wordworks interview

I'm thrilled to have been interviewed by Daniela Elza for the latest issue of the Federation of BC Writers' Wordworks magazine. The e-issue, completely devoted to BC poetry, is a first for Wordworks as they move the magazine from the print world to the digital one. The issue features interviews with, and writing by, Evelyn Lau, Heidi Greco, Tom Wayman, Sean Arthur Joyce, Christine Leclerc, Renee Saklikar, Bonnie Nish, Gillian Wigmore, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Kim Goldberg, and more!

The whole thing can be downloaded as a PDF file here (my interview is on pages 30-33). It may take a couple minutes to download, but it's worth the wait.

If you're too damn impatient for that (and yet patient enough to read my interview?), I've copied my contribution below. But please do read through the full issue when you get the chance.

Thanks to Daniela for the interview, and to Daniela, Margo Lamont and Susan Greig for editing, compiling and designing the issue. One must be a cat-herder par excellence to pull together an all-poetry issue of anything - so congrats, you three!

Where the Any-Angled Light Congregates - An interview with Rob Taylor

Daniela Elza: What started you writing?

Rob Taylor: I certainly didn’t choose it consciously. I wanted to be a politician, but questioned how much of myself I’d have to sacrifice to fit the role. A similar logic nixed any chance of following in my father’s footsteps as a United Church minister. Then I spent a good while (and a Bachelor’s Degree) deciding not to be a historian, at least not directly. Through it all, poems and poets began accumulating in my mind: Al Purdy, WC Williams, Jack Gilbert, John Newlove. My own poems followed, fairly naturally. Then one day I had a book. In hindsight it seems like a natural progression – my political, spiritual, and historical concerns have all found a place of congregation, and articulation, in poetry.

DE: Who are your mentors, inspiration?

RT: My mother has taught me the most, followed closely by my wife. My father is in there too, though he died when I was only 12, so his lessons have become mythologized, for better or worse.

Aislinn Hunter has had the greatest influence on my writing, both via her own work (especially her 2006 collection The Possible Past) and her personal advice and guidance. A number of other writers have generously granted me some of their time and insight at one point or another along the way, and I am grateful to them all.

As for inspirations, the list would be hopelessly long and convoluted. Let’s just summarize it as “everything I can remember.” Oh, and the things I’ve forgotten. They’re probably in there somehow, too.

DE: How long have you been writing?

RT: The first poems in my notebooks date from late 2000, though I didn’t publish anything until 2004 and didn’t have the guts to introduce myself as a writer until my book came out in 2011.

DE: In her book Little Eurekas, when talking about teaching poetry, Robyn Sarah says: “It's as if poetry were a virus, and school exposure a mass vaccination program. A small dose in elementary school, a booster in high school, and you're immune for life. The tiny minority who contract the virus from the vaccine can go onto university programs and learn, from senior fellow-carriers, how to keep it under control through a regimen of critical theory.” What part did school play in your relationship with poetry?

RT: More-or-less the virus scenario as described by Robyn — Little Eurekas is an excellent book, by the way. I did have one fantastic poetry teacher in high school though: Marja Van Gaalen. I still left high school with no serious interest in poetry, but she helped ensure I was receptive enough to poetry that it might have a chance to influence my life further down the road. I owe her a great deal for that.

I wasn’t part of the “tiny minority” that took English or Creative Writing at university. I was, however, negatively affected by starting to write while on campus (pursuing my History degree). I developed an “academic” understanding of the writing community, filled with structures and hierarchies, and based upon advancement through intellectual competition. Thank goodness I eventually graduated and came to my senses.

DE: What is your writing process? Where do you write best?

RT: I write out my first few drafts by hand in a notebook, until I feel like I’ve made most of the major edits and the poem’s general structure is set. Then I type it up on the computer for the endless punctuation-enjambment-word-choice fiddling that inevitably follows.
I write more during the day and edit more at night, though if I’m really chasing down a poem I’ll do it all in one go. For me, it doesn’t matter so much where I write as where my mind is when I write. I need to be focused and clear-headed. I find this incredibly hard to do living in the middle of an easily-distracted and easily-distracting city and culture. I think this is part of the reason why I find myself writing less, and reading, editing, blogging, etc. more, as those are creative enterprises I can undertake while partially distracted.

The more I think about it, the more I realise I should probably move. Or unplug my router, at least.

DE: Is there something about your writing process that you think is unique?

RT: No, though I haven’t spied on enough writers to have a good representative sample.

DE: What is your favourite word?

RT: I use “perhaps” a lot. Poetry is all “perhaps,” isn’t it? I don’t think I have a favourite word, though. I have writer’s block these days, and the words aren’t getting along with one another. Why pick a favourite and risk having jealousy drive them further apart?

DE: What inspired your book?

RT: My poems kept looking up at me like prisoners in isolation cells. They’d rattle tin cups back and forth on the metal bars. I told them that there were many others just like them, but they didn’t believe me. To prove it, I set them all loose in a manuscript, which is sort of like an exercise yard for poems. That manuscript eventually became The Other Side of Ourselves. I check in on them from time to time – they seem much happier now that they have company. I think they might be putting together a baseball team.

