Memory is a seductive mistress. Poet Gerald Stern once said: “The obsession to remember is a loyalty to something, isn’t it? It’s often a loyalty to things that in and of themselves might seem insignificant..”
What loyal rememberings do you revisit in your poems? What remembering do you want to revisit but find yourself stymied? Why? Explain.
I return to memories that question the worth or value of something. Sometimes it is as ordinary as the bad beans my mother had culled out of a bag of dry beans. Although my mother said nothing would come of them, I planted them; they sprouted. My mother took those sprouts as proof of my green thumb. But for me, they cultivated my sense of relativity: beans that would have been bad in the pot became good in the ground. When I write about this memory in “Mama Says Nothing Good,” I suppose that “what is bad is just something good / appearing where it shouldn’t.” While I seriously doubt that is the lesson my mother wanted me to take from that experience, it helped me negotiate other value judgements, particularly those about class.
My fondest memories are of growing up in Clear Springs Marina and Trailer Park on the Coosa River. For me, it was a place of beauty (light shimmering on the water) and abundance (fish frys and blackberry-picking). I am aware that most people associate trailers with trash. But I can’t reconcile my memories with that, so I write back, hoping people will find some value where they hadn’t before, in places or people that are disparaged. If nothing else, I’d like my poems to encourage readers to give themselves a break, a moment to smile into a soft breeze and watch the leaves lift instead of frantically chasing what we call the American Dream which feels more and more like a mandate. Living on the Coosa taught me the value of relaxing and watching the egrets finding their roosts in the branches. My loyalty to that place runs deep, deep enough that I’ve been accused of having a trailer park chip on my shoulder. I have no intention of knocking it off.
I write about my childhood and about building a house by hand with my husband. Maybe remembering home is how I best grasp and find significance now. However, my brain is always replaying memories of random landscapes. It is as if I inhabit a skewed greater romantic lyric. For example, as I practice yoga, I vividly remember an old commute down highway 22 when it was mostly woods and old limestone quarries or I think about headlights sifting through the pines when I was searching for a campground in Red River Gorge. What those reoccurring landscapes mean, I wish I knew.
You won the 2017 Philip Levine Prize, a prestigious national award, for your forthcoming collection. Tell me a little bit about this collection--how it came together, the bones, the ligaments, the tender parts.
Known by Salt puts its muscle into questioning the divisions made by class, gender, and between humankind and nature. I’m a first generation college student. While I love much of what I’ve learned in school, it is also a place where I encountered stereotypes about the working class. At its bone, Known by Salt is my way of saying that I am of that place (trailer parks) and those people (construction workers). I hold an MA and MFA in poetry, but I’ve learned grit, wisdom, and feminism in fast-food joints, forests, building sites, and strip clubs. I want to speak to how much we need and should appreciate those who build our bridges and serve our food. Known by Salt’s most tender parts are love poems, to my family, to the Coosa River, to poets I adore, to the creatures inhabiting Alabama’s wooded ridges, and to my multi-talented, raised-on-a-farm, novelist husband.
Known by Salt came together as a response to a rejection to a chapbook manuscript in 2014. PorkbellyPress said they liked my voice, but they wanted something more focused. Until then, the ligature between my childhood and my recent house-building seemed strong, but the rejection made me realize that it may take a full-length book to make those ligaments work for a publisher and a reader. In 2015, I re-submitted a focused manuscript of house-building poems to PorkbellyPress. They accepted Rooted by Thirst and published it in 2016. But from the time of that rejection to when Known by Salt was awarded the Philip Levine Prize, I continually revised my book-manuscript, adding and subtracting poems to strengthen the connections between where I come from and who I am. Poet Lauren Slaughter and my husband James Braziel were wonderful first readers of those multiple revisions.
In the poem "I've Learned," you stun the reader with this simile: "Wear a dress so tight I look/ like a can of busted biscuits?" How does a poem start for you? Does it begin with an image or a feeling you want to image? If you had to analogize it, what process does writing a poem most resemble?
I can’t take credit for that simile though I wish I could. For a few years, I took a yoga class in rural Alabama. Another woman in the class happened to mutter that yoga pants made her look like a can of busted biscuits. I was thrilled by the image and knew that I wanted to use it somewhere somehow because it was so vivid, so perfectly visceral.
“I’ve Learned” didn’t start there though. Instead, it was sparked by my great admiration of the many lizards that live around my house and yard. I’m fascinated with their bodies and how they hold themselves with such ease, it doesn’t seem like holding at all. That and I’m flattered by how they look me in the eye, cock their tiny heads, and flare their throats (a courting gesture) as if I’m one hot lizard lady. I liked thinking about them and writing about them, so I had some lines about lizards in my notebooks already. Overhearing the busted biscuits quote helped bring it all together.
Often writing poems feels like collage making to me. I write in multiple notebooks, so when I’m pulling together the images and language for a poem, I’ll have three or four open on my desk so I can draw an image from one notebook, a phrase from another, an ending from still another, until something like a whole poem comes together. Another, more southern, way of imagining my process is it is as if I’m “fixing my plate” from a random collection of dishes I prepared and plattered earlier.
But to answer your question more specifically, poems typically begin with images for me. I agree with Mark Doty in “Souls on Ice,” “Our metaphors go on ahead of us. They know before we do.” Like Doty, I see my role as a poet is to attend to the world, its images, and then unfold the meaning found in them. It may be more honest to say that Doty gives me permission or encouragement to try that and to believe that “metaphor [is] the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.” To me, that is the pleasure: discovering that bit of myself that reaches to lizards and busted biscuits to be made known.
Tina, I love how much of your world--the daily enchantments, encounters, and sensations--are entering this conversation. It's as if a poem is cracking the sidewalk beneath our feet. A poem or a tree root. On that note, does poetry root you or displace you or something else entirely? How do you relate to your poetry?
Without a doubt writing poetry roots me. It deepens my experience of the world by giving me cause to turn an image or phrase over and over in my mind and on the page. It makes me realize that I, maybe all of us, can’t really get to the bottom of things. We can always go deeper; there is always more mystery. Sometimes I try to re-experience or recreate certain phenomena so I can spend more time with it. For example, walking into a building once, I noticed how I could see both my reflection and what was inside the building in its windows. This double vision intrigued me. I was already fascinated by how glass is a liquid that moves at such a slow rate it seems solid. While writing, I paid closer attention to the wall size windows in my house around dusk. One night after I had spent an hour or so of turning lights on and off and looking at and through my reflection in our windows, my husband asked me what I was doing. That night I not only was able to spend more time with an image, I also realized how much odd behavior I can get away with by saying I’m writing.
Writing poetry elates me as well as rooting me. I feel buoyed by writing. To mix my metaphors just a bit, I relate to writing poetry like a tree, rooting down while reaching up and out at the same time.
Last question, is there something you would never consider writing in poetry? Is there a topic so taboo or off-limits that you can't bring yourself to touch it? What are the boundaries, whether social or ethical, of poetic license for you?
I can’t think of any topics that are too taboo for me right now. I think we can write about anything meaningfully if we come to it with humility and respect. Humility because we don’t and can’t ever know everything about a topic. Respect because we need to honor how everyone and everything is interconnected. That doesn’t mean I avoid using humor or calling out inappropriate actions. Instead, I avoid language that dismisses someone or something no matter what I’m writing about. Unfortunately, American culture is rather hell-bent on setting up hierarchies and creating language of dismissiveness. We inject sneers into even neutral terms to the point they become barbed and hateful. I don’t want to traffic in that. And I don’t want to support treating anyone or anything differently than I would want to be treated.