Getting to Know Tess Taylor and Her New Book Work & Days

Available now at Red Hen Press

TESS TAYLOR’s chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s inaugural chapbook fellowship. The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, The Forage House, “stunning” and it was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Her second book is Work & Days, which Stephen Burt called “our moment’s Georgic.” Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, Harvard Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and other places. Taylor chairs the poetry committee of the National Book Critics Circle, is currently the on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered, and was most recently visiting professor of English and creative writing at Whittier College. Taylor has received awards and fellowships from MacDowell, Headlands Center for the Arts, and The International Center for Jefferson Studies. Taylor recently was awarded a Fulbright US Scholar Award to study and lecture at Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland, for six months in 2017.

TESS TAYLOR’s chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s inaugural chapbook fellowship. The San Francisco Chronicle called her first book, The Forage House, “stunning” and it was a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award. Her second book is Work & Days, which Stephen Burt called “our moment’s Georgic.” Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Boston ReviewHarvard Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and other places. Taylor chairs the poetry committee of the National Book Critics Circle, is currently the on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered, and was most recently visiting professor of English and creative writing at Whittier College. Taylor has received awards and fellowships from MacDowell, Headlands Center for the Arts, and The International Center for Jefferson Studies. Taylor recently was awarded a Fulbright US Scholar Award to study and lecture at Queen’s University Belfast, in Northern Ireland, for six months in 2017.


When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
Poetry was actually a big thing in our house. My mom, who is an India scholar, was prone to quoting Yeats and Tagore; my grandmother loved and could quote Frost; I was given books of poetry as a teenager when it was clear that I liked it—Rumi, Adrienne Rich. We lived near Berkeley and there was a used bookstore culture—as a teenager, on a cheap date, you’d buy coffee and a used copy of Kenneth Rexroth and wander around feeling happy and sort of over-caffeinated with a bunch of friends.  And meanwhile,  I was a pretty serious student of singing—sang in a choir that was training young girls to sing children’s parts in the San Francisco opera. We memorized a lot of poems set to music: The Silver Swan who Living Had No Note; Even Such is Time.  I assumed—always—that if language mattered (which I was sure it did) poetry was the dense node where it mattered most. And I knew I wanted to write, though that was sort of a vague and inchoate feeling.  Risking the name “poet” – or seriously studying craft didn’t occur to me until later in college when I auditioned for a verse play being put on by Glyn Maxwell, got the lead, loved the iambics and wandered into Glyn’s poetry class.  I began reading much more seriously, wanting to have a voice in what I felt was the great conversation.  I began dabbling but the dabbling kind of took over.  Glyn joked in class that only a few of us would go on; I remember feeling very competitively sure in myself that I wanted to keep going. Somehow this craft harnessed a certain amount of longing and stubbornness – in the face of improbable odds. That was in the late nineties. I’ve been muddling on now for about twenty years.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
Oh, if all were free I’d just be left alone every morning with my coffee from 5-10 am not talking to anyone. You know, and it turns out that small kids want to see you every single morning.  To snuggle, to be dressed, to be fed. So—that’s lovely, and busy. I usually settle down by about 9 am; work on writing for about 2 hours, and then get on to my other work, which is reviewing books and writing for magazines. I have a back bedroom office that looks out on a redwood tree.  Sometimes though I just have to work where I can—2o minutes in the car when my daughter is sleeping. You get more creative when you have kids.  Oh—and I try to do all my secretarial stuff on Mondays and just spend the rest of the week only working on writing.  But you know, this all gets jumbled with travel or teaching or whatever.

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I keep notebooks all the time and then I go back through them. I'll have any mix of things: a photo by Dorothea Lange, a plant name, a bit of songany of those ways can be a way to begin.

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I'll tell you in no particular order who I have loved/am loving reading: Yeats, Bishop, Lowell; Gwendolyn Brooks; Amy Clampitt; Shakespeare; Ovid; Virgil; Ted Hughes; Sylvia Plath; Seamus Heaney; Natasha Trethewey; Tyehimba Jess; Auden; Larkin; Thom Gunn; Maureen McLane; Claudia Rankine; Muriel Ruykeyser; Gary Snyder; Bob Hass; Ciaran Carson; Robin Robertson; Kathleen Jamie; Brenda Hillman; Rachel Richardson; Liz Bradfield; Camille Dungy; Joseph Massey; Katie Peterson; Garret Hongo; Robert Pinsky; Adam FitzgeraldNo sooner do I write this than I realize I’m leaving someone out.   I am fascinated by influence, by the traderoutes of our thought and of our ears and of our music. I tend to respond idiosynractically to poems that to me have a sense of music –  and to poems that feel enabling—by which I mean poems that when, as I read them,  seem to invite me on towards my own poems, utterance, story, music,  self recognition.  Thom Gunn once said that we each make our own canons. I imagine everyone is like that.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
My book documents one year that I spent working on a Farm Girl Farm in the Berkshires of Massachusetts-  a small-scale organic farm that operates as a CSA and delivers high quality food to local restaurants. So the "Work" in the title is actually work—like crawling along a row planting leeks. The "Days" are actually days, like the arc of the seasons. Not many of us get to live close to farming or to watch our food emerge. But what do we learn from practicing this  ancient and necessary art now, in the era of climate change?

The title work and Work and Days is ALSO a riff on a very ancient book by the Greek poet Hesiod, composed about 700 bce. It is a book of poem as instruction- poem as how to manual—about how to be present on earth and how to tend bees, raise crops. It is an anti-epic argument for poem-of-place and staying-put. It is poem of husbandry, poem as husbandry. So the poems ask: Of what use this connectedness to the past, to the land, to our bodies How are we like and unlike the farm bards and farmers before us? These are the concerns of the book.

Watch and read sample poems from Work & Days here: 

Solstice (Lake)

Once again today our patron star
whose ancient vista is the long view

turns, full brightness now and here.
We loll outdoors, sing, make fire.

We have no henge here but after
our swim, linger

by the pond. Dapples flicker
on the pine trunks by the water.

Buzz & hum & wing & song combine.
Light is monument to its own passing.

Frogs content themselves in bullish chirps,
hoopskirt blossoms

on thimbleberries fall, peeper toads
hop, lazy—

                Apex. A throaty world sings ripen.
The grove slips past the sun’s long kiss.

We dress.
We head home in other starlight.

Our earthly time is sweetening from this.