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Award-winning poet Tyree Daye reflects on the magic of storytelling

Balancing Act

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Tyree Daye is a poet from Youngsville, N.C., the author of two poetry collections, and a 2017 Ruth Lilly Finalist and Cave Canem fellow. Daye's work has been published in Prairie Schooner, The New York Times, and Nashville Review.

Here, Daye is interviewed by Columbia University poetry student Malachi Jones. As a high school senior at Charleston County School of the Arts, Jones won the prestigious Gold Medal Portfolio, the highest honor of the 2018 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards presented by the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

City Paper: Closing out the summer series of poets, it's a pleasure to have you for Poetry at McLeod 2019. With their mission to re-examine our relationship with plantation life, it's fitting how your poetry mediates on the link between nature, our past, and our experiences. You explore matriarchs and maternal emotion a great deal in your poems. The words of your mother or the life of your grandmother are treated sacrosanct, similar to a child's admiration. How would you describe the relationships that allowed them to become a familiar theme in your work?

Tyree Daye: With my grandmother, she passed away when I was around four years old. I was told that I met her one time, but of course, I don't remember it. She died when I was a child, so I could only think about her death as a child. There's always this wonderment around her. Also, my grandmother is from South Carolina and was Gullah-Geechee as well. And so, I grew up with stories from my mother about magic. For me, that magic became a very real thing. Associating my grandmother's death when I was young with these magical stories about the dead has now made it a part of my narrative.

CP: So you're fairly familiar with the Lowcountry?

TD: I have been to the Sea Islands. As an undergrad, NC State had this amazing Gullah-Geechee class where over spring break you work with Queen Quet [Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation]. After that, I went again for six days when I was writing my chapbook Sea Island Blues. For me, being there felt like an attempt to connect with my grandmother and my ancestry. Though I am very much removed from the Gullah-Geechee culture, it felt like an attempt to pay homage. My work tries to evoke ancestry through language. I think that's what poets do.

CP: With that said, do you believe poetry to be another part of that homage paying process? What motivates you to translate those experiences into poems?

TD: I think there's a lot that drew me to poetry. The idea that we can play with language, manipulate it. Language is a spell. Like chanting, if we repeat something over and over it becomes an affirmation. The power of language and coming from folks that are storytellers drew me to poetry. Especially black folks in the South, we are obsessed with language. We don't need to put words to it, but we are manipulators of language. Also, I really wasn't good at math or science. To be black writing in English, a language that very much oppressed my grandmother and those before her, I think it's important to be fucking up the English language. Create some agency for those from whom it was stripped. It's a fine balance. Me making art is a fine balance.

CP: In an interview with poet Brionne Janae you asked about her "poetry lineage." Since you mentioned coming from a family of storytellers, how would you describe your own poetry lineage?

TD: Before I knew I was going to be a poet, I was in poet training through my family. They're all story tellers to the point that if someone isn't telling the story well enough someone else will take over. Through that, I learned what a good story should sound like and how it should move. My technical training came from Dorianne Laux, Joseph Millar, Eduardo C. Corral, and Vievee Francis. Those are my poetry teachers, they have a lot to do with the way I think about poetry.

CP: What can we expect from your appearances at McLeod?

TD: It's so interesting we spoke about this 'balancing act' with art, and now I'm about to go read on this former plantation. I know I'm going to have so many mixed emotions. I've been slowly trying to process how I'm going to maneuver through this reading, but I can't wait to get there and just experience the time.

Please note this event has been postponed, stay tuned for a new date, and follow poetrysocietysc.org

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