Pamela Taylor has a doctorate in social psychology from UCLA, a MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a Cave Canem and VONA/Voices Fellow in 2015 for the Workshop in Poetry with Willie Perdomo. Pamela Taylor is the Assistant Provost for Institutional Planning and Assessment at Wellesley College. Pamela’s first chapbook of poetry, “My Mother’s Child”, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press in June 2015. She writes about being a data guru by day and a poet by night at A Poet’s Double Life.
On the drive to write poetry:
What drew you to poetry?
Taylor: I think I what drew me to poetry is that I started writing poems. I’m not one of those people who kept a journal from the time that I was seven and was writing poems like that. No. That wasn’t me. I have a data background, but later in life started writing poems. And, not really knowing what I was doing with that except for writing.
Actually, because I had read so many mystery novels so much growing up I thought that this poetry was just sort of a little bit of warm up or training to be a mystery writer or novel writer or something like that. Anytime, I sat down to write, and every time I sat down to write, it just came down to another poem. And, it really wasn’t until after 3 or 4 years after I started writing that the reason I wrote poems was because I was a poet. So, that kinda was what started me.
But, I just really feel that I can express myself better through the form of poetry. And, I noticed that don’t have a lot of patience or that I just run out of steam before I get something more written down. And, I think I see things and imagery and language that I am able to do in poetry and that is what I like about it.
How do you first see or sense a poem?
Taylor: It’s a couple of different ways sometimes if I’m really lucky I will feel a poem coming on…something of like a fever…something that I see… a lot of times it is an image that kind of strikes me, that might stick with me. If I am lucky, the image and the poem come together pretty quickly.
And, other times I see a poem when I see things, I know it’s gonna be a poem but I am not just ready to write it. There’s a lot of things percolating in the back of my mind. I can see it very clearly , but I just have not found the words to express what it is, makes it stick with me, or how it makes me feel or what it made me think about or what it made me feel about something differently, made me view it differently. Or, I see something in the world that I don’t think anyone else has seen so there’s how Ill have a poem.
A lot of the time it’s just writing, I try to write a little bit everyday. I just write about what I’m feeling what I’m thinking, etc. It’s not necessarily meant to become a poem, but when I go back into my notebooks and I look. I see something. I think, “I can make a poem out of this.” It’s sort of like the clay. It’s there, and I’m just sort of molding it to something that is more poetic. I think that describes…80 to 85 percent of how my poems happen.
On Cave Canem as a space for writers of color:
Taylor: What made Cave Canem a special place is because it’s all black poets. So, it’s just a really rare occurrence when most of the poeple that you see everyday are not just black, but they also love poetry as much as you do. So, it becomes really a safe space where you can explore different topics, different parts of yourself through your poetry that you might not feel comfortable doing otherwise.
And, so I think the poems that come of you from Cave Canem are touching a deeper place than I have typically gone in my life in my poetry. It’s keeping that level of depth…harder to do once you get out of that bubble, but I think that’s one of the things that I appreciated about Cave and is also one of the reasons why you can only go there for 3 years. And, you try to do 3 times within 5 years. And, I went three years in a row, but then after that experience I was like if I am going to spend my money and time I’m really gonna spend my money and time at workshops for writers of color because I really think having that environment as a writer of color is really important to feel like it’s a safer space to just be yourself and explore things in your writing that you may not do otherwise.
Sounds like a very liberating experience and, like you said, the environment is like a safe haven where you can feel free to make that deeper walk…So, but, in the sense of transforming your art through that experience, did you experience some of that, did you notice how your poetry itself changed?
Taylor: Actually, in terms of the quality of my work, I think it raised the bar. From my first time there, you room with three other people, up to three people. So, those ladies are still part of the group that I send my work to. So, I really feel like I got not only deepening or enhancing the quality of my work but also connecting with people who are really good readers for me, who are sorta gonna call you on your stuff, but in the most gentle and supportive way reading your work. So, that was good. I didn’t have that before. I didn’t have people who were like me reading my poems.
