Author Interview: Keith Taylor

On poem-constellations, soil horizons, the benefits of facts and collaboration, and a “bird-while” as a measurement of time

Portrait of Keith Taylor by Frank Born

Keith Taylor is the author of sixteen collections of poetry, including, most recently, The Bird-while. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Story, Witness, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He is co-editor of the anthology Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, poetry editor of the Michigan Quarterly Review, and director of the Bear River Writer’s Conference. He also teaches creative writing in the graduate and undergraduate programs at the University of Michigan, where I was lucky enough to take my first MFA workshop with him. We met at his Angell Hall office on Monday to talk about The Bird-while, published by Wayne State University Press and illustrated by Tom Pohrt, a collection flush with wise and beautiful “reminders / that metaphor is real and wonder / more than the condition of our loss.”

Literati will host Keith to celebrate the launch of The Bird-while on Friday, January 27 at 7pm.


Keith! Your beautiful book!

Isn’t it lovely?

It’s really lovely. How did the illustrations come about?

I know Tom Pohrt pretty well — his brother Karl owned Shaman Drum and Tom’s been around a long time. He illustrated Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez back in the nineties, and recently he’s done two other books of poems. He did illustrations for a collection of Wendell Berry’s poems, and then he did both a selection and illustration of John Clare, and he said, when I talked to him about my book, that he could imagine it as a sort of trilogy. I knew Tom’s illustrations were not unlike my poems, with a lot of similar things that pop up — I knew he could do a bloodroot, he could do a skunk cabbage. I didn’t suggest any particular things, he just did the drawings, and he already had this watercolor [for the cover].

A lot of the poems in The Bird-while previously appeared in chapbooks, and I’m wondering how you think about chapbooks in a larger sense. Are they part of the publishing process, or are they something more inherent to your writing process?

Both, I think. I pulled poems from three different chapbooks to put in here, making up about half of the poems, and this is the third larger collection I’ve done that way. I’ve come to think of it as: you put the poems out there in a small way — it’s usually a regional way, for a very specific audience. You get to see how the poems fly. You can be embarrassed by the poems — again, in a small way — and there are certainly poems in my very first chapbook, Mairead, I hope you never find —

I’m going to hunt them down right now.

You know, the poems form a certain constellation, and then whatever pattern of thinking you’re in continues over the next few years, so the poems fall into new constellations and become modified in different ways.

I’m thinking of this little subsection of four poems: “Circle in the Wind” was commissioned for a dance performance by Jessica Fogel, a beautiful outdoor performance on the west side of the state; “Sea and Rain: Lake Michigan” is an ekphrastic poem based on the painting next door in the art museum; “Reading Late” was in Marginalia for a Natural History; and “Chasing the Ancient Murrelet” was the title piece for that chapbook. They’re four poems which have all had some kind of life, none of them together. But in my mind, there’s a very traditional and slightly embarrassing muse figure in there — the woman by the water, you can go to Botticelli or whatever — and I’m a little embarrassed by that but nonetheless, when I saw them together, I was like: Holy shit. You know? Where does this come from? I thought it was a pretty interesting constellation.

It’s funny: I realized some of the poems were pieces I’d read before in earlier chapbooks, but I hadn’t realized that they had been taken out of sequence, and from different places. I love the idea of piecing them back together, a kind of breaking and recombining.

Absolutely. Some of them, like “Circle in the Wind” — that was part of a performed dance, and they handed out copies at the performance, so it really had a different kind of life.

I noticed in the book’s acknowledgments that a lot of these poems were commissioned or collaborative in that way. What are the difficulties in commissioned work — do you ever just have to give up? — and what are the pleasures, too? Why do you enjoy doing such pieces?

If I’ve agreed to them, I’ve done just about all of them — maybe there’s one or two where I’ve disappointed people and they probably think poorly of me. It’s a public role for the poet that I certainly never imagined myself in when I was younger. There’s a certain change in attitude towards the poem, which has to fulfill this other, public role. Probably the most obvious example of this is “The Gardener Remembers,” which I was asked to write for an opening at the Botanical Gardens. And I did get some things in there — I tried to respond to criticism of what nature poems are — but a lot of it is a catalog of the plants that are planted there.

It requires a different attitude to the poem. You try to invest the poem with things that are important to you, but it’s a little bit different because of that public role. The audience for the poem doesn’t care much about my vulnerabilities, nor should they. Nor is it my purpose to make them care about my vulnerabilities! The idea is to honor and to celebrate a particular moment, and I do want to write celebratory things in general, so it provides a good occasion for that. The “Mapping the River” poems were written for an earlier dance performance, a multimedia performance with Jessica Fogel, a dancer; Evan Chambers, a composer; Sara Adlerstein Gonzalez, a scientist; and Doug Hesseltine, a graphic designer; and this was all performed with big films shown all around us, dancers moving around on the floor, and me walking through reading my poems about mussels. It was very elaborate and a lot of fun.

It seems like collaboration would offer a different bunch of material, a different set of swatches to work with.

It does, it does, and you know, there’s a deadline —

Always helpful.

Maybe it’s like a workshop prompt, which I never do: write a poem with the word “threnody” and the color blue by next Monday.

You mentioned a public role for the poet, and I think of you as a fairly public poet in this community, in the region. Does your role as a teacher or as a member of a literary community factor into your writing in less direct (non-commissioned) ways?

