On “The Bird-while”: An Interview with Keith Taylor

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There’s nothing like a packed reading at Literati Bookstore to make magic feel real, even if only for only a Bird-while. It’s my last night in Ann Arbor, and I’m here for Keith Taylor’s reading from his latest collection of poems, The Bird-while (Wayne State University Press, February 2017), published as a part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series. Cover_The Bird-whileGuests gather in the aisles of the shop, peruse, chitchat, flip through books off the shelves, and make their way upstairs in the dusky light.

The Bird-while is introduced with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote from his journal dating back to 1838 in which he defines 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.”

An attentive audience listens as Keith speaks his poems into the long, open room. Moment after moment passes, and soon the reading, lovely and fleeting, is over. Already I’m nostalgic for it. Guests line up to thank Keith for his time and poetry and ask him to pen his name into their new books. He obliges kindly, the room slowly clears, and the evening disappears as softly as it began.

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Congratulations on your gorgeous new book, The Bird-while. How long had you been writing and putting these poems together to become the lovely book it is? What was that process like of individual poems evolving into a book?

Well, let’s see … my last full-length collection, If the World Becomes So Bright, came out in 2009. Since it was probably together a couple of years before that, I’m guessing that this book has everything I’ve chosen to keep (for now, anyway) since 2008. Nine or ten years between larger collections seems about right. Maybe I’m ahead of that average now, but if so, it’s only because I’m getting old and feeling the need to get things done.

I did try out some of the poems in chapbooks along the way. That seems to be something I do. It creates another life for the poems and gives me a chance to see them perform out in the cold cruel world.

That previous book opened up some new ground for me. It sharpened my focus on my relationship with and understanding of the non-human world. In many ways Bright cleared the ground for these poems, the ones in Bird-while, which are mostly short, often informed by close observation or my understanding of biological research. In the process of putting the book together, seeing the patterns and connections become clearer, my own path, my own thinking has also become clearer. I think that’s a thing that happens to many, even most poets.

While reading, I felt a connection between reminiscence and myth, nostalgia and maybe magic. In “Picasso and the Taj Mahal,” the house you describe feels surreal, like a place where outer and inner worlds meet. How does visual art, nature, and travel inspire your poetry?

Yeah, you’re right. Those three things are absolutely central to my inspiration. And reading, of course. The visual arts were very important to me as a high school student. I came from a background that didn’t know high art at all, and that didn’t value it. That was partially a religious attitude, but also one of class. High art has been “art as commodity” for a long time, and I came from people who didn’t have the money to support it. But my reading took me to high art, quickly. The romantic traumas of the post-impressionists, for instance, made it clear that the levels of personal expression were powerful.

The best extemporaneous talk I’ve ever given on art was to a guy at the Detroit Institute of Arts who was looking at the visiting “Bedroom of the Artist” by Van Gogh. “What’s the big deal?” he asked. And I launched in on the joy of the painting, the color and the brush stroke, and what those things said about the soul and spirit of the artist. I even think I convinced him. Well, he’ll remember it anyway.

Travel has been much the same thing. I have always wanted to see other places (there are two little pieces in this book that remember when I ran away from home when I was sixteen), even if now I always want to come home to my little house on the west side of Ann Arbor. Travel puts us in contrast to the new places we see. It forces us to see in new ways.

And I have always had connections with the natural world. I think that comes from having a basically rural childhood and being only a generation removed from the farm. My people knew and understood things about natural cycles, and their understanding helped them grow food for themselves and for many other people. I grew up in western Canada where we were never very far removed from very wild places, where I always felt comfortable. Even in bear and mountain lion country I’ve never been overly fearful. Cautious sometimes, but seldom frightened.

And then there is the splendor of birds! They fly and sing and are often brightly colored. They disappear for long periods and them come back to us, and we can do nothing to influence those movements. I’m exhilarated by their otherness.

Many of your poems have a humorous and lighthearted tone. “My Daughter’s Narcolepsy” ends with an image of enormous paintings of French nobles in the Louvre and the last line, “My daughter drooled on the bench.” I love this juxtaposition of such a thing happening in that grand a place. How would you describe your style (poetic and otherwise)?

Yes, certainly there are lighter moments in this book — along with poems about extinction and apocalypse. Gallows humor, maybe? I think it’s good to have a little emotional variation in a collection of poems. Maybe I’m wrong.

As for my style, you should be the one to judge that. Not me. I have a line of poetics I feel most connected with — a line of plain speech with nuance, a line that values precise observation above ornamentation. But if that’s what my poems achieve — someone else should judge.

