Interview with Taylor Graham
Taylor Graham is a volunteer search-and-rescue dog handler in the Sierra Nevada. Her poems have appeared in American Literary Review, The Iowa Review, The New York Quarterly, Poetry International, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. She’s included in the anthology California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Santa Clara University, 2004). Her book The Downstairs Dance Floor was awarded the Robert Philips Poetry Chapbook Prize, and she’s a finalist in Poets & Writers’ California Writers Exchange. Her latest book –Walking with Elihu: Poems on Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith – is available on Amazon.
SCP: Everywhere we browse amongst the online literary community, hundreds of independent presses and journals, we seem to stumble upon at least one poem bearing your name.
This is quite the feat and it leads us to our first and rather generic question of “How long have you been writing?” and “What is your revision/submission process like?”
Taylor: In tenth grade I fell in love with Shakespeare and decided to become a poet. But it wasn’t till I left grad school ABD (All But Dissertation) that I wrote anything worth keeping. I learned a lot about poetry in school, but I guess my muse wasn’t comfortable in academia. Now I write too much. Every year’s end, I resolve to write fewer poems next year, but make them better. It never works. I write compulsively, look for every poetry challenge, poem-a-day opportunities. I run a little weekly workshop with lots of assignments. The assignments, challenges, prompts can take me places I might not have gone otherwise – never thought about going, or needed to go but didn’t know how to get there.
Right now, I’m kind of burned out with submitting. But over the years I’ve sent out many many poems, more than I’d ever try to count. When poems come back, I look at them again and revise. Even if they’re accepted and get published, I might revise for future reference. I don’t think I’ve written more than a couple of poems I never revised. We’re all a work in progress.
SCP: Your poems vary widely in form and content but even amongst this diversity there exists a few pervasive themes that tie your huge body of work together. We would like to talk a little about these. The first is the presence of nature. Both your descriptive powers and keen observations about our planet lead us to believe you are something of a naturalist. Assuming we are not off the mark here could you tell us a bit about your experiences with nature and how it has come to so inform your work?
Taylor: My folks were in public health, in the schools, so we had summer vacations. We car-traveled a lot, mostly camping, and I saw a lot of North America. We drove up the Alcan when I was about seven. We took the ferry to Havana before it was off-limits. Quebec City, Mexico… Then in grad school I was introduced to backpacking – a revelation: you can carry what you need on your back! I bought a Kelty pack and a pair of jungle boots, and backpacked in the Sierra, and hiked the California deserts. I learned topo maps. I was compulsive about that, too.
Eventually, as grad school (the dissertation) was getting me down, I enrolled in a community college course in wildlife management. I fell in love again – not just with wildlife, but with the instructor. We got married and moved to Alaska. Hatch is a forester-wildlife biologist, now retired from the US Forest Service. He taught me a lot of what I know about nature. What’s renewable, what’s sustainable. I was already worried about overpopulation when we met; he preached ZPG (zero population growth). Until recently, we lived on 22 acres at the end of a little dirt road, in a house we built by hand. We’re closer to town now, on five acres, still rural.
The other nature factor is search-and-rescue. 35 years ago in Alaska we started training our German Shepherds to find lost people. Hundreds of missions, Alaska to Virginia, back home to California, and points in between. In SAR, the slightest thing – a bit of footprint, broken twig, how a grassy swale beckons to a dropoff, a dog’s nose lifted into the wind – can be a clue to finding someone. I really honed my observational skills. The trick is to work the details into a poem, and not just report. Solving a poem is like solving a lost-person mystery. I try to get as many sensory details into my poems as I can.
SCP: Besides that there is another huge theme we come across regularly in your work, and that is the subject of myth. Reading your work one feels that you must have had, in some way or another, deep conversations with such important minds as Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. And we know you even titled an early chapbook from Rattlesnake Press Living with Myth. What role would you say myth plays in your work? In your thinking? Even in your life?
Taylor: In college I fell in love with German literature and ended up majoring in German with a French minor; some Spanish; Master’s in Comparative Lit; a little Old Provençal... My college German professor was into Jung, and archetypes were our daily bread. I’ve been intrigued with myth since high school (I read Greek myths for pleasure), and the older I get, the more I seem to turn to myth in my poetry. It speaks to the universal while creating a bit of aesthetic distance from the everyday.
And archetypes speak to me personally. I responded with my search dog to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake as part of the U.S. Team. For me, there was something unnerving/menacing/exhilarating/revelatory about working in and around collapsed and heavily damaged buildings – with possible survivors buried underneath – that struck me as akin to myth. I couldn’t describe it in literal, rational terms. I’m still trying to get “the poem” from the experience, and may never succeed. But isn’t that what myth and archetypes are about?
