Monday, October 16, 2023

Q&A with Tennison S. Black




Tennison S. Black is the author of the new poetry collection Survival Strategies. Black is the managing editor of Sundress Publications and Best of the Net. They live in Washington state.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection?


A: About mid-2012 I was in Jeanne Yeasting’s class at Western and in our final project for the course we had to put together a chapbook. I chose to collect some of my desert pieces that dealt with the themes that are now in the book. So that was the first time I thought that maybe I had a project on my hands.


Then when I was accepted to ASU for my grad program and I knew I was going back—and I also knew I had a lot of unresolved trauma I was going to have to face if I went back to Arizona—I wrote what would much later become the first poem in the collection as we know it today.


So the poems I’ve been working on for 13 years now. But in a very real sense, I’ve been working on it for my entire life. Which I don’t say to be dramatic—but I couldn’t have written it at all without the experiences and without being the kid who was just trying to survive a tough place.


Q: The poet Cynthia Hogue said of the collection, “With grace and grit, Tennison Black creates a stunning portrait of the ethos of a male dominance (of nature, animals, and women) that haunts us all today.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: Cynthia Hogue is someone who I deeply admire both in her work and in her character and her estimation of my work means the world to me. These are words I hold as very dear.


She, more than anyone, has seen this work evolve, watched me wrestle with my own traumas and challenges the work brought up, and she’s read it in many forms as I worked on it and through it, so that she still finds value there humbles me deeply.

Q: How was the book's title (also related to the title of two of the poems) chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The collection had many forms throughout this process, including at one point being a 90-something-page-long poem. But it lacked focus and purpose and was more a meandering than a focused, purposeful work that fits together.


The title came, in a very real sense, when I had a clear sight of the book as a whole instead of its disparate parts. The two poems with that title had different titles that I can’t now recall and when I retitled them, it was a couple of months before I realized that was the name of the collection.


If you go to Yuma, or really most of the rural Arizona towns, there’s a level of scrappy toughness that I’ve yet to see equaled anywhere else. And that's where I was built.


Out there, bodies are rugged—yes, physically, but also emotionally, creatively—life there is an act of determination and for me anyway, as a sensitive kid in that environment, an act of defiance—an act of survival.


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the poems would appear in the collection?


A: It took me years to actually see the arc. Even once it took shape as a collected set of poems, it was a collection more like a collage until the last round of edits just before it won the NPS.


I was reordering it (again—for probably at least the 10th or 20th time) and as I walked along the poems (I lay them on the floor when working on ordering—like a river of poems) I could feel it form into an arc and I moved a few more and I realized it was done.


Which sounds hokey to me, but it was the arc that showed me it was done. And it took me a long time to realize it had an arc at all.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Poetically I’m working on my second collection which I hope to have finished soon. But it’s not really Western in scope.


I’m also working on a book of Western stories and a novel about an old woman.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Hmmm, I think more people should know that kangaroo rats don’t have to drink water, ever. And kestrel usually weigh somewhere between 3 and 6 ounces but can fly almost 40 miles an hour. And Yuma is more than the place where snowbirds go, and more than where our lettuce comes from. And being kind is the only thing in the world that actually makes people great.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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