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Interview with Tim Staley

Interview with Tim Staley

by Rylea Anderson


For all the toll the desert takes of a man it gives compensations, deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.” – Mary Austin

As a former desert dweller, I have been fascinated with the desert since I was a little girl. Our spotlight poet this post, Tim Staley, hails from Las Cruces, New Mexico where he teaches high school English. His poem, “A Jaundiced View,” appears in the recent issue of burntdistrict. His poem showcases the emotions of being a parent to a very small, very sick person. It spoke to me because I spend a significant portion of my workday involved with parents going through some of these emotions and I connected with it on that level, too.

I found the above quote some time ago when I was working on presentation about my hometown and was reminded of it when I heard Tim’s words about adjusting to the desert heat in his new office when he first went to Las Cruces. The desert wears down with unrelenting heat day after day, but every so often explodes with unmatched lightning shows and torrential rain. The anger projected in the poem matches the sometimes-violent desert and adds another between-the-lines layer to the story.



A Jaundiced View


At Kinley’s House Coffee & Tea, Post Diagnosis,

a girl in flirty flats slides in next to me,

her liver functioning perfectly, her blood

clotting like batter in a waffle iron. A family

strolls in, mom and three kids, their gallbladders

all draining, filling and tipping

bile as they should. Dad forgets his wallet.

Has to walk back to his Hummer annoyed,

the capillaries in his liver robust, nothing

like my daughter’s liver, a restless jellyfish

in the desert. She’s with my wife nearby

wrestling infection in the nosocomial claw

of the hospital, where my baby’s veins

are gateways to super germs who’ve united,

who’ve built up resistance to antibacterial

disinfectants and I wish I had that gall,

that crass resilience.


First, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed!

Thank you for asking. This is an honor.

I noticed that in several of your poems, including the one published here, the desert reverberates in the background. As a transplanted desert-dweller, how do you think the desert has made an impression on you during your time there?

I moved to Southern New Mexico from Alabama in 2001 to start a Poetry MFA at New Mexico State University. I had a fairly crappy townhouse with an office that looked out on I-25 and the Organ Mountains. There was no real air conditioning and I realized that my desktop had a little fan in the back that spit out hot air. I could hear the sun outside cooking, it was hypodermic. I could feel my legs and back sticking to my fake leather chair. My teacher, Connie Voisine, told me all I had to do was “get in the chair” to write each day and my poems would come along.

So the act of writing poems became a shedding of electrolytes those summers of graduate school. The desert just hazes you, and in my poems that’s how I use it. I write about all the thorns, spikes, claws, fangs, crags, haboobs and, of course, the sun barreling down.

What is the best thing about Las Cruces, New Mexico?

In Las Cruces people know me as a poet and that’s one of my favorite things. I’ve been writing poems since the third grade but no one besides my parents or my teachers really knew. It seemed my southern friends were only into fried pickles, SEC football and Widespread Panic, so I never talked to them about poetry. It was something I did to entertain myself in private. I’ve always used it to understand my world, though I would have never thought to call myself a poet.

When I moved to New Mexico to study poetry that all changed. All of a sudden I had a new group of friends and poetry was all we talked about. I started getting involved in community poetry readings and meeting great local poets.  The poets here are easygoing and supportive of each other. I gave my life poetry instead of money, and I blame Las Cruces.

I spend an awful lot of my days with very small, sometimes very yellow, individuals. Your poem, “A Jaundiced View”, really resonated with my experience and how the experiences of the speaker color, quite literally, his view of others. Tell me about the story behind it. Are you the speaker of the poem?

I’m the speaker in most of my poems which are usually hyperbolic versions of my life. My daughter, Sylvia, was born with a rotten liver and when she was eight months old she had to have a liver transplant. During the whole ordeal I was writing feverishly in my journal. Looking back it’s clear to me I was writing instead of crying. “A Jaundiced View” began in my journal. It takes place right after my wife and I were told she would need a new liver. We were at a Children’s Hospital in El Paso, and when I was outside the hospital seeing all the healthy people made me sick. It’s like when you go through a break up and then everywhere you look people are frenching. Not cool.

The last sentence of the poem deals with the fact that hospitals are life savers but also the longer you stay in one, the more likely you are to pick up a virus or infection. This fact troubled me, though I love the counterbalance.  I was also thrilled when I learned “jaundice” can be the illness causing yellow skin, or it can be bitterness, resentment, and envy.

