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Shelly Taylor: Shattered Language

July 15, 2014

Erica Wright talks with a poet who didn’t set out to write about war.

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Image from Flickr via Mike Silva

Aye, there they are, the shells of men unburied,
dead men & horses. She never meant her children
be nursed by fruit trees, the very carcass of.
There is no upshot to war, the sun is a porch-lamp.
—from Lions, Remonstrance

Shelly Taylor may have been reluctant to write a war poem, but she has written one so unflinching that readers find themselves face to face with ghosts. Lions, Remonstrance is a book-length poem that considers the effects of tours, not only on soldiers but on those who love them. And yet the poet makes no claims to speak for everyone, insisting that this is only her story. Taylor is the author of an earlier collection of poems, Black-Eyed Heifer, as well as the co-editor (with Abraham Smith) of Hick Poetics, a forthcoming anthology of contemporary American rural poetries. We corresponded via email about taking ownership, living with a veteran, and wishing to “Eternal Sunshine ourselves.”

Erica Wright for Guernica

Guernica: What went into the decision to write a book exploring war and its aftereffects?

Shelly Taylor: I did not want to write this book. No way in hell did I set out to explore war, and I feel as if I am still wrapping my head around the fact that I did. The book has only been out about two months—people can have it in their hands should they want to—and it has occurred to me via several happenings that I should finally take ownership.

War is a lived experience, and I did live with it. It lived in my home, I woke to it.

While giving readings over the last month, I found myself making off-handed comments to undercut the seriousness of the project: “This is a book about war. I wouldn’t recommend anyone do it themselves. It’s pretty horrible, etc.” I did not want to take full ownership that I had done this, undergone it for nearly four years of my life. This was partly because I had been working under the assumption that having never served myself and only being privy to the experience from that of a beloved no longer in my life due to enormous post-traumas of war that I had no right to even do this thing. What right did I have? And I did not want to cause my friend any further harm.

Guernica: What lead you to accept ownership?

Shelly Taylor: War is a lived experience, and I did live with it. It lived in my home, I woke to it. I have always written to make sense of the world. Post Black-Eyed Heifer I found myself living with a man suffering the post-trauma of war, and I felt I had to be more plainspoken in order to get it right. The ethical dilemma of what is right is something I have questioned myself near daily about. I asked myself what right did I have to put this incredibly tough work out there as I had no firsthand experience in combat and am not an overly political individual. I grappled with how this would affect my friend, my beloved, this soldier who no doubt is still in conflict about his past reality—three tours to be exact, post-9/11 to 2007. In the end, I came to understand that this is a book solely about myself, and I set this up from the first poem onward. As a result, much of the content of my friend’s experience that I felt ethically conflicted over was omitted.

Guernica: You have your own story.

Shelly Taylor: In the end Lions is about my experience, not what my friend had undergone. In George Packer’s April 7, 2014 article in the New Yorker, “Home Fires: How soldiers write their wars,” he surmises the first wave of literature is beginning to appear from soldiers in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and that “it is not surprising that the new war literature is intensely interested in the return home.” He ends the piece with “Some of the men will remain alone for years, perhaps their whole lives. But some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does.” I, too, have a narrative to contribute in this vein. Packer’s article is gender-exclusive; Packer cites only male authors—the truly awesome Brian Turner, Kevin Powers, Tim O’Brien, among numerous other soldier-authors who actually served, and Packer acknowledges this discrepancy. With the recent Panetta repeal of the ban on women in more compromising combat positions, I look forward to more female author combat narratives, as Packer also notes in his well-written piece. This is huge for me and will be for our generation’s literature.

I think a legitimate question here is, “Can the conversation of this return home stretch enough to include experiences such as my own?” I think yes. I, too, have a stake in this writing experience as do my male soldier-author counterparts. I, too, lived this post-damage—this “return home”—and needed to write to make sense of this shared tragedy.

What if we could call the thing back and make it kinder, more understandable, something we could live with better day to day?

