Terry Ann Thaxton’s first book of poems Getaway Girl debuted March 2011 (Salt Publishing). Her second book,
The Terrible Wife, will be published also by Salt in 2013. She is Associate Professor of English at the University of Central Florida where she directs the Literary Arts Partnership. Her essays have appeared in Seattle Journal for Social Justice and Teaching Artist Journal. Her book Creative Writing in the Community is forthcoming from Continuum Publishers.
Terry Ann Thaxton Interview, with Doug Van Gundy
Charles Dudley Warner is credited with remarking that "everybody talks about the weather but nobody seems to do anything about it". These poems of yours are full of storms: exterior and interior, meteorological and emotional. What makes this weather imagery so resonant for you?
Floridians refer to our two seasons in different ways: “hot and not as hot,” “hot and hurricane,” “hot and hotter,” “hot and January 14,” the list goes on. Certainly, our seasons are not as distinct as those north of us, the landscape of Florida is in constant upheaval. It is the relentless disruption of the elements that find its way into my poems, into my being. I’ve lived in Florida my entire life. No matter how close or distant I’ve lived to where I work, I’ve always driven past or through construction. Even during nation-wide real estate lulls, here in Florida someone is bulldozing something. Trees are coming down, houses or apartments are going up in their place. Trees, vines, shrubs, grasses—these are inconveniences to developments, not something to be incorporated into daily living. Right now, I can think of three major construction projects between my home and the trail where I take my dog for a daily walk, less than four miles from my house.
I believe it is the disorder of the elements—specifically the disruption of earth—that deeply affects my sense of self. My interior landscape cannot be at peace when the natural landscape is taken away and replaced with artificiality. We want our surroundings to ground us, and my ground is perpetually shifting.
Do you see your poetry as a reaction to that disorder? As a way to impose order on a disordered world?
Yes, I do see it as a reaction to the disorder, as an attempt to make sense of it. There was a time, as a younger writer, when I thought poetry imposed order on the chaos of our world. I no longer think that is necessarily the case. My poems feel to me like a re-creation of the chaos, an acknowledgement of the storms in which I live.
I find it interesting that you make a distinction between the making of sense and the making of order. I think that I agree with you on this point, but I have never consciously considered the distinction. Can you say a little more about the way that recreating the chaos of our world in poetry helps you to make sense of that chaos?
I attempt to make sense of it by writing into and through the storm. I suppose "attempting to make sense" is similar to “discovery” in writing. No matter how many poems I write or how many books I read, I don't think I can make order out of the chaos. I think internalizing the chaos and finding figurative and literal images of this chaos helps me make some sense of the disorder. In writing poetry, I can see it in smaller segments than the swirling mess in the landscape around me or in the untamable thoughts of past mixed with present mixed with reality mixed with an imagined world. Line breaks bring some sort of rhythm to the disruptive sounds of airplanes, bulldozers, roofing nail guns, and cars driving 50 mph on my 20 mph street. Certainly words on a page do form some kind of order—syntactical, grammatical, etc. But I'm writing to find some sort of sense. I don’t know why I’m no longer concerned about imposing order on the chaotic world. Perhaps it is my pessimism or my occasional sense of nihilism that makes me not want to presume anything I write can impose an order on the chaos. I think I can try to make sense of our world, which is what I do every day when I try to explain my life, or when I relate what happened to me last week, or when I go for a walk, or when I get up in the morning. I acknowledge that I cannot impose order, but I am trying to make sense of where and who I am.
Walk or Fly, But Do Not Look Down
Pine cones fall on my head each day
when I collect my mail. I am not afraid of walking
down my street, but when I fly
in dreams, above buildings, I’m afraid of telephone wires,
afraid of dropping my arms
in order to dodge the hundreds of lines
that block my flight.
I’ve never been afraid of climbing trees.
Do not warn me of coffee grounds or pebbles.
Do not shred the curtains or teach me to fold towels.
I am not afraid of sleeping or waking.
I’m not afraid of unlocked doors, I’m afraid of windows left open at night.
I’m not afraid of blankets, I’m afraid of a pillow pushed onto my face.
I’m not afraid of my swimming pool, I’m afraid of tidal waves.
I am always waiting for lemons to fall from the tree.
I am not afraid of hurricanes. I’m not afraid of rain.
Here I am walking on the dark street toward thunder.
Is there anything to fear in a universe that hums like this?
This summer it has rained
every afternoon, right on schedule,
just as it did when you and I drove
into strange driveways to pick up clothes
for Cubans who had drifted
to Florida on rafts, looking
for a new life. In the twenty years
since your death, I’ve wanted
to write to you in your palace
of dirt, and tell you the story of my life,
and now, I finally can:
I’ve moved the gardenia bush
to the other side of the yard
for sunlight. In its place, beneath
the shade of an overbearing
camphor tree, I buried the roots
of a canna lily, and just outside
my window I can watch
its petals fall onto the wet earth.
From that window, the dog
from next door watches me,
and, like me when I tried to talk to you,
she whines and sighs,
knowing that I will never understand
what she really wants. Perhaps it is so:
when you were alive,
you dusted the air between us
with your secrets, and now we are
barely part of the same earth.
Why is it, Mother, that even though
I have planted everything
I had ever hoped to plant,
the gardenia will not put forth
white flowers? Sometimes it is
too much for one woman,
and then I remember that you never found
the sky empty of rain clouds either.
I am doing good deeds,
as you taught me, even though,
unlike you, I know it will not get me
any closer to your god or keep me out
of hell. I can still imagine the people
of the second exodus that you rescued,
the clothes you gathered
for them: house after house,
the rain beating on windowed lives,
you stood at the doorbell while my eyes
peeked through the Florida afternoon
storm. I can see you,
oh Mary, oh Rescuer of Barren Lives,
swimming back, climbing on board,
with me in the learner’s seat,
ferrying the dejected clothes
to churches for distribution.
Nothing has changed, Mary:
people are still hoping they can
continue to live inside someone else’s
clothes, like me, like the dead leaf
outside my window holding on
to the thread of an abandoned spider’s web.
Arbor Day, 1967
If I moved backward, I’d find a hole
filled with my father’s words.
But here—if I dare to open
the window—I’ll find him dead.
I keep my past in a box
as if there are more days waiting for me.
I try to keep the dog
from howling at the silence.
Here I am, standing next to trees
in my yard. Someday I will give them
Even though I’ve come so far
the curtains remain closed.
We each cling to our own past.
Here is 1967. Here is the tree my schoolmates and I
planted for Arbor Day: the shovels, the circle
we made, the hole, the water.
One day perhaps I will be
invited back through the door,
but I’ve never been far
away from that tree
or from those lies.
This is the way I want to remember it:
a girl watering the dirt, her prayer
for it to grow and keep growing.
and her hands cupped against the tree.