DE: In an interview with Michael Hingston (Too Many Books in the Kitchen blog) you said, on writing poems: “But if you keep at it this, miraculous things happen: people read your work, take it into themselves, and turn it into something more beautiful and mysterious than you ever could have imagined on your own.” I have often been surprised with the way my poems speak to others, which has made me think a lot about how a poem means. What does a poem say? And who is it saying it to?

RT: When I think about the question of what a poem says, and to who, and how it transforms itself from reader to reader, I always return to those lines from Larkin’s poem, “Water” -- “And I should raise in the east / A glass of water / Where any-angled light / Would congregate endlessly.” I think of how the light is both gathering in the glass from all directions, and also refracting through the glass in all directions (one such direction being towards the eye of the speaker). Poems function much the same way, and I think that’s part of what Larkin was getting at. I write a poem with myriad intentions, and a reader comes to a poem with myriad expectations. Reading a poem involves a constant shaping and reshaping of those expectations. It’s a process that is partly in the author’s control, partly in the readers’, and partly hidden away in their individual subconsciouses. Personal history, familiarity with references and language, mood, breadth of previous reading, etc., etc., all modify the experience on both ends.

What’s really wonderful to me about Larkin’s particular metaphor is that the “things” doing all the work are light and water – these fundamental elements we so often take for granted because of their simplicity, or “obviousness.” I feel the same is true for poetry, that those subjects in poems that are the most basic are also the most resonant (cast off the most “many angled” light).

I can’t tell you with certainty, then, what one of my poems says, or to whom it might reach. All I can do is craft the glass, pour in the water, hold it up to the light, and hope a ray or two flash out all the way to the reader.

DE: Words are inadequate to translate being. When we lend ourselves to work on a poem what are we hoping for?

RT: That this compromise with our limitations still fosters enough of a connection to justify the effort. Writing a poem is an attempt to create an intimate connection (via a “mass” medium) with someone, or many someones, the author has never met. In other words, it’s an attempt to push one’s circle of communion beyond the normal limits of one’s partner, family, close friends. An attempt to widen empathy and pathos, not only among people, but across time. To bridge generations, centuries. Shakespeare’s sonnets are still busily at work doing just that.

DE: Which word do you most overuse?

RT: “Perhaps” (see above). I’ve been accused of liking the run-on sentence too much (many of my poems are one long sentence), so maybe “and” as well.

DE: What pet peeves do you have regarding writing, revising, publishing?

RT: How long it takes for a poem to go from composition to publication; publishers whose catalogues are full for three-plus years; and magazines that take 18-plus months to reply to a submission. The internet is slowly changing this via online submission forms and *gasp* self-publishing.

I should add, though—in order to undercut everything I just said—that I do think there is value to the slowness.

It sets the appropriate tone: poetry isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, and writing shouldn’t be a passing whim: you better be ready to commit to drudgery and heartache, and still love it so much that it’s worth it, or you shouldn’t bother starting out.

As the internet makes the submission and publication processes faster, I won’t be surprised to see a “slow publishing” backlash. I’ve heard of a magazine, for instance, that moved to an electronic submission system but later abandoned it because of the amount of really terrible poetry they began receiving. Still, a world without SASEs sounds pretty wonderful to me.

DE: What keeps you awake at night?

RT: Thinking up answers to Q+As. My neighbour’s metronomic dog. Generic existential dread.

DE: Now that the book has been out for a year and you have sold out of the first print run and have unleashed the second run on the world—looking back on the past year, what thoughts, concerns, dreads, joys, anxieties, celebrations are you co-habiting with?

RT: Well, I love my book. I see its flaws, a little more with every reading. But more so, every reading I see anew those things I truly love about it, which is always a pleasant surprise.

After a year of external feedback on the book, I’ve come away with the sense that there is only a small overlap between your work and what is said about it: the hype, the reviews (good or bad), the comments from readers and listeners, etc. The noise that comes with a book is as much about the reader as it is the writer (Larkin’s any-angled light, again), and is often a repetition or amplification of the noise someone else made, instead of deriving from a close engagement with the text. This isn’t always the case, thank goodness.

Realizing that my book, and all books, are consumed and discussed this way was a bit disorienting (What is that person talking about? Did I say/do that, or is that just them? Can I really take credit for that?), but it also came as a relief. The book is out in the world, and the world is doing its strange thing to it. It’s out of my hands now.

The main lesson that I took from that is to make sure that I love and believe entirely in whatever I put out in the world (inevitable unforeseen imperfections and all). That way I’m tethered, and I can enjoy swaying around in the weird breeze of book noise, instead of being knocked over by it.

DE: Where do you see yourself going in the next year with your writing?

RT: Nowhere fast. But somewhere, slow. Hopefully I’ll look back into the distance and be amazed by how everything I once knew now looks so small.

DE: Which one of your skills as a writer/editor do you find most useful in life?

RT: Is empathy a “skill?” If so, I’ll say the empathy that comes with learning how hard it is to communicate with other human beings, especially when it comes to the soft, vital stuff that rests at the centre of our lives. It’s the knowledge that most of what we do and say with and to one another is some type of failure, and that that’s okay. We edit. We try again. Every once in a while we get something right despite it all.

DE: What was the question you wished I had asked, but I did not?

RT: This one, until you asked it. Now I’m too flustered to think of anything.

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