Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Background on "Route 1 North, Woolich, Maine" by Tess Taylor

RFrostED: How did your poem come into being?

TT:I was listening to a lot of bluegrass that summer I wrote my poem, driving around in a car I'd bought from a Swedish helicopter pilot and thriller novelist I'd met at a writing residency. I didn't know where my next lilly-pad was. I was between things. My car didn't work too well. The Swedish helicopter pilot was back in Sweden. I was listening to the Hackensaw Boys' Keep it Simple on the CD player.

My roaming had brought me to Maine, which is kind of a home base for me. Woolwich is the town before the town where my grandmother has a house. The junk stand I wrote about really does exist, or did exist before it got torn down. It's on an ugly part of rural freeway, along a poorer underbelly in a pretty part of the world. New England is a thrifty place, and Mainers are the thriftiest. Even so, I was fascinated that anyone wanted to sell such things. Cracked stuff lay strewn all over the lawn. I parked next to the cockamamie junk stand to wait while my dad was buying wiper fluid.

The poem started on the back of an envelope or loose scrap of paper. Most of my poems do-- I can't seem to stop jotting little bits of stuff down. This jotting was just an act of observing, of cataloging odds and ends, and feeling, I think as I wrote them down, my sense of the objects' wild impracticality, improbable beauty, and balance of apparent valuelessness and seeming value.

I think sometimes we feel a paradox or pleasurable conundrum in a vista or vibration, even if we can't explain how or why we want to use it. I feel an urge to write before I know what I want or what that wanting should mean, and then some details and scraps tumble out of me in so many apparently useless parts. Then somehow, something else-- some gesture to assemble-- becomes the act of making sense of the vibratory desire. I write down the jumble of details, and then perhaps salvage something within them. Anyway, in that first moment, it was just a note about a junkshop I scrawled on the back of an envelope in a broken down car while bluegrass was playing.

A side note: I like that CD, Keep it Simple, and I'd recommend it to anyone. It's a kind of modern reinvented bluegrass from Charlottesville- a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. It's remade out of a history of a place and time and voice and way of looking. It's an inheritance of sorts, but one that's been re-chosen, grappled with, remade-- one worn or played or carried at a jaunty angle. There's someone in the band who plays the washboard, someone else who plays the spoons. I listened to a song called Ruby Pearl: "she might fuss and she might fight, but it ain't like that all the time...."

RFrostED: Do you have a favorite line or phrase or word in your poem?

TT: I suppose I like the phrase May anyone who likes to mend, come mend. In a time when we think about poetry or aesthetics as embodying rupture or divorce, and in a world where we are conscious of quite a lot of fissures, I am interested also in the way that acts of attention-- especially ones embodied in poetry-- can serve to mend what is essentially broken.

RFrostED: Do you have a line that gave you particular difficulties?

TT:Actually, this poem-- when I finally did get it off the back of an envelope-- came quickly.

But I'd like to say that at the time I wrote it, I was also translating a lot of Latin poetry; and that phrase "May anyone who likes to mend" is a special verb tense that came out of being in close dialog with some classic poems. The gesture of ending a poem with a subjunctive wish came out of being in dialog with old poems. I was reading a lot of Ovid, but it happens all over the place, of course. Ending a poem with a wish (may you live for all time in my song)-- is actually an old and familiar kind of poetic trope. I was able to stitch it in here, making a prayer that a mythical someone-out-there could use all these relics and half broken things.

So the grammar was actually a kind of reuse or borrowing, too.

RFrostED: How long have you been working on poetry?

TT: I've been writing on the backs of envelopes for as long as I can remember, but I began my arts training as a classical singer. I thought I'd go to conservatory. Nevertheless, at a crucial moment, I felt somehow called to be a writer, instead. Perhaps it was a sense that I wanted to make as well as just memorize and perform, and I didn't have much chops as a composer. I had a desire to collect and synthesize as well. And I felt very keenly that I wanted to add my voice to some kind of literary conversation- to be part of a conversation that mattered and matters. There was a feeling of wanting to speak, as well as to sing. So I ended up going to a school where I could focus on that. As a writer, I realized that I don't really like imagining big plots. Small ones, small turns of action or phrase, can be enough.

I felt that if language was a site where the conversation mattered, poetry was the place where language was most dense, and where the conversation about language and using language was richest. Soon enough, I came to lyric poetry- which, I think, fit my sense of music. I had always loved and wanted to be part of poetry but around the age of 19 I became more obsessive and galvanized, and began to feel as if I had to try to live with the art. Some of the poems I've kept come from that part of my life.

RFrostED: To read the poem out loud to an audience, how would you introduce it?

TT;I'd tell them where Woolich Maine was, and that my family has a house near there. I might tell them that I love thrift shops and flea markets. Probably not much else. Though just above I wrote about the bluegrass, so you know I might mention that too. And what the heck? maybe even my broken down car, which got so banged up it had to be donated to the blind.

RFrostED: What poets' work has taught you the most.

TT: Ovid. Elizabeth Bishop. Frost, of course. Dickinson. Whitman. Robert Pinsky. Rosanna Warren. AE Housman. Gary Snyder. Herrick. John Donne. Shakespeare. Paul Muldoon. James Wright. Robert Hass. Chaucer. AR Ammons. Gwendolyn Brooks. Walcott. Thomas Wyatt.

RFrostED: Do you have a favorite Frost poem? If so, what is it?

TT: I'm a Californian who moved east, and so was Frost. He made up that New England vernacular, but he was from Mill Valley, land of redwoods.
So I love this poem by him, geographically speaking. That's a shortcut, because there are so many to love by Frost, and I suppose this is the one I'm thinking of this moment:

The shattered water made a misty din.
Great waves looked over others coming in,
And thought of doing something to the shore
That water never did to land before.
The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
The cliff in being backed by continent;
It looked as if a night of dark intent
Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
Someone had better be prepared for rage.
There would be more than ocean-water broken
Before God's last 'Put out the Light' was spoken.

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