I’ve known Dawn Tefft for about a decade, first as my student in the doctoral Creative Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee. After she graduated, she returned for a while to UWM as a professional organizer with the American Federation of Teachers. We did organizing visits on campus to discuss labor issues and unionization during one of the most difficult periods in the history of the University of Wisconsin System. Under the banner of austerity and reform, Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature were dismantling a century of progressive gains for public and private sector workers. The assault continues. Funny thing happened, however: my former student became my sister and good friend in the long struggle for equity and social justice. Our conversation focuses on Dawn’s new chapbook, FIST (dancing girl press). There are five questions or prompts. They represent the digits of the human hand, curling in on itself, in resistance and solidarity. —Mauricio Kilwein Guevara
Mauricio Kilwein Guevara: Dawn, I’d like to ask you a question that I often pose to my students. It’s a question about an animating gesture that awakened your lifelong interest in writing. Thinking about your childhood and adolescence, was there a particular person (a family or community member, a teacher, etc.) who encouraged you as a writer? Who empowered you to see language as flexible, generative, subversive, ludic, exciting? Where were you, who helped to empower you, and what was the loving action that increased the likelihood that you would someday become a serious poet?
Dawn Tefft: I love this question, and I can’t think of a more perfect place to start. Thank you for this, for being asked to remember love and the excitement that comes with discovering that language moves and can be moved. I wouldn’t be a writer were it not for my mom, who is an avid reader, a beautiful writer in her own right, and the most empathetic person I know.
My mom took me to libraries when I was in grade school, which meant that I developed in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. We were poor and couldn’t afford dance classes or an instrument so that I could be in band, or the hat and sash I would need to be in Brownies, or any of the other fun forms of developing as a young person. Books were my world, so much so that I even read adult novels. I especially liked Little Women, Sounder, Tom Sawyer, The Secret Garden, Bella (a book about a possessed doll that scared me so much I followed my mom around while reading it), and A Tale of Two Cities.
It was also Mom who showed me the joy and playfulness inherent in language. She would sit in the floor with my brothers and me, reading out loud from Sesame Street books and animatedly performing the voices for each character. She did an especially good Grover, that women. My mom, the shyest, sweetest, most self-effacing woman, was a brilliant performer of children’s books.
I also owe a lot of my love of language to The Bible, which is a funny thing for an atheist to say. My parents were Assembly of God—they performed laying on of hands and speaking in tongues—and religion was the cornerstone of our lives. I memorized passages and recited them when I was lying in bed and trying to fall asleep. I analyzed them for Sunday school, teasing out the meaning of metaphors that my peers took literally. It was simply more important to me than the other children—both the grace of the language and the meaning of the ideas—because our religion held that my family’s suffering on earth would provide us a higher place in heaven. As James Baldwin explains in The Fire Next Time, the function of the type of Christianity to which my parents subscribed is to help people keep going in the face of hardship. The idea that you’ll be rewarded in the afterlife for your present suffering makes life not only bearable, but even something you can thrill to. There’s a valorization of pain here that is double-sided, though. As Baldwin makes clear, it is at once the thing that gives people hope and joy and often the thing that keeps them from collectively organizing against the forces that cause them pain.
I’ve gone on too long, but I can’t end without mentioning my mom’s letters. We faced a lot of problems, and my mom felt she wasn’t good at discussing these things in person, especially once we were teenagers. And, man, were we some terrible teenagers—some of my brothers stole, punched holes in the wall, used her house as a base from which to sell drugs. I was the model child who didn’t get into trouble, but I talked down to my mom, which is perhaps the worse thing to be guilty of. So she wrote us twenty-page letters in lovely, slanted cursive. She did this while we were living at home, and she still does this now. She’s a beautiful writer, and I wish I didn’t cry while reading her letters. It’s just hard knowing she doesn’t feel she can adequately voice things in person, and then there’s this permanent record of both our pain and our love. I even quote some of the letters in a memoir I’ve been writing.
I also can’t end without mentioning Rodney Jones, a poetry teacher I took classes with as an undergrad. Rodney was the first person to actively encourage me to be a writer, which meant everything. I’m not the kind of person who knows how to say certain things, although I’ll write them. I don’t think I’ve even thanked him. So, if you ever read this: Thank you, Rodney.
MKG: I’m currently in the process of reading and re-reading your outstanding new chapbook, FIST, published by dancing girl press. The fist of the title and cover refers, recently, to the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011, but it has a very long history as an image of resistance to tyranny. Could you perhaps discuss your own relationship to Wisconsin politics, labor and education, and activism? How have you personally seen the interface of education, activism, and art evolve in your life?
