Monday, February 16, 2009
Spotlight Interview: Poet Marilyn L. Taylor
Marilyn L. Taylor, Poet/Poet Laureate/Teacher
Marilyn L. Taylor, Ph. D., who teaches for the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Honors College and leads poetry workshops at many distinguished venues, is the former Poet Laureate of Milwaukee.
Her work has been published in a number of notable anthologies and journals, such as POETRY, The American Scholar, Iris, The Formalist, The Cream City Review, and Poet Lore, and nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize. She’s a contributing editor for The Writer (with a regular column called “Poet to Poet”) and has published five collections of poetry: “Subject to Change,” “Exit Only,” “Marilyn L. Taylor: Greatest Hits, 1986-2000,” “Shadows Like These,” and “Troika I: The Accident of Light.”
Taylor’s poems often tackle weighty themes, such as aging and death, love and betrayal, the secrets lurking beneath the surface of family life—yet always with a degree of buoyancy. “Ranging from hilarity to heartbreak,” noted poet Ronald Wallace once wrote of Taylor, “(she) finds wisdom in the wisecrack, profundity in the pratfall, eloquence in the everyday. She is an effortless formalist, as deft with the sonnet, the pantoum, and the rondeau, as she is with the idiom of (seemingly) casual speech.” Added widely published poet and critic Rachel Hadas: “Taylor’s poems are witty without brittleness and warmhearted without sentimentality. They are, in addition, poised, confident, and shapely.”
For more information, please visit Ms. Taylor’s Web site at:
Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Taylor:
Mike: How did it feel being named the poet laureate of your city?
Taylor: Well, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. It’s a great honor and it came totally out of the blue. I never aspired to it, but poetry has always been out there for me, like a carrot on a stick.
Mike: What drew you to poetry?
Taylor: I was drawn not so much to poetry as much as simply the English language itself. I had always been fascinated and delighted with words, with philology, with regionalisms and etymologies, and with slang and dialect. (I even took dictionaries to the beach with me!) But I wasn't “in love” with poetry until I took my early courses in English Stylistics, and came to appreciate the interweaving of diction, syntax, sound and rhythm that eventually results in a poem-- and then to get up the nerve to try creating a couple of them myself. That did it; I was in love forever.
Mike: Have you been writing poetry since you were very young?
Taylor: No, no, not at all. That’s another weird thing about me.
I always knew I was a good rhymester as a kid, and I’d use that talent for special occasions. But I didn’t take poetry seriously until after I had my first child. I was already in my early 30’s, and had gone back to school. It was there in graduate school that I found myself taking a course in linguistics. I was always so interested in the language and the way it was put together. The history and things like that. The class was called Literary Stylistics. And that somehow led me to poetry. And I discovered how poetry works, the sound devices of it, the rhythm. It was eye opening. I said to myself, “Wow, now I know what these poets have been doing and are still doing. How interesting that is. I think I could do that too.”
So after that, I took a creative writing course with a professor who has since retired. He was a wonderful professor and he encouraged me to no end. And when you’re encouraged, you’re crowned with many crowns. He made me feel as if I was I Emily Dickinson reincarnated, that I could really be a poet if I wanted to.
I ended up taking more courses with this same professor, started getting published, and, well, the rest is history.
When I got my doctorate in 1991, I started teaching elementary fiction and poetry as an adjunct professor.
Mike: What were you doing before you went back to school?
Taylor: I worked in the advertising business for years, where I’ve always been an engaging writer and always had a handle on it.
Mike: What aside from poetry do you write?
Taylor: Essays on poetry and poetics, such as the column I do for The Writer.
Mike: What do prose writers need to understand before they take a crack at poetry? What’s the critical difference between the two art forms?
Taylor: Primarily, writers of prose who want to write poetry need to learn the fine and elusive art of compression. They certainly do NOT have to stop writing in complete sentences, and they do NOT have to pick “fancier” words; they simply have to write very much the way they always have, but more economically, and with more attention paid to the smallest expressive details. This means eliminating a lot of empty grammatical words—words that might create narrative flow in a paragraph, but also that merely clutter up a stanza with an overload of conjunctions and prepositions. It also means choosing words on the basis of their sounds and rhythms, as well as their meanings. Finally, they must rid themselves entirely of the idea that they can be more obscure in a poem than they can in prose. It's a point of view that virtually guarantees ghastly, humiliating failure.
