This month we’re excited to bring you a featured interviewed with Black poet & essayist Taylor Byas. Make sure to read her interview below, as well as her Creative Nonfiction piece Tiger Stripes.
Taylor Byas is a Black poet and essayist from Chicago. She currently lives in Cincinnati, where she is a second year PhD student and Albert C. Yates Scholar at the University of Cincinnati. She is also a reader for both The Rumpus and The Cincinnati Review, and the Poetry Editor for Flypaper Lit. Her work appears or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Hobart, Pidgeonholes, The Rumpus, SWWIM, Jellyfish Review, Empty Mirror, and others.
Tell us about yourself! Where were you born/ where did you grow up? What’s your cultural background?
I am a Black writer from the south side of Chicago. I was born in the city and as I grew older, my family slowly moved further and further out into the southern suburbs of Chicago, and most of my family is still in the suburbs. I spent pretty much my entire life in the suburbs of Chicago until college, then I spent 6 years in Birmingham, Alabama. Now I’m in Cincinnati, which is a really interesting mix between Chicago and Birmingham. I think when talking about my cultural background, it’s important to me to mention that I come from a family full of Black women. Black women who inspire me all the time, who are doctors, lawyers, jewelry makers, dancers, singers. It’s really easy to be who I am and to go after what I want when I have grown up with such exceptional models.
Tell us about your writing, how did you come to your craft? What drives your inspiration?
I’ve always loved to write and I think I’ve always been a storyteller. As a young child I read so much that my parents were often telling me to take a break or to put a book down for a minute. And because of that early love for books and for reading, I think I naturally began to always see the world through the lens of narrative. To me, everything is always a part of a larger story. When I look back at some of my earliest journal entries, I used to write my daily entries in the form of these really dramatic flash stories, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. As a result, my first love was fiction. I was so drawn to the world and character building of fiction, so I went into undergrad as a fiction writer. But that all changed when I took an Ekphrastic Poetry class my senior year in college. I immediately switched over to poetry for my Master’s and poetry has been my leading lady ever since. I’ve been writing poetry seriously for about three years now, and the current condition of our world inspires me to write every day. I write against being silenced, I write against my own familial and personal trauma, I’m writing into a better version of myself every day. But I’m also inspired to write for the Black girls and boys who look like me and who want and need to see themselves reflected in the stories that they read.
How does your identity/ cultural heritage influence your writing?
Blackness shows up in my writing quite a bit, and interestingly enough, I find that it shows up the most when I talk about place. For my Master’s thesis, I produced a collection of poems that was split between Chicago and Birmingham, and it explored how geographical location affected my experiences as a Black child and teenager in Chicago, and as a Black woman in Birmingham. Even now, I find that a lot of my writing about race is tied to place. However, I think that writing about my identity and my cultural heritage is now much more complicated. In this political moment, sometimes it can get exhausting. Sometimes when I write about being Black or write about racism, it feels less like my story and more like this exercise in proving my worth and my value as a person. Even in writing my experiences and my own life, I’m often performing emotional labor. But I can’t let that stop me because my voice is important and necessary. I think I’ve written some of my strongest poems about race this year, I’m especially proud of “My Twitter Feed Becomes Too Much” in Frontier Poetry and “Geophagia” in Glass Poetry.
Are there any themes that come up frequently in your work?
I find that what inspires my writing can change often, but I do have some main “obsessions.” I write a lot about my family, particularly about how growing up in a Black family has shaped the way I view the world and myself, and about how my father’s alcoholism has affected my life. As of late, I find myself writing more about romantic relationships and how past pain and trauma shows up in those relationships. My first full-length manuscript, which I just finished, meditates on the concept of “home” and what happens to the black body once we are away from home, how the black body is violated. I feel myself slowly unpacking a lot of pain I didn’t really know I was holding, and the things I’m writing right now feel really personal and sort of fragile because of that. But I also think I’m coming into some of my strongest writing, which is always a good feeling.
What do you hope the reader takes away from your work?
This is a hard question because I don’t know that I write my poems with that in mind, if I write while thinking about what I want to be taken away from it. And perhaps quoting some of my friends who are readers of my work would be more helpful. There’s a sort of joke among friends that I’m a gothic poet, but I think it’s totally true. My writing is often filled with some sort of danger or horror that’s waiting right underneath the surface, which is definitely fitting when we talk about race. But even when I write about family and intimacy too. I find that a lot of my writing catches my reader on the edge of a cliff, and the cliff is what is familiar and safe, and that fall is all of the things that can, will, and have gone wrong. I’m all about highlighting how thin that line is between safety and danger, pleasure and pain, love and something else entirely.
In your opinion, what is the role of writing/ storytelling in the Black Liberation Movement? What do you believe is your role?
I think that the act of writing is a rebellion in itself. By writing and telling our stories, we take back the power to create our own narratives, to rewrite our histories. We can take back some sort of control over our realities. When I think about the writing of Black writers that I admire, I think of those stories as the real history books. The history books we read in school are written by people who want to perpetuate a certain narrative, and I feel like the writing and storytelling of Black writers is always an act of rewriting those narratives. I believe I am a part of that, of rewriting history. Also, as a Black editor, my role is to also amplify those voices, recruit those voices, to publish those voices and give them a platform.
Anything else you wanna share!
I absolutely love giving back to my writing community in any way that I can, and one of the ways that I do that is through my @LitMagLiveTweet twitter page! I live tweet issues of lit mags and post mini-reviews of work in the issues, and it’s just a really awesome way to show both mags and writers some well deserved love. You guys should follow to discover some great publications and authors, and if you’re a lit mag, I would love to live tweet you!