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

Which Books Would You Take With You if the House Burnt Down?

A dramatic title, isn’t it? Inspired by a wonderful post I came across this morning from Maria Popova’s Brainpickings blog, entitled The Burning House: What People Would Take if the House Was on Fire, it wasn’t so much the eye-catching title which caught my attention so much as the photographs: images of people’s treasured possessions, from camera lenses and photographs to pets, cigars and underwear! One six year old boy added a Lego helicopter, a great choice. What I found intriguing was the inclusion of many books in people’s in people’s collections. A literature teacher from Germany had included her Great Aunt’s violin, along with two letters, a journal, a New American Standard Bible, Rilke’s Book of Hours and T.S. Elliot’s Collected Poems. Popova’s own collection includes a 1935 edition of Ulysses with sketches by Henri Matisse, and a 1993 edition of Gertrude Stein’s 1938 children’s book, The World Is Round. It made me wonder which books I would take with me if I had to leave in a hurry. In an age of eBooks many of us still treasure rare or familiar paperbacks and hardbacks, books with inscriptions or notes, books with illustrations and photographs. I have compiled a collection of books:

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It’s quite a mix of authors, fiction and non-fiction. Each book has its own reason for sitting on the pile, each book its own place in memory.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was the first book I couldn’t put down. I had finally found a book which kept me up at night until I had read the last page. Originally published in 1915, this spy thriller is set in the wild mores of Scottish, a place which holds great memories and partly the reason for the story’s resonance. I’m sure you’re familiar with the plot: On the eve of World War I we meet Richard Hannay, bored with his London life until he finds a body in his flat. Before long, Hannay finds himself in possession of a little black book that holds the key to the conspiracy, and on the run from the police. The books has inspired many films and plays since, including Alfred Hitchcock’s classic adaptation. Read it!

The Alchemist holds its place in my mind for the very reason that my husband read it to me on our honeymoon. This is not a regular occurrence but it is a memory I treasure. Set in the exotic locations of Spain and the Egyptian desert, Coelho tells the magical story of Santiago, a shepherd boy who dreams of travelling the world to seek treasure. The otherworldliness of this story, with its magical realism and folklore, inspires you to dream and to think beyond the boundaries we create in our lives.

“The simple things are also the most extraordinary things, and only the wise can see them.” 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories was given to me by a dear friend with an inscription in the front. It is a 1964 reprint. Hemmingway’s short stories are raw and sharply observed.  I think that’s all I need to say.

Samson Agonistes might seem an unlikely choice, but this battered version has been on my bookshelf since my schooldays. Milton was taught with great enthusiasm by my English teacher, and at a point where I began to understand the many layers within a text. My copy is full of notes in a variety of colours with underlining and asterisks. I will hold on to this one.

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W.B. Yeats Selected Poetry forms a part of my long history of collecting poetry. I have been fascinated by poetry since childhood, and Yeats is a writer whose work I enjoy because it is mystical, melancholic and full of questioning. The first line of To A Young Beauty is a great example of his style:

“Dear fellow-artist, why so free

With every sort of company,

With every Jack and Jill?”

W.H Auden Poems selected by John Fuller is here for the same reason, although he is possibly my favourite poet. Most notable for Funeral Blues, beginning with Stop the clocks, his lesser known works are just as lyrical and beautifully crafted. I really enjoy the wit and irony which runs through much of his writing. Epitaph on a Tyrant is scathing and applicable to any dictator you choose to name.

“Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.”

Love and Freedom is a book I have mentioned in a previous post, so I will just say that I am so glad it is back in print. A rare gem that was originally used for research and has become one to keep. This memoir set in post-war Prague is electric; a beautiful, honest account of a life lived under communism.

The Essential Tales of Chekhov was also a gift and has an inscription in the front. I am a big fan of Chekhov’s stories. They need no explanation but this collection is really good. Edited by Richard Ford, is comes with a lengthy introduction on Why We Like Chekhov.

George Orwell Essays has been added to a list which is reasonably filled with non-fiction as well as fiction. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I almost prefer his essays to his famed 1984 and Animal Farm, to hear his unfiltered thoughts, than through the lenses of dystopia or allegory. I haven’t yet read his other fiction novels, so I should reserve judgement. His essay, Why I Write, might appeal to writers. He has also written on Kipling, Yeats, Tolstoy and Wodehouse, which I found interesting. He has bravely covered many political topics, although I think he would rather call it honesty.

Letters From Father Christmas is a wonderful find. I discovered it whilst searching for Christmas presents last year. It is a collection of letters written and illustrated by J. R. R. Tolkien between 1920 and 1942 for his children. They were released posthumously and received a warm response from critics. It has been suggested that elements of the stories inspired parts of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The stories include descriptions of the massive fireworks that create the northern lights and the illustrations are inspirational. 

