A Conversation with Michelle Taransky
Interviewed by Sarah Louise Green
Michelle Taransky:: Barn Burned, Then:: Omnidawn
Michelle Taransky received a BA from the University of Chicago and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. With her father, architect Richard Taransky, she is the coauthor of the chapbook The Plans Caution (QUEUE 2007). This past fall, I had the great pleasure of corresponding with Michelle about her debut poetry collection—Barn Burned, Then—which won the Omnidawn Poetry Prize in 2008. We began our discussion of her collection over e-mail and continued over tea when she came to the Bay Area to read at Moe’s for the fall 2009 book release party. Michelle is currently living in Philadelphia where she works at Kelly Writers House and teaches poetry at Temple University.
Sarah Louise Green: I am interested in hearing about how your residency on the Wave Books Poetry Farm effected or affected the writing of these poems. The title of your book is inspired, in part, by the title of the Faulkner story, “Barn Burning.” Your book, Barn Burned, Then, both borrows language from and locates the reader in an agricultural setting.
First of all, I’m curious about how your time living and working on the farm functioned in the formation of the book. Did the barn as a framing metaphor arise directly from that experience? Or, did you seek out the residency because you already knew you were going to use the image system of farm life?
Michelle Taransky: I started writing the poems in Burn Book during my last year of undergraduate work, in a poetry course called “Poetry From the Outside” taught by Matthias Regan. The poem “Barn Burning” was written for that class. I applied for the Poetry Farm residency three years later, after I’d written maybe one quarter of the “Burn Book”, as a way to work more closely with, and think directly with, the things my poems included.
The agricultural setting became every setting—I could find a barn or a farmstead in most readings, a calf or a farmhand at every turn.
SLG: Right, and the book returns to this family of images relentlessly, almost obsessively, throughout both sections, Burn Book and Bank Book. And what about the banks and the language of economies? How did those find their way in?
MT: I can’t remember how the first bank got into the poems—when, or where, or why. I was doing an independent study with Dee Morris at Iowa about 1930s labor poetries during my first semester at Iowa, and while we were reading through Cary Nelson’s “Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left” I encountered Genevieve Taggard’s line ‘They sold the calf. That fall the bank took over.” and realized this was probably happening to the farms in my poems, as well. This gave me total permission to go from barn to bank.
Another permission-giving moment: Charles Barkley, during halftime of a Nets/Clippers game, Barkley “invented” the phrase “BURN BARNER” to describe the game. When he said it, I knew I was writing the right book.
And finally, while visiting Louis Sullivan’s jewel box banks around Iowa City with my parents, I saw “Barn Burned, Then” in the world: a mural depicting rural life by Allen Philbrick around the four walls of the main banking area in the People’s Savings Bank in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
SLG: I’ve read that the Poetry Farm required four hours of daily work. How did this affect your writing routines both in terms of schedule as well as transitioning between rigorous physical work and mental work? Did that relationship manifest itself in your poetry, whether by subtle shifts in syntax, rhythms, or forms?
MT: During the early moments of my residency at the Poetry Farm, I realized I knew nothing about the facts of farming. This really pushed me to focus on the poems I hadn’t written yet as sites for discovery and innovation.
SLG: So, it helped generate content and serve as an engine for the poems. You mentioned your use of mistranslation, a technique you used on your own poems to create this book.
MT: Yes. I wrote “Barn Burning” first and generated much of the first section by doing “mistranslations” of that poem. “Barn Burner, If” came first, then “Barn Burning, That”, etc.
SLG: Also, in most of your biographical notes (including the one for Barn Burned, Then), your work with your father, architect Richard Taransky, is mentioned. Besides your direct collaboration on the chapbook, The Plans Caution (QUEUE 2007), how has he influenced your work?
It seems that growing up with someone who works with the medium of structures and constructing spatial arrangements would influence your own thinking about space and how it is managed within the poem. Do you think he has shaped your formal tendencies on the page and within the line? If so, how?
MT: Some of my earliest memories of invention happened while looking at (and looking into) my father’s drawings. I would look for the figures, the walls, doors, windows and make up a story of what was “happening” in the drawing, had happened, or would be happening soon. These stories, or inferred happenings, gave me permission to get things wrong.
The chapbook represents these inferred happenings—I think of “The Plans Caution” as a set of mistranslations of my father’s architectural drawings, models and plans.
SLG: The epigraph by Oppen particularly struck me: “I look at things and they become large, like barns, I feel lost and yet they are not big enough—merely a little clumsy, reminiscent and clumsy.” That final phrase—reminiscent and clumsy—resonated with me in relation to your syntactical strategies. Of course, here I mean clumsy in terms of thwarting the reader’s ease with an innovative fragmentation that, at times, veers into an extreme parataxis.
MT: The thwarts, the stutters, the choice to not conclude—this isn’t the way I speak when I go to the bank. As Oppen writes, “We change the speech because we are not explaining, agitating, convincing: we do not know what we already know before we wrote the poems”
And this is part of why I write: I want to know about things, to discover.
SLG: Yet you create so much familiarity for the reader through sonic repetition, colloquial language, or the limited number of figures (barn swallow, teller, robber, etc.). And this makes the scheme of the book navigable as well as believable. Can you talk a little about your processes and concerns in relationship to the reader? Also, your decision to speak in what I’ve fondly come to think of as the “beggar’s way”?
MT: Yes. The beggar’s way of speaking.
It’s the way of speaking in which you speak to yourself about things you can barely speak to yourself about. Instead of how to speak in a poem I was writing, I thought about how to speak in that poem I was writing.
Also, I wanted to de-emphasize the ‘characters’ because I didn’t want people to be frustrated by the inability to make connections. There’s a story, but it doesn’t pose itself as linear.
SLG: Right, and consequently, the speaker of the book seems very comfortable slipping from one language register to another:
the sentence needs
to be completed. It was the sentence
the detective decided
This way of speaking allows words to scramble and reassemble themselves to stake new meanings. And:
(from “Barn Burner, A Call”)
Place where split beckons
Between stage and the stag
An unsharpened knife used.
Does this sort of play occur naturally while you are writing or are these clever turns placed after the fact? Talk about this process.
MT: The line breaks happen while I am writing, as a part of the writing process. The unit I was working with in the book is kind of a “breath-line” which is made by writing a line, taking a breath, writing a line, etc. Also like: response, response, response, response… When the breaks are disruptive, they can show the work I did, or the stitches I made, or the breath I took then.
SLG: The book seems to come forward a few times and confess its self-consciousness of being a working-out of some sort, though what precisely is being worked out is frequently obscured because objects are being examined so closely. We can only see your figures in part; we can only see one wall of the barn. I see this clearly in strophes such as the following:
(from “Barn Burner, Say It”)
Wanted walls in place
Of the worrying
(from “Barn Burned, Then”)
Writing a statement
To take the barn’s place
There is a consistent exchange between the spatial construction and the linguistic construction as well as the idea of displacement—I was wondering if you could comment on that process. What did the construction of this book accomplish for you as a human speaker? How do these self-referential admissions function for you in the space of the book?
MT: When I started writing the book, I thought that while writing it I would find out answers to questions including:
Who burned down the barn?
What kind of war is this?
Is there a family here or no family?
What can the teller do?
Who else should be blamed?
I don’t know if the admissions refer to the myself that is the writer of these poems, or the myself that is the writer of poems. Probably both.
At the time, I was also thinking about using unexperienced trauma, using the confessional mode as a form of “transitive mourning,” a way to join in the mourning of others. But I don’t consider myself a strict Confessional, and I don’t envy that mode since it’s not really my ‘barn’.