"the other side of ourselves" interview

In early December I got a note from Lena Garabedian, a student at the University of Toronto, who was writing a review of The Other Side of Ourselves for a course, and had a few questions for me.

Her questions were thoughtful, and worked their way a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of the book, and some of its specific poems, than other Q+As I've done for the book to date. So, with Lena's permission, I've posted her questions and my replies below. If you've read TOSOO, I hope you find this interesting.

Thanks, Lena, for taking the time with my book!

Lena Garabedian: The Other Side of Ourselves is the first book which has been your full debut to the poetry world. In doing so, was there any specific reasons why you placed “The Wailing Machines,” as your opening poem for your first book? Do you think that this was a good representation of what the rest of the book had to offer?

Rob Taylor: I'm glad you picked up on this poem in terms of sequencing. My manuscript existed for a year and a half before I sent it to a publisher. Over that time, I rearranged the sequence of the poems many, many times, but "The Wailing Machines" was always the first poem. In fact, for a long while it was the title of the manuscript (it was the title listed for the manuscript when it won the Alfred G. Bailey prize, for instance) - I only changed it after the book was accepted by Cormorant. Once it was accepted my editor, the wonderful Montreal poet Robyn Sarah, overhauled the sequencing once more, altering it almost completely (on this note, if you ever want to gain insight into one approach to organizing the poems in a poetry collection, I recommend you pick up Robyn's book Little Eurekas, which features an excellent essay on book sequencing). One of the few elements that stayed the same was that "The Wailing Machines" was up front. In other words, the poem wasn't chosen to open the book haphazardly (unlike, say, David McFadden's recent books, which were sequenced randomly).

As for "why", there are a few answers:
1. It is one of the better poems in the book, in my opinion, and I like the idea of starting strong.

2. It is, as you say, representative of a number of the poems in the book in a few ways: its length, its more-or-less plainspokenness, its very slight nod to more formal poetry without being "formal" (it is 14 lines, like a sonnet, and has a turn in it, at the 11th line - a nod to the sonnet's volta), and its search for a natural spoken rhythm (something I'm always chasing but rarely catch).

3. Most importantly, it is a poem about meeting, about coming together (granted, rather violently in this case). It's a poem about the start of something - the start of everything, in a sense. As a writer I very much want readers to know that I am interested in them, in their presence and participation in the book. I want too be generous and welcoming, so it only seemed right to have a "welcoming" poem up front.

LG: In reading “You Can’t Lead a Horse” the second time around, I noticed the line, “The woman is drunk. She asks the water for waiter”. Was this a publication error or was it done purposely to be read in this way?

RT: That was on purpose. The error was the woman's, not mine or my publisher's! It's tricky to write a poem in which every couplet ends with the same word (a quasi-ghazal, keeping with my "almost formal" style I mentioned above) and not have it be hopelessly monotonous. While not the main reason that couplet was included in the poem, it did serve as a way to break up the monotony of the couplet endings while still, in a sense, maintaining the form.

LG: In your book, I saw a fluid concept of nature throughout many of your poems: “You Can’t Lead a Horse”, “Early Rain”, and “Errant”. These poems had many examples of elements of nature. Is this the result of your natural surroundings in beautiful British Columbia? Does geography have any impact on your writing?

RT: Yes, it is (and yes, geography does). Much has been made about Canadian poets being obsessed with writing about nature, as though it is somehow our national duty. One of the main reasons I address the Canadian landscape as much as I do (and a reason that rarely gets mentioned in the discussions I read on this subject) is because I do much of my writing while in quiet settings away from home. My wife and I go away on at least one, and often two or three, hiking trips each summer - usually along the BC coast, on Vancouver Island, or in the Rockies (for instance, "You Can't Lead a Horse" and "Early Rain" were written on the same day during a hike at Berg Lake in the Rockies). We also go to friends' cabins two or three times a year (I'm actually writing this response to you from one right now, just south of Whistler, surrounded by 100 ft pines and year's first snowfall).

We would travel to these places whether I wrote on the trips or not, but we go as frequently as we do in part because I get so much work done. I find it very difficult to write in the city, with its noise and people and constant buzzing - in many ways "Errant" is an attempt on my part to address those stresses. That many of the poems I write on these trips are about nature is largely a product of the type of poet I am - I look out the window, I listen, I consider the day I'm leading (where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going), and I do my best to make a poem from what I find.

LG: What kind of work are you most drawn to reading? Do you find yourself reading work similar to your own, or completely different?

RT: Both, though I often swing back and forth in bunches. I'll go for a while reading whatever I am most drawn to, not thinking about my choices too much, until I've built up a backlog of books that I am less intrinsically drawn to, for whatever reason. At some point, I'll switch over and dig into the pile that I had some early resistance to. I usually push myself to do this by telling myself that it's important to round out my reading, and that even if I dislike a book it can still help inform my own writing. Often enough, once I get reading I find I like these books as much, or more, than the books I came to easily. A couple examples of "happy surprises" this year are Matthew Zapruder's "Come On All You Ghosts" and Garry Thomas Morse's "Discovery Passages".

LG: What was your motivation in writing “On Realizing Everyone Has Written Some Bad Poems”, a play on Al Purdy’s poem, “On Realizing He Has Written Some Bad Poems”? Why did you choose that specific poem and/or poet and not another one?

RT: A couple years ago, Jean Baird started a fundraising drive to save Al and Eurithe Purdy's old A-frame house in Amelisaburgh, Ontario. I was a fan of Purdy's writing, and volunteered to help raise funds, giving readings of Al Purdy's poems here and there around Vancouver to drum up interest. At some point around then, possibly in reading Paul Vermeersch's "The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology", I learned about Purdy's hatred of his first book, The Enchanted Echo (which, according to Steven Heighton, he once called "a piece of goddamn shit"). As a struggling young poet myself, loaded with insecurity and about the same age as Purdy was when he published The Enchanted Echo, I felt a connection with this time in Purdy's life. The poem came out of that, with the title following naturally enough after the subject matter.


Jen B said...

This is a neat read. I've sometimes wanted to ask you specific or general questions about your poetry, but wondered if maybe the creative process is kind of a writer's private space, to be respected by readers. Great to get a glimpse into that space!

Rob Taylor said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, Jen! Send me those questions and maybe we can make it a second instalment of the Q+A :)

Lena Garabedian said...

Just saw our interview on your website, when I was looking through your page for poems. It was a delight and I sent out the link to all my academic colleagues. Hopefully it will allow more people to appreciate your great work.

Rob Taylor said...

Thanks, Lena - for the questions and for spreading the word!