Motifs that stuck out to me while reading The Bird-while include: no cars/people, sound/quiet, witness, freedom, simplicity, ordinariness, ephemerality, and the passing of time. The last words, “fragile, vanishing gifts,” in the last line of the collection’s final poem, “Acolytes in the Bird-while,” are so soothing and meditative. If you had one, what would your wish be for our fellow humans in the present day?

There are a couple of cars and a few people in the book! Look at all the poems that are dedicated to particular folks, and that gigantic acknowledgments list. One of things I wanted to make clear was that something like this doesn’t really get done alone; there are a lot of people involved in the making of poems, whether they know it or not.

But I think you’re right about everything else on your list. Those ideas are important to me; they often feel like unattainable ideals. And I certainly wanted to end the book on those words, wanted to get to the point where I could feel those words were earned by the poems. I hope that has happened.

For my fellow human creatures — wow — after food, shelter, clean water, clean air, health care, I hope for simple survival. I don’t think we know yet whether or not consciousness might be an evolutionary dead-end. I hope it isn’t. There would be glory in a planet filled with life but with no consciousness of that life, but it would be a world without poetry.

Do you have a disciplined writing schedule or routine? What’s the process like for you, and do you have a favorite place where or time of day when you feel most creative and productive?

Not disciplined and not a routine, although I try to do something daily. This is how I define myself to myself. If I weren’t writing, I fear I might not have a self-definition. I might be an empty shell. I have a great library filled with a few thousand books, and I spend a lot of time there. I write there, of course, but just this morning I drafted a new poem on the bus ride into town. The poem was about waiting for the bus, and there are chickadees in it. Right now, I like it.

In a past interview, you call yourself a Canadian citizen and an American writer. What does it mean to you to be an American writer? How does landscape, culture, and politics influence your art or the way you perceive it (if it does)?

Even though I’ve lived in Michigan for forty years and know and love this place, I am only a Canadian. I have a difficult time answering the question — “Why haven’t you become an American?” Even my wonderful editor at Wayne State University Press gives me grief about it. The answer has something to do with the cost my family paid in suffering to move to Canada and to homestead in the West, I think, but that is not a very satisfying answer.

I am proudly a resident of the Great Lakes Basin, and that place is not defined by national boundaries. All of us who share this water must share the concerns for it. The pollution of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, affects the residents of Hamilton, Ontario. That seems very clear to me.

But the tradition of American writing is very different than the art done in Canada. I think I recognize it, even if I can’t define it satisfactorily. Margaret Atwood has written about this. If I remember correctly, she brings it down to weather and winter. In Canada the writers are just happy to survive. In the States they want to conquer. That’s one place where maybe I’m more Canadian. But there is this long tradition of writing with the power of common speech here. That is decidedly American, although it has certainly affected much of the English speaking world now. I am in that lineage.

What is your reading of the cultural perception of poetry in America today, and how do you as a poet work with or against that perception?

Oh, poetry isn’t terribly important to most people, but that’s OK. It has never been. Nonetheless, like Williams, I think people die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. I think many people would have more interesting lives if they had some poetry in there with them. Not everybody, but some people. I think the qualities of thought, perception, and empathy might be a bit more acute if more people read more poems. But really if someone can be consoled or informed by poetic understanding, they’ll find themselves there, sooner or later. The gates are never locked, just sometimes hard to open.

I do what I can to get poetry out there in the world. I have worked for literary journals, I write books, I give lots of readings and lectures, I teach poetry to the young. Poetry is central to the world I live in.

How and when did you start writing? Who were some of your earliest influences?

I started writing when I was eleven. My family had just moved to the States and I didn’t know anyone and had a terrible time fitting in anywhere. I hated school and broke with my church. I read books and rode my bike far into the countryside looking for streams with paramecium in them. By the time I was in high school I was gone into Hemingway, Kazantzakis, and the great modernist poets — Eliot, Pound, Yeats. Right after I was absorbed by James Wright. Then I spent years mostly reading in and about William Carlos Williams, then Denise Levertov. Somewhere in there I ran off to France and spent some years trying to read the French poets. I’m still trying. I was just trying to translate a poem by Rene Char this morning, before I went to the bus stop.

Have your experiences teaching at the University of Michigan influenced your writing? If so, in what ways?

I came back to teaching after a couple of decades working as a bookseller. I think that occupation — getting the right books into the right hands at the right time — might have had more of an effect on my writing than teaching.

