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Kristen Nelson

No Sugar from the Southerner: An interview with Shelly Taylor



There is a relationship (a love affair) that develops between a book designer and the text of the book she is designing. The experience of making a book, taking a writer’s raw text and turning it into an object, provides a closer reading than purchasing a book and reading it. A singular intimacy grows between the designer and the text, not just for the content but also the shape of the poems, the shape of the book/object itself, the reading of the end lines and line breaks, the decisions the author has made in terms of form and how that dictates design. Something close to a sense of ownership develops when a designer spends months reading, rereading, tweaking, and formatting someone else’s manuscripts into book form.

After spending several months designing Shelly Taylor’s first full-length book Black-Eyed Heifer for Tarpaulin Sky Press, I asked her to answer some of the questions that came up during the design process. Taylor is the author of two poetry chapbooks— Peaches the Yes-Girl (Portable Press of Yo-Yo Labs, 2008) and Land Wide to Get a Hold Lost In (Dancing Girl Press, 2009). This interview was conducted primarily via email in January and February 2010. Black-Eyed Heifer will be released in May 2010 and available for purchase online at www.tarpaulinsky.com


Kristen Nelson: How was the experience of putting together a full-length collection different than that of a chapbook?

Shelly Taylor: Beyond the basic premise of a limited page number for chaps, everything about a whole collection is so much larger in scope that I don’t even know if I comprehend the thing. I had 80 percent or so of Heifer written during grad school and really had no idea what it was necessarily about; I had a feeling of what it was searching around, but I did not yet have the words to articulate the absolute meaning.

I knew what the book’s themes were, but a lot of them were hard to talk about with others— everything had to wear a mask, guarded thick with language, so as not to harm. When I first started to write the book, I knew that I was sitting on a lot of private things. It was really important for me to shroud the difficult stuff in language and luckily writing that way comes easy to me. Being “country” I have an innate advantage when it comes to messing around with syntax because that’s just naturally how we speak.   

KN: How did the themes start to emerge?

ST: I had a pretty tough time in grad school workshops. I felt really misunderstood at times, too language-y for my own good, or rather “not-narrative” enough. I had a person very close to me suggest that the book was perhaps an adult self re-raising a childhood one to right that childhood. Within a year after grad school, living in NYC, I somewhere ran across the Günter Grass staple— “Only what is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named: there is a mania to call the lost thing until it returns.” I saw this literally: an adult kneeling calling a child (as if a dog) to come back again, and to make that child unbothered if possible. This may be some of it.

I realized I had my “I” which is essentially and whole-heartedly a southern “I” bouncing all over the place— the desert, big city, southern cotton fields, horses, tow trucks, mijas. If I had made sense of the book’s themes, I had a truly hard time getting this voice-strong and driven “I” to make sense over 75 pages without being too heavy-handed. If it [the “I”] couldn’t plant its feet [thank god it’s a roamer], it at least needed some kind of ether-locale that voice can provide. After all, I did want to make some sense. This is easy to me in a chap-form; I have a sense of how I want the thing to read as a narrative, how the thing should be paced so as not to bore or tire, to get the most-desired effect sonically and lyrically. All of these easily maintained rhythms of the chap are out the window in a whole collection. Or it seemed to me.

I realized I had a story in one form or another to tell—after four years of writing, I wanted my work to be understood in a more outright way, but more often than not in the writing process, I didn’t prefer that—like I said, the mask, everything costumed. After hassling with when to be opaque, when to say something more forthrightly, I felt like I got closer to understanding or saying what I wanted with the whole-length—which is hopefully open-ended enough, without too much pathos, no sugar from the southerner, something rooted through voice, something clinging to everything that has been in an experience, from a child two feet and upwards.

KN: What guided you in choosing forms for the poems? How did each of them find their shape?

ST: When I write by hand, as was the case with most of these Heifer poems, everything is in prose. Writing is the most natural act to me; it’s entirely unconscious in free writing, when forming the poems, and often times even in revision. Voice is the deciding factor when breaking my poems into lines—the need to move out in a less constricted way. Voice implies line breaks—the breath is the most natural indicator—also the importance of having the end of the line read back into the beginning, making layered meanings throughout the poem. The regular downsweep of reading a poem textured by the rotating horizontal universe that also feeds meaning into the whole—density, double meaning, and texture. I think I got my way of understanding this from Robert Creeley whose work I love.

KN: Can you talk specifically about your process of deciding on the forms of your poems “Drowning miss g” and “That sonofabitch land had to be broken?”

