selection from Sam Taylors Nude Descending an Empire featured in this issue.
An Interview with
by Rebecca Seiferle
Sam Taylor is the author of two books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable/Copper Canyon Press) and Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series), and the recipient of the 2014-2015 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship. He teaches as an Assistant Professor of Poetry in the MFA program at Wichita State University. You can find him on the web at www.samtaylor.us.
Rebecca Seiferle: I remember being struck by the singularity of your work when I first had the chance to publish it in The Drunken Boat. That was, almost unbelievably, eight years ago, and its very exciting to see where your poetic project has taken you. In Nude Descending an Empire, your poems seem to have taken on a centrifugal energy, sweeping ever larger concerns into the gravitational pull of the lyric. What do you see as the most important influences in that evolution?
Sam Taylor: Well, the collection began with a desire to develop a kind of lyrical voice that could sing within the actual conditions of the world, a desire to discover what that voice would say. This quest had different aspects: On a personal level, I felt like my first book had largely sidestepped a direct, I-centered, singing lyricism, which seemed to reflect some level of myself I hadnt fully inhabited. Meanwhile, I was bothered by what I called an aesthetic isolationism in American poetry at the time. And, in a global world of constant information, political concerns seemed to be almost an existential part of the experience of being alive, part of any honest and aware subjectivity.
The incubating time for this book were the post-9/11 Bush years, an experience of living in a country whose leaders walked a line somewhere between reckless hubris and evil deceit and greed. Meanwhile, imperial agendas aside, the urgency of Global Warming was becoming undeniable, and while the administration was in denial, it still seemed possible that we might mobilize in time to do something about it. The peace dividend at the end of the cold war was receding from view but still seemed within imaginative reach, and with it the dream that we could transform the world into a marvelous place, a global community, remained alive within the ominous new winds. It seemed we were at a crossroads, in which the full capacity of our voices, might be of some use. Of course, that may have been naïve—doubly so considering the glacial pace of poetry publication—but I still feel that I needed to discover the voices in this book. I had no agenda though—and I think this is important—other than to include whatever an urgent, feeling voice would include in its song, while moving toward the mystery of a poem.
While there were many important influences—from Whitman and Ginsberg to W.S. Merwin and Yehuda Amichai—I think the most important touchstone for me was Federico Garcia Lorcas Poet in New York, a book I love both as poetry and as record of this sensitive, pastoral soul suddenly thrown into modern New York City, circa 1929. I have the image right now of a chemical or thermal reaction, a hot poker plunged into cold water, or the reverse; the cante jondo, the deep song, thrown into the city. I wanted to move toward a voice that was that naked—not necessarily personal, but that rooted in the core of ones being—and singing, even if the song turned frightening or ugly, as Lorcas sometimes does. I think that as a culture we are accustomed to a diminishment of feeling, which is why it is rare to encounter a free-ranging song, and even more so to encounter an earnest one.
Rebecca Seiferle: You've said that in this book you wanted to develop "the lyrical voice of a citizen-poet engaged with politics, history, and the urgency of our contemporary moment." You wrote most of this book from 2004-2010; how is the context of the poems in the world now different from the context in which the poems originated?
Sam Taylor: Im glad you asked this question. While the book began in dialogue with the U.S. empire, as the collection evolved, it became more and more about empire as a general pattern, an impulse toward domination in human societies and individuals. To that extent—though one of the aims of the poems was to speak lyrically into its particular moment—I hope the book also transcends its particular nanosecond.
As much as the book wrestles with the imperial hypocrisies of the United States, it is also rooted in the sense that the ideals of America—never fully realized—are noble and enlightened and worth fighting for (even when that involves fighting against what the nation is doing). One of the epigraphs is Ginsbergs America when will you be angelic, which for me is not only the lodging of a complaint with Americas failure, but an expression of its promise.
Just in the past few months, the global landscape has dramatically shifted in ways that underscore some of the ways that the United States, for all its faults, can still be preferable to the other alternatives. Still, these recent events also highlight how much has been lost in the past 15 years. At a time when we should be mobilizing to create an ecologically sustainable world, we are instead responding to barbaric and authoritarian threats that have partly grown out of our countrys recklessness and indifference. Regardless, Id say Im even more convinced of the books vision for the only livable future. Many of us have always been citizens of, have always been fighting for, the republic of the heart—what Martín Espada perhaps called The Republic of Poetry—one nation of all people based in celebration and relationship rather than domination and alienation. Recent events are disheartening because they not only show how far we are from that, but they throw the whole view of a progressive evolution into doubt.
