DIANA BABINEAU interviews TESS TAYLOR
Today we celebrate the publication of Tess Taylor’s The Forage House with two new poems from her debut collection (“Official History”, “Southampton County Will 1745”), complete with audio recordings. In the following interview with Diana Babineau, Taylor talks about personal ancestry, American roots, and slavery, as she attempts to uncover what remains of a broken past.
Diana Babineau (DB): This collection explores themes of personal ancestry, American history, and a journey to reconstruct and make sense of what has been recorded over time, and what has not. What or who first inspired you to begin writing this collection?
Tess Taylor (TT): Well, I was 20 when the DNA evidence about Sally Hemings’ family came out. I remember it vividly. I was working in the Amherst College Campus Center at the time, Clinton was in danger of impeachment, and here was this ancient sex scandal that suddenly was on the front page. In an ironic turn, I was writing a paper then about struggles around preserving an African burial ground — a graveyard of formerly enslaved Africans that was discovered under what is now Wall Street. I was feeling wry about how convenient it was that New Yorkers could have collectively forgotten the history of African enslavement in their own backyard.
But here was the real, deeply ironic truth: I had forgotten about the history of enslavement in my own family. You may think it sounds crazy. But I had. Even though I grew up knowing that I was a direct descendent of Thomas Jefferson, I had somehow forgotten about the implications that he (and his father and grandfather and great grandfather, as well as his children down to his great grandson) were slaveowners. I certainly hadn’t let myself think about the possibility of being related to African-American descendants of those slaveowners. I grew up in California, and I hadn’t thought about how to decode this history yet, or how it applied to me.
It’s been impossible for me not to look hard at it since. We have lived through a time when the canon of history has changed; when it’s impossible to look at Jefferson without seeing and naming these paradoxes, without knowing — and needing to know — more about his history as a slaveholder. And that has implicated me. My sense of private family was realigned just at the same moment the public discourse was changing. I wanted to know how slavery had been practiced in my family, what names had been recorded, and also how certain stories had been left out.
Writing is slow work. This first coming to greater awareness was 15 years ago. I was a young person; I had to graduate college and get a job and so on. But the feeling of the potency of this situation continued to haunt me. I felt a fascinating dance between what felt privately held and what was publicly shared, between what was present in the histories and the stories I had learned, and what, I could now see, was not.
DB: I spoke with Amherst College English professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander, who remembers you taking her Caribbean Poetry class. I also took the course, and your poetry reminded me of several themes from the poetry of Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite, particularly themes of loss of ancestry/names/culture/history and the poignancy of absence. Some lines from your poems that stood out to me include “Inheritors of absences” (from “Eighteenth Century Remains”), and “Where the enslaved went after auction // is partial— // not all written down” (from “Southampton County Will 1745”), and “(To name is to claim: )” (from “Museum of the Confederacy”), as well as the powerful absence of words in “In May Whitcomb’s Letters.” I was wondering if and how these poets have influenced your work, and how they have affected the way you think about history, ancestry, and the lost/irretrievable/unknowable?
TT: What a wonderful question! You know my canon, my training, my early loves. Yes. I read Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite in Rhonda’s class, probably that same year or maybe the year before the one I just mentioned. Rhonda Cobham-Sander is an amazing first translator of those works. I do love both Walcott and Brathwaite, so much so that I went on to study with Walcott in graduate school. I think Rhonda’s class was the first time I sat down and looked so carefully at how poets try to capture national legacy in poetry, what strategies they use to dramatize themselves as speakers, and how they dramatize deep cultural dilemmas. I remember being profoundly moved by the sense of cultural diaspora that those poems embodied, their need to claim inherited rhythm from Africa and shape it to name the New World.
