UM poetry professor talks love of the written word

Virginia Lozano/Daily
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By Catherine Sulpizio, Senior Arts Editor
Published January 21, 2015

“I’m not much of an academic,” Keith Taylor says to a dubious interviewer.

Despite what some would call his lack of traditional academic pedigree, it’s clear that the coordinator for the University’s undergraduate creative writing program, Bear River Writers’ Conference director and poetry editor for the Michigan Quarterly Review speaks the scholarly language. Taylor is telling me about working in Ann Arbor bookstores in the ’80s through ’90s, specifically in Shaman Drum, one of those bookstores that doesn’t exist anymore, literally (it closed in 2009) and figuratively (its tagline was “academic and scholarly books in the humanities”).

Despite his easy admission that Ann Arbor’s bookstore scene is a ghost of itself, there is a vital, persisting joy Taylor holds for the printed page. I was briefly in his intermediate poetry class last fall, and he is the type of teacher whose joy for the text is infectious, one who promises to restore the immediate pleasure of reading to literature’s sometimes antiseptic field of study. If you need convincing, listen to Taylor read Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to My Socks” (hint: you’ll have to take his class); his voice takes on the same woolen, nubby texture as Neruda’s language, warm and dry. It’s the poet’s recitation, by an artist who knows his craft inside and out, and understands how poetry blurs its linguistic and spatial modalities: “Ode to My Socks” is a long, thin poem, not unlike a pair of socks.

Yet beneath Taylor’s elemental regard for poetry, which strikes the observer as visceral and instantaneous, is a long and winding, self-informed study. Taylor’s trajectory as a poet started after moving to South Bend, Indiana, in seventh grade. Raised in a self-described “religious Mennonite family” in rural Western Canada, to Taylor, urban South Bend in the late ’60s was a culture shock.

“I spoke funny,” Taylor said. “My English teacher used to fail me because I spelled ‘color’ and ‘meter’ and ‘favor’ and ‘center’ wrong. I didn’t know anybody, only had a couple friends.”

But sometime around then, Taylor wrote a rudimentary poem.

“I was looking out my window, looking at snow falling on our blue-collar neighborhood in South Bend and I wrote some words down. I went to school — I was Taylor, near the end of the alphabet, and I was next to this guy Zart — and I showed it to him. He said, ‘That should be a poem, actually.’ I asked, ‘Well what’s a poem do?’ and he said, ‘You spread it out across the page and make it look funny.’ So I did, and it was the first stroke I got in American school; my teacher loved it. And then I realized poets were so cool. I wasn’t an athlete and there’s no way I could be cool, except by being different.”

Afterward, Taylor read voraciously. I asked him who he was reading when he was 16.

“Oh everybody, I was reading everything. I was reading biographies,” he said, naming off a handful of touchstones for every young writer — Yeats, the High Modernists Eliot and Pound — before continuing, “I had no one teaching me. But when I was 16 or so, I got kind of obsessed with Kazantzakis.”

Nikos Kazantzakis, that is, the Greek author known for that vibrant work “Zorba the Greek,” a restless, poetic paean to the sensual life. The book is tamped with, as Taylor put it, “sex, sand and passion.” And it’s fitting that adolescent Taylor zeroed in on an author who wrote about the call to adventure. After a semester in college, Taylor moved to Europe for four years, during which he worked a series of manual jobs: washing dishes, sweeping floors and building houses, all while he learned French so he could read the country’s literature.

By the time Taylor returned to the United States, he had been submitting work to literary journals since the age of 16 (he recalls mailing poems to Harper’s in high school), and first got published at 18. And, as he worked his way through Ulrich’s, the original Borders and Shaman Drum, Taylor continued writing. At the time — the mid-eighties — Ann Arbor was something of a book-lover’s utopia.

“If Borders had stayed an Ann Arbor store, we were going to build the best bookstore on the world, right on State Street. They were very generous with what they paid, with profit sharing at the end of the year, but that all changed when they went corporate, so I left in ’89.”

It was an opportune moment. Taylor continued, “All the way through the eighties I was writing. I published some chapbooks, and was published pretty widely in the regional press. But then, in 1991, I got a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. I was the only writer to get one in Michigan for a few years. So that’s when the University asked me to teach. Now, it’s a prize that when people get, they take a few years off, but for me it freed me up so that I could teach.”

Taylor’s poetry is the language of nature. He bird-watches, collaborates with the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance on environmental performances and spends summers at the University’s Biological Station. In 1991, Taylor participated in Isle Royale National Park’s Artist-in-Residence Program near Lake Superior and wrote a series of poems about the island’s famous wolf study, which according to its website, is “the longest continuous study of any predator-prey system in the world.” And when we met at recently opened The Espresso Bar in Ann Arbor, Taylor had just come from a meeting in the Program for the Environment.

I asked how his nature poems grappled with politics. Hidden beneath his poems, with their unadorned, careful language that brings to bear their subject’s sprawling sovereignty, how could there not be? The political focus was not easily excavated, Taylor believed.

“I like to think there is a political undertone to my poems, especially ones about the natural world,because of the loss.” Taylor said, “But I don’t believe loss is irreparable. I don’t believe that’s all we have to write about.”

“In the prose, in the reviews or the articles,” he continued, “I’ll be more explicit about political and environmental issues, but they have become rather hidden in my poems, especially in my mature work.”

And as the conversation turned to the Romantics — that revolutionary group of artists who confronted the political system with their nature-imbued, emotionally cued poetry — Taylor seemed to answer his question further: “The contrast of what they were writing about, about as opposed to the political system, made itself so obvious that it was a political moment.”

Taylor’s poems bristle with life. Ancient figures drift through the scapes, perhaps mechanized by his long-held interest in Greek language and writing, and their details — the narrators, the characters, the spaces — which pivot between center and periphery, are culled and placed for maximum effect. In a scattering of lines, Taylor’s words snap to life.

Keith Taylor’s latest chapbook of poetry and prose Fidelities will be published in 2015 by Alice Greene & Co.