“There is no fear of the narrative, or skittering, going on in Guilty at the Rapture. Mr. Taylor writes clearly and without self-consciousness. He also writes with great emotion”
– Matthew Schmeer, “The Great American Pinup” Blog
INTERVIEW BY STEVEN GILLIS (continued)
As a teacher, what is your opinion regarding the sudden explosion of MFA programs in the last 10 years?
Well, it’s the last 25 years. I have no problem with them. The job I have now is better for me than if I were still painting houses, and I wouldn’t have the job if universities didn’t have writing programs.
And there are lots of different kinds of writing programs out there—several for every aesthetic you can come up with. Listen, there have always been more people trying to make art than there is thepossibility for great or even good art. Now a lot of them get degrees. The danger is that so many of them think the degrees actually mean something about their abilities. But that’s really only a danger to themselves. Yes, tame and uninteresting stuff might get valued for a while, but it won’t last. A gaggle of degreed writers running over the face of the planet won’t really hurt anything. By occasionally making more enthusiastic teachers and readers, they might even help.
U of M has had some great success of late with the publication of works by former students Dean Bakopoulos, Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Elizabeth Kosteva. Tell us about the U of M graduate writing program.
Well, I have almost NOTHING to do with the graduate writing program. The only time I work with these people is when they have to teach. (Oh, Dean did NOT do a graduate degree here. Just an undergraduate one. He did an MFA at Wisconsin) Or when they come to me and ask me to read things. By and large I am not an influence in their educations, although I get close to many of them later, particularly if they stay around town. My work at the U is focused on undergraduates. But I am quite pleased with the success of UM’s grads. I’m happy I know them, even if only slightly. I’m always proud of someone who finds their way to a writing life. I’m pleased that I know the people who have helped them navigate the waters of the publishing world. And that someone like Elizabeth Kostova has chosen to continue living here, at least for a while—why, that improves the quality of life for all of us.I have witnessed friends, acquaintances, and my own students who produce strong works in MFA programs nonetheless flounder when they leave the womb and must create a work entirely on their own.
As much as MFA programs help to nurture young writers, do you think sometimes the program itself puts too much of its fingerprint on a body of work—that is to say so many excellent writer professors helping a student’s manuscript along—to the ultimate detriment of the student-writer?
Isn’t writing when all is said and done an individual pursuit? Young writers flounder when they are confronted with the absolute indifference of the world. Universities keep people protected from that, and, yes, perhaps for an abnormally long time. But sooner or later they have to take the work in front of a world which is predisposed NOT to care. It crushes people. It always has. It always will. A few get past that, either with early success, or with some kind of foolish tenacity. They become the writers who do the books. There is not really anything different about this process now than there has ever been.
It is a good thing for young writers to carry their influences, those fingerprints, with them, at least for a while. If they don’t assimilate those influences sooner or later, then they’re not really writers. They’re just people who do this for a while and then do other things. That kind of thing existed long before writing programs and will exist long after.
There is the danger that some of the MFA writers actually get to believe this process is important and exclusive. That one should not be taken seriously unless one is a part of this system. That attitude has to be resisted. It is terribly elitist and does indeed make it temporarily more difficult for writers outside the “club.” But in the end, the real work will find a way. I believe that.
Why don’t you speak a bit about the competitiveness of getting into top MFA programs which people might be unaware of. Am I correct that at U of M, for example, you have some 350 applicants for 12 slots? How does the process work for your choosing the students you wish to work with?
Wow. How does that information get out there? But, yeah, that’s about the odds. Someone told me Texas—which gives good support for three years—had over 300 applications for 5 spots! Something less than 2 percent! It’s brutal.
The committees that read these things try very hard to read with attention and some sense of objectivity. But it’s impossible to give good readings to everything when you have that many submissions. Of course we are going to make mistakes and look over genuine talent. The process that I’ve been involved with includes six readers before any final selection has taken place. That’s extraordinarily rigorous. If you get in and get the financial support available now, you’ve been read by six people! And those are people with very different tastes, who write very different kinds of books.
