farming and Poetry in Western Massachusetts: An Interview with Tess Taylor
by Theodore Wahle | September 2016
In 2010, Tess Taylor was awarded the Amy Clampitt Fellowship. Spending an entire year living and writing in the home of late Amy Clampitt, Taylor, long an avid urban gardener, sought to get involved with the sprawling, captivating landscape of her new surroundings in Western Massachusetts.
After learning that community gardens were few and far between in a region dominated by small-scale farms, Taylor began to intern on a small community-supported agriculture farm in Lenox, MA, where she planted peppers and studied soil. The work was cut out for her: farming, finishing her first book, beginning work on her second, trying to start a family, pondering the turbulent world, and savoring the short twelve months living in the home of one of the most highly regarded poets of the last century.
Enter Work & Days. In this 2016 collection, Taylor takes us through a year of farm work, exploring geography, personal transformation, purpose, and the uncertain place of agriculture in the 21st Century. In verses ripe with expression, Taylor delivers riveting musings that weave her own perch on a small New England plot with the world at large. I spoke with Taylor about her new collection, the writing process, and life in the field.
Farming and agriculture are topics that have been explored by many poets. What did you do to separate yourself from the “farm poets” who came before you?
Well, separateness, newness: it’s interesting to note your opening question. I’m going to take a reverse door entry and note that this hunger after newness is important, but ultimately is only half of what we are after as poets, as humans. In another, very real way, we also delight in recognizing continuity. This anxiety about newness, singularity, etc. is itself a kind of modern construct, is it not?
Actually, I think about the new and the now as much as anyone, but I make this point because it leads back to your question: what does it mean to try to write a small-scale agriculture poem now? Or even to intentionally do farm work? Is it anti-modern, or merely nostalgic, or actually in search of some latter day form of reconnection? In some ways, the “newness” of an American farm poem now IS easy—necessary, unavoidable—since the whole demeanor of farming is different simply because we live in the 21st century, after the great disruptions of modernism, in an era when we (especially here in America) can only return to the small farm as a deliberate, intentional act. We consciously rebuild that ecosystem, just the way we insist on time to read books, or on carving out places to be in something closer to “nature.” There’s nothing, you know, given about it. These are deliberate and intentional—you might even say defiant— acts which partake of conscious preservation. And what are we after in creating such ecoystems? I’d actually say that—in addition to thinking of newness—I spent time trying to weave continuities between old poetics of farming and new ones in ways that felt genuine. I wanted to feel the act of attempting to connect to food and the earth as radical. But I also wanted to unsettle previous farm poetry so that it read not as somehow “merely beautiful” but as politically situated. For instance, Hesiod’s Work and Days positions the fundamental act of world tending, the anti-epic act of tending bees, as central to civilization. It’s the poem as how-to manual, poem as place from which we learn the arts of peacetime. In The Shepherds Calendar John Clare records the year and its pageant, but he also offers fierce protest against enclosure. Those poems have rich political contexts.
How did your year in the Berkshires change you as a poet? Is there a noticeable difference in your work from before and after your stay?
Ah: it was a wonderful era. It was out of time in so many ways: out of time and out of space. I didn’t have kids yet, the fellowship covered my expenses and gave me an alibi, and I lived in a very quiet house where my role was simply to read deeply and to be a watcher, an observer, a medium-for. This gift was strange to me. I had been working about six jobs in Brooklyn—from waitress in a funeral parlor turned Italian restaurant to freelance writer to adjunct professor to SAT tutor. For the first time since college, really, I was able to simply live with books and deepen my sense of what I might be called to do with them. On days when I didn’t do farmwork, I wrote for about three hours a day and then did chores and read books. Believe me, I’m totally clear: this was an unusually privileged landscape.
I say that but I also savored that unusual year, on its unusually gifted terms. Many times we wonder what poetry is good for. But during this year, I took faith in that work—both physical and mental—of simply adding to what I knew. I took faith in the steadiness of it, adding to the file, deepening a thought, watching poem shapes emerge. In our lives as writers we are often called to do so many other things to survive that we often forget the deep pleasures of the central nourishment of writing, observing, and cultivating our deep selves. So this was a tremendous reminder of that.
That expanse of time was tremendous and our lives were really richly beautiful. I also knew it wasn’t real. It was a gift. It was a bower, the way a lyric poem is a bower—a perch through which to see the world more richly. But the fact that it was a little perch, a half imaginary space, didn’t make it less powerful. There was so much to savor and take pleasure in. There was time to instruct myself in watching and feeling and hearing. It was a bit like passing a year on the imaginary cottage on the Lake Isle of Innisfree.