ST: The poem “Drowning Miss G” was the first poem I wrote after moving to Brooklyn from Tucson. It took me about 6 or so months to bring it into the form it’s in now—it started as a prose poem and was that way for a couple months. But it just didn’t work. The voice was all over the place—long, long breaths—it’s super-hard to read aloud.

Drowning miss g [excerpt]

Gibraltar, I give you away so easy, shekels, for you are just a baby-
girl I husband myself, still think on. Herein this grand sash
around her waist, this part of the
‘the’: the street kicks, my teeth grit & someone lets out a holler more rebel than get
yourself on over to my yard sale,
them denim’s selling quicker than a hot-fire-Sherman gone crazy on
a Georgia. Herein, rampant fire, stick your tongue tip out, land bridge,
my always on lookout. I know how we sold you between us
for good behavior, penance for the come lovely I can feedeth you. Thus she
grows naked all on her own, one ought to motherly clothe this little girl
on given days where is she? In the ditch. The waterline just below my nose.
For one must obey the curvature of a ragged bank into a water
from which necessity seeks me the scientific: i.e. Gabon is a country; Gabon I dip my
country feet in you; Gabon I seek
thee & always have since the 9th grade project on buffering & oil preservation & how to
get yourself a Gabon. I was brought upright & studied in school,
learnt my geography, stronghold, what could cause a sea to rise,
how to sew my buttons back on...

The voice and long lines have a truly chaotic and desperate feeling to them that I was feeling in my own life at the time. The drummer Max Roach died around the time when I moved to New York, and the local jazz stations were set ablaze; so were the streets—energy, constant pulsating on every corner. A country girl just isn’t used to it.

The poem took all that in, the voice had more range than a prose block could contain. A block, a box, a container—things rest in more placidly, I think. “Drowning’s” companion poem “Raising miss g” is in a pseudo-sonnet-type form that was first workshopped as a prose poem that did not work. The writing of that poem was a real slow, quiet, calm period for me, so the poem reflects that.

The very first poem in the book “That sonofabitch land had to be broken” marked a shift for me in my writing. It was the holiday season of 06/07, and I trekked home to Georgia for a month. I did thirteen pages of writing, mostly in prose blocks, longhand, and I could not figure out what I was doing or where I was going with it after I had gotten back to Tucson. So instead, I collaged lines from the thirteen pages, and I somehow came out with that one little prose block poem. I kept that title in because I hope it sets up the attitude (sassy/vulnerable) of the entire book.

That sonofabitch land had to be broken [excerpt]

In the holler time, I came home mules & a pine line. More than four months late the cotton’s unpicked, & not of myself this sort of severing; even bees couldn’t cut the mold & honey. I came back a daughter hands clasped into the alabaster light, was practically felled in my step & the trees that were, were rotten. If there was a road it did not symmetry, making prayer not the mode to receive. Easily felled as I have known myself to be & older now (I said I never would), when two feet, gallant hit the stone & the third eye bloomed. The better to see: eyes arcing in the woodline that run from the pond to there, I watch my windows. Eye control learnt from village deer…

KN: How did you know that your small one or two line poems were complete poems? For example, the very last poem in the book:

Horse latitudes, keep mine abroad, for they scream
pitched in ways that won’t stop.

ST: When I put together the manuscript I had poems that I liked but they did not work in the manuscript as a whole, so I excerpted. I love collage. I had probably 20 pages of poems that I wanted to go in but just could not get to work. However, there were parts of those poems that resonated with the manuscript. The majority of the small poems are those excerpts, which I hope bridge together the longer poems by making side-statements towards the main story of the book.

As for this poem on the very last page, I had originally ended Heifer with “In subtropic.” I didn’t want to end things tied in a bow (by being overly resolution conscious), but I realized that I wasn’t saying what I wanted to say. The notion of the horse is really important throughout the book and in this poem. In a time of history when you were stuck in trade winds, the horses were the first to be thrown off of the boat. They would be left flailing behind the vessel screaming until they died. The sailors were said to be haunted by those horses screaming. I felt like I had to say something about keeping mine (horses/childhood and present self/the land) screaming abroad, but I didn’t want it to be too heavy-handed. That’s why it’s two lines—I didn’t need to say more than that; three would’ve killed it. Just because you might’ve made sense of a thing by writing on it for four years doesn’t mean the thing will stop its screaming. I guess nothing changes but is finally understood.

KN: What was your motivation for having the majority of your poems untitled?

ST: If I could have done it successfully, I would have cut all of the titles. I couldn’t though. Where there are titles, I just could not figure a way to bleed the poems together. Also, the book as a whole needed more grounding in places that a title can provide.

