8 Questions, 2 Coffees, and 1 Voice: A Morning with Tara Shea Burke

by Emily Duquette

Tara Shea Burke is a poet, feminist, activist, and teacher who is working on a collection of poetry after traveling to South Africa and Senegal immersed in service learning. She earned her MFA from Old Dominion University in 2012 and helped found and edit the first volumes of Barely South Review. She is a poetry editor for The Quotable, teaches English and writing in Norfolk, and yoga in the Hampton Roads area. She has published poems and essays, and her chapbook, Let the Body Beg, was published in May 2014 by ELJ Publications.

Emily Duquette: How does identity play a role in your writing?

Tara Shea Burke: It’s such a big question because I think about it constantly. The more I let go of the idea as I come to the page the better. I let go of the need to talk about what happened in the news, like Ferguson, or the fact that my partner is trying to be a cop. It’s a constant reality check for me. I’m really searching for the humanity behind every story. The more I let go and just accept the image that comes to the page, the more identity comes back around. Identity is always there.

I was telling my students that the other day.  Whether you’re writing from a persona or about something personal, you carry your identity. It’s your religion, your race, your privilege, your oppression; you carry it no matter what. Identity is important. You need to know who you are at an intimate level. If you focus only on intellectualism and not on who you are as you come to the page, then you are missing a big portion of your own voice and the truth of your experience. Look and share and connect with other people’s stories as much as you can. All I know is that we are living this big story and we have to share it, otherwise we are just living alone.

When I was younger, I felt so lost in my own identity. I wanted to serve but I didn’t know who I was and there was this guilt about not knowing who I was in relation to the people around me. We have to know ourselves first; know who we silence and who we help to speak. And that’s okay as long as we are aware of what we are doing in relation to the people and voices around us.

ED: It is important for women to have a voice in the world today. What do you think your feminist voice adds to the discourse?

TSB: Part of me wants to say my feminism is a messy, messy feminism. I want to say that I hope I adopt a feminism like Roxane Gay. Her new book, Bad Feminist, was recently published, and it’s about recognizing that we are human, we are messy, and we are going to “other” people for the rest of our lives. As long as we recognize it, then we can start from a clear place. Then part of me remembers that my views are coming from someone who claims lesbianism, who claims woman, who curls her hair and wears silver jewelry and mascara. It’s important to say that I am white and things comes with that, I am a woman and things come with that, and I am a lesbian and things come with that. I have to recognize that things come with identity, and it’s okay when others don’t want my label. It’s not about me, it’s about that label. I also think it’s important for me to be a lesbian-feminist. I adopt this because of the work of Dr. Julie Enszer, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of Sisterhood and others. She reminds me how important it still is to still take on my particular identity and discourse even though we may be moving towards a more inclusive sexual identity as a culture. How can we stand side by side, how can we stand side by side with men? How can I look into the audience after someone asks why I call myself a feminist — because that was a question after my reading at the literary festival — when I can feel the heat rising in me? I get nervous and angry and sad because I don’t know how to answer that. I have to remember that this is probably an 18 year-old that is saying, Wait, we are trying to make things equal – why do we need this label feminism? I don’t know how to answer correctly other than to say we are all feminists. Even if we don’t know it, all people want equality. Even when we jump on stereotypes I think it’s just because people are afraid and they jump on stereotypes for reassurance, but when you offer them equality they are willing to listen.

So what am I trying to add? A little more joy and recognition and that it’s okay to carry a label or identity. When people are angry at the labels and privileges I carry often that means that I need to write my poetry from the best perspective that I can and know that it’s not going to be for everyone. Sometimes we silence others just by speaking our truth. Do the best you can to contribute to the other voices and the movements that bring more voices to life, so that you can still be you, but know that there must be room for others. We are all humans, just trying to figure it out and that’s what I think feminism is too, we’re just trying to give a voice to everyone.

ED: How has your art altered your life?

