“When Ilium Burns: A Conversation with Tiffany Troy & a Portfolio of Poetry” — curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet. She is the author of When Ilium Burns (Bottlecap Press), a bildungsroman for anyone who ever dreamed big and loved someone more extraordinary than themselves. Her reviews and interviews of emerging and established voices are published in The Adroit Journal, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, EcoTheo Review, Rain Taxi, Heavy Feather Review, and Tupelo Quarterly, where she serves as Managing Editor.

Kristina Marie Darling:  Your debut chapbook, When Ilium Burns, just launched from Bottlecap Press.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Tiffany Troy: First, the cover of When Ilium Burns features a diorama I built in Special Projects Workshop taught by Professor Thom Donovan at Columbia. Look closely: you’ll see the knee socks and the portrait of the statue of Maria Goretti, who cameos as “Little Maria.” Visual motifs like the Doric pillar made of a pill bottle covered with lined loose-leaf paper, a metal-wired flamingo, and fourteen neon green frogs cues the reader into the world built in the collection.

Second, the title begs the question of: What is Ilium? “Ilium” is the Latinization of the ancient city of Troy. Troy, in turn, is the city of lore from ancient Greece to the present day. The collection asks what Ilium is and can be, the way America is both the behemoth as well as the phoenix arising from the flames in Sinead’s eponymous song. The myriad possibilities of interpreting what the characters stand for is one of the joys for me as a writer.

Lastly, the poems in When Ilium Burns features not protagonists or antagonists with superhuman strength, but rather humans striving to be better in their given station. So I hope the readers can relate or feel seen in some way through the collection.

KMD:  Your stunning book brings experimental forms and postmodern technique to bear on myth, allegory and the Homeric epic.  In a literary landscape where poets are constantly looking for new ways to experiment, or new ways to honor tradition, I enjoyed the way your writing places history and modernity in conversation.  Can you speak to the importance of carving a space for innovation within a received literary tradition?

TT: As a high school sophomore, I remember sitting at the back of the library and just dazzled by Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” I was moved by the humanist ideal embodied in the Oration, and the striving implied in learning and governance. What a Great Books Curriculum can teach us is how to shape ourselves into our best self, of course, but also beyond that: how can we as members of society, of a civilization, of a country that we love, do our part to make society into a more just place as leaders?

Of course it isn’t always petals and roses. New York’s motto is Excelsior, but everyday there are New Yorkers who realize perhaps that their station in life is the grinding reality of a job that they must continue to perform, no matter what. Why do these same philosophers dehumanize and debase the other? In turn, who is defined to have the right to think and feel justifies the exclusion of the other? It’s no surprise that Feijoo’s one heavy soul crushed so many of us, killed us even. This, in turn, is linked to capitalism, which posits that the have-nots are somehow deserving of their station because if only they have tried hard enough. And what wouldn’t the characters give to prove that they are the chosen ones, never quite forsaken?

In that context, carving a space of innovation is a moral imperative in addition to an aesthetic pursuit. The parallel epic that I build with the Homeric epic ultimately tracks lessons I’ve gleaned growing up. Through the poetic forms deployed and the humor, I am interested in building towards a Goldacre where my eclectic interests are valued not simply as exotic or foreign, and which offers solace to the downtrodden through song.

KMD:  Relatedly, what is the relationship between tradition, innovation, and social justice for you as a poet?

TT: The characters in When Ilium Burns struggle through what tradition has pinned them down as the holy trifecta of juvenile, woman, and alien. In that way, it’s not dissimilar from Alice’s Wonderland where the rules of the game ensure the characters’ defeat until the characters move outside of the rules, as the other. What makes the book interesting to write is how there is no fixed idea of social justice: no perfect protagonist or antagonist, but complicated human beings.

Much as pendulums between the elegance of classicism and the flourishes of the baroque in art history, I am interested in what poet Meghan Dahn described as the pendulum between poetic restraint and experimentation. These are of course not opposites but can work together in striking ways. I am inspired by the traditions of neoformalism, documentary poetics, and the devotional, rooted in a world that is very real and important to me. By sharing the stories of these allegorical characters, I hope to create a new poetic voice of my own that combines the flourishes of free verse which contrasts with the terseness of the line length allowed for by an iPhone. To me, poetry is diaristic in the sense that the light reflected or refracted in the poems are real, and rooted in a faith in a world that can be made better through the sentiment that we have never been alone in our solitude.

Social justice is the reason I was able to attend a co-educational university, become a professional, and dress the way I’d like. Literature challenges the status quo on the macro level by shaping a discourse around how we think about people and on the micro level by positing that different people and things value our attention and love. Poetry does both through rhetoric and craft, in a way which opens ourselves up to the complexities of the world and power structures that we inhabit. True poetry is brave because it is a mirror to our darkest selves. In Inherit the Wind, Clarence Darrow asks the teacher to imagine himself as the only one who stood up, with the windows closed against him, when all he could hear are his own footsteps. Poetry teaches us that across time and space, many of us once stood up and will stand up for what we believed in.

KMD:  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are a generous and prolific literary citizen.  How has interviewing writers, reviewing new collections, and other literary journalism enriched your writing?

TT: Thank you for that very kind compliment, which means so much to me. Interviewing poets and reviewing collections have been pure joy! I’ve discovered poets I deeply admire and expanded my horizon of what poetry can be. Writers I deeply admire like Aviya Kushner and Margo Jefferson place their personal or familial history within the context of their milieu, mythology, and imagination. Speaking with them gives me the courage to not be so afraid of showing the parts of me that has built me and maimed me, to borrow Margo’s term for it.

KMD:  What advice do you have for poets who are interested in literary and arts journalism, but don’t know how to get started?

TT: It was so tough when I got started off as a literary reviewer and interviewer because presses would ask, Where will this interview be placed? Don’t worry so much if you don’t have an answer to that; everyone starts somewhere! Know that the work you do may be someone’s first interview, and be as inspiring to you as to them. Then for the interviews themselves, ask open-ended questions that are rooted in the crafting of the collection. Take the backstage slightly, as your role is not as limelight but as the stage. Treat it as a learning opportunity and a special treat to broaden your horizons as to what poetry is and can be.

KMD:  What’s next?  What can readers look forward to?

TT: With fingers crossed, a new poetry collection, Jurisdiction. I hope it will spark interest in the underdog through the juxtaposition between the language of the corporate professional and the language of home.