Hi this is Deborah Holdship, Editor of Michigan Today.
In this episode of Listen In, Michigan, my guest is poet Keith Taylor, the recently retired AL Becker collegiate lecturer in English and Creative Writing. He’s also director of the Bear Rivers Writers’ Conference, an annual haven for creative wordsmiths to gather in the wilds of Northern Michigan and vibe off of nature. Taylor is a native of British Columbia and he’s written or edited 13 books. His works appeared in journals, magazines, anthologies, and newspapers all throughout the US and Europe. He’s received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and support from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.
He’s a bit of a world traveler and collector of experiences that inform his writing, from washing dishes in Southern France to painting houses in Ireland to being a night attendant at a pinball arcade in California. But since settling in Ann Arbor many years ago selling books at shaman Drum, he has discovered the delights of writing about home.
An avid birder who once fancied a career in the sciences, he’s been able to share his love of nature through his writing. He, like most of us, shares an affinity for Northern Michigan with the late Ernest Hemingway and often teaches writing to non-writers and scientists who are studying at U of M’s Biological Station. It’s close to so many of Hemingway’s favorite places. Keith’s latest book, Ecstatic Destinations, spotlights Ann Arbor with poems written about a specific triangle of land among the city’s West Side. Readers will recognize the sights and sounds of their beloved college town whether it’s the wail of a far off train whistle or the discovery of used condoms on a bench in Veterans Park, an experience that Taylor artfully takes from, “ewww” to “ohhh.” Seriously. He does it. He’s an artist.
Anyway among my favorites are his poems about the trees of Michigan. So let’s listen in as Keith reads an ode to some hickory trees and explains how our town inspired his latest collection. Here’s Keith.
Evening, Late October
last to turn
yellow to terracotta
even close to dark
like holy women
Taylor: Thank you. I really did travel a lot and I traveled a lot before I got to Ann Arbor. And even though I was broke for most of the first 20 years I was here but I still managed to travel a lot. And I liked to travel. I like to explore new places. I’ve written about new places. But it’s a very different experience about writing about a new place and writing about a place you know very very well.
It’s– so there is that sense of discovery which I hope is in some of my poems that, you know, you see something and isn’t that kinda special. But then there’s that other sense of, “Ok I’m not going to discover things here but do other people see these things as clearly as I do?”
Holdship: Well you know, you describe this is a happy little book. So do you have some favorites in here?
Taylor: I’ve got lots and lots of favorites in here.
Holdship: So do I.
Taylor: Let’s see if you ever drive out Dexter about a block up on the right-hand side. You’ll see this incredible garden. It’s a whole front yard and I live right across the street. So for years, I’ve had this incredible gift of watching that. And once the flowers have bloomed for the first time, Fred and Ann lean over and they take off the dead heads so they get another blossom. And when they’re bending down it reminded me of Millet’s famous painting The Gleaners where the poor people are down in the thing. And then, of course, the grandfather Michigan poet of them all, Theodore Roethke, wrote about the greenhouses in Saginaw. So all of those things wherein my mind and I had to write a poem for the 2018 Roethke memorial calendar. So I called it “The Gleaners.” After Roethke MEA.
For 30 years I’ve watched them stoop, Fred and Ann, waist-deep in green
Dead heading flowers after their first blooming
No wheat fields cleaned by hand this time
But the garden across Dexter Ave prepared at the cusp of summer for its next extravagance
They clip the plants below their seed pods
Forcing a generosity of display
That stops me for the pleasure and perfume of it all season long
And that’s the thing that hit me. When somebody does a garden like that and we have a garden and my wife works very very hard at it. I help some. Not enough. And but a garden like that right in the front on the street, on a very busy street, consciously or not, that’s a gift to the rest of us. You know, I mean, that is generosity. I mean, that’s a lot of work. The triangle of streets I talk about is down Dexter Avenue to North maple where that park is across North Maple. So Vets Park is all off to the east and back on Jackson. It’s a mile and a half triangle. That’s my exercise. It’s not by far the prettiest neighborhood.
