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An Interview with Sam Taylor


Daniel Galef



Sam Taylor is the author of three books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable Press), Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series), and The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse (Negative Capability). His work has appeared in such journals as The New Republic, AGNI, and The Kenyon Review. A native of Miami, he has been a wilderness caretaker in the mountains of northern New Mexico and traveled around the world with the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship; he currently tends a wild garden in Kansas, where he is an Associate Professor in the MFA Program at Wichita State.


 

Sam Taylor’s The Book of Fools is a dizzying collection (or whole—its structure is a fractal-like patchwork of verse and prose in varying formats and orientations, most pages also hosting hidden erasure text) whose scope is as broad-ranging as its scale. Taylor effortlessly zooms between the deeply personal and the global (or even cosmic) in a way that demonstrates how these things are, in a sense, the same thing. Throughout the book, disparate pieces are bound together by the threads of climate change and Taylor’s mother via memory: our personal memories and the memory of the world. In the book’s “Intermission”, we learn the history of the word “plastic”—which is unusual in that it long predates the material that is today the word’s primary referent. “All things had been part of our heart, because all things had been part of the earth,” Taylor writes, “and the earth was part of our heart. [...] We forgot, because we have forgotten so long, that we were the world around us.” Read the book and remember.


In this interview, Sam Taylor elaborates on his bending of genre and form, how he intertwines an organic-feeling assemblage of writing into something greater than the sum of its parts.


 

Purchase The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse through Sam Taylor's Website.

 

Daniel Galef: The Book of Fools is a hybrid text, described as “an essay in memoir and verse” but also as a “book-length poem” and as an “art object.” Reading the work, these ambiguities are apparent—it is categorically uncategorizable! How did you arrive at the incredible form of this book? 


Sam Taylor: These questions demand an intricate familiarity with the work, and I probably don’t have more than one hundred close readers in the world. So, I would like to first greet a stranger reading this who has never looked at the book: Hello, stranger, living in this impossible life, in this bewildering time of crisis, this miracle of love and contradiction. 


It has been said that the book is a text in crisis and that probably is not untrue. It is an elegy for the earth, and specifically for its oceans, but being about a crisis so large, it is also about everything everywhere all at once and our individual lives of loss and love. 


The book began with a simple, one-page lyric poem about going to meet my mom as a young man when she was dying of cancer. Afterward, I felt the poem was successful as a classical lyric, but I felt it could not contain the emotional complexity of the event, or really of all our modern experience. I began to look at the events from different angles and to look at different moments, to bring more into the picture, to look at what was underneath, and to investigate the different ways that a moment, or a poem, is constructed. The work began to grow organically, first into a sequence and then into an entire book, bringing an ever-vaster gyre of subjects into itself. At the same time, I decided to introduce a conceptual innovation by performing self-erasure of the primary text. This was in 2010 and at the time this was a new conceptual development. The self-erasure undermined the singular authority of the text, not only dramatizing loss and formalizing a ghostly haunting but also enacting a polyphonic multiplicity. The book became, in part, a quest for the truth in its aesthetic construction, and therefore an investigation of aesthetics itself, of all the different ways of rendering the world. I decided to maximize the diversity of lyric approaches, to forge a poetics of maximally diverse aesthetics. 


As this poem grew toward a book, I found the grief surrounding my mother kept arising in concert with a vast grief for the Earth and oceans, and I determined that this was my ultimate subject. The link between mother and Earth/ocean is not a new one, but it was new perhaps to travel all the way into the underworld of grief for both at once. I mean, it’s only been fairly recently that the grief inspired by our ecological crisis has even been a thing. Lurking somewhere behind the book is the supposition that we all carry an amorphous, intangible grief of the collective crisis now, and I chose to dramatize it by marrying it to the personal loss in my own life. I also was exploring the self in an information age, with pieces of information and phrases of language treated as analogous to bits of plastic swirling in the ocean. As the organism of the book grew, it brought more and more subjects, forms, and lyric approaches into its reach—as any book of poems might—but I remained committed to treating it as one thing, as one journey.


I began to look at the events from different angles and to look at different moments, to bring more into the picture, to look at what was underneath, and to investigate the different ways that a moment, or a poem, is constructed

DG: Do these labels matter? Is a particular subsection or page, for example, “Pacific Gyre”—which seems one of the closest sections to straightforward prose while also seeming, to me at least, to have the greatest poetic effect—a different object if read as a poem versus if read as a memoir versus as an essay?


ST: It's interesting you highlight “Pacific Gyre” because I thought of that piece, as unassuming as it may be, as the narrative climax of the book. To answer your question, I think it does the work of a poem, though in prose, but it only fully becomes itself in the context of the whole book. I think a sensitive reader will discover what a work is, and the label by which they came to it will not matter. But perhaps the encounter with a stranger also lurks behind your question. A work of art should be experienced; and, for one who has experienced it, such categories are unnecessary, but for one who has not yet experienced it, how do you begin to characterize it? The subtitle, “an essay in memoir and verse,” is partly tongue-in-cheek, but it also gestures toward a work that is beyond categorization. I think it is fair to say that most readers will have never encountered a book like this. I consider the book a single book-length poem, yes, as well as a collection of poems, as well as an essay, and an art object. I consider it all of these things because I think it does the work of all these organisms. But it is first just an organism, and it does not matter how you think of it, as long as you take the ride. 


