Alumna Leonine: An Interview with Shelly Taylor

22 mins read

By: Jon Riccio

sonora rev picShelly Taylor (U of A MFA, 2007) is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Lions, Remonstrance (Coconut Books Braddock Book Prize, 2014) and Black-Eyed Heifer (Tarpaulin Sky, 2010), as well as three chapbooks, Dirt City Lions (Horse Less, 2012), Land Wide to Get a Hold Lost In (Dancing Girl, 2009), and Peaches the Yes-Girl (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008). Hick Poetics, co-edited with Abraham Smith, an anthology of contemporary rural American poetry, is newly released from Lost Roads Press (2015). She is Assistant Editor of Chapbooks at Horse Less Press. Born in deep southern Georgia, Taylor lives in Tucson and is a lecturer at the University of Arizona, a bartender, and a barrel racing hopeful.

Jon Riccio:Did you compose Lions, Remonstrance chronologically or from the middle outward? How did you know when each of the book’s three sections was finished?

Shelly Taylor: I chose the three sections after I had finished writing, which took probably around two-and-a-half to three years, when I was sitting on a big pile of pages with no titles. I found the whole ninety pages of work real dang hard to read through. I do write chronologically and rearrange later, when I think I’m mostly finished getting out all that I need to. The three sections seemed necessary to me because I was just blatantly not into titles then, and I guess in some ways I am drawn to threes as some of us can be—the good father, son, and that Holy Ghost likely feminine, thank you. Deeply southern or not, this stuff can enter your mind and can seem tidy, or the opposite.

I felt I could sustain up to around forty pages without titles because of differing forms page-to-page but couldn’t so much so after that. I’m not sure if I would’ve made the same choice of breaking up the pages up now. But, this is also how I feel about Heifer and Lions in general: oh, the shit I would’ve done different! Or not. Anyhow I wrestled with the structure for about a year before I solidified the three sections that the work just seemed to fall into naturally, moving outward from grief, which I was knee-deep in at the time, or an understanding of grief, into later my choosing to cover it. The poems seem to wrestle with being okay or not, then being too tough for one’s own good, believe me, and well, that’s just kind of how the world moved then, full of sharp contrasts and doubt and working through stuff with my own brand of hardheadedness. For that reason, and especially now, the book feels vulnerable to me. I sort of shy of it.

Also, I have always been impressed by writers who finish a book and seem happy with it. Like, I mean, they can hold it in their hands and seem delighted. When they read from it, it feels like a celebration or an honoring. I have never felt that with my own work—with the anthology, sure, yes, but with my own writing, no. When Tarpaulin Sky asked for Heifer I believe I cried a good deal out of panic before feeling any kind of joy. It was Christmas 2008 and I was with all of my family in Georgia, who after I said, “they [Christian Peet and Co] want to publish Heifer”, were all gathered around waiting for some semblance of happiness that took me a good handful of minutes to find. It was a case of don’t-take-my-book-cause-I-don’t-want-to-quit-it kind of thing.  I felt this less so with Lions cause I wanted it off my desk, but to this day I don’t read from it, and haven’t that much, and I don’t hold it, and I try not to think much about it. What is forward seems a better concern.

JR: Some of your poems are blocked prose, while others unfold via stanza-less lineation. Additional sections are full-page, double-spaced. What led to these structures?

ST: These forms seem natural to me; they fall natural to my voice. Voicing shapes the container, sometimes sentence-impressed and prosaic, sometimes full of holes and fragmented thinking, etc.  My eye has never been drawn to stanzas. I don’t know if I’ve done much of that—maybe a tiny handful of poems in now two published books. For me, it takes the poem forever to find what shape it wants to be, sometimes years before being happy, sometimes falling into a thing with ease.  Mostly I wrestle weekly with what the voice wants to be and these final forms are most pleasing to me aesthetically on the page and seem to fit how I sound.

JR: In her blurb for your book, Jenny Boully praised “the I as slippage.” What makes this so? How else do you see the “I” functioning?

