Poet Keith Taylor reaches for ecstatic destinations


Keith Taylor

Photo by John Smolens.

In his poems, Keith Taylor draws attention to what you might not notice and highlights its character and depth. In doing so, he does what identifying things by name achieves for him: helps us see and know living things, moments, scenes.

When he was working on a collection of poems, Marginalia for a Natural History, in his own form of eight nine-syllable lines, he serendipitously encountered a damselfly with a nine-syllable name. It was not just any insect but the ebony jewel-winged damselfly. 

His personal discovery was in line with his view of writing poetry as a demand of gods in whom he doesn’t really believe. “Those gods again. They’re out there. They give you these things,” he said at the “Exit Interview with Keith Taylor and Cody Walker” event at Literati Bookstore on Friday, April 20. The event celebrated Taylor’s retirement from the University of Michigan this spring. 

Along with answering questions from Walker, a poet and director of the creative writing minor at the University of Michigan, Taylor read several poems from his 16 (soon to be 17) books and chapbooks. Taylor started the conversation with Walker by reading a poem about his home called “Picasso and the Taj Mahal” from The Bird-while: “There’s a place in the basement of my house / where all the lines of time / intersect ….”

Many of Taylor’s poems contain observations paralleled by insightful reflections on their implications and meanings. In his forthcoming chapbook, Taylor focuses on Ann Arbor and its places, revealing the deep ways of experiencing and depicting a place that comes from familiarity. 

While the University of Michigan will have an unfillable hole following his retirement, Taylor will continue writing, and his former students (full disclosure: I was one of them) can thank the same gods to which he credits his work for their fortune in having him as a teacher. 

Pulp caught up with Taylor for a Q&A about his work, poetry, and next chapbook.

Q: You have been a bookseller at Borders and Shaman Drum and faculty member at the University of Michigan, all in Ann Arbor. How does Ann Arbor inspire you and your writing?
A: Ann Arbor has been very good to me. It gave me good work. It gave me some places that wanted to publish me. It gave me a sense of audience. Now, I know this city has not been good for all artists, but it certainly has been good to me. 

At one point, right around the time I moved to Ann Arbor, I became obsessed with the idea of the local -- what we can learn from being in one place, how that shapes the language we use, what are the features of the environment that shapes us and shapes the language, what is the effect we have on the local -- both culture and nature. Those questions all came to the foreground for me in Ann Arbor. It has become difficult for me to understand much of what I do, of what I am, outside Ann Arbor. Sometimes that strikes me as odd because I still travel a fair amount, and I am not even an American citizen. I can’t vote in this place where I’ve lived for 40 years and that has become so central to my imagination. [Taylor was born in British Columbia in 1952.]

Q: You have a new chapbook coming out soon. Tell us about it.
A: My next little book is called Ecstatic Destinations, and is being published by Alice Greene and Company here in Ann Arbor. The editor and publisher there, Jill Peek, realized that she loved chapbooks of poetry, and she has published quite a few of them in the last few years. This is the third one of mine she’s published.

This book has 21 small poems, all inspired by a very small area -- the triangle defined by the three streets I walk on for my morning constitutional here in Ann Arbor. Dexter Avenue to North Maple Road to Jackson Road and back toward town until Jackson intersects with Dexter. It’s about a mile and a half around it. I almost always stop to watch games at Veterans Memorial Park or simply to sit on the park benches. I run into people I know. Or I stop to read. I can do the walk in 30 minutes. But usually, it takes me an hour or more. … And I love it. Hopefully, some of the love will be in the poems. It’s a pretty happy little book. 

Q: Since you are a writer, and Pulp is based in the Ann Arbor District Library, I’m curious about your thoughts on libraries. What do libraries offer writers? How are libraries helpful to your writing process? 
A: Libraries and bookstores are the holy places of my life. When I’ve found books of mine highlighted in the Ann Arbor Public Library or the University of Michigan Library, I feel as if I’ve been justified somehow. When I visit smaller libraries around the state and read my poems to five or 10 or 20 people, I always feel deeply flattered, as if I’ve been brought in to a community of readers that I’d never known about. And in my mind, communities of readers are the priests of their places. Librarians are the high priests -- and the high priestesses, if you need to get gender specific.

