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Inspired By Northern Ireland, Poet Tess Taylor Suggests 'Art As Civic Repair'


What if the road to a less polarized, more unified United States runs not directly through an election booth or a statehouse but through a museum or a book festival? Art as civic repair is the suggestion of poet Tess Taylor, who often joins us for poetry recommendations. Taylor draws on the example of Northern Ireland, a place that has all-too-deep experience trying to bridge and heal partisan divides and which is now using the arts to help rebuild civic life. Tess Taylor joins us.

Hey there.


KELLY: So you write about this in a piece for Harper's Magazine, and you write about art as infrastructure for a society, which intrigued me. Paint me a picture of that.

TAYLOR: The piece that I became really interested in when I was living in Belfast and walking around was noticing how much art was the occasion by which people were often coming together. And it was partly a top-down strategy, but it was partly also a ground-up strategy. This wonderful organizer named David Boyd builds a festival that is filled with beetles and flowers and dancing bugs, and everybody comes together and is making all of the decorations for it. So it's just this really interesting thing where people are theorizing and thinking that once you have a space that's left behind by violence, one of the things that can reoccupy the space where there's been conflict is actually interventions with art. So I just noticed how much the architecture of civic life was being brought back together, that people's daily lives and routines were being shaped by the offering that they could participate in art and festival and community all at the same time.

KELLY: How did art not turn political in Northern Ireland?

TAYLOR: Well, art is always political. Art always has a slant to say. And in fact, there are moments where people get into tit-for-tat fights where people use art money to fund sectarian marching, and then everyone's sort of irritated and disappointed. And somebody else, you know, uses the art money in a way that isn't to the advantage of the peace. I think, though, at the same time, when I talk to the artists in Northern Ireland, I really get a sense of the culture of art as this offering, of art as artistic spaces, as spaces of invitation that can reroute people, that can reclaim areas that have been left behind by violence, that can offer pathways to young people to go forward so that they feel that they have purpose and mission, that this is something where people can nurture and cultivate their lives. And I think that that's really just a sense of understanding and mission that is in the lives of these Northern Irish artists.

KELLY: How confident are you that the Northern Ireland example applies to our problems here in the U.S.? I mean, you acknowledge in the piece that it's really different countries in terms of size, in terms of where the political fault lines lie.

TAYLOR: We have a totally different architecture where we're not a country of 1.9 million. But we do have really deep-standing divisions between us, and they have become inflamed. And we've lived in a moment where our disagreements are flaring. And in fact, I think we live in a moment where sometimes it feels as if things are stagnant, as if we can't even get the basic things that we need to get done done. And one of the things that's interesting about art is that it's an intervention that invites people to collaborate. It provides an occasion for conversation. It provides an occasion for community.

KELLY: So what do you envision this could look like in the U.S.?

TAYLOR: Well, one of the things that's kind of amazing in Belfast now is that there are 50 festivals a year. In fact, some people feel like it's a little bit too many festivals for one city.

KELLY: (Laughter).

TAYLOR: And they joke that there's the week with no festivals. But there's an art festival. There's a science festival. There's a festival of ideas. And there's a festival of books. I would love it if we could go to 50 areas in the United States where there's some kind of conflict and just say, what could we build here? What would be the something that could help us celebrate right in this place and give people the option and the funding to show off their talents and their skills?

Another part of it might be - there is a friend of mine, David Kipen, who's worked on to renewing the Federal Writers' Project, which is a New Deal-era program. And his vision is that writers could go and be present in various communities and do some of the work of documenting life after COVID, capturing Native languages, doing new oral history projects, building journalism for communities that don't have journalism, engaging people in storytelling - and that this could be something where we're giving work to artists, but we're also helping communities have a sense of meaning.

KELLY: Tess Taylor, I want to end where you ended your piece for Harper's. You write about an assignment that brought you - this is Friday night. You're in rural Virginia. And you end up in a town called Floyd, which is a former mill town that's known for bluegrass music, and they're having a square dance. Tell what happened and how that fits into this.

TAYLOR: So I was on assignment to write a travel piece around Virginia, and it was right after the 2016 election. And I was kind of on the fence about wanting to square dance and wanting to be in Floyd that night. I was feeling really upset and very, very aware of living in a country whose divisions seemed overwhelming to me. But I'm up there writing this piece, and people are dancing, and I decide to dance.

KELLY: You write, (reading) I realized I could either be mad or I could dance, but I can't do both, so I'm going to dance.

TAYLOR: There might have been so many people right then at that square dance with whom I really had nothing to say about politics. But while we're doing this dance, we're actually partaking in a community action that takes place with an old pattern, and people swing around, they have to change partners, nobody can be left out, everybody is called in, and I understood the square dance is a ritual meant to build community and meant also to be sure that people had some relationship with one another so that they were kind of agreeing, perhaps, in a rural, small community to care for each other in some way. But I also felt very amazed by the ability of the dance itself to make me feel more able to work with people around me and to feel as if somehow, in that moment, we had put aside our differences and come together into something bigger.

KELLY: That is the poet Tess Taylor talking about her article, "Getting On With It: Art As Civic Repair." It appears in the July issue of Harper's Magazine.

Thank you, Tess.

TAYLOR: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: And I wonder if you would read us out. I'm going to give you the last word here, as a grace note.

TAYLOR: (Reading) I am saying more art, less war. Now you dream, too. Envision another room, another space lit up in the cold, where people are being invited to come in and make something together. Envision it as welcoming. I do not know exactly what we need in order to start repairing the country. Our fissures are many. But I think the answer involves interventions that surprise, dances that make us switch partners, songs that call us in.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEF LUCENA'S "THE VILLAGE BAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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