People joke that their life is a movie, but Taylor Byas believes it. Her debut full-length poetry collection I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times sees Byas reflect on growing up in Chicago and her eventual move to Cincinnati after completing a PhD, which she likened to Dorothy’s journey in The Wiz, a movie that was a cultural touchstone in her home. In Byas’ Chicago, love and violence existed side by side, poem by poem, in sharp turns of phrase. And though she appreciated her time there when she was a child, “What we want has so little room to grow,” she notes in one poem.
In prose both heart wrenching in one line and hilarious the other, Byas paints a portrait of life in Chicago with all of its ups and downs. There’s the immediate love and protection she grants her younger brother, the feeling of community on porch steps, but at the same time, there’s inherent danger of being Black in a city, a struggle for bodily liberation, and relationship troubles, innocent or severe, aptly summed up in one’s poem title, “Men Really Be Menning.”
Our Culture sat down with Taylor Byas to talk about the influence of The Wiz, humor as a coping mechanism, how society hardens young Black men, and more.
Congratulations on your debut full-length poetry collection! How does it feel for it to finally be out?
I think I’m equally excited and terrified. Just because once it’s out in the world it’s out of your hands in a scary way. But I’m also just excited to see what the book does in the world. I’m looking forward to it!
You’ve published three books in as many years. Does the writing process come naturally to you or is it tough to be so productive?
I was really fortunate enough to be in a PhD program that really gave me the space to write a lot. I got a lot of writing done in my program, including a thesis for my master’s. So I came into it with a significant amount of work the world hadn’t seen, and then I was in classes where I generated a lot of work. I think, with those two together, I was able to gather a lot of material for a lot of different projects. And just being intentional about writing towards those projects, too, was really helpful.
I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times is inspired by The Wiz, and you parallel your life growing up and leaving Chicago with Dorothy’s journey leaving Kansas. When did these two ideas start to merge for you?
The Wiz has been a movie I’ve loved since childhood. It’s one of those cultural staples, those family household things you have to know and experience, often multiple times, just because you love it so much. It’s a bonding thing. I really adore that movie, and I always love the fact that we have this really Black version of something else that already existed, too. It was really special to me in that way.
I moved away from home for undergrad — I went to Birmingham, Alabama, which is a ten-hour drive from home in Chicago. I think once I was away from home for a long time, it gave me the space to newly appreciate where I came from and to think about what home means. Then I moved again to Cincinnati, and I was like, ‘Oh, these different places are really putting into perspective all the different ways Chicago has raised me, and all these alternative ways I’m having to build home and community in the others.’ I think those moves really started to bring this project together, and naturally, the trajectory of moving provided this natural way of thinking about it and frame how I was already thinking about home and the journey of womanhood, and all of those sorts of things that culminate in the project.
From its very early chapters, I was struck by the dissonance that Chicago poses to a young person: You write about so much love in your earlier years, friends coming to join others on porches, and I’m also thinking about your poem where you compare Black children to blackberries. But existing alongside this is violence — there’s the creepy man at the corner store, and the image of you digging in the bullet hole of your father’s recliner is really powerful. Did you feel this kind of friction in the moment, or was it recognized once you started writing about it?
I think I recognized it once I started writing about it. One of the goals of this project is to push back against the monolithic pictures and ideas people have about Chicago. Something I think is true of Chicago and most big cities we live in is that most things exist simultaneously. There is an immense love and nostalgia in all the ways we felt safe and held in the places that raised us. And then there are all the different dangers we’ve all experienced and encountered, especially now. There are all of these ways it’s dangerous to be out in the world in general. What I hope is, in the reading of this book, there are people who are not from Chicago that read this book and have some moments of recognition. Like, ‘Oh, this is not just a Chicago thing.’ There are ways that people who aren’t from there can connect, because Chicago is multidimensional, it is dynamic. And that’s something I think is really important to see about the city, and not just what the media tells us what Chicago is to the outside world.
Of course. It reminds me of the other poem where, when learning you’re from Chicago, someone asks if you’re in a gang, and you’re like, “…No?”
