“As poet, teacher and friend, Keith has helped writers and the writing community in Ann Arbor selflessly for 20 years.”
– Steven Gillis, novelist
INTERVIEW BY STEVEN GILLIS
First appeared in The Ann Arbor Paper, March, 2006.
Let me say up front: I am an unabashed Keith Taylor fan. Through both my personal and professional experiences, I have come to regard Keith as the patron saint of Ann Arbor writers. As poet, teacher and friend, Keith has helped writers and the writing community in Ann Arbor selflessly for 20 years. Anyone who has ever met Keith knows soon enough they are in the company of someone truly special; the fact that he looks a bit like Santa an added bonus. Upon the publication of Keith’s new book Guilty At The Rapture (Hanging Loose Press, April 2006) we in Ann Arbor have the good fortune of being first in line to hear Keith read from his latest work in two readings this month. Guilty At The Rapture marks Keith’s seventh published collection, though this book is slightly different from his earlier efforts: his poetry collections Learning to Dance (Falling Water Books, 1985); Weather Report (Ridgeway Press, 1988); Dream of the Black Wolf: Notes from Isle Royale (Ridgeway Press, 1993); Detail from the Garden of Delights (Limited Mailing Press, 1993); and Everything I Need (March Street Press, 1996) as well as his collection of very short stories, Life Science and Other Stories, (Hanging Loose Press, 1995.) Guilty At The Rapture encompasses the whole of Keith’s career, containing new poetry, essays and stories, along with poems and prose written several years ago. All the works in Guilty At The Rapture are connected by themes of love and death, family and faith. The result is a plethora of delights from one of the area’s best writers.
Keith was born in British Columbia in 1952 and spent his childhood in Alberta and his adolescence in Indiana. After several years of traveling—adventures the faint of heart should not dare ask about—Keith moved to Michigan, where he earned his M.A. in English at Central Michigan University. For more than 20 years, while pursuing his
writing, Keith worked as a bookseller in Ann Arbor, mostly at Shaman Drum. Keith now teaches at the University of Michigan and coordinates the undergraduate program in creative writing at the U. He’s an award-winning writer, a radio host, community leader, teacher, scholar, editor and outdoorsman. The one-time Artist-in-Residence at Isle Royale National Park and Writer-in-the-Community for the Writer’s Voice at the Detroit YMCA, he is currently the Visiting Writer at Greenhills Schools, and a board member of both 826 Michigan and the Ann Arbor Book Festival. He’s also the recipient of several grants as well as unanimous respect and heartfelt fondness of his peers. I had the chance to catch up with Keith recently and interview him about his life and latest work.
OK, before we get down to business, I have to ask: You were a camp-boy for a hunting outfitter in the Yukon, a dishwasher in southern France, a housepainter in Indiana and Ireland, a freight handler, and night attendant at a pinball arcade in California. All of these were to advance yourself as a poet, right?
Right! Work. Work. Work. I have always had to work. And from the ages of 12 to 27 that usually meant physical labor. Luckily my forebears had left me with a farmer’s constitution. I could do that kind of work. For many years it never occurred to me that I had intellectual skills someone might pay me for. “So you can recite Yeats and Pound by memory? You know the facts of Plath’s or Hemingway’s suicide? You like to read modern French and Greek poetry? Here’s a paintbrush.” But I didn’t really mind it. There was a certain freedom in it. The things that were
really important to me—reading and writing—were completely independent from the demands of survival.
But I’ll admit that I keep that list of jobs around for slightly perverse reasons. Back in the ’50s and ’60s male authors always had lists like this. It proved how tough they were and how connected to the people. Sometime in the early ’70s author’s biographies got sanitized: “I went to school here. I won these awards. I teach here.” Yeah, the posturing was gone, but there was a certain willful diminishment too. And I do think it is often reflected in the work. It’s kind of too bad that my author’s bio on my new book sounds more like this second kind.
Let’s start the serious stuff with Guilty At The Rapture. Your book is a wonderful collection of poems, essays and stories. Why don’t you tell us a bit about its genesis.
