Poet Spotlight: Pamela Taylor on balance in life and poetry

Pamela TaylorPamela Taylor is a data guru by day and a poet by night. She has a doctorate in social psychology from UCLA, a MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is a Cave Canem Fellow. When she is not working or writing, she’s dancing Argentine tango in the Boston area. Her first chapbook of poetry, My Mother’s Child, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press in June 2015.

You recently published your first book of poetry, My Mother’s Child. Tell us a bit about this project and how it came about. Is this your first collection?

My Mother’s Child is my first chapbook. I wrote these poems over a 5 year span. Until I put a collection together, I never understood it when poets said their books took them years to write. I think the earliest poem (“The Climb”) was written in 2009 when I attended a small poetry generative workshop. Many of the poems about my professional life were written during my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Others, like the closing poem (“There’s a Graveyard in My Belly”), were written during the week-long Cave Canem retreats for Black poets.

When I thought I had written enough poems to go into a book, I printed them out, put them in a logical order, and sent it out as a full collection. That strategy got me nowhere. So I focused on the poems I had gotten published in literary magazines and journals and a few others I thought were good poems. This time, I laid them out and let them speak to each other. The poems arranged themselves in two distinct groups. I sent both out as chapbooks to separate contests. This collection was a finalist for the Imaginary Friend Press chapbook competition. One of the readers, Margaret Bashaar, had her own press and asked if I would be willing to let her publish my collection with Hyacinth Girl Press.

My Mother's Child-Pamela TaylorA number of the poems in My Mother’s Child explore motherhood through examinations with your relationship to your own mother and other examinations of mothering. Could you share some of what drew you to these themes?

Honestly, I don’t think I can write about my experience as a black woman in the professional working world without bringing my mom into the mix. She is my first role model of how to survive in a mostly white working environment. You gotta have tough skin. Growing up, it seemed like she had a hard time taking off that mask, and some of the poems are a reaction to that experience. Other poems like “Yes, Maya,” and “Maternal Instinct” came from observations of my friends in their mother roles. Through their experiences, I saw what goes on in a mother’s mind, how the outcome of every decision could make you feel like you’re the worst mom in world. It’s only at this age (44) where I can see how hard it must have been for my mom to strike a balance between work and motherhood. In a lot of ways, my writing reflects how I have processed all of these experiences.

Your a “data guru” by day. Do you see being a data guru as being a separate world from writing poetry, or do they feed into each other at times?

I get asked this question often. It’s difficult for me to think of being a data guru and being a poet as separate worlds because they live in my body. Clearly my work life is an experience I chose to visit in my poetry. With my new job, the poetic side has made tons of observations and connections as I have tried to adjust to my new surroundings. In that way, poetry is making sense of what I don’t yet understand, what my brain does not have time to do because my new role is very demanding.

From the data guru side, I’m always sensitive to the audience and the story I want to tell with data. I’m a huge fan of infographics because you can pack a lot of data onto a two-sided handout. Of course, editing and revision is helpful because I don’t want to overwhelm the reader with numbers. However, when I’m super busy on data stuff, my brain needs 100% of its power to focus on the task at hand. I’m barely able to read poems during those times.

What separates my life as a data guru from my life as a poet is the fact that they have a different cast of characters and they rarely cross paths.

What is the favorite thing you’ve written or published so far? Why?

“Transit of Venus” for several reasons:

  1. It’s one of my first science poems and definitely the first planet poem I’ve written. My hope is to write a poem for every planet plus Pluto (he was a planet when I was growing up). I’m fascinated by science in general, and physics & astronomy in particular. I observed the last transit when I lived in NC and this was the result.
  2. I feel I succeeded in balancing scientific accuracy with personal significance and the human connection.
  3. The form works—centered on the page and lowercase—even though I have not written a poem in this manner before or after. It’s one of those things people say never to do, but this form is the only one that makes sense for the poem. Also it’s shape on the page has a lot of curves and is reminiscent of a woman’s body.
  4. I love reading this poem. I like ending readings on a high note and this poem never disappoints.
  5. This poem was the impetus for organizing a poetry night at the NC Museum of Science (Poetry Scope). I wasn’t the only poet who loved science and the museum folks loved hearing our take on their world. It was a great collaboration that evolved over time from poetry readings at the Science Café to poetry on demand where we wrote poems inspired by the science talk. It’s one of the poetic achievements of which I am most proud.
  6. It’s a Cave Canem poem, written at the first retreat I attended. We write new poems every day for 6 days; Transit was my day 6 poem.
  7. It won second place in the Carolina Woman’s Magazine and garnered a customized centerpiece as a prize.

What are you currently reading?

I’m doing the poem-a-day challenge this month so I’m not reading anything except for the daily poem from Poets.org. I bought the latest African Poets Chapbook Box set at AWP, along with Mahtem Shiferraw’s Fuchsia and Ladan Osman’s Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony. I’m looking forward to reading these books. This year, I plan to read more books by people I know. I’ve also picked up Poetic Intention by Édouard Glissant from the library. I put a hold on the book 3 months ago.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Community is very important. Moving to the Boston area had been challenging because I have to build community from scratch. In NC, I was a part of Living Poetry for six years, and thus, knew about events, readings, workshops and interacted with poets all the time. Since the move, I have maintained my weekly exchange with another poet via Skype. I’m still trying to find out about open mics and other poetry events.

Name one poet no one knows but should.

Kelly Lenox. Her collection, The Brightest Rock, comes out in 2017.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

Hopefully an updated blog and a few more published poems. This year is full of transitions, so I want to be more patient with myself.