Oh my goodness. Being in Birmingham and telling people I was from Chicago… It was a journey. That was, 9 times out of 10, the reaction I would get. And sometimes still do, in Cincinnati! But in Birmingham it was very consistent. It was an interesting social experiment.
In the poem “Painted Tongue,” you recount a dream where your father gifts you new jewelry, but the most poignant part to me is the end. You write, “My mother and I becoming each other, her bruises and scars passed down, family heirlooms that will take me decades to stop wearing, to sell.” Is this about the transactional nature of art, how, in order to make it as a poet and produce these books, you have to sell your writing and trauma to others?
I think that’s definitely a part of it. There’s an element that’s thinking about all of the things that we inherit from our parents and our ancestors. In the larger scheme of things, thinking about being Black in Chicago, and what comes with that. And on a smaller level, it’s like, what am I taking from my parents, my mom? There are ways that I think, for writers of color in particular, we have to tell particular stories to be noticed or platformed. There’s a way that capitalism encourages that, too, in certain cycles the publishing world goes through. For example, in Black History Month, we’ll see calls for this and calls for that. And I think that’s also a big question I had to wrestle with for the book.
When you do write about your traumas, especially writing about people who are still alive, there is this question of, what happens when this gets into the hands of the people I’m writing about? Some of these poems have already found my parents, my dad. I also think there’s a quite literal selling, where I’m quite literally telling the world my story. I think there’s a part of that, too, that feels cathartic, telling it and having it out there and sharing it with others. In the same way I think selling an heirloom would come with an ethical question, telling a long and complicated and traumatic story about family also comes with a question. What’s the cost, the true price?
I thought it was interesting how the “Poppy Girls” section explored bodies, whether scorn towards them, recountings of sex, harsh examination. There’s this really striking comparison in “How to Pray” that likens the scale’s flashing number as a sort of god, something we’re continually living for and adjusting our lives around. Talk a little bit about the inspiration for this poem, and this section as well.
“Poppy Girls,” in the movie, is this really interesting scene where Dorothy and her gang walk up on these women who are dancing seductively, and it kinda comes out of nowhere but it’s this really sexy scene. And I was like, ‘This has to be the title for the section about bodies.’
There are a lot of different ways that bodies are important to me. I went through a series in my life where I struggled with my own body image, my weight, and that’s where that poem comes in, thinking of the red light on the scale like a god because I felt like it was taking over and controlling me and my life for a long time. But I also think a lot of that problematic relationship I have with my body was also just a result of harmful relationships I had with men, as well. In the different ways those intimacies with men were used against me, or trust was broken. For me, those things are directly connected to how I see myself, exacerbations of shame, of embarrassment, all of those sorts of things. They’re deeply connected, and that’s how I see that section of the book working for me… but ugh, that scene in the movie, it’s just perfect. I thought, ‘This has to be in the book. Nothing else would fit.’
Something that I thought was so important is how you balance humor along with heavy topics. There’s a poem in the same section where honey mustard sauce from Wendy’s sends you down a spiral of thoughts and memories where the endpoint is a lonely night in your apartment. Was this pairing something you strived for in this collection?
Oh, I love that poem. There are definitely some moments of humor that I intentionally have in the collection. The Kill Bill poem comes to mind, there’s moments in there that make me laugh. I think humor is really important to the collection, but it’s also really culturally important. I think about coping mechanisms, and how I and my family deal with difficult things — humor is absolutely a crucial part of that. If you are on Twitter long enough, you’ll see that when anything terrible or serious is happening, I can bet a dollar there is some hilarious tweet making the absolute fun of it.
I mean, the submersible.
Oh, it was so fun. Don’t cancel me, y’all, but those were hilarious. The hurricane that just hit, there were videos of these Black children dancing in the flood water! Which, on the record, terrible idea, y’all! Get out of the flood water! But still, just the urge to seek joy in situations of disaster and hopelessness — the endless urge to find a way to build joy into it is crucial and culturally important. It had to be a part of this book.