But it’s an art, after all. Judgments are bound to be imperfect. But people who are trying to get in should understand that.
EMU is in the process of putting together their own MFA program, with a different flavor than U of M to be sure, but an MFA program nonetheless. You see there being room on the block for the kid-sister?
Great. Eastern has been doing good things, and very different things than UM, for quite a while now. It all started back in the ’80s when they brought in Clayton Eshelman and Janet Kaufmann. And now they have younger people with different interests, including some real experience incorporating the traditional written arts into the new technologies. That is going to be very interesting, although I don’t really have any sense of where it’s going. Maybe I’ll never learn, but my daughter already has it. This is great. This needs to be done. It is a perfect role for Eastern’s MFA.
Thylias Moss is doing some of that at UM, and it’s great. But in some ways she has to make her own way through the institutional maze. If Eastern sets up a program with this interest built into it, then those problems will be solved and the work can happen quickly and with support. That is going to do good things.
Remember my highest degree (an M.A.) is from Central Michigan University. I’m not really a part of any elite educational club. I happen to value a broad based state supported educational environment. After all, it saved my life.
What is the best advice you can give a young writer?
For me it’s the old saw: read, read, write, read, read, read, write, write, read, write, write, write. Along the way find out a thing or two about the actual world we live in. If you haven’t actually written the books and spent a significant amount of time trying to find an audience for them, then you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to bitch about. If you’ve written the book, know it’s better than most of the stuff outthere, and have spent five unsuccessful years trying to publish it with all different kinds of places, then go ahead and complain as much as you want.
I know you are involved with teaching high school kids, both at Community in the past and this year at Greenhills. Do you approach younger students any differently than your college age writers?
I’m a lot better with college students. Just ask the kids I’ve been working with this year at Greenhills. I do tend to treat everybody the same and have similar expectations. This is wrong. Things that get my University students all excited leave these high school students completely cold. My bald head and gray beard give me authority in college. In high school, they simply accent my irrelevance. It’s humbling. But I love them. They are passionate and beautiful. Adolescence is so hard. Watching the high school kids this year, I have been overwhelmed by the pain so many of them have suffered (and I’m teaching at a school of privileged kids this year). It hits me that this age is so hard because it is when we first learn about the pain of being human, that it doesn’t end, and that the moments of joy are to be cherished all the more for it. We aren’t culturally prepared for that. Maybe that’s why some kids find religion. Why others find books. These things help us survive.
What do you think of Ann Arbor as a community for writers?
I wrote somewhere that sometimes it doesn’t feel like a community—more like a place where a lot of people are doing the same thing at the same time. But that is certainly not true for me. I have felt involved in a community of like-minded artists, and I have felt that for 25 years. It took me several years to find my community here, but it happened. And it has been wonderful. I have found good friends. I have found people who actually wanted to publish me—in magazines and books. Sometimes I’ve even been paid for it. The bookshops and universities bring through the major writers of the world, so the influences are always fresh and changing. Of course I wish we had more small presses and magazines, but these things come and go over the years. And they are often exciting and filled with energy, even if only for a few months. No, this place has worked for me. I didn’t expect it to. I thought I was from too far down the socio-economic ladder to fit in, but I was wrong. I had learned things that were valued here. People were more generous than I thought. Because of my wife’s occupation (she’s a graphic designer), I actually connect to adults who have nothing to do with the U, and that helps give me a sense reality that some folks don’t have. And the magazines keep cropping up—Orchid and Hobart just recently. This paper trying to reach out to younger audience and refresh the cultural scene. It keeps happening, and it probably will.Of course, many people are going to come in here and not find an audience. Many others are going to feel it’s too far from the exciting centers of the world. But we can let them all do their thing and go their ways. The community of writers and readers in this place has been very good to me.
