In the past year or so I have found great solace in learning to read tarot. I saw how many poets I admire practice tarot as a means to understand and reframe their lives and work. I wanted to talk to some poets who had greater experience in both poetry and tarot than I do, to learn more about what was steadily becoming a daily part of my life. I was ecstatic when Airea D. Matthews and Hoa Nguyen agreed. Here’s some of what we discussed about tarot, poetry, and where the two, sometimes, fortuitously meet.
Trevor Ketner: Today was a weird day for me. As I do on most weird days, I came home and drew a card to see if I could gain some clarity, and today it was this one, the Nine of Wands. I’m reading it as encouragement to be persistent and resilient. The figure of the weary, anxious man seems so easily to embody the sense of overwhelming defeat I feel today. Does this card speak to either of you? Or do either of you use tarot for yourselves in this way?
Hoa Nguyen: I tend to reach for the tarot when I’m needing clarity, to invite a kind of dialogue. These days this means checking in when I’m reading for a client—to get a read on an energy or direction. I rarely pull a card for myself anymore. The longer I practice, the harder it is for me to read for myself, in the same way it’s difficult for psychologists to give themselves therapy, maybe.
Airea D. Matthews: I agree with Hoa. I rarely read for myself anymore. Most of my direction happens through a deeply internal dialogue that is influenced by the knowledge I’ve gained along the way from the suits. I know intuitively when my day is a cup or wand or in the major arcana. You begin to “feel” and live the suits, if you will. As for you, Trevor, the beautiful message inside the Nine of Wands is that while you prepare for the final battle, weary as you may be, you’re still ready and capable. The number itself, nine, points toward completion. You’re almost done, Trevor.
TK: Almost done. What a dream!
Have you ever given or received an especially memorable reading?
HN: Many. Without getting into specifics and to protect privacy/confidentiality, I’ll just say that it is not uncommon for people to cry when I read for them, to cry tears of recognition, under the sudden sway of emotional clarity that comes with “knowing again.” It surprises people as to how much a tarot reading can move them.
ADM: My most memorable readings are usually those in which the querent was skeptical. Usually something happens or some knowledge goes forth that I couldn’t possibly have known and the skepticism fades. Ultimately, any reading that restores faith in universal care and knowledge is a good reading.
TK: Are there ways you set up a space for a reading? Or prepare a querent for the reading?
HN: My deck is the Mythic Deck, gifted to me by my partner twenty-one years ago. The figuration on the cards correspond to Greek myth. I keep them wrapped in an old purple silk, which doubles as the base for spreads. I like arranging my space with attention to the objects pictured here (not all are pictured).
Objects above include the Rider Waite Smith deck (I sometimes check in with it or use it for follow up questions), a metal owl figure from my love, a bottle of sea salt, a stone CA Conrad gave me that had been “charged” at the homes of Robin Blaser, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wanda Coleman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Lorine Niedecker, and Jack Spicer (I tend to press this onto the hollow of my throat before readings), a disc courtesy of Bhanu Kapil depicting a crow with the phrase “I am Fearless” on the back, two other stones of importance, and a button pin photo of Theresa Hak Cha from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.
I’m straightforward with my method and don’t have any rules regarding approaching the cards other than asking that querants NOT bend my cards while shuffling to protect them from damage.
ADM: The number five is sacred to me because of my belief systems. I typically “clean” decks for five days between readings using a very specific ritual. I also ask querents to touch the deck (often involves tapping the deck a certain number of times) in between gentle shuffling. The space in which I read holds a boveda, which is a spiritual practice that centers energy. I ask querents to root themselves by placing their feet firmly on the floor/ground, and I ask them to take a few moments to focus on their query. I’ve found spaces to be as varied as readers, honestly.
My favorite deck, Ghetto Tarot by Alice Smeets, was gifted to me by Diane Seuss. I intuitively change decks depending on querent, but Ghetto Tarot is my default.
Tarot and Poetry
TK: I often wonder what it is specifically about tarot that is so appealing to poets. It seems to make sense but I’m not entirely sure why.
HN : For me it is about inviting alterity—an external other to engage. It feels very much like the force of creativity, which always feels like a state of receptivity. Poets like Jack Spicer and his “Magic Circle” were interested in receptivity of the external voices— Spicer and his poetics o f speaking with aliens or a radio broadcast, of a kind of external dictation.
