Poetic Conversations with the Environment
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:10
Photo courtesy of Tess Taylor
To pursue her dream of becoming a professional poet, Taylor memorized poems while financially supporting herself by waitressing after college.

Culling images and fragments from the world around her, Tess Taylor ’99 exemplifies how a poet can also be a historian, archaeologist, naturalist, teacher, student and witness. Whether she is describing her first post-college apartment in Brooklyn, her drives from northern to southern California or the bird sanctuary at Amherst, her thoughtful observations give a complex and distinct shape to a place’s unspoken stories.

The Root of a Poem
“Poetry is essentially a long conversation,” Taylor said.

For Taylor, a poem can begin in a variety of ways and develop over time. She said she often “close reads” her environment and writes her thoughts down in a notebook, perhaps adding research to the notebook as well. Later on, she might find connections between a hurried thought from a five-year-old notebook and a response to one of her current pieces of writing.

“Ideas emerge as you make them,” Taylor said. “You have to let yourself admit that you pursue poetry, and poetry pursues you.”

Taylor’s style of writing carries a distinct musicality and pulse of language, perhaps stemming from her training as a singer. The arts were a key part of Taylor’s upbringing in Berkeley, California.

Rachel Richardson, her friend and fellow poet from Berkeley, explained, “Growing up in Berkeley was a great help to both me and Tess, kids who had artistic leanings and really cared about storytelling and justice … We were both able to believe — as so many kids aren’t — that the world wants truth and justice, and that these, even if hard, are worth seeking out.”

Though Berkeley undoubtedly fostered a commitment to truth and justice in Taylor’s writing, she was unsure of how or what she wanted to write before coming to Amherst.

Learning Poetry, Learning to be a Poet
“Amherst was where poetry came alive for me,” Taylor said.

After participating in a play by Amherst’s poet in residence at the time, Glyn Maxwell, Taylor decided to take his class, where she discovered that the lyrical space of a poem — its shape in meter, white space or rhythm — provided “a resonant zone.” She had always known she was interested in writing, but poetry allowed her to concretize and preserve the ephemeral observations that had always fascinated her. Professors like Maxwell and William Pritchard showed her how to make better choices in writing and “cultivate skill” to turn experiences and ideas into interesting encounters. Across her classes at Amherst, she was able to learn the craft of poetry, as well as the art of reading and thinking carefully.

Although Taylor began to learn poetry in college, she did not learn how to identify and live as a poet until after graduating. She dedicated herself to her conviction that “writers read and writers write” by spending days reading in the New York Public Library or memorizing Elizabeth Bishop poems, but she began running into challenges. She initially supported herself by waitressing at an Italian funeral parlor-turned-restaurant in Brooklyn. However, she said she was embarrassed that poetry was what she wanted to pursue, given that many of her fellow graduates either had a trust fund to support their artistic endeavors or were following “bourgeois and respectable” paths.

“What claim did I have on this profession?” she wrote in an essay for Amherst Magazine called “Notebook Days.” “I had the most excellent (and among the more expensive) educations the country could offer, yet here I was calculating the cost of lentils and calming myself by reciting ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ on subway platforms.”

Yet, in bouncing around New York, smoking cigarettes on balconies and owning two pairs of shoes, “We created a little world, learning how to make and produce art,” Taylor said.

Her world began to settle down a bit when she found short stints of employment, including doing accounting for a publishing firm and writing freelance journalism. Even during her time at New York University’s Arthur. L. Carter Journalism School, she continued working on the poetry she began during her senior thesis at Amherst and simply thinking about poetry whenever she had the chance.

She maintains that poetry is a slow, patient process, and that it emerges in a way that is not systematic.

“You have to be ready to detach yourself from this object when it feels done, and you have to be in the secretary mood for sending out your writing,” Taylor said.

Similarly, she said that becoming a poet takes patience. Taylor compared the process of becoming a poet to the process of “interning” in other professions, in that it can take a few years to build confidence and skills.