There’s this really powerful duo of poems, the first starting with a quote from Claudia Rankine’s poem “In Memory of Trayvon Martin,” where you examine your younger brother’s innocence in the moonlight. And in the next poem, “How Young Boys Survive the Ghetto: 101,” you lay ground rules that end with the quote, “let me remember you like this, carefree.” The obvious thought in the back of readers’ mind here, is that even if young men follow the rules, do everything right, there’s still a chance of danger and death, like Trayvon Martin and the many young Black men and women that came after him. What did you want readers to feel with these two poems back-to-back specifically?
There’s, of course, this larger national and global comment on the danger that young Black men, and Black bodies in general, are just constantly in. But there’s a very particular way, for instance in Chicago, that being raised in a city hardens you, or attempts to harden you. I think I was thinking a lot about my young brother, who is the most sensitive soul, and who was also going through a difficult time. I think of all the ways the world was trying to harden him, and all the ways I saw him resisting that. Underneath that is thinking of all the men I’ve had relationships with that were hardened by a world that hasn’t been kind to them, or given them a safe space to be anything but that. I feel deep sadness for the way of the world and the way Black men in particular are not allowed to be the best versions of themselves. And as a result, cannot be and often are not good friends, partners, parents. I think, while looking at my brother and thinking about him individually, writing about a deeper sadness about the nature of Black men and how they have harmed me individually, but how society socializes them to be harmful. Which I think is really unfortunate.
One poem ends with the quote, “I was naive enough to think I could control a life. Even mine.” Does this line take on a new significance in later sections, after you leave Chicago and, in a sense, create a new life?
Yeah, and I think this also has resonance when I’m thinking about the movie as well. There’s this journey to Oz, where they’re like, ‘We’re gonna get there, we’re gonna ask for things, we’re gonna get them, and it’ll be exactly like how we want.’ And I think in a lot of ways that has been my life, in certain stages. Before I went to undergrad, I had all these ideas about what it was gonna be like. And I got there and I was in this long and traumatic relationship and it was nothing like how I imagined. And before I got here there were all these ways I thought Cincinnati would change and transform me, and some of those things happened and some of them didn’t. There are all these ways, that in thinking about home, I think I have the answers and I know how to do it, this will change me, and it’s always out of my control. It never goes according to my plan, and there are always other things happening, other things coming up. Just in the past few months, I graduated with my doctorate in poetry, and I was so sure I’d come out and get a teaching job, and I’d be starting as a professor somewhere, and almost two months in, I’m at a corporate writing job. I pivoted very hard! And I love it, and I think it was the right decision to make, but I’ve been constantly reminded that everything is so out of my control. Which I think can be scary, but at times, can be freeing and a really grounding thing to remember. It’s gonna happen the way that it’s supposed to happen. And that has kept me going through some difficult times.
I loved the ode to Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” music video, where you say in this really clever line, “Yoncé show me how to do damage in high heels / how to become a chandelier from a windshield’s leavings.” What did this video mean to you in the moment and now, years later?
I was coming out of a really difficult relationship, and I was having trouble getting access to rage. And I think Beyoncé’s music video, for me, was this really gorgeous and beautiful illustration of what that looked like. Here she is, in this gorgeous gown, happily smashing things into oblivion, and I was like, ‘This is what I want. This is the motto of what I want to access emotionally right now.’ Writing about that music video really allowed me to give into some of those emotions I had trouble accessing. But then again, ‘Teach me how to become a chandelier from a windshield’s leavings…’ I felt so devastated and destroyed. I was like, ‘How do I rebuild myself? How do I come out on the other side of it?’ There’s a more practical side of how I piece myself back together after this devastating and terrible experience.
That’s interesting — you had this rage, but just by watching the video and writing about it, you were satisfied?
