An Interview with Courtney Faye Taylor – Michigan Quarterly Review
Author photo of Courtney Faye Taylor with the cover of the book Concentrate in the background laid over a background image that features a banner which reads "Zell Visiting Writers Series Interviews" as well as the University of Michigan, LSA, and Helen Zell Writers Program logos.

An Interview with Courtney Faye Taylor

Courtney Faye Taylor is a writer, visual artist, and the author of Concentrate (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Rachel Eliza Griffiths as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Concentrate was named a finalist for the 2023 NAACP Image Awards and the 2023 Lambda Literary Awards. Courtney earned her BA from Agnes Scott College and her MFA from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. She is the winner of the 92Y Discovery Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize. The recipient of residencies and fellowships from Cave Canem and the Charlotte Street Foundation, Courtney’s work can be found in Poetry Magazine, The Nation, Ploughshares, Best New Poets, and elsewhere.

Courtney Faye Taylor and Courtney DuChene, a first-year poetry MFA candidate at the University of Michigan, sat down to discuss Concentrate, Taylor’s debut collection, which examines the story of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl who was fatally shot by Korean-American convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Courtney DuChene (CD): How did this project start? When did you write the first poems that would appear in Concentrate?

Courtney Faye Taylor (CFT): The first poems I wrote were actually written here at the University of Michigan MFA program. At the time, I wasn’t sure what they would become or what project they would grow into. But they were largely poems about Black girlhood, racial violence, sexual violence. Those were the topics I was drawn to in my work.

The first poem in Concentrate is a dialogue between an aunt and a niece. The poem is about the talk that Black children are given as they are ushered into an understanding of racism and white supremacy. I wrote that poem some years ago and eventually it became the foundation for Concentrate.

CD: And when did the story of Latasha Harlins come into the project?

CFT: Latasha was first mentioned in that dialogue poem. I still don’t know how she found her way into that piece. She was just in my subconscious somehow. I’ve tried to think back to when I first heard her name. Because I was born after she was killed, Latasha had to have made her way to me through some kind of secondhand knowledge. It had to have been a family member telling me about her, or maybe I read about her murder somewhere when I was old enough to be aware of those kinds of things. However it happened, it’s just interesting that years later, she ended up in my poetry. From that point on, I became interested in her Black girlhood and the makeup of her life, which spurred my research.

CD: The research and the archival work that went into the book is really, really impressive. Can you talk a little bit more about your approach to research and scholarship as a poet?

CFT: It’s funny because in undergrad or whenever I had to do formal research, I hated researching. It didn’t feel creative. It didn’t feel personal. As I was writing Concentrate, I didn’t think of my process as research at all. I just thought of it as me following my curiosities.

Once I was deep in the process, I was like, whoa, this is research. I wasn’t just engaging with scholarship. I was watching documentaries, reading plays and nonfiction collections. Then eventually it evolved into a firsthand research trip where I visited the sites in LA I had read about. That trip brought the research alive in a very necessary way and gave way to essays in Concentrate.

CD: At your reading, you talked about how those essays in the section Four Memorials came into the book after it had been picked up. What was the process of adding that in? It feels very seamless, like it was always part of the project.

CFT: Once Concentrate was picked up for publication, it went through three rounds of edits. I’d revise, send a draft to my editors, receive their feedback, then revise some more. In that editorial process, I wrote Four Memorials.

There was something about the revision process that opened me up to writing new material. Maybe it was seeing gaps in the narrative, or places where I could stand to add more context. I think Four Memorials was my remedy for that.

CD: I think finding trusted readers is something young poets think about a lot. How did you find that?

CFT: In the MFA, you get built-in readership through workshop.

There are a few people from my MFA that I still keep in contact with. They were the first readers for early drafts of Concentrate. The book got stronger under their care and examination.

But for the most part, once you’re out of the MFA, it becomes imperative to cultivate community elsewhere. The Cave Canem retreat was a place where I gained literary family. I think as you write, and as you grow into your craft, you meet people along the way, and those people become your readers, your support system, your safe place. Finding and keeping those people is essential to the work of writing.

CD: It sounds like the Cave Canem retreat and that experience would have been pretty central to the project of this book, to have trusted Black readers who are looking at the work and helping you shape it.

