1. When did you start writing?
"It probably sounds super cheesy, but I’ve been writing since first grade. At the time, I wrote terrible stories about talking bears who went to masquerade balls and leprechauns buying horse-drawn coaches. I still have copies of my story 'collections.' By second grade, I was telling people that I wanted to be an author AND an international spy when I grew up. That additional goal fell away at some point when I realized spies needed to be able to keep secrets, a skill that is fundamentally outside my wheelhouse."
2. What is your method of writing? Notebooks, computer?
"I scribble little sentences and phrases in both a paper notebook and in a running document I keep in my phone’s note app. These are mostly jumping off points, though—little snatches of things that I want to ruminate on. Once I’m ready to really draft, I go back to the notes, type the starting sentences or phrases in a blank Word document, and begin drafting in earnest."
3. Where do you draw inspiration?
"I think I have four primary 'gates' that I use to enter my shorter work: 1) Image, 2) Language, 3) Theme/Topic, and 4) Emotion. So, for the first two, something will strike me as odd or funny or interesting—say, my son observing a seagull far inland, eating a battered fish filet outside a Long John Silver’s, or the phrase 'turd-based optimism' (both items from my list)—and I write it down in my notes and then let it simmer until it becomes something meaningful. For the second two gates, I usually have an idea I want to write about, such as a scientific concept or a situation I feel conflicted over, and then I consider that until I find a way in—usually via a phrase or image. In general, I have to marry at least two items of the four (i.e., a specific image and a concept) to light a fire under the piece."
4. What got you interested in hybrid writing?
"I love that hybrids don’t have to declare themselves—they can be fiction or fact, image-driven or concept-driven. A piece can hide out inside the borrowed form of another and work with or against the form. For example, I write a lot of recipe pieces, and most of these are really flash nonfiction essays written in 'steps,' but I often publish them as poems or hybrids because then I don’t have to fill in the connective tissue in the way many people would expect of a nonfiction piece. Lyrical poetry and hybrid forms are more often dissociative and impressionistic, and there are no fact-checkers—no one will ever read a poem or hybrid and call my partner to verify whether she’s ever dated a girl named April or experienced blackouts, both of which I mention in the hybrid piece 'Recipe: Unidentified Floral Objects.' Not that small literary magazines usually fact-check flash pieces like that, but the expectation of empirical truth is still there, and it can be intrusive to people’s privacy. Some of my images are conjured to serve an emotional or imaginative truth, and those, to me, are just as vital types of truth as fact-checkable truth. So, hybrids excite me because they open up all of these possibilities in terms of form and content."
5. Could you share your process and thoughts on writing?
"I’ve already described my process a bit, but one thing I really enjoy is the moment of finding a way into something I really want to discuss. For example, I was recently overwhelmed by a friend cutting off communication with me without any explanation or clear reason. But once I decided to explore it in a piece, the question became how to write about this in a way that could potentially connect to readers through clear sensory imagery—and that, I hoped, would help my piece open out into a larger reflection on grief and friendship. So, I chose to write it as a recipe, and I began by looking for an actual recipe for some kind of ghost confection: I wanted to capture the loss of the friendship as a sort of specter in my life, and that also played on the idea of being ghosted while still being grounded in sweetness; I didn’t want it all to be negative because the pain came from losing something and someone I loved. So, I searched until I found a recipe for ghost candy that included the kinds of ingredients I wanted to appear in the poem. By searching for the ingredients I wanted to incorporate, I was also able to include a cool food fact about pistachios that I’d made note of awhile before, and it all came together from there. I don’t know how good the piece is—in part because I’m still in the emotional weeds of the situation—but the process of writing it did everything I wanted it to do, and that’s something that makes me feel like a piece is successful, whether it ever sees the light of day or not."
6. How do you know when to write poetry? How do you know when to write prose?
"The short answer to this is that I don’t really know—sometimes, something comes out in lineated verse, and I convert it to short prose later because it seems to have a kind of narrative arc that lends itself to microprose. On the other hand, I sometimes write what I think is going to be brief, meditative prose and then realize I could add duality, ambiguity, and interest with lines and stanza breaks, and then it gets a shape imposed on it. Anything long (say, 500+ words) is usually going to go into prose for me, especially anything concept- or fact-heavy—lineation creates opportunities and malleability for the language, but it also weighs it down for the reader because they have to process the whys and hows and wherefores of the language in addition to the ideas themselves. I love the flexibility of moving between forms and genres."