DG: The poetry is extremely self-referential—I find that many of the questions I wanted to ask are asked (and answered, though never straightforwardly) within the work itself! One thing that struck me is how the words in this text reach out for other words both inside and outside the book. More than just “references,” these seem to play into the ecological aspect, connecting to past art like tree branches or a network of mycelia: other poems, paintings, Greek myths, and credit card advertisements. “The Further Adventures of Orpheus and Poseidon” is actually in rhymed couplets! Is there an ecology of art and is the form of the book meant to mimic this?


ST: I think it would be fair to say there is an ecology of anything. The individual exists in a web of relationships, and a text does not exist without its context, which is broadly everything. I like your metaphor of a network of mycelia. The book is one work of art in that sense, but it consists of a network between all these different kinds of miniature poems and essays, and the organism is aware of its own journey as part of its structure. 


As you suggest, the poem covers a great deal of territory, connecting to name just a few of the major themes: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, immigration on the border, Greek myth, a mother’s early death due to cancer, and the underworld of childhood. It also connects many artistic traditions and alludes to many artists, including Sappho, Isadora Duncan, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Robert Johnson, Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Eliot, Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Berryman, Oppen, and Spicer. I think there is an ecology of everything and that certainly includes art and discourse. The book is expressly concerned with our ecological crisis and develops ecopoetics to reflect its concerns, but an ecology of art wasn’t a concept I was focused on. Because the book was committed to so many radical experiments—such as its self-erasure and strike-out poems—I wanted it to deeply engage with the literary tradition it was innovating. And perhaps I wanted to expose the network of those connections. It’s a natural extension of a vision of swirling text and no singular authority, amplified further in the finality and summation of the apocalyptic moment.


It’s a natural extension of a vision of swirling text and no singular authority, amplified further in the finality and summation of the apocalyptic moment.

DG: The second section of your book opens with a description of the evolution of Picasso’s painting The Woman Eating Sea Urchins from Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake’s book Life with Picasso. It seems to comment directly on the content of the poems, especially the recurring figure of Orpheus. But, I’m also curious if this bears any relation to your own process of composing them. Is this how any of the verses in this book were developed, starting with something simple or simplistic and then iteratively transforming and stylizing? (Later, you also quote a passage about Matisse’s process from the same, but I won’t ask you about the poems you’ve dissolved in turpentine.)


ST: I have come to view my process of writing as somewhat akin to sculpting, except, unlike a sculptor, I must first generate the material with which I will sculpt. Sometimes I feel that at no point am I actually writing because at each stage the incremental accruals and changes feel too small and partial to describe it as writing, yet somehow a full text eventually appears. 


It would be too simple to say I have one method of doing this, but I did find an analog in the methods of Picasso and Matisse, as told by Francoise Gilot in her wonderful book, for the process of doing self-erasures and post-production scarification upon a created text. In such a case, I would finish the first level of text before I did any erasures or strikethroughs. I want the original poem to exist, as well as the found or altered or disfigured poem, with a purity to each and a tension between them. I felt Picasso and Matisse’s commentaries added resonant perspectives. For example, I loved how Picasso considered a skull he covered over and made into an onion to nevertheless remain as a presence emanating from beneath a painting.


DG: Yes, one striking feature of the formatting is the use of strikethrough. Is what is struck through unsaid, redacted, or something else? Through this strikethrough as well as through the use of gray and black text, the book contains additional hidden poems within the poems. The technique is dubbed “self-erasure,” which is accurate and descriptive, concerning the poetic technique of “erasure” used in found poetry, but also suggests something spiritual, like Buddhist self-abnegation and ego death. How does the author of the outer poem feel about the author of the inner poem?


ST: If I might rephrase the question to ask instead what the relationship is between the two poems, the answer would be that there are many relationships possible. One poem can be a lyrical distillation of the other, or a counterpoint, a complication, or a haunting, and together in many cases, they form a kind of chord. I don’t think of them as suggesting different authors, but of manifesting different aesthetic and psychological constructions available within the same moment, from the same sea of available language and impressions—indeed, from the same self.


That which is struck out may be unsaid, or redacted, but it is also exposed in the act of being censored or edited out. I think all poetry takes place on the border of the said and unsaid. What strikethroughs and self-erasures do is create a whole spectrum of articulations between the said and unsaid, which effectively adds a new dimension to the art of writing a poem.


And I was aware of—and liked—that I needed to be unattached to the original “beautiful poem” to perform the self-erasure and scarification and create a more complex object with a less simple, or less classical, final form of beauty. These actions undermine the ideas of a definitive text, even the idea of authorship. Still, I also wanted to marry the recent tradition of conceptual erasure poetry back to the tradition of authorship by first creating a strong original text that I then erased. There is one author of all the text, but that author is conducting a ragged symphony of forces and language to which he can make no singular claim. And I think this is much closer to our true position within the mystery. There is no one here to write anything, though of course we must live as if there was, and indeed there is! Our hard work is our signature within the mystery, our watermark.