DT: The fist of the title refers to a long history of fist iconography in response to tyranny. I intend the image to evoke both forces of oppression and the forces that resist oppression. Just a few of the subjects the poems explore: a strike incarcerated people staged in a Georgia prison in 2010; the black power movement in the ’60s; military regimes; Parisian city planning as a method for preventing and containing uprisings; Parisian revolts; the recent uprising in Baltimore; colonialism; native peoples’ survival in occupied zones; capitalism and neoliberal economics; the survival of people living in poverty; canonical art, indie art, propaganda, and pop culture; and, as you mentioned, recent organizing during and since the Wisconsin Uprising.
I think the poems that arose from my experiences in Wisconsin are probably among the more visceral because they contain bits of my lived experience and the experiences of my community. In the last year of my PhD, I was a Co-President of my graduate assistants union, which also happened to coincide with the Wisconsin Uprising. The Uprising, for those who might not know, started with thousands of people filling the Capitol building in Madison, week after week, in response to Governor Scott Walker’s bill intended to bust unions and curb public services. It was the single most beautiful experience of my life, to date, and the only way I can describe it is to say that it’s like a combination of religion and sex. Imagine thousands of bodies touching, the sweaty interactions of strangers from all walks of life, all yelling with one voice. Imagine a rotunda ringing with the sound of a people.
It changed me.
Until then, I didn’t know what it felt like to be part of a massive collective. After that, I went on to work as a professional union organizer and to participate in various grassroots forms of organizing during my “downtime.” When I was working in Wisconsin, I helped faculty organize a new union after Walker’s bill passed, and I helped other locals build membership and organize issue campaigns. I loved volunteering with Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights organization and nascent worker center, because they were doing so many great things. They were staging direct actions to win more rights for undocumented students and helping workers at the Palermo’s pizza factory organize a union. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, the founder and director, is a true force of nature and the kindest person I’ve met. I still keep in the back of my car a pink blanket she gave me when I was freezing during a bridge occupation, you know, just to remind me of genuine human kindness. Some of the poems in the book are about the Palermo Workers Union and Voces’ May Day March, which usually draws thousands of people and is so large that vendors walk along with the marchers. There’s a sort of carnivalesque feeling to the May Day march that I find very inspiring as a writer: there’s a sense of play in the joy of bodies moving and playing instruments and singing and chanting.
I miss the energy of all the organizing that was happening and is continuing to happen as a result of the Uprising. I believe it woke up a lot of activists. When unions and educational funding were threatened, it quickly became obvious that teachers unions benefit education by creating better working conditions for teachers and, therefore, better learning conditions for students. They protect the academic freedom necessary for critical inquiry. They benefit artists who want a rounded liberal arts education and the freedom to explore unconventional subjects and try out experimental techniques. One could see that art, education, and activism are deeply intertwined by looking around at an action and seeing you and Brenda Cárdenas and Ching-In Chen and other creative writing teachers and students. I’m thankful for having been able to participate in various Overpass Light Brigade actions, after UWM art professors Lane Hall and Lisa Moline started this creative form of protest that’s since spread across the country and into other countries. The other day, I was looking at photos, and I came across one that strikes me as uniquely Wisconsin: a giant Scott Walker puppet, three times as tall as a person, which has to be operated from inside by someone who wears it. It was being re-purposed as the Chairman of Palermo’s during a boycott rally to support the striking workers. It’s a perfect symbol of the constant creative organizing happening there and the ways in which all of the political machinations are connected.
As someone who grew up poor and who continues to deal with my family’s ongoing struggles, I see the world as inherently political. I can’t not see the world in this way because I come from people who are on the hard end of unequal power relations. So when I write, even if what I’m writing is a love poem, I see that writing as political. I don’t know that it’s possible to write a love poem without replicating, altering, commenting on, or subverting certain conventions associated with gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, etc. And all conventions are political in that they help structure power dynamics. I liked writing the poems for Fist because I got to make power dynamics the primary subject, rather than treating them as a constituent element. I also enjoyed the challenge of writing poems about power that, while they reflect a radical perspective, don’t come across as didactic or preachy. For the most part, I “tell it slant.”
MKG: Now I’m remembering when you were a student in a doctoral poetry seminar I taught at UWM. The class included a very good group of writers: Jenny Benjamin-Smith, Ellen Caswell, Haesong Kwon, Caroline Morrell, and Gene Tanta. This was in the spring of 2006. I recall you shared your passion for the songs of Johnny Cash. References to Cash also appear in your poem “The Soul is a Hostess Cupcake” in FIST. I love a good many Johnny Cash songs as well. Could you choose a couple of his songs that are important to you for whatever reason and tell us why?
DT: Sure. And now I’m remembering that I started my first Milwaukee reading with Cash’s famous opening every time he did a show: “Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.” It felt fun and right in the moment. In that opening line, Cash was at once claiming space and introducing himself to strangers, a humble and friendly sort of act.