After that year I went back to Brooklyn briefly and then we moved to California and set up a life. We were changing from newlyweds to being the kind of people who have kids, so it was ultimately a big transition between what feels like the last halcyon days of a certain kind of youth and the later phase of more boundedness. I have two kids now. So “what’s changed” is the scope of my life, really. I’m a mom. I teach. I plan syllabi. I freelance. I am finishing two articles and pitching another and in just a minute I have to go pick my son up from kindergarten. Life gets full. I still feel centered by the memory of that focus. But you know: you can’t live in a bower forever.
What did you read while in Western Mass? What are you reading now?
In Massachusetts: plant almanacs, Virgil, Shakespeare’s sonnets, John Clare, Hesiod, Ovid, and many wonderful contemporaries—of whom I remember Maureen McLane most vividly. Katie Peterson, Liz Bradfield, Kathleen Jamie. Lots of cool stuff Amy had around the house. Natasha Trethewey. Paul Muldoon. Craig Raine. Simon Armitage. Gabrielle Calvocoressi. But mostly, old, deep, off the grid books, deep in the word hoard.
These days I am reading lots of good stuff. This season, I’m impressed by Adam Fitzgerald’s George Washington and Robert Pinsky’s At The Foundling Hospital and Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders and Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal. And I’m also reading a bunch of Irish poets because I have an upcoming Fulbright to Northern Ireland. So, I am reading through Ciaran Carson, who is total revelation: why are some of these magnificent books so hard to get here in the states? I’m rereading Heaney- all the poems, all the essays- because I have to give a talk on him, and because well, I’m going to Belfast. And I’m reading Bob Hass, and Brenda Hillman, and Gary Snyder. I’m thinking about California poems, too.
You were recently a visiting professor of English and creative writing at Whittier College. If you were to teach a course specifically about your time in the Berkshires and the process of creating Work & Days, what would be the most important thing taught in that class?
Well, good question. I’d love for anyone who wants to spend time working on a farm to do so; or in a garden, because that kind of work is centering, grounding—and so important in terms of forging our connectedness to our base in the earth. I mean, I believe in farming. The farm poem bears witness to the fundamental site where our food is made, to the act of growing, to our weathers. To our base in the elements that sustain us. To cultivation as the root of culture. And you know, it’s simply a revelation. I think people are amazed when they see what a garden can be: I mean—what is more satisfying than picking a few things you grew? So, yes, to be clear: I am a plant evangelist. I mean yes, we should all garden. I’d love to co-teach a class with a botanist!
That said: farming is only one thing. There are so many kinds of bearing witness to write about. To put it more generally, I’m interested in the relationship between writing and doing: a year of action, gathered. Robert Hass, our wonderful California poet, just sent me an essay he is writing about Georgics—that is, farm poems— as documentary poetics. Poems as, if you’ll pardon the pun, FIELD REPORTS.
So how do poems report from the field? What constitutes the poetic field of report? I sometimes teach documentary poetry, and I’m teaching a class soon where my students might follow out a passion or practice and write about it. Maybe they are writing extended ekphrastics about an artist, or working with kids at a literacy program. Maybe they are at a hospital, in an ambulance, at a center to help migrant detainees. At a prison. In a yoga studio. At anacupuncture clinic. In a restaurant kitchen. Anywhere where the body is urgent and necessary and has stories and perhaps can’t be replaced by machines. Anywhere we learn to learn about ourselves as human. Any of these are sites where a writer can help us see ourselves with clearer and more compassionate eyes, to know ourselves more richly.
When you were younger, you spent time working at a community garden in California. Compare farming in CA to farming in MA. How would Work & Days have been different with a changed geography? How would it have been similar? (I’m guessing you still would have discussed global climate change.)
Well, I’ve worked at community gardens in California and in New York—not farms. That is the first thing. Farming is different than gardening, though food is pretty miraculous wherever you grow it. A farm is a different beast than a garden. There is an enormous change in scale—a way of laboring on rows, of moving through space and days.
Viz place. Yes: these poems are about an ecosystem, a body in time, space, weather. And, yes: site is specific. We are specific. How can we begin to save the world if we can’t even pay attention to it? How can we pay attention to it without naming ecotones, geopolitics, trade routes, speciation, geography? Small farms in New England are formed by the receding Wisconsin glacier. In New England you write about stone walls. To farm is to farm between hillocks, to move stones. But you are really moving remnants of the ice age. The literary past entwines with the geological past. Robert Frost was writing a geological metaphor whether he thought so or not. This is as it should be. Terroir isn’t just a funny French word, it’s a truth: we ourselves taste like the trace minerals near us. We ourselves bear out our own geographies, our trade routes.