In 2003, she won the Chapbook Fellowship Competition, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America, for her first complete collection of poems, “The Misremembered World.” However, Taylor said her journey to being a professional poet still “felt serious” because she still needed to pay bills even graduating from journalism school, receiving an M.F.A. and winning a poetry competition.

Writing the Environment
One piece of advice that Taylor often gives to her poetry students is, “You have to trust that images convey meaning. Attending to the thingness of the world can be good enough.”

Having lived in a variety of American landscapes, Taylor has an inquisitive eye for how context shapes these images and what they reveal.

“Writing is about specificity,” Taylor said. “You can’t write about a place until you know the names of the plants. Different places expect and demand distinct things from us. They have different languages and different attitudes towards their own history.”

She cannot write the same kind of work in California, where she said she believes history has been largely erased, as she can in Monticello, where she conducted much of the research for her first complete collection, “The Forage House,” which was published last summer.

A descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Taylor initially went to Monticello after graduating from journalism school to find material for what she expected to be a nonfiction book or memoir. Five years earlier, when DNA evidence had strongly supported the claim that Jefferson had fathered his slave Sally Hemings’ children, Taylor realized that she had neglected the fact that she was descended from slave-owners.

“What struck me as a writer — a keeper of records — was encountering the historic violence implied by not writing people down — a legacy of absence that sends its tendrils into life today,” Taylor said in an interview for The Poetry Foundation.

At Monticello, the wilted tendrils of Jefferson’s unspoken histories and Hemings’ unwritten histories were literally unearthed in buttons or pipes where the slaves had lived. Poetry, rather than the prose Taylor had expected, became the most resonant medium for giving voice and language to the excavated fragments.

Her exploration of the inheritance across her family, time and space of the United States exemplifies her ability to capture the overlooked, fleeting sketches of her surroundings and ask questions a less courageous writer would shy away from. “Tess can conjure a time, place, mood, memory with such ease; as a reader, you quickly step into her inquisitive shoes,” Sarah Bacon ’98, Taylor’s friend, said.

Loving and Questioning Amherst
The first woman in her family to come to Amherst after a line of men on her mother’s side, Taylor was conscious of the fact that she was able to attend the college when her mother could not. This sense of triumph went on to characterize much of her experience at Amherst.

“Amherst is a beloved place for me. I always associate it with intimate thinking, reading carefully and breathing that good air closely,” Taylor said.

Her attentive affection for this atmosphere also made her aware of the problems and inequalities under Amherst’s surface.

“There were times when it felt not quite equal,” Taylor said, referring to the college’s historical and current controversies regarding race and gender.

During her time at the college, she said that there was not a normalized way for women to have camaraderie or create their own space in a way comparable to fraternities. Most insidious was that issues of inequality were often ignored.

“Nobody wanted to make a fuss,” Taylor said.

Through Taylor’s digging of her family history or revisiting expunged internment camps in her neighborhood in California, she makes the most thoughtful version of a fuss. Her distinct perspective and desire to participate in dialogues about issues that can be taboo provide a model for identifying ourselves within our settings.

“Nobody made me have to say anything about race. I could assume my privilege and go on, but I wanted to explore it. In an environment full of privileged people, terrifying discussions of inequality can get shut down because they are not going to help anybody get their paper written,” Taylor explained.

She engages with beloved places in an honest way, admitting confusion, curiosity, embarrassment or disappointment rather than clear-cut condemnation or celebration.

In her writing, Taylor creates a dialogue between what is present and what is absent in order to shape a complex view of her environment. By questioning the places she loves, she demonstrates how much she cares for them.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the debate over the paternity of Sally Hemings' children. Although DNA evidence strongly supported the idea that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one of Hemings' children, it is a mischaracterization to say that the DNA evidence conclusively "confirmed" the paternity of Hemings' children.

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