I love “Folsom Prison Blues” for its mix of blues and country, both genres I think of as creative forms of survival crafted by people who were struggling. I love it for its focus on prison and the stories of people who wind up being warehoused there, stories that don’t often make it out into the wider world. And I think it’s important that the man in the song admits he did wrong, but he also draws an implicit connection between poor folks and systems that trap them, when he imagines the freedom of “rich folks eatin’ / in a fancy dining car” every time he hears a train whistle. Cash doesn’t spell things out. He leaves the listener to do the work, which is something I do in my own writing. And the situation’s not romanticized. It forces you to deal with the fact that this person took another man’s life “just to watch him die.” You’re asked to empathize with his feeling trapped, but you’re really going to have to work to get from there to a larger empathy. All this, and the song still manages to be darn good fun.
My brothers would probably say it’s just an interesting story and I’m trying too hard. But they’d only be half right.
All of this plays into why I refer to Cash and his album At Folsom Prison in “The Soul Is a Hostess Cupcake.” The poem consists of several stanzas, each of which takes a different form and a different style or tone. The stanzas are each separated by refrains, most of which get repeated once. It’s an unusual poem in terms of how it looks on the page, and it’s also unusual in that it contains bits of pop culture, canonical literature, commercial ads, and children’s rhymes … The prose poem stanzas highlight the ways in which Cash and other figures get placed on pedestals, as well as the tendency to think that simply liking something like At Folsom Prison is political action. You can’t valorize someone and then dust your hands off and call it a day.
Pretty much all of At Folsom Prison is great. It has a mix of blues and country and rock, of historical and contemporary—I tend to like artists who display a mastery of multiple genres and forms or whose work is otherwise characterized by variety. Other musical artists I’m really into for these reasons are Kendrick Lamar, M.I.A., Neko Case, Nina Simone. Authors include James Baldwin, Roberto Bolaño, Olena Kalytiak Davis, China Mieville.
I like the generosity of the album. I like that Cash refuses to leave people behind, to stop thinking of them as fully human. I like that he forces his audience to confront the conditions in the prison. I also like the interactions with June Carter Cash, a music legend and the love of his life. I like that they bring that love inside a place other people would be afraid to enter.
There are so many other great Cash originals and covers: “Rock Island Line,” “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” “Ring of Fire.” If I can only choose one more song, I’ll say “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for American IV: The Man Comes Around during the last years of his life. The bareness cuts through the noise of the world in a way nothing else could.
Or “Jackson” because, you know, fun.
So achiness or fun, those are the choices.
MKG: OK, although FIST packs a punch from start to finish, there’s a particular poem that I find myself re-reading again and again. It’s called “Groceries. Beer. Liquor. Lottery.” It ain’t without its own achiness and fun. I’m going to copy it in its entirety, after which I’d appreciate it if you could talk about it some.
Groceries. Beer. Liquor. Lottery.
My date studies geography, but not boring geography, hot geography. The kind where they figure the ratio of Jesus to horses.
There’s always a ratio. Jesus to horses. High schools to Speedways. Liquor to lottery.
All landscape makes me sad. There are always people picnicking near the pond at the end of the park, and all I can think is it’s too far to walk just to sit on a blanket.
The people reading in chairs tire me too — How do they manage to be so relaxed? Does it require a lifetime of practice? — while the whiteness of vans in the sun echoes through the parking lot.
Those lines in the lawn become wavy near the lot. As if to make a point. And yet, patterns are neither just plans nor just accidents.
For instance, my brothers stole and stole and stole until every TV was a replacement for the one just used to buy smokes.
For instance, Cortez hated every fist but his own. Cortez was a queen–licker they had to salt down just to ship home.
DT: I wrote this poem while on scholarship at Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College just after graduating from UWM.
Skidmore is in Saratoga Springs, New York, which is a resort area known for horse racing, spas, and providing a summer stage for the New York City Ballet. As is true of the rest of New York, colonization swept through there so completely that I saw no signs left of its former history other than the springs. Just the large houses of white people and the orchestra and ballet. (I actually did see the ballet while there. I adore all forms of dance, including ballet.)
I’m forever grateful that the faculty at UWM nominated me, and I met some amazing people at the Institute, but the whole scene there made me uncomfortable. Most of the students were from privileged backgrounds, went to elite universities, name dropped frequently, and struck me as unduly proud of themselves. Most of the famous writers brought in to give readings seemed to be friends with the people who ran the program, and many of them came back year after year. I became uncomfortably aware of how insular the world of creative writing is.
