Tennison S. Black

Tennison S. Black

Tennison S. Black

Tennison S. Black is the author of Survival Strategies (winner of the National Poetry Saries, UGA Press 2023). Their work has appeared or is forthcoming in SWWIM, Hotel Amerika, Booth, Wordgathering, and New Mobility, among others. Black received their MFA at Arizona State University. They are the Managing Editor at Sundress Publications and Best of the Net and are the editor of the anthology on contemporary disability, A Body You Talk To. Though Sonoran born, they reside in Washington State.

“Looking Under the Rocks That Live in Me,” an interview with Tennison Black

This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Carolyn Combs. Of the process she said, “Tennison Black has crafted a wonderful collection of poems, tackling the reckoning of their childhood with the acceptance of Yuma as their home. Survival Strategies beautifully and carefully approaches this experience, displaying the complexities of the harsh Sonoran desert paralleled with the intense cowboy culture that resides within it.” In this interview, Tennison Black discusses their return to Yuma, their process with creating Survival Strategies, and their hopes for the future of Arizona and its shifting culture.

Superstition Review: Im intrigued by the struggle that lies in some of the storytelling of Survival Strategies. There is this sense of grasping onto a home, but then the acceptance of the desert. Can you tell me about the journey that you took when exploring the themes in Survival Strategies?

Tennison Black: Despite being born there, when people asked me where I was from, I wouldn't say Arizona. I’d say anything but. “Oh, I’m from all over,” or something of the sort. Because I’d lived in ten states, that also felt real so I used it a lot. Or I’d say I was from my chosen home, Washington State, when I traveled also. But then when I applied to grad schools, ASU gave me the best package and offered me the best opportunities. So, I chose to go back but I was devastated. I was sincerely crushed at the idea of going to Arizona for any reason. So, these poems really began as my way of coping with that devastation. In going back, I was kind of forced to face all of the trauma I’d successfully avoided dealing with to that point.

The term you have there, “grasping onto a home”—I feel that. For as long as I can remember I wanted to have a family that was kind and supportive, tender-hearted and loving to one another. But that’s just not what I had. And it’s not what so many of us ever have. The truth is, if we want that, many of us have to build it. So that’s what I did. But when I was exploring these poems, looking under the rocks that live in me, and around the corners—I found that longing, that wish for what never was, was still very strong. So thank you for seeing my work that way. That hits deep.

SR: In a feature with the Yuma Sun, you said writing Survival Strategies helped you to embrace the desert as your home. What was this transformative process like? How did self-reflection contribute to the writing in this work?

TB: Well to be clear, Washington State is my home now. But I did learn how to release the shame of being from Yuma. And I even learned how to love the desert I was born into. For me, that’s huge. Self-reflection left me despondent and lost, to be honest. When I went looking inside I found sorrow, heartbreak, and trauma. But when I looked outside myself, at the desert, at the flora and fauna, at the people who had become my friends—that's when I started to feel the breakthroughs in myself that led me to a much better place. I’ll never heal the trauma but I’m learning to live with it much more peacefully than I did for most of my life.

SR: I was really fascinated by how you weaved the life of the desert environment into the narrative and poems. There is this wonderful recurring theme between the harsh environment and the ability of each animal to survive. What was the memory work like in composing these poems? Did you revisit pictures, journals, or other sources? 

TB: Yes, I did revisit photos and even some of my childhood drawings and such, but I was also graciously offered a grant by the Virginia G. Piper Writer's Center, to return to Yuma for several weeks to write and explore and in that I was able to better weave together Yuma today with the Yuma of my youth along with both my own experiences and those of my family. But the memory work involved a lot of ugly crying and a lot of breaks. Often I would need to put things aside and go walk, swim, ride my bike, or just listen to music because it was painful and difficult to get some of that out of my body and onto a page. Usually the poems at this stage were just too raw, and they needed time to mellow and a lot of repeated revising to help them come out of that pure gurgling state and into something more sensical. There was also a time I pushed the poems out into third person to gain some distance, and then later they came back into first person.

SR: The beginning of this collection really pulled me in with the descriptions of the Sonoran desert. I feel like it really set the scene for the narrative storytelling that followed. The narrative follows the cowboys story early on, then trails steadily into the mothers towards the end. How did you go about ordering the poems in the collection?

TB: When I began writing poetry it felt so mysterious to me, how poets put together their collections, whether or not the order even matters that much. And maybe in some cases it matters little, but in this case once I could see the arc of the whole, I was able to pull it into shape but that took three years of revisions and reordering to make it really click into place.

My process is to print it out and make a trail on the wall or the floor and look for relationships. Does anything have to precede or follow something else? And just keep moving them. What happens if that jumps to that place? How does it read then?

I liken the whole process to building a collage. Sometimes two things just have to go together but more often you pick up one thing and ask yourself what would happen if you put it with this other thing or that other thing. And soon you have something that’s really artful and kind of valuable as a whole not just in its parts.

SR: The book opens with quotes by Susan Griffin and the Combahee River Collective and also ends with this focus on the relationship between mother and daughter, with many of the poems expressing the nature of growing up a young girl in the desert. What was your relationship with gender like at that time? What inspired you to explore these relationships and matriarchal history specifically?  

TB: Forgive me if I go astray here but I see this in multiple parts and I'll try to speak to each. If you haven’t read the manifesto of the Combahee River Collective, you really should. I think everyone should read it and understand it. And Susan Griffin’s work was instrumental in its time and also needs explored by feminists today.