ADM: Tarot helps tremendously in image-making. I liken the cards to the woodcut image employed in early printmaking; each rendering cuts away everything but the lines and shapes intended to be interpreted. There’s a certain sense of directness, which makes each reading feel very much like a dialogue—but not a contrived dialogue, not small talk. Much like poetry, tarot cuts to the heart of what matters most using the image as currency.
TK: Of course. The image is so central. There’s the givenness of the image in both tarot and poetry, the way it is, in a way, gifted to us from something outside of ourselves, a certain generosity accepted by the querent or poet or reader.
I think it’s the communal intimacy of tarot, or occult practices more generally, and poetry both that makes them such long-lasting parts of culture the world over—some part of us that is triggered, the part that wants to know and be known. There is something familiar in the relationship between myself when I’m reading the cards and the querent; it’s very much like what I feel like when I’m writing what I know to be a good or resonant poem. There’s something being overheard, being eavesdropped on.
Also, receptivity puts me in mind of James Merrill , as well, in Changing Light at Sandover , though, of course, that involves a Ouija board and not tarot.
HN : And Yeats, too.
ADM: To me, the Ouija board seems like a crowded spiritual thoroughfare; tarot feels more intimate. Lots of room for multitudinous voices in certain occult practices. Tarot takes you in a corner for a quiet chat.
TK: I find that reading tarot for myself is similar to the process of writing a poem. I’m kind of a scavenging collagist—this moment from the train, this thought I had, this thing I heard out on the street through my window sitting in my apartment—and tarot seems so often like an act of collage, of reinterpreting narrative beyond a linear model. Do you find there are any parallels between your creative practice and your tarot practice?
ADM: My primary spiritual gift is that of clairaudience and, often, clairvoyance. With those two working in concert, there’s very little difference between creative and spiritual practice. All practices converge in my writing. I will hear things in spirit and write them down because I’ve come to believe that the spirits are far wiser than we are. To that end, tarot is a useful companion because the images I see and/or hear are often far beyond the limits of my own language. The tarot image and card meanings, however, provide an expansive bridge. This is also why I read from a number of different decks.
TK: This sounds in many ways like what I was raised in the church to call being “moved by the spirit.” And perhaps my interests in tarot and poetry both stem from a certain sensitivity trained into me, or perhaps rather sharpened over time. We have different gifts of attunement, I think, but what we work on in tarot and poetry both is learning how to communicate that attunement, to tune others into it as well, if even just for a moment.
ADM: Yes, it’s a tool that reminds us to hold our attentions and focus. And from experience, there are so many distractions—the spirit world is equally as distracting as this one. We need a common point of entry to steer the conversations toward a productive beginning and/or end.
TK: I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the series of tarot poems from Brenda Shaughnessy’s collection Our Andromeda . Here are the opening stanzas from the first poem, “Card 5: Hierophant”:
I sit looking around expectantly, though really I want
nothing but I’m so accustomed to waiting around
I’ll just take whatever shows up. Or I look at things I don’t understand
and want them though what I want is understanding.
This seems, for me to get to the core of what my projects in poetry and tarot are attempting—meaning-building. It is less about being told what there is, and more about understanding the desire to see something there or not.
HN: Well the Hierophant relates to the conduit, the bridge or bridge-building, or, in the language of some shaman traditions, “the hollow bone.” In other words, it’s like the finger pointing to the moon. It leads the way, but it’s not the way. The Hierophant, too, is the card of the teacher, of the learned person (like an occultist) who guards the knowledge system by revealing it. Which does seem a great metaphor for a poet.
Plus, the fives in the deck among the minor arcana are what I like to call “cards in motion”—the unsettled aspect of the element it represents. I think the best poems unsettle me or maybe the poems that I like best do.
ADM: I want to pause and think in stillness after reading poems, but I also deeply desire to be destabilized by them. There’s something about knowledge that is, at its core, destabilizing. We are rocked to a new shore of understanding. We are left to consider all that we didn’t know to consider.
Brenda’s beautiful poem points toward the core of most hungers—understanding. As much as we try to fill needs with the external material, the poem reminds that the deeper engagement is with the core self, and the core self desperately desires contemplation and understanding.
