Books In Conversation
TYREE DAYE with Tony Leuzzi
(Copper Canyon Press, 2020)
The surface area of the United States well exceeds three million square miles. Large swaths of this land are, theoretically, available to visit or inhabit. However, a jarring contrast exists between the boundless expanse that comprises the contiguous 48 states, and the restricted spaces where many of our nation’s ethnic and cultural minorities reside. Confined largely to urban centers or comparatively poor rural regions, most people of color and cultural minorities feel safe only within or near regional pockets of tolerance. It is a concern poet Tyree Daye announces in the first poem (“Field Notes on Leaving”) of his astonishing second book, Cardinal: “I cannot afford to think like Whitman / that whomever I shall meet on the road I shall love / and whoever beholds me shall love me.”
Broadly speaking, the central theme of Cardinal is “traveling while black in America”; but like individual stars in a cluster orbiting some galactic center, each of Daye’s poems emits its own light: any single moment of illumination is as crucial as the panoramic view. Throughout this book, the poet channels both the living and the dead, and his forceful, highly personal understanding of the American Black diaspora transforms their testimonies into poignant songs. In “Where She Planted Hydrangeas,” he charts his grandmother’s migration from South to North Carolina, where she and those who traveled with her sought “more than a field to turn over.” In “Inheritance” he acknowledges the visible toll a lifetime of work has wrought upon his mother, a woman who “made her body crooked / all her life to afford this little wooden house.” More generally, in “I Wanted to Place an Ocean,” “The dead know / the work they have done / and if they are not careful their hands / will stay in the shape of that work.”
Whatever sacrifices Daye’s people made in the name of survival, their stories amount to more than the sum of their labors. They have their dignities and yearn for the full extent of human experience. Sometimes this desire manifests itself as existential wanderlust: “We have nowhere to go, but we’re leaving anyhow” (“From which I Flew”). Other times, a persistent identification with place prompts literal or figurative returns. “I never left this clay,” a voice claims in “I Don’t Know What Happens in Fields,” and the man he creates from that earth moves through a town that “smells like my grandmother / walking into the open air of a dream.” Throughout Cardinal, familiars are intertwined with the liminal. Daye’s textured conception permits vast distances and hovering intimacies to exist in close proximity. The “I” that speaks in “Oceans on Either Side of Me” says, “Before I saw the ocean … I wanted to place an ocean in my mother’s backyard.”
The discussion below is remarkable not only for the clarity and tenderness of Daye’s responses, but for his modest reserve. Whereas many writers regale interlocutors with lengthy accounts of their creative procedures, the poet’s articulate and succinct answers allow his poems to speak for themselves. It is a kind of wisdom reflected in the verse itself. It may also be a form of self-preservation. In response to one of my questions, Daye was careful not to “give away too much of [his community’s] secrets.” And yet, such sensitivity to the systemic oppression of Black people in America does not conflict with the affirmative nature of the poems in Cardinal, where one may create and imagine the world one wants to inhabit; where one may locate deep in the chest “a coop inside a coop inside of me.”
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Hi, Tyree. Congratulations on the publication of Cardinal, your second collection of poems. It’s a lovely and evocative book that like River Hymns (2017) before it balances history and folklore with testimony and deeply personal mythmaking. I was wondering if you might talk broadly about your conception for Cardinal and how you see the collection both connecting to and departing from River Hymns.
Tyree Daye: Thank you, Tony. It means a lot that you would want to take the time to discuss my work. River Hymns and Cardinal are first cousins. Like River Hymns, my thesis while in the North Carolina State University MFA program, Cardinal was just some poems I was writing until the Cave Canem Retreat. My first retreat was in 2016, my second 2018. This year was going to be my last and final retreat. At both retreats, I found the path the book was asking me to walk. A quiet person, I’ve always been good at listening for what I’m looking for, and without fail, the retreat has provided the answers. I think the “I” in River Hymns is very much the same “I” in Cardinal. The “I” in Cardinal is looking forward, expanding while not forgetting, Cardinal could be the third section on River Hymns. Cardinal is the “I” of River Hymns asking what’s next.