Holdship: I was kind of surprised when I saw that was what your location was.
Taylor: And Vets Park is certainly not the prettiest park. If I wanted the prettiest park I’d write about the Arb, you know, I’m not writing about the Arb. I’m writing about that sports park out on the west side of town. But there are things there that I see and I see only because I’ve seen them over and over and over again. Well, let me, let me read the skateboard poem.
Holdship: Oh yeah that’s a good one.
Taylor: So this was the first one of these I wrote. This is the one that gave me the idea for the book.
Skateboard Park Seen From Afar
Down past empty baseball diamonds, the skateboarders glide silently through air
Their gossamer wings invisible
Their wheels grinding against the ramp
The crack of the boards when they pop upward into flight
It has all dissipated in the space between us
Even their mistakes are angelic
So I’m doing my little mile and a half walk just to make sure I get out of doors because I’d probably rather stay in my study and read. And I’m looking at these skateboarders stun me. They’re so graceful and they probably don’t even know they’re graceful, you know. So and then I walked around and I walked over by the ice rink and I’m on a little bench up there and I’m looking down at it from far away, can’t hear the noise, can’t even see the skateboards. And it looks like they’re flying. Here they are sort of zooming along the ground just like angels and they have no idea they’re angel. So that’s where the poem came. And then there was that pump about the condoms which came right after.
Holdship: Maybe you should read that one.
Taylor: You want to read that?
Taylor: Ok this is the one I can’t read on the radio because it has a bad word but I can read it on a podcast?
Holdship: Sure we’ll see what happens.
Taylor: Okay so let’s turn it into something other than disgusting which is our first– all of this is our first response. Oh, you can also see from that title, “Skateboard Park Seen From Afar, “Condoms: Abandoned On The Park Bench: and I had those titles. And I said, “Those sound like the titles of paintings.”
Holdship: Oh yeah. They do.
Taylor: And then I had, you know, then the other one came with “The Gleaners.” Then I was thinking of those French painters and they all were always outside, en plein air. And I was thinking I’m going to write all these poems outdoors in this triangle area. And I did. I did most of the work on this book outdoors. So this was the second poem idea and this is the last poem. And when I wrote the last line I knew I had the title for the book.
Condoms: Abandoned on the Park Bench
I prefer to imagine the fucking here last night was fantastic
The perfect diamond to hold in memory, as their world turns bleak
Just a bit too cool to be naked outdoors
When they threw their heads back and whispered to the stars
While below them the cars on North Maple sped off to ecstatic destinations
Holdship: I love it.
Taylor: Yeah. And I mean, I really, you know, as the book came together and when the publisher put this together and to see the title and then to get to that right at the end. It just felt right.
Holdship: Very cool. Yeah I mean you’ve got stuff about the deer cull. It’s interesting.
Taylor: Yeah I do. The deer cull. There is Ann Arbor in here. And the sound of the train– if you know if you live in town close enough to hear the train going through town in the early morning.
Holdship: Oh I love that line that the railroad tracks might actually lead somewhere.
Taylor: Yeah well let’s do that one. I don’t know that I’ve actually read that poem. Let’s see, it’s toward the end. Right yeah.
The next day
So, you know, as an old man now, you know, getting up many times in the night
And sometimes I fall back to sleep and sometimes I don’t
So I sit in my study, loot the lights off, and listen to the drain
A mile away
The next day up at 04:00 AM again and a mile away
The train moves through our city blowing its desperate whistle
As if railroad tracks might actually lead someplace
Or someone waits to offload cars of grain or oil for his startling tomorrow
Holdship: Love it. A startling tomorrow. I was just listening to one of my favorite podcasts and Bob Newhart was the guest. He feels if you can make people laugh like if you’re a comedian and you can make people laugh, you have an obligation to do so.
Holdship: So it sounds like something I heard about you. You write poetry as a demand of gods in whom you don’t really believe.
