Writing, it has been said, can sometimes feel like a lonely calling. It is exhilarating to roam around in your mind, but you might get tired or lost under that gaping blue sky. So you return to the wider world. And you return, too, to those writers who sustain and inspire you. They unfailingly reorient you toward your craft, your art, your humble and hopeful strivings.
If you are as lucky as I am, one of those writers will be that rare combination of essential teacher and wise friend. Keith Taylor is a poet of many depths: a nature-lover who writes about those vast and strange spaces, and a true mentor who has helped me shape my own writing world into a sustainable place. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Keith Taylor about his art.
You were born in Canada, but have lived in American for a long time. Are there things about your writing that feel distinctly Canadian? (To be honest, I can’t even detect a Canadian accent when you speak!) Also, have you noticed any differences in the way nature and the wild are perceived and considered in America and Canada?
I told a student recently that I am a Canadian citizen and an American writer. I do think that means something, although I’m not quite sure what. I am still a Canadian citizen, despite having lived in the US now for almost 50 years. Why have I retained my citizenship, despite hassles with Green Cards, passports, borders, finances, etc.? I’m not at all sure the reasons are “writerly,” but they certainly have affected my writing life.
My family is tied to Canada and its history, particularly to the settling of Western Canada by people of European extraction. I feel tied to that — both by a certain sense of pride and by a sense of responsibility. As much as I am a writer of the Great Lakes region now, shaped and intrigued by a sense of midwestern values, I am also a person who spent his childhood on the prairies of western Canada, within in sight of the Rocky Mountains. And I am only two generations removed from the homesteading generation. There was a still a feeling of the frontier in Alberta in the 1950s and early 60s, when I was a child there. That feeling is still in me, even though I certainly understand that everything has changed.
But most of the writers who have shaped me are American. I do keep up with several Canadian writers, and like most Canadians mourn the recent loss of Robert Kroetsch, the great novelist and poet from central Alberta. His work, tied as much of it is to the farm country only a few miles away from my grandfather’s farm, helps me situate my old memories. But writers who have shaped me — James Wright, William Carlos Williams, Denise Levertov — are very American (even though Levertov, too, was an immigrant). Their concerns are my concerns.
But I wish you could hear an accent! It comes back as soon as I cross the bridge. Promise.
What drew you to poetry initially? Did you have any “formative” poetry experiences?
Because my family was rural and very religious I grew up with an almost nineteenth century sense of The Word. My grandmother wrote poems for me for almost every birthday. She wrote poems on the anniversary of her husband’s death. She wrote poems as prayers and as hymns. They weren’t very good, but they were what was done.
I memorized long passages of the King James translation of the Bible. Everyone I knew did. It was easy then to memorize poems. I think I was seven when I memorized Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” I can still fall into it in graduate seminars when things get a little dull.
Not that we had many options of television or movies when I was growing up in Alberta, but if we did, I couldn’t watch them. They were sinful. In one early poem I talked about “the endless list of forbidden joys that governed our waking.” Popular culture topped the list. I grew up without it. And this has made me congenitally un-hip. Now, at the tail end of my fifties, I’ve finally come to relish that.
Poetry, serious poetry, grew more easily out of that mix than from some of other cultural stews I can imagine. By high school, now in Indiana, I disappeared into poetry. Eliot. Yeats. Ginsberg. Pound. Cavafy. I was gone. The last couple of years I barely went to high school. It got in the way of reading and trying to write poetry. Luckily, they graduated me. I don’t think they had to. The high school administrators didn’t much like me, the little they thought about me, and I didn’t much like them. I probably thought about them even less than they thought about me. I was in the world of poetry. I didn’t have any intention of going to college. I was going to go to Europe, work in a bookshop, write poetry. I went to Europe. I later worked for twenty years in bookshops, I wrote poems. I did manage to get a couple of college degrees, which probably helped, but they were almost incidental to the world of poems.