[Laughs] Sometimes what happens to me is, I’m trying to write about a thing that is still so hot. And I’m trying to do it too close. I’ve had this problem when trying to write about other things — trying to write a poem about something that’s really heavy and close to me. I’m trying to write the poem with “I…” “I…” “I…” and I’ll get stuck. I’ll have to find another entry point. I think focusing on the visuals and the details of the music video allowed me to step back from what I was feeling, and examine what I was feeling in a way that I wasn’t able to when I was so close to it. There are some ekphrastic things in this book, and maybe in others I’ve written. Ekphrasis is really important to me and my writing, it’s actually kind of part of why I’m a poet now. Finding an alternative entrance into something, mainly through a visual, is a pretty surefire way for me to get at something I’m having trouble accessing.
I think the last poem is my favorite. You write to the moon as this friend, sister, mentor, and there’s this really funny dichotomy where you write, “You in my bed every night and nothing ever to say of it. My therapist thinks I’m projecting.” What was this poem’s inspiration?
This poem might have been the very last poem I wrote for the book. The end of the book was different previously, then I wrote this, and knew it’d be the end. I think it was a writing prompt, actually. I was at a point where I was stuck, and the wonderful Ross White sent me a document of really fantastic poem prompts, and one was to write a letter to the moon. I was like, ‘Sure! Let’s go for it.’ And this is what came out. It was a really fun exercise, but the prompt also allowed me to come to the page with no preconceived notions of what the poem needed to be. And I just allowed whatever was sitting, ready to come out, to come out. I didn’t realize I needed to write this poem until I had written it. I think that’s characteristic of what my writing process looks like now. In the beginning phases of my PhD, I was writing a lot, because I was constantly in class, doing these generative exercises and having the space to write. Then COVID hit, and eventually I moved out of coursework, and had to figure out how to make the writing happen without a regular schedule.I had to really get comfortable with the fact that I couldn’t force the poems. They have to form on their own, or the idea of one had to come to me whenever, and I had to be ready to receive it. This was definitely a case of something being ready for me. I was in the right space at the right time to receive it. I’m grateful it did, because the book needed to end there.
The last lines of it really stuck with me too, particularly “Love was an ancestor of quietude.” I’m curious to know what this line means to you.
How much time do you have? [Laughs] In the context of the poem, the speaker mistakes the moon’s silence for abandonment. In reality, the moon is always there. It’s always quietly following us around and watching over us. In the moment, the speaker has this realization of, ‘Maybe I need to redefine what love looks like.’ I think, also, this idea of quiet support, quietly watching over, is significant to me, because I think you get a sense from the book and some of the experiences I write about with my father and my family, there’s a way there’s a lot of noise has been a part of my life, too, in ways that don’t feel very good. There’s something about the quiet that feels really significant in that moment as well, in imagining and thinking about how love shows up in those romantic relationships, how I’ve been conditioned to see it or how it’s been allowed or a volatile type of thing. When in reality, maybe what I’ve needed and what has been there for me all along is this other version of the thing. I think it was definitely a moment of rethinking what love looks like, what it meant, and coming to appreciate those less vocal or outward or boisterous displays, appreciating the ones and the people who have silently been there and beared through the things with me. It brought me a new appreciation for friends and family who have done that for me.
So finally, what’s next? Are you working on any upcoming collections or other projects?
Yeah! There is a poetry anthology, The Southern Poetry Anthology from Texas A&M University Press, for the Alabama poets, coming out very soon as well. There’s a YA anthology of Black folklore poetry at the top of next year, that I’ve co-edited with two other amazing co-editors I love and adore, Amber McBride and Erica Martin. Those things are on their way. I am working on full-length number three. Kind of insane to think about, even though this one is about to come out. It feels very strange, also, to be writing so far away from this. I think I signed the contract for this two years ago. Which means the poems in here were written two plus years ago. It feels very strange but really endearing to be back in this book now, and to be so deep in the poet I was before. It’s bittersweet. I miss these days when I was just first starting, but it’s encouraging to see this and feel like I’ve evolved. I’m always getting closer to… something. What it is, I dunno. But it feels like I’m getting closer to that elusive thing we’re all chasing as writers, a version of perfection we’ll never reach.
I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times is out now.