My relationship to gender is a fluid and still evolving thing, but growing up, gender expectations were imposed on me with a swift and cruel response to any deviation such that it has taken me most of my life to unravel and combat some of the damage done in that time. Gender is a construct. It's made up. So the great thing is that we can all be whatever we want. We’re making the rules for ourselves and that’s really kind of wonderful. There is no solid reason for certain articles of clothing, certain jobs, or certain objects to be designated as “for” one gender or another. And there’s no solid reasoning (nor scientific evidence) to embrace only two genders.

And yet there are those who feel that the made-up version of gender that they use for themselves is more important than anyone else’s and they're willing to commit atrocious acts in favor of their viewpoint to force others to comply with their ideas. From laws to criminal acts, there are many people who would go out of their way to force others into their gender expectations. I’ll never understand that. My family was (is in many corners) like that. And it's hard to grow up in that kind of environment when you’re naturally more inclined to fluidity and creativity in all of your expressions.

As a child I struggled to talk much, to express preference—in all things, not just gender. It was easier to be quiet, than to push back when the people around you were committed to taking up all of the space and were willing to respond to any perceived difference with shocking veracity and even violence.

So that connects to the lineage you asked about, the matrilineal tendencies in my writing and obviously, my thinking. My mother died in 2001. And it wrecked me. Can still come on me and swamp my ability to think or function. I was in my twenties and wholly unprepared to be motherless. I’d felt she was the one person who could understand me at all even if she, too, struggled to do so most of the time—she tried with love and grace rather than the judgement and false narratives of others in the family. So losing her left me adrift and feeling alone in all ways. And I don't ever want that for my kids. I want them to know they come from somewhere and they are part of a through-line coming from all of our child-bearing people—many of whom but maybe not all of whom, are women. And that lineage, the knowledge that we exist in our grandmothers—helped ground me—kept me from flying off into space like I was certain I was going to. So I wanted to honor that as well as give that to my own kids. That feeling that you're not alone in this world is one that I can't ever seem to get ahold of myself, but I want it for my kids. I want them to have the rails that I lack.

SR: You have a lot of experience writing and teaching both fiction and poetry in the past. Survival Strategies is a poetry collection and also follows a central narrative structure. How did you decide on formatting it in this way? Can you discuss the use of storytelling in the book? 

TB: I’m not sure if I decided to form the book into an arc or if the arc formed and I let it. But I kind of think it’s the latter. Over time, revising and then revising again and again—I started to see an arc emerge and I just got out of the way.

But as far as storytelling goes, I really struggled to form some of the experiences and concepts I had into poems. The Mother and the Mountain has been many poems, it’s been one long experimental, more disconnected format that allowed lots of breathing room, and it's been a tighter more direct form of poetic prose. But every time I tried to bring it into a different form, it broke. Like a chocolate ganache, it split and was no longer glossing the way I was asking it to. When it found this final form, I decided it had to stay there because every other form made it into something it wasn’t—something else.

SR: Survival Strategies encapsulates not just the environment of the Sonoran desert but also a particular time period in history. It describes the remaining cowboy culture that continued to prevail in the southwest in the 1980s. Since growing up in Yuma in this environment, how has it changed? When revisiting your own experiences, how did you feel about the cultural shift to a more urban southwest?

TB: Cowboy culture is still alive and thriving today. Not just in the areas where it's always thrived, but in our politics, in our media, and in the ways we are feeling moved to treat one another. The ideas of purity, of racism, misogyny, of conformity for everyone except one particular type of person—who is allowed to rambunctiously rebel as long as he also steeps that rebelliousness in bravado and toxic masculinity and keeps to a narrow field of view—all thrive in cowboy culture. Not to mention that uniquely American form of colonialism which is weirdly still exalted by many today.

In my travels for this book I’ve been delighted to connect with creatives and other vulnerable groups from all walks of life. And many times thus far I’ve been told how hard it is for them, living as they do in the rural parts of the Southwest where cowboy culture still thrives. (I’ve also been deeply honored to listen to their stories of growing up sensitive in this environment.)

So while I definitely think that Yuma and so much of the Southwest in general has changed tremendously—it also hasn’t. The urban development is exciting to see, certainly, but rurally (and culturally) there is much to be done because even in the cities, not everyone is safe to be openly themselves—and until they are, there’s more work to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled at the many changes and the increasing opportunities for everyone in AZ. The opportunities for artists of all kinds are stunning and I’ve yet to see the sheer breadth of these opportunities elsewhere. And I have (finally) come to genuinely love my home state and to be proud of being from there and I always look forward to coming back now. But I am often unsafe myself, walking into certain places when I’m there, and so are many of the people I love or people who I’ve met on this journey.

And I just know everyone there deserves better. The silent kid who clammed up when threatened still lives in me, so it’s not easy for me to say these things, but I’ve been deeply touched by the people I’ve met through this opportunity and I feel an obligation to them, not just myself, and that makes speaking up a little easier—so while yes I’m thrilled to see so many changes, it’s still not always safe or inviting to live here for many vulnerable people. And it should be. It could be. I think AZ might be on a beautiful road, but it's new yet, so I’m going to say I'm cautiously optimistic and eagerly awaiting the day when I and people like me and people like my friends, are safe everywhere, including Arizona.