TSB: I was thinking about this on the drive here. Has art altered my life or have I altered my art? They feel so interconnected and fluid right now for the first time. The past maybe year or so, I feel like my art and my life are one. I want to walk around as a poet and to really feel that I am an artist. I am failing at it all the time, but it’s a practice. It took me a long time to think of myself as an artist, and I think today, maybe because of your question, I am really able to say, Yes, I am an artist.To be a poet is to be an artist.

I have this story from when I was very young. I used to draw for my mom and I was always messy. I would color outside the lines and rip them apart and try to draw stick figure people. Nobody ever taught me how to draw because you don’t get taught that for a while. My mom and dad would always laugh about it and they were very supportive for me in so many other ways. They wanted me to do what I wanted to do and be who I wanted to be, but this was that one moment where they limited that freedom. They told me from a very young age that I would never be an artist. I was always a strong girl and they were supportive in my loud and rambunctious and nerdy spirit, but that always stuck, I would never be an artist. So from a very early age, I said, “I’m not an artist, I’m not creative.” I never spent any time drawing or doing what we think of as classical art. I always knew I was a writer, but I never equated the two. This, poetry, is just as much art as anything else. Of course now I want to take a drawing class and get naked and let other people draw me and roll around on the canvas, but it’s amazing how a little thing like this will just close you off. I think that people can be taught anything just as well as those who are born with natural talent. If you give yourself wholly to something, I don’t think it matters what you are born with.

It’s about slowing the hell down, which is a tough practice for me. The more I identify with myself as a poet, that this is me forever, the more I learn how to embody that lifestyle. I’m going to be a better writer if I look around and think and feel and live awake to it all. I don’t know if I’d be this awake if I hadn’t found poetry.

ED: What connections do you find between the poetic experience and yoga?

TSB: What poetry does is sit you down and ask you to look at things clearly as they are right now. We need to accept the mess, the beauty, and the war and to put it into words and to wake people up to it all. True yoga is not about the body; it’s about being a good person and being awake. It’s about accepting when you are angry when you are meant to be angry and expressing our emotions in true, healthy ways that do the least harm. Because I am a student of Tim Seibles, that’s how I hear and think about poetry, too. It’s about waking up and feeling, experiencing everything in a spiritual way. Just let it shred you. Just let it really break you down and be okay with that.

ED: What writers have influenced you and how does their work resonate in your work?

TSB: Well I have to mention Tim again because Tim Seibles is the person who brought me to poetry. He is in my head and will always be a part of my poetic voice. Luisa Igloria, also at Old Dominion University, has been a part of my poetic voice almost as long too, so she’s also a part of me. Still, Tim’s poetry resonates with me on a visceral, digestive level. I’ve heard him tell me so many times to just keep writing and keep feeling and that’s what his poetry does for me. His poems will always move me and send me to a level of “what?!”

Anne Sexton will always have an influence on me too. She reminds me to get a little wild and let the image get messy. Her images and her life story and her sense of wild leaping reminds me of freedom, in similar ways that my favorite South American poets play with leaping and imagery, like Pablo Neruda. Also my dog’s name is Pablo Neruda. I come home and say, Pablo Neruda, back from the dead, and he wags his tail.

Sharon Olds is a body image poet as well and her images have really helped me speak truth about life as it is. Ani Difranco has also been an essential component of my writing. She, among other radical women folk singers, is highly responsible for all I know, feel, and want to be. I love her terribly and do agree, that everyone is a fucking Napoleon.

Stacy Waite is a wonderful poet that I met and heard read at AWP. Now I always go to the panels that she’s on because they are the LGBTQI panels that really take on identity in poetry. Her poems always floor me. Many memoirists have also influenced my work. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m just a memoirist in lines, which is fine and something I should probably embrace. I am reading a lot of Jeanette Walls lately and her family stuff because I am working on some family poems. I love Cheryl Strayed and she’s really in right now for her book, Wild. This memoir about walking the Pacific Crest Trail, and her relationship with her mother, remind me to live fully and embrace all of life. There’s so many more now. Everyone. All the poets. They all change me.

