An Interview with Tiffany Troy
Tiffany Troy’s debut poetry book, Dominus, moves continuously up and down Kenneth Koch’s “poetry thermometer,” descending from the lofty realm of Greco-Roman myth—where we encounter Aeneas, Odysseus, Dido, and others—to the YouTube animated BabyTiger children’s TV series. While Ilium burns, our heroine, a “Baby-Tiger” look alike who is also an attorney, makes her way across the city, fighting adversaries in court and gaining the necessary experience to not only endure but triumph in the troublesome world. The poems are filled with icons of pure goodness that act as talismans, among them Maria Goretti, one of the youngest canonized saints in the Catholic Church, stabbed to death at the age of eleven during an attempted rape by a neighbor. She forgave her attacker before her death and he, in time, became a Capuchin Franciscan brother. Behind the writing is the firm Blakean belief, expressed in his “Proverbs of Hell,” that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet. She is the author of Dominus (BlazeVOX) and the chapbook When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), as well as co-translator of Santiago Acosta’s The Coming Desert /El próximo desierto (Alliteration Publishing House), in collaboration with Acosta and the Women in Translation project at the University of Wisconsin. Her reviews and interviews of emerging and established voices are published in The Adroit Journal, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, The Laurel Review, EcoTheo Review, Rain Taxi, New World Writing, Hong Kong Review of Books, and Tupelo Quarterly, where she is Managing Editor.
MJB: I'm very interested in the title of your book. The Latin term Dominus is used in Christian theology for the Lord or God but I found that it was also used by the Romans as a title of respect for the master or lord of the house. And that it was later sometimes used for a knight or a clergyman, and later yet, for an academic master. All of that made me wonder what Dominus means to you? And what you hope it will mean to the reader.
TT: To me, Dominus immediately calls to mind the poems’ recurring character, Master. The book title, which was suggested by Dorothea Lasky, comes from William Butler Yeats’s “Ego Dominus Tuus.” In his poem, “dominus” refers to the Christian God as well as to the anti-self. I thought that was fitting because Master is the centripetal force that holds the collection together, either in the speaker’s failure to perform mastery (often contrasted with empathy), or as a kind of faith in being saved after all. To me, Master is more than the protagonist; he is omnipresent and grounds the poems when the characters look up towards the sky.
What are characters like Little Maria or Baby Tiger striving for so frantically? It’s happiness tempered by the weight of responsibility of their station in life and the idea of Dominus captures that.
MJB: It took me a while to understand that in these poems, Master is the other half of the speaker’s divided self—I think mainly because we usually think of a “master” as someone outside the self. This, however, is that cruel inner voice that tells us that no matter how hard we’ve worked, we’ve inevitably failed to meet some set of expectations: “Master keeps a running tab of my infractions” . . . “Master says I should go lay down and die / if I do not have the grit to walk the last mile” (“Holy Saturday”). The sad fact is that we are the only ones who impose these expectations on ourselves. No one else is keeping count of our so-called “infractions.” I find the conceit of externalizing these many voices and embodying them in a single character, sometimes tormenting, sometimes consoling, ingenious. Berryman (who gets a shout-out in “A Twinkie’s Love Song”) did something similar in his Dream Songs but his Mr. Bones seemed more like an echo of Henry’s conscience. Your Master seems much more like a second self.
You mention that in Yeats’s “Dominus,” the Christian God exists alongside the anti-self. I thought Yeats wasn’t invested in the Christian God but in the realm of the imagination, which he conceived as the anima or spiritus mundi that ties all things together? It makes me wonder how you would describe your relationship to religion? I ask because in the first line of the proem that introduces your collection, we meet Old Testament Moses who—surprisingly—is dividing the Red Sea while the moon is saying Shalom, a Jewish greeting, to Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn (via a falling huckleberry). This certainly complicates things!
