Interview with Thylias Moss
All photographs submitted by Thylias Moss. Published interview can be found here.
Thylias Moss is a critically acclaimed poet, writer, storyteller, and experimental filmmaker whose work is marked by her fierce originality and unprecedented inventiveness. Born in 1954 in Cleveland, Ohio, Moss was given the name ‘Thylias’ by her father, who, she says, “decided I needed a name that hadn’t existed before.” There is perhaps no name more fitting for the woman whose poetry has, much like her name, never existed before. Moss writes with what literary critic Harold Bloom has deemed a “hallucinatory force,” her words conveying a sense of immediacy and raw, unprocessed emotion. Moss has used her experience as a multiracial woman to create poetry that examines social injustice in profoundly beautiful and metaphoric language. However, though her poetry poignantly delves into themes of race and gender, it would be wrong to confine Moss to the label of ‘black female poet’. Moss touches on the entire spectrum of human experience, and has the ability to transform even the mundane into the sacred. Her writing is simultaneously humorous, outraged, joyful, and defiant. Most importantly, though, her writing is honest.
Moss believes that poetry should not simply be read on a page, but experienced with all of the senses. Over the course of her career, she has grown increasingly fascinated with heightening the poetic experience by fusing language with sound and movement. Moss describes her aha! moment as sitting in a movie theater and watching the credits roll down the screen, all while being taken aback at the combination of words, visuals, auditory input, and motion. This ultimately led to her work in what is perhaps the greatest testimony to her originality: Limited Fork Theory. Limited Fork Theory involves the study of interactions, and the ways in which all interacting parties undergo change as a result. Moss produces POAMS, or “Products of Acts of Making.” These are videos which juxtapose words with sound and images, ultimately creating an entirely new form of poetry which exists in the reality of perception rather than on the page.
Moss received her B.A. from Oberlin College and her M.A. from the University of New Hampshire, where she studied under poet Charles Simic. She is a prolific writer, and, along with various plays and works of prose, has published nine collections of poetry to date. These include her first anthology, Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman (1983), Slave Moth: A Narrative in Verse (2004), which was named Best Poetry Book of 2004 by the Black Issues Book Review, and her most recent collections, Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code (2016) and New Kiss Horizon (2016). Although Moss has produced an impressively large body of work, she has sacrificed nothing of quality in order to do so. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, The Dewars Profiles Performance Artist’s Award, and a Whiting Writer’s Award, among other honors. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and is Professor Emerita in the departments of both English and Art & Design at the University of Michigan, where she has taught since 1993. Thylias Moss truly stands in the vanguard of American poetry, and there is no telling what her unpredictably creative soul will bring forth next. To quote critic Harold Bloom, “I will venture no prophecies on her poems to come.”
In addition to your recent Pushcart Prize, you’ve also received a number of other major awards, including a MacArthur and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Interestingly, though, you trace your career as a poet back to a very humble award you received in 1975: the Cleveland Public Library Poetry Contest prize of $25.00 for your poem “Coming of Age in Sandusky.” Can you tell us when you first started writing poetry, and why that award in particular encouraged you to pursue a career in poetry?
I started writing poetry in early childhood, after a couple of years of writing only prose. I was eight years old. At the time, I didn’t foresee any success coming from this habit. I just wanted to offer a truth as I saw it — a truth, but not the truth, for there are many truths dependent on perspective of truth-tellers, and no one truth is definitive. But that award was an indication that there was an audience, and it made me see my ordinary writing differently. In the beginning I was making stuff only for myself, so it was wonderful that this truth now had meaning to someone else. There was a new trajectory of possibility, if I shared. That award was proof that there was meaning to what I did, meaning beyond anything I had assumed; what I did had value to someone beyond myself. That award meant audience, trajectory, and take-off (small scale, of course). But even then, only I knew what I was really trying to do: to be scientific and to be UNDERSTOOD. I won’t say that this prize alone encouraged me to pursue a career in poetry, but it did motivate me to understand that here, too, was something I could do: offer my “Coming of Age in Sandusky” poem, and with it, my perspective.
You’ve said before that you have a short attention span. You’ve also said, “I prefer that unanticipated discovery lead me to and through a poem.” I’m wondering what your process of constructing poetry looks like.
Great question. Always an adventure. It’s an adventure to somewhere new so that there can be discovery, a more genuine discovery, free from agendas and without my having notions of what will be found. For if I already know the answer, the question loses relevancy and I learn to look only for what fits with my narrowed search (narrowed by already having the answer, and by believing — erroneously — that there is only a single correct answer). I don’t want a pre-determined destination. In anything I make, I want travel and movement. I want evidence of struggling and grappling with an idea. I also always want an awareness that I do not create alone in a vacuum, but rather in connected systems.