Mike: What’s easier for you, prose or poetry?
Taylor: Prose. Without a shadow of a doubt. You have so much more room with prose writing, especially to make your little asides. The compression factor in poetry requires so much more discipline and economy of words.
One interesting note: When I read good prose, it’ll often become the epigraph for a poem, the fulcrum of an idea, because the writer had such remarkable insight. I seem to get more of my ideas from reading prose than from reading poetry.
Mike: How would you describe your style?
Taylor: Rachel Hadas, a wonderful contemporary poet whom I admire very much, said that my poems were “shapely.” That’s a very big part of what I do. A lot of poets don’t pay any attention to the shape of a poem, to the regularity of rhythms. I’m not saying you should write on a grid or make it sound like old-fashioned doggerel. I think you have to have an ear for rhythms and sounds of a language before it’s ever going to come out right. You can have the best ideas in the world, but unless you have that ear it won’t work. That’s the difference between writing prose and writing poetry. You can just express wonderful ideas in prose, as long as it’s done fairly gracefully, and it’ll be appreciated. In poetry, it has to go so much farther than the idea. It has to have a certain sound and rhythm to the ear.
I almost always write my poetry in form—with meter and slant rhyme—although I am not a strict formalist. Otherwise, I’d be some sort of a throwback. I’m categorized as a formalist. Which are people who write with a consciousness of meter and rhyme and use the traditional forms. But though I’m traditionalist, I try to keep my content edgy. And I have a talent for not taking myself too seriously.
Mike: What do you tend to write about?
Taylor: There are no real running themes. I’m not an autobiographical poet, although there’s a little autobiography in all my poetry. I’m also not a confessional poet, in the sense that I don’t let it all hang out. And I rarely write about nature.
I guess I tend to write about the passage of time and sort of about psychological states. If I had to say one thing, I’d say I’m poet of the human condition. There’s an old expression that says it best about what I try to do in my poetry: “To express the universal in the specific.”
Mike: Do you have a set writing schedule?
Taylor: No, not really, although I usually write in the middle of the night, when there are fewer interruptions.
Mike: Do you write fast or slow or somewhere in between?
Taylor: A lot of the time, I’m snail slow.
Mike: What’s in your “poetry toolbox”?
Taylor: I have a variety of rhyming dictionaries, especially this little Random House one that lists words according to the number of syllables. If you’re filling out an iambic pentameter line, it comes in very handy.
I also have two thesauruses, some linguistics books, a few poetry anthologies, the current edition of “Poet’s Market,” and a book called “The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics,” by Lewis Turco.
And, of course, my laptop. I almost always write my poetry on a computer. For me, it’s better than longhand, because I can tinker with it easier. But I’ll print out a hard copy every now and then, so I don’t lose any ideas as I make all the changes.
Mike: Anything else?
Taylor: Well, I do have a little notebook that I keep in my purse all the time. I use it to scribble down little reminders if I see something that strikes me or if I hear something interesting. They’ll likely be kernels of an idea for a poem.
Mike: What do you emphasize in your classes?
Taylor: I teach the craft. Not all teachers do. They place more emphasis on imagery. I’m not sure imagery can be taught, that you can teach someone a new way to look at a butterfly. That’s left up to the individual, for the most part. I teach listening for sounds and rhythms and compressions. In fact, I made up my own definition of poetry: Poetry is language arranged in lines, in which ideas are compressed in a way that emphasizes sound and rhythm as well as image and meaning.
In my classes, I teach my students by going section by section, starting with: Poetry is language, which means they should be very careful with their word choices. Don’t be satisfied with just writing “wild wind,” or “whispering wind.” Try to figure out another adjective. Go for the unique. Go for the unpredictable. Go for the memorable. Try, for instance, “walloping wind.”
Then: Arranged in lines. There’s a real skill in knowing where to break the line. That’s where poetry is so different than prose. Line breaks are not arbitrary. You have to know what you’re doing if you’re writing free verse. The last word on the line has to bring you into the next line, or enjoy a little bit more importance there at the end of the line.
Ninety-nine times out of a 100, you should NOT end a line after the word “the” or “of.”
Next: Ideas are compressed, which means you need to take out all those clause-y kinds of grammatical words. You don’t want to write poetry like you’re composing old telegrams.
