Hugo House instructor Tess Taylor is the author of three collections of poetry, including Rift Zone, Work & Days, and The Forage House, as well as Last West, a hybrid photography and poetry book exploring Dorothea Lange’s life in California. Her most recent collection, Rift Zone, was hailed as “stunning” by Naomi Shihab Nye in the New York Times.
In addition to her work as a poet, Tess also works as the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered and as a columnist for CNN.
On February 6 and 13, Tess will be teaching Gaining Good Ground, a two-session online class exploring the role of place in poetry and how poetry can help deepen our connection to the places we call home. We recently caught up with her via email to learn more about her path as a writer, the connections between her poetry and journalism, and her upcoming class at Hugo House.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to poetry in particular?
I had a grandmother who was passionate about poetry, and I also grew up singing choral music pretty seriously. There were all these texts we had to memorize: “The silver swan who living had no note” or “Even such is time / that takes in trust our youth our joys our all we have.” I loved those texts, and I loved the sense that language could sing. And I had a sense of myself as a writer, even if I didn’t quite know of what. I loved (and still love) what I call the literature of close observation—the lyric shard, the gorgeous watching of the spider or heron. Later in college, I came to poetry proper, in a creative writing class, and I was hooked. I’ve just bumbled along, hungrily ever since. Book by book by poem by poem. Reading voraciously. Loving this form of witness.
Your most recent collection, Rift Zone, examines your home state of California’s geological and historical fault lines. How, if at all, did writing and researching the poems in this collection change your perception of or connection to the place?
I came back to California, to the very neighborhood I’d grown up in after leaving to go to college 15 years before. I mean, I stepped back into the stage-set of my childhood, though it had changed from a sort of scrappy working-class neighborhood to a slightly more hipster one, and my parents were suddenly aging and I was now a mother. So there was a sense of converging with myself, and also with the specificities of my childhood, of California, its light, its raw beauty, its upthrust on the far edge of its western continental plate. It’s this place at the long end of a lot of global trade routes, a place that has changed hands four times in 200 years, from being Ohlone to being Spanish, to being Mexico, to being part of the United States.
In some ways I was exhuming my own past and in some ways I was digging up the historic past and the geologic past, and allowing myself to read the one against the other. And doing so was part of affirming my own journey of belonging and finding and naming home.
You’re also a columnist for CNN and a poetry critic for NPR. How, if at all, does your work as a journalist and critic inform your work as a poet (or vice versa)?
I stumbled into journalism right after college when I discovered (rather immediately) that it isn’t an easy thing to make a living as a poet. A college friend was working at a start-up and gave me some jobs that sent me out in the world with my notebook. I found out that I loved the basic posture of journalism, its sense of pursuing a question and being an observer, and the next thing I knew I was writing about architecture and the environment for some cool urbanism magazines. I loved the craft of taking what is and finding the story in it. There’s a lot of overhearing there, too, waiting to find the music in someone’s speech, or the precise atmospheric detail that can capture a place. Sometimes I can find a story and a fragment of a poem in the same place.
I’ve been lucky that the craft of telling stories has served me well and helped me supplement my urgent devotion to poetry. And ultimately, I think they strike similar creative nerves. I think of poetry and journalism them as complimentary and parallel modes of listening and bearing witness.
Your upcoming class, Gaining Good Ground, explores the role of place in poetry. What are you most looking forward to about teaching the class?
That delighted aha moment from somebody who does a bit of generative writing that leads them to feel more connected to both words and themselves and their life!
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
I gather things I want to share and then I let students respond to them, building a vocabulary of pleasure with the class, thinking about how by talking together we increase our depth of and capacity for individual noticing.
What are three things you hope students will take away from the class?
I always want students to leave feeling more connected to their own inner stories, to the magic and music of them. I always hope to provide students new things to enjoy and new shared language for enjoyment. And I always want people to feel that writing and reading—especially writing and reading together—are a way of lighting up a lamp within the self, of seeing the world in its mystery more brightly and clearly.