Guilty starts with a few poems that appeared in my first chapbook, which was published here in Ann Arbor 20 years ago by Jim Johnston and Kaye Gould Caskey, good folks who later went on to open the Falling Water store down on Main Street. It starts with material about my very religious upbringing in western Canada. But then it follows a roughly autobiographical arc: move to the States, discovery of reading, years of travel in Europe, moving into an uneasy relationship with my current middle-class life in Ann Arbor, and ending with a couple of luminous (I
hope) moments about my family. That sounds all so self-indulgent. But the image that brings all of this stuff together for me is a kind of subdued sense of apocalypse. It’s all so tentative and it’s all going to end.
I mix poems, short essays and stories. Place them side by side and let them play off each other, comment on each other. I like that a lot, and luckily my editors at Hanging Loose Press do too. But there are days I think that this either gives both poets and fiction writers license to ignore me completely or to criticize me for a lack of commitment to one genre.
So tell us a bit about the title Guilty At The Rapture which I love by the way.
I grew up hearing often about the imminent return of Christ. And that it would happen by the Rapture, when all the good Christians, living and dead, would be called to be with Him, and all the poor benighted sinners would be left below for a thousand years. Of course, I was always in trouble. So when I found myself unexpectedly alone, I was
always convinced it had happened. They’d all been called to Glory, and I was left behind. Because, of course, I was never good enough. I was always guilty at the Rapture.
Much of your writing has an earthy feel, your symbols and settings and themes involving the outdoors. How did this evolve and how do you see the use of nature in your writing?
Again, I grew up in western Canada, the province of Alberta. Even now, with all its wealth and conservatism, a place that is very wild. You saw “Brokeback Mountain”? That scenery was shot directly west of the little town I grew up in. I looked out on those mountains everyday. That has to leave an impression.
I have always tried to get outdoors, although in the last couple of decades it is almost an antidote to my very sedentary life. I sit at a desk in front of a computer for most of the day. At night I read books. This is wonderful, but it isn’t healthy. A few weeks in a tent can invigorate me—even though it is significantly harder to crawl in and
out of one now.
Besides, I watch birds. It’s my one habit. Yes, I just look at them. Sometimes I drive long distances to see rarer ones. I keep poorly maintained lists. I can get really excited about birds. Just last Sunday I saw a Bullock’s Oriole—a vivid orange, black and white bird from the west coast—at a birdfeeder north of Brighton. I was there at
7:30 in the morning in 15 degrees with three other birders, and the bird put on a lovely show for us. Yes, I’ll admit it, even to a place as hip as the Ann Arbor Paper—that little bird just took my breath away.
So this is something I enjoy, something I know a little bit about, something I think is important to honor and
protect—so, yeah, it gets into my work. Now my editors in New York are significantly less enthusiastic about my Midwestern bird poems, so there is a lot less of that in this book than I actually publish. Hell, I have a whole
different manuscript out there that these guys won’t publish and that is cheerier by far. I have to polish that one up and find a publisher for it. Next year.
Your stories tend to be the quite short. Is this an extension of your work as a poet? Do you see a connection between poetry and the short story form?
Yes, I came back to fiction through poetry—although there was a time in my young adulthood that I imagined myself as a fiction writer. In fact, the only creative writing classes I actually took in my rather haphazard education were fiction writing classes. But I did a whole collection (Life Science and Other Stories) of very short stories, most over within a page or two. I love that form. It’s like the kind of lies we all tell in barroom conversation, sometimes very serious, often playful. There are a couple like this in the new book, but there are also a couple more traditional length in this new book. One’s even close to 10 pages long. Imagine!
You have dedicated Guilty At The Rapture to your sister, Sherrill Pearson, and there are works that reference her specifically (“Poppawood”) or by inference. Care to tell us a bit about your relationship with your sister?
