…with Tara Shea Burke

Ariana:

You titled your collection Let the Body Beg. What is it you want the body to beg for?

Tara:

Everything. Inclusion. Fullness. Let me see if I can explain. I grew up battling my body, its hungers and desires, and when I started writing poetry, I was still in the thick of recovering from an eating disorder. I wasn’t anorexic or bulimic, though I did have periods of starving and purging. I am one of the millions of women who suffered from the eating disorder that defines you in a passive way. Instead of being an anorexic or bulimic, I was a woman who suffered from EDNOS or, an Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. At the time, I saw this as yet another failure in a series of failures: I was failing out of college repeatedly, even as my professors gave me chance after chance to step back up after long disappearances, I was failing my friends and family for multiple reasons, I was failing at love and failing to pay my bills, and I was failing at having a real eating disorder.

This sounds silly now as I look back, but I remember feeling like I couldn’t even suffer correctly. The story is long and perhaps a series of poems or memoir in the making (though the more I look forward the more I forget that girl) but to make a long story short I, like so many women and youth, felt like an endless black hole that, though sometimes literally full to the brim with drugs and food, never felt whole or satisfied. I think many grow up yearning in a very deep way to feel connected. We live in a culture that doesn’t know how to feel. And for those of us with just the right kind of faulty chemistry, we reach for drugs, starve ourselves to control how we feel, and purge when we fear we’ll never feel satisfied or at ease the way the normal people seem to be.

After years of healing and many rocky bottoms, I’ve come back to the body in my writing and my life and believe it is and can be our way back in. I look around and see people embracing meditation and yoga and veganism and gluten-free everything and see many –not all, I know – feeling like they’ve finally found health, but really just embracing yet another way our culture silences women’s bodies. And it scares me because it’s wrapped in this shiny enlightenment package, but really it’s about shutting us up, getting us smaller, and wasting our time (please note that I do yoga, teach yoga, and meditate, too.)

Oh, this is all so messy, right? And for this small little chapbook that deals with sex and the body, desire, some hungers, and a little bit my life and struggles, this answer is too long. Let The Body Beg is about begging and yearning and feeling it all. The good, the bad, the ugly, the judgments we place on ourselves and others, the confusions and grey areas, the shallowness we all embody at times and the deep deep callings of our souls.

Ariana:

If someone rented a billboard in your hometown to advertise Let the Body Beg, what would you want the tag line to be?

Tara:

Oh this is fun! I think I’ll just go there: “Fuck it. Spend it. Love it. Live it.”

Ariana:

Do you remember writing your first poem? If so, what was it about?

Tara:

Well, I don’t remember writing my first poem, but I do remember perhaps the first series of poems that came out of me, a waterfall of emotions. It was in the seventh and eighth grade. AND it was about the boy mentioned in “First Crush” a poem that appears in my chapbook. So, they were about love. Love-ish. The kind that hits you like a sack of puppies, right in the face: surprising, soft, and a little wrong. I think many kids write their first and last poems about the body as it wakes up for the first time. We’re either tortured by our feelings or lucky and over the moon. Or, we’re utterly alone. And then we’re embarrassed and feel there is no place in the real world for these feelings so they get put away, swallowed and shit out.

My teacher read one of those poems in class, after I half-seriously turned them in for an assignment. I’ll never forget how proud and embarrassed I felt at the same time. I used to blab about everything, so even though the boy wasn’t mentioned in the poem, everyone knew who he was and what it was about. At the roller skating rink a few weeks before, I think he took pity on my constant staring and inability to hide my crush, and asked me to skate during a song. I turned that moment into a repetitive poem “Remember the way you talked to me/ Remember the way you set me free/ Remember the way we skated to our song…” and on and on, something like that. The rest of the poem made it seem like we had been in love and then he had left me in my sorrows. Just writing about it brings it back so clearly! What a storyteller I already was. What a mess. We all just want to be love and feel, you see? I suppose I’ve always just been more open about it. And weird. My current girlfriend of 5 years still lovingly calls me a weirdo for these same reasons.

Ariana:

What is your favorite poem in Let the Body Beg? Why? What poem was the hardest to write? Why?

Tara:

I think my favorite poem is still the last, “Fall.” It was a poem that was much longer and I wrestled with at the beginning of my MFA as I fell in love with my partner. I had never truly been in love, and it was so surprising to me at every turn. I kept trying to find ways out of it, flaws in her personality, mismatches in our very deepest beliefs and makeups. I was ready to be alone and healthy for the first time and let my MFA be my only lover. So of course, we met a week before it began. There was no way out of our love; we just kept falling. We still are. Anyway, I kept trying to make the poem long, in three sections about my family falling apart, my addictions falling away, and her. When someone suggested it was 3 different poems and I finally cut the rest out, it was the first time I saw revision as a kind of magical letting go.

The hardest poem to write? Most of these poems were written and reworked years ago, the newest being almost two years old at this point. So, instead of the hardest to write I’ll point to the hardest to read now, which is “I Know Nothing.” Though it was actually a poem that came out quickly, and I love every moment, especially seeing my brother on the page, it’s the hardest to see in print now. I was still carrying anger and resentment towards my family and things that had transpired over the past 10 years, and I don’t feel angry anymore. It paints my mother as someone who is stagnant and lazy and that is so far from the truth of her life and story. I feel awful for putting it in print. We’ve talked about it since then, and she knows, I hope, that she is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. I worry that I’ve let the way the world sees large, poor women cloud my judgment, and now all I want is more compassion for her and her choices. My father, too, but that’s a different story.

Ariana:

What is the toughest criticism you’ve faced as a writer? The highest compliment you’ve ever been paid on your work?

Tara:

The toughest criticism, I fear, has yet to come. I think because I write in a conversational way at times, and an open way about the body and sex, that I have to fight being seen as cliché or kitschy. But I’ve had mostly good responses of my work. I’m sure there have been some tough workshops, but for this work in print (this is still new to me) I’ve yet to feel the true thunder. I’m sure it’s coming. I’ll need a better umbrella.

The best compliment is this chapbook, for sure. So thank you Ariana, for your tireless support and hard work this year. It still doesn’t feel real.

Oh, and Mark Doty chose “I Know Nothing” as second place in the Split This Rock poetry contest in 2012. I may never meet him to say thank you, but that is still just so awesome.

Ariana:

What do you find is the hardest part of writing poetry?

Tara:

Starting. Seriously.

But also, letting go of the idea and letting the magic happen between images and stories. I tend to try and tell people what to think, and after a few workshops and forehead bruises from hitting my desk, I remember to cut that last line of prose that tries too hard.

Ariana:

What do you think the future of poetry is in America?

Tara:

Eek. I don’t feel ready yet to answer this. My hope is for an androgynous, sexy, drippy poetry that is inclusive and isn’t afraid to finally embrace the personal as political.

Ariana:

Just like “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight!” what action would your name be if it was a verb?

Tara:

I want you to answer this for me, from what you know of me. That’s more fun, right? A cop-out on my part? I do that.

Ariana:

What question did you hope I was going to ask you and why?

Tara:

The first one. Because I like to talk about the body and beg people to feel it all with no regrets. Or, something about sexuality. But you can really ask me anything you want. I’ll always find something to say.

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