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Author Interview with Matt Haig

The Humans
From your experience of journalism, as well as novel writing, has one fed in to the other in any way?

Journalism teaches you to be economical with words. It tells you not to be too self-indulgent.

What do you most like to read and are there any books you have read recently that have stood out or changed you?

I read all kinds of stuff. I have been re-reading Graham Greene recently. I studied him at university. Did a whole module on him. I think, from the outside, my books are nothing like his, but I consider him my greatest influence.

What have been the most difficult things to write about and why?

There is some mathematics in my new novel, and I had to look like I knew what I was talking about, so I researched, and I quickly saw how so many mathematicians go crazy.

You have said that The Humans, your new book, is the one work you would most like to be remembered for. Although you have written several other books, what has given you confidence in this project in particular?

Because I totally cut loose. A part of me used to play the game. You know, I used to be trying to be highbrow, or taken seriously, and that somehow got in the way. With this, I knew it was probably going to be published whatever (as my last book did quite well) so I just went for it. Comedy, science-fiction, sentimentality – all those illegal things.

What advice would you give to new writers on their path to publication?

Be brutal with your writing. Don’t let yourself have it easy. And then be persistent, and thick-skinned, for everything that follows.

What do you enjoy doing outside writing and reading?

Being with my kids, toast and peanut butter, running, holidays. I am not into fancy things, but I am into fancy holidays.

If you could meet any well-known figure, living or dead, who would it be and why?

Emily Dickinson, without a doubt. Amazing mind, intriguing person. She’d be too shy to open her front door though, so that’d be a problem.

Matt Haig

Matt has written novels, screenplays, children’s novels and worked as a journalist, collaborating with The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Independent. He has won a range of awards, including the Yorkshire Young Achievers ‘Achievement in the Arts’ Award in 2009, and his novels have been translated into 29 languages. The film rights for his first novel, The Last Family in England (2004), have been sold to Brad Pitt’s production company. His previous novel, The Radleys, won an ALA Alex Award in America, has been shortlisted for the Portico prize and nominated for the Carnegie Medal. It won the TV Book Club Summer Read. He was born in Sheffield, Yorkshire in 1975. Since then he has lived in Nottinghamshire, Ibiza and London. He studied English and History at Hull University and then did an MA at Leeds, and now lives in York with author Andrea Semple and their two children.

www.matthaig.com

What Poetry Teaches Us about Writing Prose

I took a poetry class to fulfill one of my workshop requirements for my master’s in Writing and Publishing. Although I didn’t have much prior experience with poetry beyond some teenage scribbles, I discovered a new way of playing with language.

And in the process, I also realized that writing poetry helped me to create better, stronger prose. Here are four things I learned about poetry that also apply to writing prose:

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Photo by Saltygal

Roses are Red, Violets are Blue

1. Focus on one moment.

My professor encouraged us to be specific and concrete when writing our poems—none of that abstract what-does-this-mean? stuff. We narrowed the scope of each poem to one moment and took care to describe it so the setting, action, characters, and emotions were crystal-clear.

2. Choose the best words.

Because most of the poems we wrote were fairly short, we wrote concisely. Each word had to carry meaning and work hard. No fluff allowed.

3. Work with structure.

Some of our assignments dictated the structure of our poems. In those cases, I only had so many lines or syllables to work with or I had to make sure certain lines rhymed, but establishing parameters made my writing stronger. I had to think and revise and move parts around. While we have a lot of freedom in writing, adding the constraint of a structure forces us to have a goal in mind and be creative in a new way.

4. Play with lyrical language.

Even concise writing is allowed to sound pretty. Poetry is rhythm and sound. It’s a form of writing that’s especially wonderful when read aloud. When the language is musical, the poem itself comes into focus and creates a song, one note at a time. It conveys more than just the words.

Reblogged from thewritepractice.com

 

Zadie Smith – Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking

This video was filmed at the New York Public Library. Author Zadie Smith begins with this quote:

‘In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses.’

Here is a summary of the rest of her talk. I found it inspiring and very true:

You need to work hard and make choices that are meaningful.

By the nature of your sentences, you are expressing a belief about the way you see the world.

Your views will change with time.

Delve deep into the consciousness of the characters.

‘Magical thinking makes you crazy and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems with structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved and the whole chapter falls into place, but why didn’t you see it before. You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you reads becomes your epigraph. It seems to have been written for no other reason.’

This talk comes from a longer essay written by Zadie Smith. If you enjoyed it, I invite you  to come back on Thursday of this week and on Monday week, as I will cover some more of her key points for writing.