ED: What relations do you draw between the body and the poetic voice? Is there something muscular in good poetry?

TSB: This is my favorite question but I think I’m going to have the hardest time answering because it’s so close to my heart. For the longest time I ignored my body and had a bad relationship with the body and food, and I’ve worked really hard to make that better and good, but the more I worked on giving the relationship with my body a positive voice, the more my poetry shifted from the type of confessional poetry towards poems that open up at the end. I want my poems to offer possibility. The more I stepped into my body and realized this is also a feminist question, (how long have writers dismissed the body image poets simply because they write about the body) the more I was able to embrace a bigger voice that went beyond my own particular experience, even though it begins there.

When we are exploring what we feel and taste and want, we are doing a service to the world. I think we do less when we are trying to intellectualize everything. We need both but we can’t ignore the body. Young people are still committing suicide and have eating disorders and it’s 2014. Why is this still happening? It’s not purely a biological thing,  it’s a social thing as well because we ignore are primal bodily needs. Sex is everywhere but it’s not good sex. I mean porn is good too because you can’t censor, but it needs to be individualized. So yes, good poetry has to be muscular and you don’t have to write about the body, but you should write from the body otherwise people aren’t going to give a shit.

ED: Relationships between people and animals can offer comfort and support. Do animals play a role in your life, and how have they encouraged you as a writer?

TSB: Yes, for me my dog is my little Buddha, even though he’s actually Pablo Neruda. We have four dogs, but one of the dogs is mine. He reminds me to let go. When I come home and I can feel my body holding on to a shitty day at work, I come home and my dog is simply happy. He’s like, Yay, you’re home. Life is good if we go outside and throw this ball. Look at my wiggly butt. In that way, besides how my partner has been my rock and my grounding and I need her so much, besides her, my dog is definitely my inspiration to just let go and be really present. It doesn’t matter that he waited for me to come home all day. When I’m home, I’m home and that’s it. He is always present-minded and happy.  My fat cat is my reminder that we should all be fat bitches and own it. My chickens are my connection to the earth. They are also badass and sassy. My relationship with my chickens is important because it brings me close to nature and I crave nature, even though we live in the city. I collect my chickens’ eggs every day and they are disgusting and covered in their shit. I crack them open and there’s part of their body in the eggs and I’m eating it and I just love that; Look at that, I’m going to eat that.

We’ve made dogs into dogs so I feel this responsibility towards them. When they are fucked up it’s our fault. They just want to please us and give us love. We do weird things with our animals. I feed my dogs my boogers. My girlfriend is going to be mad that I’m putting that in an interview, but it’s true. Dogs groom each other and lick their butts and their ears. Animals ground us and connect us all to the parts of our body and nature that we ignore.

ED: What experiences do you wish to share with young writers? What do you wish you had known when you began your poetic vocation?

TSB: There’s so much I want to say. We have to find this intense balance between letting go and embracing fully. What it means to be a poet is personal. It’s a practice. It’s not about what you get, it’s about what you put out. It’s not about what happens. You hope that people care but if not it doesn’t mean stop, it might mean you’re not ready yet or they’re not ready yet. Consider your audience. The balance between letting go also happens in the writing process. Get it all on the page first and prewrite and then let go, but also let editing be another kind letting go. When you let go and listen that’s when the muse appears, whether the muse is you in a different form, or an actual magical being, because when you let go, you discover. Every good poet says that, so maybe I’m just trying really hard to be a good poet, but I believe it. Revision is hard when you’re beginning, but there’s more there if you let revision be magical. Do whatever you want, consider identity and audience and know what you carry, but also do what you want to do and say what you want to say. Do whatever the fuck you want, but embrace it. There that’s it.

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Emily Duquette is a believer in the unsaid world and ever willing to play witness to the forsaken things. She is a lifelong poet and student currently studying at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA. On weekends she loves wandering out into Spanish moss forests, riding horses, or pretending to be a mermaid to confuse local tourists.