Tess Taylor Explores Northern California through Poetry in “Rift Zone” [INTERVIEW]

The latest episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast features poet and author Tess Taylor. Tess, who Ilya Kaminsky recently hailed as “the poet for our moment” resides in El Cerrito, California. Her poems have received wide national and international acclaim.  Taylor’s chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s inaugural chapbook competition. The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, The Forage House, (an exploration of hidden family histories through archive and shard) “stunning,” and it was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award.

James Morehead: The places and themes of Rift Zone will be immediately recognizable to anyone who has lived in the Bay Area, a collage of images and historical snapshots beyond the tourist traps, that could only be written by someone who grew up here. One example from “VALLEY GIRL & PARAMOUNT, 1988”:

"I'm twelve, for the first time ever watching
Earth Girls Are Easy with Rochelle B.
at the Paramount in San Francisco

in whose deco dark we flicker into
the enormous San Fernando Valley
as maze of split-levels

freeways turquoise pools."

How did you approach incorporating these memories of place while still retaining the poetry so effectively?

Tess Taylor

Tess Taylor: “For me, a poem begins with its music. I can have an idea about what a poem should be about or what it would be convenient for a poem to be about. A poem really never gets started for me until I have this little impulse in my mind, and my mind is receptive to some music and language. Maybe that’s just the cadence of storytelling or maybe it’s a little bit of rhyme, but there’s this extra filter that’s on and tells me when we’re off and running with a poem. I grew up singing in the San Francisco Girls Chorus. I thought I was going to be a musician, so this sense that the world is musical, or that language is musical, or that meaning is carried in music is what drew me into poetry. I wonder if that filter helps things that might otherwise just seem merely documentary feel a little bit more lyrical.”

James: The themes of displacement of peoples and fracturing of geology are so exquisitely woven from throughout Rift Zone that the collection reads like a book. Was Rift Zone conceived as a whole or did you achieve this consistency through careful selection, editing, and ordering? 

Tess: “I do really value that sense of bookishness and assemblage. I came of age in the waning days of vinyl and the record store. Robert Hass, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus who many of us admire, said that a book could just read like a very long poem. I always have that in mind, but that’s not something that I achieve very willfully from the outset. I’m becoming a parent, so my writing time was really different, broken up more than it had ever been before. I had just moved back to the Bay Area after 15 years away, which was a really big deal because it felt momentous. It was like my life and my adulthood had arrived, and also the Bay Area had changed. Some poems that were literally thinking about what had been on a street corner that I hadn’t seen in 15 years, a sort of upthrust and ache of memory. 

“A lot of times when I’m writing, I do feel that it’s probable that things will eventually come together, but there’s a lot of patient blundering and not panicking that I don’t have it all sorted out yet. I would have told you I’m writing a book about California, and childhood, and growing up, and earthquakes, and upthrust, and the violence of America — but I didn’t know yet exactly how all those things were going to hang together. When I sit down with books, I’ll start to sequence poems and that sense of letting things in, and dropping them out, can take years. There can be poems that are shuffling around for years before they feel like they have that long poem feeling I was mentioning.”

James: Many of the poems in Section IV lean into earthquake and geological images. As I’ve asked other poets in this interview series how did you approach research and how did that research influence your poetry?

Tess: “This is actually not that much of a researched book in comparison to some that I’ve written. I love that fertile space between documentary and lyric. Some of my poems arise because I go to a place and learn its history. That sense of what’s going on in the historical past, or the ecological past, or the ecological present, weave their way into the things that I’m seeing. My dad’s a geology buff and I love knowing the name of a soil. There’s a bit of that nerdiness there and there’s a layering that has to do with finding it richer to be in a place when I know something about its history. That’s the moment where I begin to grapple with the mystery of how we come to be in the present. 

“Both my parents are historians. so I think I come by this from dinner table conversations I’ve had my whole life. I was recently in rural Ohio and it’s painted as this red state and we’re in this time when there’s a feeling of virulence. I learned that this small town had a number of houses that had been on the Underground Railroad and that it also had an orchard that Johnny Appleseed had planted. Suddenly, I got so much more interested in both the past and the present and the feeling of Ohio as this crossroads for settlement, going east to west, and also migration, north to south. The whole place suddenly became fascinating to me and that was the moment where I thought I might want to write  a poem about Ohio. Research is really enabling for me in that way. When I can scratch the surface the right way, suddenly these avenues for exploration open up, even on the surface of the ordinary. 

“These are poems about my home. And in some ways, you wouldn’t think you need to research your home. It’s really possible to be here and feel like this town is just kind of boring and in the present, but once you start to think about it, there’s all of these layers and they’re all really fascinating and they’re all chapters of American violence. Suddenly, even this place that is almost so familiar I can’t see, could open up for me.”

James: “Raw Notes for a Poem Not Yet Written” is a wonderful example of how poetry provides opportunities for visualization and white space to enhance the experience. What is your approach to experimenting with placement and layout, with strike-through and italics? When in your writing process do you tend to focus on visualizing a poem?

Tess: “This poem came into being as raw notes. There really was a building in town that was a house from which people had left to be interned in camps during Japanese internment. It was on San Pablo Avenue with an enormous flower farm behind and what became a furniture store next door. The White neighbor offered to overlook the house, and the house stayed in the family and was able to be reclaimed after internment. But it had sort of been left abandoned on the avenue with this big lot behind it and was going to be torn down to become a senior center. In the months before it was going to be torn down, I got wind of it and got permission from City Hall to go and look at the house. It was a very rushed little visit around what was basically about to become a construction site. There was going to be a little plaque on the senior center to commemorate this era of El Cerrito history. But here was this building that had lived through it, and it had a kind of haunted feeling surrounding it. 