A lot, oftentimes, even when you are in a mix of people, even if you are in a mix of other women, they might not exactly get what you are talking about so that was also a good thing, long term for my work that I have individuals from Cave Canem, who still are willing to read my work.
On VONA 2015 at the University of Miami:
Poet Pamela Taylor at the VONA Workshop in Poetry with Willie Perdomo at the University of Miami in 2015.
Taylor: Well, VONA week was just, it was just, was just beyond my expectations because even though it was a mix of genres, and we really did stay in our groups a lot, I really liked the interaction with poets… people of different genres, speculative fiction people, what residency was working on, what memoir was working on. I really liked that cross cutting genre interaction. Just the energy of that was just, was really off the charts. It was really, like I said, nothing that I didn’t quite expect…
Audio of conversation with poet Pamela Taylor during the fall of 2015 about her experience at VONA in 2015 for the Workshop in Poetry with Willie Perdomo at the University of Miami. [ While attending VONA in 2015, Pamela Taylor resided in North Carolina. ]
On the influence of family:
I have here in my hand a copy of your chapbook, “My Mother’s Child”. I regret that we met after your book launch. I missed the launch for your book. Can you enlighten me on your chosen title for your chapbook?
Taylor: The poems in the chapbook have to do with a lot, being black, female, single, professional and a lot of things that I learned come from my mother. It comes from how I look like my father. If I were to show you a picture of my daddy, you’d be like, “Oh, my god, that’s your twin!” And, a lot of the way that I am, and I operate, I am truly my mother’s child. So, that’s sort of where the title comes from and a lot of that I see mostly in the working space cause my mom she didn’t really retire. She’s worked for state government for 37 years and things that I have observed now me being, having worked for a state, for my state’s government for 8 years, I’m like “Oh, that stuff makes sense, the professional world for a black working woman.” I understand it at a deeper level because that is sort of where I am coming from. So, there are poems there about motherhood or lack thereof. So, I thought that sort of theme sort of held together for the chapbook. [ Since this interview, Pamela’s mom has retired. ]
On advice to emerging poets:
I still consider myself a new writer. What would you say to an aspiring poet, to someone who maybe is unsure that their poetry will find a voice?
- Read a lot. And, as much as you can because I think I found, I don’t think it was my voice, but that I can do different things in poetry when I read other people who did it. I was like, “What? You can do that in poetry! You can have a poem that is basically a sentence, and it’s all bout where you do the line breaks? You can write a poem that is all questions? You can write a poem that is not in your own voice?” That type of thing. And, reading other people’s work is what’s gonna give you, it’s sort of what gives you permission, gives you ideas. It sets your mind going in a different direction. It sometimes, triggers, their memories trigger your memories. So, it’s also like reading other people is like prompts. So, I would just always read. I read at least a poem a day.
- Write as much as you can. Write as much as you feel like you can. I would love to write every day, but when I do write I feel better about it, knowing that all of my writing is not necessarily going to become a poem. Sometimes you are gonna swing a miss and that is just as good because you are gonna step to the plate, but I am a big sports fan and that one kind of fit. I definitely say for them to write.
- [Find readers for your work.] I think that the most difficult thing that I have found is found people who get my work. And, it’s not so much like people who are, other black women I have that as well, people who really read and give you good feedback on what is working and what is not working so much in your poems. And, that probably takes the longest, being able to find that handful of people who you trust to do that for you. That really helps you, some little things, things that you are doing to your poem that you don’t intend, a good reader is going to point that out to you. A good reader is not going to change what you do, they are just going to try to bring it out more.
- Work on becoming a good reader yourself. And, that’s hard, I mean that takes a while to…What has really helped me I think is…really trying to understand the poems that I like and look at them and say what is it about this poem that speaks to me and trying to really figure that out and when you see, when you do that more often you can sort of see that in other people’s work and give them that type of feedback as well.
All those things you can do on your own, all of those things you don’t need an MFA to do, I have an MFA, but I’m not one of those people that think that you have to unless you have a desire to teach, but by dedicating some work, some effort to your craft, you will get better.