Jan. 20, 2017
Longtime RR Editorial Staff Member and friend Tyree Daye discusses his 2017 APR/Honickman First Book Prize with Wayne Johns, RR newsletter editor. We began our conversation talking a bit about the day (inauguration day). Tyree had participated the previous weekend in a Writers Resist reading in Wilmington, NC.
Inauguration Day 2017 Interview with Tyree Daye
It is inauguration day, and I guess it would be remiss not to ask you how you’re processing that, or are you thinking about it?
TD: I am definitely thinking about it. I didn’t partake in watching it. I sent off some emails. I guess I’m doing like a lot of people. I’m trying to live and at the same time I’m worried. I’m disappointed. At the same time, I knew. So it’s a lot of things.
What would you say is the role for artists in these times?
TD: I think the role of artists is to do art. It’s not like artists, in my opinion, even have to try to be political. If you’re paying attention to the world, you know, if you’re a part of it and empathy is in your work, which it should be, then artists just need to do the work. Don’t be silent, speak up and write things that scare them and question their beliefs. Continue to be artists.
Do you like giving readings?
TD: I enjoy giving readings, yeah. I love, you know, I love sharing work. That’s how sometimes I see… I test poems to see how well they are working.
Place seems to play a big role in your work. I came across something you said that I love, about place being its own experience and you’ve also talked about exploring places you’re not allowed. Maybe you could say a bit more about that?
TD: Place has always played an important role. I spent a lot of my childhood outside. And I guess I’ve always paid attention to place and things around me, as writers do. And nature is what I had around me, so that’s what I paid attention to. Place, to me, is always more than just what it is; place has to do with race, economics, everything. Place has so much within it, and it says so much without saying it.
Exactly. I’ve always loved work, and I guess I’m thinking of novels where place kind of becomes its own character in the work.
TD: Right, yeah, and that’s really how I think about my poems—place does become a character. You know the place moves. It sometimes determines the people in that place, how they move around, depending on what’s happening in nature.
You’re from Youngsville, NC? Can you tell me a little about it?
TD: Youngsville is about 30 minutes outside Raleigh. It’s a small little town. I grew up there with my mother. And I had generations that were from Youngsville. So I had family, aunts and uncles around me. It’s every small little town, you know. Well, now it’s changing. Raleigh is expanding so now Youngsville is starting to grow because people move there and then they work in Raleigh.
I’m curious if you think something that could be considered ‘southern poetry’ still exists? And is it something that your work participates in at all?
TD: I mean yeah, because you know that’s my experience. I’ve always lived in North Carolina, so it’s going to be a part of the work. It’s there in the southern—and I love the southern—writer lineage. I want it to be in there because it can’t be anything else. That’s just what it is.
I’d like to talk a little about poetic influences. I’ve seen you mention elsewhere Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton, and Larry Levis. In some of your childhood poems, I thought of Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa and I wondered if he was also an inspiration?
TD: Oh yeah, I love… Yusef is one of those greats to me. Of course Yusef is always in there, his work changed me when I first read it. He’s one of those Etheridge Knight’s for me. Because Etheridge Knight for me is like the first poet. I remember I was at NC State in my freshman year and I went to the library. I wanted to get some poetry books and I found his little chapbook, Belly Song, and I read that for the first time and that just made me like yes, this is what I want to do. This is what I love.
So he’s the first poet you responded to in that way?
TD: I guess it’s complicated because I wrote poetry in high school, for what it was. The first poet I read, my mother got me this complete works of Langston Hughes. So I was writing in high school. But I don’t know, I was a different person when I picked up Etheridge, so I think I respected it more. It was something different. If I would have picked up Langston, if it was the other way around, I think I still would have been like yes.
Books weren’t really in my house growing up. Were books a big part of your childhood?
TD: I really got on my reading game early in college, but growing up my mother would read a book in like a day. My mother would go through books. And I used to watch her just sit there and read, but you know I was going outside and I would come in the house and she would be going through another book. My mother was also a storyteller. I remember that a lot about her growing up. She would tell me these stories from her childhood. And I think that’s a huge part of my poetry. I tell her this all the time. She doesn’t really pay much mind. But it’s very true.
I remember her telling me all these stories growing up, just about her childhood. And these stories would have these, these almost magical elements to them. And it wasn’t like she was trying to tell me a bedtime story. This story was what happened, you know. And I think it’s so important, and I believe these things, these same things that were passed down to her. It’s like, so much just spread across my work, especially in River Hymns. Once it comes out everyone will see that, but that world, not even that it’s another world, that magical element is just what it is and it’s not explained because it’s just a part of the natural world. That element and how it possesses the people within it. I don’t know, I think it’s great but I’m not going to tell one of the stories because I feel like I should only share them with my fiancé or something.
So you’re engaged?
TD: Yeah yeah, to DeLissa Smith. Yeah, she’s amazing. She saved me.
