In Tyree Daye’s debut book of poetry, the young author builds on the stories and superstitions of his mother, as well as his own memories of growing up in two small towns in North Carolina: Youngsville and Rolesville.
Themes of death, substance abuse and racism interweave with those of childlike wonder, family, and a deeply-imbued sense of place. “River Hymns” (American Poetry Review/2017) won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. Daye is the second African-American poet to receive the honor since the award’s start in 1998.
Host Frank Stasio talks with poet Tyree Daye about the collection and its focus on magic and mortality. Tyree Daye reads from “River Hymns” at an event also featuring poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi from 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Sept. 27 at North Carolina State University.
On why he became a poet:
I always tell myself, ‘I'm too lazy to write fiction.’ And I love the conciseness of poetry, and for me, I don't know, poetry is just something that naturally called me. I remember in high school my mother got me the [Collected Poems of] Langston Hughes. And I started reading through that, and I was writing those high school poems of course. But something about it really stuck with me, and I found out you could major in it.
On his poem, “Southern Silence”:
This poem I remember, particularly, started with the line, ‘The dirt I thought could hold me.’ And that kind of sparked this whole mirage of memories. And that's usually how my poems are. It starts with the image. But it just sparks the memory of my mother sitting me down and telling me very early just the history of ... Franklin County, and being raised in that and it’s – again – image and memory. Image and memory – this interior architecture of a poem.
On the influence of superstition and the supernatural:
I write most of my poems late at night. For me that's when the cosmic comes alive. It's in my background. My grandmother on my mother's side is from South Carolina. They're Gullah/Geechee. So that whole tradition is still very much a part of my family and these stories and everything … It's definitely real for me. I have superstitions that I definitely... I'll admit this on the air. I'm terrified of birds because of things I've heard growing up. So you 'll see me probably run from a bird … This idea of magic and supernatural only belongs to a certain few. I like that it's like it's own little club. Either you see it or you don't.
On his poem, "Wade Through"
This superstition of a hummingbird, that kind of started this poem – me remembering that. I actually remember I was with a friend, and we actually saw a hummingbird. And I saw one, and of course instantly freaked out. But then it sparked that poem. So the first image of this poem is a story that I remember my mother telling me: how she dreamed about these belly dancers around a fire, and then her sister passed away. And then, again, it just sparked these constant memories and me trying to play with it and make sense of it within my own life.
On how teaching composition helps him be a better poet:
For me it's great because I love this idea of going back to look at the sentence. When I go back and look at the sentence, and I teach them the sentence and everything you can do with the sentence, then I go and look at my own work and think, ‘Ah, this is what you're doing with the sentence, and this is how you can change it and this is how you can be even clearer’ … Especially with the new poems. I'm a poet of the sentence – of the unit, of the line. But now, it's even clearer. I can see it almost like this little map how everything is laid out.