SCP: And of course the third theme we are curious about is the work you’ve done concerning The Learned Blacksmith Elihu Burritt. We have read/published a lot of your poems about this man here at SCP. Can you tell us a bit about him? Who was he? What was his vision? And more so how did you come across his work and what part of it inspired you to start writing your epic cycle of poems about his life and times? And what importance do you see in spreading his message, keeping his memory alive? What place does this little known figure from the 19th century have in the new millennium?
Taylor: One of my earliest memories is my mother telling me I had a famous relative, Elihu Burritt the Learned Blacksmith who taught himself a hundred languages. (A bit of an exaggeration – it was only fifty!) I grew up fascinated with languages, tried to teach myself ancient Greek in the ninth grade. I failed miserably. So Elihu was in the back of my consciousness, and stayed there for decades until all of a sudden, just a few years ago, it was time. Maybe he was waiting for me to grow up.
Who was he? Born to a poor New Britain, CT family. Blacksmith’s apprentice. Taught himself mathematics, astronomy, and fifty languages while working at the forge. Then he decided there were more important things; dedicated himself to humanitarian causes based on peace and the brotherhood of man. It’s said, in the mid-19thcentury, he was better known on both sides of the Atlantic than any other peace activist. He never had money to spare, but he helped organize a series of international peace congresses in Europe. He walked the length of Britain (when he could’ve taken train and coaches) to look close-up at farming, industry, and how the people lived. Later, he was Abraham Lincoln’s consular agent to Birmingham, England. He always considered himself a common man, a laborer, and he worked tirelessly to give ordinary people a voice in matters that affected them, like peace and war.
I was fascinated because of the languages. I wasn’t sure about taking him on as a project; I’d never been an “engaged” poet – didn’t want to mix poetry with politics, history, and biography. The whole thing sounded too prosy. I work in an occasional alphabet poem, villanelle, sonnet, terzanelle, sonnetelle to vary the tone a bit.
But poetry deals with ideas, and Elihu certainly had those. I don’t always agree with them. He believed in passive resistance; I would ask him, “how about Hitler? how about terrorism?”. On the other hand, I think Elihu has made me a better person. His ideas of brotherhood were pretty inclusive for his time, and maybe even for ours. It’s said he had no enemies; he valued people who disagreed with him. He went out of his way to find out how others lived, and considered how to make their lives better. He believed mankind was evolving toward a higher, kinder consciousness. On the other hand, he was a Connecticut Yankee looking for the best fix for a poor man’s predicament; an observer of how the Industrial Revolution was affecting people’s lives and the environment. When he describes a coal town sinking from being undermined, he might be foreshadowing things like mine disasters and oil spills in our own time. That’s another reason I like him. He walked at a mind’s pace and kept his eyes wide open.
Walking with Elihu came out last summer, in time to help celebrate his bicentennial. He turned 200 in December. But my Elihu project isn’t finished. I’m still re-reading what he wrote, and writing new poems. I doubt I’ll ever be done. This is such a journey, “walking with Elihu.”
SCP: Our last question for you is really about your own role as a poet in modern society. We live at a time in our country when on the one hand poetry has completely removed itself from our cultural conversation and has lost all bearings on sociological, ecological and political issues. On the other hand the actual act of writing poetry is as prolific as ever with the rise of MFAs and what not, though with only a few poets having a general readership (Billy Collins etc.) it would appear contemporary poetry has lost its relevance in the wider matrix of 21st century life. As a poet who has written about the importance of the natural world, and has (whether intended it or not) taken a political stance by writing about such a figure as Elihu Burritt with his clear message of peace, what do you see as the poet’s role in the modern world if she is to remain a relevant entity?
Taylor: I remember hearing Scott Simon on NPR, immediately after 9-11, reading Auden’s “September 1,1939” (written on the outbreak of WWII). “All I have is a voice.” Poets use their voices, language-art. Whether or not anyone is listening. I believe the act of writing, and especially of speaking the poem out loud, creates energy. Who knows what that energy might spark. I think there’s a resurgence of poetry now, even if it may not be considered as relevant or “active” as it was in some other times. It may become so again. What can we do but write, and speak, and make it available to the world? Since you mention MFA programs, I would add, I think we should write for the world, and not just for other poets in academic surroundings. Let’s launch our words into the wind – who knows where they might land?