Author Interview with Taylor Byas

Taylor is a black, fun-sized Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received a Bachelor’s Degree with Honors in English and a Master’s in English, Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, Birmingham. She is now a second year Creative Writing PhD student and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati. Her work appears, or is forthcoming, in New Ohio Review, Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Jellyfish Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Empty Mirror and others. She has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and Best New Poets 2020.

1. How did your writing journey begin and did anything in your life particularly influence this?


I’ve been writing since I was much younger, probably in my early teens. I used to write poems in the middle of my diary entries, so I always had a love for poetry. When I went to college at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, I was an English major with a Creative Writing concentration, but back then I focused more on Fiction. I was still writing poems, but I wasn’t really studying and reading it outside classes. In my senior year, I took an Ekphrastic Poetry class, and that was what caught my attention. Looking back, I was in a really terrible romantic relationship at the time, and my father was starting to become more noticeably abusive around that time, so I think poetry saved me during a really hard time in my life. After that class I switched my concentration to Poetry for my Master’s degree, and I’ve been dedicated to writing it ever since. Of course, I branch out and write other things, but writing poetry is essentially second nature to me now.

 2. What have you learned from your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English, and has this changed the way you write?

Since my Bachelor’s degree was so heavily focused on fiction, my poetry is often narrative-driven and it’s really important for me to get the details right. I’m almost always trying to tell a complete story within a poem and to tell it so vividly that my reader is right there with my speaker. When I was writing poetry during my Master’s degree, I was still finding my voice as a poet. Those two years were me figuring out how to make a poem as strong as I possibly could. How can I make these line breaks have more impact? How can my verbs do more work, so I can then spend less time describing things? How do I write about the subjects things with a fresh twist? My Master’s was really a two year study in making my language come alive on the page.

3. What is the area of study for your PhD? 


I am currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, focusing on poetry.

4. Can you tell us a bit about your poetry and your creative non-fiction work?


Lately, I’ve been writing more heavily about race and thinking about what it means to be a Black woman in this world. My first completed poetry manuscript touches on themes of ancestry and black womanhood, and I believe those threads run through everything I write, and will continue to be currents running through my work throughout my career. The poetry that I’m writing now in this moment is essentially a part of this larger project, to write the kind of poems I wish I had read when I was a younger Black girl. I think I would have come to poetry much sooner if I was reading poetry in which I could see myself. So the poems I’m writing now are about being in love, having a difficult family, loving my body, and experiencing racism. My creative non-fiction work has been a space where I’ve given myself permission to write about some of the more traumatic things in my life, such as my alcoholic father and body dysmorphia.  I want to eventually complete a collection of essays looking at all of the things that have shaped me and made me the woman and writer I am today, and I think a big part of that is looking at the obstacles I’ve overcome along the way.

5. How has being nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and Best New Poets 2020 affected your profile as a writer? 

Being nominated for two Pushcarts and for Best New Poets was such a shock. I’m not sure if it has necessarily affected my profile as a writer, but it did wonders for my own personal view of my writing. It’s been a little over a year now that I’ve started submitting my work, so to get those nominations right away confirmed that I was doing something right. This time last year, I was getting ready to start a PhD program with writers who were older than me, more accomplished, had awards, books and tours. I was joining the program with only a handful of publications to my name. I know that playing the comparison game is never a good idea, but impostor syndrome was very real. Those nominations were like a voice that said, “keep going,” during a time when I wasn’t sure I belonged in this world.

6. What advice would you give to new writers?

Write about what matters to you. There is no right or wrong way to write a poem. Don’t just read poetry, read things outside your genre, outside of your interests. Always shoot for the stars, you miss every shot you don’t take! 

7. Who or what are your inspirations?


This is such a hard question because there are so many writers publishing some really amazing writing. One of the writers who completely changed my life was Erica Dawson. I was introduced to her during my Master’s and that was the first time that I realised I could write about what mattered to me. I could write about being black, I could write about my grandmother, I could write about getting my hair done. I also admired the way Erica wrote in form, and I’m now a formalist at heart myself. She definitely changed the entire landscape of what I thought poetry could be for me. Danez Smith is another poet who continues to stun me with the way they use language (Danez is non-binary). Their poetry manages to be joyous even while being about heavy subjects. They have a gift for rhythm, for music. They put words to feelings that I never knew I had. I am always connecting to their work and feeling seen in their work and that’s so important to me.
Two other really incredible Black female poets that come to mind are Ashley M. Jones and Tiana Clark. Ashley is unapologetic in the way she writes about race and blackness and it’s so admirable. Tiana transports me into another universe every time I read her work.

