The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Tess Taylor about her new collection Work & Days, manual labor, and the lyric possibilities in small fields.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: I’m in Des Moines, and I have to say that your book, with all the emphasis on farming, struck me as a very Midwestern book, even though California, where you’re located, grows more food than anywhere else if I remember correctly.
Tess Taylor: And you know actually it was written in New England, which has small stony fields that require a lot of manual labor. But food politics are a big part of California—I mean, I grew up with friends who took permaculture classes in high school because that was what we did to be cool; and in the shadow of Alice Waters’s emergent foodie thing in the 90s. So in that way, even though I wrote the book in western Massachusetts it has a lot of California in its heart.
Dana: This book makes me want to stick my hands in the dirt.
Molly: I have to admit I was traveling and not able to finish the book due to time constraints. I really, really loved the first couple of poems. I can see the California vibe, now that we’re talking about it. I’ve been to Chez Panisse—what an amazing place! Had some delicious soda there.
Tess Taylor: Oh, good. You know that there are scientific studies that show that dirt makes us happy.
Dana: I believe it!
Brian S: It really hit home to me because my partner and I are trying our hand at a garden for the first time. We feel many of the frustrations you talk about in the poems.
Tess Taylor: I mean: working with the body the way I did in the farm year was such an antidote to what we’re doing now—which I am so grateful for by the way—but really a holistic experience, where there were no routers, only our own work. The body. Brian, what are you excited to grow?
Brian S: Spent part of the weekend putting netting around our baby blueberry bushes because rabbits were eating the buds as soon as they appeared. The rabbits were pissed when they found out.
Tess Taylor: Yes, and why was that fun? I mean that seriously. Was it fun?
Brian S: We’re trying blueberries and strawberries because our twins love them, and we want to do some onions and tomatoes and peppers because we eat a ton of those things. The work itself was trying because we were fiddling with netting on a day when the wind was gusting at 25 mph on occasion, but when we were done it felt good. It’s also rewarding in a sense because even though I’ve lived at times in very rural areas, I’ve never really tried gardening short of some tomato plants in buckets, and we’re trying something larger now in a fairly urban environment.
Tess Taylor: Well, a lot of days on the farm were like that—particularly this one day at the beginning of spring where we spent the whole day moving rocks on the one warm day in March. Out on the field with a gray sky but warmer air and the starlings swirling. You know, if I told you I moved rocks the whole day you might think I was bored, but I wasn’t. I was in my body and outside and the day smelled like the first beginnings of mud and spring. And when it was done I was very clear and bright in my mind. I read that night better than I had in ages.
Dana: Tess, what would you say were the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of your farm year?
Tess Taylor: Yes: I had started as an urban gardener. I used to coordinate community gardens for teenagers in Berkeley and then later I helped run a community garden in Brooklyn. I’ve always been amazed by what a garden can make—and how it crafts this really incredible microcosm or ecosystem.
Brian S: I know that feeling. I’ve done physical labor more than once in my life—worked in a grocery warehouse, worked in a brewery on a bottling line (Anchor, there in San Francisco)—and I found the labor made my reading and writing very tactile, very clear.
Tess Taylor: This guy I knew in Brooklyn was running studies on the bee population in NYC. Bees are obviously in danger everywhere and in Brooklyn no less; and our garden in Brooklyn supported nine species of bee—just from a bunch of us brooklynites planting tomatoes and lavender and beans. It made me feel—well, the world is tactile, and it’s real, and we can build it better through this work.
Brian S: Much of this book seemed to work with the tension between the desire to do something local and the sense that it didn’t matter much on the global scale. Could you talk about that a little?
Tess Taylor: Well, I’m not a perfect idealist. I grew up in Berkeley where some people seem to think that the revolution can be accomplished through one’s personal consumption of expensive cheese. And I am here to tell you people: Buying expensive cheese will make very few revolutions. But I do think there’s something about acting as a way of feeling our own connectedness, even more, to one another and to our small and vital time on earth. That’s important to me.
