Chicago is home to an always generative arts and culture scene and is an exceptionally rich poetry town, inspiring and supporting a noteworthy group of America’s finest poets. Dr. Taylor Byas extends that lineage with her debut collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, which showcases an assured poet exploring weighty concepts of home, identity and the past, sonically, lyrically and playfully. Byas revels in poetic structures, both as complement and friction to subject matter, and this collection offers a dynamic array of constructions, which never get in the way of the content and craft. She writes: “How much of this city is flavor? The thick and sappy / taste of too sweet, too quick to melt, the cashew // crunch of Garrett popcorn mix? It’s sensory; / the act of remembering, of making memory.” This is a collection full of flavor that will remain long in your senses, and in your memories.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Taylor, this is no surprise to anyone who has read your work, but you have a passion for traditional forms and structures. Poetic structures can offer a great deal of creative inspiration and, equally, cause us to address themes differently. Grief in a sonnet isn’t the same as grief in a pantoum. Does the idea demand a certain form for you? Or does the form indicate what you investigate?
You know, at this point, I think form does more of the dictating for me, and part of that is due to how I approach the page when form is in the mix. When it comes to a pantoum, a sonnet, a sestina, etc., the most I typically come to the page with is an idea. And I challenge myself to dig to the heart of that idea in whatever form I choose to write in. If I come to the page and say I’m writing a sonnet, I write that sonnet. If it’s a pantoum, that’s what the end result will be. I have a compulsion to complete things, and forms are (unfortunately, at times) no exception. So that form will dictate how I probe whatever topic I’m writing about, will shape how the story of it unfolds or breathes or folds back on itself. This really wonderful discovery always happens when I write in form, where in the midst of wrestling with form I come to a position where I can finally see the poem eye to eye and recognize it.
Related to this, what’s a style you haven’t worked with as much as you’d like?
I consider the villanelle form to be a more petulant sibling of the pantoum, because the restraints are a little tighter and working out those refrains in the villanelle proves to be a little harder than working in the pantoum. But I adore the villanelle and when it’s working, it’s working. I do want to try to write more of them!
I’m also taken with your investigations of ancestry, which you explore with a clear-eyed generosity, understanding how the past weights us whether or not it’s ours directly. From “Painted Tongue”:
“The saying goes, Like mother like
daughter. What then, if mother
is rag doll, fresh canvas to ink?
We twist and turn in the mirror,
my mother and I becoming each other,
her bruises and scars passed down,
family heirlooms that will take
me decades to stop wearing,
Is this a subject with which you’ll ever be done?
It is definitely not a subject I will be done with (spoiler alert, my second full-length collection ALSO considers power structures from a different angle). And even beyond that, I’m not sure I can ever be done. My very existence is shaped by the societal structures in which I live. And as we continue to move both back in time and forwards into a crueler future due to the white patriarchal society that we live in, it seems I will always have to consider it. Not because I feel forced to, but because I cannot live without confronting it. I am Black woman in America. I am always navigating multiple power structures, in which I am often at the disadvantage.
And in “Jeopardy! (The Category is Birthright),” each category becomes more fraught, more fragile, more striking, up to “For $1000: How I carry what he has given me.” In the case of this poem, there’s the duality of the title: Jeopardy! the game, and the dangers in life that are no game at all. The former with one correct answer per category, and the latter where there’s truth in every possible answer. These conflicts ramp up the stakes, to be sure, but I think also provide a necessary distance from which to examine, obliquely and directly, how others shape or limit us. (Not to mention the word “right” in birthright. What rights does one have at birth? Let alone the homonym: birth“write.”)
I could go on for days about what rights one has at birth, but the rights that I feel this poem speaks to in particular are the rights to a personal truth that is complex and entirely mine. Writing about family can be difficult. Writing about family when they are still alive and can interact with the work is more difficult. Writing about family when they are still alive and might actively reject your version of the truth to protect their own, that is an entirely different story. But that’s what this poem was for me. The Jeopardy! format gave me the necessary distance I needed to say some of the things that have been really painful to face, and things that I think I was afraid to say as well. I’ve gotten some pushback before when I’ve written about specific family experiences, and writing my truth in this form allowed me to just stack these grievances in a way that didn’t feel so heavy.
In more than one place, you write about the “act of remembering, of making memory,” which foregrounds a creative act, and also underscores the fact that there is no singular memory for all, let alone for oneself, and that it is constantly evolving (not quite “make it new” but…). How do you work with and through memory, and does the act of rendering them poetically change your perceptions of your own life?