Taylor: Right. Demand of the gods whom I don’t believe. Yeah. I’ve never liked the word career attached to the arts. It feels far too chosen. And yes, I mean, I’m enough of a person of my time in the late sixties and early seventies that it feels ambitious, not in a good way. It feels almost greedy. And I’ve never felt that my writing is a career. There might be people who would say, “Yeah of course.” But, I mean, it has felt to me, from the very beginning, as if it were something I had to do. As if I were chosen. And I’ve had enough experiences, I mean, you work and you spend a lifetime getting the education and you make the choices that, you know, are learned choices. Every now and then you get the feeling that this is all a gift. This comes to me for– it’s not me. I’m not that smart. My ear’s not that good. Where is that coming from? And that’s a kind of a wonderful feeling. And it’s something I do because I really don’t have a choice. It gets can get so romantic. Once you start doing this as a young person and then you don’t stop. And then you start trying to publish and get an audience or get it out there in the world. At some point, you can’t stop me. You don’t have that choice anymore. Because this is who you are to yourself.
Holdship: Once I ran a photo essay about the Biological Station. There’s a great shot of you with your class on a big pontoon-type raft.
Taylor: Oh you’ve seen that?
Holdship: It’s so cute.
Taylor: Yeah it was. It was posed.
Holdship: So you didn’t teach out there the whole hour?
Taylor: I did not. No.
Holdship: It’s just such a great idea. So what is it about teaching up there that you love?
Taylor: Well you know I get to be that place.
Holdship: Talk a bit about that place. I’ve never been there but–
Taylor: Oh you’ve never been there? You gotta go. You gotta go visit.
Holdship: Describe it to other people.
Taylor: The University has owned 10 thousand acres on Douglas Lake up in Emmet County about 20 miles south of the bridge. University’s owned that since 1909. And they got it cheap because the land had been devastated. Logged and burned and nothing there. And what we’ve done for well over a century is essentially watch the forest regrow. And we’ve done a lot of experiments on that and–
Holdship: Lots burns and–
Taylor: Yeah lots of burns and things have changed. But really that’s what’s been going on. It’s been watching and studying the regrowth of the forest. And of course now since everybody wants to study carbon retention, how much carbon is retained. As those trees get bigger, what happens when those trees die, you know, that hope those whole series of questions which are really really pretty fascinating. So there’s a lot of people doing the research, sometimes more than there are students. And you know it’s really great for students to be in that whole mix.
And then I’ve always been interested in the literature of Michigan since I realized I was going to live here and marry a woman from Michigan. So I started looking for that stuff. A lot of that is Northern stuff. Of course, there’s the great Hemingway’s early stories. I could teach that up there, teach those Hemingway students and take them and show them the places. We can go to Horton Bay Lake on Lake Charlotte, read the stories aloud, and realize that Hemingway was remembering one square meter of length. What he’s describing in Paris, when he’s writing in a bar in Paris, you can only see within like the size of a tabletop. And so that’s really interesting. And of course, we haven’t messed it up. I mean Hemingway places in Havana and Key West are like atrocious. Tourist traps. And Northern Michigan was much more important to Hemingway and to his fiction than Havana or Key West was. But nobody’s ever there. There was one year where we sat on the dock on Horton Bay, read a short story, Hemingway’s first surviving short story called, “Up in Michigan.” And then the Nick Adam story that takes place right on that bay. And as we left, somebody was listening to radio and they said, “It’s Hemingway’s birthday.” And there was nobody there while we were there. We were completely alone reading these stories in this place that he’d remember it so vividly and on his birthday and there was nobody there. Which is amazing.
Holdship: I was just at Walden Pond recently.
Taylor: Really? That’s quite a place, isn’t it?
Holdship: That was cool. Yeah.
Taylor: I was there a few years ago.
Holdship: It was just so lovely and going Emerson’s house
Taylor: Yeah. Yeah.
Holdship: In this world of digital media (yet another interesting thing I read about you) just the concept of when we’re searching for something on the Internet, we’re searching for something specific. It eliminates the possibility of like a natural desire.
Taylor: Wow I don’t know that I’ve said that in public before.