TT: The proem is actually a homage to Yip Harburg, who wrote the lyrics of “Over the Rainbow.” It blends the structure and conceit of the song “Moon River” with the Hebrew word “Shalom,” which means hello as well as goodbye. The poems in Dominus are about growing up and how along with that growing up are cultural traditions that are learned and left behind. The “moon shiner,” which also calls to mind the shiner of shoes, is in many ways the opposite of the Lord represented by the sun. Poems like “Sunflower,” “Sunspot,” and “My Mother as Wallpaper” are inspired by Taiwanese campus folk songs that touch upon longing and nostalgia. “A Twinkie’s Love Song” essentially reimagines the Twinkie as the albatross in the sea of the speaker’s mind. To me, religion, like the music that inspires my poems, is the antithesis of containment, and a kind of freedom. It is epic and miraculous because it goes beyond the self. Of course, that faith is often misplaced or betrayed. But the reaching over the rainbow is what religion is to me.
MJB: There’s another realm that keeps reasserting itself in the poems, which is that of Greco-Roman mythology. We encounter Aeneas, Odysseus, Troy (coincidentally your last name!), Dido, Carthage, the Sybil of Cumae, Theseus, Ariadne, and others, via Ovid and Homer, who are both named. Was this part of your childhood or did it come later? How do these characters, who come from such an ancient and elevated sphere, work with Mama, Papa, and Baby Tiger?
TT: Mythology definitely captured my childhood attention, and I remember clicking hyperlink after hyperlink in the web of lore carried in the Greco-Roman tradition. But only later, in high school and college, did I come to see literature as a lens through which to examine my life, career, and community. I am not much of a philosopher, but that idea found its way into the collection in part because the speaker of the poems looks to the myths as guideposts for how to act in the face of grave adversity, as in the poems “Thank You Card” or “Cardiogram.”
Needless to say, I am quite fond of the characters in Dominus. The quotidian responsibilities shouldered by Mama, Papa, and Baby Tiger are elevated to the heroic not through the comparison to the mythological but because the reality that they live—like that of the Iliad or Odyssey—chafes against their very existence and sense of being. I felt that very keenly later on in life, where my station, as a kind of geography, circumscribed what you can say, see, and perform. If the Greco-Roman characters tempt fate within the frame of the inevitable fall of Troy, the burning of Carthage, the shrinking of Sybil to that thimbleful of voice, Mama, Papa, and Baby Tiger each work within the rules of the game in an elitist civilization that seeks to flatten them into a stereotype or a symbol. They search for the beautiful—be it home, an empire, or love—in a world that is cruel in its indifference.
MJB: In the poem “The Queen of England,” it appears that Baby Tiger is an attorney! You are also an attorney! The poem “Notes on the word ‘impossible’” actually begins with the speaker saying, “As a Baby Tiger, I often deal with impossible adversaries / and hold in my despair, a mission impossible.” Am I right in thinking that Baby Tiger is another alter-ego, like Master? And if so, how does that work? Are these different aspects of the self? Or is Baby Tiger more or less a textual subworld?
TT: Absolutely! Both of your takes are spot on: Baby Tiger is an effervescent and indefatigable alter-ego not unlike the protagonist in a cartoon. She’s a “baby” in “The Queen of England” because she isn’t quite as experienced as Master or as worldly-wise as Mama. In the world of Dominus, Baby Tiger traces her lineage in a new sphere, to make a name of herself. In “Queen of England,” for instance, Baby Tiger talks about a deposition to Master and/or Mama (as external characters). They have both learned the language of “corporate professional” in advocating for one side of the adversarial system.
In poems like “Notes on the world ‘impossible’,” Baby Tiger has internalized the external day-to-day and created an imaginary, reflective subworld. In this subworld, Baby Tiger sees beyond the adversarial system to how, in some ways, the adversaries—while never fully trustworthy—may be similar to her or Mama or Master in that behind their fiction is their station in a panorama of never belonging, always being the “other” and never fully integrated in the mainstream.
MJB: Are we to meant to read the fact that Baby Tiger is female and Master is male as representing the speaker as nonbinary? Or is this just the Jungian (masculine) animus / (feminine) anima divide that we all unconsciously have?
