Featured Poet Interview: Taylor Byas
Updated: Dec 21, 2019
This issue's featured poet is Taylor Byas, whose poems "Flash Flood" and "Blackberrying" are masterclasses in the creation of curiosity, tension, and mood. We had a chance to catch up with Taylor about her process, including the complexity of blood and engagement with poetic lineage. Check out Taylor's poems here.
Jacqueline Boucher: Something that immediately drew me to these poems is the idea of blood as an uneasy signifier: first as the wife’s omen in “Flash Flood,” then as a mother’s fear of impending womanhood in “Blackberrying.” When you think of these pieces, and your work overall, what role does blood play in sending a message?
Taylor Byas: When I think about my work overall and about these poems specifically, blood is almost always alluding to a history that the speakers in my poems can’t access yet. It’s always this hint at something darker, like half of a page torn out of something, and you only get half of what’s there. In a way, blood in my poems is often a metaphor for the ways in which blood literally lingers, how you may come across an old blood stain and struggle to remember where it came from. Whose history does this blood symbolize? I suppose that’s also how I feel about writing my poems quite often, like I’m finding these bits of stories or taking bits of my own memory and I’m trying to figure out where it all goes.
In general, I feel like blood is often associated with our own familial ancestry and history, which is work that I still do in my poems. But I also find myself considering other ways that blood can connect us (for example, how the blood of womanhood connects women, in a way that particularly relevant today). I love to think about blood as an uneasy signifier, but I also like to think about blood made mundane. My poems often play around with that paradox quite a bit, which I hope shows up in these two poems pretty well.
JB: These poems utilize line length to extraordinary effect: the claustrophobic breathlessness in “Flash Flood” with its enjambment and single long stanza spring immediately to mind. How do you go about setting the tempo for a piece, and what does that look like in the drafting process?
TB: I always try to ask myself “What is the atmosphere of this piece? What’s the mood?” When I want my pieces to breathe a little more, I will opt for shorter lines and/or couplets. If I’m wanting something with a pretty steady pace, I will often resort to writing in form or meter. So for me, setting the tempo is something that happens pretty early in the writing process, and I just write to that rhythm and give the poem the space it needs. With “Blackberrying” I wanted that rhythm and music of the lines to reflect the playfulness of it, the joy of the children just making a mess because they can. But each stanza also gets smaller as the poem starts to zero in on the underlying danger that’s present, which I think creates a different kind of claustrophobia in that poem.
“Flash Flood” was so much fun because I wrote it in October and was heavily influenced by the mood of Halloween and the eeriness of the actual event of finding blood in one’s basement. Because I didn’t want to go full “gore and grossness” I had to inject suspense in another way, and I think that’s where that breathlessness comes in. I was very conscious of my line breaks and wanting to rush my reader to that next line. I wanted make the reader feel like they were running from something while reading the poem.
JB: “Blackberrying” is after Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name. Over the past few years, the conversation of the “After” poem is one that’s sparked a lot of conversation in the poetry community, with different perspectives coming from all sides. What does the process of engaging with other poets’ work, and your own poetic lineage, look like to you?
TB: I like to approach “After” poems in a similar way that I approach ekphrasis. When I write an ekphrastic poem, it needs to stand by itself. I want the poem to create an experience for the reader that is completely separate and independent from the art it is in conversation with. I feel similarly about “After” poems. When I write an “After” poem, I acknowledge the original poem to let my reader in on a part of my thought process, to allow my reader a glimpse into the process of my poem’s creation. How did this poem come about? I read the original poem, but then it took me to this completely different place. The original poem is often a starting point for me, and that’s all. In “Blackberrying,” there is a loose echo of Plath’s language in the first two lines, and them my poem moves completely away from hers. It does something different with the structure, it completely changes the context and meaning of the word “blackberrying.”
I believe my poem creates an experience that is deeply rooted in my own voice and my own lived experience, and reading Plath’s poem only helped me to access that experience. If you go read her poem after mine, I think it only enriches the experience. You now have these two separate worlds intersecting in a way that’s unusual, connected by these two very different ideas of “blackberrying.” That’s the joy in “After” poems, I think, is crossing two worlds in way that no one expects. But you have to work to make it your world, to make it your own, and that’s where I think it may get tricky, as everyone’s idea of “making it your own” may be different.
JB: What are you reading right now that moves you?
TB: I just pulled Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing back off the shelf. I weep like a baby every time I read it. She is such a fantastic writer. Her work makes me feel in a way that writers like Toni Morrison make me feel. I want to meet her and tell her that one day.
JB: What’s your favorite bone?
TB: Those metacarpals and phalanges. Always doing work.