Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “In Dread” discusses the relationship between mothers and their children. What do you think poetry lends to the exploration of motherhood?

Tara A. Elliott: From my own experiences, poetry can help people fully accept themselves. In my first years of motherhood, I was caught in the social media trap of being the perfect mom—stalking Pinterest prior to holidays to find the best ideas and posting the perfect family pictures. Motherhood is much more than appearances, and we need to take time to reflect on what that means to each of us. In the craziness and limited time of parenthood, poetry can allow us to slow time and ponder.

RR: We’re interested in how you took on the voice of the grieving mother. Could you tell us more about how you developed the speaker’s voice and writing in their perspective?

TAE: I have written a great deal from the perspective of the Goddesses. The voice is very much my own, but also the voice of the many. It would be egocentric to think I’m writing from the perspective of all women, but in writing these poems, I did think about the many experiences common to many women.

I was fortunate to study with Lucille Clifton at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the early ’90s. Although she passed in 2010, Lucille’s work continues to encapsulate what it means to be a woman and a mother for me. I return to her Voices collection (published by BOA editions in 2008) again and again as I write persona poems. She was never afraid to draw attention to disquieting truths. Much of “In Dread,” in particular the end line, is in tribute to her. She taught us the power of names and how people draw power to themselves in renaming that which has already been named. It was interesting to me to discover that words do exist in regard to losing a husband or parents. “Widow” for example, is a Sanskrit word meaning “empty.” “Orphan” comes from late Greek and means “bereaved.” To this day, there is no name that describes losing a child. Perhaps words fail us in the depth of such a loss.

RR: We saw the form of the poem as being a nod to the River Styx, swaying back and forth in the way a river would. What is the importance of a poem’s form to you and how do you approach visual form?

TAE: A wise poet once told me, “Ask the poem what it wants.” Like most poets, I go back and forth on form. In the end stages of writing, I’ve had to learn to stop myself and ask that question. To be honest, it’s usually after I butcher the poem trying to force it into a variety of forms that I think might work, but never do. Sometimes it takes that question to get out of my own way. The subconscious is amazingly underused. When we allow ourselves to trust the poem, the results can lead our work to places we can’t imagine. The same can be said for trusting our audience to pick up on the nuances in our work. Careful readers always do. I also think reading modern poetry is crucial to see what options are available to us and how we can push the boundaries.

RR: We understand that you have served various writing roles throughout your career. How have these roles, such as being Executive Director for the Eastern Shore Writers Association, informed your writing and relationship with writing?

TAE: I was fortunate not only to be a student of Lucille Clifton’s, but also her driver. I could spend hours telling you about our drives. Instead, I’ll mention that Lucille was able to do what no teacher at that point had done for me. She ignited my passion for learning. In my beat-up Nissan, she’d ask the most amazing questions—she was insatiably curious. In her class, we read from a wealth of modern poets of which few of us had ever heard. In the Garden of Remembrance, which is a real place at St. Mary’s College, Lucille taught us that poetry is not about answers, it is about questions.

In my junior year, someone threw a brick with the word “HATE” written on it through Lucille’s office window. She bent down among the broken glass, picked up the brick, blew the shards away, and placed it in the very center of her bookshelf in the most prominent location. Later, when I asked why, she said, “I still have work to do.”

Lucille shared an office with fellow poet Michael Glaser. Few know that Michael was the reason Lucille was hired as Distinguished Professor of Humanities at a small liberal arts college, which, in the early ’90s, suffered from a lack of diversity. His wisdom—as well as his dedication in founding and directing both the Voices Reading Series and the Summertime Festival of Poets & Poetry—was instrumental in building a true community of writers. As a young poet, I honed my ear by attending live readings and listening to poets such as Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stanley Kunitz, Carolyn Forche, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and many others. At the Summer Fest, I gave my very first reading alongside fellow students as well as seasoned poets like Roland Flint, William Meredith, and Grace Cavalieri. It was here that I first learned reverence for the craft of writing and felt the healing presence of the written and spoken word in the safety found in a community of poets.

At forty-two, I suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. At forty-four, I discovered my son had autism. At forty-six, my mother was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia—Primary Progressive Aphasia, the same variant with which actor Bruce Willis has been recently diagnosed. I found myself struggling. Poetry was there. And as I shared my struggles with others through my work, they too shared theirs with me. And I understood what Lucille and Michael were trying to teach me then.

Poetry is what binds us. It is what allows others to see past differences, to feel shared emotion all of us experience as humans—love, pain, grief, joy, pride, vulnerability—and if we’re being truthful, our failings. When we write poetry, we discover our own humanity. When we listen to others share their poetry, we are able to grasp the world more fully through their eyes.

Whenever we finished a class with Lucille, she would have us hold hands and say a single word, sharing what we were feeling. Gratitude. Empathy. Love. When I was twenty, that circle signaled the end of the class. Looking back, it was really a beginning—the beginning of my desire to create the same experience for others that my favorite teachers gifted me.

Writing is such a solitary venture. We need others who understand what it’s like to shut yourself away from the world and write something you hope is worthy. We need others’ eyes on our work to help us fine tune what we are attempting to communicate. We need others to tell us not to give up when we get that twenty-fifth rejection on a piece we’re trying desperately to publish. A sense of community is vital to writing. I don’t know what happened to that brick on Lucille’s shelf. I do know her work carries on through the poets and people whose lives she touched and continues to touch through her poems. That in itself is a tremendous legacy.

RR: Which mythological tale has the most personal resonance for you?

TAE: I don’t think I could narrow it down to just one. I can say it is the women in myth who speak to me, through me… Calypso, Circe, Eurydice, Pandora, Nyx and so many others in Greek mythology, but also, so many from other cultures as well. My namesake, Tara—in the Buddhist tradition, the compassionate savior of all beings. Her compassion is said to be stronger than even the love of a mother for her child. I often return to mythology in my writing because it affords me the ability to pause and think not only about the message in the myth but also how it reflects my own life.

I very much admire Joseph Cambell’s work. Lucille introduced me to Campbell through Bill Moyers’s The Power of Myth (which can be found now on YouTube and Amazon Prime). Myths are timeless. They resonate. Campbell compared them to dreams. Poems, too, are like dreams. For me, both serve as grounding point and mirror. Myths might tell the stories of the Gods and Goddesses, but at their core, they unveil what it means to be human—a meaning that I find changes as we age.

For more about the Eastern Shore Writers Association, and Thursdays with ESWA programming, free craft and generative writing workshops open to the general public weekly on Zoom, visit: For more about Tara A. Elliott, visit


Read “In Dread” by Tara A. Elliott in Issue 11.1.