A descendant of Thomas Jefferson explores inheritance through poetry

Tess Taylor turned documents she found during a residency at Monticello into poems for her new book, The Forage House. Tess Taylor turned documents she found during a residency at Monticello into poems for her new book, The Forage House.

In The Forage House, published by Red Hen Press, Tess Taylor explores the historical and individual toll of inheritance and how we are shaped by the legacies that come to represent our past and present realities.

A descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Taylor was greatly affected when, in 1997, University of Virginia biologist Eugene Foster discovered a genetic connection between the relatives of Sally Hemings and the country’s third president and UVA founder.

“It was a fierce wake-up call,” she said, in a Publishers Weekly interview earlier this year.

Taylor was dually affected by her California upbringing and by her ties, through Thomas Jefferson Randolph and the Randolph-Taylors, to slavery, and propelled as a journalist and a poet to uncover the truth of her family lore. During the years of 2005 and 2006, she was in residence at Monticello, where she worked with archaeologists and historians, combed family attics, and pored over historical documents, including letters, wills, and auction records, in research for the book. In an effort to name and give record to the past, Taylor infuses many of the documents she found into poems like “Southhampton County Will 1745” and “Martha Jefferson’s Housewife,” but also enlivens the spirit of her grandfather in “Oral History 1963,” and sings of her literary and American bequest in “Song for Cerrito” and “Reading Walden in the Air.”

While The Forage House is Taylor’s press debut, she also wrote a chapbook, entitled The Misremembered World, which was awarded the New York Chapbook Fellowship and was published by the Poetry Society of America. Her journalistic work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, and her poetry, acclaimed by Natasha Trethewey and Eavan Boland, has been published in Shenandoah, The Harvard Review, and Poetry Magazine, among others. She currently lives in her hometown of El Cerrito, California and teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley.

In anticipation of Taylor’s book signing at New Dominion Bookshop on September 11, C-VILLE spoke to Tess Taylor by phone.

C-VILLE Weekly: How are you specifically related to Thomas Jefferson and what role does inheritance play in this collection?

Tess Taylor: Thomas Jefferson Randolph [Thomas Jefferson’s grandson] was the grandfather of Bennett Taylor, who went off and fought in the Civil War, and Bennett Taylor is my grandfather’s grandfather (Lee Taylor, who is mentioned in the poem “Oral History 1963”). So as I thought about this book and which stories to feature and which characters were going to pop, and as I was kind of learning this genealogy, those people as markers of proximity or distance to Jefferson were really fascinating to me.

Jefferson is very interesting, but you might also think about this book—in its small way—not only about literal family but also as framing a kind of dialogue with inheritance itself, or as a proxy discussion for any flawed thing we inherit. You might notice references to Auden, Hopkins, Ginsberg as well—there are some literary figures passing through this somewhat historical gathering. Think about the literary past—also based on haunting exclusions, and full of cruelties and riches. We look back and critique it, we also can’t simply throw it away; we find ourselves and orient ourselves through recourse to it. We reinvent it, but we are also sticky with associations.

In “World’s End: On the Site of Randolph Wilton,” you write, “O descendants, I am sorry/Ancestors I would undo this if I could.” Why is it important to undo or sort out the transgressions of the past?

As a writer I became really preoccupied with the questions of what it meant not to write people down. This is a book that is enthralled with documents and a lot of the poems are achieved through looking at documents and looking for documents. So the fact, then, that the documents don’t reveal people became something that was haunting for me. It became a thing where I could say, well, whether or not you agree with the story about Sally Hemings, something we can all agree with is that this was something that happened, where we didn’t write people’s names down. You can say there’s no proof, but we’re the very family that created the condition by which there is no proof.

How does writing a collection of poems with a historical basis differ from writing poetry based on personal and narrative impressions of life?

I thought I was going to be writing essays and some kind of journalistic book about what had happened in my family. As I started working with it, the material, I found that it was overwhelming to try to create a complete and coherent account of what had happened; that some people in my family felt threatened by the project of journalism whereas poetry somehow didn’t threaten them as much. Also, I was dealing with these very haunting documents. Poetry kind of presented itself as a form that made use of absence. You could be working with shards because poems are like shards. I had the chance to work with archaeologists at Monticello. I would go out and see the things that they had dug up, and I’d see these tiny little buttons. These little buttons or these little pipe stems that they’d excavated from the ground, and see the enormity of the absence around them, and, to me, that suggested a poem more than a big long essay.

What are you trying to accomplish, personally, as a poet? 

Well, Elizabeth Bishop once said that, “If you came in contact with a work of art it would make the world look different for 24 hours.” That’s always something that I’ve looked for in the work that I read. I like the idea that poetry can unsettle the present, in a way that it can make the day that we live in feel more mysterious if we engage with it. That’s my hope for the work that I make.

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