Towards the second year of writing, the writing itself seemed unbearable as the personal escalated to truly dark places. I thought I should pay homage to the hero’s journey home, and I borrowed from the first lines of both the Iliad and The Odyssey: “Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed” and “…the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all.” The convention of an invocation seemed to put me in the right frame of mind to even undergo such a task. It made the sting of writing less severe in this journey where I felt more often than not ill prepared as a writer. I turned to Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey for aid in making sense of the hero’s journey home. In Fagles’ introduction, he writes of the conflict of Achilles, now in the land of the dead, towards Odysseus, when asking for news of his son, Neoptolemus: “Did he make his way to the wars, / did the boy become a champion—yes or no?” I wrote this line out and tacked it to the wall by my desk, so vivid it seemed in its relation to my work at that time.

Guernica: In a 2011 interview with your Black-Eyed Heifer book designer, Kristen Nelson, you mentioned this Günter Grass sentence: “Only what is entirely lost demands to be endlessly named: there is a mania to call the lost thing until it returns.” Did this mania fuel Lions, Remonstrance, as well?

Shelly Taylor: This is an obsession I might not ever get around. I think the Grass assertion cleverly capitalizes on this universal collective of being obsessed with what one has lived through in order to make sense of one’s present. This serves the writer. Much great art lives inside this realm of digging up the past and the need to rename or remake it, to call it back to be better in a daily emotional sense.

What if we could Eternal Sunshine ourselves around a tragedy—to start over, or to make sense of the thing fully? Who would we be? What if we could call the thing back and make it kinder, more understandable, something we could live with better day to day? Baldwin renders it sharply in “Sonny’s Blues”: “It is only at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.” That part of ourselves we’ve left behind is like an amputated limb in an animal trap, as if we were animals. Which we are.

In Lions, for better or worse I was left with devastation of war. And this is something I could not have imagined. No way. I, too, was intrinsically involved in this return home, and I had to make sense of it. Calling the lost thing back those writing years was a painful task, but I did it. And the book is what it is. I’m using this interview as a kind of cathartic put-the-thing-to-bed, finally—even when I know I can’t yet.

Guernica: Many of these poems use fractured language, “language to shed the very / naked that’s your dark.” Does the language need to be agitated given the disturbing subject matter?

I think yes. I, too, have a stake in this writing experience as do my male soldier-author counterparts. I, too, lived this post-damage—this “return home”—and needed to write to make sense of this shared tragedy.

Shelly Taylor: I think I should get back to you when I write a book with less disturbing subject matter. Who knows! As for these first two books, Heifer and Lions, I naturally had a style where the language could tend towards the fractured—more so in Heifer though, where I seemed to flex that muscle more often so as not to be absolutely clear in anything. In Lions I think I am less fractured. Being less fractured makes me feel naked in my intentions; it makes me uncomfortable. Recently, my mother commented on the phone she is reading Lions. I said I wished she wouldn’t.

Also, much of the shattered language is just simply how I experience the world. It is tough to write a grammatically correct paragraph as I don’t experience life via language in a smooth way. For me, it can be tough to even write coherent sentences. I also write subconsciously, by body in a sense (head to the side), and the writing reflects my body’s experience. Memory plays a major role, and the dredging of it seems nuanced as all hell oftentimes, itself fractured, jumping from hot stone to the next whilst the thing underfoot burns.

Guernica: Both Black-Eyed Heifer and this collection are rooted in the South. How does geography affect your writing?

Shelly Taylor: Being from a rural southern geography, place is everything to me. I grew up experiencing space and nature to feed my senses versus the city hustle and its survivalist mode. I grew up barefooted and on the back of a horse. Riding dirt roads and four-wheelers and drinking beer was teenage life as much as cheering for the high school football team was religion. Gothic life abounds everywhere in the South. Southern storytelling narratives are rife with contradiction and magic. This upbringing is everything to me as a writer. This is why Abe Smith and I are compiling Hick Poetics, an anthology of contemporary rural poetics, due out from Lost Roads Press later this year. We want to pay homage to this type of sensibility that shapes its writer.

