Poetry is about human connection. It's about really listening and having empathy. It's about, 'can someone else step in these shoes?' Art—all art—teaches us empathy.
Tyree Daye is a poet from Youngsville, North Carolina. He is the author of two poetry collections River Hymns 2017 APR/Honickman First Book Prize winner and Cardinal forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press 2020. Daye is a 2017 Ruth Lilly Finalist and Cave Canem fellow. Daye’s work has been published in Prairie Schooner, New York Times, Nashville Review. Daye won the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival Langston Hughes Fellowship, 2019 Diana and Simon Raab Writer-In-Residence at UC Santa Barbara and is a 2019 Kate Tufts Finalist. Daye most recently was awarded a 2019 Whiting Writers Award.
"The Push + Pull of the South"
The sounds and voices of the South create a rich and tangled mixture, flirting with and pushing against ideas of the past. Knowing the South today and conceiving Southern futures is about listening to people shaped by and shaping places in the present. Southern futures reimagined the American South.
Melody: This is Southern futures, a place for distinctive storytelling and tumble listening. I'm your host, Melody Hunter-Pillion. Our guest for this episode is Tyree Daye. Tyree is a poet from Youngsville, North Carolina. He's also a teaching assistant professor at UNC in the Department of English and Comparative Literature. He's the author of two poetry collections; River Hymns and Cardinal, that last one is set for publication this fall. Hello Tyree, thank you for joining us today. You and I are both from the South. I'm from Laurinburg, North Carolina. Your collection, Cardinal, deals with this complexity of what it means to be Black and southern.
Tyree: You're hitting it right on the head. For me and Cardinal is this constant pool of the South being my home, also, right, the south and its history. I mean, running away from that and then that pulling me back right along with family and ancestry constantly pulling me back. So, is it me running away? I'm being pulled right back and that's constantly throughout the book is this back and forth motion. And I think that's essentially what I'm going through, right? I always say this—I think it's one of the lines in the poems that“I can't hate a place where my grandmother's buried.” All right, and, and that's got that constant pull, right? That my people are here that I can't, you know, there's always going to be this type of love for the South.
Melody: Okay, well, let's hear some of your work that speaks to this push and pull of the South.
Carry me after Langston Hughes
I followed the shimmer far down a road I still haven’t found
the ending to. I picked up my life
my mother sewed a map to back of—
so one day I’d lay it out and travel back to the flat land
of eastern North Carolina.
A map to land where my body will finally die,
where my ghost won’t ride the trains all night,
count steps from liberty to home.
I tried to find the ocean before I was covered in southern soil.
I put my head underneath the Atlantic, swallowed so many memories,
I’m filled with people,
someone has taught me to fly.
Whichever way I flew, my inheritance couldn’t be lifted
from northeastern North Carolina’s wet clay,
its hands harden around my already weighted ankles.
My mother’s mother planted hydrangeas where I wanted to place an ocean.
Where I wanted to place an ocean, she grew me.
I picked up my life, for it was the only one I had to pick up,
the way the body must pick itself up if no one is around
to offer a rounded hand out of the snow that only buries. Stuck to my life
were the same things I carry back with me now,
my father’s lying I’ve mastered and wear how a field wears the bones of birds.
The green tint of gin bottles my uncles made of their bare nights.
the only reason I have something to pick up.
Melody: I'm hearing an acceptance and acknowledgement of the things that have been an even obstacle in our lives, just by place and where we are, where we're born. But I'm also hearing this thing about hopefulness and those things that are placed in our lives that are great anchors to help us overcome.
Tyree: There's always going to be this type of love for the South, right?
Melody: Yes, yes. Okay. So, let me talk about that. Yeah, I love the place where I'm from. I love the fact that I have a southern accent. I do. I love all of those things. You and I talked about this a little bit that you know, I'm home, I live in Cary, but there's another place that's even more home to me even though I've
been in this space for 25 years. When I'm at my mom's house in Laurinburg, that to me is home home. That's like a deeper home, the real home. So, I want to ask you, you live in the triangle now?