What are your goals in doing the work you do, and what message do you want your words to convey?
No matter what, my goals are simple: to tell a truth as I see it in the moment in which I am observing and documenting. To do so, I try to document a lot of feelings, as these are what typically compel us to act in one way or another.
When I was about nine or ten, I would walk up and down my street in Cleveland, Ohio, armed with a clipboard, documenting whatever I noticed. I did this on the hour, so if a piece of trash had moved, I noticed it. Sometimes I sketched, too. I was quite ambitious in those days, but even then I was collaborating without being fully aware of it. Indeed, I was collaborating with the clipboard itself, and I could feel how its wood felt in my hand — the little gouging, the possibility of splinters. The silver clasp, pirate’s buckle, holding my paper in place. Helpful pirate. Honest pirate. I imagined infection — thumbs as big as fists, opening and closing, mimicking fish but also copying the heart, the beat pumping, thumping. I even recall trying to match the clipboard’s patterns in patterns of bark I encountered. In doing so, I was collaborating with the air, the rugged weeds, and whatever else was present. All became connected and linked.
I still love when air moves things around, the (usually) invisible accomplishing mighty things — atmospheric stirrings. My documentations is only as good as my notice. If I don’t notice something, if it fails to come into my awareness, then I cannot comment meaningfully on it.
You’ve talked a lot about the importance of transformation. Tell us about your own transformation as a poet, and in what ways you’ve seen your body of work grow over the past three decades.
I have moved from selfishness to collaboration.
Collaboration requires the understanding that no one and no thing makes alone. Rather, there are interconnected paths to access information. There are so many configurations, so many forms of realities, that even an error is information. There really are no mistakes. I explore wrong paths and go fishing, and such visitation is fruitful. Indeed, without the wrong, there would be no sex, and that is what I do: I make love to ideas, and ideas make love back. It is a natural urge to proliferate, to have a footprint that says no more and no less than “I was here!”
Just as we must be fruitful in order to have descendants and meanings, multitudes and hordes, so must ideas be fruitful to connect through time and space. Invention leads to invention and another invention, and the more information is disseminated, the greater the likelihood that someone will put the blocks together in new ways. In other words, the greater the likelihood of collaboration. For in the sin of Adam and Eve, there is not only the touching, but also the pleasure in the collaborating of bodies, the insisting on information, that impulse to question and to keep questioning. We are descendants of questions, none of them able to be fulfilled with single answers, but rather through a community of possibilities. All things work in unison, as it is with anything that has existed, exists now, and will exist; we are all collaborating.
Throughout your life, have there been any major influences — people, places, things — that have provided the inspiration for your writing and/or encouraged you to move forward with your art?
My greatest influence right now is my collaborator, Mr. Bob Holman. My connection with him is palpable, and so many of my poems come from partnership with him, and from the Love, of course. Loving my collaborator, having this opportunity to discover “Real Love” for the first time in my life, is utterly empowering. Surviving my cranial aneurysm rupture was the best thing that ever happened to me, because afterwards I could really see [Bob] and collaborate in person — every kiss a new stanza, the punctuation of squeezing his hand, which squeezes back the pleasure of poetry (for he is a poet, also). I will try to explain what happened:
In July 2011, I nearly died when a cranial aneurysm ruptured, and I consider this the most fortunate thing that has ever happened to me, for it allowed a friendship with Mr. Thomas Robert Higginson (Bob Holman) to blossom into a fulfillment that it never could have blossomed into without that rupture. So the rupture was also rapture; it was a rupturing through which salvation entered. For me, with the rupture, with those neurons — my cranial rosebush, as it were — a stunning pink flower blossomed in my head. It was a bouquet that life itself gave me, preparing me for something else: a romance with and existence with Thomas Robert Higginson himself. My aneurysm rupture led to a collaboration with him. When no one else considered I would ever be able to even so much as walk again, he was there to write with me. He never left, and he believed it was possible for me to return to a certain level of creativity. I did.
My former publisher, Persea, did not want me to write poems with Bob. In fact, I was told that it was a good thing that I was not all in love with this poet, who I really am “all in Love with,” as if without being in love, my writing would be better and not mixed up with him. But as I see it, my writing is better because of him. The poem “Blue Coming” would not even exist without him, as it is a collaboration with a poem of his. Who would be against collaboration? This is a world in which everything needs something, and nothing is done alone. It even takes two just to tango.
