El Cerrito poet, CNN, NPR contributor Taylor’s plate more than full
By Lou Fancher
To say Tess Taylor is a poet is reductive. Indeed, the El Cerrito-based writer’s (tess-taylor.com) work sprawls to include not just a poetry chapbook (“The Misremembered World”), poem collections in two books (“The Forage House” and “Rift Zone”), a farm journal (“Work & Days”) and the intriguing “Last West,” a book released in conjunction with the New York Museum of Modern Art’s “Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures,” the first major solo exhibition of Lange’s work in more than 50 years.
“Last West” incorporates images, historical archives, notebooks and oral histories with a pastiche of perspectives from Taylor and other artists, writers, scholars and critics. And that’s not all. Taylor has served as a poetry reviewer for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and chaired the poetry committee of the National Book Critics Circle for six years.
Her editorials, poems, nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared on CNN and in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Boston Review, Harvard Review, Travel & Leisure and other publications. An educator, Taylor conducts private and community workshops and has taught at UC Berkeley, St. Mary’s College and UC Davis. She is on the low-residency MFA creative writing program faculty at Ashland University (near Cleveland). A recent conversation with Taylor begins with, as expected, three new activities added to an already busy schedule.
“My plate is too full, for which I’m immensely grateful,” she said.
Taylor in 2023 is working to complete an anthology of gardening poems, “Leaning Toward Light, Poems for Gardens and the Hands that Tend Them;” writing a monthly column on poetry and daily life for CNN; and developing a six-part podcast series with the Getty Research Institute. Each podcast focuses on one letter from a 20th century artist’s life from which a story about what it means to create art is told.
“Each life is a master class in creative stamina,” Taylor said. “Each person and story has riveted me. Making multiple trips to the Getty to work in their archives, I get to spread all of the papers out and piece together the story of an extraordinary life out of rich fragments. One of the things that’s cool is that in an archive you meet artists in the middle of their dailiness.
“In contrast, in a museum you meet artists at their most finished. Artwork is supposed to be an act of genius. It’s polished, on a white wall and framed. There’s something delightful and captivating about finding the genius of that idea in a notebook as a doodle next to a coffee stain. And seeing it’s next to a reminder to pick up dry cleaning.”
Taylor has kept and continues to keep her own notebooks.
“I’m compulsive about notebooks. I always have at least one. I have one for to-do lists and one for spurts of ideas and language. I write by hand because I like that somatic connection. I can hear myself thinking, and I can get the words out. It’s one of the most important things for anyone to write. When you have thoughts, give yourself permission to overhear your daydreams and write them down. I have a gazillion notebooks.”
Taylor stores them, then mines them later for poems or fragmentary ideas worth pursuing. After reviewing them once or twice, they go into deep storage.
“I haven’t been brave enough to read the notebook I kept in the first month of the pandemic, because I was so miserable. I would write these mad-person entries in the middle of the night. It’s a record of us all in our confusion and grief, and it’s all too fresh. I haven’t had the courage to look at them yet.”
Less terrifying notebooks were those she kept will writing “Rift Zone” and the notebooks Lange compiled that led to Last West, the two books released in 2020.
“Both books are deeply about California. I live (after returning from living in New York) six blocks from the house I grew up in El Cerrito. When I got back, I wanted to write about California. I was a grown person, a published writer, a parent. California was deeply familiar and fresh at the same time.”
She said the state is an intensifier, a mirror of world dichotomies: great beauty, apocalyptic weather, equally extreme wealth and poverty, prophetic shifts, modern with innovative companies and Silicon Valley but also ancient with redwoods and impactful, geological history.
“All of those came to ‘Rift Zone,’ which is about living with precarity, on fault lines, in a place that’s an intense, leading indicator of wider global crises.”
The Lange book written parallel to “Rift Zone” came after learning Lange had photographed people and places in El Cerrito in 1942. Taylor visited UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and the Oakland Museum of California, following an odd urge that had caused her to incessantly repeat, “write about Lange” in her notebooks. Intrigued by the rhythmic, list-making, staccato voice found in Lange’s note-taking, the mashup of topics and quotes Lange recorded hatched a project. Taylor visited all of the locations Lange wrote about in her notebooks and wrote letters in response to the photographer.
Simultaneously, while working with an encampment in Berkeley, providing aid and listening to people who are unsheltered, migrants and living under enormous economic pressures, Taylor recognized a profound connection to Lange’s documentary photographs of migrant families in the 1930s.
“It felt incredibly contemporary, 80 years later,” she said. “And then both books came out in 2020, a very precarious time for all of us.”
The poems Taylor is writing now are emergent and appear “in little dream forms” in her notebooks. In writing workshops, she suggests being vulnerable to students as well as being open to uncertainty, willing to stand in indecision and specifically, clipping the ends of completed poems.
“You can cut out the last four lines and end with your question in mind, as opposed to playing out the heavy conclusions. It brings people into a place of observation; a place where we can raise questions we don’t settle. We live in an era where people are certain and furious.”
Allowing space within art for uncertainty, tenderness, confusion, breath, community, real and metaphoric tectonic shifts, ambiguity and paradox is important, Taylor says. Along with those things, she says, the creativity we keep in our minds or in actual notebooks is to be filled with necessary doodles; grocery and to-do lists; precise language and knowledge; and memories and dreams that pool and feed into the sounds, rhythms, silliness and seriousness of poems — and life.