Tyree: Yeah, I live in Raleigh. And when I go back to my mom's house, it's a peaceful as well. My mama was living in Youngsville, but she does live out in the country. It’s outside of Raleigh, which you know, is the country, basically. But you know, I go home, and I was there yesterday, but it was a birthday. I usually fall asleep when I'm there because I'm so at peace in the living room, but I didn't fall asleep yesterday because it was her birthday. But usually when I'm at home, I’m like, “Ah, this is like perfect.” I'm sitting on the porch and I fall asleep out there. It's really nice. Yeah, if I go home and do like some yard work, that's also the time for writing for me.
Melody: I'm the same way. When I am at my mom's house. I sleep peacefully. It's not just that I sleep, but I sleep peacefully in my mom's home.
Tyree: It's a heavy sleep, it’s like a blanket a heavy blanket on you.
Melody: How is it that your work and the work of artists can lead us forward in some way, in the very least in conversations?
Tyree: For me, when I'm writing poetry, and I'm getting other people to think about poetry, poetry is about human connection. It's about can someone else step in these shoes? And I'm trying to show you my life, show you my humanity and show you the humanity around the spaces I've come from. And really, it's about listening. It’s really, really listening and having empathy, right? All art teaches us empathy. And hopefully that's what my art is doing. By showing you these other worlds, you might not necessarily know, right? At least that's what I can hope for. I always teach my students about entering the cave of oneself. And I'm a poet that writes from my narrative and my experiences. So, for me, I enter the cave of oneself, but also in a poem, I'm also about world building. So, in that poem, I'm building a world, right? I'm placing you as the reader so I can move you around, I'm showing you different things, right? Different senses and trying to really place you inside of that world so we can walk around with each other basically. I'll say, right, being from Franklin County and being raised in a family of storytellers and comedians and being nosy person, I listen, right? I listen to what people are saying. All of this I pull from when I'm writing. And so, you know, I'm able to go to this world because, you know, this is the world that I know. And these spaces, I think these are my obsessions. I'm looking—for me, I think, right—I always talk about mythology, right? We make myths of these places. And I think through making myths of these people and this land and the symbols you know, that I grew up with, I'm trying to find some type of meaning for my life. All right, that's how I think it's really is, essentially. I'm searching for something that says “Yes, this is why.”. And I don't know what that “why” is, what the question is, but this is why you're here and why you have to go through what you have to go through, right? And I know that it's—I don't want the answer to ever come right because then the poetry will probably stop. But that's what I'm—I
think—that's what I'm writing towards at least. I'm investigating something that I don't know what is the higher thing that I'm looking for.
Melody: Yes. And I think that's it, that ever-searching for that higher thing is fantastic and to try to find that answer, always seeking that answer in this storytelling, these narratives, goes back to that family heritage, African American heritage, that oral tradition that your grandmother and other folks passed down to you. And so that brings me to dirt cakes. So, Dirt Cakes was—that was my first time being introduced to your poetry and I saw a reading that you had done and I listened to that and I want to give you my reaction to it when I heard it because it really resonated with me. Could you read it for us first and then I want to tell folks, you know, what I thought about it, how it connects to me personally.
My Grandmother’s body lives
under an ash tree
on an old church ground,
her spirit can be seen making
a maple tree’s shadow jealous.
The church’s bricks absorb
the choir’s songs, they flake Holy Ghost,
If Trouble Don’t Come Today.
I visit, fall on my knees,
ask her how she doing?
How long is her hair now?
Does she still like it braided
in front? Still like having
her scalp scratched?
What y’all doing
in heaven today?
She’d tell my mama
don’t let a bird get the hair that falls
out your head, they’ll use it to build a nest
and you’ll never leave Rolesville. Dirt
is the only thing I know that can’t die,
it makes sense
we would bury here, makes sense
mama don’t want me playing in it.
Melody: I wanted to sit with that for a few seconds. So, a lot of what connected with me, I felt myself back in a space in Laurinburg where I grew up. I can see my grandmother with the braids in her hair. But also, you know, hearing these maybe what people might call superstitions or whatever you might call what these oral traditions are hearing that and knowing that that's been passed along and something, almost what I would say spiritual about that, I think in our previous conversation, you even said magic. So, when I when I heard those things, it really brought to mind Toni Morrison's Beloved.