Rail: I definitely sense the comparative expansiveness of the “I” in Cardinal. And yet that “I,” no matter who is speaking, is cautious, perhaps even critical of what expansiveness might mean for a Black person migrating anywhere in America. In “Field Notes on Leaving,” the collection’s opening poem, you write: “I can’t afford to think like Whitman / that whatever I shall meet on the road I shall love / and whoever beholds me shall love me.” In “By Land,” the collection’s second poem, the “I” observes: “Every road isn’t a way out, some circle / back like wolves … others wait / for you to run out gas then come alive / with what your mother said would take you.” You are reiterating time and again what Jacqueline Joan Johnson says in the headnote to “Field Notes on Leaving”: “geography could not save me.” So, if geography or Whitman’s “open road,” is not the sole answer, what are other ways the “I” in Cardinal claims space to breathe and thrive?
Daye: The “I” thrives by telling the stories, and though the “I” tells of the danger of moving while Black, the “I” still moves through the world. I think of the poem “Miss Mary Mack Considers God” and the line “I still watch what I sing, but I sing.” Without giving away too much of our secrets this is how Black people have made a way in this country.
Rail: The back matter for the uncorrected proof of the book claims Cardinal is “a guide through the particular American history of traveling while black. From narratives of the Great Migration to the 21st-century airport security line.” Perhaps because I read all of Cardinal before regarding the back matter, the themes outlined there did not occur to me in such a direct or systematic way. They made themselves known to me one experience and/or image at a time. In other words, the back matter’s claims, while true, unfurled for me somewhat impressionistically over the course of the book.
Daye: I am a poet that attempts to make meaning from each image. So yes, Cardinal is a guide. It’s also a guide that shows every room of the house the trees outside that room’s window before showing you the entire outside of the house and telling you its history. Though the Great Migration is my broader history, the way I approach anything I’m writing is filtering it through my own personal “narrative” to see how my own obsessions act within a specific theme.
Rail: Several types of poems populate Cardinal. There are lyrically dense, reflective poems, personal, and persona-based testimonies; two effective erasures; and several epistolary addresses to the living and the dead. There’s even an open letter to all poets. Additionally, several photographs are seeded throughout the book, providing yet another texture. All of this variety is united by core concerns, such as migration and flight and creating home. Could you discuss various considerations and decisions you made in organizing the book the way you have?
Daye: Shout out to the poet Emily Pulfer-Terino. Though I found the path for the book at Cave Canem. The book was written and made whole while at the Amy Clampitt Residency in Lenox, Massachusetts, where Emily and their partner Chris live near. After struggling with the order, Emily suggested I start the book with “Field Notes on Leaving” and end with “Field Notes on Beginning.” I like to think that the two poems act as a hinge of a rotating door for the “I” and the reader to move through. After taking Emily's suggestion, the poems fell into place. I really enjoy, as you say, how the book “balances history and folklore.” The folklore being the “I’s” personal family migration, or the mythologizing of that migration. The photos didn't come into the book much later. I grew up with photo books in the house of my people at cookouts and family reunions. So much of Cardinal is about the “I” looking out and moving away from its home, and thinking about the image, I want to show what calls the “I” back.
Rail: What does call the “I” back?
Daye: The “I” in Cardinal is being called back by many things: Family, dead and alive, the mother, grandmother, cousin, aunts, and uncles. But also, the land and nature itself call the “I” back. The memory of these Southern spaces, the traditions built within these spaces. All of these things have a tight hold on the “I” of Cardinal.
Rail: The cover photograph of Alison Saar’s sculpture Breach, (2016) seems to me a strikingly apt metaphor for the book. The lower half of the sculpture is a naked Black woman holding an oar to guide the raft she stands upon. This woman may belong to some totemic past as well as being a part of recent history. On her head she supports various shipping trunks and household goods characteristic of material culture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Black Americans migrated to certain cities or agricultural spaces they believed might be more hospitable to them. Why did you select this cover image and what does it mean to you?
Daye: I really love the cover of Cardinal. The poet Alison C. Rollins (thank you!) kindly sent me many covers that I should consider. I saw Alison Saar’s Breach and knew instantly it should be the cover. It’s the African-ness of it, and the items carried upon the figure’s head. The cast-iron pan, the bucket, the books themselves not shown, but one could be a Bible. It’s a sculpture about the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 that displaced over 600,000 people itself is about Black people's movement. Here is more information about it: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-knight-saar-review-20160614-snap-story.html
Rail: In a 2019 interview with The Arkansas International you said:
I am attracted to music as a craft tool. I want my poems to have the tone of a Nina Simone song or a Sam Cooke song. I tap my foot or finger through a poem just like I would through a song. It allows me to hear the music in the language better. Poets don’t have a piano to accompany them so I find tone through word choice and voice.