I saw an interview you did a few years ago about using poetry and popular culture lyrics with your high school students. How does your poetry reflect your work, or is it the other way around?

I give my students the skills they need to analyze song lyrics as poetry. Every discussion starts with the fact that life is neither good nor bad, it’s both, and the fact that art imitates life.  Therefore, you can judge a piece of art, like a song lyric, by how well it shows the good and bad of life.  Liking a song because of the instrumentation is fine, but I give them another way to appreciate what they already like. Half the time we’re examining lyrics written originally in Spanish.

I’m a Special Education High School English teacher. Most of my students are male and have behavior issues. They drive me crazy and I have to write about them all the time just to settle down. One of my chapbooks is mostly teaching poems, it’s called Mr. Staley Always Lets Us. It’s full of lines like “Mr. Staley will help me become an adult / as one day I may be his neighbor” and “I pledge allegiance to the mindset of cut grass / completely through with who wounded who”.

Who I am in my backyard is a reflection of who I am in the classroom and vice versa. And there for awhile my students were the audience I was writing for. I wanted to get something through to them and kept coming up with poems that mixed their funny and fragile moments with their hostile ones. Mostly I came to the conclusion that humans don’t do what their told.

How do you think popular culture influences literary poetry? Do you think they exist independently of each other?

Some poets don’t want to write about pop culture, I don’t know why exactly. Maybe because they don’t think it’s literary enough. You can write a literary poem on any topic. Like Tony Hoagland, he’s one of my favorites. He’s got a touching and tragic poem about Britney Spears that’s also hilarious. He’s not afraid of writing about pop culture, and neither was Frank O’Hara. There are plenty of poets who make it work.

One reason I use pop culture is to connect with my readers. It’s like when a songwriter uses a cliché then makes it new somehow. It’s good to start with something popular then leap from there into something less popular like literary poetry.

Where do you go to find your creative space? As a husband, father, and English teacher, how do you find space from your commitments to write coherently?

I like to think about Wallace Stevens up in his hot attic at night, in his underwear, giggling along with his poems and then selling insurance in the day. I wonder how much time his wife demanded, or the wife of William Carlos Williams. When I was finishing my full-length collection, Lost On My Own Street, I was revising all the time, playing in bands, attending a poetry workshop, going backpacking and I found it so hard balancing that with family time and my job.

Then I remember what Richard Hugo says, which is something like if your job gets in the way of you writing poetry then you are not a poet. I like that. I can’t imagine not writing poems but also I can’t imagine not having a family. Surely Wallace Stevens occasionally put the pencil down for his family.

How would you describe yourself as a poet?

One who is still getting in the chair.

Black coffee or double mocha latte with extra whipped cream and chocolate drizzle?

Chilled chicken broth in a mason jar that I mistake for lemonade.

Um, that sounds … not so good ….

I never miss an opportunity to ask people what they are reading now. My ebook wish list is getting longer and longer! Make it good!

I just finished Edward Abbey’s last novel. The Fool’s Progress, and it was amazing. One of the best novels I have ever read. The first chapter was so sardonic and cantankerous it just sucked me in. It’s so funny and sad and full of contradictions, which Abbey is so good at. My wife is reading it now.


Tim Staley was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1975. He completed a Poetry MFA from New Mexico State University in 2004. Poems have appeared in over 20 journals including Border Senses, Chiron Review, Circumference, Coe Review, and RHINO. His newest poetry chapbook is The Sickness Suite, available at His poems have also been featured on Lively Words (, an online reading series. He was the winner of The 2012 Luminaire Award for Best in Poetry, awarded by Alternating Current Press. He also won The Peter Harris-Kunz Endowed Award in Poetry in 2004. His hobbies include Bocce Ball, canoeing, potty training, and thinking. He lives with his wife and daughter in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


Rylea Kos Anderson grew up in Tucson, Arizona and Clutier, Iowa. She is a gypsy explorer and doctoral candidate in neonatal nursing practice, hailing most recently from North Carolina, San Francisco, and the Bronx. If she had spare time, you might find her nose in an e-book or her fingers pointing high in the air in vrksasana.



1 Comment

  1. Hank Staley
    September 30, 2013

    Interesting interview…in spite of the fact I’m his father! I learn new things about him all the time, which makes life richer than it might normally be. Watching those you love endure unspeakable trauma is an insight that deserves to be shared, and his poetry is the perfect portal.

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