Sam Taylor is the author of three books of poems, including Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series), Body of the World (Ausable Press, now available from Copper Canyon), and, newly released, The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse (Negative Capability Press). A native of Miami and a former caretaker of a wilderness refuge in New Mexico, he currently tends a wild garden in Kansas, where he is an Associate Professor and the Director of the MFA Program at Wichita State University. His work has been recognized with the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, among other awards, and his poems have appeared in such journals as The Kenyon Review, AGNI, and The New Republic.
Tiffany Troy: How did you create this one-of-a-kind book, The Book of Fools, which features self-erasures as well as gradations of gray for the text being printed? What led you to these strategies?
Sam Taylor: I was just talking with the poet Carey Scott Wilkerson, and he described it as a text in crisis, as well as a text of crisis, and I loved those descriptions. The crisis is the crisis of our planet, the existential crisis of the earth that has been our home. It’s a crisis beyond the scale of our imagination. I have married that crisis to what might be viewed as a formative cluster of autobiographical crises in my life—though the latter is not, for me, the source of the book’s urgency—and these crises are manifest in the nature of the text.
The book evolved partly as an elegy for both the earth and for my mother and partly as an investigation of aesthetic constructions and a quest to find a “nonfiction.” In all of these respects, the book engaged with an underworld—the underworld of death, memory, childhood, loss, and the underworld of the text, of its formation from a swirling ocean of available language, feeling, and thought.
Quite frankly, I feel that a lot of poems lie—sometimes fruitfully—and I was trying not to lie. I wanted to get as close as I could to what actually happened. Ultimately, I came to feel that any aesthetic or psychological construction is partly mythical, and also necessary, and in that sense true. Along the way, however, I was investigating the different ways a lyric might be formed: alternative lyric constructions. The use of self-erasure, greyscale, strike-throughs, and footnotes create a more multi-dimensional, polyvocal poem, one that scores a more varied relationship between what is said and what is unsaid. It allows there to be multiple compositions simultaneously within the same poem, which together form a singular chord. It also makes the process of revision, filtration, and selection—the decisions about what to say and what not to say—part of the work. The poem becomes a layered palimpsest gesturing toward all possible poems. It incorporates more gradations in the relationship between silence and speech: what is said and crossed out, what is said faintly, what is erased, what is excavated and rescued through the selection of erasure, what would not have been said without other things being erased.
Self-erasure is maybe the most prevalent of all the strategies here. “Traditional” erasure always enacts haunting and loss, as well as a rescue and recovery in which the text’s underworld becomes palpable; all this was fitting for the themes of both ecological and personal loss. But, applying erasure to my own text, in 2010, was a radically new approach. I loved some of the first erasure texts I had seen, but I also felt like the proliferation of erasures, without some new concept or particularly fresh application, offered diminishing returns. And, of course, the authors were not exactly authoring anything. I was fascinated with the idea of creating real poems—a hard enough thing to do to begin with—and then erasing and defacing my own work, not someone else’s. I liked the nonattachment required. I also liked how it undermined a sense of a monolithic text and a definitive version. It created simultaneous alternative lyrics, and I liked the different relationships that could be formed between the two texts. One could distill the other, or offer a counterpoint, or a discovery of something that resonated within the wider work. Basically, all the strategies you mention allow the poem to unfold in an extra dimension.
Tiffany Troy: The first line of the main body of the book is: “When I entered the room, it was like entering a painting.” The visual arts are a sub-thread throughout the book, with illustrations and discussion of paintings and aesthetic approaches of Matisse and Picasso, among others. How do the visual arts and its practice help inform and give shape to your collection?
It seems to me that the poetry world is sometimes less daring and more conventional than the art world and that the poetry world never fully underwent or incorporated certain artistic revolutions. I like the visual (and conceptual) arts, and I like artists. When I go to residencies, though I’ve had some great friendships with writers, I often find I connect more frequently with visual artists. I think like an artist, but my medium is words—and this book, in particular, feels to me like an art object as much as a poem.
