Dr. Taylor Byas is a rising star who uses her poetic praxis to shine a light on both her own Black womanhood and the collective Black experience as portrayed in creative literature. Her work emphasizes the magic within and around her while also highlighting the legacy of magic and myth in Black creative literature. Phyllis Wheatley, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, bell hooks—the list of Black authors who have blessed us with golden narratives in their poems and stories is extensive. Byas has contributed to the preservation and growth of this canon by serving as an editor for the upcoming young adult anthology Poemhood: Our Black Revival (Harperteen, 2024) and as author of her first full-length of poetry, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times (Soft Skull, 2023).
Poemhood: Our Black Revival is a thoughtfully curated compilation of poetic folklore that juxtaposes works by prominent Black literary figures, collectively known as The OG Ancestors, with those of burgeoning contemporary Black writers. Threaded together, the works give cohesion to the creative zeitgeist of the African diaspora in the US, speaking to the will to overcome oppressive forces, finding joy despite obstacles, and the importance of heeding ancestral wisdom through it all. In I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, Byas adds her own work to the zeitgeist in a poetic rework of the 1978 classic film The Wiz. The collection follows a speaker along her yellow brick road from the rough and tough South Side of Chicago toward a glittering place where she believes all her dreams come true.
Through email, Byas and I had a poignant conversation about these books, the legacy of Black literary magic, and the role of the contemporary poet and poem in keeping that magic alive.
The Rumpus: I’m curious about your mission as a poet. I mean, as people love to point out, there’s not a lot of money in poetry, so I’m always interested to know what motivates poets to do what they do.What is your drive, and what are your goals?
Dr. Taylor Byas: The need for more accurate and complete histories is what drives me. Literature has the potential to provide counternarratives to the histories we are taught in school, which we know are intentionally incomplete and actively erase the marginalized and oppressed. I think poetry in particular has the space to really subvert expected narratives, to break what is traditional, to experiment, to erase and reclaim. As a poet, I am also a historian responsible for writing and rewriting history in ways that are deemed “inappropriate” in curriculum. Another mission is writing poetry for the youth like me. My life would have been so different if I was reading Black contemporary poets when I was younger. If I knew of the poets that I know of today, I would have come to poetry more seriously much sooner.
Rumpus: That makes so much sense, especially considering that you served as an editor for the upcoming young adult anthology Poemhood: Our Black Revival. The word “revival” means “to make alive again.” What aspects of the Black experience are you and the other Poemhood editors trying to bring back to the forefront and why?
Byas: As the editors were brainstorming for this project, we thought about our own educational experiences, how we learned about the mythologies and folklore of other people in the school systems but never our own. I remember very clearly having entire units dedicated to Greek mythology, but Black folklore wasn’t built into the curriculum in the same way. We feel that the traditions, customs, and stories of Black people are necessary to study, and [we] wanted to create something that would hopefully help educators make that space in their classrooms. We see Poemhood as filling a gap in the curriculum, introducing students to poets, both old and new, who are deeply committed to witnessing and reserving our histories.
Rumpus: Currently, people are fascinated with Afrofuturism and giving artistic voice to a period when the African diaspora may be thriving and liberated. In contrast, Poemhood emphasizes the past, putting poems by several prominent twentieth-century Black poets in conversation with contemporary Black poets. In an era when many are focusing on what possibly lies ahead, why have the Poemhood editors chosen to dialogue with the past of Black poetics?
Byas: More than anything, I think this current moment is a perfect example of how often our painful histories repeat themselves, how cyclical history has proven to be. To reimagine a future that is truly different from what we’ve already experienced. If you had a gorgeous building and you wanted to hire an architect to come in and design a better version of that building, wouldn’t the architect need to first study the original building to know how to build the new one differently? Perhaps that is a strange analogy, but you have to see the old footsteps to know where not to step if you want to make a new path. I also think there is something powerful in having twentieth-century poets in conversation with contemporary poets. It’s important to see the through-line, how the concerns of the Black poet transcend time and space. It’s important to showcase the variety and multiplicity of Black poetry, the different styles and voices. We also want our readers to find Black poets they love, both older and newer.
Rumpus: The poems in this collection are presented within the following volumes, consecutively: “Livin’,” “Gawd,” “Haunting Water,” and “Magickal.” Why are the themes of life, gods, haunted waters, and magick such pervasive themes in Black poetics?