ST: I am really uncomfortable with my “I” being forthrightly autobiographical in verse. It can feel oh-so-icky to me. In the first section I see the “I” as being much more fragmented as this mirrors how I felt during that phase of living, not capable of staying too long on a thing, jumping hot stone-to-stone as the thing underfoot burns. Perhaps this is what Boully is speaking of. I practiced this in Heifer while writing of childhood; develop a thing that can’t be directly comprehended, a language-play that can be understood on an emotional level but not literal. This seemed dire to me in grad school (U of A, 2007), and Heifer especially mimics this.

I might have grown out of this some after being ambitious with language maneuvers that cover, like I wanted to try my hand at being more apparent, vulnerable, with the reader. But, in general, I think the “I” best slip and shush and move around or else has said too much, a poetry I am not typically drawn to. Lions wrestles with what not to say and saying too much; it was a time when I was writing cathartically and so I am, at least I feel, brazenly forthright in so many of the poems.  I like best an “I” that surprises constantly and pulls greatly from imagination, and I hope all this is there for the reader.

JR: “Feet easy you’re once your mother & once a fencepost.” Is this a statement about domesticity or something larger?

ST: “Feet! You walk now!” This is the next bit. Despite whatever you may be, you better keep moving. I think maybe so, domesticity. I include a lot of women in my family in all my work: the name “mother” or “mama” is constantly repeated; Norma Jean, my grandmother, is in every other poem. Despite whether you are of a lineage or are “a fencepost”—prob. criticism on myself, harsh—you keep in motion. Feet, I implore you go. Hard opinion of myself in that grief phase, the beloved gone, childless. I wrote that particular poem while thumbing through Laura Wilson’s gathering of Richard Avedon’s work and voice, Avedon at Work In The American West, and a lot of that rawness entered the piece. “Loudilla”, one of Avedon’s subjects, entered the poem, as did the imagery of bees covering the body, as did my own parceling out of something failing, or something about to.

Movement has always been central to my life. One: because I was born a gypsy-child. Two (and most importantly): I got good advice from my mama. Life is a bunch of choices, one after the next.  Mama said something like this: there are roads and there are roads and you will always come to a crossing. Don’t dither too much at that crossing considering which road to take, just go, keep moving. Even if you’ve made the wrong decision, and you are going to, you can and will double-back. The thing is to keep moving. This seems good medicine: I am resolute as best I can be and am constantly steadfast and in motion with my decisions, mistakes or not, you can make right. I do not dither, and this pleases my mama. If you dither, you have a mind that cannot be trusted, or something therein.

JR: I love the line on page 77, “Whatever Holiday Inn tragedy, the world moves lions.” Could you expand on its meaning?

ST: I’m unsure of what the line means, but I respond to it in an emotional way. Despite what bottom falls out, Holiday Inn tragedy or whatnot, everything on fire or stale or sad, there is something wild still and iconic and strong and also people can be lions and upright and it’s good to know they are there, whatever continent, plainsland, barrio, etc. I believe I am saying you are in the world still and this is good.

JR: “A picture of you, ain’t it funny, in a bar forever, my good tap/ tap, fingers and feet now I’ve no speedrack, five hundred bottles a night, two in/ each hand & this is Heaven.” What, in the context of Lions, Remonstrance, is Hell?

ST: In this specific context Hell is bar life. The “you” is stuck in the bar (as slinger of hooch), not fulfilling potential, or potential as the “I” sees it, settling. Meanwhile the “I” has escaped from that prison of speedrack and bottles and bottles and seems quite pleased with herself. The “I” remonstrates the whole book through over the “you” in the bar. It’s an image of peril and sadness, yet the “I” here, specifically, is all too happy to have abandoned ship and is prob. being judgy.  Funny enough (or not at all), the “I” is back in that same bar with more than five hundred bottles in each hand a night and Hell it is.

JR: “Still-life suckered your bodily form outward,/ for me, a voice, a phone call that brought the past ready/ to rush onward heavy-shouldered pioneers – never see the world/ as glass mythology…” Is it better to have a brittle worldview or mythic?

ST: Oh Lord, I can’t imagine anything good coming from a brittle worldview.

I was raised to be resolute, like the whole ‘you do not dither’ above and for the most part know exactly who I am and what the world is since I was two feet tall—whether correct or not, you can correct it later, you best know what’s what.

