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Meet The Poets, Take 1

For University Press Week we introduced you to two of the contributors to the latest edition of our annual poetry anthology, Best New Poets: Fifty Poems from Emerging Writers. In that interview, both poets discussed how they became writers, poetry’s place in the modern world, and their favorite work by other poets. In this follow-up we wanted to give them the chance to discuss their contributions to the Best New Poets book and to share the poems themselves. Our first poet is Tiana Clark.

Q: Your poem “The Frequency of Goodnight” features three generations of women. The first two share a waitressing life that leaves each exhausted. They fall asleep in front of the TV. The third, the grandmother, has entered a deeper sleep—namely death—but her own daughter blames television for the Alzheimer’s that killed her. Can you say something about the television theme in the poem? And do you see the hard work the women are engaged in as soul-killing, fortifying, or both?

Tiana Clark: The three generations of women become a triptych linked though television and frequencies, themes signifying transmission through matrilineal inheritance. There are no fathers, husbands, or lovers in this poem. These women are alone, fending for themselves. The television becomes the noise of that solitude, a modern siren song lulling the women to sleep with the threat of permanence, catatonic—a single blue light flickering in the dark. Additionally, television frequencies are invisible, and I wanted to conflate that with the hidden damage passed down from generation to generation. Yes, the manual labor physically taxes the body, but loneliness erodes the psyche.

Q: People will invariably read this poem as autobiography. Is this something that was hard to get used to as a poet? Does it feel strange to share your life with strangers?

Tiana Clark: I welcome it.

While a stigma may remain regarding confessional poetry and the lyric “I,” for me, there is power in showing my face, in revealing and reconciling my vulnerabilities on the page. I think of Muriel Rukeyser saying, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

During my first solo poetry reading, I was terrified. However, I remembered watching a video of Sharon Olds, discussing how she always brought a poem she was terrified to read. That resonated with me—often, my terror is rooted in truth. What I am most afraid to say is what I most need to write.

Q: The poem has a tag line “after Terrance Hayes.” Is there a particular poem by Hayes that served as your model here? His work is known for being formally adventurous and often abstract in a musical way, while your poem is a narrative that speaks to the reader though vivid, recognizable detail. Although extremely artful, your poem is very direct.

Tiana Clark: Thank you! Yes, the poem draws from “The Same City” by Terrance Hayes. I was taking a poetry workshop with the amazing Kendra Decolo, and she shared this poem with us. We were all gobsmacked and moaning as we read it out aloud—this was my first introduction to the work of Hayes, and his collections have been profoundly important to me. For this particular poem, I repurposed his line “Let me begin again” as a reboot technique, to approach the narrative from different angles.

Although I think Terrance Hayes is a poetic genius, I’m not trying to write like Terrance Hayes. I will never be able to. The poetry world already has Terrance, and we are all the better for it. I’m still working on trying to write like Tiana Clark—I’m very interested in what she has to say.

The Frequency of Goodnight

 after Terrance Hayes

 “The duende is not in the throat:
the duende surges up, inside,
from the soles of the feet.”
-Federico García Lorca

Like so many nights of my childhood
I lived inside the fishbowl
of a one-bedroom apartment,
waited for my mother to come home
(from her second job). As a waitress
she wore orthopedic shoes for flat feet.
All her uniforms blur together: IHOP,
Red Lobster, Rainforest Café, Shoney’s…
This is how she tucked me in—
jingle and clack of keys
would turn the doorknob open
allow me to fall asleep.
She tucked me in—not with blankets
or a kiss on the forehead,
but with locking the door behind her.
My single mother would take those big,
boxy shoes off, unhook her bra
(too tired to take it all the way off)
and eat the left over pizza
I had ordered for dinner.
Television shadows flickered
her exhausted frame, smell
of other people’s food on her skin,
crumpled ones, fives, and tens
fanned out of her server book.
I heard the change from bad tippers
like hail on the kitchen counter.
Maybe for other children
the purr of the air conditioner, the sound
of a ceiling fan whisking the darkness,
or the steady neon glow of a nightlight
set their dreams ablaze?
But for me, hearing those keys
slipped me under the wing
of my mother’s white noise.

Let me begin again,
when I was a waitress during college,
I had the shoes that doctors and nurses
wore to support their posture.
On Saturdays I worked doubles,
toward the end of my two shifts
my pace would slow—
as I made laps around my tables,
picked up half eaten sandwiches,
grabbed wadded napkins with chewed
gristle. When we closed,
I’d be on my hands and knees,
as I swept litter from the day,
collected broken off ends of French fries,
dislodged pucks of used gum,
dragged swollen and leaky trash bags
to the dumpster.
Bone heavy and body tired—
I would come home,
take those heavy wooden clogs off.
Turn on some show and listen
to the cadence of dialogue
like a metronome tipping my head
to the baptism of sleep.

Let me begin again,
The first dead body I ever saw
was my grandmother. Alzheimer’s—
My mother said, She always left
that old TV on while she slept…
frequencies messed with her head
If I focus now, I can still see my mom
asleep in her uniform on the couch—
feet propped up, open pizza box
dappled in grease stains.
I would tiptoe and turn off the television,
slink back to our bedroom.
This is how I tucked her in.
This is how we said goodnight.

Best New Poets 2015: Poems from Fifty Emerging Writers is available now.

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