Byas: These themes all trace back to the painful beginnings of our history in this country. Slavery is a pervasive ghost in Black art, and so haunted waters of course call back to that. Still, I believe that talking and writing about Black folklore is a restorative project. Before slavery and Christianity, there were a multitude of African traditional religions and spiritual practices that featured multiple gods and magick. They still exist of course, but there was a large-scale historical erasure of those traditions, the impacts of which we still see today. To talk about those practices, magic, and hope is to restore something that was taken from us. It is returning to a way to understand our world that is unmarred by colonialism and violence. There is also something about those narratives of gods and magick that invite and encourage play in a way that maybe Christianity doesn’t.
When thinking of a young adult audience, we wanted this to be a book that would be enjoyed, that could talk about Black realities and histories while also holding space for joy. Black folklore does just that.
Rumpus: Each poem in the collection features an “outro,” a small paragraph that contextualizes and clarifies the piece. Sometimes poets reject the urge to explain the meanings and drivers of their work, fearing it may dilute the power of the art itself. What do the outros in Poemhood offer readers, and why have the editors extended that offering?
Byas: We don’t want these outros to necessarily explain the meanings; we want them to be educational tools. The outros sometimes give context as to what the poem is speaking to historically, or what it is responding to within the realm of Black folklore. Sometimes the outro just gives the reader some insight into the poem’s creation. Sometimes the outro does both.
What I love about the outros is that they give the anthology this extra intimate, personal touch. Often within an anthology, you must go to the back of the book for author bios, and I find that sometimes the author seems a bit disconnected from the poem as a result. With these outros, we have the writer speaking directly to the reader after the poem.
So much of this anthology is about old traditions, and there’s something about the outros that make it feel like oral storytelling, like someone has just recited the poem to you, and then they have a story to tell afterward. They also force you to slow down a little bit, really spend the extra time with each poem. We want you to learn from this book, be curious, and leave with a desire to learn more and an idea of where to go to find what you want to know.
Rumpus: Although you served as an editor for Poemhood, you have also published plenty of your own poems, including your first full poetry collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times. What are some of the unique joys and challenges of being an editor of other people’s work versus writing your own poems? Do you prefer one over the other?
Byas: They definitely differ. Editing other people’s work comes with virtually no challenges for me, as being an editor is one of my greatest joys. There is something magical for me about the collaboration between editor and writer, the push and pull of finding what the work needs, the intimacy of learning the work and what it’s asking for. In this particular instance, it is an honor to have writers who I love and admire in these pages and to be able to showcase their brilliance. As an editor, you have the ability to empower and platform those who are traditionally sidelined, and it is one of the highest honors.
Editing my own work is the constant practice of killing my own ego, which is never fun! But I get more excited to do it each time because I’ve seen what has happened to my work when I can get out of my own way. But I will say that being an editor of other people’s work has somehow made me a better listener of my own poems. I feel like I can revise from a distance that wasn’t possible before I held editorial positions. I definitely prefer to edit other people’s work over my own, but I have grown to love editing my own work more and more over time.
Rumpus: I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times uses the classic film The Wiz as a framework for its narration.What about The Wiz inspires you, and why did you use it as opposed to its predecessor, The Wizard of Oz, to contextualize the poems in this collection?
Byas: The Wiz is a Black cultural event. It’s one of those movies that connects me to other Black people, it is a maker of community. The Wiz also speaks to the Black experience in ways that The Wizard of Oz doesn’t. Consider the difference between the scarecrow’s main song in both movies. The one in The Wizard of Oz focuses mainly on what the scarecrow could do if he had a brain, and even makes a reference to Abraham Lincoln. The one in The Wiz talks about a particular positionality of marginalized people, how life is a game that is programmed so that we can’t win. It only made sense to me that The Wiz would be that one that influenced this collection that is so much about my experiences as Black girl and woman moving through this world.
Rumpus: The motion of heel clicking serves a magical purpose—a way to get the speaker back home. For our speaker in I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, “home” is South Side, Chicago, a place that is often vilified in the media, along with its historically Black and low-income residents. Why is it important for readers to know that the speaker’s home is the place from which she came, not the glittering paradise of opportunity toward which she travels?
Byas: First and foremost, I wrote this book with Chicago youth in mind. I want Chicago youth to read this book and see more than what they see and read about their city, because even when you’re inside of it, those dominant narratives can still take over.
