Poets in Profile: Rob Taylor
Open Book is celebrating National Poetry Month with daily profiles of today's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Find out what inspires, confounds and delights the poets behind this spring's new releases by following our series.
The manuscript for the book which is now called The Other Side of Ourselves (Cormorant Books) won Rob Taylor the Writers' Federation of New Brunswick's 2010 Alfred G. Bailey Prize for best unpublished poetry collection.
"Whether celebrating small moments of tenderness and intimacy, or contemplating the horrors humanity so often visits upon its own, [these poems] seem to answer the question posed by Mary Oliver in an epigraph that adorns the first section of this book: “how to love this world,” says Mark Callanan, author of Scarecrow. "The answer is to find the primal, animal energy that animates our race, and to reflect back to us that energy so that we can more clearly see ourselves, in all our beauty and in all our ugliness."
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
Not a single experience, but lately I’ve been returning to my childhood memories of watching my father preach (he was a United Church minister).
I didn’t become a minister, but I do think that my desire to be like my father helped lead me to poetry. In both fields you gather up the humble odds-and-ends of what you know, and try to fashion them into a stepladder, of sorts, that allows you to reach a little further out into the unknown. And you do your best to share what progress you make with those around you.
My father would often change his sermons at the last minute. He would also improvise large portions on the spot, the meaning of the sermon only becoming clear to him in the moment. In other words, the act of sharing his sermon both conveyed and created the sermon’s meaning. A similar cyclical process of thinking and sharing rests at the centre of my own writing practice.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
“The Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon, which I first heard in high school. Every line is sharp and playful:
It’s a turnaround jump shot
It’s everybody jump-start
It’s every generation throws a hero up the pop charts
Medicine is magical and magical is art
Think of the Boy in the Bubble
And the baby with the baboon heart
Like much of Paul Simon’s best work, there is something joyous and troubling about this song that I find irresistible. I was at a wedding a few weeks ago and the band covered “The Boy in the Bubble.” My early love of the song came rushing back to me, and I danced about howling the lyrics like a maniac (to call it “singing” would be too generous). Luckily, weddings only happen once (one hopes!), as I doubt the happy couple would invite me to another one now…
For those purists who think the above answer is cheating, the first “poem poem” that pulled me in was “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, which I found soon after “The Boy in the Bubble.” I loved its rhythm and its argument, which I could almost get my head around. My interest in the poem has changed over the years, and now my reading focuses on the word “hate” — how the poem flows effortlessly, gaining speed, and then slams into the brick wall of that hard “t” in “hate”. Never is the word “hate” so charged for me as when I recite it in that poem (a good sign for both the poem and my life).
What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?
Oh, I’ll let the great poems be. Each one has its time, place and author, and if they were mine they wouldn’t be the same poems, at least not entirely. Why risk messing up my favourites?
But that’s a boring answer, so let’s say “Driving” by John Newlove. I read it to my wife about once a month, just for the pleasure of saying it aloud. If it was my own, perhaps she would still feign enthusiasm when I start in on it for the fortieth time.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
My answer depends on the type of inspiration being considered. Is it surface inspiration (the poem’s theme, images, narrative, etc.), or is it the inspiration that rests at the emotional core of the poem — that element of the poem which makes it resonate and last with the reader, which makes it feel “true”?
It’s easier to talk about the first level, and to trace its sources of inspiration, but it’s far less significant to the poem than the second level, which, by its nature, is more or less impossible to talk about directly (if not, why write a poem?). That said, trying to talk about things you can’t really talk about outside of the poems makes poetry, as David Orr put it recently, “sound like God’s own electric Kool-Aid acid test.” So maybe I should stick with the first level.
On that level, the most unlikely source in The Other Side of Ourselves is probably “The Slave Castle of Elmina”. The poem is based on a real event in which myself and a number of other visitors to the castle, which is located on the coast of Ghana, were “locked” in the Condemned Men’s Cell. The aim was to have us experience, for a moment, what it would have been like to be a slave condemned to death. Of course, what we experienced was nothing like that at all — how could it be? While in the pitch-black cell, though, we heard the sound of a bird that must have slipped in with us. It was trapped and panicked. Without any way to locate or rescue it, we had no choice but to stand and listen to the horrible noise of the bird throwing itself against the walls, searching for a way out. The poem unfurls from there — an unexpected set of circumstances that led me to an unexpected poem.
How, and if, “The Slave Castle of Elmina” resonates with the reader on that second level is in large part up to the reader to determine. After all, it is the interplay between text and reader that produces meaning, and what results from that interplay often goes far beyond the author’s original inspirations or intentions.
How, where and why does a poem resonate with me as a reader? That is where I am most often surprised by unlikely sources.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
It depends on where the problem lies. If the problem is one of emotional resonance (at that “second level” discussed above), there’s not much I can do but put the poor thing out of its misery. I let it sit in a notebook, and scavenge it from time to time for spare parts. Occasionally, I’ll become so distanced from a failed poem that I’ll return to it as a stranger, and in those cases there is always the chance that the poem will come to life for me in some unintentional, slantwise way (like falling in love with a restaurant because their tablecloths remind you of your grandmother’s house). In those cases, the original poem is still a goner, but some ghost element of it lingers in the new poem (even if I’m the only one who senses it).
If the problem is on the surface, but the core is solid, I’ll tinker endlessly. It’s in those moments that writing poetry is most like an addiction to me. I can go for hours revising a line or two: adding, cutting, rearranging, reciting lines aloud over and over again. This works well at home, and not-quite-as-well on the bus.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
I wear these tight sport socks most of the time. The majority of books don’t stand a chance. The last book to achieve some ankle-action, though, was Living Things by Matt Rader (Nightwood Editions, 2008). I’m looking forward to his next book, A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno, which has just come out from Anansi. Maybe I’ll wear a loose wool pair when I read that, to give it a fair shot.
Not socks, but my ball cap was knocked askew when I read The Possible Past by Aislinn Hunter (Raincoast Books, 2004), which in my mind is the finest book of poetry put out by a Canadian this millennium. Oh, and Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (Knopf) shook all my dress shirts off their hangers. It was a big mess.
What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?
The best thing is the ability to connect with other people, often complete strangers, who invite me into their lives and then collaborate with me in creating these little moments of insight or wonder or peace or frustration in a process that we crudely summarize as “reading poems.” It’s very humbling to think about.
The worst part is the arrogance that underpins what I’ve just said. Who am I to have any business in the lives of strangers, even those who invite me in? Why should my work be given that opportunity over the work of anyone else? And do I really have the gall to call what I do “work” when galamsey miners in Ghana dig gold by hand, their bodies slowly succumbing to mercury poisoning?
In order to reconcile such questions and publish my poems, I need to have a great amount of confidence in my art form, and in myself. Knowing that I am walking around with all that confidence in me makes me nervous, as it should anyone.
For me, the humility and arrogance required in being a poet tend to balance themselves out, allowing me to more or less function like a normal human being. But I always worry that my balance will end up tipping, and both myself and my poems will suffer because of it.
Oh, and while I’m on the “worst”, the pay is lousy. Really, really bad.