When is the date?
TD: September 23rd!
Which is right around the time your book should be coming out, right?
TD: Yeah, I’m excited.
Tell me about first finding out that your book had been selected for the APR/Honickman.
TD: Oh man, I got an email telling me that I was a finalist for it. And I remember hitting up, on Facebook, my teacher who taught me everything I know. Dorianne Laux. And I was like, hey I just got this email what do you think it means. It was just me and the dog at home, and I’m freaking out. And she was like, it sounds like good news. And we’re just going back and forth doing the Facebook thing, talking about what if I win. And then I said hold on, I just got another email. And I check and I found out I won. That was like maybe an hour and a half span. So I was freaking out. It’s still crazy. I have to remind myself everyday. I don’t know, I believe in the book. So I’m excited.
Incidentally some of my favorite books have won that award.
TD: Which books?
Well, I love Dana Levin’s In the Surgical Theatre for sure. And Matthew Dickman.
TD: Yeah, that’s a great book, All American Poem. And then, Totem, of course. Gregory Pardlo’s book
Yeah, great lineage. You’ve published two chapbooks: Sea Island Blues (with Backbone Press) and What You and the Devil Do to Stay Warm (with Blue Horse Press). Are these chapbooks the basis of River Hymns?
TD: No, no. There’s like, let me think, no poems from What You and the Devil Do to Stay Warm and there’s only one poem from Sea Island Blues in River Hymns. They’re all new poems.
Oh wow. Well, having read Sea Island Blues, I thought I had some sense of what to expect. How would you characterize the work in River Hymns?
TD: River Hymns is still very southern and visionary and local within its language, but it’s also contemporary in its use of language and its use of a how a page can work with lines. I like to think of it, when I’m writing a poem, that it’s like a stroke across a page with a paintbrush. I can see a lot of the poems, the white space looking that way, almost as if there’s a stroke of language down the page. It’s narrative in a way, but it’s also still very lyrical. I wanted this lyrical burst of lines that thread through the story.
Very cool, I’ve heard that called the mise-en-page, the layout on the page. Would you say you were more concerned with that in River Hymns?
TD: I mean I was concerned with that and, of course, always the language. But like how it laid on the page, that’s so much a part of the language, like within the breaks. I think the way I write poetry is very local, like I said right, so it’s a very much in-the-mouth type of language. So how it’s laid across the page, I wanted that to be represented. I wanted that to play a large part of how you read the poem.
For example, there’s a poem (“For a Kid Death Happens Like This”) in Nashville Review. That’s more for use of language, not how it looks on the page. I guess that’s an example of both very local and lyrical language because that poem is narrative, but there are these magical moments like I was talking about earlier. One of my favorite lines of that poem is: “Outside you place / your ear to the ground, / hear the ants marching / to a cadence of the dead, the dead / but to them it sounds like sugar.”
And that poem is in River Hymns?
Have other poems from the collection appeared places?
TD: Four Way Review published two of the poems (“Same Oaks, Same Year” and “Gin River”). And BOAAT published some (“In Youngsville,” “When You Pray for Water,” and “Water Birth”). I’m really happy with the book.
I find it fascinating that poems from your chapbooks didn’t also make their way into your full-length book. I guess only because so often when people publish chapbooks you see those poems crop back up in their collection. Did you feel like once they were published as chapbooks, you were done with them and wanted to move on to something else?
TD: Yeah, I think that’s just how I work. Once I put something out, it’s out. And I did that, now it’s time to do something else, you know.
What are you writing or working on now? Have you moved on or are you still working on polishing
TD: I’m polishing the book but at the same time I’m constantly reading and writing new poems. I did my undergrad at NC State with Dorianne and she always said ‘write everyday. At least give yourself 15 or 20 minutes for your writing every day.’ And I’ve always had that in my head. And I’m in the MFA program at NC State, so I’m working with Dorianne Laux and Eduardo Corral, and John Balaban and Joseph Millar. And really tightening down this book.
I know you were a Cave Canem fellow as well. Who did you work with there and was that experience also influential for you?
TD: Cave Canem was like… it’s such an important place. And I needed it. I’m really thankful that it’s a part of my life. I worked with Evie Shockley, Willie Perdomo. I still remember a great lecture by Major Jackson on interior architecture of a poem, a great reading with Cornelius Eady. And of course how can I forget, I worked with Kevin Young.
I’m curious who you’re reading now.
TD: Right now I’m reading, again, In the City in Which I Love You (Li-Young Lee), and also just because I love the book and I won the [APR/Honickman] award, I’m reading All American Poem (Matthew Dickman) again, The Gathering of My Name (Cornelius Eady), The January Children (Safia Elhillo), Anybody (Ari Banias), The Black Maria (Aracelis Grimay) which is an amazing book. I try to always have something, have poetry around me and be reading constantly, and writing new poems.