Tess Taylor on Thomas Jefferson, her family tree, and why literary history is full of omissions.

Tess Taylor arrived at poetry by first exploring other genres and possibilities. Her early training as a singer in the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and later in the San Francisco Opera, exposed her to poetry at a young age (notably the poems of William Butler Yeats, set to music), but it wasn’t until she stumbled into a poetry class with Glyn Maxwell at Amherst College in the late 1990s that she began to consider the form seriously. Unsure of how to turn writing poems into a viable living, she pursued a degree in journalism from NYU and continued to write poetry. At the end of her time there, her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was selected by Eavan Boland for the Poetry Society of America’s 2003 New York Chapbook Fellowship.

A native of California, and a descendant of Thomas Jefferson on her father's side, Taylor then turned her journalistic curiosity toward her own family history. She received funding from the American Antiquarian Society and the International Center for Jefferson Studies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and over two separate summers, she conducted research at Monticello, Jefferson’s plantation. This work culminated in her first collection, The Forage House, recently published by Red Hen Press, which interrogates the past and ideas of history and ancestry. The Poetry Foundation corresponded with Taylor via email, and an edited, condensed version of that correspondence follows.

You’ve written that as a white descendant of Thomas Jefferson, finding out about Sally Hemings was “a fierce wake-up call.” Can you describe what you were awakened from—and into—by that new knowledge?

I remember the moment that the DNA evidence about Sally Hemings’s descendants having markers that matched chromosomes of Jefferson descendants made the news. I was in the campus center at college, writing a paper about the struggles over the African Burial Ground—a plot of land under Wall Street that contains the bones of enslaved Africans who had worked in colonial New York. I felt rather arch about the fact that it had been quite convenient for New Yorkers to forget that slavery is a part of that city's history. But as news about the Hemings family unfolded, I was struck by a much deeper irony: I myself was echoing that amnesia. Even though I grew up knowing about being descended from Jefferson, I had not ever thought much about the fact that my own family had been a slaveholding family.

My aunt—on my mother’s side, not my father’s—called and said, “Isn’t this interesting? Think about the new cousins that you have that you've never known about!” I felt that I must have always known this on a certain level, but that I had never yet really let myself think about it.

That day I did begin to think about the great likelihood, the certainty even, that whether through Jefferson or through some other ancestor, I had cousins upon cousins that had never been marked down on any historic family tree. That feeling of interrelation felt profound.

This was 15 years ago now. A great preponderance of the conversation in those first years was about whether it could be “proved” that the Hemings family was actually descended from Thomas Jefferson or from some other man. The rhetoric around proof shifts between discourses: Most historians now think that the preponderance of evidence is that yes, Jefferson fathered children with Hemings. But there's enough room for doubt on the scientific—and also technically legal—level about whether there was some other Jefferson man with that exact marker that those that wish to deny it are able to. In fact, many people in my family do deny this—and others are simply content to say, “It can’t be proven.”

It may be possible to say this, surely. But to me, this seemingly pat answer felt like a convenient evasion of the larger question at hand. My history is written down, each generation. Yet the Hemings’ history was not. And the histories and lives of people who were enslaved for generations by my family were not. What struck me as a writer—a keeper of records—was encountering the historic violence implied by not writing people down—a legacy of absence that sends its tendrils into life today. I was in contact with direct evidence of that violence. 

As someone who grew up in the South, I find it almost impossible to imagine being able to consider a public antebellum figure like Thomas Jefferson without the context of his identity as a slave owner. Do you think that the original understanding you mentioned was symptomatic of your geography (of living away from the relationship between race and slavery that is explicit in the South) or of other, more unquantifiable variables?

I did grow up in California, and as a kid I didn’t visit Virginia all that often. It impressed me as an almost foreign country when I did. When I went, I really only accessed the South through visits to a space deeply within my own family, where slavery wasn’t discussed, but where there were a great many stories and rituals which I was called on to decode.

Yes, of course, I was aware that Jefferson was a slaveholder, but it wasn’t something I thought about much or knew what to make of or knew how to relate to me. I do remember being discouraged in subtle and sometimes more open ways from asking questions about it. I knew “about slavery” of course, but what, really, did I know? I didn’t know much of what was beyond that painful word. I knew nothing about anyone's names, any deeds, any relationships. Perhaps because I felt discouraged from asking more, or perhaps because people genuinely didn’t know—I really didn't think about slavery in the context of our much longer family. There are eight generations between William Randolph, who arrived in 1670, and Bennett Taylor, who fought in the Civil War and owned 49 slaves up until emancipation. There are only five generations from Bennett Taylor to me. That’s a rather enormous history not to know very much about.

But as for my not-thinking, not-seeing, not-knowing: it’s also true that the stories the wider culture keeps telling have also been in dramatic flux. The Monticello I visited when I was a child in the early and late 1980s is a very different place than Monticello now. It tells the story of Jefferson much differently. When I was a child it was almost a sacred shrine to a great man, and there was no mention of slavery, or enslaved people, or even the lives of the many women—Jefferson’s daughters and granddaughters—who functionally managed the life of the household and plantation. Part of what has been intriguing is watching the context of the story shift. As a culture we are changing and I hope [we’ll] keep changing. It’s impossible to go to Monticello now without talking about slavery, and in fact without learning the names of many enslaved people who worked at Monticello. We now have a sense of this densely populated network of activities—of daughters, of granddaughters, of overseers, of enslaved workers. We begin to see all the work on which Jefferson's many enterprises depended. 