Brian S: The poem that jumps first to mind in that vein is “Apocalypto for a Small Planet” where you reference climate change and drone strikes in the first two sections, and then in the fourth you say “My inner cynic says / don’t bother this is navel gazing.”
Camille D.: I have to rethink my cheese habit now.
Dana: I love the final lines: “But digging now I feel an otherness– // life, a great inhuman freedom– // here I work a plot that also grounds.”
Tess Taylor: I guess I also felt—even as I was overwhelmed by the beauty of that year and that place and grateful for my time there I could imagine a snarky New York voice—somebody with a martini and a cigarette telling me that we were somehow post-nature, post-beauty, post-any of it. This imaginary person really actually spurred me on. Like—NO NO NO, annoying mean person, I feel like I have to proceed towards the exploration of this small field and its lyric possibility. But I actually think the argument with my inner cynic was generative.
Brian S: And then in the fifth section “these cucumbers are more art than science, / more daydream // than global action (if we separate the two).” I mean, I feel the same tug, that even if the actions don’t mean much on the macro level, they still mean something.
Tess Taylor: Yes, right, the inner cynic! And Camille, you and I could always shop for cheese together because I know you don’t think that’s the whole revolution.
Tess Taylor: Well, Brian, I guess that is a good question: Why do we act? Do we act simply to affect change or because the process of acting actually changes and engages us?
Tess Taylor: At the time my most foodie friend—my permaculture friend who seriously takes vows of not using plastic and can maintain them for long periods of time—was doing this degree at Yale. She’s super brilliant; she basically helped the UN design the carbon market; she works on the macro level as much as anyone I know. I mean she has literally flown to Thailand to start a wind farm and protect a beach. But she was telling me that no, no, all our local eating and all the farmers markets don’t actually solve the global food shortage. So part of what we are doing when we try to eat seasonally or support farmers is creating an ecosystem that we believe in, the one that helps us feel connected and stable enough perhaps to act more. It’s more process than solution.
Brian S: In my case, I think we’re doing this in part because we have two very young girls, twins, and we want them to know where food comes from other than the store, and to value it the way I learned to when I lived closer to agriculture. There’s more to it, but that’s certainly part.
Tess Taylor: But building an ecosystem—isn’t that what poetry is also about?
Brian S: It is for some people, I think. For some, I think poetry is a hellscape they’re trying to exploit for everything they can get out of it no matter what or who they damage along the way.
Molly: Yes, I also feel like my small pot of lettuces, and the months I nurtured them, and the one small salad that they yielded, made me appreciate all of the hard work that goes into food, even the $1 banana you may buy at a gas station. It was a valuable realization.
Camille D.: Talk about the title. It fees sort of ballsy to me to use such a well used title. Of course these are “Georgics for our time” as Bert said, but also they seem to point forward in some ways. How did you decide on that tradition rich title?
Tess Taylor: Thanks, Camille. Yes—I just plunged in and riffed on Hesiod. By the way, Hesiod, if you don’t know is the Greek poet who may or may not have existed the way Homer may or may not have existed. But what we do know in the Greek isles around 700 BCE there were two kinds of poem that seemed to be consolidated, attributed, written down. And one is the poetry of epic—war, history, nation building, catalog of ships. But the other is the poetry of what I call staying put—how to live on earth when you are not making war. How to be on that field. How to read the stars. How to raise bees. Bees. I come back to that. We could use some of that knowledge now.
I got intrigued by the idea of a poem as a how to manual, but I was also intrigued by my own learning about how to be on that field. About the work. I had gardened a lot but never on that scale. I would spend a whole day planting the seasons tomatoes in little start trays or a whole day getting leek starts into the ground. I loved that: WORK. Tactile, clarifying. DAYS: being alive in time, the slant of light, the season. I leaned in there.
Brian S: So did you basically spend your days in the dirt and your nights in the books?
