Sam Taylor on Poetic Experimentation, Writing Beyond Your Intention, and How Crazy Civilization Is
Interview by Austin Biggerstaff
Listen to a clip of the interview here:
On April 20, 2017, associate professor and poet Sam Taylor visited Bethel College on the invitation of the English Department and gave a poetry reading on the Prairie Sky Stage. Because Taylor’s work often engages issues of ecology and species loss, his reading occurred around Earth Day, and the Environmental Action Club offered the audience an ecological footprint quiz. Taylor is the director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Wichita State University. He is the author of two books of poetry, Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series 2014) and Body of the World (Ausable / Copper Canyon 2006). He is currently working on his third book of poetry. Before his reading, Taylor found time to answer some questions over of cup of coffee with YAWP! editor-in-chief Austin Biggerstaff.
Austin Biggerstaff: What are you working on now? Is it similar or different from your previous works?
Sam Taylor: Well, I have a book that I’m almost done with and have been in the final stages of editing for a while that is actually radically different from my first two books. It contains a lot of different kinds of experimental poems — self erasures, strike-throughs, footnotes, and different approaches to constructing a lyric. At the same time, it tries to put all those experiments together in a larger narrative arc. I’ve been working on finishing that up for a while, so I’m also starting new work for a fourth book at this point. That book is, probably, less different. [Laughter.] After doing all these experiments, I have a renewed appreciation for the classical lyric.
AB: Is there anything interesting that you’re reading right now and drawing inspiration from?
ST: The book I’m reading right now is a book by Svetlana Alexievich, a Russian Nobel Prize winner. It’s not a book of poetry. It’s not really a book of fiction. It’s not a book of essays. It’s kind of uncategorizable. She compiles oral histories, so she compiles lots of voices of real people talking about their experience. I’ve previously read the one where she wrote about Chernobyl, which is just a mind-blowing and tragic book. Now I’m reading the one — and I don’t remember the title of it — but it’s centered in the period of the 1990’s in Russia, post-Soviet era … all those transformations that were going on in that time. It doesn’t directly connect with poetry, but it’s a pretty interesting world: there are stories going back to early Soviet times and Stalin times and stories about the transition.
AB: It sounds like you’re interested in politics and ecology. There is a poem on your website titled “Madagascar,” and it sounded as if the poem wanted to point out that there are big topics going on in everyday life that are being “swept under the rug.” It’s as if these people involved in this great tragedy were just put into TIME magazine to acknowledge the issue and then are quickly forgotten about. Does a lot of your work come from this impulse to make issues that are more likely to be forgotten more visible?
ST: I wouldn’t say that my work comes from a desire to make issues more visible for the sake of making them more visible. I think there are a lot of issues that are already very visible if you’re paying attention. I don’t approach writing poems as a way of advancing an agenda. I am interested in expressing the experience of being alive in our time, and I think part of that experience is being aware of an incredible number of disturbing things that are happening all the time. I try to let that into the space of the poem as I think it is in our space of consciousness.
AB: Do you like to write mostly about events that are happening outside the United States? Do you like to hit on topics that deal with the United States?
ST: I don’t really like to hit on topics. I think, like most writers, I write about what interests me, what haunts me, what fascinates me, and what disturbs me, but also just what arises in the space of a poem — which I think is beyond your intention.
AB: How has your work with the Wilderness Refuge inspired your writing?
ST: I love the Earth, and I’d say that the Earth, in general, is one of the things that inspires me most. So it was an opportunity to live in a beautiful place of the Earth for several years and to live there without most of the things that humans have created. I had a good shelter and I had certain kinds of security, but I didn’t have electricity or phone or Internet. So I was really with the land and trees and animals and the way that the sky and the way that the Earth is and has been for millions of years. From that perspective, that experience dramatized for me how crazy civilization is in a lot of ways that you kind of feel within civilization, but it is hard to see it that clearly when you’re immersed in it, and you’re part of it, and you’re dependant on it in so many ways.
AB: You had a couple experimental poems in the Kenyon Review that utilize text and space in very unique ways. How have you been playing with space and text in your work?
ST: Those are poems from that third book that I mentioned earlier. In that collection, I was working a lot with self-erasure – with having two levels of text and erasing part of the text to find another text within it. That was one way. There are a lot of ways though. In that book, I was searching for how to tell the truth, really, and began from a place of feeling frustrated by the ways that the truth of what happens is usually more complex than the aesthetic form that expresses it. So I was looking for different ways to express that complexity and there are a lot of different ways in that book. Mostly, they deal with having different levels of what is said and what is not said instead of there being a clear line — this is what the poems says, and everything else it leaves unsaid. These poems say things that then they erase or that then are crossed out and that then are present in a ghostly way, or they find things hidden within what was originally said or were not said. So there is more of a three-dimensional process in movement and the poem becomes partly about the process of articulation and the process of deciding what’s said and what’s not. And those decisions are actually part of the meaning because they reveal something about what it is you’re trying to talk about.
AB: For my last question, what tips can you give to aspiring writers? Do you have any particular writing prompts or exercises that have been useful when you’re teaching students in the classroom or for yourself?
ST: I think it’s pretty individual. What I might say to someone depends a lot on who they are and where they’re at in what they’re doing. A lot of beginning writers have a hard time [with throwing ideas onto a piece of paper]. I find, when I teach an introductory course, a lot of aspiring writers — I don’t know if you can call them writers at that point — have a hard time of losing control and letting go. You have to be able to let go and be able to — you have to be able to … say things that you don’t understand, say things you don’t intend, you did intend, and be willing to sound stupid. There’s so much potential advice that could be said, that has been said. I don’t think I really have any special gem that’s never been said and the particular things — I would say — really depend on the individual person.
AB: Thank you very much letting YAWP! interview you, and we are very excited to have you on Bethel’s campus with us today.
ST: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here.