We had the usual sibling rivalries. She’s a neo-natal intensive care nurse, and has been for 30 years. She works at the University Hospital in Portland, Oregon. She has four kids by marriage, and dotes on them. Once we fought horribly, and I was a snooty wannabe bohemian very early. We didn’t have much in common. She admits that she didn’t much like me until I was 30, which I find vaguely troubling. I liked her, although I admit I didn’t have too much contact with her for long periods. But now we haven’t lived within 2,000 miles of each other for the last 40 years, almost. We get along great. And we share a personal history. There are certain jokes we have that no one else in the world understands. There are parts of this book, the early ones, that will move her, even if no one else. And there are things at the end that I know she’ll be curious about. So the book’s for her.
Family and faith are strong themes throughout Guilty At The Rapture. Obviously you see a clear connection between the two. Tell us a bit about this and how your personal history came to frame your writing—a question no writer has ever been asked.
This one might be too big. I am the second generation descendant of people who pioneered in western Canada. They worked very hard, and some of them suffered horribly. Some of them converted to a particular version of Mennonism, an austere world-denying Protestant group closely related to the Amish. I grew up in that group. I went to church three or four, sometimes even more, times a week when I was a kid. We didn’t have TV and we didn’t go to movies. We memorized lots of the Bible—King James translation. The group has changed dramatically in my lifetime, and now they just resemble Republican evangelicals. They were more interesting before. I had to define myself against this, of course. And now I have come to value it (at least from a distance). These things—an intense religion and a rural background—shaped me. I honor them both.
One of my personal favorites in Guilty... is the prose poem “Days of 1971, 1972,” which deals so well with the tensions between love and individual passions—the conflict we all have in making love work. The poem has to it an edge of rightfully honed cynicism—or if not quite that harsh, a note of friction where early loves are concerned. (Note I haven’t asked if the poem is biographical, you dishwasher, you.) Then, another favorite of mine, the wonderful poem, “After Twenty Years”, ends Guilty At The Rapture. “After Twenty Years” gives a more matured sense of love and relationships and passion. Obviously, you chose to end Guilty... with this particular poem. My question is not to have you compare or contrast the two, but to talk a bit about your eye as a poet and how you manage to construct such insightful works that nail diverse emotions. Even in the midst of it all—young love, matured love—is it not the “job” of the poet to convey at once an impassioned and yet objective observation of what is being written about, and in that way convey a sense of truth? How do you as an artist achieve the necessary detachment when you write and yet remain entirely within the essence of what you are writing?
First a formal note. Those are long lines in “Days of . . .” I’ll give away a secret, but if you count syllables, you’ll find 13 in just about every line. Why I did that is another question entirely! Maybe we shouldn’t go there.
I’m not sure I’ve ever known what the “job” of a poet is. My life would probably be easier if I did. I wrote the “Days of” poem almost 30 years after the events described, and I wrote the other one for my wife on our 20th anniversary. The first felt like it had to get written for whatever reasons motivate me;the second was “occasional,” although I’d like to think it has become something more than that now. Sometimes, often, these things do not get sufficient distance. And the poems don’t live. They end up filed away in my endless boxes. But if they continue to feel OK to me, I’ll try to find them another life out there in the world. If a few readers—and hopefully an editor or two—stay interested, it is a helpful test. If I’m still interested a couple of years later, then maybe the poem has reached beyond the entirely subjective moment. It’s a long process. It’s one reason why the collected poems of even prolific poets are not usually gigantic books.
But I write everything I write—poems, stories, essays, even book reviews or feature articles—to help me figure things out. To help me understand the world I live in, my place in the world, my own thoughts. If this process can interest a few others from time to time, well, that’s really a bonus. And sometimes it even helps me make a living—that seems an incredible gift, one my pioneering grandparents wouldn’t understand.
Your brilliant story “And The Waters Prevailed” conveys so much: childhood wonder, nature, death, hope, despair. Such a story could have easily been a novel and yet you capture it all in fewer than fourpages. Discuss if you will the art of the short story and why you seem to prefer that art form (and poetry) over the more protracted narrative.
Because novels are so hard! I’ve tried about four so far, and none has got past page 60. I want to write a novel. I want to live long enough to do it.
