ROB TAYLOR is the author of four poetry collections, including Strangers (Biblioasis, 2021) and The News (Gaspereau Press, 2016), which was a finalist for the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Rob is also the editor of What the Poets are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood Editions, 2018) and the guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (Biblioasis, 2019). Rob’s poems, short stories and essays have appeared in more than 50 journals and anthologies. In 2014 he was named one of the inaugural writers-in-residence at the Al Purdy A-frame, and in 2015 he received a City of Vancouver’s Mayor’s Arts Award for the Literary Arts. Rob lives with his wife and children in Port Moody, BC, on the unceded territories of the Kwikwetlem, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-waututh peoples. Visit Rob’s website at roblucastaylor.com.
Michael Edwards: Let’s start off by discussing your new collection, Strangers (Biblioasis, 2021). On the publisher’s website, your book is described as reintroducing the epiphany poem. In thinking of this kind of poem, I’m reminded of a radio interview in which Paul Muldoon made the statement that poems should be “revelatory.” He explained that a reader should come away from a poem having learned something new. So, if this sense of discovery makes for a good and memorable poem, how does the epiphany poem accomplish this? Is it that the reader experiences this revelation concurrent to the speaker of the poem? What can you say about that?
Rob Taylor: That line about epiphanies was cooked up by my editor, Luke Hathaway. To suggest a poem is epiphanic is to suggest it’s successful (very successful, I suppose), and I wouldn’t have the nerve to assume that about my own stuff. I do appreciate that Luke sees that in my poems. It’s not something I aim for— I don’t purpose-build a poem as a little epiphany machine. My guess is the reader would pick up on it and feel too obviously manipulated (though I’m sure I’ve been fooled many times). Regardless, there’s no joy for me in getting someone to feel something that I’m not feeling myself.
I write poems to try to make sense of my life. I take a moment that strikes me, or nags at me, and run it through poetry’s arcane devices: compression, rhythm, rhyme, etc. If, alongside the music, some insight or clarity or valuable complication comes out of the process, then that poem has a decent chance of showing up in a book someday. So the revelation is always mine, and I’m hopeful when I publish it that it might become my reader’s, too.
ME: You’re a writer, interviewer and teacher, and I think it’s fair to say, one who is deeply involved in and cares for the poetry community. April each year is National Poetry Month and you have been involved with Read Local BC. In the context of British Columbia, what are some things happening in poetry, despite the pandemic we’re all still dealing with, that excite you and bring you hope as we think of a post-pandemic world?
RT: One thing the pandemic can’t touch is the poems. I love being a member of the Canadian/BC/Vancouver poetry communities, and COVID has driven home just how important it is for me to see friendly faces at readings from time to time. But really, my foundational love is with the words on the page: I open a poetry book while sitting at a park bench, or on my couch under lamplight after the kids are asleep, and I have everything I need.
Right now in BC we have an abundance of new, young writers. Or, I should say, an abundance of publisher interest in putting out first books by BC poets—the poets were always there, but the publishers are the ones with the hand on the spigot. We’re blessed to have presses like Harbour/Nightwood, Caitlin, Arsenal Pulp, Talon, Anvil, etc. steadily releasing titles by BC poets. Each year, it’s getting harder for me to pick my interviews for the Read Local BC series (both the poet and publisher must be based in BC)—there are too many options! It’s a great problem to have. Watching everyone rally around local bookstores to keep them afloat at the start of the pandemic was inspiring too (as are current reports that sales remain up one year into things).
My curmudgeonly grump about the writing world is that so much of it revolves around awards and grants and festivals and such, and so little is about actually buying and reading and discussing the books. (Pop over to Twitter: whenever a poet posts a cover reveal or an award win, the little red “like” hearts pile up. When they post an actual poem, not so much…) I think the isolation of the pandemic caused a lot of people to slow down, and perhaps turn to that stack of books on their nightstand more frequently. I know it did for me. The thought of all those additional moments of writer-reader connection pleases me to no end.
ME: Perhaps connected to the last question, I’m thinking of your elegiac Heaney poem from your new collection, titled “Weather in Dublin.” Reading the piece brought to mind the notion of the function of poetry in the world and the public role of the poet. This made me think of W.H. Auden’s poem “Memory of W.B. Yeats” with the famous phrase, “poetry makes nothing happen.” This line is so often brought up in talking about poetry’s place in society. Were you thinking of this at all as you wrote this poem? And what do you see as the function of poetry within the public sphere?
RT: I love that connection, between Auden’s poem for Yeats and my poem for Heaney. I wish I’d made it myself! But no, I wasn’t thinking about that, not consciously. It was up there, I’m sure, alongside WC Williams’ “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” (“Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”). In “Weather in Dublin,” I was recording events as they happened: the night of that deluge in Vancouver, Heaney really was dying on the other side of the planet (he died at 7:30 am, which was 11:30 pm in Vancouver). We woke to the aftermath of the flooding and the news of Heaney’s death.
Strangers is preoccupied with how our intimate lives and relationships are intertwined with art and literature that’s produced by “strangers.” Our families are stitched together by, and therefore come to include, this art, even if that process only takes place in our individual minds. That day was a great example: Heaney, and the wake of his death, were really only on that Vancouver street in my mind, but the two became inseparably bound as I greeted my neighbours and together we surveyed the damage. The continuation of that Auden quote is “it survives / In the valley of its making”, and I think that probably speaks to “Weather in Dublin” and Strangers as well as anything.