Tyree: Yeah. I'm really still just so honored that you would even mention Toni Morrison in the same podcast that I'm in. So yeah, again, thinking about bringing someone into this world—I'll say I think my poetry has developed more, but I still think this brings you into this world, even from the beginning, all right? My grandmother's body lives under an ash tree, right? I already give you something to see, right? You see this ash tree on an old church ground. When I think about the images that I choose, I think everyone can picture an old church ground, right? So again, you go there, right? Her spirit can be seen making a maple tree shadow jealous. I want to kind of talk about this idea of magic too. For me, you know, magic is instinct, or intuition, but also magic is craft, right? This comes from right reading and crafting.
Melody: When I think about, again, going back to oral traditions and, you know, folk stories, just great storytelling, but how symbols play such a role in our storytelling and beliefs? So, again, that's one of the things I have my students think about is, right, what is their narrative? And then think about other things that they've written in the past and what symbols show up. So, for me, right, tobacco fields show up, right? Ancestors for me show up. Roseville constantly show up, right? So, for me, I understand that these symbols are connected to my narrative. And it's our duty as poets to kind of investigate these symbols. All right, so, I kind of went through each stanza for this one, I would say, trees are constantly showing up in my opponents because you know, we live in North Carolina, and we're literally constantly surrounded by trees, right? So, trees are constantly showing up. This idea of religion to the church ground is definitely a huge symbol in my work, especially in River Hymns, and the idea of the dead in song. A bird shows up in my work a lot as well. So, all these symbols are constantly throughout the work.
Melody: Speaking of your work and nature, I really want to hear some more of your work. So, I want to take this time in what I call our reading corner for Southern Futures and let's listen to some more of your work. What have you chosen for us today?
Tyree: So, I'm going to read poems from Cardinal, which will be out in October. It’s a guide through the particular American history of traveling while Black, and so, it's a lot of travel poems, and I'll just read one.
When I Left.
a turkey vulture lifted from a field
that I still love.
It was hunting season, birds flew off
at the sound of rifles,
we warred with rabbits.
The vulture's head was bald and delicate
like the old men who wore hats
with names on them like Ford, USA and Dodgers,
to cover their soft skin, old men
who stood in front of the breakfast truck stop
across from the field, the butter partly melted
in the middle of the grits, they also the vulture,
knew how to scavenge
gathered like horses or stars in a junk yard
looking for a rusted pearl.
Those old men have died in their sleeps by now,
though no field could care
how many will fall in it and why.
I want to sit here tonight
still in love and vulture-less
listening to Sade.
I'm still the boy who walked
through a dying sweet potato field,
our small town wouldn't recognize me now.
I have a different body,
a dented body,
field-less and far gone.
Melody: And then I have a final question. You are, you know, teaching young folks over at UNC Chapel Hill about poetry. Some of them perhaps will be poets, others may just use poetry as an auxiliary sort of staple in their lives. What do you think is that main point or takeaway that you try to leave your students with by the end of a semester?
Tyree: So, a few things: I want them to have more of a sense of themselves and their narrative and why understanding their narrative and who their grandparents are has a lot to do with who they are and whatever good or bad. I want them to have a sense of craft of poetry, because I think a lot of people just think it's just writing these emotions where there's a lot of craft that goes into it. And I want them to be vulnerable. I think that's a lot of—you come into these classes and you know, you're made to perform, but you kind of lose that vulnerability side. I think being more vulnerable will allow you to really— being vulnerable and connecting that which education will allow you to grow so many more ways, right. It's not just art, literally learning to be more vulnerable and taking on the work, I think all of that is helpful.
Melody: I think that's the perfect note to end the show on. Tyree, thank you for being here for sharing your poetry, as well as your thoughts on the south and our future. Thanks also to our listeners for your time. Southern Futures is a podcast powered by the Southern Futures initiative, a new collaboration between the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC Libraries, the Center for the Study of the American South and other units of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For executive producer Dr. Malinda Maynor Lowery, sound editor Mark Meyer, and associate producer Ellie Little, I'm your host Melody Hunter-Pillion. Join us for our next episode. Southern Futures, reimagine the American South