New York Times Interview

A Poet Reckons With Her Inheritance

By HELEN T. VERONGOS date published OCTOBER 2, 2013 2:30 PM date updated

October 2, 2013 2:30 pm


In her recently published collection of poems, “The Forage House” (Red Hen Press), Tess Taylor, a descendant of the white branch of Thomas Jefferson’s family, explores her personal history, sifting through not just records but the very dirt of her ancestors’ property and the bones buried there. She saw “unearthed remains of slave cabins — cracked pipes, a few buttons” and witnessed how archaeologists use these bits to recreate the past. In a recent e-mail interview she talked about her ancestors, including Appalachian forebears “who kept Scottish ballads alive for centuries” in remote parts of North Carolina, about slavery and about the role of poetry.

The poems in her book, she said, examine “sites of cultural persistence” and how “the life of a family shifts and morphs across time.” Below are edited and condensed excerpts from the conversation:

Q.What are the first words that come to mind when you hear the name Thomas Jefferson?

A.Complex. Paradox. Aesthete. Red-haired fiddler. Voluble correspondent. Vigorous. Bibliophile. “Great man.” Hypocrite. Classicist. Architect. Architect of liberty, but enmeshed in slavery. Slave owner. Notebook keeper. Collector of specimens and microscopes and maps. Racist. Product of his time. Inventor of our time. Polymath. Charismatic. Better than some. Worse than some. Intellectually voracious. Flawed.

Q.The journey to “The Forage House” must have been a long one. Where did you travel and how far?

A.Though I loved my Virginia relatives and learned early as a child about my connection to Jefferson, I didn’t think much about it until after the DNA showed that undeniable link between Jefferson’s family and [his slave Sally] Hemings’s. A lot of people were up in arms about whether this was proof enough definitively to link Hemings and Jefferson, but I remember personally being struck by a much more simple fact: I knew very little about the history of slavery in my own family — virtually nothing about how it was practiced.

I was also struck by the deep and painful paradox that some people could not consider the Hemingses’ claims “legitimate” because they were not written down, when in fact the institution of slavery itself had crafted this pointed and haunting absence. In one of my poems I write “the violence of that silencing endures.” Encountering that absence — and its implications — was chilling.

Even as I was learning this history, I was also losing one of my most beloved keepers of lore. My Appalachian grandmother was dying. These were years of great sifting — not just enormous cultural inheritance, but actual, small things: books, teaspoons, Pyrex dishes. Jefferson is a complex ancestor whom I inherit, and he’s one of great interest to us nationally, so what is personal to me in reckoning with him blurs with our larger national struggle to inherit Jefferson’s legacy. But this book is also about the equally blurry project of sifting through the mysterious stories your grandmother tells out on the porch, maybe after a gin and tonic.

Q.How does a poem begin for you?

A.Sometimes as a title. Sometimes as a rhythm or set of phrases. Often these happen when I’m doing something else, like gardening, hiking or taking care of my baby, and a little phrase will spin around. I’ll jot something down and it will occur to me that it’s connected to something else. Right now I am writing this in front of a window where all morning a spider has been capturing a bee, in an elaborate undulating net. How impossible not to want to watch not only the spider but the mind attending to the spider, and then noticing that the mind has slipped elsewhere and the bee is eaten. Now the spider is gone. There’s something there, I’m sure, about how poetry gets made.

Q.You have explored slavery and enslavers deeply and personally. Do you have something you can share about how what you have learned and written has informed your perspective on race in America today?

A.The idea that we’re all related to one another — even in ways we may not know and cannot see — is profound. As this book came out I was contacted by Gayle Jessup White, an African-American woman whose oral history holds that she is a cousin on the Taylor line — a Jefferson descendant not through Hemings, but through one of Jefferson’s great-grandsons. We’ve been corresponding for months and met a few weeks ago. It was remarkable to meet her.

As I was meditating on this book, I joined a discussion group called Coming to the Table, where descendants of enslavers and the descendants of enslaved — often members of the same family — come together and talk. Meeting now and acknowledging our shared history, and talking more about the grief we all feel about the legacy of racial violence in this country, feels like an important step toward some kind of healing.

Q.You have written about white privilege and how it provides a disguise that allows white people to keep silent and take the easy way out in the face of bigotry. How do you escape?

A.Once, in a class I was teaching, I asked students to write about an experience they had of race, and a white student raised her hand and said, “But I don’t have any experiences of race.” Her firm sense of non-experience struck me. What enabled it? What purpose did it serve for her? How did she experience her non-experience? This struck me as a narrative question, a question of what Toni Morrison calls “literary imagination.” I think some white people don’t think of themselves as having race or of having experiences of learning racial codes, and some white people are terrified about talking about race or the racial codes they have learned for fear of being perceived as racist, and some white people are deeply ashamed of acknowledging racism that they have seen or heard in action, whether in their own families or in the world.

Q.The poem “Virginia Pars” deals with a moment when you confront one part of your history. Would you fill in the sketch of the poem a bit more for us?

A.I have often sensed that I wasn’t going to be allowed to discuss some of this painful legacy with certain people in my family. And, as a rather wild-haired teenager out of Berkeley, Calif., I didn’t necessarily know the codes of my own Virginian tribe. I think that poem contains both a longing to belong and a sense of feeling that the codes implied by that belonging were somehow themselves challenging to me. You know — Faulkner said, “I don’t hate the South, I don’t hate it.”

Q.What is the role of the poet in today’s society?

A.Given how rushed we all are, I’m surprised we don’t all read more poetry. A good poem is compact. It might not take long to read on the page, but it can reroute your whole day.

Q.Please write a brief poem on any topic.

A.Since moving back to my hometown in California I have been noodling with California poems.

Harvest, El Cerrito, CA

Orb spiders fatten.
Hot nights: We pitch camp in the yard.
Dark on the lawn, we breathe with the suburb.
Sirens, alley frogs, refinery glow.
Between fence posts, the fig tree blackens.
Under our massive unownable redwood
our son sings in his sleep.
Somewhere inside a dishwasher beeps.
Thoreau mutters as BART trains hiss past.
Big moon, angling over rooftops.
Bennett grows still: His face is a moon,
round and full in toddler rest.
I dream the bright O of Okie, Ohlone —
old migrant eyeing our human tents.