An Interview with Taylor Byas

the editors

Born and raised in Chicago, Dr. Taylor Byas is an essayist and poet. She claimed first place in the 2020 Poetry Super Highway Contest, the 2020 Frontier Poetry Award for New Poets, and the 2021 Adrienne Rich Poetry Award. She’s published two chapbooks: Bloodwarm and Shutters in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Her full-length poetry collection I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times (Soft Skull Press, 2023) received immediate critical acclaim. She won first place in the 2023 Maya Angelou Book Award, the 2023 Chicago Review of Books Award in Poetry, and was named a 2024 Honor Book for Best Poetry by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. 

Our formal poetry class, taught by Andy Young, had the chance to read this collection, and we were whole-heartedly moved and engaged by it. We especially loved her use of form through the collection. Even after a week of discussing the work, we felt the only way we could fully express our gratitude, pure love, and feelings of connection to the collection by interviewing the poet. We came together as a class and formed twelve questions for Dr. Byas.

NOCCA Students:  Coming from a class studying formal poetry, we’ve learned how complicated and intricate form is, and you beautifully crafted so many different ones together. You use a lot of different forms in this collection, and they all follow the rules of the form very strictly. How did you write such rule-abiding poems without ever once losing the individuality of your voice and experiences? Were there some poems that were harder to keep in form than others? If so, which ones?

Dr Taylor Byas: I think pantoums are probably the hardest to keep in my voice and in their form because of their repetitions, but what I love about pantoums (and form in general) is how they force me to search for and create possibility. To maintain my voice and to stay true to the stories, I have to get out of my comfort zone and try things that I wouldn’t typically reach for. I have to see language differently, get creative with how I use punctuation or how I break lines. I have to think about how to create texture, whether that’s using italics, parentheses, putting things in dialogue, all sort of things! It forces me to surprise myself, and if I’M surprised, the reader is surprised. 

NS: When planning this collection, did you have an idea of the forms you wanted to use? Or did each poem develop itself individually?

TB: Each poem developed itself individually, which is what typically happens for me. I just write the poems as they need to be written, and at some point, the book that I’m writing reveals itself and then I have to figure out how the poems are in conversation with one another.

NS: Did you know that you wanted to follow The Wiz thematically when you started putting together this collection?

TB: I didn’t. Just about all of these poems were written not knowing they would become a book. But even the way The Wiz found its way into the book happened in stages. The title came first, but the actual structure of the book—the sectioning, the section titles, the South Side sonnet crown being broke up—all of that happened in the editing process at Soft Skull. I had to be told “no” a few times to get the version of the book that exists now!

NS: When you are writing a specific form, do you write the poem first and then fit it into the form, or do you write some kind of outline with filler stuff and then flesh it out?

TB: When writing in form, I ALWAYS choose the form before I put a word on the page, and I do that because I tend to choose forms based on what I feel like a particular piece or poem might be asking of me. If I come to the page and feel like I  need a form that gives me a lot of space to linger, move around, I might reach for something like a sestina. If I have a LOT to say and I want a form that will help me get to the heart of it, I’ll reach for something like a sonnet, or I might go even smaller and do a haiku series or write chokas. If I need to work through an issue on the page, I’ll typically go for a form that requires transformations like a pantoum or a villanelle. I always pick the form first, and once I pick the form, it STAYS in that form!

NS: In the poem Jeopardy (The Category is Birthright) how did you come up with the idea to use Jeopardy as a form?

TB: I was thinking a lot about hermit crab forms at the time, and I had this really heavy content that I wasn’t sure how to move through. I had a lot of questions. I needed to do some searching, but I needed a form that was light, that would balance out the difficult material. I liked the idea of a game show form, so I tried it, and MAN that poem just…poured out of me. Sometimes the form is the key to unlock the poem, and that was definitely the case for Jeopardy.

NS: Your poem “Wreckage” adopts a prose form to tell a narrative about the speaker and the speaker’s mother, drawing parallels between the speaker’s actions and the sinking of a boat. Can you discuss the significance of using prose in this particular piece and how it differs from your approach to other forms?

TB: I think when I was wrestling with that piece, it was definitely one that I had a hard time deciding if it should be a poem or like a micro essay. Ultimately, the narrative is the most important thing in this poem, the focus on the strangeness of memory and how it shifts and changes. The prose poem for me is often a space where I can really focus on/work out some kind of strangeness or mess. When I need to work through strangeness or mess, I want to focus solely on that in the first draft and less on other things (line breaks, musicality, etc.). That’s typically when I’ll reach for the prose poem.

