Adin Thayer’s debut poetry collection, The Close World, won the Patricia Bibby First Book Award from Tebot Bach, a press focused on building community and celebrating the transformative power of literature. Having grown up in Virginia during the Jim Crow era, Thayer writes both directly and indirectly from that historical context, with an urgency to address the injustice that still characterizes our society. Born to parents in the aftermath of World War II, she and her five sisters are still close friends. She lived near woods when small and has always spent as much time as she could among trees. She currently resides in Massachusetts, where she cares for the children of her two daughters, works with a reconciliation-oriented radio project in Rwanda and Burundi, and writes daily.
Poetry Editor and Senior Editor Libby Maxey spoke with her this summer, just as her book was about to be released.
Libby Maxey: This is your first poetry collection, which is, in a sense, a lifetime in the making. How does it feel to publish a first book after decades of writing (and, of course, living)? How did you decide what to include?
Adin Thayer: It’s a bit overwhelming. To say I feel exposed isn’t quite right, but it’s in that neighborhood. This is the best I could do, but does anyone ever think that the best they could do is the best they thought they could do?
In order to compile the oeuvre of me, I sifted through hundreds of poems and chose what I thought were the best. I knew I would favor the ones from Africa and the ones about growing up in the South because of a sense of responsibility to speak about those places somehow, especially about Africa, since those are stories most people wouldn’t know otherwise. The poems are a tribute to the actual people living those lives. The principle was to not write about them as victims—not at all—but to describe in every case the sense of almost bewildering transcendence that they had summoned up after what they had lived through, and were living through.
I thought, too, that some of the best poems were about my mother, as well as a few about my childhood, and it occurred to me that a section that was more autobiographical would give the reader a better sense of the person who wrote the Africa poems. So, in various drafts, I always put the Africa poems first, but then wanted to step back to fill in something of how I came to write them.
I love childhood poems—they’re so interesting—but the poems about my childhood are also Jim Crow poems, and I wanted to avoid writing them as if they were my contribution to history. Instead, I wanted to write them as I experienced living those years, which meant to write them with the eyes of a child and capture the incomprehensible ignorance of my young life. I don’t know why my parents didn’t ground us with any racial understanding. I think about how Black parents talk about having “the discussion” with their children, and I wonder, why didn’t every white parent in the South have that discussion? They just didn’t.
LM: Will you talk about how you happened to work in Africa, such that you became a witness in your writing?
AT: I always had a strong feeling about the continent of Africa, always, and as an adult, I took some courses on Africa at Smith College. In one, we were shown a clip from the Rwandan genocide. It captured an actual killing at a roadblock, from a window high above. When the film was over, the other students started saying, “How did we let this happen?” We were learning about the politics, but theirs was a deeper question—how, as humans. The professor said we couldn’t do anything except learn about it. So I went home and googled “healing in Rwanda,” and up came two psychologists who live near me; they were doing this work, to foster social cohesion where there had been genocide. I signed up for a workshop with one of them and afterwards, I went up to her and said, “Let me go with you to Rwanda. I’ll do anything, I just want to go.” And they took me, and it changed the whole course of my life. It was a moment where I thought, “I can do something about this.” Standing passively felt intolerable.
It’s evident in my poems that I felt fulfilled by being there and honored that people would communicate such vast suffering to me, a stranger, from the country that did nothing. But I’ve always tried to keep the poems at a completely human level. None of them are about politics. They’re about the consequences of politics on human beings. And obviously the consequences of politics rain down on people of color in this country as we sit here. In a sense, though, Africa was, for a while, a diversion from dealing with my own history.
LM: Since I’m interviewing you for Literary Mama, we should talk more about the book’s familial element. What of your experience as mother, daughter, grandmother is reflected in these poems?
