About Thylias Moss Essay, Research Paper
Thylias Moss: A Poet of Many Voices and A Spellbinding
by Eve Silberman
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
have 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
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
the 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
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!"
"I am an exceedingly shy person," Thylias Moss says in her
office 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
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
better 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
genre. 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
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,
celebrating 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
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
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
when 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
from Michigan Today (http://www.umich.edu/~newsinfo/MT/95/Oct95/mt8o95.html)