NS: In “How to Pray,” you use the form of free verse in couplets to convey the relationship between the speaker and a scale, incorporating religious allegories. Can you discuss how you balance the formal structure of couplets with the thematic content of the poem? How do these elements work together to enhance the overall meaning and impact?

TB: I loved couplets for this poem because I felt there was something valuable in having couplets (which are expected to be rhymed and closed), and breaking and enjambing them. It’s a poem about a body that doesn’t do what the speaker wants it to do, a body’s excess. The couplets are unruly and spill over in the same way the body in the poem does. I see those things going hand in hand, for sure.

NS: How do you rhyme and still sound natural and not predictable and stale? 

TB: Some things I like to consider while dealing with rhyme are slant rhymes, internal rhymes, and the voice of the poem. Slant rhymes can be these wonderful surprises that don’t register as harshly to the brain while reading. So the sound is there, there’s still some resemblance of the rhyming sound, but it doesn’t necessarily stand out as much! With internal rhymes, you insert the rhyme sound in places where the reader doesn’t expect it, and so it pulls attention away from the places where the rhyme IS expected. I also think writing in a more conversational voice or folding rhymes into dialogue are also ways of making it feel natural. We rhyme and repeat words over and over in our every day conversations all the time, and so I think it feels more natural when those rhymes appear in dialogue in poems.

NS: In the poem, ‘The Early Teachings’ you touch on the foundational rules built up by private Catholic schools, and have scattered subjects throughout the book but how did those schools shape you, especially as a young black girl? How did it feel living in a black neighborhood, with a black lifestyle, being a black girl, and being in a white school being taught white ideals by a white god? How did it affect your relationship to religion and your writing? 

TB: It has always been difficult for me to connect with religion because of my early encounters with it. My family was very religious also, and I had those experiences of church as well. In both cases, I vaguely felt like I didn’t belong. I remember Catholic school masses, where if you weren’t Catholic you couldn’t participate in the communion. During big masses, you had to walk up to the priest with your arms crossed so he’d know to give you a blessing only, and everyone could see you do this. In my younger years, religion brought a perpetual discomfort, a discomfort that was only exacerbated by the whiteness of my surroundings. Now as an adult, being exposed to other understandings of religion and spirituality, it’s difficult to feel grounded in a particular spiritual practice. It’s a journey that I’m still on, finding what makes sense to me after feeling alienated for so much of my life.

NS: Does not living in Chicago anymore affect how you write about it? Do you look back on past writing (when you still lived there) nostalgically or critically? 

TB: I couldn’t see Chicago clearly until I left it, until I encountered what other people thought of it and their ideas only clarified my own. It was only after I left that I could see Chicago as the complicated being that it is, in the same way that we don’t really see our parents as complex humans until we get older and move away. The poetry I wrote in Chicago was the poetry of my Tumblr days, which is poetry that I no longer have. I didn’t start seriously writing poetry until the tail end of undergrad really. But I imagine I would look at those old poems and cringe if I still had them, but that’s good! That just means I’ve grown, which is what any writer would want.

NS: Did your writing change after releasing your book? Did critics or time or experience make you more inclined to a different style?

TB: I am SUCH a different writer now. My next book, set to come out in the Fall of next year, is almost over 75% prose poems. It’s bittersweet spending so much time with the first book now because I can SEE the distance between the writer I am now and the writer I was when those poems were created. Time has definitely been a huge part of my evolution. I don’t think critics have really played a role. More than anything, my reading changes who I am as a writer. I chase surprise in my reading, I chase the reminder that there are so many ways to write a thing, which in turn blows open the doors on what is possible when I come to the page. If you want to get better, get reading!

NS: While as students we have in-class workshops to help us revise, we were wondering how you get revisions in? Whether you do workshops with other adults or authors/poets, or by yourself, or critiques from friends?

TB: At this point, I mainly revise by myself. I write drafts and leave them alone, and I try to come back to them only after I’ve read something new or different, which helps create a little extra distance. I feel lucky to have an editorial compass for my own work that feels pretty trustworthy. But I also have a very close-knit group of friends who see just about everything I write, and often times we just share our drafts just to share them and talk about our writing and concerns, but sometimes they will offer feedback, which I always consider very seriously. Sometimes I will have full workshop sessions with those friends, where we might workshop packets of poems of full books together. Those sessions are really sacred to me. I think every writer should have their squad who really sees them as a writer and knows what they want to do with the work. Having that insight is invaluable. I trust myself yes, but I would be lying if I said I could do it alone. None of us can, that’s the beauty of it.