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Poet explores history and family lore

By Dana Trismen

Section: Arts

September 27, 2013

An author who describes her own process as “noodling with words,” Tess Taylor believes writing is a calling, not a career. Taylor’s work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Released in August, her lyric debut “The Forage House” has begun to attract attention, due to its tense themes of racism, history, and family stories. Taylor will read from this text when she visits Brandeis on Oct. 10.
“It’s a mixture of historical research and family lore. Some of the poems are about my grandmother and stories she told me, and some are about a falling down family house in Maine and some are about missionaries that went to India and some are about Thomas Jefferson and the fact that I’m also descended from him,” said Taylor in an email interview this past week.
While Taylor always knew she wanted to write, the medium of poetry became a passion of hers in high school, and later on in college. Taylor majored in English and Urban Studies at Amherst College; her thesis project was concerned with cities and their public spaces, published with ten poems and three translations.
“When I graduated I didn’t know how I was going to make a living so I started writing freelance pieces for magazines and websites for money and reading a lot of poetry and trying to write that when I could,” said Taylor. “For me that was really my first experience trying to understand, on a daily basis, what it meant to “be a writer”.”
While “The Forage House” may attract readers who love to learn about Thomas Jefferson, it is also a more intimate tale. “The book is also about family stores and the intimate and blurry places where we come to understand ourselves, and about how we try to sift through memory and history and artifact to make sense of the past—and the present,” Taylor said.
In addition to poetry, Taylor currently writes journalism and long form essays. One, titled “Remembering the Randolphs” was published in the Virginia Quarterly Review this past summer. Running at around 6,000 words, Taylor comments, “It was fun to have a big space to explore the ways an essay can leap and turn.”
Taylor is not afraid to share advice and tips with aspiring writers. “Read a lot. Don’t be afraid to copy things you like,” she said. “Write long letters to friends, even if they don’t write long letters back. Give yourself permission to be obsessed by books even if other people aren’t. Give yourself permission to spend a lot of time alone working on what you love.”
In terms of writing exercises, Taylor recommends taking a beloved poem and listing the things that are positive about it, and copying them down. “If there are special languages in your home dialect or the way your family speaks, try to make notes of these and put them in poems. Read a book and try to write it as a play. Watch a really good movie and stop it in one place and write a poem that describes the film still,” Taylor said. Her most important piece of advice is simple: “Keep going.”
For Taylor, a topic she finds very inspiring is the landscape. “Often I like to sit in a place and think about what the landscape was like before this place was what it was,” she said. A resident of a new suburb in California, she often muses on how the Ohlone Indians may have used the land in ages past. She also considers the lives of Spanish and Mexican immigrants, the Japanese people who got sent to internment camps during World War II, shipyard workings and first generation store owners. “I guess I sometimes think about the other chapters of the life of the place I am now,” she stated.
When Taylor comes to speak at Brandeis, she looks forward to seeing her good friend Liz Bradfield (ENG), Brandeis’ Poet-In-Residence and John Burt (ENG), whose work she admires. “And I always hope for students with really good questions!” she said.
The School of Night, Brandeis American Studies and History Department will sponsor Taylor’s reading. It will occur at 5:30 p.m. on Oct. 10, in Mandel Reading Room 303.

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