Some poets concoct delicate metaphors to say what they have to say – Tawnya Selene Renelle from Bellingham, Washington, is not one of those. Now based in Glasgow and working on her PhD in Creative Writing, Tawnya released her debut collection this exquisite corpse this June, which, according to British poet Louise Welsh, “evokes shades of Nan Goldin” and dissects experiences with grief, sex, family, fetish and the body with unceremonious candour. Back in Glasgow after touring her book for three weeks in the UK and at home in the US, Tawnya spoke to The Fountain about her approach to writing and creating a platform for people.
TF: You’ve just returned from touring your debut collection this exquisite corpse. How was the overall audience response to your work?
It was interesting and exhaustive. There were venues where nobody came. It’s hard when people don’t know who you are and what I’m promoting is a bit – alternative. I publish with my friend Cal, but it is kind of like self-publication; I paid out of pocket for everything. If I hadn’t done the tour, those moments when people loved the book wouldn’t have happened. I learned that there’s something about this very blunt, straightforward way I write poetry – and how revealing I am – that people then feel like they have permission to have those feelings as well. So after almost every show, I was having very in-depth conversations with people – people telling me their stories, telling and that they were so grateful I was creating a space for them to tap into these emotions.
TF: Was that the effect you had been hoping for?
This is my ideal as a poet – I hope people read the book or see me perform and then, half-way through my performance, aren’t thinking about me at all. They’re thinking about their own life and processing something in one of my poems that makes them think about an experience they’ve had. I mean, it was well-received and the response was positive – I didn’t have anybody running away shouting “Oh my God, she just read a poem about masturbation!” [laughs]
TF: Your poetry is very direct and deals with topics like sex, death and violence in a very unornamented, provocative way. Why did you choose to focus on these topics?
The book actually came out of a masters in Fine Arts that I did. I never actually wanted to write memoir; I never wanted to say, “This is my story; let me tell you about it.” So in the first term of my masters, I started writing a collection of short stories – like, super fantasy, fiction short stories. And in my second term, I wrote one poem. My supervisor read it and she was like, “You have to write about this stuff.” And it just came out of me all at once, fast and furious. And it was about just being honest. You know, the poems that are for my friend Gitana, who overdosed from heroin – it became very important to talk about that experience. We have such a misconception of what drug users are like. It became important to be someone who writes poems and says, “I’ve done all these drugs, I’ve made all these choices and I’m getting a PhD, I’m an educator.” We don’t have to be these perfect beings. And now, on tour, I’ve performed 40 or 50 times and it just makes me realise that people really want someone who says things directly.
TF: So everything is based on your personal experience?
Aye, it’s all my experience, my twenties, basically. And it’s such a weird thing to have it out in the world now [laughs]. I mean, Poetic Sexploration, I read it on every part of the tour – to basically stand in front of an audience and say, “I’ve slept with 76 people. Here we go.” But again, it’s this idea of giving permission – like, if I say it first, you can say it, too.
TF: Apart from your own experience, what else do you draw inspiration from?
Obviously, my friends back home in Bellingham, Washington. They’re embedded in all those poems because those experiences happened with them. It was really funny when I performed back home – I read Poetic Sexploration and 10 of the people on the list where in the room [laughs].
TF: You experiment with form a lot – Timeline, for example, reads like a log file entry, while others like I Collect Myself resemble haikus in their compactness. What do you hope to communicate with these forms?
I would argue that my book is hybrid and experimental; it really challenges form and genre. Someone who’s more of a traditional poet might look at that book and say, “Well, that’s not a poem.” But for me, it’s playing with form and visuals. Like, Timeline is meant to give just a complete allocation of everything that happened in a 365 span. Within each poem, I want there to be breath because I know some of the things I’m saying are very heavy. But then I also saw all the poems in this exquisite corpse as one poem. When I put it all together, I was thinking of each poem as a stanza and how I would want all poems to respond to each other.
TF: Is there any poem in the collection that stands out to you personally?
I really like the poem for my grandmother. That refrain of “our bond is not dependent on your knowing” – I read that at every performance, usually. All elegy poems – For Grandmother, For Gitana, For Adam – I really love those poems. Actually, something exciting happened with For Gitana: I performed in Rye – that’s the craziest place I went to on my tour – and there were only 3 people there. But one of the women was a ballet choreographer and she’s now taking For Gitana and making a dance based on it. That’s so exciting for me because I love interdisciplinary things; I love poetry transferring into everything.
TF: How do you usually start writing a poem – do you need to sit down, take a walk, properly compose or just get everything out at once?
I write in my head. I’ll think of something, and then I’ll think of a phrase, and then that phrase expands. Sometimes, I don’t even put the pen to the page until a week in when I start to think of a poem. And then it comes fast and furious – I think because I’ve done so much of the editing process in my mind. There are poems in this exquisite corpse that are first draft – pen to the page and then they’re done.
TF: What are you working on at the moment?
Now, it’s so different. I’m writing poems about being an ex-pat in Scotland, cities I’ve been to – there’s a poem for each city. It’s all very nature-driven – like, this exquisite corpse is devoid of imagery or metaphors. And now I’m writing about the Scottish hills [laughs].
TF: You also work on your PhD in Creative Writing at Glasgow Uni and teach students about poetry. What kind of advice to you give them when they get stuck in their writing?
It’s really hard to silence the negative thoughts. I think there’s such imposter syndrome among artists and such self-deprecation. So I tell my students just to write and write and never throw anything away. Even if you think it’s the worst poem you’ve ever written – don’t throw it away. What I like to do is get people to think about their body, grief, love – just sort of these huge, thematic ideas – and then tap into that and write however they need to. Sometimes, I meet writers who say, “I’m gonna write a novel” and this can be restrictive to the creative process. So I tell students, “Ok, but maybe there is a poem in that novel, or an art piece in that novel”, so that they can break up this idea that this is what they have to do. And when I read students’ work, I ask: “Ok, is it the paragraph you’re struggling with? Maybe it’s the form itself that you’re stuck with? Maybe you need to pull it apart, break it apart.” Just encourage you to think that these restrictions and structures don’t have to be there.
this exquisite corpse is out now, published Calenture Press