When I give a reading I cut out all of the titles so that I can read unencumbered, without the start-and-stop. Flow when reading aloud and when sitting with a book is so very important, and I wanted something different than the “title, poem, title, poem” formula. Most of the poems fit together without every title anyway. I think that too many [titles] are just device-y, or overly heavy-handed, on the writer’s part. Maybe some books are just crafted that way, everything hinging on its necessary title. I wanted [Heifer] to be more stretched in scope.

I do like titles sometimes and think they can definitely add to the poem overall. The titles I decided to keep in hopefully do something for the poem’s meaning, add another layer of texture, bridge a sequence of pages together, or I simply thought they sounded pretty cool. Also, anchoring. Got to beckon your readers follow, not trudge from behind with cowpoke.

KN: How was the experience like working on your book with a painter and a book designer in your local community?

After the manuscript was accepted by Tarpaulin Sky, Christian Peet told me that he had a friend who had recently moved to Tucson—a fellow southerner, a painter named Noah Saterstrom. I researched Noah’s work before I met him and was very impressed by it; namely this one piece, an oil on canvas titled “Orphan Girls” because it incorporated such an interesting contrast in dark/light and had a blurred sense of realism that I found startling.

Orphan Girls, oil on linen, by Noah Saterstrom

Noah and I got in touch and I invited him up to Hotel Congress, where I bartend. It was one of those odd nights, a crazy person on his left and right while sitting at my bar—one guy that we named the commie gardener. By the end of that night I asked him if he would consider painting the cover.

On the cover of Heifer is an image of a woman from behind which is lifted from a picture of my grandmother from the early 50s. Noah took this simple black and white photo and made something truly complex, heavily textured through horizontal and vertical lines making the image seem to literally move around.

I had no clue how much goes into designing a book. When you contacted me about being the designer of the book, I thought great—you have an amazing personal style so there’s no way the book wouldn’t look anything but amazing. The best part of having your designer live in your town is that you can pop right on over to talk things out over glasses- or a bottle- of wine. I imagine communication over things like book making is so much easier when sitting right across from each other. I’m not a phone person in the least; I’m not particularly that big an email person either, which could be troublesome when trying to work on a book.

I drove over with a list of things I wanted to see happen with my first book—mostly I wanted a tiny book. Done. I had no idea about fonts. Did I want a table of contents? “umm...” My lined poems had such long line lengths that early on in the process they weren’t able to fit into the scope of a small book with a consistent font and font size. I had no idea all of this would be so much trouble, maybe most writers don’t. There seemed no way to make a lot of these long-lined poems fit the page of this smaller-sized book even after the book was made a little bit larger due to this very issue. We were able to sit down with each other, or towards the end of production, make tiny phone-dates—we both respect each other as women and artists in our community (it helps to know and respect who you are working with)—so finally, right at the end, Kristen found a way to make the poems fit. I’m still not sure how she did it. And lucky we live in the same small-ish town [Tucson, Arizona]: I know the best little place that delivers amazing pizza plus six-packs of Stella to help the thing along.

KN: What do you anticipate (fears/hesitations/excitement/joys) of having your work launched into the world as a book—an object, rather than your personal and private writing project?

ST: This is scary mostly because I don’t want to offend my family. I just started my second book which is going to be some lyrical fiction—one of those musical, streamline narratives where you have characters that do things, have histories, and talk. Different for me: a novel!  I think about whom I might offend before I begin writing, so instead of worrying too much about it this time, I had my character’s family dead before the story begins. Southern people are often fatalistic or at least hugely obsessed with death, so I hope this doesn’t offend my mama when she reads this interview. It just seemed a lot easier that way.  My granny (Norma Jean) used to wake up and call the funeral home: “Who’s dead?” And if she liked them she would send flowers. The South is brilliant like that.

I just don’t want anyone reading into anything as themselves. I’d probably rather not write/publish than offend my family. With the last chapbook coming out, I had to send my granny an email to keep an open mind, and that I was sorry I used the “f-” word so much. I was half happy to have a book, half tormented. I imagine this is the case with about every writer. This is certainly the case with Heifer. My mama says she is “fine with whatever comes out,” and she says jokingly that she won’t disown me. So I guess I’m okay then.

I’m really excited about this book. I hope it’s not solely my little writer’s experience; I hope that others will be able to enter into it and find a place for themselves. Am I saying the book is autobiographical? Hell no. I always say it’s imagination, too. Shame a writer should be solely “this is me” to the hilt. Nope. I put imagination before most else, music too, so I hope people can find a way into this as theirs.



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