You serve on many boards and are involved in a number of organizations.
It took me a while to realize that the skills I have are skills that are useful. If kids can put together sentences that make sense, even the simple kind that I write, then they will have an easier time of life. It’s obvious. When something like 826 Michigan started here, to help kids with their writing, to offer those tutorial services free of charge, I felt I had to do something, even if only serve on the board. Really, a few hours a year aren’t that difficult. I can’t work all the time, and this is certainly better than watching too much TV.Same story with the Ann Arbor Book Festival. This is the kind of thing that should happen in a place like this. Plus it helps some writers to sell a few books, find a bit more of an audience.
I’ve been on the boards of environmental organizations too. These issues are important to me, and I can do a little—and often it is very little—to help.
You know, as much as I feel I’ve found my place here in the Great Lakes Basin and in this city, I am still not an American citizen. I can’t vote. Maybe I do some of this stuff because I feel guilty about not having the basic role of a citizen. Maybe my whole life is governed by guilt.
You are also now the director of the Bear River Writing Conference in the summer. What’s that about?
Get the URL down! www.lsa.umich.edu/beariver This is a five-day writers’ conference that takes place during the first weekend in June up on Hemingway’s Walloon Lake. We bring in well-known writers to work with attendees, stressing conversation about new work. This year is the sixth year, and we’ve been surprisingly successful. Books are starting to come out of work started there. People have formed writing groups that meet all year long and support each other. People are moving on in their formal educations. This year’s faculty includes Peter Ho Davies, Tom Lynch, Laura Kasischke, Elizabeth Kostova, Bob Hicok and others. The Guest Artist is Bret Lott, novelist (of Oprah book club fame) and editor of The Southern Review. When things like this start, you’re never certain they’re going to have a life. Now that the English department at the U is committed to this, and that there are tangible results from it all—real books written by real people—I think this thing will stay around. All I have to do is continue to find the money for it. That’s not insurmountable.
I know you have a second book which will be published in September 2006. This is a translation, yes? One for which you recently won another prestigious award. Why don’t you tell us a bit about this book.
This has been fun. I’ve always had an interest in the literature of modern Greece. For lots of reasons. I have a good and old friend, Bill Reader who teaches religion up at Central, who has spent a good deal of his life in Greece and studies the language and culture with an obsessive passion. We always talked about the books, and he would bring up people I didn’t know because I didn’t have the language. He told me about Kostas Karyotakis, who had only a few poems translated into English.
So we started work. Bill would do literal versions, and I would try to make poetry out of it. Our first eight-line poem took us eight hours of arguing. Then the people at the Modern Greek program at the U—Vassilis Lambropoulos, Artemis Leontis, and the lecturer at the time, Kostalena Michelaki (just saying those names makes me feel good)—allowed me to sit in on three years of classes. Now, my Greek never got very good (I didn’t have the time to be a great student), and has slipped since then, but I was able to contribute more to the process when I worked with Bill. Over the last 10 years we’ve done everything Karyotakis published in his lifetime. Sometimes I’ve felt fortunate that he died young! But it has been one of the great educational moments of my life, endlessly fascinating. It has brought on some unexpected travel and brought me together with new friends. That something like this happened in my late 40s and early 50s is a tremendous gift. Our book, Battered Guitars: The poetry and prose of Kostas Karyotakis, will be published by the University of Birmingham in England later this year, if I can
finish the notes and the introduction on time. I should be doing that now instead of talking to you.
You also have another new project in the works, one involving your great-grandmother. Your interest in the archival and researching the lives of your pioneering ancestors in Alberta, Canada, is also very important to you. Please tell us a bit about this project.
