Taylor Byas

Taylor Byas is the author of I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times (Soft Skull Press, 2023) and the chapbook Bloodwarm (Variant Literature, 2021), which was long-listed for the 2022 Perennial Press Chapbook Award.

Poets.org: Seven songs from the 1978 musical The Wiz frame I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times, in addition to influencing the book’s title. Could you tell us more about this film’s importance to you, and what you think the role of popular culture is in poetry as well as the role of poetry in popular culture?

Taylor Byas: For me, poetry and popular culture play similar roles. One important role that I think they both share is to provide a snapshot of the world and the society from which they come. So when I consider how they help one another, I believe they serve as points of connection and community. For example, if I read a poem that mentions a song or an album that is important to me, that poem becomes a door that opens into my own memory, and the poet and I step through that door together. When pop culture and poetry come together, I think it creates something doubly intimate—here we are in the already intimate space of the poem, pointing to these highly specific cultural markers that work to define us, hoping a reader recognizes that cultural marker and, as an extension, recognizes us. That’s how I feel about the importance of The Wiz in this book. The movie itself represents family, community, home. It’s so incredibly nostalgic, and it’s so special if a reader feels that too. A reader’s recognition of that film creates a different and sacred space that the reader can then step into with me.

Poets.org: “Conversion,” one of the longer sequence poems in this collection, is a brilliant examination of forgiveness, selfhood, desire, and the yearnings both to belong and to be heard. Could you speak more about the idea of “missed connections,” especially on a journey of leaving / finding home and self again?

TB: You know, our home environments play such a huge role in our later journeys in life. In The Wiz, Dorothy is still living at home with her Aunt Em. Before Dorothy chases Toto outside and gets swept up into the storm, she and Aunt Em have a “missed connection” in the kitchen, with Aunt Em pressuring Dorothy to take a new job at another school and move out on her own, and Dorothy insisting that she’s happy with the way things are. Of course we don’t see this, but I imagine that Dorothy’s whole life was shaped by these kinds of missed connections and misunderstandings, with those closest to her maybe refusing to truly see her and projecting their own wishes and desires onto her. And I believe that contributed to her lack of belief in herself throughout the entire movie. I’ve experienced a lot of “missed connections” in my life—the one that comes to the surface of this book is the “missed connection” with my father. I can’t begin to tell you how that missed connection has gone on to replicate itself in my relationships with others, how I overcompensate for what others lack, how I work overtime to be loved and heard because I felt (and still feel) like I have to earn it. It’s so ironic, because you leave home and then home just…shows up in everything you do, in all of your relationships. Home is always showing up, and there’s another opportunity to do things differently, to forgive the old versions of yourself that didn’t and couldn’t.

Poets.org: The sonnet crown “South Side” is spread across the book’s seven sections. The point of view shifts throughout this sequence. With the narrative unpacking the speaker’s transitions from girlhood to womanhood and from Chicago to Cincinnati, how might the shifting points of view reflect the speaker’s growth and connection to memory, particularly in “South Side (V)” wherein the speaker says, “the South Side is not a place, but a state of being”? 

TB: Let’s say we mashed together the sayings “Distance makes the heart grow fonder” and “Hindsight is 20/20”: “Distance makes the hindsight 20/20” or “Hindsight makes the heart grow fonder”? Both of those things feel true to me. When you’ve been somewhere all of your life, it’s hard to see it as something separate from yourself. Chicago and the South Suburbs weren’t anything else but home until I moved away. Then suddenly I was exposed to what everyone else thought of Chicago, and I found myself in the position of having to defend it. And in defending it, I learned how to love it differently, holistically. It was like defending an old friend, a friend who has their quirks, but a friend you love fiercely. It was no longer just a place on the map, or the place I went when I told my friends I was going home for the holidays. Chicago became an experience that I tried to rebuild every time I shared it with someone. “South Side (V)” also talks about “that act of remembering, of making memory” because remembering is also making. In remembering my home, I was rebuilding it wherever I stood, carrying it with me.

Poets.org: This collection, particularly its cadence and narrative arc, is steeped in African American culture and its rituals. “Tender-headed” is exemplary of this. It illustrates the importance of hair as a source of self-expression in Black communities, while the last line muses on the role of hair in respectability politics, which are often predetermined by elders like the Grandma in the poem (“I strain / against her grip on my roots”). Can you talk more about the inspirations for this poem, and particularly the subtle allusion to the Great Migration in the final stanza: “She hums ‘For Your Glory,’/ parts my hair into sections, / gridding out old city streets / and rows of cotton […]”?

TB: Part of the poem reaches all the way back to slavery, back to when slaves would braid escape routes and maps into their hair. This poem, like many poems in the book, takes a close look at a common Black ritual of getting your hair done, which can be a tender moment and a bonding experience. And yet there are echoes of violence and history—the popping with the comb, the welts, the fact that this ritual is being done for the approval of another religious authority, yet another tie to slavery. The Black woman’s life remains touched by history.

Poets.org: What are you currently reading?

TB: I am reading Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes and John Keene’s Punks.

Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?

TB: Hmm… Top five off the top of my head? “Dearly Departed, Again I Dreamt About a Ship” by Camonghne Felix; “Looking for the Beautiful Things” by Joy Priest; “What Daughters Come Down To” by Patricia Smith; “Summer Vacation in the Subjunctive” by Ashley M. Jones; and “The Raincoat” by Ada Limón.