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Doug Holder

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A Conversation with Somerville Poet, Tam Lin Neville
by Doug Holder   

Last edited: Tuesday, April 08, 2003
Posted: Saturday, August 31, 2002

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I talked with Neville about her writing life and her collection, "Journey Cake"





A good thing about living in Somerville, Ma. is that you can open your window and shout to another poet living next door. Not only do I live in a house that is owned by a well-known Somerville writer, but directly behind me resides an accomplished poet, Tam Lin Neville. Tam Lin Neville ,( like myself) was born in New York City, but now after stints in Philadelphia, Indiana, China and Japan she has made the 'Ville her home. Neville's poetry has appeared in such respected journals as the American Poetry Review, The Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse and others. She has worked as a creative writing teaching fellow at Butler University in Indianapolis, and her chapbook, "Dreaming in Chinese," won the Calypso Press' first chapbook competition in the Spring of 1995. Neville uses striking imagery from nature to illuminate personal intimacy and the intricacies of the soul. Her poems have been described as, "...profoundly original in their way of being moral, mysterious and intimate, all at once." In her beautifully rendered composition from her collection, "Journey Cake",( her most recent book) "Walking Alone In Winter, 5 A.M.", the sun's light defines so many dimensions of an intimate relationship through the enigma of Mother Nature:

Waking in you
sweet skin
in the only warm room
in an empty house -
the first of the sun's light
streams to firelight
and the trees as they appear
are the queer masts of a great ship
coming in without wind."

I spoke with Tam Lin Neville in my home in the Union Square section of Somerville.

DH: You wrote me once that Union Square is your ideal neighborhood. Why?

TLN: I grew up in Manhattan and Union Square is similiar to the neighborhood I grew up in. I call it, "mixed use," a neighborhood where you can get most of what you need on foot in ten minutes.People live above the stores. Commerce and residential are mixed, unlike in the suburbs. There's not much above four or five storeys. Union Square is on a human scale.

I feel that more and more of the world bears a corporate stamp but Union Square is still real, still without Starbucks and the Gap. I like that very much.

DH:How did you you come up with the title JOURNEY CAKE?

TLN: The quote in the beginning of the book," Finding the meal handy for long journeys, we called the cakes it made 'journey cakes'," came from the Dictionary of American Slang. I am a baker, and I knew I wanted bread in the title. Every title I thought about with bread came out very flat. The book was to do with a journey. It is about a spiritual journey...people on the move.

There is a poem entitled, " Migration Pages Out of Sequence." It happened during all that Czech upheaval and forced marches. I saw photos in the newspaper of large groups of people crossing a river, with big stones, passing bundles and children across. So I am interested in people who do not have a chance for reflection or repose. As a poet, I wanted to provide an area of repose or reflection for people like these.

DH: What I was most impressed with was the way you conveyed an intimacy with nature. Often the characters in your poems are defined by the natural trappings of their surroundings, such as the sense of being held, immersed or even lost in nature. There are images of an ethereal mountain mist, clouds heavily weighted with rain,a deer silently drinking, that are employed to illustrate this sensibility. In contemporary Western society we view nature as something to be controlled. In this collection (where many of the poems are set in China), nature seems to be something to be lived with and awed by. Am I getting close here?

TLN: Nature for me is a great relief from the human world of control, and what you can manage. It is a relief from the complications of human relationships. Sometimes if I take a walk, and look at a flower or tree, it is simply, what it is. It does not have the kind of history, the kind of baggage, humans do. It is much more straight forward. I don't feel that nature is human, or trees are really people. I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. I like to be reminded of a world that is bigger than my own head.


DH: Somerville is a very urban environment. It strongly contrasts with many of the scenes you write about. Does the city inspire your writing?

TLN: Yes. One of the reasons I wanted to come back to the city was that I realized I was drawn to urban people after getting my MFA. I was puzzled by the urban blank in my own writing. Where did all these images go? I lived in New York, Kyoto, Beijing, and other cities. Since I came to Somerville the urban images have been there.

When I was a kid living in the city, natural images appealed to me the most. As I get older, I realize that things are more complicated than they seem, and you want images that reflect that.

In the cities there are so many stories, so many dramas. Two people get out of a car, someone drops groceries in the middle of the street, there are so many possibilities. When I go into DeMoula's Market...I hate to seem cold... but it is like theatre. There is anything you want, and I hear so many languages I don't even know. I am always fascinated to see what people eat, what they pick.

DH: You lived , taught, and studied in China for a long time. What attracts you?

TLN: I really like China. I feel some kinship to the oriental sensibility...their way of doing things. They are not so outward. Maybe more inward, ritualistic. I found Chinese more intuitive, and intuitive sense between people. A deference...you don't wear your credits on your sleeve. I like third world countries. I like the fact that everything is slowed down.

DH: Any future projects?

TLN: My next poetry book will deal more with women. Women are interesting to me. I am interested in the way they work things out, the way they cope,how they manage. I also write essays, and I would like to go back to that form. I want to write things that are less literary.

* This interview appeared in the Somerville News.

Doug Holder



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