Rebecca Seiferle: You lived in isolation for several years as a caretaker in the wilderness of New Mexico. I remember corresponding with you about that experience, since it was one we had in common. In your interview at The Best American Blog you discuss how out of that experience you came to see our ecological crisis as the fulfillment of a long history of violence, domination, lies, alienation, and insanity—in one word, empire—and I think the book suggests that a livable future requires that we wholly inhabit our body-heart-mind and charter a new paradigm. How do you view poetry as a way of wholly inhabiting our body-heart-mind?
Sam Taylor: While poetry might be a way of wholly inhabiting our body-heart-mind and that certainly parallels the quest of this book —I wouldnt want to claim that such a development is in any way the special province of poetry. Id be more likely to say almost the opposite: That if we wholly inhabit our body-heart-mind, some kind of poetry might be an inevitable side-effect. The quest of this book was only part of a larger, ongoing quest of how to live (Merwin: I went from room to room asking how shall I live). I feel as if I am always trying, struggling, discovering how to more fully inhabit the body-heart-mind; it is a constant occupation. I wouldnt care much for a way of doing it in poetry that is not continuous with doing it in life, and perhaps that is where I part ways with Yeats.
I would say my frustration with a great deal of poetry is that it does not seem to inhabit the full range of consciousness, but rather seems to restrict itself to one dimension only, usually the intellect. The intellect is marvelous, and I love poets like Robert Hass and George Oppen and T.S. Eliot—and perhaps early Jorie Graham—whose poems are brimming with intellectual exploration, but I love them because that intellect is woven with heart, and sometimes also with sex and with guts. I have a theory that poetry should travel through all the energetic centers of the body, all the chakras in the Yogic system—not necessarily in any single poem, but overall.
But, as for how poetry can be a way of inhabiting the whole body-heart-mind, I think it is inherently a vehicle for exploration and discovery, always voyaging into the inchoate realms that do not yet exist within a public language or even within our awareness. Bringing these realms of experience into language and the public square is important, but so is reminding ourselves that even that which we possess in language we dont really know. So, its not merely a matter of making the unknown known. Its also a matter of remembering that our very being is unknown and that we can only fully inhabit it when we relinquish our conscious, linguistic maps. In other words, we expand the public square, but we also return the public square to the mystery.
Rebecca Seiferle: In the Best American Poetry blog you state that you find contemporary poetry deluded when it considers itself beyond the modernist age. Compared to the monumental originality of Eliot, Apollinaire, W.C. Williams, and Gertrude Stein, the inventions that have happened since seem paltry. And yet your own work seems to have a great deal of inventive energy. How do you enact that poetic inventiveness both in terms of your subject matter and formally? Or how does it enact you as a poet?
Sam Taylor: Whats important, I think, is to give expression to whatever you need to say, to give life to what you seek. Sometimes that requires wild invention or innovation, other times only small variations within an established art form or mode. Pounds injunction to make it new, entirely deserved in 1900, has mixed with a restless and ambitious consumer culture in such a way that we sometimes now value novelty over significance. If I were going to name a few of my favorite books from the 2000s, two would be Ben Lerners Angle of Yaw and Anne Carsons Beauty of the Husband—innovative yes, but in ways motivated by necessity and content—and Robert Blys My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy, which hardly seems to be doing anything dramatically new and yet reinvigorates the possibilities of a lyric as much as any book Ive seen.I dont necessarily care about always innovating as a goal in itself as much as always doing something vital and different as an artist. I dont understand how so many poets write the same book again and again throughout their life. I always want to say something different—always want to have a new quest—and to a certain extent, yes that enacts an inventive energy, but it is the quest at the center that is important. The beautiful thing about a quest—which is a term I received from Gregory Orr—is that you are searching for something you dont already possess, a voice you dont yet command, something that you dont yet know how to say, and indeed dont yet know. The beauty of poetry is that it shows you something that you dont yet know, a part of your face perhaps that youve never seen. If there is not a quest—if there is just an intellectual exercise or a desire for novelty—then it rings hollow, lifeless.