It’s funny how poems remind us how to enter a house. Sure, we can choose the door or the window. But we might also sit outside and imagine the interior. That’s what both tarot and poetry offer—the possibility of imagining and re-imagining.
TK: I know that you read professionally. (I like this term, to profess something.) I wonder how that has changed your relationship to tarot. Is it parallel in any way to professing to be a poet?
HN: Yes, maybe like a poet, or what Anne Waldman would say as taking a vow to poetry. A kind of swearing to honor and persist in order to carry a knowledge system forward.
Incidentally, I think the Nine of Wands is a fine indicator card for a poet to draw when checking in on their creative path. To keep things moving toward the goal is the goal—the persistent efforts will yield the final breakthrough, even though one feels “’Tween rock and rock; and eke mine en’my, alas.” Moving with changes intuitively where change is stability.
ADM: I am always a bit hesitant to profess anything about art and/or spirituality. I don’t know why I’m like that. I suppose it’s a subtle acknowledgment that change is imminent and necessary.
TK: Well it’s sort of existentially built into it isn’t it? To say you are something means you are in a different place than you were then . . . That lacks clarity . . . I suppose I mean to say the self that was whatever you are professing to be is likely not the self you are now.
Right on! I also feel a fair degree of comfort in dwelling in likelihood and potential. As soon as something becomes aggressively clear, I like to muddy it up a bit; there’s an essential challenge in the complex interpretation of oneself. And tarot (and poetry) both require interpretation . . . as is the art, so is the self. ADM:
TK: Returning to what you were saying earlier, Hoa, I’ll certainly take the Nine of Wands right now. The anxiety is certainly here, and I’ll take the encouragement to push past the present difficulties. I do feel like many poets I know feel that anxiety pretty constantly, the inability to hit whatever breakthrough they expect of themselves or their work, sometimes just the inability to write at all. And maybe that’s what we sign on for when we write poetry, the inability to really fix a discrete point at which we are finished or have an answer.
I’m reminded of something Robert Hass says in his new book on form:
The sentence is the instrument through which the self-as-a-process mimics being-as-a-process, at the same time that it arrests it. A sentence, unlike actions in the world, is a proposition of finitude; it has a beginning and an end.
The appeal, perhaps, of tarot for me is the appeal of the enjambed sentence, a certain momentary arrest, a framing of that constant motion and striving into something a little more crystalline, a proposal. What’s interesting is that this potentially does this for the poet as much as for the reader.
HN: I think the appeal of poetry for me is counter to the sentence, in defiance, maybe, of the sentence as it is generally encountered in prose and typical narrative. And maybe tarot also operates this way. The tarot’s relationship to narrative doesn’t resemble the sentence to me in the same way the tarot doesn’t like a binary or speak of linear time. (It’s why I warn people I read for that I can’t say for the cards what they mean in terms of “how long.”)
Tarot, like a poem, seems to exist out of time.
ADM: The appeal of poetry for me is how it counters the innate sense-making inside of the sentence. Sentences provide a certain context that tends to foreclose options. Poems open possibilities through enjambment and syntactical maneuvering. Essentially, I view poems as athletic fragments that are outside of temporal constraint—we can be past and present and future in the same poem! It’s no different with tarot. The cards are fragments of knowledge that work outside of our understanding of time. Both tarot and poems know what they know. Both have an ancient memory.
HN : I don’t see the knowledge of the cards as fragments (broken or to break, etymologically), but rather as whole and connecting (including to other systems of knowledge: astrology, Kabbalah, the I Ching). The system as articulated into the individual cards, these too hold forms and offer shapes that correspond to archetypal experiences. And these forms or shapes combine and recombine endlessly.
But, on the other hand, speaking of fragments, once, in a Q and A after a reading, I declared that in my art, I wanted to “rip the sentence to shreds.” That was me being showy (my moon is in Leo and it was full when I was born)—but what I went on to explain is that I deeply distrust the sentence for how it can be used to direct knowledge into particular paths and the ways it has been weaponized historically.
TK: “Both tarot and poems know what they know.” Yes! And I agree, Dee. I suppose that’s what I see the proposal of the poem being: that there is something outside of time, namely the poem itself, and it’s by being outside of time that the poem frames (or reframes) the temporal moment—which is to say it lends a perspective which must be close enough to the moment to engage with it, but distant enough to see its edges clearly.