I’ve presented this a couple of times in Ann Arbor over the last decade. The short version is that in 1996 I discovered in an obscure book at Shaman Drum the police report of my Irish immigrant great-grandmother’s suicide. This happened out in Alberta in 1907. My family had successfully hidden the fact in my grandparents generation, and no one alive knew the details of her death. I have been trying to find what I can, to reconstruct her life and the conditions of her death. It might be impossible. I published a short essay about finding the material in Michigan Quarterly Review in the fall 2005.
All modesty aside, you are something of an icon in Ann Arbor. Speak a bit as to how this all evolved, your role with writers and how you are the official “point guard” for nearly all visiting writers coming to the University. At this point in your career you truly seem to know everyone.
Icon? Really? Wow! I always wanted to be an icon.
But, really, there are lots of people around here much better connected to the literary establishment nationally than I am. Any reputation I have is primarily local—although it might extend a bit into the state and just a bit into the larger Midwest. But, really, no one else has ever heard of me. Believe me, most of the writers visiting the University are much more interested in hanging out folks other than me—with Nick Delbanco, Peter Ho Davies, Eileen Pollack, Linda Gregerson, Laura Kasischke, Lorna Goodison, Thylias Moss, Khaled Mattawa, and now with all the younger hot shots like Ray McDaniel, Patrick O’Keeffe, Elizabeth Kostova, Val Laken, Margaret Dean. These are all people with significant national and international reputations. I get invited to dinner to add a little local color, which I am always willing to provide.
And in Ann Arbor it’s just because I’ve been around for more than a quarter century now, and that I stay interested in the art and in other people’s books. Lots of people lose energy. I may too sometime soon. Who knows? I’ve had the opportunity to review books locally—first in The Borders Review (which was a real book review, not an advertising vehicle) back in the ‘80s, then in the little column I do for the Ann Arbor Observer, and which I’ve done for almost 15 years now. Put those two together (and it does not include the reviews I’ve done for newspapers and literary journals around the country), and I’ve done more than 200 local reviews in the last 25 years. For the Observer pieces, I’m pretty selective. I only get to review one book a month and that is only a fraction of new books being presented in Ann Arbor in a month. I choose my books carefully. In that venue, and with my 500 words, I don’t need to write about a book I don’t like. What would be the point? So I select the books in consultation with John Hinchey, my editor there, and try to say something substantive about them. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I get embarrassed by myself. But that has built up a certain karmic weight over the decades. Folks remember, and I’m glad they do.
With your busy schedule, how do you go about getting the time you need to write?
Remember, I always had to work? My intellectual and creative life always had to find a way into the demands of everything else. It still does. I often work in the morning. I work between appointments. I do reading and research and revision at night. More and more it seems as if my life has become seamless—as if everything—teaching, walking, community service, reading, talking with my family, writing—is part of a whole that is my way of figuring things out, my way of dealing with the pain, of finding the joy.
And, yes, deadlines help.
OK, now is your chance to tell everyone about your hidden passion as a “birder.” You have even written on this subject. How did this love start?
I grew up rural. There were birds. I wanted to know what they were and what they did.
Listen—birds sing. They fly. They are often beautifully colored, and always exquisitely proportioned. They go on long migrations to places I will never see. They are a very real part of this world, the one I live in. And they are the exact natural symbol for whatever I might mean by “the soul.”
A broad question, I know, but give us your opinion on the current status of poetry and the appreciation —or lack thereof—here in the States. Is poetry utterly undervalued? Is she being poorly taught? Is she the poor sister to fiction which, as we know, has also recently come under attack as a dead art form?
Now you fiction writers have to live with what the poets have always dealt with. Irrelevance!!! Welcome, welcome, we’re happy to have you aboard.
Poetry has always been undervalued. Everywhere, other than under repressive regimes where people must speak in metaphor. It always will be because it makes demands on readers and doesn’t offer anything substantive in return. It offers a life of the imagination, and in that life we are often confronted with our own limitations. Suffering. Pain.When we make the efforts required, it can be exhilarating, but you have to be willing to make the effort. Poetry is an essential part of my daily life, and even I can’t make the effort all the time.