And finally: In a way that emphasizes sound and rhythm as well as image and meaning. There’s more than image and meaning in your poetry. A poem can have wonderful images but sound clunky. That when you read it out loud your tongue twists awkwardly around the words.
I’ve been told I have an exceptional ear, so I’m in position to be a good critic when it comes to this subject. And I believe that having this inborn talent, or learning this as a skill, can often make the difference between writing that is merely knowledgeable and writing that is engaging.
For me, as I play the words over and over in my head and listening carefully, the poem will almost always tell me what to do. They get a weird little life of their own. I’ll start writing a poem, in fact, and it’ll fall into iambic pentameter and start rhyming, without my even really trying.
Mike: Is it possible to have talent and still write bad poetry?
Taylor: Yes. I can sometimes see that the person has ability but just needs training—maybe some good poetry workshops and a good critic and a little more experience.
Mike: At what age did you think you were a poet?
Taylor: One practices the art of writing poetry by writing poetry. One also practices the art of poetry by carefully and painstakingly revising what one has written. If you simply pile up a bunch of first drafts and call yourself a poet, you are not a poet.
Mike: Okay, then, at what age did you know you were a poet?
Taylor: I became a poet in my 40’s. Which goes to show you that it’s never, never, never too late—UNLESS you are so overcome with nostalgia that you can only write about how great everything was “back in the day.”
Mike: What do you think of haiku?
Taylor: I’ve done them and they’re fun, but I don’t them seriously. It’s too easy to write inferior ones.
Mike: How can you tell the difference between good and bad poetry?
Taylor: I think there are two different kinds of bad poetry: 1) So sophomoric and sentimental that it reads like the Hallmark-ing of verse. 2) Words that pay no attention whatsoever to the reader. The accessibility factor is completely ignored. I think it’s self-indulgent. I tell my students that if you write a poem filled with interesting images, but one that totally doesn’t hang together, that makes me work too hard to figure out, it’s disrespectful to the reader. I say, “Okay, you must’ve been a lot of fun to write this thing, but it sure as heck wasn’t fun to read.”
That, mind you, doesn’t mean that every poem has to be right “out there.” A good poem might require two or even three close, careful readings—assuming, of course, that it’s intriguing enough on the literal level to make you want to go back to see what else is there. But beyond the third time you go over it, if you still say, “What the hell is this?” then something is wrong with the poem, not the reader. That’s my theory. And not everybody feels that way.
Have you ever heard of “language poetry”? It is diametrically opposite of what I do, but it’s very experimental, very edgy, and very popular. It is images that may or may not hang together, and reflects the poet jumping around from subject to subject. It has some very articulate proponents that think it’s legitimate and satisfying.
Legitimate? I guess, sure, there’s a place for all kinds. But satisfying? Forget it. I can’t read it. It’s unreadable to me.
Mike: Are there books that greatly influenced you during the critical time in your growth as a writer?
Taylor: Yes, certainly. There were many, in fact: Stephen Dunn’s collection of essays called “Walking Light,” George Saintsbury’s very cranky and opinionated late 19th century “History of English Prosody,” Alicia Ostriker’s “Stealing the Language,” Dana Gioia’s “Can Poetry Matter,” David Perkins’ two-volume “History of American Poetry,” Derek Attridge’s “The Rhythms of English Poetry;” and Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s “Poetic Closure.”
Mike: What do you think of Maya Angelou?
Taylor: In all honesty, while I admire her greatly as a person and acknowledge her incredible presence as a speaker, I think her poetry is pretty weak. I realize it’s politically incorrect for me to say that, but that’s truly the way I feel. I don’t think she’s much of a poet at all. I think that maybe she’s where she belongs, by working for Hallmark now.
I have a tape of Angelou on PBS talking with Bill Moyers, and she’s a wildly impressive personality and a symbol of so much, but her poems on the page don’t do much for me.
But that’s just me. Obviously, many people enjoy reading her. And I believe there’s a place for all different kinds of poetry.
I’m actually more of a fan of her prose. Her prose book, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is a really wonderful piece of work.
Mike: Why did poetry drop so much in popularity through the ages here in America?