AT: The poems about my mother feel like part of a long-standing grief process—part of healing or coming to terms with a complicated relationship. As I wrote poems about her, my relationship with her seemed to grow through them. She was the grounding of the book, and it’s entirely dedicated to her. A poet herself, she encouraged my poetry. But my experience of suffering in that relationship connected to my experience of witnessing other people’s suffering from not being seen. The difficulties of growing up in a relationship where you’re not sure how visible you are would naturally fuel the desire to make things visible that people don’t necessarily want to have made visible. Luckily, through the poems, I came to a much more reconciled place with her.
I never thought for a minute about including anything about my daughters, and I think that’s such an interesting point to consider. Eavan Boland has written potently about her daughters, but I would never do that. I would have to write about all the intensity and complexity, along with the unparalleled joy, that raising them confronted me with; to be honest, I would have to write about wanting to be the best possible parent, yet blind to my blind spots. That would feel revealing of something I’m not sure children want or need to know about their impact on their parents. And I wouldn’t want to write anything any less real or honest than the poems I wrote about my mother after her death.
I’ve found it wonderful, though, to be able to write about my grandson Finn. I can tell real stories about a child and an adult together, about the dearness and even sacredness of that time when children are young and innocent and they’re in your hands. But he’s not my child, and I’m his partner in play, and that brings out a playfulness in me that I don’t think I knew the full extent of before. I’m quite anarchic with him, and that comes through in the poems. Even so, “Reading to Finn” expresses the tension of wanting a child to understand that mothers, to some extent, are the frontline sufferers when things fall apart:
I say, let me tell you it tears your heart out no, that's a secret you try to keep while it grows back not innocent, not light, but oh, it grows back full
LM: The Close World brings us close to different kinds of violence, in Africa and in the US, but the poems also find beauty and solace in nature. How do you see the relationship of nature and human nature in the collection?
AT: I was staying in a monastery on a peninsula on Lake Kivu, between Congo and Rwanda, and it was just about the most beautiful place I’d ever been. The fishermen were out all night with little lanterns in their boats, and they sang to let each other know where they were, and I was struck with wondering, why does such beauty not fill us with love and gratitude? Why doesn’t it inspire goodness? Why do so many wealthy people live on beautiful land and only go to beautiful places, but behave so cruelly? It’s as if being around beauty can separate you from what most people can have. But beauty obviously does inspire me. From an early age, the natural world was my home. I knew I had a home inside my family, but I also knew I couldn’t count on the rules of it. By contrast, I realized that nature was impersonal—I didn’t have to do anything for it, nor it for me, so I could be anything I wanted to be in it. I could be free. It wouldn’t even know. That’s how safe I felt. It’s such a relief that the world isn’t a person. It’s so alive, but it isn’t personal.
I know different people are differently attuned to the powerful way nature can move us, and I feel lucky to feel as I do. I owe it to my mother. She took me into the woods, from age three or four, and taught me bloodroot and mayapple and every conceivable wildflower. I do the same with Finn now, because I know that people can be led, by invitation, to notice the world and to relish it.
LM: We often ask writers to talk about what’s next, but sometimes, that’s not the best way to think about writing—as if there always has to be another project. How do you think about writing after The Close World?
AT: I’m so grateful for my relationship with words, which is, again, a gift from my parents. And I’m grateful that I’ve sunk deeper into it with time, and with support from my writing group, so that I continue to experience poetry as a way of dropping deeper into myself as well as connecting with others. I know a lot of poets say that, but it seems to be true. Having written this book, I do wonder—and I’m sure any poet does eventually—about what more I have to say. I do not want to start repeating myself, saying my favorite things again in a different way. I don’t know how deep I am. I don’t think I’m too shadowed by concerns about publication, though—I really keep that at bay. If I can bring together another book, I will, but forcing a collection feels like a trap. Poetry, for me, has become a kind of a quest to find more of who I am; if I felt like I wasn’t growing through my writing, it wouldn’t give me much pleasure. That’s my form of being exacting with myself. It’s asking a lot of poetry.