CFT: I feel extremely grateful that this book won the Cave Canem prize. The prize is very special and dear to me because it places me in the legacy of other prize winners including my friend Malcolm Tariq—who got his PhD here at the University of Michigan—Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Aurielle Marie, and many others. It’s very important for Concentrate, with its focus on Black identity, to be in that tradition.

CD: The book feels in a lot of ways like it is paying homage to Black writers who came before you, there was a lot about Toni Morrison and other writers in the book. I’m wondering how you thought about bringing them into the work?

CFT: When I was writing Four Memorials, I was reading “Looking for Zora.” It’s an essay by Alice Walker where she documents her journey to Eatonville, Florida to look for the unmarked grave of Zora Neale Hurston.

As readers, we follow Walker as she talks to people and tries to get information that will help her locate Hurston’s plot. Her excavation reminded me of what I was doing in Paradise Memorial Park cemetery in LA, searching for Latasha’s headstone. I wanted to call Alice Walker into Concentrate, to acknowledge and celebrate another Black woman who had done similar work.

All over Concentrate, I conjure Black women writers who have done the work of resistance before me, the work of ensuring our stories and our lives are respected and honored through literature—Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Kamilah Aisha Moon, to name a few.

CD: You’ve talked a bit about the collage elements in the book and how the collage is a way of dealing with the grief and trauma but also the rage that comes with telling a story like this about white supremacy. I was wondering if you could speak more to the use of collage in the book and how you came to that.

CFT: The first collage I created for Concentrate was “Light Attire,” which was made in response to my study of missing persons flyers and the FBI’s most wanted list. I was curious about the way Black women and girls are depicted in these documents, and how these depictions often reduce us to stereotypes and misdefinitions.

There’s nothing I could say that would say it better than the flyers themselves. And so I used the language and images from the flyers to make a collage.

With that collage completed, I realized I had just developed a new tool. I wondered what other places in the book could benefit from collage as language. Collage became a mechanism for me to say things that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to say.

CD: The book is so formally impressive, combining the research, the archive materials, photos, the timelines. How do you think these formal tools served you in telling Latasha’s story?

CFT: I love that I was able to work in different modes. White supremacy is such a complicated, unruly system. It’s a collage in and of itself. It’s without logic. It’s nonlinear. So I had to approach it in a very multimodal way. Images, poems, essays, timelines. Being able to use all these forms helped me speak.

There are different ways people access knowledge. So I love the fact that maybe someone will connect with the collage more so than the poem. Or someone can connect to the straightforwardness of a first-person essay rather than a timeline. Multiple modes to reach multiple readers.

CD: Before reading this, I had revisited Claudia Rankin’s Citizen and I was thinking about how the two projects have a similar shape in some ways. So I was excited to hear you mentioned that Citizen had been an influence. What did that collection teach you about the possibilities of poetry and what a collection could look like?

CFT: I mean, everything. It was one of the first collections I read as an MFA student. I’m just so grateful for that book, especially how Rankine reads from it, leaning into the visual elements and bringing those to life for the audience. Her work showed me that poetry can be nonfiction, can be visual art. Genre is something I’m less concerned with. Citizen helped me think about what I want to say and what I need to use in order to say it.

CD: And perhaps also important formally for your approach to reading: I know that during your reading you incorporated the visuals in a really profound and meaningful way. Did hearing her read have an influence as well?

CFT: I love how Rankine reads from Citizen because she’s giving you information that you wouldn’t otherwise have as a reader. She talks about the images in the book and how she acquired them. She talks about the interview process that gave way to the poetry. When I’m giving a reading, I want to do a similar thing—give knowledge about how I made this book, why I made it, what it means to me as the writer, and what I hope it comes to mean in the world.

CD: What were some of your other influences when you were working on this project?

CFT: I think of Anna Deavere Smith’s play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 in which she interviews people who have survived the LA uprising and turns those interviews into monologues for a one-woman show.

With that play in mind, I considered my dialogue poem “The Talk.” I thought, how can I extend the conversation in this poem and really lean into playwriting? Smith’s work gave me that exploratory excitement. The work of many writers, playwrights, essayists, documentarians, musicians, and filmmakers inspired my approach to form and voice in Concentrate.

