Politics as Central: An Interview with Keith Taylor

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MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Keith Taylor is originally from Western Canada, but has lived for the past 45 years in Michigan. He has authored or edited 18 books and chapbooks. His most recent are Let Them Be Left (Alice Greene & Co., 2021), and Ecstatic Destinations (Alice Greene & Co., 2018). His last full length collection, The Bird-while (Wayne State University Press, 2017), won the Bronze medal for the Foreword/Indies Poetry Book of the Year. His poems, stories, reviews, essays and translations have appeared widely in North America and in Europe. More than three years ago, he retired from the University of Michigan, where he taught Creative Writing for 20 years.

 Before that he worked as a bookseller in Ann Arbor for almost 20 years, but over the years he has also worked as a camp-boy for a hunting outfitter in the Yukon, as a dishwasher in southern France, a housepainter in Indiana and Ireland, a freight handler, a teacher, a freelance writer, the co-host of a radio talk show, and as the night attendant at a pinball arcade in California. Taylor has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. He has been Writer/Artist In Residence at Isle Royale National Park (twice), the Detroit YMCA, The International Writers’ and Translators’ Centre of Rhodes, Greece, the University of Michigan Biological Station, and Greenhills School. 


Lillian Pearce (LP): In his 1947 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. Why do you write?  

KT: Over the span of my writing life, something longer than 50 years now, I have been moved at one time or another by all of Orwell’s motivations. “Sheer egoism” when I was younger. “Political Purpose” when I have been moved or angered by a particular moment that is primarily political (anti-war, anti-nuke, environmental advocacy, anti-colonial moments, anti-racist necessities, etc.). I admit without shame, however, that I have probably been moved most by Orwell’s “Aesthetic Enthusiasm,” that sense of beauty, and by “Historical Impulse,” the effort to understand my place in the historical moment.

But I admit that now, after doing this for so many decades and nearing 70 years old, I write because that is what I do. I can’t imagine not doing it or doing something different. It is my self-definition. It is the way I have come to understand the world and my place in it. The other bridges have been burned.

LP: How would you define your motivations for writing? Do you agree with Orwell’s four motives for writing?       

KT: Orwell wrote under his fourth motivation for writing, the “political purpose,” that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

I’ve been dealing with this statement for over 50 years now, first in the peace movement in the late 60s, then through the various actions of the 70s and the decades following. Certainly in the environmental movement during that half-century. It has come round again in the pressing political issues of this moment. 

Of course, I agree with it. How can one not? I certainly would never advocate taking politics out of our writing; that would be denying something essential in our humanity. Yet this is one of those premises that if you accept it, it closes off all argument. The discussion often ends.

AND

I have come to have a disagreement with it. There is an implication in Orwell’s statement, that gets even more strident in some people who quote it, that politics trumps all other human experience. All human experience is political, and no matter what we do, all of our actions have to be understood in political terms. It is an outgrowth of the Marxist dialectic and a purely mechanistic view of history, whose clarity has often attracted me.

But I can’t accept that anymore. That makes politics more important, more central, than everything else: nature, love, art, especially poetry. And—I know some people will not forgive me for this—I find all of those things more central, more important, to my life than political understanding or movements or even action. I do NOT think that is a political statement, my hero George Orwell be damned!

That doesn’t mean that we don’t act. It simply means that the action is understood differently.

I write about the natural world because I am compelled to learn something I didn’t know before every time I do. Yes, that knowledge might influence my action and could even possibly influence someone else’s action, but that is not my reason for learning that fact. My curiosity, some of which is aesthetic, comes first. 

Now to contradict myself once again. You asked me to send a poem to be reprinted with this discussion. The poem I sent, “Parthenon Marbles,” is a decidedly political poem shaped by history. And many people might not realize it. There are a group of famous sculptures given a whole wing in the British Museum. If you call them “the Elgin Marbles,” you are buying into a particular attitude, a positive attitude, toward British colonialism and notions of appropriation, even expropriation. And that is true whether you understand that theft or not. The Greeks who care, which is most of them, refer to them as the “Parthenon Marbles.” My poem does not let me off the hook, even if I have done the work to understand the history. There is the fact of that broken piece of pottery sitting on the window ledge in my study. Why did I think I could pick it out of the trash heap and haul it home? (I was pleased that this poem first appeared in a new online journal, EKL Review, out of Kolkata, India. Indians know more about British expropriation than just about anyone else, except perhaps the Irish.)

