Elk at Tomales Bay / An interview with poet Tess Taylor

Elk at Tomales Bay

by Tess Taylor

Nimble, preserved together,
milkweed-white rears upturned,

female tule elk
bowed into rustling foxtails.

Males muscled over the slopes,
jostling mantles, marking terrain.

Their antlers clambered wide,
steep as the gorges.

As they fed, those branches twitched,
sensory, delicate,

yet when one buck reared
squaring to look at us

his antlers and his gaze
held suddenly motionless.

++++++++Further out, the skeleton.

The tar paper it seemed to lie on
was hide.

++++++++Vertebrae like redwood stumps—
an uneven heart-shaped cavern

++++++++where a coccyx curled to its tip.
Ribs fanned open

hollow, emptied of organs.
In the bushes its skull.

Sockets and sinuses, mandible,
its few small teeth.

All bare now except
that fur the red-brown color

of a young boy’s head and also
of wild iris stalks in winter

still clung to the drying scalp.
Below the eye’s rim sagged

++++++++flat as a bicycle tire.

The form was sinking away.

The skin loosened, becoming other,
shedding the mask that hides

but must also reveal a creature.
Off amid cliffs and hills

some unfleshed force roamed free.
In the wind, I felt

the half-life I watched watch me.
Elk, I said, I see

++++++++you abandon this life, this earth—

I stood for a time with the bones.

First appeared in Poetry Magazine 2011.

tess.jpgTess Taylor is the author of The Forage House and Work & Days. She was a Distinguished Fulbright US Scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was most recently Anne Spencer Writer in Residence at Randolph College. She’s the on air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered.

Of her style, Tess says, “I don’t know if I have a ‘style.’ I have fascinations— how to write place? How do we live race in America? How do we attend now? And, I do love the textures of things, including words, and I like to entertain my own ear and hope that in doing so I entertain others.”

Bekah and Tess connected after Poets & Writers published Tess’s article, “The Art of Publicity: How Indie Publicists Work With Writers.” In the article, Tess says, “I’ve had good luck with two books of poems, including Work & Days (Red Hen Press), which magically appeared on the New York Times Best of 2016 list. But even so, my own attempts at publicizing my work have felt a bit haphazard at times—a last-minute scramble of hurried lists and harried galley mailings, carrying packages to the post office—often, it seems, with a baby strapped to my chest.” She gets advice from three publicists on how to be more strategic with publicity. It’s a great article. We wanted to know more about Tess, her poetry and the art of publicity, so here is our interview with her.

Q~Tell us a little about “Elk at Tomales Bay.” How is it representative of your work?

A~This poem was finished years ago on a hike in Pt Reyes, the National Seashore near where I live. It will be in my third book, RIFT ZONE, due out in 2020. I think this piece has everything to do with love of place and mystery of artifact, and in the pleasures of attention and attending.

Q~Is there a backstory you want to share?

A~The tule elk used to roam wide over California and now live in a couple tiny little preserves. One of them is this spectacular finger of land called Pierce Point which sticks out into the sea. I love that hike. Anyway, I really did see this elk skeleton, way out on the trail. I was transfixed. My dad and my then boyfriend wanted to leave, and I sort of felt the poem forming. I didn’t have a notebook, so I recited what I was sure was in the poem for the two miles back to the car and then on the way home. The poem still took a long time being born.

Q~Did it come easily to you or was it hard to write?

A~It came at once as an instinct and a feeling and a sense of rhythm, but the actual wording as laid down took some time. That feeling of incantation was always in it.

Q~We loved your article in Poets & Writers about the art of publicity for writers. What is something from that article that you have really taken to heart?

A~I think the thing I said above about beginning by listening holds true. But, what I loved in getting to know these lovely people was that each of the publicists really focused on building human relationships, human conversations— and starting from there.  Start from the urgent conversation, and the need to connect.

Q~Why poetry?

A~Because I caught this morning morning’s minion, dapple dawn drawn falcon in his riding. Because I heard a fly buzz when I died. Because all the work continues on, awful but cheerful. Because crotch and vine. Because what I assume you shall assume. Because I yelled at the sea “dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.” Because small is the worth of beauty from the light retired. Because I lived in a pretty how town. Because I could not see to see. Because between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. And so on.

Q~How did your role as on-air poetry reviewer for All Things Considered come about? What has the experience been like?

A~Gosh! Well, a while back they were having a series called News Poet. This was an assignment to go into the studio and write a poem, and the poem had to be based on the day’s news. I studied journalism in grad school, and I work as a freelance writer, and even though I don’t do daily news, I happen to love a newsroom. So, I sat out there and was fascinated as they built the board and the stories shifted. Also when I came I had half a poem prepared. I was going to be News Poet but I had also decided that whatever the days news was I also weave in the fact that 150 years before Walt Whitman had been walking through the same neighborhood tending the Civil War dead. So, I did a poem that was a mashup with the days’ news and our deeper sad history, even the history of the place. I decided that the ghost of Whitman, the poet and journalist, would be with me. And, that made the poem at once present tense and out of time. Poetry should unsettle us, I think, in this and other ways. It should bring us into our bodies and our lives but also make us feel the strangeness of the present.

Anyway, I loved the newsroom. And someone there did me the great honor of inviting me back, and now it’s been about seven years. I am so grateful to get to do it. I love that I get to share some of what I love about poetry with a wider audience. It’s a true joy in my life.

Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work? What are they and why do they resonate with you?

A~The subjects that call me literally do that. I can’t let them go. They find me. I dig to get the poem, but there’s another way in which the poem is digging me, too.

Q~What’s your writing process like?

A~Fits and starts, notebooks and revision, scraps and wrappers. I have kids now and I teach and have a freelance writing practice and juggle a lot of things as a working writer. I don’t even know HOW— except in fits and starts and also doggedness. What I love though is looking at a new book arriving in the mail and finding that about seven years after I wrote it on a napkin, a phrase has made it into a poem. That’s a reminder to me that the work is going on, messily, perhaps, but going.

Q~Your writing has received a lot of acclaim. What’s one piece of advice you want to share?

A~Acclaim is nice when it comes. A greater part of one’s life is spent in doubt, I think.  And, when one is in doubt the best thing is to turn inward and focus on listening, focus on process, focus on figuring out how to call out of the place that feels most singular and human in your being.  Also, to read the work of others you admire. And go to art exhibits. And to jazz clubs and live music and the symphony. To both center oneself and feel oneself be unsettled by art. To cultivate one’s faith not in success but in the processes of art.

Q~Current bedside table?

A~Terrance Hayes, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, John Donne, Jonathan Lethem, the letters of John Keats, Jenny Xie, the new Tracy K. Smith, and a book of nonfiction called Confederates in the Attic. I just read and read and read and read. I can’t wait till my kids get to bed, so I can get in bed and turn on the bedside lamp. After a day of difficult news this is what sustains me.

Q~Is there any online resource you would like to recommend?

A~I’m so in awe of the work that Kundiman and Canto Mundo are doing right now. The emerging writers coming out of those workshops are just blowing my mind. Community is so important. I think every writer should work to find a group he or she can feel at home with— that helps support the long and solitary work of getting down the bones.

Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?

A~You can visit my website, read one of the books I have out (The Forage House and Work & Days), or read some of my work online at the Poetry Foundation. You can also connect with me on Twitter or Instagram.

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