And, Hoa, I do see what you mean. The sentence itself is a kind of act of manipulation, a revision (in the revisionist sense) of what the mind was thinking. Because it is so goal-oriented (I will communicate this point to you) it often, necessarily, leaves out other possibilities. Perhaps, that’s why I’m so interested in the role of the sentence in poetry. The formal chaos introduced into the sentence via enjambment or lacunae seems like something of a reclamation of the radical potential of language to me.
Tarot and Identity
TK: I find tarot means a lot to me as someone who identifies as queer both in regard to my gender and my sexuality. Perhaps it’s the illicitness of it—I can hear my childhood pastor’s voice in the back of my head telling me about the dangers of the occult, often borrowing phrases he also used to denigrate queerness (though of course he didn’t call it that, preferring instead only to refer to “the homosexuals”). Do you find that tarot gains some extra power from / holds some resonance with any parts of your identity?
ADM: I grew up in a church that would absolutely equate tarot to the devil, which is one of the most ridiculous analogies. Tarot is a tool for healing and revealing and critical thinking. I have never come to tarot and been consulted to do something amoral or harmful. I am reminded by my practice to live in a way that causes the least harm and to see myself as a vessel, one of many. I am affirmed to grow and let go and follow paths of healthy self-preservation. I have a tendency to obsess, and I’ve learned to be less ruminative through moderate study of the cards; I find some new aspect each time I encounter the cards. But I’ve also learned to accept myself and others—flaws and all—more fully. The devotee begins to surrender to the truth of a large, interconnected, and complex humanity. As a matter of fact, I am in my Hanged Man year so there’s sure to be even more of that.
TK: I’m in my Strength year, which is also one of my birth cards , the other being The Star.
ADM: How do you tame a lion? With gentle strength, and it doesn’t hurt to have a lucky star. Sounds like you have both, Trevor. Well played, Universe, well played.
TK: If the universe wants to give me graceful strength and some fertile, creative energy toward a generous, beautiful, and hopeful life I certainly won’t stop her! Besides I’m all for the liminality of The Star—one foot on land, one in water—and the complex queering of gender roles I read into Strength.
But I too have found tarot yields a healthier approach than my upbringing. Something more open and caring, or perhaps more careful and purposefully aware of not only my needs and desires but what those around me need or desire. It’s generosity. It’s realizing the cards aren’t just meaningful for you, so neither is the world.
Tarot and the Future
TK: Do you have any parting words for the future?
HN: I pulled a card last night thinking about the coming days—I’ll be in Washington, DC, for AWP and reading cards for writers there at the Wave Books table on the Saturday of the conference. And I asked the deck to show me a card for reading then, how to enter that space of exchange, given that it will take place shortly after the inauguration. The card that arrived was the Six of Swords.
I took this to mean that communications will be important and their need to continue in their most inventive and moving-forward ways is critical. Mercury in Aquarius (the placement of my Mercury, incidentally): We need innovative strategies, thinking, and clever resourcefulness so we may move carrying our troubles easily as we do it.
ADM: The card I pulled this morning was the King of Cups from the Ghetto Tarot. The image is of a king with a crown adorned in garland, holding an orange cup and metal scepter made of industrial piping. His throne is a decaying architectural cornice at the foot of a murky pond where trash is liberally strewn about. Nevertheless, he is king of his emotional state regardless of the unfortunate landscape he inhabits. Here, we are reminded to diplomatically open our world and to accept different views—to use dialogue rather than force and to focus less on the external environment we find ourselves in and increase energies towards the realization and acceptance of who we are inside that environment. If we adopt that level of truthfulness and acceptance, our own healing results.
Airea D. Matthews’s first collection of poems, Simulacra , received the 2016 Yale Series of Younger Poets Award (Yale University Press, 2017). She is also a recipient of a 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.
Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in the Washington DC area, Hoa Nguyen currently makes her home in Toronto. Her poetry collections include As Long As Trees Last , Red Juice , Poems 1998-2008 , and Violet Energy Ingots from Wave Books. She teaches poetics at Ryerson University, for Miami University’s low residency MFA program, for the Milton Avery School for Fine Arts at Bard College, and in a long-running private workshop.