Viz. geography: California is all about trade routes. It is on a wholly different continental plate. We have a different colonial history, other histories of indigenous and Spanish settlement, other ocean currents, fog currents, light. Our geography of mountains and earthquakes and delta and drought and geologic and social newness shape the destiny of our farms and our food. We entwine with our geography. We entwine with our history.
And back to your question, in a roundabout way: economics, capital: the farm where I worked in New England was staffed by mainly white interns who are all interested in small-scale farming. It was a particularly privileged farm landscape. These were people willing to work tremendously hard for an ideal; often for very low wages; to learn a craft. Not unlike the kind of people that work at, say, small-scale independent poetry presses.
You know artisanal work often cycles in strange economies. People I worked with were often living quite close to the bone but we made some small money, too—or at least some of us did. Some people worked as plumbers or roofers in the off-season. But while we were there together it was a beautiful thing and we grew a tremendous amount of food and we delighted in it and it nourished us and others. We served up CSA boxes to 80 families, several farmers markets, several restaurants. We were extending an old tradition of farming as well as building a new one. Our farm was one facet of the deep life of local foodways in New England.
I can’t know what it would have been like if this year had come about in California. In Massachusetts the seasons are inexorable. The year is full of micro elegies. The total spectacle of weather invites narrative. The entire geopolitics of farming in California is different. We live in the breadbasket of the world, in the heart of agribusiness and mono-cropping and migrant Latino and Latina labor; we live with Hmong farmers and Japanese farmers and also have many small scale farm cultures that provide an incredibly diverse bounty. There is vast injustice in our foodscape. But there is a deeply rooted food justice movement here too. We are paradoxical: we get a little superior about eating local but actually it is really easy to eat seasonally here because we always have something in season—kiwis in December, satsumas in February, wine grapes in the fall, strawberries year round. Yet you know what is “native” to California? All of this is on Ohlone or Miwok land, on tule elk land. All of it requires elaborate fortifications around water use. I can well imagine that any farm poems from here might well be tinged with all those thoughts.
Name one poem by another poet that could have fit in Work & Days and explain why that poem is fitting.
I adore Ross Gay. Just adore him. And no, his garden poems wouldn’t really fit in the same book, but Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and all Ross’s work about the radical community orchard astound and inspire me.
To take another tack, think of Housman. A Shropshire Lad, the classic lyric—heartbreaking, quick. Always aware of time passing. Of death knocking. That too. That’s part of it too.
Maybe smash them a little together. Perhaps in there would be a good poem to fit in. Perhaps that’s kind of what I was doing already.
Talk about the role of isolation in the process of creating Work & Days. How did being without your family in the Berkshires affect your work? Would we have received a different product had you been constantly surrounded by loved ones while writing?
Well, my family then was just my husband. And he was with me three or four days a week. We took long hikes each weekend and went snowshoing and had lots of adventures. In between I loved the isolation, the days alone. It was a terrific year. We built a wonderful community of friends—a couple who lived over the New York line would come over and we’d have great parties. I hung out with the farm interns and some of the local college professors. I taught a course at Simon’s Rock and that was good too. It felt easy, time alone, and then good people emerged when you needed them. We had a whole crew of people between 20 and 40 and the community was so small that we just fell into company with one another, easily, spontaneously. I wasn’t busy but I wasn’t lonely. I felt steady. When I left the Berkshires I was pregnant with our son, Bennett, who is five now. We almost didn’t leave—we looked at houses we could buy. We were happy there. But it didn’t quite add up. You know, life had to take a slightly different tack.
If you could have had one poet (dead or alive) with you in the Berkshires, who would it have been?
Oh, well, living in Amy Clampitt’s house—still packed to the rafters with her fabulous books and notes and marginalia, and the richness of her work—her seriousness about reading Keats and Wordsworth and James Merrill and teaching herself Greek in her sixties—it made an impression. It was marvelous to be near a spirit like that. Her house conveyed this severe and also nimble and generous and hardworking and deeply genuine presence. I was in the company of someone who cared so deeply about literature and who had worked so hard at making it and caring for it. She felt nearby! It was hard not to want to just look up and have a quick chat with her, you know?
Tess Taylor is currently working on new poems and essays, and is the 2017 Distinguished Fulbright to the Heaney Centre in Belfast. She is preparing to spend seven months teaching and living in the north of Ireland. She now grows persimmons, lemons, figs, rhubarb, strawberries, herbs and vegetables in the yard of her home in El Cerrito, California.
Theodore Wahle is a high school senior from Duxbury, Massachusetts. He has represented both GrubStreet and Duxbury High School during his five years of involvement in competitive slam poetry. He was a 2014 recipient a Scholastic Art & Writing Awards National Gold Medal for his work in slam poetry performance and received The Writing Conference's first place prize in poetry in 2015.