LP: How and why does geography interact with your reasons for writing? 

KT: Someone writing about my work recently called me a “cosmopolitan regionalist.” I like that. The images and incidents, and history that draw me to poetry primarily—although not exclusively—arise from this place. The Great Lakes Basin. The contradictions of this place continue to fascinate me. I remain involved in the cultural life and the politics of Detroit, for instance, an industrial city that has seen and continues to see enormous political and cultural upheavals. Yet we can drive just five hours north, cross a couple of big bridges, and be at the southern edge of the Canadian boreal forest, one of the last great wild areas left on earth. 

But there is something much more personal, more practical in my commitment to the land I live on. I wrote once about the Huron River (the one that flows through Ann Arbor) “that as we work to sustain our river, we sustain ourselves.” That is political, but it is also eminently practical. Most of our drinking water comes from the Huron. After our wastes are processed, what’s left is carried away toward Lake Erie by the Huron. We have to protect the river. We have no choice. And that will involve politics, community organizing, speaking, and writing for a larger public. And, for me, it means I must constantly remind myself of the beauty of that river.

LP: In reference to the act of writing or the writing life, how do you think about community? 

KT: It is very difficult to imagine the writing life without a community that offers support. Even if one doesn’t care much about audience, there is still some lingering sense of this. Even Emily Dickinson, perhaps the purest of the solitary writers, had a dozen or more people who were central to her. Who were her “audience” and her “inspiration.”

Books are not done in isolation. When I put together my book The Bird-while, I wanted to thank all the people involved. I just counted up the people I thanked, either in dedications of individual poems, in the Acknowledgements, or in the list of magazines that first published the work. There are over 90 people there! And that doesn’t include the people at Wayne State University Press who published the book, who cared deeply about it. These people, both the living and the dead, are my community. 

And then there is my neighborhood! My wife Christine and I pride ourselves on knowing most of our neighbors. We know many people for a couple of blocks on either side and wish we knew the others. We know our city fairly well, business owners and politicians. That is important. I travel widely through the state, giving workshops and readings. I have done work with poets and artists from Detroit to Houghton. I’ve given readings in Monroe and New Buffalo, as well as in Houghton and Escanaba and a couple of hundred places in between. I don’t know if all of that has influenced anyone, but a lot of people have listened to me over the last 40 years.

LP: How have your motivations for writing evolved during the pandemic? 

KT: I have been able to do some writing during the pandemic, particularly during the first few months. It has become harder lately. I’m not sure why. When the poems didn’t come, I could do book reviews and wrote a dozen or more in the first four months. Then I slowed down. I started to lose some confidence in my opinions. I hope some of that returns. The poems seem to be there—but I’m knocking on wood even as I type. 

I have done a bunch of Zoom readings and classroom visits, but I find them very unsatisfying. Since they are so much easier and cheaper for everyone involved, I fear that they might become the future of these things. No more small groups in bookshops and libraries. No more University readings in the basement of the Art Museum. I think that will be a loss. 

LP: Can you speak on your experience working with young people and young writers specifically? 

KT: In the last couple of years before I retired, I lost confidence in myself as a teacher. There was no way I could keep up with the things that interested young people, and, more importantly, I no longer wanted to. I was getting very uncomfortable, even with graduate students. A recent Zoom meeting with a class of sixth-graders in the south of India gave me some of it back. They were clearly interested and had great questions. I saw a few of the poems they wrote after my “visit,” and they were good! That was very gratifying. 

But the work with young people is important. Poetry allows us a way to connect with some people that might be forgotten otherwise. They can become involved in poetry and, yes, learn skills that are easily translatable to other aspects of their lives. Teaching poetry to young people, prisoners, marginalized communities, rural communities is completely practical, even if it is a hard sell. It is no longer my place to do that work, but I know that others will, and I am pleased that I was a part of it for so long.