This Exquisite Corpse: An Interview with Tawnya Selene Renelle

This Exquisite Corpse is the debut poetry collection of Tawnya Selene Renelle, creating a tapestry of real, raw images of life of a woman loving women, loving men, in grief, in family, in being whole through having been broken.

‘A book of deviance,’ says one review. ‘A keenly observed collection,’ of poems which ‘lay down challenges to the reader,’ says another review. Renelle’s collection makes the reader delightfully uncomfortable, while comforting the women who can relate to so many parts of her art.

Of it, Colin Herd writes in the introduction,

The poet June Jordan once asked “how do we come to be here next to each other / in the night.” This question of adjacency, of how our bodies inhabit spaces in relation to other bodies, is just one of the questions that animates this collection.

…Always, through its encounters with grief, break-up, loss, illness, addiction, self-examination, Renelle’s language is buoyant, and dazzles, twists, turns in unexpected ways.

…Tawnya Renelle’s poetry is urgent, echoing, and vibrant. Her images haunt, comfort and contort.

pp.i-ii, This Exquisite Corpse

I had the opportunity to interview Renelle regarding This Exquisite Corpse toward the beginning of her book tour.

Tell me about This Exquisite Corpse.

The title actually comes from the game the surrealists play, Exquisite Corpse, and I really fell in love with it. And for me, the book contains both literal and figurative corpses: mine and those of my dead friends.

How would you describe your poetry, in this book and otherwise?

I often describe my poetry as raw and real. It is memoir and I write about my life experiences in the hopes that someone reading or listening can relate to it and maybe feel something about their own story. The power to tell it. I like to write simple poetry without metaphor.

How Would you describe your style?

I like to say I am a hybrid or experimental poet, that I really embrace the page and blank space and like to make sure I am putting words on the page in a way that creates accessibility, if that makes sense.

Speaking of blank space, This Exquisite Corpse is such a confession of the deeply personal, do you think there’s anything you’re not saying?

Not really. The poet Joy Harjo said, “I believe the word poet is synonymous with truth teller,” and I really believe that myself. I feel I have an obligation to truth in my words.

What do you hope for readers to take away from this This Exquisite Corpse?

Something of their own experience, my ideal is that half way through reading a poem, the reader stops thinking about my life and begins to think about their own. That is the dream. When people come up to me after I read and tell me about their own life experiences I feel like I have done what I hope to: provide a way for people to connect to their life by sharing information about my own.

What is the central theme of this collection?

Embodiment, or rather the body in periods of love, sex, grief, and pain. I really wanted to try and capture a lived experience in the body, it is also so much about connection, between family, friends, and lovers.

Which poem or line in This Exquisite Corpse is the most impactful to you? Rather, which would you say you carry with you, if any?

That is such a hard question. The poem I wrote for my grandmother has the line “our bond is not dependent on your knowing,”* and I do really love that one and have had many people tell me that it really impacts them as well.

And then the line, “if the overdose of my friend I learned what kind of people do drugs and somehow I am not one of them.”**

* A line from the poem, “For Grandmother” (p. 3)
**A line from the poem, “Passing” (p. 63)

I was going to ask you how you felt about “For my grandmother,’ and that line in particular. How do you feel about publishing these confessions that you don’t actually want to confess to your grandmother?

I feel really good about it actually. She knows about the book, knows she can’t read it, and even knows about that line…she is the reason I write poetry. She put Emily Dickinson in my hands when I was young and taught me to love poetry and the written word. So the dedication to her is so true, to Grandmother for words she will never read. She knows I have poems that aren’t “grandma friendly” and she is just as supportive.

What was it like putting this book together?

It was really amazing actually. I was so lucky because my friends have a cabin on their property and I went out to it for 2 days, and it was snowing. It felt magical really. And I just laid all the poems down before me on the floor and spent days deciding the order, making sure I was giving the reader emotional breaks from some of the more difficult poems, etc.

There are a lot of poems about breaking and putting back together, such as “Choked”, “Haunting,” and “I collect myself” (to name a few). Can you expand on this recurring topic?

Wow, I hadn’t even noticed that actually, but I guess it is related to the death of my friends Gitana and Adam. There is such a dismantling that happens during grief and a need to put back together. And on top of this, during this period of time, I had a major back surgery and was physically putting myself back together while writing the poems. I can see why this theme shows up again and again.

So really writing the collection had a lot to do with both literal and figurative putting back together in an emotional and physical way.

Were these poems gathered over time, or was this collection written altogether, like in a manner of catharsis for the loss of those close to you?

I actually wrote all the poems in about a year, they just kept coming, and I couldn’t stop once I had started. The only poem that had been written over a long period of time was “Poetic Sexploration.” That poem is a constant work in progress. and a few poems were written very recently. Three of them were written about a week before we went to print.

Would you define this book as a feminist collection?

I don’t ever intend to write anything that is political really, I just write about my life, and I know that it becomes political, if that makes sense. So I didn’t set out to write a collection of poetry that is feminist, but I recognize that it is, that it is body positive, queer, sex-positive, feminist, etc…and I like that it is. But for me it is just putting my experiences down on the page.

Poetry has always been more than just words on the page. It’s the line breaks and the inflexes that set the rhythm and pace up for a poem. However, in some of your poems you go beyond this. How do you feel Multimodal formatting contributes to your poems? By this I mean, the different use of text on the page. For example, in “Things I wanted to tell you (following our breakup),” and “These are the names I’ve been called by men.”

Oh yeah, well I love text on the page that challenges perceptions and I already know the content does that, so it has always been important to me that the book challenge what we think poems “should” look like. I wanted the intimacy of text messages for those 2 poems that really are about it, and “These are the names I have been called by men” is a poem I have always been scared to share with anyone and so we decided to sort of make it a center fold in a way to push the idea even further

This is also why image is included, why I have chosen to display my naked body, or corpse, if you will, in the text, especially after poems that deal with what it means to be a fat body in the world.

Do you have any other projects currently in the making?

So many…I think all writers have multiple projects at one time. I have my textbook, or my redefining of textbook on hybrid and experimental forms through my DFA studies, which is a merging of poetry, critical theory, prose, memoir, and art. I am also working on a collection of poems about my travels around the UK and being an “ex-pat,” as well as a novella idea that I hope to write in the next few years.

What is something you want more people to ask you?

I don’t think I really have specific questions I want to be asked. I like to think that someone could really ask me anything and that I would be open to it.

Where to Find Tawnya

Tawnya Renelle is a PhD student at the Univseristy of Glasgow intitially from Bellingham, Washington.

Currently, Tawyna is on her book tour promoting This Exquisite Corpse. You can catch her on tour by following her blog here.

Twitter: @trenellepoetry
Instagram: @tawnyaremelle

You can also listen to a radio interview with her on Daytime/Nighttime for a chance to hear Renelle read some of her work.

This Exquisite Corpse is available online and soon to be in select book stores. To find it online in the UK, it is available on Amazon.
Amazon US available soon.

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