The work pointed me back later towards thinking about how I could see my own life as diasporic, as part of this great new world project. As it happened, all four of my grandparents are English or Scottish; one was a Canadian colonial, one was a Massachusetts Puritan, one was from a remote part of Appalachia, and another was a kind of Virginia Cavalier — the Jefferson line. Each family culture had the impress of a diasporic British Isles on them. My grandfather’s family really hasn’t left Virginia since the 1670s. My grandmother grew up in a part of North Carolina where there were no roads and people went to gather songs that had been alive in Scotland but died out after the industrial revolution — a place which still held pieces of 17th century Scottish dialect in it. I was fascinated in the persistence of these identities, the ancientness of them.
But of course, circling back to those people, as I approached them — especially the Virginians — it was impossible for me to stop thinking about this kind of fierce absence of record around slavery, and about my own sense of needing to reach into that silence. There’s a great tradition in both Walcott and Brathwaite, as well as some of our amazing African-American writers, of naming and circling silence about ancestries that cannot be recovered. I began to think a great deal about what it meant not towrite people down. Not to dignify them with record. Having had that feeling, I think it’s impossible not to look at the people who have explored that dilemma so well: Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, Natasha Trethewey, James Baldwin. I read those writers to see how I could learn from them how to name what I was feeling.
DB: How much did your research about your ancestry tie into your actual writing process? Did the writing and research happen simultaneously, or did the writing come afterwards?
TT: I was lucky in that I got many different grants to work in archives. I made two trips to be in residence at the International Center for Jefferson Studies, which meant that I was basically living across the street from Monticello, Jefferson’s home, which is now an enormous museum. So I got to learn parts of the history of my extended family in Charlottesville that I hadn’t known. I’d go spend long weekends with my aunt and my grandmother in Richmond, and just soak up the atmosphere of those family homes, the talk, the lore. And I sort of wove together a tapestry that was made of the scraps that turned up in family attics and family conversations and those that turned up in archival places.
Here’s just one example: A wonderful curator named Elizabeth Chew at Monticello had this little commonplace book that Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, kept as a to-do list, when she was managing the house during Thomas Jefferson’s many long absences. It had a lot of revelation in it — first that she was longing for finer things and feeling rather cash poor. It also showed that she borrowed cash from the Hemings family, a closely-knit, nearby, but also enslaved family, which presumably was marketing some of their goods, eggs, vegetables, whatnot. It was counterintuitive and revealing. Alongside her to-do list, she’d written down a quotation from Shakespeare: “My poverty but not my will consents.” What a lot of paradoxes in this real, old notebook, her to-do list from the late 1790s. I’m a big keeper of to-do lists today. Mine also mix little scraps with quotations. It was chillingly human. I just wrote it down fast and a sonnet came out.
But other poems took longer.
DB: During your research, did you learn anything fascinating or enlightening about American history or your own personal ancestry that couldn’t make their way into the poems?
TT: Yes, lots. Here’s just one tantalizing story. One of the paradoxical realities of Monticello was that Jefferson — famous as our first national foodie-gardener — wasn’t that good a farmer. His house was high on a hill, so his crops sometimes didn’t do well. He actually made money though a nailery, where enslaved young boys made nails in a hot forge. Sometimes they were whipped to keep them productive. They were also at times rewarded for productivity — Jefferson was always experimenting with how to practice slavery. He thought of himself as benevolent, but he wasn’t. It’s tangled and ugly, and some of the more recent investigations of it suggest even more how awful it was.
Anyway, one day at Monticello I took a walk with the archaeologist, Sara Bon Harper, who has since become a friend, and she took me to this place in the woods place where they believe some slave cabins had been. In this quiet place down the mountains, next to a stream, the archaeologists had found one nail that had been deliberately forged into a fishhook. It looks like a nail from the nailery. Did someone steal it so they could go fishing? Who did that person make this fish hook for?
I think about that hook a lot, how precious it is, how useful it would have been to someone without much food. We don’t yet know and may never now whose it was. Monticello and Jefferson’s legacy are enormous, they fill volumes. Here was one forged metal hook. One anonymous hook. Someone’s work. Someone’s gift to someone else. I haven’t figured out how to write about that hook yet. Sharp forged thing. But sometimes I dream about it.