While you were researching at Monticello, you worked alongside archaeologists who were unearthing the minutiae and physical details of the everyday world of that plantation. How did the fragments they unearthed work their way into the poems? Did they become narrative details?

During those summers when I was working at Monticello, I still had a notion that somehow this material was going to work its way into a nonfiction book. I had just graduated from journalism school, and even though I’d published a chapbook of poems with the Poetry Society of America, I wasn’t yet committed to writing this material as poems. But when I got to Monticello, I was so near the materials—the first materials—out of which historians or archaeologists (or journalists for that matter) assemble stories. I kept encountering the fragmentary nature of the past, the oddness of how we need to construct what we know. I met a curator who was working with a commonplace book—or daily notebook—kept by Jefferson’s daughter Martha as she managed the plantation. I got to see the oddly cataloged trays of buttons and pipes that came out of a dig at the site of former slave cabins, and to look into the red clay pits out of which they were coming. I stood on a grassy site by a stream where no one had dug yet, but where they believed a great many slave dwellings had been; it was a quiet day and it felt like an almost ordinary landscape. I felt the absolute strangeness of those objects—emissaries of the past—making their way into our hands for interpretation. I felt the enormous absences around them. Sometimes when I wrote about shards I was writing quickly, jotting fast, and what felt like a poem would come out. Sometimes what I captured that way felt more resonant than prose I kept trying to capture later. The prose I wrote tried to fill in the story. The poems made use of the absence.

Literary figures traipse through this collection in addition to the more prominent historical ones who appear. In what ways did you seek to broaden the scope of inheritance past literal ancestry?

Yes, you’re right—there are references to Jefferson reading Virgil, and to me reading Virgil, and to Hopkins, Auden, Ginsberg, Lowell, Akhmatova, Melville, Zbigniew Herbert, Thoreau. One of the poems, “Reading Walden in the Air,” is literally about reading Thoreau’s wildly imperfect call for local attention on an airplane over the Salt Flats and the Sierras—over the place where members of the Donner expedition resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to get west. What we inherit is mysterious. The book itself is about trying to read or decode artifacts, and of course the literature we encounter, treasure and struggle with is perhaps one of our richest and most flawed hand-me-downs. Indeed encountering literature—books we both adore and struggle with—can provoke similar kinds of questions. What do we make of the links between so-called noble human endeavors and great cruelty? What do we make of Thoreau’s virulent anti-Irish sentiment? It lies right next to his fascinating attempt to create New World metaphor by calling the mosquito a siren. We can hardly merely dispose of Thoreau, so how do we grapple with his work in the face of its flaws? 

Some people have called my book “confessional”—a term I don't feel is quite apt because it seems to assume the self in the poems is transparent. I hope to deploy and shape the self in order to dramatize urgent questions, which, though rooted through intimacy, also point elsewhere. How do we sort the cultural attic? I see this discussion about what to do with the jumble of inheritance (grandmother's lore, the painful and fragmented legacy of slavery, a love of books, Pyrex, teaspoons, the stories your parents told you, the whole spectrum of curios and left-behinds)—as a kind of proxy discussion for what it means to inherit—the problematic, sticky, imperfect work of engaging predecessors. These are all questions of what and who get valued and why. After all, literary history is itself full of omissions, and what gets saved is partial—hauntingly so. What gets left out is political, as well as mundane and accidental. 

I’m interested in the physical structure of this collection, specifically the way it moves from a starting point of history, through your investigations at Monticello, and then ends in California, at quite a physical and emotional distance and remove from these issues of race. How did you come to structure the book in these four sections? Is there an overarching principle that governed its arrangement?

Over the years I was writing these poems, I played with structure a great deal—I struggled with it. Although I had an instinct that these poems fit together, I didn't know by what means they would hang together tightly, which collage would frame their motion. The book now moves roughly east and past to west and present, as you note. But it also dips and eddies and jumps between history and lore, between looking back at places and forward towards others, between oral histories and historical documents. It is full of trade routes and longings. I don’t think I always knew how to weave this material, but I kept thinking of the crazy quilt, the collage, the cairn.

An early reader, an editor who declined the book, basically said, “I don’t get why you’re talking about Thomas Jefferson and your dying grandmother.” But to me, each was equally valuable, each mode of knowing pushed against the other to form the canon of knowledge, the way any of us come to know ourselves.

Long ago at Monticello, when the Hemings first came to the white family reunion in that fateful year after the DNA test, I remember meeting a wonderful historian named Dianne Swann-Wright, who said to me, “All history is oral before it is written.” That struck me. What are the oral histories that become our canons of knowledge? How do the tales of our ancestors inhere a sense of self? 

I do end in the west. One of the histories of this country—one of its trade routes and mythical stories—has been about looking westward. I grew up at the edge of the crossed continent. My small family made a migration that is one of the great American migrations. That's a metonym, and I used it. And yes, this feeling of being a westerner, someone who grew up in the West, informs this book. My story begins at the end of this journey and goes back to look for what set it in motion. It’s true that the California that emerges at the end of the book is somehow sunglazed, somewhat forgiven and forgiving, as if it's a place where some of the most painful elements of the history I write about could erode, reform, be recast. Perhaps that’s a myth as well—though I think and hope there's some truth in it.  

I live in California now, and I see how thorny life here really is, how strange our histories are. But maybe that’s a story for another book. 

Originally Published: December 10th, 2013

Stacey Lynn Brown is a poet, playwright, and essayist from Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. She is the author of the book-length poem Cradle Song (C&R Press, 2009) and is the co-editor, with Oliver de la Paz, of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of...

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