But more than anything, I want this book to challenge the way we see and talk about places like Chicago. Chicago is a complex place, just like any other place, populated with its particular pain, pleasure, sorrow, and joy. Chicago is partially responsible for who I am, partially responsible for some of the best poets of our time. In this age, where constant media consumption influences the way we think, and where many people might see Chicago in a negative light, it’s crucial to hear about it from a human perspective. The media, the news—those are machines to me. What are the humans saying about Chicago? That’s what we should be listening to because that’s where the truth lies. That’s what this book is.
Rumpus: Your collection features a variety of poetic forms, ranging from sonnets to erasure poems. This is very impressive and speaks to your masterful versatility as an artist.How do you determine what form is best suited to a poem? Tell us about your process: do you start with an intended form, do you apply the form once you have a poem drafted, or something else?
Byas: I just love form so much, and I would like to talk about it forever and ever. I always start with an intended form, and to this day, I don’t think I have abandoned a form once I have started it. I’m not sure if it’s because I enjoy the torture, but I really have to see a form through to the end.
But the content of the poem definitely influences what form I decide to use or how much I have to say or how punchy my speaker is feeling. When my speaker is feeling more meditative, when she wants to meander, I might reach for a sestina. When she needs to cycle through something or process, likely a pantoum. When she wants to shout real quick, or whisper, likely a sonnet. And I stick with it because I have to let the poem lead when I do that, and the best things happen when the poem leads.
Rumpus: You recently graduated to become Dr. Taylor Byas—congrats, by the way!. Poetry is having a sort of moment in the modern era where it is being taken more seriously as a line of academic study and craft. Why did you decide to pursue a PhD and how have your studies shaped you as a professional poet?
Byas: It’s still so cool that I could even get a PhD in poetry and that I got the time to focus on and think about poetry for this long. Poetry has always been taken seriously as a line of academic study and craft, but technology is also very rapidly changing how we can consume, share, teach, and access poetry.
I wanted to pursue the PhD because I wanted the opportunity to further figure out who I am as a writer, and I wanted that commingling of creative work and research. When I came out of my master’s program, I was just figuring out what was important to me as a writer and had just really given myself permission to write what mattered. But I wanted more time to experiment, practice, sharpen the sword. Then for my exams, I got the opportunity to study strategies of resistance in Black women’s poetics, and as a result of my research, I better understood my lineage as a Black woman poet. My research also heavily influenced my second full-length collection, which served as my dissertation. To paraphrase my dissertation chair, I Done Clicked My Heels is a great book, but my second full-length is a sophisticated book. The PhD helped me to keep evolving as a writer and put me in a network of incredible writers and readers of my work. It also taught me how to trust my own voice and instincts, which is so necessary in this industry.
Rumpus: Speaking of higher academia, what advice do you have for marginalized students searching for the will to keep writing and succeeding in higher ed, even as the violence and heaviness of the modern world foists itself upon them?
Byas: When thinking about higher ed programs, consider what kinds of community you will have access to and be able to build for yourself. I was fortunate to have the community and support that I have in Cincinnati, as someone who was single in a new city without family. And then, as I got into the online community more, I had that additional support as well. I’ve met some of my closest friends in the online writing community, and these are people who made sure I was okay and eating and well during my program. Be very intentional about your community.
Secondly, pay your writing first. These programs want you to do all types of labor for them, but at the end of the day you are there to write. Every week, put your writing at the top of the priority list, and then decide what else is important and what absolutely needs to get done. Go from there. Some things might go unread. You might have to skim. Perhaps that discussion post or response paper doesn’t get its usual 110%. Down the line, no one will care what grades you got on those assignments. But they will be reading your work. So pay it first.
Rumpus: What can Taylor Byas fans can expect from you in 2024. Are there any recent achievements that you’re celebrating, and what’s on your horizon?
Byas: I’m entering the second leg of my tour for I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, which will feature a two-week tour in Missouri in April for winning the Maya Angelou Book Award. We’ll be launching Poemhood in January, which I’m so stoked about. I’m teaching a lot of workshops in 2024, so if you want to learn about form, find where I’m teaching on my social media! My second full-length, Resting Bitch Face, is slated for 2025 with Soft Skull Press, so I’m really wanting to take this time to work on my YA novel-in-verse and hopefully have a draft of it done sometime this year. Really just wanting to hunker down, read, write, create art, and keep celebrating all that I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times continues to do out in the world.
Author photograph courtesy of Dr. Taylor Byas