DB: Ideas of “family” comes up in several of your poems, most notably in “A Letter to Jefferson from Monticello,” where you write, “Your family // made of structured absence […] Others simply wonder what a family is,” and in “Southampton County Will 1745,” where you write “FOR AUCTION: Furniture, family.” Has your notion of family changed since you first began this collection? If so, how?
TT: Well, I think I am ever and ever more attuned to the fact that white people and black people are related to one another in this country. We are actually family, blood relations. We are family on a genetic level, whether we ever find one another or have the courage to see that. That’s a painful thing in some places, and it reveals a painful past, but it is a true thing. There’s a wonderful group whose work I follow, the group called Coming to the Table, where the descendants of enslavers and the descendants of enslaved sit down and talk to one another. In some cases people with actual familial connections find one another and reckon with their shared history. This is remarkable.
A woman, Gayle Jessup White, has contacted me recently to say that she believes she is related to some of my Taylor ancestors. Her family was enslaved by my family, and her great grandmother’s records and name do show up in some of the record books that exist. If she is related in the ways she believes she may be, she’s not only a cousin, but also a Jefferson descendant. So she and I are talking a lot. I am fascinated to see what unfolds there. But I just felt so glad to talk to her about what she knows about her family and what I know about mine. They share a history. They lived together in the same places for a long time. And indeed, if they are in fact the same family, I am so delighted to know that, too. Being able to acknowledge that this intensely painful thing happened in both our families, to both our families, between our families, and to converse now — well, that feels like a possible step towards some release.
DB: What do you think poetry as a form has allowed you to convey (about your history/ancestry or any other topic) that other forms of writing might not have allowed?
TT: It’s interesting that you ask. I first started out to write this book as nonfiction, as a kind of memoir. But I found that this threatened some of my family — as if my being an inquiring journalist would rat them out. So I found a much more personal way of grappling with these ghosts. And as I wrote I found that I was dealing in fragments, in tantalizing impartialities, like that hook, or like incomplete family wills. The compression of traces, those things that are left behind but which have grown mysterious — those things that imply a world of unspoken things on their margins — all this led me towards poetry. Poetry is made by its margins. Poetry, as a form, makes use of absence.
DB: It seems fitting that the collection ends with “Bombay Archive 1975,” a poem that focuses on your most recent ancestry — that of your “not-yet” parents, as you put it. Would you talk a bit more about the overall structure of your collection? Would you also talk briefly about your opening and closing poems?
TT: I’ve talked a lot already in this interview about Thomas Jefferson and that rather grand genealogy. But I am interested, too, in family stories, those blurry, shape-shifting legends out of which we come to know ourselves, the way that we inherit and save these legends or oral histories. The opening poem is the story of my Appalachian great-great grandmother, almost an incantation of the way grandmother would have told me about her. The last poem is this image I have of my parents meeting, in India, in the 1970s — the exotic last moments before I came to be me, or the world I came to know became mine. History is oral before it is written. These constellations of perception and memory out of which we form a sense of belonging to anything are as important as any other place from which we gain a sense of knowledge.
DB: When did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to write poetry, or did you start out writing other genres?
TT: I’ve always understood the world best through seeing and recording. For me, writing things down makes them real. But early on I knew I wasn’t a novelist. I didn’t want to dream up a central character’s main dilemma. I never cared what people did after they got milk. I like to watch nothing happen very beautifully for a short time. I like how poetry caresses things into existence, how poetry plays with time. I eventually realized that the space I was after was lyric space.
But I’ve also had to make a living. I stumbled into reporting, and did that to make money. What’s amazing about journalism is that it trains you for watching and note-taking. It’s a training in thinking where the center of the observed world is. Where is the story? It’s truth, but it’s a truth you must construct. There’s a dialog between what’s observed and what seems resonant, what lingers, what falls away. I like that about both forms — poetry and journalism. I like looking in the world — and then back at the word — to make what’s present shimmer.
Diana Babineau is the Managing Editor at The Common and a recent graduate from Amherst College.