8. This is a difficult but necessary question – How has being Black affected your life?

I would say that the area that is probably most affected by my race is education. I didn’t have teachers who looked like me until I got to college. The texts I read throughout high school were mostly by white, male authors. My knowledge of black history is nowhere near where it should be, and I’m doing the work of catching up on my own, and even writing about those gaps in education in my poetry. In my Catholic high school and middle school I experienced racism from my teachers. An 8th grade teacher equated sounding unintelligent with “talking black.” In high school, black students were drug tested far more often than white students, and the school tried to penalise students with false positive test results. When I lived in Birmingham, I was called a “nigger” at the gas station the morning after Trump was elected president. When I was dating a white man, I ended the relationship because I didn’t feel like he would fully understand my position and the position of our children in a world like this. In the world of academia, I often have to be twice as impressive as my white peers and counterparts. I’m fortunate to be on a PhD course where I have other women of color as peers, but I know that other PhD courses aren’t as diverse as mine. I worry about what life may be like in the future if I work in academia, and if the environment will be one in which I’m constantly fighting to prove my worth and be heard. I go back and forth on whether I want to bring children into this world. Just within the past few days, the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag has put a spotlight on the disparities between how writers of colour and white writers are paid for their work, which has been a little disheartening to see. It bleeds into everything. But I’m so proud to be Black. I love being Black. I wouldn’t change it for anything.

9. Can you recommend any good literary journals run by Black editors or Black writers that we can read, support and follow? 


A poet I follow on Twitter, Natalie Eilbert, compiled a really wonderful list. I would suggest Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Fiyah Lit Mag, The Hellborne, and Kissing Dynamite, to name just a few.

You can find Taylor at taylorbyas.tumblr.com or @TaylorByas3

Diving In: Writing and How to Get Started

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I read so many pieces of writing advice about planning your work, plotting and figuring out each chapter before you begin but I would like to propose just diving in. Some of my best work has been a blind journey into a world where there is no clear plot or outcome from the beginning, and in many ways it provides a freedom to explore and to let a story unfold.

E.B. White in an interview with The Paris Review on writing once said that,

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

I think he had a point in that we often wait, procrastinate, ponder, ruminate. Add any other word that fits and you have a writer who is too afraid to begin. The problem is that time is short and every day that passes is an opportunity for you to delve into a new world of words. I say this to encourage rather that to thwart the plans of those who truly like to plan. But I know that there are those who also wonder whether they can write if they don’t have a plan, an MA in Creative Writing, a bestseller to their name or any other reason to add to the list. Diving in can bring with it a freedom from the confines of your own expectations.

Imagine diving into a huge pile of leaves. There is something in us as adults that stops us, tells us it’s not the done thing and that it’s for children. Imagine the freedom of just plunging onto a freshly swept pile of autumn leaves. Then imagine putting fingers to the keys or pen to paper and writing one word at a time until you find yourself in a world entirely unexpected and intriguing, a world where the rules have changed and where new characters appear. For me this is part of the excitement of writing, and part of the freedom.

Dive in!

Photo: miquilter.blogspot.com

Breaking The Rules

Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.

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‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.

Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.

Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.

So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?

I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?

These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.

I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.

To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.

Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.

‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’

Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize.  Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012.  Her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’

You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com

 

Short Story Publications

This is just a short post with some news, written mainly because of several messages I have had from people about short story writing.  I am hearing from an increasing number of authors who enjoy writing novels, but feel intimidated by short stories, or worry that the form is so different that it would be hard to adapt to the change of style and, obviously, the length of prose.

I published a post on short story writing earlier this morning which might be useful, and I wanted to let you know that several pieces of my short fiction have just been published online. They have all been written in the past six months, so I am fairly new to the form, but it is clear to say that I am hooked. Please let me know how you get on if you decide to try writing any short pieces. I would love to read them.

I normally only send publication news to those on my mailing list but, if you would like to read my published work online, you can find Berggasse 19 in The Puffin Review and I.P. in the Flash Flood Journal (many of you will have read it from an earlier post.)

I am also excited to be able to tell you that Ether Books have just this week published four pieces: Confessional, The Edge of Wandsworth Common, Tomatoes and Thicket, and Un/wanted. These can all be downloaded, free of charge, to your phone.

 

 

How You Can Use Your Reading Experience to Shape Your Writing

I was asked to write a guest blog post on Marianne Wheelaghan’s writing blog which is full of useful writing tips. She teaches creative writing classes at www.writingclasses.co.uk and is the author of two books. I would recommend reading some of her articles and getting to know her on twitter and on the blog.  My post is on How You Can Use Your Reading Experience to Shape Your Writing. It is a subject which I think is important for writers. Many people struggle with time to read but if you are a writer is is a necessary part of building your craft and learning skills and techniques. Do leave a comment on the post and I hope you find it useful.