7. What do you hope people take away from your work?
"In terms of my short work, I really hope readers take away a sense of how making connections, especially between dissimilar things, can create weight and significance: A recipe for a drink called an Obituary Cocktail provides an opportunity to reflect on mortality and long-distance relationships after the loss of a parent. Watching a video of a freelance ballerina over and over allows the speaker to consider her own relationship to capitalism and the consumption of art. I hope readers are able to make those kinds of strange connections for themselves about their own raw materials.
I also have this kind of giant hope for every human I know that they will love, obsess, despise, sweat, laugh, hurt, and leap in whatever ways they’re going to, about whichever things they want to, and that they feel the freedom to construct the palaces of their lives from the materials they make in those moments. For me, words are the vehicle for that. That’s not about what my work does, to be clear—I just think those are the opportunities that writing and art provide, for those who create as much as those who experience the creations."
8. What project(s) do you hope to take on?
"I don’t really have any new projects I want to take on right now, but that’s mainly because I want to finish two big projects I’ve been working on: First, I have a hybrid poetry manuscript which focuses on food and drink as ways into questions of queerness, parenthood, grief, religion, and embodiment, and that one is so close to being done I can taste it (pun intended). The second is a memoir project that ties to the poetry manuscript—it deals with the intersection of fad diets and disordered eating with Southern evangelical culture. That one is in an earlier stage, and I’m really enjoying the research that goes with the writing."
9. What writing advice do you find totally useless?
"I wouldn’t say there’s anything that’s totally useless because everything works for someone out there, but for me, as both a writer and teacher of writing, I dislike most kinds of 'banning' advice. Anything that tells you what not to do—for example, 'never use adverbs or em dashes,' 'take out every use of the word ‘just,’' 'never tell the reader what a speaker is feeling'—feels like a useless chain to me, especially when those edicts don’t come with any direction about what the writer should be doing instead. I’m not saying that I’d like to read an unbroken string of adverbs or a pure discussion of emotion with no imagery attached, but edicts often serve to hamstring the writer. In addition, judicious, intentional breaking of 'rules' can be engaging, delightful, subversive, thought-provoking, and more."
10. And finally, what do you enjoy doing that you don’t talk about enough. Tell me all about it!
"I’m not sure this is a thing that needs talking about, but one of my favorite things to do is to make up stories about passersby. I’ll spot someone interesting at a café or in a store, or I might hear them speak for a moment, and then I spin them a full backstory, out loud or in my head. It’s even better when someone else weaves the tale with me—one of the things I adore about my girlfriend is that she’s all in on this, even though she claims not to have a creative bone in her body. For example, we recently interacted with this willowy, imperious, beautiful, withering manager for an outdoor restaurant. We were meeting a friend, and the friend arrived about fifteen minutes after we did. By the time she got there, we had an entire narrative about how the manager was moonlighting as an assassin, carrying arsenic in her locket and living in a meticulously-restored Victorian where she grew oleander in her window boxes; we’d named each of the four cats we’d given her. We announced this with so much detail and such authority that our friend found herself legitimately confused for a second before she realized we’d concocted it all based on the roughly two minutes we’d spent with the woman. Moments like that bring me pure, undiluted joy."
Hear B. read her poem "Recipe: Rhubarb, Ginger, and Chili Jam."
B. Tyler Lee is the author of one short poetry collection, With Our Lungs in Our Hands (Redbird Chapbooks, 2016), and her essay “A large volume of small nonsenses” won the 2020 Talking Writing Contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blue Mesa Review, Qwerty Literary Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Cream City Review, The Hunger, Jet Fuel Review, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She attended the 2021 Tin House Summer Workshop for poetry. In years past, she won a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Award, was named a Ruth Lilly finalist, and had a creative nonfiction piece listed as a Best American Essays notable work. More of her work can be found at BTylerLee.com, and she tweets as @BTylerLee7. She teaches and parents in the Midwest.
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