But there might be such a thing as a temperamental inability to write a novel. I spend enough time writing to write a novel. I have the discipline. It’s not that. I just can’t stay interested in a narrative long enough, I guess. It’s a deficiency. But I read novels constantly, and review them often. Maybe I’ll figure it out.
By the way, “And the Waters Prevailed” was much shorter for a long time. The woman who edited Story before it died insisted I add a couple of pages to make it live. She was right. I think she still published it as a “short-short” though. I can’t win.
Very few writers move well between poetry and prose. Updike and Oates, for instance, for all their efforts write piss poor poetry. We in A2 are fortunate to have or have had three of the best writers who do, including yourself, Jim Harrison and Laura Kasischke. Why do you think that is and how do you manage the two forms?
Well, Harrison’s from Michigan (even though he now lives in Montana), and I don’t think he’d like too much of an association with Ann Arbor. Mostly he’s fond of Zingerman’s and Shaman Drum here, but otherwise he has a lot invested in disparaging a liberal college town like this one. But I do think he is a wonderful writer, in both genres. I get in arguments with people all the time defending Harrison, which is silly of course. He doesn’t need me to do that.
But thanks for putting me in the same sentence with Laura Kasischke. She is so prolific, stylish and possesses one of the wildest and most troubling imaginations on the planet. I’ve actually been reading her since she was a UM undergraduate, and she continues to amaze me. Every book is different, is a step through the maze of images that haunt her. And she has just signed contracts for her fifth novel and her eighth book of poetry. And she is significantly younger than I am. Let’s stop this right now. You should really go interview Laura.
For those of us who use all the forms of writing—add essays too, and look at Tom Lynch’s stuff—it is an effort to find the form that fits the material. For people who know poetry, we can act on our impulses for finding image or rhythm. It’s a gift, as well as a distraction. At one point earlier in my writing life, I’d criticize myself for spending weeks fiddling with some little 15-line poem probably bound for obscurity and failure when I should be trying a big piece of fiction that might actually make money. Now I’m more laid back about it.
I know you read everything from Bronte to Bukowski. The unavoidable question, then: Who are the writers who’ve influenced you most?
Different writers at different times. Nikos Kazantzakis when I was 15 and needed an alternative to prairie Protestantism. Then the great English-speaking modernists—Yeats, Pound, Stein, Hemingway, and mostly William Carlos Williams. I spent two years mostly reading everything by and about Williams. It left a lasting impression, although it was a two-year break in my formal education. Then I read a lot of French poetry from the 19th century. Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Rene Char more recently, which made a nice tie in with American nature writing. I came back to the modern Greeks at some point. Cavafy and the dark soul of Kostas Karyotakis, which I’ve spent a decade translating with a good friend. Flaubert, Shakespeare, Seferis, Garcia Marquez, the little known but wonderful Edwardian novelist and nature writer, W.H. Hudson. I came later than you would think to Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman and Dickinson, but I got there finally. Oh, you’re right. I read everything. Indiscriminately. It’s what I do.
What do you think of today’s “young” writers?
I try to keep up here, although it’s hard. History doesn’t help eliminate the chaff yet, so it’s even harder. But there is the constant sense of discovery. Someone new ready to just blow me away! I’ve got to live a thousand years. I can never get tired of this.
Right now young poets and fiction writers are often very interested in certain verbal pyrotechnics. This is a necessary reaction to much of the last century AND a very important development of recent philosophical and cultural trends. Some of this writing doesn’t repay the effort spent reading it, but often it does. It becomes a window into a part of our world—a part that someone of my age and inclinations wouldn’t see.
Then there are the new technological innovations. I’ll try to keep in touch with that (just last night I spent a couple of hours reading the blog of a 20-something writer, and it was fascinating), but I know I’ll never really be a part of that world. Lots of wonderful play happening there—and some folks, like Eastern’s Jeff Parker and UM’s Thylias Moss, are directing a lot of their best energies that way. It may indeed be the work that will be valued in the future. Who knows?