She was a 2015 Center for Fiction Fellow and the Poetry Project’s 2016 Emerge-Surface-Be Poetry fellow. Most recently she has won awards from the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) and is a 2019 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship inaugural fellow. Winner of the 2015 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize, her first poetry collection, how to get over is available from Red Hen Press. Her second poetry collection, & more black, is with Augury Books, available Summer 2019. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn where she is an editor at No, Dear Magazine. More at: taifreedomford.com
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I think mostly what the first book did was to validate my existence as a writer/poet. To take up space amongst the myriad of published works, let me know that I belonged. It also placed me in a long lineage of Black writers and for that, I am proud and honored to be a part of that legacy.
My second book is very different from my first in that the first centered around lyric and persona. It was obsessed with telling the story of me, my family, the Black family. My new work is more obsessed with form, the sonnet, and Black art. But like the first book, I engage similar subject matter: the Black body, Black linguistic practices, Black life and love, Black queer sexuality, etc.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’ve always attempted to express myself via poetry although my first poems may have actually been raps, written when I was 10 years old. But as a poor Black kid growing up in New York City, I couldn’t afford violin lessons or gymnastics, but I always had pen and paper, so those were my first instruments of creativity. But non-fiction and fiction were right there. In 1985, when my mother decided to move us to Atlanta, I began writing my autobiography in the back of our station wagon as we drove the 15 hours south. And later, when I got bored with poetry, I would write short stories. Years later, I would earn my MFA in fiction, not poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
For this collection, because the form was so specific, I feel like a lot of the work came very quickly because I had a container to pour words/images into. Also, because many of the poems are riffing off of or in conversation with works of art, I was gifted a lot of material to work with. But most of the work does come out very close to a final draft.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy attending readings and often jot down beautiful lines I hear. I covet them and use them as springboards of inspiration. Reading my work is often necessary to feeling my work. I’m able to animate the work in a unique and personal way that invites folks into the work and the worlds I attempt to conjure.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am always asking:
What is the point of my art if not to speak to and for my people?
What is the point of all these words if I am not saving a life (especially my own)?
How is it that we have survived this long? And who am I if I do not acknowledge, archive and celebrate these survivals?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
My role is to honor Black literary traditions and legacies. To speak to and for my folks. To give voice to the voiceless. To give permission to those who feel silenced. To honor my Creator by being creative. To maintain sanity via the process of art-making.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It’s definitely necessary in that writer’s can miss so much because we are so close to the work. Editors bring fresh eyes and are able to see the book wholly and the poems individually and how they work together. However, I am a Black queer woman working with language in ways that may be challenging for folks outside of that demographic. Cultural sensitivity and openness on the part of the editor are essential in these cases.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
I bore easily (typical Aries), so being able to move between genres has always been appealing to me. Interestingly enough, the genres tend to blur. People will say that my fiction is “so poetic” or that they appreciate the storytelling quality of my poetry. Ultimately, I’m less concerned with genres or being pigeonholed as a poet… When people ask, What do you write? I’m inclined to answer: Things with words. Because honestly I want to write it all: poems, short stories, novels, screenplays, essays, children’s books… everything.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t write routinely, but I typically write early—morning is when I’m at my creative peak. And usually I will have worked out first and had food before I’m ready to write. But sometimes, I will awake from my sleep and begin writing because the urgency is there.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I go to museums, art galleries… I watch videos of lectures or interviews by Fred Moten or Arthur Jafa. I watch short films about artists. I read Toni Morrison or Lucille Clifton or Wanda Coleman.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Honeysuckle reminds me of Atlanta (which was once a home of mine).
Chimney smoke reminds me of winters in New York.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
My work comes from Black music, Black art, tweets, celebrity beefs, Black death, the news, the ingenuity and resilience of Black folk.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Buy a home. Win a major prize for my book. Travel to West Africa. Sky dive. Publish a children’s book. Secure a book deal for my novel. I could go on….
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would be a chef. And I am a teacher and I would have been that whether I wrote or not.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is a mode of survival for me and one of the ways I maintain my sanity in an insane world. An insistence in having my story heard made me first write. But I’ve endeavored other creative outlets like painting, jewelry making, deejaying, cooking, but writing is my most stubborn preoccupation.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Call Me By Your Name based on the Andre Aciman novel.
20 - What are you currently working on?
At work on a novel about how folks grieve after the loss of a loved one while simultaneously having to contend with the loss of sacred space—their neighborhood aka “da hood”.