Hmm. I do know that most of my audience is going to be in the state of Michigan, so there’s a whole set of references that I don’t have to explain. On the other hand, you do hope that the poems will reach out to other people, too — you hope for these things. The intentionality of that when I’m putting books together? I’m not sure. Individual poems I can think of, yes, but with books — I’m really shooting for some kind of intellectual and imaginative whole that starts somewhere and goes somewhere and has an internal coherence, even if I’m the only person who sees it.

This is a question I’ve stolen from Rebecca Scherm: who are some of the patron saints of this book?

The three I always come back to are William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov, and James Wright. Those three are always there. I spent an awful lot of time with Gary Snyder in the last couple of decades, so I think there’s probably some imprint of him in there, as there is with Robert Hass.

I am — as uncool as it is — deeply influenced by the aesthetic of the Impressionist painters, and the whole idea of impression, and their comfort with the term, even as it was used to dismiss them. Even to the point of writing en plein air, writing outside: the last poem I wrote, this week, I wrote standing at the bus stop. Everything about them informs my aesthetic. It’s so easy to dismiss them now, as some young people do, but I don’t — I’m still impressed by the Impressionists.

There are all the nature writers, too, who have been important to me. Would a book like this exist without Aldo Leopold? I don’t know. The quote that begins it, from Emerson —

Illustration by Tom Pohrt

“A Bird-while. In a natural chronometer, a Bird-while may be admitted as one of the metres, since the space most of the wild birds will allow you to make your observations on them when they alight near you in the woods, is a pretty equal and familiar measure.” It’s such an amazing quote, an amazing term.

Isn’t it cool? Just a little buried thing. Luckily, I had a friend — even if I’d sat down and read those volumes and volumes of Emerson’s notebooks, I might have read right over it, because it’s just a little thing — but a late friend of mine was so devoted to Emerson, and he said, You know that term in Emerson? No! [Laughs] Nobody knows that term in Emerson!

It’s so perfect for poetry, I can’t believe no one — I’m so glad you got to it.

I know! Let’s get it out there in the world. It’s one of those things: birdwatchers don’t know it, poets don’t know it, religions don’t know it. We’ve got to correct this.

There’s so much of the natural world in your work, but I was also struck in this collection by the poems that strayed a little farther afield. In the first section, especially, there’s this other kind of reflection, these poems that give due deference to youth while still recognizing the oft-foolishness of it.

Right, both my youth and my daughter’s youth. I self-mythologize my years on the road, you know, more or less a decade when I was moving around quite a bit, and that’s become quite important to me — I mean, it was important, that was my education. Plus, you can get history in that way.

I think my favorite poem that I’ve written, in my life, is “When the Girls Arrived in Copenhagen.” I was really under the influence of the French poet Jean Follain — matter of fact, he’d be another figure. He does these short poems, very much tied to his little town in Normandy. There’s always a historical thing buried under them and things go weird in every one — all within this tiny little space, just ten to fifteen lines long. A lot of the poems in the first section — I was supposed to review a new volume of Follain translations and I got really into it, I was so into it, I was writing these poems and I never wrote the review. I felt really bad, but I did get four or five poems out of it.

Worth it.

Yes.

Going back to some of the work previously collected in chapbooks: parts of Marginalia for a Natural History are in here —

Yes, in a different constellation. One of the reviewers — it was a pleasant review, but one thing he said, which interested me — and of course, these things always live in your soul, anything negative —

Has a much longer half-life than anything positive.

Doesn’t it? He said, Often in Taylor’s poems there’s a sense of reportage and not poetry. And I went, well, screw you. [Laughs.] But what did he mean by that? I think, to me, facts often seem to be poetry. I’m kind of comfortable with just facts.

That’s exactly what I was thinking, with the term “natural history.” I read Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder recently —

Oh, great book.

It’s so fantastic! And I’ve been reading about Pliny’s Natural History, so your poems had me thinking about the way art can be found in facts, pulled out of them.

Absolutely true. I’ve spent my summers for more than a decade now with field biologists, and they — they often don’t know what they’re saying, but they are just filled with incredibly evocative language. For instance, forest ecologists dig down into the soil and see these different layers in the soil, and their word for that, as they dig down or look at a road cut through a hill, is soil horizons. Now, they’ve totally forgotten that what they’ve done is create a metaphor — it’s no longer a metaphor for them. But they’ve taken the horizon and moved it underground: how cool is that? So soil horizons have ended up in a couple of my poems.

I love that. Okay, I’ll finish with this non-question I’ve got: throughout the book, I kept finding these moments of transcendence, both your own and those of others, that seemed to arrive as something sought and yet also — pushed away, if that makes sense? Resisted, somehow.

You’re right. I have experienced those moments, but I don’t believe in them. I have experienced moments when I feel genuinely carried out of myself, and there’s an overwhelming impression of the world that feels mystical and strange. Yet, I don’t believe in them. And I don’t believe they’re necessary. And I don’t quite know what to do with that. I certainly want to get those experiences into my work, but part of me also wants to have my skepticism about those experiences in the work. I haven’t resolved that. At this point, it might be clear that I’m not going to resolve that —

Very negative capability

Right, and maybe I don’t want to. Whatever the world does to our psychologies, there are times when it seems unfathomable. Part of me wants to believe that it can be understood, but I’m more than willing to go along for the ride, just for the experience.