Her hands clasped, her head lowered, Thylias Moss sits in a chair in a small room at Ann Arbor’s Concordia College and waits for what she calls her «poetry experience» (she dislikes the term «poetry reading») to begin.
The 4’10″ associate professor of English at Michigan looks timid and schoolgirlish in her high-buttoned blouse, short skirt, tights tucked into rolled-up socks, and high-laced shoes. But once introduced, she springs to her feet as though just wound up. Thanking the audience for coming, she playfully reminds them, «We poets don’t ave the benefits of rock stars,» whose audiences, she notes, are familiar with their work.We are always flattered when someone in the audience yells, ‘Please read! ’» Although no one shouts, «Please read,» the attendees soon look absorbed—and occasionally dazed—as Moss zings from poem to poem and persona to persona. She sounds like a squeaky-voiced little girl when she delivers «When I was ’Bout Ten We Didn’t Play Baseball. » She assumes a weary-voiced Black dialect («Let me clear up a nagging misunderstanding:/ This is the way to make he white woman’s bed») when she reads «The Linoleum Rhumba,» a poem inspired by her mother, who has worked most of her life as a maid.And her voice becomes powerful and sermonizing when she delivers «There Will B Animals! » a poem alternatively playful and despairing as it suggests that the true beasts are those with two legs: «The lion lying with the lamb, the grandmother/and Little Red Riding Hood/walking out of a wolf named Dachau. » At times she coaxes the audience into participating, challenging them, in one instance, to tell her what line upset her mother in the poem «She’s Florida Missouri but She Was Born in Valhermosa and Lives in Ohio» (Florida Missouri Brasier is her mother’s name).
‘Those feet wide like yams’” someone calls out.Moss laughs and agrees. «Oh, that troubled her! And she made me look at her feet: ‘Do they look like yams? ’ Well, I have already written this; what am I supposed to say? » The audience eats up the merry dialogue. After the reading, a woman who says she teaches at Concordia College declares she’s never heard any poet read so well. «I like all her voices! » she exclaims.
«I am an exceedingly shy person,» Thylias Moss says in her ffice the day after the reading. But offering up her poetry to audiences transforms her. «I’m a performer.If I have to go out and be myself, that would not work.
» Reciting her poetry, however, gives her «a sense of completion» because she can expose her listeners to «all the rhythms and cadences of the language» that they can’t get through reading. It is an «exhilarating experience» not only for her but, she hopes, for her audience, too. And apparently it is. Moss won the annual $10,000 Dewar’s Profiles Performance Artist Award in poetry in 1991. She has four collections in print, including her most recent, Small Congregations, New and Selected Poems, published by Ecco Press this year.She also received the Witter Bynner Prize awarded annually by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to a «distinguished younger poet. » Although serious poetry reaches a very small number of readers, poetry readings—whether on campuses or at bookstores—are enjoying a resurgence of popularity. Moss’s emphasis on the oral artistry of poetry means she’s in the right place at the right time.
«I don’t know many poets who have better eyes and etter ears,» the poet Charles Simic, her former teacher in graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, has said of Moss.She knows that language is both the individual and the community. » Moss has branched out, publishing a children’s picture book, I Want to Be (Dial Books for Young Readers, 1995), with a second children’s book, Someone Else Right Now, scheduled for publication soon. Keenly interested in children’s literature, she is teaching a seminar for first-year students this fall, «The Literature of Invented Realities,» which will focus on the escapist element in that enre. She also recently finished her autobiography, encouraged by the interest a short sketch of her life last year in the Wall Street Journal generated in several publishers.
On hold is a draft of a novel. Secretive about its plot, she says only that it is not based on her life. She adds, however, that she will not be «another Black woman providing a first book commiserating a kind of desolation of spirit. That seems to be so common for African American writers. Mine is different. It is rather about the rise and triumph of the spirit, not its dissolution. » Moss’s professional success is a victory over a childhood that contained beauty but also extraordinary pain.
She grew up in Cleveland, the precocious and adored only child of Calvin and Florida Brasier, a tire recapper and a maid. Her father created the name Thylias because «he decided I needed a name that hadn’t existed before. » Her first five years were spent happily with her parents in the attic apartment of a home owned by a Jewish couple who Moss believes were Holocaust survivors. The Feldmans treated her like a grandchild, recalls Moss—playing with her, elebrating Jewish holidays with her, giving her presents. She still keeps the meticulously carved toy stove that Mr.Feldman made, and which is the subject of one of her poems.
After the Feldmans sold their house and moved, the Brasiers remained in their apartment. The new homeowners had a 13-year-old daughter, Lytta, who baby-sat Thylias after school and treated her cruelly. Thylias lived in fear of Lytta, who stole her piggy bank full of silver dollars and once forced her to slash her nails across the face of another girl. Moss never told her parents about her tormentor. I accommodated,» she says.«I thought, ‘This is the way the world is. Once I was back with my parents, there was paradise. Why would I be the one to ruin the paradise? » Moss experienced other horrors during the four years she remained in that house.
When she was 7, she was passing by a friend’s house when the friend jumped from a window to escape a would-be rapist. That same year, on her way to the library, she saw a boy riding a bicycle killed when a truck ran him down. «I never said a word of this to anybody,» she said. «I was there witnessing things that only happened hen I left that house. » At school, there was pain of a more subtle sort.
Although she started out at a friendly, racially mixed school where her intelligence and her gifted violin playing were recognized, she had to leave that school at age 9 when her family moved. At the new, mostly white school, she was treated indifferently, and denied a school-issued violin. «It was clear to me that all this happened because of race,» says Moss, who vows to take up the violin again someday. Moss grew withdrawn at school, seldom speaking in class even though she was a leader in her neighborhood. She found solace in writing, however.
She’d written her first poem at age 8 on the back of her church bulletin, which she began editing at 15. And through church sermons, she says, her sense of language and of the power of the spoken word was heightened. She was awed, she says, «by my awareness of what these ministers were able to accomplish with voice alone. » It was also through church that she met her husband, John Moss, who was then in military service and is now a U-M administrator.
They married when she was 19, and she spent two unhappy years at Syracuse University.She left Syracuse to work for several years at a Cleveland business, starting out as an accounts payable clerk and ending up as a junior executive. Increasingly unhappy despite her success on the job, she quit and enrolled in Oberlin College in 1979, and wound up graduating in 1981 with the top academic record in her class. Moss got her master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of New Hampshire, where Simic «lit a fire» in her. She produced poetry that dealt not only with the pain of her past, but also with the possibility of recovery and revival.Moss’s Haven Hall office suggests much about her personal and poetic journeying.
On her desk are photos of two beaming boys; her sons Dennis, 9, and Ansted, 4. Books of poetry line her office shelves, and on a wall hangs a relic of segregation: a sign saying «Colored Waiting Room. » As a small child visiting relatives down South with her parents, Moss noticed those signs. Many of her poems deal with the African American experience, bearing titles like «Lunchcounter Freedom,» «The Lynching,» and «Nigger for the First Time. » She is chary, however, of being classified as a «Black Female Poet.
She’ll accept the label if it is applied, she says, because «I am a person whose ancestors were brought to this country from Africa. But it has not very much of anything to do with how I view the world. » And although she admires groundbreaking contemporary writers like Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, she declares firmly, «If no Black woman had ever written anything, I would have written. I don’t mind adding to the African American female aesthetic—whatever that is. I hope it is not easy to define.
» Eve Silberman is a freelancer and the profiles editor of the Ann Arbor Observer.