Rendering memory poetically, for me, makes it less slippery. In the funhouse of our minds, our memories warp and shift and change and evolve. Once I put it on the page, there is a kind of permanence there. Maybe an odd analogy, but I see the difference between a memory in the mind and the memory on the page as the difference between a house of cards and a pyramid. In the mind, small shifts in memory can send so many things tumbling down for me. But once I render it on the page, I feel like I’ve created some sort of foundation that I can build on. Writing and memory retention have also been known to be connected. Revisiting memory in writing is always a sharper experience for me, because my poetic eye is a careful one. My poetic eye will render a memory in its greatest detail, and in visiting again on the page, I lead myself towards more remembering. This answer is becoming a bit of a funhouse, but I hope this makes sense!
First-person narratives are a distinctive aspect of this collection and a literary choice I’d like to hear more about; what does the predominant “I” reveal, and conceal?
Funny enough, I took a SHARP turn away from first-person narratives after writing this book because I was having trouble accessing certain things I wanted to write about. But when thinking about the “I” in this book, I am reminded of my nonfiction professor Kristen Iversen who talked about the “I” vs. the “eye,” which was ultimately a division between the more interior/reflective “I” and the observation mode in which the “eye” observes the scene. In nonfiction, we would talk about having a solid balance between the two, moving back and forth between internal reflection and the external scene. I feel like the two get sort of collapsed into one in a lot of my poems, and particularly in this collection. The “speaker” of these poems has seen the world through my eyes, but she has the language, the conceits, the form that I don’t have in everyday life to talk about that world. She is a freer extension of me. She is untouched by reality. She is unafraid.
So: Chicago. The city—multifaceted, unplumbable, resilient—runs through the entire collection. In the first poem of the collection, “South Side (I)” which I’d quote, except I’d have to post it in its entirety, the way it’s a crime to excerpt love letters, or elegies, or the memories that sustain us. “This is what teaches me love.” And yet, you choose not to be entirely defined by it, either, as in “You from “Chiraq”?”:
“I say I’m from Chicago and
folks get excited. I mean they
light up like they got gossip to tell.
But really, they think they got me
figured all the way out.”
Talk about Chicago for us: the literary city, and your personal Chicago.
Even growing up in Chicago and then its south suburbs, I was always contending with its stereotypes. Some of my friends who had grown up in the same streets and school systems I had would make jokes about its dangers, about its Blackness. It’s such an interesting thing to grow up in a place and to still be so heavily influenced by media perceptions of it while actively experiencing it. The news said it was dangerous, but I loved my friends, felt safe and protected by its culture. It was home, but a bullet came through our window. What was the truth?
It wasn’t until I went FAR away from Chicago for undergrad that I got a glimpse of it from far enough away to really see it, this complicated 500-piece puzzle with all of its different neighborhoods and parts. But somehow, everything and everyone is connected. Chicago is not just a place but a way of being. I can be from this part, and someone else can be from that part, but there are certain things that we’ll still share, certain ways of knowing still shared between us. Chicago was the first place I ever felt safe, and the first place I felt close to dying. Chicago was my third Black parent, always saying “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”
As you’ve been writing these poems, you’ve attained a PhD, started teaching, and are co-editing two anthologies. How do these different modalities serve you? What other work would you like to be doing? (Is there an essay collection in your future?)
All of these different opportunities and roles really just have helped me to become a better, more attentive, and more patient reader, which in turn has helped me to be kinder to myself as a writer. This writing world is small in a lot of ways, but as a teacher, student, and editor, I get to see just how many people are writing and publishing and hustling. That vastness of the literary landscape and all of the different kinds of work being done constantly gives me permission to be myself, a reminder that becomes increasingly important to me when it’s so easy to compare journeys and successes. Doing a lot of different things also helps to remind me how much I LOVE the writing, how important the work is to me. I go out and do other things and I return to my writing each time with a renewed appreciation and excitement. It keeps me humble too, because returning to poems is difficult and sometimes ugly work. As for what other work I would like to be doing, one of these days I will get around to actually finishing this YA novel in verse I’ve started!
What’s the last poem you read?
I’m currently reading Terrance Hayes’s new collection So to Speak right now, and there’s a poem in that I read last night titled “Taffeta” and I had to put the book down and pace my apartment after reading it. Truly. It is always a gift when a poem touches me in that way.
I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times
By Taylor Byas
Published August 22, 2023
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.