The investigation of aesthetics and different ways to render reality had an obvious analogue in art. I happened to be reading books about Picasso and Matisse in the early days of this book, and there was a resonance between the strategies of the book and some of the aesthetic perspectives and practices of Picasso and Matisse. In Picasso’s case, he creates his work one way and then erases elements by painting over them until it is radically transfigured. In Matisse’s case, he does different versions of the same gesture or idea again and again and again until he is satisfied. Of course, they also represented very different tonalities and styles. In the book I associate Picasso with the underworld and Matisse with the impulse to praise, to please, to escape.
But the book’s frame of painting probably preceded all this because it is there in that first line of the book: “When I entered the room, it was like entering a painting…” That line introduces the idea and experience of being inside a creation, the mysterious nature of choice and fate, and the resulting complex relationship with regret and forgiveness. It also blurs the relationship between reality and text, between experience and poem, art, memory, and myth.
Tiffany Troy: I love that idea of getting to the essence of something through abstraction and through repetition. I noticed that both your previous book, Nude Descending an Empire, and The Book of Fools include moments of direct address of the reader. I’m interested in the different terms of this engagement in each book. How does the speaker address the presence of the reader in The Book of Fools?
That’s interesting, I never thought of that, probably because the terms are so different and Nude is only aware of the reader at particular moments. But you’re right, it’s part of the central frame at the beginning and end of Nude Descending an Empire, and it occurs as an engagement with our immediate shared, urgent moment on earth. Both books are primarily engaged with planetary crisis, and they therefore have a sense of a shared fate with the reader.
Nude Descending an Empire, which was written 2003-2011 (Pitt Poetry Series, 2014), was really a book of prophecy and warning; the engagement with the reader is one of exhortation and awakening. We are now living in the future some of us saw 20 years ago. The Book of Fools, on the other hand, is more of an elegy for the earth that we are in the process of losing, which is the one that gave birth to us. (Needless to say, we cannot destroy the earth itself, only the ecology and climate and companion species that were our home, the earth as we knew it.) The Book of Fools aspires to confront, accept, and mourn this loss and to find new life dancing “on the grave of the fucked world.” There’s not exhortation of the reader in The Book of Fools. But the reader is instead conceived as a companion in the book’s journey, as a voyeur to confessional moments, and as a witness to the process of composition. The book is so involved in the process of what is said and what is unsaid, and how it is said, that it is necessarily sensitive to the presence of the reader.
By addressing the readers directly at times, I hope there’s the effect of taking the reader into the underworld and leading them back out. One thing I found interesting with some early readers of the book is how the book brought them into their own story and childhood formation, their own underworld. They said they felt as if I was writing about them, even though in many cases our stories could not have been more different
Tiffany Troy: The Book of Fools, which you describe as a book-length poem, features threads of family history, ecology, and mythology. What led you to weave these strands together? How does the sea in particular speak to the underworld, and vice versa?
The ocean probably stands at the center of all of these themes. The book is an elegy for the earth, but it is specifically an elegy for the ocean, for the bodies of water that cover most the planet. I don’t want to tell others how to read the book, but my mother, for me, is a figure for the ocean, and the ocean is a figure for my mother, and together the ocean is sort of the main character in the book. My mother loved the ocean, as do I, and she grew up near the ocean, as did I, and this association is echoed throughout the book’s narrative movement to return to the ocean. I feel The Book of Fools is a story about our loss of the Earth cast in personal terms and endowed with a family narrative to incorporate the full array of feeling and the intimacy of grief appropriate to the loss of our mother, our home.
The root of ecology is the Greek word for house, and ecology is in a sense the study of relationships between living things in a house. A family has an ecology. The earth is our house, our home.
In the process of writing, I became aware that in the Greek imagination, the journey to the underworld and the journey to the edge of the known world which took place over the sea were parallel journeys, because the underworld could also be entered from beyond the furthest reaches of the sea. It seems to me the ocean is also a literal underworld—as well as a metaphorical underworld with its plastic gyres representing both the afterlife of how we live and the whirlpools of particulate information we live within.
Tiffany Troy: In spite of all its dark themes, I found the book funny at times. Is it supposed to be funny? How does humor function in your poem?