Tess Taylor: Listen: this food stuff matters to me a lot. I mean, I think I became a writer partly so that I could cook my own lunch and compost the scraps. I think that when I live so much in my head the tactile world that responds to real cultivation somehow reminds me of that. Anyway—were your lettuces good, Molly? I mean, would you do it again?
Brian S: Who besides Hesiod did you see as an influence? Anything that deals with farming reminds me of Wendell Berry, but the way you described the natural world reminded me a lot of Eva Saulitis.
Well: I worked on the farm two to three days a week. And I want to be really honest about that. I got this fellowship to go live in Amy Clampitt’s house. I had been living in Brooklyn and adjuncting and being a personal assistant and basically working about six jobs. And my first book, The Forage House, kept getting polite rejections. So when I got the fellowship to go to Lenox where I would live alone in this house I kind of freaked out. I basically asked them if I could work on a community garden up there. They were like: Um no, we don’t have gardens. But we do have farms. And that’s how it started. I didn’t mean to write a book at first, just to get out of my own freaked out mind. I had just quit smoking. I had been circling Brooklyn for a while.
Molly: Yes, the lettuces were amazing! And I savored each bite way more than I do the Trader Joe’s packs of lettuce.
Tess Taylor: But then the farm work was—well, fascinating. Do you know that my farmer would plant her lettuces really early in the spring on this bare field and then we would wrap the seed trays in electric blankets for the cold nights?
Brian S: I imagine in New York, the growing season is so short that you have to use every second you can get.
Tess Taylor: This was her concession to the unstable weather of the spring. I thought it was so interesting. We irrigated with this pump that pulled water out of the green river and then the water rolls back in.
Molly: Wow, that’s a lot of daily work and care.
Tess Taylor: Yes! You have to use every second. But not in the way that you do in NYC where you never sleep. There’s this way that you are working with what the earth can offer: when the light comes you’re in it. When the day warms you’re in it. When it rains you sort the shed. It was so attuned that way.
Brian S: I get that so much more here in Des Moines than I did in either Florida or California. I mean, I live in a city of 600,000, with big box stores and all the crap, but ten minutes outside of town, I’m in farmland. I picked up our CSA once from the farm and it was on the opposite of side of the road from a Target.
Tess Taylor: So listen, to come back to that question of how I worked: the other farm interns worked five or even six days a week, sometimes for free or a low wage. I worked for free. I had my housing paid for. And the other days I read and walked and ran and cooked and daydreamed. So it was not “real” in any economic sense. But you know much of what we understand as lyric time is not wholly real.
Brian S: It sounds like a brilliant year, honestly. I’ve been working multiple jobs for so long I’ve forgotten what anything else is like.
Tess Taylor: Yes, it was. I was back there visiting Ishion Hutchinson and Valzhyna Mort who are in the house where I used to live. They were not farming but they were reading in this dreamy way—like reading autobiographies of Debussy and thinking about color theory. And they were in this very rich space for following out their inner longings.
Dana: What was it like coming back to the bustle of things? And how did the transition impact your writing?
Molly: Yes, it does sound really nice. Did you ever find yourself longing for the urban pace of life?
Tess Taylor: Well, as it happens, by the end of the year I was pregnant with our first child. And part of that whole journey gets written about in the book. I mean, I think it took a place that beautiful for me to feel really sure that it was good and that I would be good to bring children into the world.
Molly: Wow, that’s really lovely.
Camille D.: And you work your own fertility into the study of the land’s fertility. I am interested in how and why you pull that off. It seems like it takes the form that is so often so very male and does something else to it.
Tess Taylor: But as it happens when the fellowship year was over we moved back to Brooklyn and it didn’t feel right to me anymore. Our apartment had mold and literally one night we found a rat in our bathtub. And you know, I am from California. And my husband works in tech. So we basically just were like—come on. This is a no-brainer. So now I live in a sort of urban suburb. I planted rhubarb last week. But I miss farming.