No. I don’t mind being on the cultural margin. There’s good company out there. Sometimes it’s even crowded. More so now that we have all those novelists and short story writers too!
I know you have very strong personal opinions about the world in which we live. As a poet, what do you see as the role of the artist to involve him or herself in the socio-political world through art? Do you think there is any sort of “duty” to link one’s art to the current political/social climate or is there no such inherent relationship, any more than each citizen should become involved?
I would never make the claim of “duty.” Too many writers I admire felt “the world is too much with us” and withdrew to good effect. Rilke comes to mind immediately.
But I have an extraordinary life, one where I get to spend much of everyday involved with the things I care about more than anything else. The people I come from often suffered horrible deprivations and years of brutal work to allow me this opportunity. I definitely feel a sense of obligation to them.
So if I can do some things to help a couple of others learn some of these things, well, it seems wrong somehow for ME not to do what I can to teach them. Most of the time, I can’t do much. And I have certain visceral feelings about the relationship of people to the natural world—ones that have evolved and changed over the years, but ones that still ask that I chose sides on environmental issues. There are people who don’t care, who would kill anything to make a buck or to prove their unfettered economic spirit. There are people who care so much they want to take people out of the equation entirely, put us in highrise pods where we’d never see a tree, just so we won’t intrude on green spaces. All of these people have to be resisted, even the ones who I would think of as allies in many situations.
But mostly, I feel good outdoors. I find things to write about there. Every time I go looking, I learn something new.
On a lighter note then: Are you a movie fan? Watch much TV? Music?
Oh, god, This always comes up. And I’m so dull. You see, movies and even TV were on the list of sins when I was growing up. I was never bitten by them in the early years. And in some fundamental way, I just don’t care about them. My friend, Larry Goldstein, the editor of Michigan Quarterly Review, is absolutely passionate about the movies. My friend the novelist Jim Hynes is the same way about film AND TV. I use TV as a soporific. I watch it so I can feel the wrinkles in my neocortex relax and become smooth. Sometimes I love that feeling.And music. Oh, I wish I could be hipper and list the things I listen to. But, really, I get all nostalgic about the popular music of my youth—late sixties. He wouldn’t like it, but I listen to Dylan and I cry over some kind of lost innocence. It’s terrible. My best friend growing up was a serious classical musician and I learned a lot from him. But he’s been dead for a couple of decades now. No, I am something less than a dilettante about music.I have to live with it: I read books
and I watch birds. I am not cool.
Quick—best short story you’ve read in the last six months?
I have definitely been more excited by Julie Orringer than by any other short story writer in a while. How to Breathe Under Water is a fabulous book. And the title story—is it “The Isabelle Fish,” or something like that?—literally made me breathless. She is just fabulous. I’ve heard her read here twice in the last year-—a story at a fundraiser out at Greenhills School for 826, and once at the U, from her novel in progress.
That’s more complicated. Tom Lynch’s “Local Heroes” in the fall issue of Michigan Quarterly. I’ve been suddenly bitten by Albert Goldbarth, although he’s been around a long time. Anne Carson’s “Decreation.” Oh, it could go on and on. I’m always amazed by poetry. One of my students out at Greenhills, Lyddie Aiken, just wrote a sonnet that made me green with envy even as I was stunned by her ability. I have a couple students at the U, Rachel Hudak and Amanda Ruud among others, who are writing poems outside themselves. I don’t think either of them have any sense of how good they are.
If you could have one but not both, fame and fortune from writing popular fiction or all the time you wished to write what your heart dictates, you’d choose?
Well, all the time means that I wouldn’t have to worry about money and health insurance, right? Then definitely that! I could start tomorrow. I’ll just stay home. Read for a few hours. Do my e-mail. Fiddle with a poem. Maybe start a book review. Go for a long walk in the woods. Come home and read some more before bed. Yep. That’s the life for me.