This is a telling reflection on your process as there is a definite musical dimension to your poems. Because your sense of song is very personal, is your process largely intuitive, or do you mindfully work towards certain effects?
Daye: It’s both intuitive and mindful. Intuitive when I’m writing the poem, but in later stages of crafting that poem, I say, “Hey, wait a minute, these lines remind me of Nina Simone’s ‘Blackbird.’ Maybe I can work some of those lyrics into the poem in the case of “From Which I Flew.” Perhaps I can play with the syllabic count of the lines, so it sounds like the percussion.”
Rail: I’m glad you mentioned “From Which I Flew,” which may be my favorite poem in Cardinal. Near its end, you make a startling admission: “I don't like what I have to be here to be.” Some poets might have amassed a litany of details around this line. You speak this truth but let the space around it say volumes. As Yannis Ritsos once wrote, poetry is “the few words with the intervening pauses.” How are such pauses or spaces important to you as a poet?
Daye: That’s really something I developed in my work through writing River Hymns, and continued in Cardinal. I really want readers to sit with the line. I want them to see how they function independently and completely dependently on the lines around them. So, I use space to make that happen.
Rail: The word “field” appears so often in Cardinal that it’s clear your use of the word, and the images you weave around and through it, are vital to your conception of the book. What does “field” mean to you? How might a large tract of open land or pasture be tied to the collection’s themes of migration and return?
Daye: Fields are one of my obsessions or symbols. I grew up around mostly soybean and tobacco fields. I played in them as a child. When I was little, my mother would often tell me stories of how her brothers and sister primed tobacco to make some extra money, so, naturally, fields and work show up in my poems. I think of the poem “On Finding a Field,” the “I” is looking for a place to put down these ancestors, the “I” chooses a field which has oppressed them. Just like home, the fields in Cardinal are troublesome and yet a refuge. It’s the duality of the field that draws me to it, and to home.
Rail: I see that duality clearly in “Carry Me,” where you say: “Whichever way I flew my inheritance couldn't be lifted / from northeastern Carolina's wet clay, / its hands hardened around my weighted ankles." These lines embody what francine j. harris said of River Hymns, namely that "the insistence of imagery and referent in [your] work is at times unsettling, at other times, wholly a rush of solace.” When I read those three lines from “Carry Me,” I sense the “I” of the poem is unable to leave yet compelled to return. There is no escape from the ongoing promise of home—if that makes any sense. What are your thoughts on this passage? How might inheritance be a gift and a burden?
Daye: When I read those three lines, I think of how in the South part of our inheritance is the land itself. I think of my dead buried in that land, marked or unmarked. I think of every drop of sweat, every piece of chewed and spit out tobacco. I think of everything planted in those backyards’ gardens, every dog tied to a tree. Those things can’t be taken with the “I,” the things that make and break it in half.
Rail: I would be remiss if I didn't ask about the poems on pages 9 and 48 of the uncorrected proof. These untitled, largely visual poems appear to be erasures. Forgive me if I am wrong! One is arranged directly after the opening poem (“Field Notes on Leaving”) and the other before the concluding poem (“Field Notes on Beginning”). The arrangement suggests that these poems are a kind of frame for the book. Could you talk a little about their composition and how you see these poems functioning in Cardinal?
Daye: Yes, “frame” is the right word. Being in a small southern town at night, we would look up. For me, that’s when my wonder for the world really started developing. I wanted to try to capture that wonder in these two pages. I will admit the letters accompanying the stars on page nine will be removed in the book’s final version. But I still think the page is capturing that feeling of wonderment. I think it was the poet Ocean Vuong who said in your first book is a poem that will lead you to your next book, this must be true of your second as well. I feel this way about page 48. These little “I’s” gathered in what to me looks like a field, seems to me where the new work is headed, but that is all I can really say for now.
Rail: Tyree, thank you for discussing your poetry and poems with me. Before we stop, I am wondering if you might speak to the book’s title. Why did you choose Cardinal?
Daye: I had a great time. Thank you for showing an interest in my work. I am terrible with titles. If I told you the original title of River Hymns, you’d laugh this interview right into your trash bin. The poet who brought me into the poetry world, Dorianne Laux, helped me discover Cardinal, after long conversations on the phone with her and poet Joseph Millar. Once found, I realized how it made so much sense for the book and for me personally. I grew up calling them redbirds and blowing kisses at them as I was told it’s good luck. They are the state bird of North Carolina, and there’s cardinal direction. There were too many signs. I am a believer in signs.