Rebecca Seiferle: What was the inception and process for the four poems taken from Nude Descending an Empire included in this feature?
Sam Taylor: The Book of Poetry was a poem handed to me by the extraordinary coincidences and meanings included in the narration, many of which I discovered along the way. Nevertheless, it was a difficult poem to get right in that it had to establish so much information before it could really take off, and it had to patch together all these different modes—narrative, expository, lyrical, humorous, and serious—in a seamless way. To make matters more difficult, I lost some of my first draft to the poem when I left my notebook in a taxi on my last night in Xining, China while saying goodbye to a friend in the rain. It took me a long time to muster the fortitude to try to resurrect the poem.
Madagascar, by contrast, was mostly an outpouring or single flow of writing, and I think one without a defined point of beginning or ending other than the process of writing. I revisited it only to make small changes, additions, and subtractions to bring it to its final form.
#DeadFacebookFriends was one of a series of poems with that hashtag title that emerged from the experience of seeing the poet Steve Orlens Facebook page sometime after he died. I was particularly haunted to see a guest who was apparently unaware of his passing leave a note on his wall that said something like Hey I havent heard from you, I have some new pictures to show you. That put this title phrase in my head and got me thinking and writing this series of poems, exploring all angles of the situation. This poem here has traveled quite some distance from the original provocation. I havent finished the others, but think I still might make a chapbook out of them some time, though by saying so, Im almost certain now not to.
Testimony is one of my favorite poems, and I am reluctant to talk about it. I wrote certain key parts of it on a typewriter while I was living in the woods with my partner. While it is not about trees or animals or anything, I think it might be as much of a wilderness poem as any poem. I was also reading lots of the travesty we call history or civilization, and I became convinced that many of the foundations of our civilization were insane. One such pillar, of course, is the historical violence against women, the body, and sexuality, but another is the effort to make the world mean something beside itself. The world does not need meaning to be meaningful or miraculous! At the time though, I didnt even care that much about working things up into poems, and the final poem didnt come together until I returned to it and added significant new passages a couple of years later. It can sometimes be hard to reenter a voice much later, but I was able to do it in this case, and the poem took on a new life with the final movement.
Rebecca Seiferle: What directions are you exploring in your new work?
Sam Taylor: I am nearly done with a third collection, a book-length experimental poem that incorporates a number of innovative techniques (including self-erasure, alternative lyric constructions, and hybrid memoir and essay-like passages) into the larger arc of an accessible narrative, while marrying personal, confessional themes with global, ecological ones. It is probably the most innovative work Ive done. In a way it continues the political/ecological concerns of the second book but it is much more personally exposed. If the second book was largely concerned with a public lyrical voice, a way of inhabiting the whole energetic self in public, this third book is much more concerned with private realms of experience (in the context of global catastrophe) and with the difficulty of saying anything.
But, I largely consider that book already to be a matter of the past. So, when I think of new work now I think of two things. At a level of traditional page-oriented poetry, I am starting fresh in the discovery stage, which is the most exciting time for me, and Id rather say little about it at this point except that it will be different from everything else. After the experimental, stylistically focused, and elegiac third book, I think it may be more celebratory, lighter in tone, more inviting—a romp through the pleasures of the modern world.
At the same time, I have been exploring poetry as word-art occupying visual, spatial, and/or sculptural dimensions. Ive done a series of word art pieces forming words out of the natural materials available in a given environment or landscape—sort of a fusion of Jenny Holzer and Andy Goldsworthy. As I worked on these pieces, and struggled with the elements constant disintegration of the text, I began to foreground this tension between the enduring fixity of words and the constant flux of the worlds materials. I am also developing a number of other word-art ideas. I think I will always write traditional poems, but our culture and technology is changing so fast, shifting toward a post-literate, image-centric literacy, and I want to engage at this level as well. Moreover, in a world of mass-produced, commercial-sponsored, empty language, I am drawn to find ways to re-enliven language by producing unorthodox, spatial encounters with the power of words. So, there are now two parallel tracks to my quest.