CONCENTRATE is Anti-erasure: An Interview with Courtney Faye Taylor

This is a Black and white headshot of Courtney Faye Taylor. She sis seated beside a house plant and in front of lit window. She is wearing a white dress and hoop earrings. Shis is looking directly at the camera and has dark hair.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2021 Cave Canem Prize Winner 
Fellow: 2022

Rachel Eliza Griffiths selected Courtney Faye Taylor as the winner of the 2021 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her manuscript Concentrate, published by Graywolf Press in fall 2022.

Why Concentrate as the title of this manuscript?

Latasha Harlins was killed in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice, so I was thinking about concentrated orange juice when I chose the title. In earlier versions of the manuscript, I was exploring the history of orange juice, trying to sit with its symbolism as an American beverage.

But over time, “concentrate” came to be a direct plea to the reader. The book is written in a collage style, so I’m asking the reader to concentrate on all the spiraling and journeying the book embarks on. 


Can you take us to the first time you heard Latasha Harlins’ name? Can you discuss her significance to the collection?

I can’t remember when I first heard Latasha’s name, but I, like most of us, only knew of her in the context of her murder. Latasha was not presented to me in the fullness of her childhood, which is a fullness she deserves. I became interested in undoing this erasure, not just of Latasha but of all Black girls lost to violence. As I say in the collection, “I’ve entered LA to anti-erase, which is the work of resistance.” Concentrate is that anti-erasure.


What were you considering as you approached the sequencing for Concentrate?

I start the book with a dialogue between an aunt and her niece. The aunt is giving her niece “the talk,” the conversation where race and the dangers of white supremacy are explained to a child for the first time. This conversation being placed at the beginning of the book mimics the way “the talk” happens toward the beginning of our lives. And the rest of our lives are defined by how we engage with the lessons of that talk. Likewise, the rest of Concentrate is a navigation of those teachings. 


There are a number of poems that leverage visuals as a part of their project. Can you speak to the instinct behind these poems and what they accomplish that a “traditional” poem, with only text, could not?

I turn to visual art when I need the reader to see what I’m saying in a very literal sense. A photo of Latasha’s name etched on the sidewalk outside her middle school, a collage of missing Black girls and women, clippings from a scholarly text—these visuals are a language themselves. My writing works in tandem with the images to present a perspective that wouldn’t be possible with one medium alone. 


There are a number of images that repeat in the manuscript. The orange slice, for example. How do imagistic refrains operate in your work?

Repetition roots the reader. When you can say, “I’ve seen this before,” you can say, “I know where I am.” I repeat the orange slices and phrases like “forever” and “should be considered.” There’s a reason those need to reappear. I hope each instance takes readers further in their understanding of the text. 


You included poems with blacked-out pages, others with the structure of a Yelp review, and timeline poems. May you take us further into your formal decisions in this collection?

Poetry can be a notation on a timeline. It can sing when cast against a black background void of white space. In Concentrate, I play at these intersections.

The Yelp review was an interesting form to explore. When I wrote those poems, I was considering the ways Black and Asian American conflict is presented on a large scale through national media—news, music, and film. But there are also the day-to-day interpersonal experiences of prejudice. How do those micro-level stories get passed around? Yelp seems to be a popular vehicle for them. 


What does it mean for you to see Concentrate in the lineage of the Cave Canem Book Prize?

To be in the lineage of other Cave Canem Poetry Prize winners—poet laureates like Tracy K. Smith and Natasha Trethewey, and talented friends like Malcolm Tariq. I have no words for that pride. And to be a Cave Canem fellow, standing in spaces once occupied by Kamilah Aisha Moon and Lucille Clifton. The feeling is overwhelming in the best way. Concentrate is covered by the entirety of Cave Canem’s legacy. I can’t imagine a better birth for this collection.


Advanced Praise

“Breathtaking, brilliant, and radical –– Concentrate is the mouth that refuses to swallow America’s blackest desires, which have too long centered their wealth on the lives and deaths of Black girls and women. Taylor’s debut is a deftly woven journey that offers us historical and psychic perspectives that are intimate and expansive, as these poems drag us, by syntax and grace, to our nation’s threshing floor, which must be the page and the body. These poems guide readers through graphic meditations on guilt, innocence, innuendo, and how the constructs of form construct, and often destroy, any easy recognition of justice, or Self. Instead, we are seated, with bent heads, between the knees of an unbroken voice that demands to be heard and heeded. Extraordinary in craft, Taylor’s fearless poems appraise the arc of bullets and bodies devoured by America’s great hard dream. Incandescent in her excavation of language, and the perils of its erasure, Taylor breathes through every side of this wound. Concentrate is a tongue that fiercely grips the edges of love and memory before all is ripped loose. How fortunate to discover Taylor’s imagination, and her uncompromising heart, in such a world.” Rachel Eliza Griffiths, 2021 Cave Canem Prize Judge and Cave Canem Fellow

“Courtney Faye Taylor writes a syntax vexed by memory and grief in zone upon zone of language, history, and feeling. . . . This book radiates a cry, a name, ‘an incendiary grief’ so ablaze it touches everything. Concentrate is a riotous, gorgeously unruled text forged by sisterhood and resistance, across time.” Aracelis Girmay, Cave Canem Fellow

“[Courtney] has a rich and critical gaze at her own life and the lives of her cultural peers.” Dante Micheaux, Director of Programs and Cave Canem Fellow


Courtney Faye Taylor is a writer and visual artist. She is the author of Concentrate (Graywolf), selected by Rachel Eliza Griffiths as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Courtney earned her BA from Agnes Scott College and her MFA from the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program where she received the Hopwood Prize in Poetry. A recipient of the 92Y Discovery Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize, Courtney’s work can be found in PoetryThe NationPloughsharesBest New Poets and elsewhere.