But I remind my students all the time that “this art is always bigger than our definitions of it.” Every time I say it, I am reminded that I must keep open to new things. At Michigan we have very good students who are often working out on the edges in ways I only partially understand. They keep me fresh and interested. And excited.

Congrats on retiring after this year! How long have you been teaching creative writing, and what are your plans post-retirement? 

It’s never easy to say how long I’ve been teaching. I actually started doing some in 1975. Forty-two years ago! Wow! Then I quit for a while, but did do visiting things as a Writer in the Schools, paid for by what was the Michigan Council for the Arts. Imagine that time! I started filling in at the University of Michigan in 1991, although remained mostly a bookseller until 2000. After that, teaching filled most of my time and was my most effective method of gainful employment. I’m hoping to be done in June 2018. Knock on wood.

Post retirement, I plan to read a lot. In addition to a couple more books of poems that I’m thinking about, I have two larger prose projects that I hope to focus on.

I’ve also decided that I want to see all the paintings by Vermeer. They’re mostly in easy cities to get to, so I can do those even as an old man. I want to make sure I see one thousand species of bird before I die, so that will necessitate some interesting travel. I’m at 679 now.

I love the Bear River Writers’ Conference, those early June days on Walloon Lake, and the camaraderie of poets and writers experiencing Northern Michigan. Could you say a bit about how Bear River began? What have been your most memorable experiences as Director? 

The Bear River Writers Conference was started by Richard Tillinghast and James McCullough of Petoskey. Their hope was to get folks interested in the environment together with writers. It was independent for a couple of years, but that wasn’t going to work. U of M took it over in the third year, with funding from the provost. I became director in year five, and we’ve kept it going. The English department has been great. The Meijer Foundation helps keep us in the black. We’ve done some good work, I think. Lots of publications and several books have grown out of it. I have often been moved by seeing the work people get done and the audience they find for it.

A Bird-while, that slice of grace, is so precious. The Bird-while feels like a nice antidote to our current cultural and political climate, a necessary pause. What intentions do you consciously bring to your art, and what contemporary poets would you recommend reading today?

As much as I try to stay open to wherever the poem is going, I know my concerns come with me to the page. Environmental concerns, political concerns, as well as literary concerns. I hope my poems can find an audience, even one outside of the usual readership of poetry — although that doesn’t really shape the composition of poems.

I read a lot of contemporary poetry. The poems of Ross Gay — an exploration of the possibility of joy even amid the swirl of horrors. Yes, his work has become very important to me. Like a million other people, I am fascinated by Anne Carson’s attempt to use everything she knows about the classical moment in a contemporary context. And Gary Snyder is still alive — I always return to Snyder for sustenance.

But then I’ve just spent a month immersed again in the work of Rene Char, now twenty years gone.

What have you read, listened to, or seen recently that you’ve especially enjoyed or resonated with? And now that The Bird-while is out in the world, are you working on any new projects?

In 2011 I finally was able to travel to India. It amazed me in ways I hadn’t been amazed in a long time. Since then I’ve been to both New Zealand and Uruguay, wonderful places with good birds but places that didn’t move me the way India did. I have no idea how that will move in me over the next years, but I think about it everyday, read about India constantly. I tell people that I wish I had been twenty-nine when I first went to India, not fifty-nine. I would have spent a lot more time there as a younger man. Perhaps in the next life.

In contrast to that, I have started a short sequence of short poems that are all placed in my neighborhood, along the path of the walk I take to get some exercise. Almost all of them have been drafted outside or outside the house, anyway. That poem on the bus this morning will be part of it, if it passes the test of rewriting. This will be a chapbook, I think. Maybe fifteen poems, maybe twenty. I’m going to call it Ecstatic Destinations, I think. And maybe I’ll even find someone to publish it in 2018 or 2019. I don’t think I’ll stop, but what do I know?

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AuthorPhoto_KeithTaylorKeith Taylor teaches in the undergraduate and graduate programs in creative writing at the University of Michigan, directs the Bear River Writer’s Conference, and is the poetry editor for MQR. His last collection, Fidelities, was published in 2015 by Alice Greene & Co. Taylor’s work has appeared in publications such as Story, The Los Angeles Times, Alternative Press, The Southern Review, Notre Dame Review, The Iowa Review, Witness, Chicago Tribune, and Hanging Loose. Other books include Marginalia for a Natural History published by Black Lawrence Press, and Ghost Writers, a collection of ghost stories co-edited with Laura Kasischke, published by Wayne State University Press.

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Lead image via Black Lawrence Press. Painting of Keith Taylor by Frank Born.

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