Q: You have spent summers teaching and writing at the University of Michigan Biological Station and I was a student in your class there. Its rustic camp and connection to the outdoors must be a contrast to Ann Arbor. Why have you returned to UMBS year after year? How do you see your role in a scientific research community? 
A: I have always been comfortable out of doors, even in fairly wild places. At one point in my adolescence, I was completely convinced I would end up a field biologist. They lead interesting lives, and sometimes they die interesting deaths. They know lots of very cool things! I can and do learn things from them, even when we’re just sitting around sharing a glass of wine and some cheese. They can direct me to places I wouldn’t know, and I can find poems there. 

I taught a class there for a dozen years, and I like to think I contributed something. Both to the diversity of the community at the Biological Station and to some of the students who came through there. This summer, my last there, I will be their first Artist-in-Residence. One of the things I want to leave them is a collection, even if only electronic, of all the work I’ve done that is directly influenced by my time at the station. 

Q: From being a student in your class at the Biological Station, I know that you had students compose reflections in handwritten journals for the course. How do you use and regard print and digital formats, resources, and tools in your reading, writing, and work? 
A: I have the students hand-write their journals because I want them to slow down. So much of their work is done quickly now, and that may indeed be the kind of thinking that is necessary for the future. I don’t know. I still think there is something to be said for moving slowly.

That said, it seems silly not to use digital resources now. So much is there -- not everything, but most things you go looking for will be there. It saves paper, money, and, yes, time when you can get the information immediately. I have no problem with people Googling things during class and proving me wrong.

And after saying that, the digital world seems to be the enemy of the serendipitous discovery. We find things when we go looking for them on the internet. We seldom find the things we are not looking for -- and sometimes those are the most important things, the things that really change our lives, that add the information we didn’t even know was important. Luckily there’s a resurgence in new and used bookshops. Bookshops are the best places for serendipity. Better than libraries, which have to be organized. And much better than the internet.

Q: How have your writing and process changed throughout your career?
A: I’m not comfortable with the word “career,” in particular when it describes the writing life of a poet. 

Young writers write often and a lot. Usually. I certainly did. But I never thought any of it was any good. And I often didn’t try to publish it at all. Maybe I’m gentler on it now. There is one poem I wrote in my 20s that I still keep around, even made the title poem of a much later book, Guilty at the Rapture

But now I write more slowly and with more confidence. Now I often have to keep in mind that the things I write are probably going to find publication, one way or another. Much of my publication is regional and very small press, but the work still goes out there. That expectation certainly changes things, whether I want it to or not. I am less willing now just to get something down, then toss it aside when it doesn’t come to fruition. Now I’ll rework things, keep thinking about them. It seems much more deliberate, and, yes, much of the process after the initial inspiration, is less passionate. I think this change in the process is fairly typical. 

Q: What you are reading currently and/or what’s next on your list?
A: Oh, there are always so many books on the list! And I still review a lot, so I have to read those books -- just finished reading a couple of books by Richard Russo to talk about in the monthly column I’ve done for The Ann Arbor Observer for nearly 30 years! 

Q: Congratulations on your retirement! How are you feeling now that your retirement is here? What’s next? 
A: Oh, retirement feels great. I still don’t quite have the sense of it. … But I have kept very busy so far. I fill every day with things, and often far into the night. 

Not that I created a bucket list of things to do before I die, but I know myself well enough to know that I would be more than content to simply sit in my study and read books. I have to force myself to get out there in the world and participate in other things that keep me active and interested.

I have been an avid bird-watcher for most of my life, although I haven’t been very competitive about it. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a website called eBird. They maintain lists for us and can organize them in many different ways. They use the tiny data points each birder collects to create maps and a sense of migration. It’s nice to feel you’re contributing to someone’s science, even in only a tiny way. I decided that I would like to officially see 1,000 birds. That’s about a tenth of the species on Earth. I’m at 682 now, what with the travels I’ve already done, and the field notes I’ve taken. 1,000 shouldn’t be difficult, although I’ll have to take another couple of big trips -- to Australia, Africa, or Central America. And if I save my pennies, I’ll do the ecotourism thing and make it easy on my poor knees. 

I have a couple other big prose books to do, I think. Certainly a novella I’ve worked on for 30 years. And I know I’ll keep working on poems. I have a couple of long ones I want to do soon.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

To keep up with his appearances, books, and all things Keith Taylor visit keithtaylorannarbor.com.