Some of the faculty were noted “political writers,” but I was surprised to find that when I tried to talk about the Wisconsin Uprising, they simply didn’t engage. One, in particular, seemed to think that activism only counted as such if it happens in countries other than the US, which struck me as a colonialist mentality. Another seemed to think of politics as that thing you consume through the news. I should be fair and point out that people responded positively to my writing and provided some critical feedback that was helpful to me in revising. And I loved having some time and space to devote just to writing, which felt very surreal since I was on a two-week hiatus from my organizing job, where I would be dropped off by a van to walk the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and knock on doors for several hours a day. So I got the main things I had come for. But the apparatus around those things made the experience depressing overall, with the exception of a handful of wonderful students from diverse backgrounds and, therefore, not part of the elite circle there, some of whom I’m still friends with.
So that’s a portrait of my environment while writing that poem. I’m not going to provide an overarching analysis of the poem, because that’s not something I’m interested in doing for my own writing. But I will say that for me “patterns are neither just plans nor just accidents” is the thing around which everything else in the poem coalesces. Some things that informed this poem: post-colonial theory, one of my brothers (I love my brothers dearly) stealing TVs repeatedly, Marxist overdetermination, organizing in Kenosha, elitist culture at Skidmore, radical geography, and a super fun horse-and-Jesus painting at a Milwaukee bar.
Looking back at it now, prose-poem-with-relatively-short-stanzas/paragraphs seems to be the right form for a poem dealing with confusion and building toward a brutal clarity. So maybe I got that right. I hope I got it right. I’m never really sure what people think of this poem, beyond the occasional laugh or gasp when I read the title. I think the title works almost as a poem in its own right. It’s the result of a store sign I saw in Kenosha, an economically depressed city in Wisconsin. It’s always been one of my favorite titles. I even like the way the periods look on the page. I also liked Kenosha and all the people I met there. I remember that going into a trailer park reminded me of home and felt comforting in a way that I imagine it didn’t for the other organizers
I do not like that I misspelled Cortés and that neither I nor the journal editors who originally published the poem caught the error. Now I’m wondering if anyone even realized it was a reference to the Spanish conquistador, or if they thought I was just talking about a random dude named Cortez. Maybe none of us remembers how to spell the names of historical figures. Take that, conquerors.
MKG: So here’s the final question: What simile would make for an apt analogy for your ideal poem?
DT: Okay, so I wrote a simile into the middle of this.
I’m a pretty demanding reader; I sit down expecting the ideal poem every time I pick something up. I rarely encounter something that seems to fit in that moment. I’ve also realized that what’s ideal for me changes over the years. Sometimes I wish I could go back to my younger years, before I started writing, back when I loved every new thing I came to.
The ideal poem would be interesting, challenging, and enjoyable on multiple levels: emotional, intellectual, aesthetic. It would leave me feeling like I’d gained something by reading it, but not so much that I felt things were tied up with a neat, little bow. I would need to do part of the work. I would walk away from it still thinking and feeling or somehow projecting it out into the world. I would feel like the author had made some very deliberate moves, but that they’d also encountered some happy accidents and that they themselves weren’t entirely sure of the poem. It would feel masterful, but with a certain messiness in places. The messiness would feel right, though; it wouldn’t feel lazy or sloppy. Rather, it would be like an English garden. There would be a certain deliberate riotousness to it. The kind of structure that the author continues to learn from.
The ideal poem would contain surprises, but not of the O. Henry variety. I remember once reading a definition of comedy that said it should surprise the audience but seem fitting, and I’ve always thought that was a good definition for art of all sorts. In other words, there would be some unexpected phrasing, imagery, line breaks, or whatever that despite their newness still felt right. When you see a thing rendered the same way all the time, you stop being able to truly see it because it’s become rote. It’s only once it’s drawn differently than you’re used to that you’re able to actually see it again. There’s a certain drawing in of breath when this happens, because you’ve encountered your own senses again, and in doing so you’ve encountered the world again.
The ideal poem both does and doesn’t exist. When it does exist, it exists fleetingly.
There have been times when I thought a particular poem was perfect. Sometimes I come back again and think no, and then I come back again and think yes.
I still think James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is a perfect poem, even though it’s a book consisting of two letters or essays.
Also, most of what I’ve said might be wrong. There are poems that I love for their simplicity, because they kissed me on the forehead.
Mauricio Kilwein Guevara teaches in the doctoral Creative Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. His publications include Autobiography of So-and-so and POEMA. He is currently at work on a novel set in Ecuador.
Dawn Tefft’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Denver Quarterly, Fence, Witness, Sentence and H_ngm_n. She is the author of FIST (Dancing Girl Press), The Walking Dead: A Lyric (Finishing Line Press), and Field Trip to My Mother and Other Exotic Locations (Mudlark). You can find some of her nonfiction at PopMatters, Truthout, and Woodland Pattern’s blog. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from UW-Milwaukee and works as a higher ed union organizer in Chicago.