I know I was always looking for him. I have been looking for him since I was nine, playing the board game “Mystery Date.” And then one day I saw him standing in O’Hare, just like the man in the Mystery Date game. I had been looking for him for 55 years. It feels to me like poetic destiny, and when I found him, he took my breath away. We first kissed in the taxi from O’Hare to the hotel — Utterly transforming Kisses! That taxi was on Fire! and so was I. In fact, I started falling in love with him just from the way he Kissed me. But this was only the beginning, his Kiss like an epic poem, wrapping me up. And did I mention his voice? The timbre, his inflections and pauses, the delicious baritone… I like the sound of everything he says. What his Kiss does to me also happens by his voice alone.
I can collaborate with Bob because it is making love to the poem, finding those locations in something he has written, adding stanzas, dimensions, different scales of interaction. I always add, never subtract, to the locations where he has left gaps, and I connect with and fill these gaps, these lonely spaces that need me, only me. Responding to his poems is also responding to him. As I work on a poem we share, I get the same feelings I get when I am touching him. I revise by repairing rhythms, by dancing with the poem, the energy, the movement. I revise by repairing music, so that we dance together even better. It is personal and complete. I have never known a poem come to life like him.
Forks, boxes, and even shadows are all items you’ve been known to have collections of. Why do you choose to collect these specific items, and how does the act of collecting influence your poetry?
Each of these items is a container, with wonders and many infinite rooms inside. Between the tines of a fork are multiple realities. Each angle of a box contains worlds of words, a dictionary of holy books, Archangel Webster. These are containers of layers of realities. Each one, like a Russian matryoshka doll, is a nesting-dolled universe. Like these containers, so is the mind a box. Even “imagination” is a real place, worthy of exploration, an address in the mind expanding a more imaginary and everlasting track.
By collecting these items I am collecting experiences, gathering interactions. I then assemble them in ways that make some form of temporary sense, until it all comes undone and I assemble them again.
You seem to be fascinated with the transitory, sensory experience of poetry. What do you think is gained by listening to a poem rather than reading it?
The poem becomes alive again, active; it is not dead. I speak from the point of view of one sharing a poem: each time the poem is read, the poem lives again. And each “reading” should be different, because the words interact with the location, time, space, mood, and so many other variables. And all of this is good, as it should be. The poem could have a headache, and a maker should not be afraid to say so. So much depends on how the poem is offered, and on whether an audience becomes part of the performance, for a so-called “reading” is always a performance. Whether it’s a good and interactive performance is another matter, because not all poets are good performers. But in a good and interactive performance, life is made and can be revived instantly, constantly. A poem never dies.
Your belief that poetry should be experienced with all of the senses rather than read on a page has led to your work in Limited Fork Theory, which involves the interactions of language, sound, movement, and visuals. Tell us about your work with Limited Fork Theory, and why you find this so crucial to heightening the poetic experience.
The poem is alive, the words are organisms; it is a wonder that they do not simply jump off the page. And sometimes they do, so the maker can chase them, soliciting others in the audience to chase them, too. And whatever is caught becomes the ‘poam’ (Product of an Act of Making), the salvaged aftermath of a most satisfying feast. Yes, it can get crazy — traffic jams of thought, but also traffic jams of joy and delight. Use the senses available to you and get what you can; no one knows or can get “everything.” And that is fine! Get what you can, however little or much, and enjoy it!
I think one of the most extraordinary things a person can do is to take an experience of immense pain and transform it into something beautiful. You recently did exactly that when you used your cranial aneurysms to write Aneurysm of the Firmament. How do you take a horrific experience and render it art?
I must. Because of Love. [Aneurysm of the Firmament] is a small collection, a tiny collaboration of poems written with my aneurysm, my Thing (he and I have an official Thingdom right now, by the way). We must be able to accept whatever happens, especially concerning the vulnerable and susceptible body. Viewing the aneurysm rupture as an opportunity was necessary, or else I would be frozen.
It seems as if you seek to “sing the almost imperceptible,” in the words of poet C.D. Wright. How do you think this manifests itself in your poetry, and what do you feel is your ultimate responsibility to the culture at large as a writer?
To tell truths. To value realities, and not expect them to be the same realities, no matter how obscure. To notice, always to notice, and to be aware of other points of view. To avoid judgments, a poet’s disaster, for in avoiding conflict, everything would need to be avoided. I do not want to impose anything; I want to discover what is there. And if processes of discovery sometimes sleep with processes of imposition, this is good. For in genuine interactions, there is exchange. Each participant leaves something, and each participant takes something different from what was brought. In the mingling, something new emerges, child(ren) of interaction, and these somethings evolve just from the act of mingling. But this cannot work if each party insists on remaining what it was before the interaction. There must be the willingness to entertain the possibility of exchange.
What would you most like for people to take away from your poetry?
The intensity of honesty and the honesty of intensity = a possible truth.