Thursday, July 21, 2011

Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor’s most recent collection of poems is If the World Becomes So Bright (Wayne State University Press, 2009). A longish chapbook of short poems, Marginalia for a Natural History, will be published by Black Lawrence Press around the end of 2011. He has published some eleven other volumes of edited books, translations, poems and stories. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Council for the Arts. He coordinates the undergraduate program in creative writing at the University of Michigan, works as the Poetry Editor of Michigan Quarterly Review, and directs the Bear River Writers’ Conference.


When it dawns crystalline, blue,
the air sparkling with prisms
reflected off oak and spruce,
off every twig, branch, or limb,
even off trees cascading
over fences, trees uprooted
by the splendor of ice—
the day lifts us, takes us out-
side ourselves, outside the news
of a nurse driving back home
last night, at the blackest hour
of the ice storm, when I was
watching electrical arcs
illuminating the yard.
I heard trees break apart
and was thrilled with fear. She stopped
to help at an accident—
it looked far worse than it was—
and a young man, twenty-three,
leaving work in his truck,
spun out on the ice killing
the nurse, who, in a brief moment
of faith, might have imagined
today dawning crystalline,
brittle, gloriously cold.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

This poem started in the moment, in the tragic irony. I forget which year it was (probably sometime in the late '80s or early '90s), but we had a tremendous ice storm, a beautiful ice storm, frightening and wonderful. Even as it was happening, I knew my response was aesthetic. I was thrilled. And then, the very next day, we heard the reports of the nurse dying as she tried to help someone. The contrast in the emotions that were present in our town on that night seemed important, somehow. It still does.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Hard to say. I know this poem was around twenty years or so before I published it. A dozen revisions? Twenty?

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Yes, I believe in inspiration, although I think there is probably a very mundane, even materialist explanation for it. This poem was received and revised. I think they all are.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Once I had the rush of the first long sentence easily contrasted with the short second sentence, I must have gone back to count syllables. Although inconsistent now, there is still the strong skeleton of the seven syllable line in the poem. Like many poets I will often try an early version of a poem, particularly one that at first seems dominated by prose rhythms, in syllabics. The counting forces us to look for new words to fill the syllable count and often presents us with new and interesting diction and enjambment. Once the poem has mellowed a bit, I occasionally don’t feel as committed to the arbitrary count and can go back and revise with the usual considerations of free verse. This poem, however, carries the clear imprint of the count.

Was there anything unusual about the way in which you wrote this poem?

Perhaps the length of time the poem stayed on my work table is unique. Usually I will give up on a poem after a while. This one stuck.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I am going to guess that this poem was around from ten to twenty years before it appeared in 2009 in my collection If the World Becomes So Bright. I always liked the poem, but never could find a magazine that wanted to publish it. Finally it appeared in the 2008 Bear River Review, which is a small journal some of my colleagues put together to help promote the writing done at The Bear River Writers’ Conference. Now I direct that, so I can’t really claim that as a publication.

Since the book has come out, it is a poem that several people have commented on positively, and I find that gratifying. I was also pleased that it was the poem picked for this web site. Odd how that happens, isn’t it? I couldn’t find anyone to like it for a couple of decades and now it seems to have found its audience.

How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

The practice varies from poem to poem. Sometimes I’ll send a poem out, then get it back, and let it sit for a long time, years and years, before I try again. That often teaches me something about the poem, and it’s usually a lesson worth learning.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

This is a narrative poem that recounts an incident that really happened, although I know little more about it than what appeared in the papers. I have recognized the possibility that the victim of the crash might have the same response to the wonders of the storm that the speaker has—even while she is acting bravely and in a way that distinguishes her from the speaker of the poem.

The facts of the matter get more complicated though. Months after the accident I discovered that the young man in the truck was actually drunk, driving on an expired license, and that he went to jail for a very long time for causing the death of this woman. I had imagined that he too was a kind of victim of the weather, of these forces that were so much larger than any individual. I may have been very wrong about that.

So the poem has a basis in fact that gets changed for the purposes of the poem. I hope that results in a poem that provides imaginative and emotional engagement with the world but that does not violate the importance of the fact behind it.

Is this a narrative poem?

Yes. There’s a story to this one.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I would like to think that there is an obvious imprint of James Wright on the poem—somewhere in its studied simplicity, in its acceptance of the beauty amid the horrors that surround us.

But, formally, I learned that syllable counting from a very different poet. Kenneth Rexroth often counted syllables to control his narratives, to give himself a kind of distance. And, yes, he often used seven syllable lines. An odd number because it kept him, I’m guessing, from falling into any easy iambic rhythms. And a short line because it creates a great contrast with complicated syntax of the longer sentence. It’s formally quite simple, yet allows for an interesting register of tone and emotion, particularly in a narrative.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

What was it James Wright said? "I’m looking for a few intelligent readers of good will," or something like that? Me, too!

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

For a decade I had a strong and committed writing group of four writers. We met every other weekend and worked quite rigorously on each other’s work. I finally dropped out of the group because I wanted to force myself to find a bigger audience than that group of readers.
For a couple of decades, the wonderful poet Marc J. Sheehan helped me organize books and revise poems. He did a fabulous job. But I had to pull back a bit from Marc’s help so I could be sure of finding my own poems rather than his. For the last decade or so, I have depended on editors who have helped the process along. For my last book, Annie Martin of Wayne State University Press did a fabulous job of editorial input.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

The first person has become more muted in my poems recently. Now I realize the first person is pretty quiet in this poem. It may be important only as some kind of Emersonian observer, so perhaps this poem was a harbinger of work to come. Maybe that’s why I always liked it.

What is American about this poem?

An odd question for me, since—legally—I am not an American. I’m a Canadian, although I have lived most of my adult life in the States and most of my influences are American. But, yes, this feels like an American poem. There’s something in the direct narrative and the simplicity of the diction that seem to me to grow from a particularly American place. Even though there is ice in the poem, it doesn’t sound Canadian. I don’t think Americans hear this distinction much, but I’m pretty sure Canadians do. A student asked me a similar question recently and I responded "I’m a Canadian citizen and an American writer." After I thought about that for a while, I realized that it was exactly the kind of statement that would just piss off everyone, even though it might be true.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

So far this poem has been abandoned into its finished state. I might go back and make it more finished . . .


  1. As an American poet living in Switzerland, I'm sympathetic to the confusions of nationality as far as citizenship and affiliation are concerned!

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