TT: I think the soul in some ways is non-binary, and not limited by the physical and misogynist limitations placed on the Baby Tiger, who is infantized as emotional, inexperienced, and ultimately inferior, the same way Master or the Christian god is idolized as wise and superior in strength and intellect. I think, like Jung, I am interested in tracing characters who can be both good and bad, while also reflecting the internalization of the machismo predominant in the legal profession within the world of Dominus.
MJB: We don’t often encounter the specialized lexicon of the legal profession in poems, so it was surprising, and fun, to encounter words like deponent, deposition, attorney fee applications, law clerks, judge and trial in these poems. In “The Queen of England,” Baby Tiger says, “It’s just that ‘I’m directing my client not to answer’ / means exactly what it means.” There is that assumption, isn’t there, that the language of law means only what it says, as opposed to the language of poetry, which often means more than one thing, the literal and the figurative? Or is the language of law just as slippery as lyric language? Is that the point you’re making?
TT: Legalese can be likened to Sir Thomas More’s livery chain. It’s oddly specific, particular, and niche. In “Queen of England,” the “attorney fee application” is exactly what it sounds like. Like the naming of a thing, aspects of the lexicon of the legal profession point to the specific.
In Dominus, Baby Tiger (modeled in part after Alice in Alice in the Wonderland) is bemused and engrossed in the stylized legal discourse, which incorporates societal values. For instance, the attorney fee application weighs particular aspects of biography, like “Where are you from?”
Legal language (especially in the abstract) can be just as slippery as lyric language, and arguably more dangerous, because it appears neutral. Here, I’m thinking of Martín Espada’s poem “Mariano Explains Yanqui Colonialism to Judge Collings,” where what is lost in translation is what matters.
Then, if you think of legalese as a “clean, sharp knife,” a cross-examination is often said to be the closest brush we get to the truth. In some ways, I feel poems in Dominus are similarly interrogations of the self.
MJB: The final poem, “The Sky,” begins with the speaker saying, “I see light Blake calls experience, a truth / that often mixes cruelty with nostalgia.” Is cruelty inherent in nostalgia because the golden light that bathes the past wasn’t ever really golden? Is the “real” truth that we, like the speaker, are “chained to the bottom of the sea,” just as people in the past were?
Yet Blake celebrates experience, doesn’t he? In fact, he argues for excess: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom . . . You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough” (“Proverbs of Hell,” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).
TT: I love everything about this question! Cruelty is inherent in nostalgia because what is “golden” is in reality often ossified, like the 43-year-old Twinkie found in a Maine high school. Lyric transforms the artifact into something worth beholding.
Towards the end of the film Philadelphia, Andrew Beckett asks Joe Miller, “What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the sea?” Beckett says, “A good start.” This joke runs through Dominus as self-deprecation and as an acknowledgment that how the general public views the law is very different from the way the characters live in the world of the law.
“The Sky” is after Timothy Donnelly’s poem “The Light.” In his poem, written during the pandemic, Blake’s dragon shows up and metamorphoses into a walrus made of fire. I was really touched by how keen the walrus was to behold the beauty that was left despite the worldwide sickness. The poem is interested in that same sense of triumph in having survived despite knowing about the men I legally represented who were told by their employers to falsify time records or be let go. In this case, the “sickness” is human greed. This newly-gained experience ultimately carries the characters forward in that drive towards Pop’s Diner. I celebrate that experience even while wishing that perhaps the world could be kinder, pinker, lighter.
I see light Blake calls experience, a truth
that often mixes cruelty with nostalgia.
A truth that requires me to be the good demasiado, to keep faith
in a constellation of not stars but codes.
And so it was I drove myself to Pop's Diner, baby steps
toward a life-affirming brekkie, a faith in carrying on
as there is beauty in repaying kindness with kindness,
even if that means becoming an all-weather machine.
I play the fool next to Cassandra, wearing thick, foggy glasses.
At night, I wait for nostalgia to wash over me
as the cold air reminds me of the wheel of fortune,
and of grown men who know no letters
averring that's how America works: You either cooperate
or starve. I stand up and look out again: It's lighter,
the momentarily pink light. I care for these men who talked
over me, the way I desire to touch the sky.