“I tried to jot this all down quickly and I thought I would come back to it and make a poem. When I came back, I actually liked the notes themselves. The notes are very staccato and they also sort of show my grappling with how to tell this story. I’m unsure which words are correct and sometimes the words are struck through. There’s a line that says ‘they never came back’, but the word ‘never’ is crossed out and left on the page. You’re watching the page have this quarrel with the self on the page. As I was putting the book together, I realized that these little fractured snippets felt like language under pressure, like land under pressure, and like rifts. These snippets could be dramatic and that I didn’t necessarily want to make them more whole. There’s other moments in the book that feel more lyrically whole. Then this is an example that feels like something torn out of a notebook or impromptu.”

James: Social justice issues – economic equity, gun violence, systemic racism, colonization – are beautifully woven into many of the poems. How do you approach incorporating themes connected with current events while retaining the poetry? Can you have a strong point of view without preaching?

Tess: “The point of poems ultimately Is not certainty, and that’s uncomfortable for some people or for all of us in an era when we’re often outraged. And in our outrage, we feel really certain that we know that we’re right, and other people are wrong, and we know exactly why we’re right, and why other people are wrong. I think that when we’re in the place where we’re writing poems, poems are really effective for helping us to grapple with our uncertainty. Another way of putting this as a famous quote by the poet WB Yeats, which says that, “Out of quarrels with others we make politics and out of quarrels with the self we make poetry.” It doesn’t mean that the quarrels we have with ourselves can’t be political. And if we’re not having them, we probably should be because I think that’s what it is to be a moral human — to have doubt and to have conflict with the self. 

“For me, that conflict with the self is, by way of sidestepping, my sense that I need to argue exactly at this moment with other people. I grew up in Berkeley where they say, ‘if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention’ and I’m not against outrage because there’s a lot to be outraged about. It’s just that for me, when I’m doing the work of the poem, the work of the poem is to stand in a place where one can grapple and one can change their mind. The sonnet has this special thing called the volta. The poem goes in one direction and then suddenly it turns and that’s the signature mark. That question of the turn is a little bit about transformation. Poems are partly to let us process emotions or trauma, but they’re also places where we are vulnerable to some kind of transformation.”

James: The three middle sections of Rift Zone all have section headings with found text drawn from “Roadside Geology of Northern California”. In “Loma Prieta, 1989” you write:

                                 "Later I'd read

Roadside Geology of Northern California
funny yellowing book my father treasured:

I'd learn rift zone     subduction     slab pull"

Was this book an influence from the early stages of writing the poems in this collection or a connecting thread you incorporated later? 

Tess: “That book had pride of place on my parents bookshelf. We moved to California when I was about seven and my father got really interested in planning Saturday expeditions for us to learn this new state. He got really interested in giving us geology lessons and reading to us about all of the things that made California. He explained the dynamics of fog, and he would explain the dynamics of sedimentary rock and fault lines. It was in the back of my mind, and I didn’t really think much about it until I went back and lived on the east coast and realized that I really was on a different continent. We call it one continent, but it’s really three continental plates. There’s the whole plate that goes all the way up to the Rockies. Then there’s the plate that goes from the Rockies to the San Francisco Bay. Then there’s this third plate that goes out into Point Raised Olema. It’s an undersea plate that’s pushed up just for a minute at the edge of California. Somehow, this notion that we’re living on the third continent in the far west helped me articulate what it was like to be from Berkeley going east. 

“Being a kid from Berkeley going east in the 90s was weird. I was a little culturally different from other people. I was a child of hippies and had a certain kind of radical politics that I’ve grown up with that I was surprised to find out that the rest of the world didn’t have. I sat down to write this book and I noticed this geology book on my dad’s shelf. I started to read it and it’s so full of juicy scientific language. It’s for lay people and when you write science for lay people, you end up going into metaphor. You can’t help that. As a result, science for lay people is full of really interesting poetic language. I loved this language and so I ended up borrowing the book.”

James: You’ve had the opportunity to share your poetry, and thoughts on poetry, beyond academic audiences. Amanda Gorman has beautifully elevated the awareness of poetry to a national audience. What role do you see poetry playing during a time of such division and conflict, both as a voice for those that need to be heard and as comfort?

Tess: “In Seamus Heaney’s The Government of the Tongue, he’s writing about the great civic division and violence in Ireland and he says, ‘In the rift between what is going to happen and what we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space.’ I think his hope and my hope is that in that little space where you hear a poem, is that it gives air to the thinking, feeling, breathing being inside us. It calls up our awareness of our lives. It gives us a chance to feel and excavates our feelings and our complexity to ourselves. A poem can do that really quickly. You just need a couple minutes to read a poem and a couple minutes to register that some breathing being has written this poem and that you also are a breathing being and that you are invited to notice your breath and your life. I need this practice very much. I need to go to poems to find that awareness. 

“The fact that they give me that awareness makes me want to help pass that along to other people. It would be really Interesting if everybody took a break once or twice a day to read a poem. You could read one before dinner with your family. You could read one first thing in the morning. What would that be in opposition to say, doom-scrolling or writing a really angry tweet? What if we gave a little bit of time to poetry every day, what could it do for us?”

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