Brian S: COME TO IOWA!
Only half-kidding. Des Moines is being called the Silicon Prairie these days. So something for both of you. 🙂
Molly: Ah, rhubarb.
Brian S: Are you working on anything new yet?
Tess Taylor: Camille, you’re totally right! To answer an earlier question: I read a lot of farm poetry—Virgil, John Clare, Frost. And I thought about the form of the Georgic, which is this form of farm poetry in the school that Hesiod started. You know, that kind of poetry is not just about being pretty. It really does always have war at its margins—farmers coming home from war, government enclosure—it’s actually got a fair amount of political grit. But… it is all MALE poetry. Now, it did happen that my farm was called FARM GIRL FARM and it was this badass woman farmer running it and a lot of women running around growing vegetables. And it did happen that I was trying to have a baby.
Tess Taylor: But I did not want to be all earth mama in a cliche way. I just wanted to juxtapose those things. How fragile we are at the moment we try to build life. You know, tending life starts in radical radical fragility.
Brian, I would LOVE to come to Iowa! Can we make that happen?
Brian S: I am learning so much in this chat.
Tess Taylor: And—well: let’s be clear. I moved to California after my farm year; arrived 36 weeks pregnant; had baby number one, published The Forage House, was on the road with that for two years; got a job teaching in Los Angeles last year—so I commuted 450 miles to teach a four four load—and was gone from my family three days a week. But somehow in the midst of this, was pregnant again—I guess I didn’t need an idyllic farm in Massachusetts to make that happen. And then—just as the baby was due the book went into production!
Brian S: There are quite a few universities in the state, and I’m not kidding about there being a tech explosion in the area. This place is growing, and you can live in a pretty rural area and still have less than an hour’s commute to a job in the city. Try finding that anywhere else.
Camille D.: The book is a cycle, or at least a progression. Do you have a section of the progression where you’d prefer to stay? As I would prefer it always to be 75 degrees with a few flowers.
Brian S: Not a fan of snow-covered mountains yet, Camille?
Camille D.: I’m fine to look at them from afar. Even to ski them. But I don’t like shoveling snow. No, I do not.
Brian S: Nor do I, I must admit. When your daughter gets older, she can do it.
Tess Taylor: Anyway, Brian, I am working on some new stuff, but I am also enjoying the sense that this time has been wildly full and I can think through what’s next. I’m fascinated by the tech explosion. The Berkeley I grew up with has really changed. When I lived here last there was no Internet.
Molly: Haha, I’m with you there. I like summer, late spring, and late August.
Tess Taylor: I mean, I don’t want to elegize my childhood but I do think we have lived through a strange gulf there.
Molly: Wow, what a change from no Internet to today.
Brian S: Real quick, who are you reading these days?
Tess Taylor: For craft and pleasure I just re-read a bunch of Ted Hughes. I’ve got David Rivard and Ocean Vuong and Les Murray and WS Merwin on my bedstand. I’m reading this book called “Mother Nature” which is a history of being mammal and what it teaches us about mothering. Is that a smorgasboard or what? Oh, and the Seamus Heaney translation of Book Six of the Aeneid is really wonderful.
Brian S: As it should be! I have some of those books on my shelf as well.
Camille D.: That Ocean Vuong book is the business! I’ve been reveling in it.
Tess Taylor: Camille—about progression: Where you and I lived in California has this stasis. But in Massachusetts there is this totally inexorable sense. The year moves on and the light moves on. You are really forced to confront being alive in time. And I have to say I really liked that.
Brian S: I had that stasis in Florida. In fact, I’ve only had seasons for the last five years. It really changes things for you. Thanks so much for this book and for joining us tonight.
Camille D.: How does it come to be the top of the hour so quickly?! Thank you, Tess, for joining us.
Dana: Yes, thank you, Tess! This has been a great chat.
Molly: Thank you, Tess! Thank you all so much! It was great talking to you.
Tess Taylor: Good night! Be well you all.