Same as Heifer, geography follows me wherever I go, and I have a hard time staying put. The first book was placed in the South and NYC, whereas Lions follows me living in Tucson, Arizona, Key West, as well as locations in southern Georgia and northern Florida where I sometimes live and write in summers. You see the stamp of all of these three places on the work, though the voicing is truly southern and provides, I hope, an anchor for all my meandering.

Guernica: One of the book’s themes is women in rural American, as in the lines “the women watch, ever watchful, every story / ever told is this.” Why is it important to channel their stories alongside the soldier’s stories?

Shelly Taylor: There is a framed picture of my granny, Norma Jean, on my writing desk, and I have often felt her with me when I write. In some of poems in Lions, I refer to her because her husband, my Papa Taylor, was a veteran, and I wanted to enter into what I knew of her life with my Papa when he was a young veteran. In truth, though, I imaged a retinue of faces, all women, as so many women have lived experiences with a veteran such as I have—my experiences being just the tip of the iceberg into such stories.

In the first year of writing Lions, I wanted to surround myself with true narratives in order to gain insight into the larger psychological issue surrounding the transition from solider to civilian. I read Nancy Sherman’s The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Mind, and Souls of Our Soldiers and attempted to watch Danfung Dennis’s award-winning documentary, Hell And Back Again, among many others. It was too much for me, though. In the second year of writing, I abandoned this type of research. I knew I wasn’t capable of channeling anyone else’s story because I didn’t have enough remove from my own.

Guernica: I was surprised to see Susan Minot and Newsweek mentioned later in the collection, small reminders of an outside world. Did you draw from any particular writers while working on these poems?

Shelly Taylor: The whole book makes constant references, as I needed distance from how hard it was to portray much of the difficult content. I needed that outside reality of authors and musicians to anchor me because I was struggling.

The Susan Minot reference is because I was teaching her short story “Lust” to my lit class. The Newsweek reference is truth. A journalist was embedded with the 3/5 marines during the second strike on Fallujah (Operation Phantom Fury), and the article contains of a photograph of my friend. In that particular poem I also address Jim Harrison’s Letters to Yesenin that is just one of my favorite books ever written. It became a second skin in writing Lions because it, too, mediates on suicide and alcoholism. David Foster Wallace is gestured towards also for obvious reasons. The whole underlying narrative is too much to bear, a true story. These references and all of the other surface stuff is to diffuse the center of the poem: the terrible narrative of an actuality that was parlayed to me after a ten-hour bartending shift, while my friend I were unwinding, drinking wine about 4am. We were both bartenders then so a lot of the poems pull from that atmosphere.

Guernica: Why all the lions?

Shelly Taylor: Ah, yes. This evolved out of a personal, lovely moment with my friend. If you were an animal, what would you be? Of course, a lion. The image of the lion became something I latched onto throughout the whole writing process to represent my friend and the trauma. This made sense to me then and still does. It’s easy to see any soldier as this fearless animal, both magnanimously beautiful (which he is), a figure for freedom, also predatory. One of the first poems of the book was written in the spring of 2010, right after Heifer’s release. That spring also marked the end of the relationship with my friend—“In the modernity of warfare, a man needn’t necessarily / button his helmet strap below his chin” and ends with “If he should fall I would upend him a lion; / that’s what he would want me to do.” The poem mediates on this return home and quickly descends into a meditation on his contemplation of suicide, and my reaction and introspection. The lion gesture was to honor this man, and also to honor the overall trauma of war.

Erica Wright is the poetry editor of Guernica.

Shelly Taylor is the author of the newly released Lions, Remonstrance (Coconut Books), Black-Eyed Heifer (Tarpaulin Sky Press) and Dirt City Lions (Horse Less Press), as well as two poetry chapbooks, Peaches the Yes-Girl (Portable Press of Yo-Yo Labs) & Land Wide to Get a Hold Lost In (Dancing Girl Press). She is co-editing Hick Poetics, an anthology of rural poetries, with poet Abraham Smith which will be released in the next year.

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