Talking with Tess Taylor

Last West and Rift Zone are ambitious works that uncover fault lines in California’s geology, human history, and future.

Author Tess Taylor and her new book Rift Zone.
Author Tess Taylor and her new book Rift Zone.


Tess Taylor’s poetry is a literary collage: an assemblage of the poet’s words and the ontology of California itself. In two collections out this year, Rift Zone and Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange, the poet juxtaposes her personal longing for security against the state’s complex geologic and human history. Rift Zone draws our attention to the “fragile real estate” Californians claim, as well as invisible lines within and around us. Last West puts the poet’s work in apposition to notes and photographs taken by famed WPA photographer Lange. Taylor travels the roads Lange traveled, drawing together the artist’s time and our own: “Different people,” Taylor writes, “the same problems.” 

Watch Alta Asks Live: Tess Taylor

Though Taylor’s work examines everything from California’s fault lines and earthly redwood cathedrals to the distressing issues of homelessness, Japanese internment, and the current border crisis, her work is grounded in the intimate. “We only half-grasp what we inherit,” she writes, but her work illuminates the present via the past.

Taylor talked with Alta recently to answer questions about Rift Zone and Last West.

What strange connections or coincidences did you uncover while doing research for Last West?
As I began this process, I read Lange’s notebooks from the 1930s and ’40s in the Oakland Museum and then went to the places in California she photographed for the Farm Security Administration, mostly documenting the conditions of migrant laborers, and later for the Bureau of War Information, recording the process of Japanese internment—these photographs were later confiscated from her. On these travels to see the places Lange photographed, the juxtapositions were haunting. In the Imperial Valley, where Lange photographed migrant workers coming to pick crops from the Dust Bowl but also Mexico and the Philippines, there is now a massive detention center that holds 782 people, but currently no dedicated housing for migrant laborers. In Nipomo, where Lange photographed Migrant Mother, a boxy luxury tract home development called Monarch Dunes overlooks industrial strawberry fields lined with crooked workers’ trailers. When I went to Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp that held upwards of 10,000 people, I learned that the majority of those interned during the Second World War were under 18 years of age. It was hard not to think of our mass detention centers and the youth now trapped in those systems.

Read Taylor’s poem, “Downhill White Supremacists March on Sacramento” in the Spring 2020 issue of Alta.

Last West is a collage of your own words with oral histories and photographs. Can you describe your process for writing this collection?
I can’t remember not knowing Lange’s work, but I began thinking about Lange most actively about 10 years ago, when I moved back from Brooklyn to El Cerrito, where I grew up and went to public school. I felt drawn to her as a fellow Californian, as a mother, as an example of persistence and bravery. I got out a book of Lange’s wartime photos and saw that she’d seen the Bay Area, and even El Cerrito, in a fascinating way—as an end point on so many people’s migration, as a source of hope for some, as a site of violence for others. In 1942, right about the time she was photographing somewhat happy photos of the small bungalows of El Cerrito and the desegregating shipyards of Richmond, she was also photographing the displacement of Japanese Americans to internment camps, sometimes also in El Cerrito, Oakland, Richmond. The same week, the same place—she saw something hopeful and aspirational about the emergence of a middle class and something tragic and violent. Her work is like that: she’s a master of paradox. Her ability to see the haunting valences of that moment helped me decode my hometown.

As for my method: I tried to emulate hers. Apparently, as Lange got ready to photograph people on road trips, she’d take notes for possible captions and government reports she’d eventually write. She’s an amazing list maker and oral historian. She gets down haunting microhistories—“I wouldn’t undertake to farm this land no more” or “I’d go back if I could ever get the money” or “this country’s a hard country, when you die, you’re dead, that’s all.” Lange had an excellent ear for American dialogue, and her notes feel as vivid as her photos. The notes Lange leaves behind are lists of longings, human conditions, the price of gas and groceries, what it takes to get by. It’s a chorus that leans across time. I was utterly drawn to its texture.


Imperial Valley:
—more refugees, outside
1937, man: If we had anything to go back for
1937, SKID ROW: This is also California


1937, man: I wouldn’t undertake to farm this land no more
abandoned houses, abandoned soil

What would you like to ask Dorothea Lange? What do you think she’d want to ask you?
I can’t know what she’d want to ask me, but I am sure that she’d somehow catch me in a quizzical off-guard way. She had a knack for that. Then, as we relaxed a bit, I think she’d turn to me, and all of us, and say, “What’s your plan to deal with this homelessness, with this poverty?” She’d ask us, “Aren’t you shocked?”

Rift Zone is deeply personal, exploring the way that your life intersects with California’s landscape and history. What do you think people take for granted about California?
California is a quintessential zone of dreams and arrival—people come here and adore the sunshine or drive the famous freeways or work, work, work and stay and become part of its diverse life. California has offered some people a version of American amnesia—a place to reinvent yourself in the sun, to buy a lemon tree. But it’s also the site of vast inequality, racism, genocide. 

Everything about us is sort of this beautiful apocalypse. We have this gorgeous, slightly dangerous geology. Our history sits at right angles to the rest of the country. We have our own weather systems facing Pacific currents; we literally sit on a different continental plate than people on the East Coast. We even have our own 1776—when explorers on the Anza expedition finally “discovered” the San Francisco Bay. Yet for all that we imagine ourselves at the edge of the country, there’s a way that we are also a center—a center of quintessentially American violence, American fracturing.

Give us the elevator pitch for Rift Zone.
What does it feel like to have a fault line in your backyard? 

In Rift Zone, I do a soil sample, digging under the surface of ordinary life to explore seismic layers we walk over all the time. We stand somewhere between the 2,000-year-old redwood trees and the era of the internet. We stand somewhere in the gulf between enormous wealth and enormous poverty. We stand on continental plates that are literally pushing the earth apart beneath our feet. We stand on legacies of violence and racism that inform and shape the racism and violence we see today. We are fragile and precarious mammals who have no clue yet how to cure one deadly virus, but we are weaving a society together with Zoom.

Yeats once said that of quarrels with others you make politics and of quarrels with yourself you make poetry. I guess I would just say that Rift Zone attempts to pause in the fault line, in the tear, to let us pause in the midst of our paradox.

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic based in Elk Grove, California. She most recently interviewed Vanessa Hua for Alta Asks.



  • By Tess Taylor
  • Museum of Modern Art, 64 pages, $12.95



    • By Tess Taylor
    • Red Hen Press, 112 pages, $16.95


      Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic.
      Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
      More From Alta Asks