Inside or with beloveds you can mythologize all you want and God bless the most gorgeous of imaginations, but externally you better know. This world warrants exactness, self-and-world knowledge.

The brilliant Ntozake Shange wrote, “When I die, I will not be guilty of having left a generation of girls behind thinking that anyone can tend to their emotional health other than themselves.”

I preach this, especially to my young female students. My mama passed me this, and I will pass this too like a life mission. I come to this as a woman, and it’s probably not for everyone. But I can take care of myself in a tough world on women. To have a brittle worldview is not an option but luckily through writing as a vessel to bear anything interior, you can be whatever you want and in any shape you want to be, and it’s trusting your reader to allow you to be less than okay at times, and that they can go there with you, even when you are uncomfortable going there.

JR: “Nobody/ writes about love anymore, either it hurts too bad the heart or either/ you’re just so damn happy you write the river birds which are black/ smut.” Birds aside, if not love, what are we writing about?

ST: Love. Everything I can think of extends from it, even thinking on mortality, the body, its attachments. It’s a confusing mix. Birds are love. But you should never really say it like I did in that bit. Lions is a book about love and all the birds in Lions are not happy—they are white-haired ghosts-men-seagulls—and neither really is the speaker. This can happen.

Creeley gets it right so often. Here in “For Love” especially:

Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all

that I know derives
from what it teaches me.

Gosh dang I love this poem. We all know it and it is so, so true. It is probably my most favorite in all the world of poems. Bob Creeley could do honest transparency in a way like no other, and love.  Take that “Bresson’s Movies” poem, ending with the image of aging Lancelot trying to get home, “dazed and bleeding”, disenchanted with life. Creeley turns it on a hinge, “It / moved me, that / life was after all / like that. You are // in love. You stand / in the woods, with / a horse, bleeding.  / The story is true.”

JR: You edited the anthology Hick Poetics (2015, Lost Roads Press) with Abraham Smith. At 40 poets strong, the book “sings to you of this age-old tradition so well we know the woodline.” What was the most surprising thing you learned in curating other people’s work?

ST: In all honesty, I learned that people—the poets we delicately handpicked to be in the collection, through working with them in the editorial position so that you are not just a poet—they are really nice—I mean really, really cool—but they can have lot of life stuff going on that can throw your own shit off for a long, long time. I learnt patience. I’m always learning patience because I was born with so very little.

When all was said and done, when I had the book in my hands and in the months after and especially now, I am so pleased to have been in the unique position to advocate for these 40 poets I so believe in with my coeditor and for-life compadre, Abe. I consider the whole thing a great honor and worth all the years of hustle. All necessary things require it. The whole book has a kind of magic to it. The reading at AWP Minneapolis was to many something otherworldly; poets not typically claiming that rural birthright in this overly-academic world we often inhabit getting to show pride in that upbringing—all of us hicks here together just bringing it. The Montana Book Festival reading was pure everything. D.A. Powell closed it and was so emotional and brilliant and giving, as was everyone.

JR: “…that kind of silence between a hedgerow & a coke bottle, the very naked/ that’s your dark.” When was the last time you heard a beautiful silence?

ST: Every single time I’m out on my horse in the desert with a motley crew of five farm dogs tagging behind. This happens three or four times a week and has always been, since I can remember, a kind of amen to me. The best handful of seconds I have ever had—thirteen to seventeen depending upon the pattern—is competing in the sport of barrel racing, completely bizarre and natural to me because I was raised doing it. This brief silence I have sought my whole life and I have nightly dreams I’ll be a professional barrel racer one day sooner than later.

You can tell your troubles to a horse too and they can seem not so bad. I was without a horse for ten years until this year. I did not really feel like myself for ten years. Now that I have this red roan Jackson T, I hear all kinds of beautiful silences. It is the best part of this stage of living.

Jon Riccio graduates this December with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. A member of the Sonora Review poetry staff, he also serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review and a contributing interviewer at The Volta. His work has appeared in Redivider, CutBank Online, Stone Highway Review, Really System, Blast Furnace and The Writing Disorder, among others.