I also know you’re an avid bird-watcher and big-time bird-lover. This seems, to an outsider, like a mostly quiet pursuit that requires a lot of patience. What is it that you love about bird-watching, and what compelled you to keep track of the birds you’re seen in a more systematic way instead of just observing them when they fly past? It seems like such a writerly thing to do, recording what you’ve seen!
Ah, birds. For some reason, even as a child, I was able to remember the names and characteristics of animals. It was always an interest, probably some lingering thing from my rural and western childhood. During my bohemian years in Europe, I tried to suppress this side of my character, but at some point I realized that looking and learning about things in the natural world was something I wanted to do, something I could be good at, and even that it was something that could be important to my writing life. These are, after all, the creatures that were with us as our imagination evolved. Even Pound knew it–”The natural object is always the adequate symbol.”
Oh, but birds just get more beautiful the more you know about them. They fly. They sing. They go on long mysterious migrations and return to the same small spaces. When I spend time with them, it is time on a different level, slower, calmer, quieter.
You spend a lot of time each summer among scientists at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station. Could you write a little bit about being a poet among scientists? Do you seem any similarities between the two practices?
I’m not sure I know exactly what contact I make with scientists. We get along. They know I am interested in their work. But they also know that I may actually spend a good deal of time thinking in different ways. Try to explain Negative Capability to a field biologist! But, yes, they perceive things deeply, closely, and they take lots of time to do it. They learn things that are as intense as poems. I have learned things from them, and sometimes those things end up in poems. I’ll have a longish chapbook of very short poems out in a couple of weeks called Marginalia for a Natural History. Many of those eight line poems deal with things I learned directly from field biologists or forest ecologists up at the University of Michigan Biological Station. I like to think that I can help sharpen some skills for the undergraduates I teach there that may help them as they deal with advocacy or policy.
You end your 2009 poetry collection, IF THE WORLD BECOMES SO BRIGHT, with a lovely series about wolves on Isle Royale. Write a little about that place, this series, those wolves.
In 1991, I was fortunate enough to have a few weeks in Lake Superior and on Isle Royale as the Artist in Residence there. I wrote the cycle of poems and prose piece that ends If the World Becomes So Bright there, although it took almost 20 years and a chapbook publication of the material, for it to find its final form.
The wolf study on Isle Royale is an important study in the development of wildlife ecology. The scientists who have studied these wolves for seven decades now have learned a lot about predator/prey relations, the genetics of small populations, cyclical growth of browse plants, and many other things. They have written several interesting books over the years that are accessible to the general public.
There is something in that place — its isolation, the animals that live there, the striking geology of it, its position in the greatest body of fresh water in the world — that is unique and quite powerful. I’m pretty sure the scientists who work and live there feel it too, or perhaps feel it even more strongly than the rest of us, although they might choose never to write about that power. When I wrote that I’d like to be clear-headed about it all, it was a small longing in me to have some kind of scientific clarity that the best scientists no longer believe in. But it is hard for me to experience that level of relatively undisturbed wilderness, the presence of those incredible animals, and the deep sense of the force of Lake Superior, without feeling that these things are signs of something, in addition to having the incredible weight of their own presence. Perhaps it is the lingering influence of my religious upbringing. Perhaps it is the presence of poetry. Pound was right — the natural object is the adequate symbol. And just sometimes, for some of us, the natural object seems to demand to be understood that way.
The Guest Cabin
Blue burns in the blue world.
Wild iris–the blue flag–
uncurled in a basalt crack
below spruce and beard moss.
A greeting, if we want it,
from the woman, long dead,
who built here place where
the wail and tremolo
of loon song collect
like the vespers chants
of monks moving to prayer.
At evening the sun prisms
through their windows dappling
the altar red and blue.
— from Dream of the Black Wolf: Notes from Isle Royale
Check back next month to read about Keith Taylor’s latest poetry collection, Marginalia for a Natural History.
Image via Paula McCartney’s “Birdwatching” series.