the things that  jumble in my mind.

The book is filled with tenderness and fear, and there is also a very specific strain of grief in this book–an American grief. When we speak about literature we rarely touch upon this — an American grief. It seems to me that grief for Americans, especially white middle class Americans, is always other people’s thing, other people’s trouble. I think your work points very much to the American grief. I wonder if you had only a paragraph, how would you phrase it, or show it, or sound it: American grief. That is, very simply: what is American grief according to Tess Taylor?

You mention American grief. When I look for a way to answer this question I think of EM Forster, famously saying “only connect.” I often wonder about our ability to connect, to be human with and for one another, to be, as Gwendolyn Brooks put it “each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business… each other’s magnitude and bond.” Perhaps the grief is living in this society which, in failing so many people, fails all of us.

And: Only connect!  Tech companies have tried to use that as their slogan, but what can foster the kind of conversation that touches us, changes us, makes us more open to one another, helps us open ourselves to reconciliation, to justice, to understanding? We live in an era of furious soundbite, of bon mot; where the very engines of conversation—I’m thinking of Twitter here—actually profit by feeding off and amplifying anger and discontent.  Yet what will amplify our tenderness? What will amplify our sense of being responsible for one another?

We share this delicate, difficult place, these cities, our children, our planet. We share our fragile air.  We share the oceans. Yet we are living in many ways in a deeply savage time, where all us who are paying attention are seeing such traumas to the bodies around us—through gun violence, through poverty, through brutality. One small example: Recently when I was riding BART with my son who is now seven, we saw a very ill and unhoused person, someone who needed deep care. This particular person’s affect was very poor, and it was painful to see, though I couldn’t immediately think what more to do.  Afterwards Bennett told me that the situation made him sad.  I asked him why and he told me “I am sad for him, but I am also sad for all of us that no one is taking care of him. That’s what scares me.” I think this gets at it somewhat. To be enmeshed in this society that abandons people, that so frequently erupts in violence—even if one is privileged in that society, even if one seems to be surviving—  does not allow us to escape its sorrow, or its threat. There is a grief that one must feel if one is to be a moral human.

Your book gives us a vision of an American suburb. When you hear this phrase, “American suburb” — what emotions occur to you? And, what images and sounds from your work speak most vividly to those emotions? If you had to choose just 3-4, images/sounds,  what would they be? Would they change from book to book? how? Why?

Well, the book does start out describing the suburb, my place. Here’s a section of San Pablo Avenue a couple miles north of where I live:

San Pablo, old trade route, widens there

peppered by papusa stands.

Passes the crumbling mission and the corner


where Donte, who my sister loved, was shot.

Blackberries choke the bike path;

schoolboys squall like gulls or pigeons.  

When you say American suburb, it seems like an anywhere, but of course I am always interested in very specific histories. In plant names. In specificities. When you say American suburb, American dream, American violence—well those things do mean something, but it’s also true that there are no ideas but in things. Under my suburb is Spanish conquest and a land grant, and genocide and also survival of the Huichin Ohlone. And in my suburb are paved over streams and small modest bungalows and lemon trees and lavender and rosemary bushes and this really strange wonderful light that makes the whole thing blaze to life after a rain. Down the street is the very crumbling bungalow where Credence Clearwater was founded with some guys from El Cerrito High. Why did they make that funny almost Southern son of a gun sound in California, on my street? Around the corner is where the Rosie the Riveters worked building ships in World War II. There is fog in July and there are frogs in October and even sometimes salmon in the few places the streams are daylighted. In the winter the light is bright tangerine, with these long persimmon dusks. Some of those things are deeply American, some site specific. I think it’s this jumble of violence and tenderness; of not being able to resolve those things; never quite being able to pull them apart.  I suppose there’s some puzzle in that, some longing that emerges that makes me want to write.  A faultline is under constant pressure, and sometimes that pressure makes itself visible. That’s a figure for American violence, but maybe it’s a figure for writing, too.  And I suppose this is the moment in my life, in my hometown, when I wanted to do that writing. I wanted to name  what did I notknow” that       “was already happening.”

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