One poem can be a lyrical distillation of the other, or a counterpoint, a complication, or a haunting, and together in many cases, they form a kind of chord.

DG: Is there a further layer of white text surrounding the gray text?


ST: Certainly, the ocean of the unsaid and unthought surrounds us, always. But the phrase “white text” also evokes the dominant hegemonic, colonial, and post-colonial caste order, and I think it would be difficult to explore the idea in those terms without tackling the implications of that violence.


DG: The intertwining of ecopoetry and memoir is unexpected but powerful. A popular definition for “the environment” I’ve heard used by professors and poets is “everything that isn’t me” (this most commonly gets attributed to Albert Einstein). At the same time, the “eco” in “ecology” comes from “home.” Why have you chosen to connect these almost opposite, or mirrored, scales, the intimately personal and the all-of-humankind global?


ST: I think the idea of the environment as the surrounding “not me” is a false one that reflects the very cause of our problems. We are not separate from our environment, and every notion of ecology that speaks to me foregrounds the interconnection between all elements of an ecosystem, of all the beings living in the same “house.”


We face a crisis on a scale we cannot imagine. The global can exist only as an abstraction or a compendium of distant particulars, yet the grief we feel for our predicament is immense. I chose to access that grief by marrying that global, ecological story to a story of personal crisis, grief, and loss, centered around my mom’s early death from cancer and including the vast underworld of the self. The book is both an elegy for my mom and an elegy for the Earth and its oceans. It’s also about the ancient and archetypal journey into the underworld and all the layers of our experience. 


We are not separate from our environment, and every notion of ecology that speaks to me foregrounds the interconnection between all elements of an ecosystem, of all the beings living in the same “house.”

DG: So much about these poems is visual that I am fascinated trying to imagine how they might exist off the page. Have you ever performed these poems at a reading, and if so, then how did you adapt them to do so?


ST: I like to perform this book accompanied by a visual slideshow of the text, blending a traditional reading performance with an artist's talk of commentary on the work. The text as a visual experience is certainly a part of the experience. I read some poems fully in their multiple texts, reading the full poem and then the erasure, while other poems I just display visually and talk about and perhaps read the erasure text. I’ve found it lends itself to a multi-dimensional reading experience that engages readers at more levels than a traditional reading.


DG: Where is the environment of a poem and how do you get there? Is it a place that exists that we discover when we write or read or is it created by your ideas?


ST: I would have to say that the environment of a poem is the world we live in, all of creation, and the heart that holds everything that has ever happened. On another level, the environment of a poem is composed of all the great poems ever written and maybe some of the bad ones.


I don’t think you need to do anything to get there. You’re already there. But if you mean, how do you get to the place of inspiration, there are a thousand great opinions, but if anyone was reliably sufficient, we wouldn’t keep asking the question. I believe in urgency, clarity, mystery, and not knowing. Usually, for me to get there, I have to forget that I have any intention of getting anywhere, forget that a poem is anything I’d like to make, forget even any notion that I am a writer. But I also like Merwin’s notion, via Berryman, of getting on your knees and praying to the muse, literally.


But your question points to something else. I was specifically concerned in this book with everything that surrounds the lyric moment and with the possibility of inviting all of it into an expanded lyric moment—a complicated, footnoted, and scarified lyric moment extending in all directions. Building on your earlier question, if the environment of a poem might commonly be considered everything that is not the poem, I aimed to break down that distinction and see the environs as part of the poem itself. And then I was challenged with reconstituting what the poem might be in this expanded vision. 


To return to Merwin again: “If you find you no longer believe, enlarge the temple.” In a sense, this book enlarged the temple to include everything. But in another sense, it breaks it down into many little fragmented temples, into temple ruins, and into catacombs beneath the temple. Ironically, however, through both processes, I came to believe more than ever in the temple that has always been here, in the simple lyric poem around the mystery of the heart. Yet I live in that tradition now having extended it, we might say, to the end of the earth, and it has been changed by that journey. For me now, a simple poem contains all these other scarified versions of itself, even if they are not there, and they make the simple lyric more beautiful. The book has beneath it the mythic trope of being changed by a journey to the underworld. In using this structure, I wasn’t sure if I believed it or not; I wasn’t sure if I would be changed. I wanted to be changed by the emotional journey, and maybe I was. Maybe I was changed by going deeply into all forms of loss and then leaving it behind. Maybe I was changed by finding an artistic expression for the grief of our world and then deciding to dance anyway, ending in affirmation. Maybe. But I was definitely changed by the artistic journey—a journey into the underworld of the poem (and into the poem that swallows its environment). I can live in any temple now.


 

DANIEL GALEF’s first poetry book, Imaginary Sonnets (Able Muse Press), is a collection of persona poems from the point of view of various ancient philosophers, princesses, scientists, saints, and a new variety of breakfast taco. He is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.



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