Sam Taylor: Well, it is, in a background way. I’m glad you felt that. The book is playful, and it takes neither the self nor the poetry world all that seriously—it subtly mocks them, in fact—even as it also takes both poetry and individual experience very seriously. It’s all there in the title. Fools refers both to our lives and to our grand predicament, as well as to the guild of those who shall not be named. And the subtitle: An Essay in Memoir and Verse, is not entirely serious. In fact, I nearly gave the book a subtitle something like:
The Book of Fools: Fools Being the Best Actors in the World, Either for Lyric Essays, Essay Essays, Lyric Verse, Novelistic Verse, Conceptual Lyrics, Mythic Memoir, Tragedy, Apocalyptic Memoir, Lyrical Microplastics, Dramatic Quietism, Craft Talks, or Long Poems.
To do so would have extracted the undercurrent of playful absurdism and humor in the book and put it out front. But it is after all an undercurrent, and I stayed with the simpler title, though if it were possible for the title to have the polyvocality that other aspects of the book have, it might have had both.
How does humor function in the book? I don’t know. We need to laugh at our condition. It’s also just a challenging text, and I try to modulate the tone and mode to sustain reading. Eliot said a long poem cannot have a constant intensity, and I found that to be true.
Tiffany Troy: Your poem sometimes tackles political issues directly by implicating the lingo used by American society every day. In “There Ought to be a Law against the Truth,” for instance, you write to implicate the reader with such language. You write “Like a lock on a shed in the back yard/ that holds your real feelings,/ or that holds the illegal people/ who every day, cleaning and mowing/ and plastering, see and feel and hear/ what is really going on.”
Your poem also incorporates scientific language like “84% of male Chinook in the Columbia River/ have reversed their sex” or “parts per billion” in a lyrical way. How do you use different types of languages to confront different injustices in your collection?
Sam Taylor: Well, first, it’s actually strange to me that so much poetry is written in a language that seems so different from the language that we live in. I mean, I do also try to use language in inventive ways that you would not typically encounter on the street, but I certainly don’t want to keep out the language in which our experience is embedded. I don’t think, in fact, that it is any more “political” to include such language than to remove it; to remove the shitshow of earth from poems in order to beautify them is also a political act. I’ve always insisted on taking the beauty and horror together.
The phrase “illegal people” is, of course, used ironically to emphasize the insanity and callousness of that dehumanizing language and ideology. I hope that’s clear in context, because the subjects of the phrase are in a sense the heroes of that piece, those who see the reality of what is going on in the country.
With the more scientific language, like the 84%, there was a deliberate choice to incorporate particulates of information that we encounter every day. It seems to me that this is a unique aspect of our 21st century condition; we are deluged with bits of information that become part of us, part of our emotional experience and spiritual reality, information about what’s happening to the earth and various injustices all over the world. I wanted to develop a poetics that reflected this new experience.
Tiffany Troy: What are you working on today, and do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?
Sam Taylor: I have a fourth book of poems that engages with issues of race, ethnicity, and whiteness in America. I am working in the background on a nonfiction book about being a man, relationships, and sexuality. Recently, I’ve had ideas for a nonfiction book about processing and another about gardening as a spiritual text. I’m working on love poems. By now I’ve written a lot about the crisis that we’re in; I want to write more poems that are just poems of love and praise and celebration of the earth. The racial history of America is the larger issue I still feel a need to address more, in both poetry and prose. Another way to say all this is I don’t know what I’m working on now. While I’ve been mostly done with The Book of Fools for many years, I’ve still been tied up with it energetically, bringing it to this point. There’s so much potential energy released when a book is finally released into the world, and I don’t know exactly where it will go first.
What I’m working on most though is just learning how to be a human being on earth, to love, and bring more truth into each moment and in each situation. This sounds very noble, but of course like most people I’m not all that good at doing it. I think we need a miracle. I don’t think we can do it on our own. But, if there’s going to be a miracle, the miracle will not happen without us. When I speak of dancing on the grave of the fucked world, I really mean making real the unmanifest truth, and I think it’s what we need to do regardless, whether or not there is hope for this epoch of earth.
Tiffany Troy is a critic, translator, and poet.