By Kayla Matzek
Visiting poet Tyree Daye says his process for exposing reality in a poem is more fantastical and imaginative than literal. “Imagination. Magic all day long,” Daye told a recent gathering of UC Santa Barbara students interested in poetry, or aspiring to be poets themselves. “Of all the poets I know, magic is such an important part of poetry.”
Daye made the remarks and recited selections of his work at the 2019 annual event to honor the Diana and Simon Raab Writer in Residence. Susan Derwin, director of UCSB’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center and a professor of German and Comparative Literature introduced Daye, describing him as a poet “of extraordinary ability and surprise and also as a blues poet of the first order—a poet who is working in the vernacular of a man speaking out loud to his own soul.”
Daye was recently awarded a 2019 Whiting Award in Poetry, a prestigious literary prize given to the most promising of emerging creative writers. He was also awarded the 2019 Palm Beach Poetry Festival Langston Hughes Fellowship and is a 2019 Kate Tufts Finalist.
Daye started his talk by reciting five poems from River Hymns and five from his yet to be released book Cardinal, as a sneak peek for his audience. River Hymns, Daye said, is about the superstitions and values we learn as children. “It’s about deciding what to hang onto and what to let go of as we get older,” he said.
Click above to listen to Tyree Daye recite his poem “Dirt Cakes.”
After reciting his 10 works of poetry, Daye opened the discussion up to the UCSB audience, welcoming any questions about his poetry, his writing process, and how he became a poet. Hands immediately sprung up in the air as if in praise for his lively-sung poetry. Here is a selection of the questions and answers from the Raab event discussion:
Q: What’s your writing process like?
Daye: It consists of a lot of reading and a lot of stealing. Yes, poets steal. I’d say for me it’s 90% reading and 10% writing. I tell people to find the best time when they’re at their most emotional. For me, it’s at night. Here’s what you need to do: Find five foundation writers whom you can find your poetic theory from, like how their poems work; it helps lead you.
Q: What was your path to getting where you are today?
Daye: I was never the best in school. But I found out my junior year of high school that you could major in creative writing. North Carolina school systems aren’t the best. I thought up until my senior year when I had to write a double spaced paper that double spaced meant two spaces between every word. So when I found out you can major in creative writing, I went to Elizabeth City State in North Carolina my first year, then I transferred over to North Carolina State, to be closer to home. I then met my mentor, teacher, and poetry mom, Dorianne Laux, who really guided me. I flunked out a semester in at City State, came back, and finally was like, “Alright Tyree, you’re going into debt for this, you might want to step it up.” And so I kind of just followed poetry.
Q: Is there a way to determine when a poem is done?
Daye: No. This should be for everybody when I say: you should have about four people that you trust with your work. And you should also know that certain poems reach out to certain people. I just go off of what they say, because I’m really bad at determining when a poem is done. But I try to remember to think about the ending of a poem as not just stopping. You want poems to end on a bell, like it rings off and just goes off in the distance. You have to have people to give you truth and feedback. That’s how you make great art because you can’t see everything yourself.
Q: You mentioned that your type of work went through a change. If it’s not too personal to ask, what particularly has changed about you?
Daye: I’m literally just a whole different person and my style has changed a lot. If you look at this book [River Hymns], I’m more interested in the lyric; these poems are very narrative. I’m now interested in taking the English language and messing it up so you can no longer even read it but still has an emotional reach to you. That’s the moment I’m at right now. There are a lot of lyrical moments that are trying to take the English language full of traumas, and create something new from it, something better.
Q: Can you talk about your revision process? Do you revise a lot?
Daye: A lot, a lot, a lot. I do it in a lot of different ways. For me, once I change my mind, it’s changed forever. There are no go backs because it would drive me insane. For me, I overwrite, overwrite, overwrite and then I go back and try to get down to the bare bones. Some good advice would be that if you question a line -whether it’s good or not - cut it, because someone else is going to question it for sure. Slim. If you look at my books, my poems are always slim because I just cut, cut, cut. Risk being overly emotional, risk it all, because you can cut it back later. And also remember it’s intuition over intention, don’t ever sit down to write a poem and say this is a poem about the time I said so and so. Intuition. And that comes just from reading.
Q: This was my first time hearing this term, but what exactly is a “blues poet”?
Daye: Blues poets follow a certain tradition, following poets like Langston Hughes. He was the first poet I was introduced to. My mom gave me the collection of Langston like, “Here, you need to read something.” I think that being my first introduction to poetry, it got ingrained in me. The blues has a sorrow but it’s also joyful. You can think about it like gospel.
Q: Have you ever had trouble leaving your written poetry on the page and trusting yourself that it’s good? How do you get past that roadblock?
Daye: I definitely have trouble with this still, it’s really just the matter of trusting your readers. I tell people to make sure they’re aware that people are reading your story and that’s all they’re getting. Even if you have to change part of the story to make it not true, it’s just about trusting it, knowing that you have engaged readers.
Q: How do you figure out what to write about, or do you just write?
Daye: I write a bunch of poems and give them to the ones I trust to tell me which ones suck and which ones don’t suck and I go from there. Let me give you a prompt to get you started. First, I want you to forget all relations of time, it doesn’t exist in this poem. I want you to start a poem with, “When I was my grandfather’s father I…” You’re not concerned with time or lineage or anything. Just write. Here’s another one. I want you to think of language you might have heard from your family around a dinner table and use that language to create a poem. But after every phrase or line that you use I want you to say, “Said the knowing.”
Q: What is “the knowing”?
Kayla Matzek is a third-year student at UC Santa Barbara, majoring in Writing and Literature in the College of Creative Studies. She is a Web and Social Media Intern with UC Santa Barbara’s Division of Humanities and Fine Arts.