CD: There’s so much in the book, from the pop culture references you mentioned, the lines from movies like Menace II Society, and then the lyrics from the song “Black Korea” that appear in the book. I’m curious: How did you decide what would come into the book?

CFT: My strategy was to overwrite. If it spoke to me, I’d write it. Then I’d worry about space and fit later.

There was a series of poems in the book about the history of orange juice, the drink Latasha was killed over. Orange juice begins our mornings. It has this aura of innocence, the same way Arizona Tea and Skittles have that pure, joyful symbolism but come to symbolize death in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

In the writing process, I felt free to prioritize whatever topic was calling out to me—orange juice being one of those topics. I think it’s important for a manuscript to feel, first and foremost, full to the writer. Then once you get to editing, you think about a reader’s experience. In consideration of the reader, some of my poems no longer fit the vision. Those orange juice poems didn’t fit, though I’m sure they’ll find life somewhere else. 

CD: During your reading, you mentioned how the book partially came from a curiosity about how white supremacy manifests within communities of color. And I really admire how the book is able to trace conflicts between Black and Asian Americans back to white supremacy and also to highlight the history of solidarity between these two groups. I’m curious how you navigated these issues during the writing process and what responsibility you felt in bringing this to the page?

CFT: It’s a very delicate topic because these are two communities of color that face their own threats under white supremacy. It’s not the same as talking about white supremacy as it manifests with white people. There are a lot of nuances.

And so, for me, care was at the center. I wanted to be honest, but I always wanted to be honest with care. I never wanted to speak from a perspective that wasn’t my own. I wanted to center Black girlhood and Black womanhood because that’s my perspective, but I also wanted to try my best to write toward both identities and experiences.

CD: At the beginning of many sections are these reviews of businesses. How did they come into the book? Why did you think they were important to include?

CFT: I love that question. Growing up, you’d hear about people’s experiences in stores and other businesses firsthand. But now, we get a lot of that information through online reviews. We have unlimited access to these personal accounts. I think of Yelp reviews as a form of storytelling, and in Concentrate I use them to the tell the story of discrimination and racial violence.

Yelp is also just really fascinating to me. I’m thinking about the voting options on their reviews: useful, funny, cool. The strangeness of reading a serious account of racial violence in a review followed by these very reductive voting options.

CD: The juxtaposition between those voting options and the reviews was so interesting. They’re all describing a terrible thing that happened to this person and then the artificial intelligence in the review system is like: Do you wanna write this as useful or funny or cool?

CFT: Yeah, there’s just very dismissive options there.

One of the most interesting reviews in Concentrate is a review for Numero Uno Market, which was previously Empire Liquor Market, the place where Latasha was killed. Reviews for Numero Uno today mention that there’s still discrimination happening in this new iteration of the store. So the legacy of racial violence lives on.

CD: It sounds like there have been many iterations of the book. You’ve talked about how it has moved from being something that was more about Black girlhood or Black beauty supply stores to being about this specific story. I wonder how that evolution occurred. Do you ever miss previous versions of the book?

CFT: I don’t think so. I’m happy with the way the book turned out. Still, all those previous iterations were vital. I needed to write those versions so I could get to the heart of what I was trying to say. 

CD: The book brings in so much from the outside world, but it still feels very intimate and personal. How did you think about that during the writing process?

CFT: I think maybe the intimacy shows up in the fact that this topic is so personal to me. I don’t think I’m separate from it. I access a lot through my own lived experiences. Concentrate feels, in some ways, like documentation of me observing the world, but it’s also a text about me observing myself.

Four Memorials is the place in the book where I step forward as the author. I break the fourth wall and say, I’m going to tell you how this journey impacted me.

CD: I know you’ve just achieved a lot and the book only came out recently, but have you started thinking about what you want to work on next?

CFT: Before I was working on Concentrate, a lot of my poems about Black girlhood were in a manuscript about my father. I think that project, a deeply personal one, requires more processing. I’m glad I put that aside and worked on the thing that I felt I was ready for, but I am excited to go back to it now. But there are also so many other ideas in my mind. Concentrate introduced me to visual art, so I’m working in that tradition too. I’m thrilled to have written a book that opened me up to different ways of expression. I’m very excited to see what comes next.

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