From the outset, Tyree Daye’s River Hymns, winner of the 2017 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, gives a sense of legend and magic, of family and loss, themes running like muddy streams through the debut collection. With deceptively easy lyricism, its poems explore family stories set in Southern spaces that are unforgiving and generous, building a landscape whose ghosts can’t keep from haunting it.
I’ve always admired how Daye’s work blends myth and reality in a way that doesn’t just read as believable, but rings as a kind of truth. His poems make us question what we think we know about our love, about our growing-up, about our relationships to the people who made us and the world they brought us into. River Hymns shows us, whether we’re in Daye’s North Carolina or somewhere else entirely, how alive the past continues to be and how much we inherit from it, sometimes without our knowledge or consent.
After the book came out, Daye and I corresponded about lineage, myths, and trauma.
The Rumpus: Even from its title, River Hymns conjures a specific landscape. Could you have written this anywhere but North Carolina, or the South as a whole?
Tyree Daye: River Hymns is a book that is connected to the landscape of the South. So much of my writing is retelling these myths and legends I was told as a child, and River Hymns is dealing with personal family history. You know, I am a writer that believes in writing what you know. So I can’t imagine River Hymns being anything but Southern. The poems are particular to my family and the environment of northeastern North Carolina.
Rumpus: Some of these poems talk about leaving versus staying, like in “Tongues”: “A day was measured in how far away / from home we could get.” Is this a conflict you feel about where you’re from?
Daye: I think that’s something I have noticed in my new poems and I’m reading towards that. As far as in River Hymns, that’s not something I was looking at. I think I was trying to explore more of the land I grew up in.
Rumpus: I read a lot of this book as exploration of lineage—not just the blood, but the trauma, stories, and beliefs we inherit. How is what we inherit grounded in the place we come from?
Daye: Much of River Hymns deals with what the land gives us and what the land takes away. I think about poems such as “When My Mother Had the World on Her Mind, Crickets in Her Ear” and “Neuse River.” Both of those poems deal with landscape in different ways. “Neuse River” examines sexual abuse and its lineage in religion and how man uses the female body. The land in this poem acts as a bowl, holding these moments. While “When My Mother Had the World on Her Mind, Crickets in Her Ear” is focused on understanding what the land is saying through dreams: “We need the water more than it needs us.”
Rumpus: Especially in the context of the South, it’s impossible to think about how bodies and lands are used by other people and not think about slavery. Is it possible to talk about the South and the past without talking about race?
Daye: I think if you are really doing the work, you can’t write about America and not explore race and slavery, and that goes for any writer.
Rumpus: As I read the book, I kept feeling like your speaker was more of an observer than a participant, like he was a part of the landscape. Like, again, in “Tongues”: “Even the dust that lifted / off the fields had something to say—I listened.” You never seem to be judging, just reporting.
Daye: As you know, I am a big believer in letting the poem write itself. I will say usually the poet’s personality can be read in the tone of a poem. I am quiet; I watch and listen. I think it was also how I was raised. That old biblical idea that children are supposed to be seen not heard.
Rumpus: What’s your drafting process like?
Daye: I don’t really keep different drafts of poems. Once I change a line, that’s it. Eduardo C. Corral really worked with me on the idea of pouring the language into different containers. I really pay attention to how much I can do with a line, to the way I can break it and turn it into art/text. I try to follow the rule that every line is its own. I should be able to read the poem backwards and the lines still work.
Rumpus: There are several centos throughout the book. What drew you to that form?
Daye: Eduardo pushed me to add other layers to River Hymns. I think centos allow me to use these songs and myths to add context to the landscape.
Rumpus: You mention a few musicians in River Hymns, and I’ve heard you talk about music being important to your work. Who do you picture playing the backing music to this book?
Daye: It would have to be Nina Simone and Robert Johnson.
Rumpus: The book creates a mythology, from God to ghosts to dream interpretation. Whether or not a reader is religious/spiritual, your work makes it feel like a kind of truth we can’t not believe. What’s the role of myth in our everyday lives?
Daye: I am a great believer in myth and magic. It’s my African-ness. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about African American religion and traditional African religions. Really focusing on the practice of talking to the dead and its history in African American culture. I am working on this craft talk that discusses what talking to the dead and poetry has in common. Both require faith, music, and language.
Rumpus: Coming back to the idea of lineage, you nod in River Hymns to a few poets who inspire you, which I read as a chosen lineage. The one poem that doesn’t seem to be about “blood” family is dedicated to Dorianne. How does she play into what you’ve come from?
Daye: I celebrate my grandmother, mother, aunts, and other women who have saved my life. Dorianne Laux taught me how to be a good poet and a good person.
Rumpus: Do you think we can escape our inheritances or lineage? Should we?
Daye: Our inheritance is all we have. This question is a difficult one for me. While River Hymns celebrates some of my inheritance, it’s also trying to run away from other parts. We always talk about writing as a way of dealing with trauma. Though we are facing trauma through writing, there is separation once it’s on the page. For me it’s like, Okay I said it, I am not that anymore.
Rumpus: So do you feel like writing changes you?
Daye: Not changes, but helps you discover so you can change.
Rumpus: Then does River Hymns already feel like the past?
Daye: Yeah. It’s even hard reading from it now. Once I get something on the page it’s almost like letting it go, but when I read I feel like I’m pulling it back in and I don’t really like that.
Rumpus: How much do you think we get to choose what we believe in?
Daye: I don’t know. That really goes into the question of, Are poets made? I think it’s a condition, we believe in the things we need to. Right?
Author photograph © Taari Coleman.