ME: Haiku is present in all of your published, full-length collections, including this new one. You always seem to be working with haiku in interesting ways, for example, in your 2016 book, The News (Gaspareau Press), you incorporate haiku from Basho and Issa into the middle of a poem called “Fourteen Weeks,” which reads in an almost glosa-like fashion. Could you tell me about your interest in the form?
RT: Since the pandemic started, I’ve written haiku almost exclusively, and have accumulated a few hundred at this point (maybe twenty that are any good! It’s fun to feel like a total amateur again.) My haiku sequence in my first book, The Other Side of Ourselves, starts “I can’t help but hate haiku / they end abruptly / just as they’re getting”, so it’s certainly been a journey to where I am now! Though, truthfully, I was drawn to haiku even then.
I had a real love-hate relationship with minimalist writing when I was young: in high school I printed out a copy of WC Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” and carried it around in my wallet, while also rolling my eyes at the thought of it being one of the “greatest poems of all time.” It felt too easy, too random. I now know that’s both true and untrue: it takes great skill and training to consistently write high-quality minimalist poetry (as Bashō, and Issa, and Williams did), but at the same time just about anyone can, on a fortunate day, stumble upon the right sequence of words (considering there’s sometimes only six or seven of them!). I think I used to find that distasteful—at a time when I was working so hard to learn the craft, it felt like cheating—but now it seems pretty wonderful.
ME: How does this awareness of haiku as a form influence your overall writing practice?
RT: Reading, writing and teaching haiku has taught me a great deal. First and foremost: compression. There’s something about the vast majority of lyric poems that feels a bit flabby (I want to say my lyric poems, but having just read so much for Best Canadian Poetry 2019, I can speak more broadly with a bit of confidence). It’s not that the poems always feature unnecessary words, but that the need to serve both sound and sense pushes back a bit against visual (or intellectual) precision. I turn to haiku to sharpen my precision—to strip a poem down to its most basic components and see what’s really there. Often what’s there is more than enough.
Haiku also teaches fundamental lessons about how poems move. A successful haiku grounds you concretely in the world (in a traditional haiku, a kigo, or “season word,” instantly sets your poem in a particular time and, often, place), and then in some way disrupts that world (traditional haiku feature a kireji, or “cutting word,” often represented in English haiku by an em dash or ellipsis): the poem is somehow broken up, or taken some place new (in the mind, if not the body). In certain ways this overlaps with the volta in a sonnet, the leap between stanzas in a ghazal, or the gap between the prose section and the haiku in a haibun. There’s something profoundly pleasing about feeling stabilized and then destabilized—standing on firm ground, and then using that firm ground to push off, landing somewhere different. No form explores this “leap” more efficiently than the haiku, and I take great pleasure in exploring that type of movement.
ME: Your new book also contains poems accumulated during your 2016 residency at the Al Purdy A-Frame. A chapbook, The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake (845 Press, 2019), included poems you wrote during that tenure. How important has this type of long, concentrated writing time been for you in your creative practice?
RT: To me, the big thing about larger stretches of writing time, be they induced by a residency, a grant, the pursuit of a degree, or simply by the decision to make that space in your life, is permission. Some writers don’t need this—they don’t need the validity of their art to be affirmed, from time to time, by some outside (or internal) party. Bless those confident people, but I’m not one of them. I scramble through life making (or not making) my little poems, oscillating between excitement and despair as one does, and then—if I’m lucky—some space-making, life-affirming opportunity comes along, and it feels like finally emerging from a cave or deep-sea dive and breathing deep the fresh air.
At the A-frame, not only did I receive the boost that comes with any residency, but once word got out that my wife and I were bringing an eight-month old baby with us, a number of community members volunteered their services as baby-walkers. You want to feel like your writing matters? Have a stranger show up and take your fussy baby for a few hours, specifically so you can write some more.That motivated me a great deal at the time, and when I think back on it now (a community that rallies together to support poets!), it motivates me still.
ME: One of the ways lyric poetry operates is to revolve around feeling and emotion, communicated by the poet and experienced by the reader. In your book, “Oh Not So Great” Poems from the Depression Project, you gathered voices and words of others, as found poems, creatively conveying their language, which is the language of a diversity of people in their experiences with depression. As mental health is a significant issue, particularly in the midst of this pandemic, I’m wondering how you see the interaction of poetry and mental health now.
RT: What a question! For me, poetic language is deeply tied to the body. In its compressed, leaping, fragmentary movements, a poem thinks the way we think (“Poetry is the shape and size of the mind. It works the way the mind works.” – Kay Ryan). And in its repetitions and rhythms, its intuitive interest in sound as well as sense, poetic language functions as an extension of the body on the page (Robert Pinsky calls this a “somatic ghost”). This is why, to my mind, when a poem “clicks” with you, it’s a vastly more intimate, intuitive, elusive experience (felt more than thought) than the experience one has in reading say, great fiction or non-fiction. It’s also why poetry is so hit and miss for people, and often leaves readers cold—poetry is a leap across the page from one body to another, and that will always be a reckless and imperfect art.
Though I wouldn’t have described it in these terms at the time, these ideas sat at the heart of the Depression Project: how can we “wake up” physicians to the lived experience of their patients, and how can we help people living with depression feel truly seen, feel like they’re encountering another living, breathing person on the page—a companion on their journey through illness. During the pandemic, poetry’s ability to connect two people across the page has been vital for me, as I’m sure it has for many readers. When you connect deeply with a poem, you feel less alone. Because, on some very real level inside your mind and your body, you are.
Michael Edwards is editor of Red Alder Review. He lives and writes on the traditional, unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) people (Vancouver, British Columbia).