Taylor: Around the turn of the 19th century, poetry in this country was just boring, sentimental crap. All about lost loves and stuff like that. Then, all of a sudden, poets such as Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot decided to go in the totally opposite direction. Getting rid of all emotions. Their poems were dry and lean and bare, which was a great relief after all that sentimental slop. Still, it wasn’t appealing to those who wanted more out of poetry than merely an academic exercise. Their work was too distant and difficult.
Finally, the Beats and the Confessionals came around in Post-War America and they revived the art form for awhile. People were excited about poetry again, with people like Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski.
Then, it died down again.
But I believe poetry is coming back. It’s hot in the colleges right now, and the poetry community is getting bigger and bigger. I think you may see a big upswing in the next decade or so.
Mike: Who are your poet idols?
Taylor: Dickinson, for sure; Edna St. Vincent Millay; Richard Wilbur, the father of New Formalists; and Albert Goldbarth—he’s so funny and, oh, the vocabulary. The books of those two male poets—both of whom are still very much alive—I keep on my desk along with my thesaurus and rhyming dictionary. They are so rich with new approaches and new language. Simply wonderful.
Mike: And which contemporary poets do you admire?
Taylor: As I said before, Rachel Hadas. Also, Mary Jo Salter, A.E. Stallings, and, coincidentally, two other Marilyns—Marilyn Nelson and Marilyn Hacker. Dick Allen has inspired me too.
Mike: Could you recommend some exceptional instructional books on poetry?
Taylor: Here are three I like very much:
“The Practice of Poetry,” by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, which has some great exercises; “The Poet’s Companion,” by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux; “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop,” by Steve Kowit.
They are all cheerful, very user-friendly, and most helpful in explaining the reason behind doing certain things.
For more advanced poets, I recommend Michael Bugeja’s “Poet’s Guide: How to Publish and Perform Your Work.” It contains some great practical advice for poets.
Another interesting—and fascinatingly different—book is “The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing,” by Richard Hugo.
Mike: Other than reading poetry and how-to poetry books, how can one become a better poet?
Taylor: By being more generally perceptive—not only toward the physical world, which goes without saying (look at that pretty leaf!)—but toward the psychological and emotional world as well. Stop to consider why people behave the way they do. Think about possible motivations. Then jot them down, any old way. You may want to turn those jottings into a poem later, by stepping into that persona.
Second—and this is terribly important!—do NOT write in a vacuum.
Keep in mind that there is an enormous difference between a poem and a mere diary of your impressions. Join or form a critique group made up of poets that you respect, and whom you think will be honest with you, i.e. not your mom or significant other. Meet regularly, as often as possible. This will do wonders for your work.
Mike: Are there good poetry exercises to practice the art and craft?
Taylor: There are some wonderful handbooks out there that are filled with them. Other than that, you may want to set up some challenges for yourself, i.e. to write or revise a few lines every single day. Try to write a free-verse poem if you always write in forms. Try to write a sonnet if you always write in free verse. Write a collaborative poem with somebody else.
Mike: How do you make a living as a poet?
Taylor: You don’t. It’s got to be a sideline. Unless you are among the dozen or, at the most, two dozen poets who are so well known and so sought after that they can make decent money, you need a day job—or to move to Ireland. (She laughs.) A lot of us simply go into academia.
The magazines, aside from the big ones such as POETRY, The Hudson Review, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and some university journals, don’t pay much for poetry, if anything at all. The best opportunities are probably with the reputable poetry contests out there. The most trusted ones are listed in the classified ads in Poets & Writers magazine, which is the Bible for us poets. There might be a certain amount of cronyism involved with some, I don’t know, but I’ve won three or four of them. And first prize often pays between $500-$1,000. That’s a pretty good payday for a poet.
Mike: Do you see your poetry moving in a different direction?
Taylor: Well, yes, I guess you could say so. I’ve been writing more or less exclusively in forms lately because I’m starting to realize that’s what I do best, so that’s kind of new. Also, it appears that my subject matter is getting a little less “polite,” a little more “down-and-dirty” stuff. So I guess you could call this “moving in a new direction,” even if it’s not a dramatic change.
Mike: What’s the best advice you can give poets on the art, craft, and business of poetry?
Taylor: My answer is threefold: 1) Only write poetry if you absolutely love it, if it’s something you can’t NOT do it. The discipline needs more discerning readers, and perhaps fewer aspiring practitioners. 2) Always be willing to work toward becoming a better poet than you are at this moment. 3) Market your poems, but avoid making publication your primary goal.