In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Tyree Daye discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for January, Tyree Daye. Tyree is the author of Cardinal and River Hymns. Tyree, welcome and thank you for joining me today.
Tyree Daye: Thank you for having me.
Poets.org: Let’s go ahead and jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for January?
Daye: Well, I’ve watched these poets climb down inside themselves to bring up a language only they knew how to speak. I went about looking for poems that [was] grounded in the particularity, yet they go deep down inside the poet to express what it means to be human. They have an emotion that can be recognized in the language, no matter our place in the world. Their way of being in the world, it’s reflected in how their poems are written. I place all the poems, I selected inside this word cloud; and the majority of the words that came back were “mother,” “become,” “body,” “sky,” “Black,” “role,” “father,“ “brother,” and “new.” The poems call out to the earth and those here and gone. These poems make me feel like I want to stand in a circle and hold hands.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem or more in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would they be and why?
Daye: Okay. Yeah. There’s so much that I love on Poets.org. Here are three poems I think about often, for how the poems’ form [are] enhanced by the content: “Canvas and Mirror” by Evie Shockley is an excellent example of what an artist reveals versus what is the complete truth. The canvas is what we give to our readers; the mirror is who we fully may be. We take what we see, sense, and make art. The term “self-portrait” becomes the form and content that pushes the language down the page and allows the speaker to access more of the vulnerable self-portraits.
Also, think about Dorianne Laux, “What’s Broken,” which works similarly to “Canvas and Mirror.” The poem’s use of listening to push the narrative and create meaning. I love how the poem accounts for the broken things in our lives. I love that the poem makes a life out of that brokenness, which is what we do.
And then, the last poem and last poet, I really, really love, Cameron Awkward-Rich, “Cento Between the Ending and the End,” takes the language of the poet’s friends to craft the poem about making a family and its survival. I love how the lines of the poems are enjambed. The braiding of the language shows how our survival depends on those loving us.
Poets.org: For the clarification of our listeners and readers, Evie Shockley was also a Poem-a-Day Guest Editor in August 2018. Dorianne Laux has been a Chancellor at the Academy since 2020. And Cameron Awkward-Rich’s poem was originally published in Poem-a-Day in August 2018, that month that was curated by Shockley.
Daye: Huh. That’s, huh!
Poets.org: Not sure you knew that either.
Daye: I did not.
Poets.org: But I thought it was worth bringing up. Tyree, you studied with Shockley at Cave Canem and with Dorianne Laux when you did your undergraduate studies at North Carolina State, right?
Poets.org: Just out of curiosity, what are some of the most important lessons that you’ve learned from these poets, which you’d like to share with our listeners and readers?
Daye: Yeah. I’ll say from Dorianne, who’s like my first poetry teacher, just the conciseness of language. Really, right, a lot of poets, like every word counts. And this idea of writing a complete line, right, of writing complete thoughts in a line, and then using that to craft a line break or a line in to write. So, we create those moments of suspended meaning.
I’m trying to remember Cave Canem. My first year at Cave Canem was 2016 with Evie Shockley. And, actually, the poem that I brought there was “Dirt Cakes” that I read. I don’t remember exactly… I think maybe there was some, like, narrative stuff that Evie Shockley helped me with, but I don’t remember exactly. But what I’ve learned from Evie Shockley, really, is just how to be a poet in the world, particularly how to be a Black poet in the world and inside of this poetry world that we write in. Usually, that’s really where I come back to Evie’s work for.
Poets.org: Can you tell us a bit more about that, about what it means to you to be a Black poet in the world?
Daye: I was thinking about that. I guess it’s just particularly how I was raised: to not be afraid to tell the truth. I think that’s the biggest part of it, and to tell the truth in front a mixed company, in front of any audience, and to tell them the truth about themselves. That’s really what it is. And really that’s just about being brave, right? It’s literally putting a life on the line, right? Yeah.
Poets.org: Absolutely. Also, while talking, while you were talking about your three favorite poems on Poets.org, I was struck by some of the juxtapositions that you made between concealment and revelation, brokenness and togetherness, which I think are some motifs and themes that show up in some of your poems.
In both of your poetry collections, you explore the rich legacy of Black identity and ancestry. In Cardinal, for example, your most recent book, you’re writing about Black mobility, particularly during the Great Migration, and the practices of departing and returning, of reclaiming and letting go. Did the writing of these collections, particularly Cardinal, help you to reconcile anything within yourself that may have been unresolved, considering your personal history and our collective history?
Daye: I think everything I write just teaches me how to be brave more. I think Cardinal just helped me leave home so I can really look at home. So, most of that book was written in Massachusetts. It was my first time outside of the South. It just helped me to be brave. You know, helps me think, well, I don’t know if I believe this, but it just helps... It maybe convinced me that everyone is not trying to kill me, which I don’t really… I still don’t really believe that, but it just kind of helps me believe that a little bit more.
Poets.org: So what are you reading right now?
Daye: I’m reading, right now, I’m reading Paul Tran’s, All the Flowers Kneeling. I’m reading The Trees Witness Everything by Victoria Chang. I’m reading, You Don’t Have To Go to Mars for Love by Yona Harvey. I’m also reading Prophets of the Hood by Imani Perry. And Sho by Douglas Kearney. And I’ve recently picked up the craft book again, Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns.
Poets.org: That’s an eclectic list. What excites you about the poetry that’s emerging today? Because many of the people you’ve just mentioned are very contemporary.
Daye: Yeah, yeah. I love when I see poets breaking the idea of what a book of poems can look like. And that’s aspects of visual art, and that’s even, you know, breaking the container, what we expect for a container, for poetry, for poems to fit into. And it makes sense, right? I’m excited all [the] time when poetry books are just on the side of a building, right? And we consider that a book of poems. And I feel like we’re pushing towards that. At least I’m trying to push towards that new work, to break this idea of what we think a book of poems can do.
Poets.org: And what are you working on right now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Daye: Yeah, so I’m working on a third book of poems that’s going to be out in 2024. Titled “A Little Bump in the Earth,” which explores my hometown of Youngsville, North Carolina. I finished reading Victoria Chang’s, Dear Memory—this book, which is really amazing. And, in it, they define post- memory; this idea that people have memories of lands and people they’ve never met. And I think that, like me being Black in America, like that, I relate to that so much. And I think that’s what I may be reaching for in this new book; trying to put language to people I’ve never met, who passed away before me, but also trying to put language to Youngsville as a place that I might not recognize or rethinking about Youngsville as a safe place for the people I grew up around, which wasn’t always the case.
I quote it here: “I invoke the real and imagine people, the ancestral dead and the ghosts that follow them; land, horses, snakes, and chickens, to create a little black town on the hill.” And that’s really what I wanted to make. I wanted to make a little Black town, like the one I grew up in. But the idea of putting that in a book, right, to make a book of that.
And so yeah, I’m really excited for you all to see the book. This is my first attempt also with visual art, so there’s a little museum for you all to check out in the book. I’m, again, really trying to break this idea of what we think a book of poems can do.
Poets.org: Sounds fascinating, and I’m excited to see it. I’m sure our audience will be excited to see it and much, much more from you in the coming years. Thank you so much, Tyree, for joining us.
Daye: Thank you. This has been fun.