Tani Arness | Interview

Kenneth P. Gurney. I met Tani Arness early after my arrival to Albuquerque in 2007.  She along with a small cadre of poets led by Bob Reeves convinced me to remain in Albuquerque, instead of pushing further west.

What got you started into poetry? What age?

Tani Arness. I was writing little stories from the time I could write. I discovered what I thought of as “real poetry” in 11th grade when an English teacher introduced me to Sylvia Plath.  I was thrilled and suddenly seemed to have permission to put my teenage angst and feelings into writing.  The art of writing poetry grew and evolved for me over time.

KPG. Is writing poetry in the desert Southwest different than writing poetry in the wet Pacific Northwest?

TA. I think everything about living in the Southwest shapes me differently than living in the Pacific Northwest, including writing. I am sensitive to my surroundings and there is not a day that goes by when I am not aware of the vast open space and beautiful angles of light in the southwest. Light comes up a lot in my writing. The Northwest will always be where I am from but when it shows up in my writing now it is with a damp, gray heaviness that is also a blessing but in such a different way.

KPG. How much influence does your university degree(s) has on your writing of poetry and how?

TA. I really appreciated my time as a student.  I was very aware as a university student that I had purchased those years and those years provided me with focused time to read and write.  I was and still am grateful.  At the same time, after leaving the university, I felt I had to rehabilitate myself somewhat, to shake off the academic emphasis on intellectualization, prestige and publishing.  I wanted to come from the heart more than the mind. I didn’t want my poems to be clever but empty.

KPG. Who is your hero and why?

TA. This is a tough question.  I have never exactly related to the “hero” idea.  I can name many people I admire.  Two names you may recognize are Barack Obama and Ani Difranco.  I like people who claim their own truth and work for their values in pragmatic ways, people who can work within an imperfect system without losing themselves to that imperfect system.  I think this is an incredibly hard thing to do.  Many people stand outside the mainstream and criticize it. There is plenty to criticize in our political system as well as in our capitalistic music industry. Some people will do whatever it takes to be “successful.”  The most difficult thing though is to add your voice to a sick system while holding on to your priorities tighter than your ego. I’m not saying that being the President and being an artist have the same challenges. I am saying that I admire people who follow their calling and do their best to stay connected to their heart even amidst a lot of dysfunction. Since I don’t know Obama or Difranco personally, I may be way off, but they represent those ideals to me.

KPG. Tell us about your favorite poetry experience.

TA. There are too many.  Poetry awakens me all the time.

KPG. What is the greatest challenge in teaching poetry to your high school students?

TA. Teaching takes a lot of energy in general. High school students, in particular, often have big ups and downs they are dealing with. I have, over the years, had to learn to let go of control trips and look always for what students are needing and how I can respond. I love working with my students.  

KPG. If you could wave a magic wand and place a poetry book into every high school english classroom as required reading, which one would it be and why?

TA. Great question. Unfortunately, I could not pick just one.  I play a little game of trying to find a poem or poet that will speak to a particular student.  It is fun to try to match different personalities and interests with different poets.  I would suggest having a conversation with every student and then recommending a different and specific book based on that.  The book for me in high school was Ariel by Sylvia Plath.  The book for one of my female students this year is And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou; another young woman loves Alice Walker’s Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning.  A young man in my class loves Tupac’s The Rose that Grew from Concrete and another is in love with Anis Mojgani’s poems on YouTube-[Shake the Dust]. 

KPG. Tell us about any grand adventure you have had or dream of having?

TA. I have had a lot of grand adventures.  I wouldn’t know where to start.  Let me say that I now dream more of internal landscapes than external.  I want to continue opening my heart to giving and receiving.  I know that sounds so cliché but it has taken me a long time to get here.

KPG. If there is a lesser known poet you think everyone should read, who is that poet and which book of theirs should we seek?

TA. I can’t select one poet that I think everyone should read.  I find poetry too personal and I think we all need to read different people at different times.  I will recommend Mary Ann Samyn’s Inside the Yellow Dress as one lesser-known book that I love.

KPG. If you could be present at any moment in history, what event would you visit and why?

TA. I would’ve liked to have been in Pompeii in 79 CE.  Just kidding.  I would have liked to have heard Chief Seattle’s 1854 Oration out of his own mouth.

KPG. Do you use poetry as a tool to reach a higher spiritual self? How?

TA. As a university student I felt pushed to shun “spiritual poetry” as somehow less than.  In my life now, I find myself very uninterested in poems that do not, in some way, address a spirituality in life.  I find myself turning to poetry to find beauty and wisdom.  I believe these values come through in my writing.  I don’t know that there is a particular way to do this.  I try to open myself to whatever comes through me or needs to be spoken within me.  I often come back to a piece of writing and try to peel off any of unnecessary “chuff” that snuck in.  Then I try to decide whether it is of the highest good to put that piece of writing out into the world or keep it for myself.  The discipline, for me, is in letting the writing sit so that I can come back to it later and decide what this poem’s purpose is.

KPG. What is your favorite beverage?

TA. My friend makes a delicious fresh, light lemonade with mint and basil.  I am also partial to decaf soy lattes.  And I drink a lot of water.

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