Holdship: Serendipitous discovery.
Taylor: When did I say that? That’s interesting.
Holdship: I don’t know. It might have been in your exit interview that you did.
Taylor: Oh yeah there’s a film of that or something. Yeah that’s important to me and there are some information architects who are actually thinking about that and this is why I think I love working at bookstores too. Libraries were always a good place– and still are a good place– to find things you’re looking for. You could still just sit down on the floor– and five things you weren’t planning on finding– that you went there. The Internet, you know, there are parameters to the searches. And now of course with all these algorithms they’re using to pigeonhole us. Are you going to find something that you don’t plan to find? I mean, I don’t know. Bookstores were always great for that. My big one on that, by the way, I’ll tell you this little story. Are we going to run out of time?
Holdship: We have all the time in the world.
Taylor: Okay I managed Shaman Drum Bookshop up here on State Street just a couple blocks for here for the nineties. The guy who owned that store, a wonderful guy, left us far too young. His name was Carl Port. He would go, I mean this was a tough way to make a living. Totally independent trying to have books and scholarly books on the humanities and make a living off that. They’re around the University. There are lots of academic journals that are housed in basements all around. There are a bunch of them. I couldn’t– I had no idea how many– and those magazines, those journals are always send books to review. And there sent a lot of books to review. Often very obscure books that no one’s going to right a review of, no one’s going to read. And Carl– because he would try to have these books outside the bookstore– would go and buy these things and then sell them for like a nickel apiece. And we’d put a $2 price on there. And then it gets stolen, they get snowed on. They were really obscure and we’d often laugh at the obscurity of the titles. At one point we had a gigantic book with three copies of a gigantic book which was all the Latin names for the insects of Missouri.
Holdship: I need to have that!
Taylor: And that’s all there was. And we’d put them all out at art fair too of course. So we were looking through boxes of books, Carla and I, and he pulled out one tile and he laughed. And I’m from Western Canada originally. So he pulled out this book and he said and he laughed and he threw it across the table and said, “No one in three states would buy that except you.” And the title of the book was “Pioneer Policing in Southern Alberta: Dean of the Mounties 1880 to 1914.” And this is on sale in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on a hot July day. And I looked this up and said, “Now Carl, even I’m not going to buy this.” So I would put a price on it, I was going to take it outside and put it on the tables for art fair. I said, “Well I gotta look up my hometown.” There was one reference to my hometown so I went to it. As I was reading this reference, what I discovered I was reading was the police report of my Irish immigrant great-grandmothers suicide. And it ended with the transcription of a suicide note addressed to her four older children one of whom was my grandfather. And no one alive knew that she had done this. Deeply ashamed and yet my grandparents’ generation in 1907. And the suicide note starts out, “Your father told me to leave the place this morning if I would not sleep with him. I love my children. God knows I love my children. I don’t want any more children.” And she went out to the outhouse and drank a jar of acid. And I was reading this. And I’m good, you know, if you keeled over right now I’d respond well, you know. I would scream and then come back and give you CPRs. But I almost fainted when I realized what actually happened. And art fairs going on outside and it’s a 100 degrees and, you know, and it’s like and I’m back in Alberta in 1907 with my desperately poor Irish relatives. And so that kind of serendipity. Now, if I’d look for that online, I wouldn’t find it. So I did a bunch of work on this and that’s one of the reasons I had retired because I wrote an essay about finding it. It’s going to be reprinted in a book that Wayne State University Press is publishing, really in the next month or two, book of essays by Michigan writers. But I do want to write a whole sort of book because I did a lot of work on it. So for 20 years, I’ve been trying to deal with this story that came to me serendipitously but I feel an obligation to that story. Not just because it’s clearly a story of women’s reproductive rights. But, you know, it’s my story. This woman is an essential part of my gene pool. So serendipity, yeah. One hopes that serendipity is not going to be lost in the digital age. But there are really smart people who are thinking about that now. There’s a guy in Ann Arbor named Peter Morville who is successful and actually quite famous information architect in that world. And he’s thinking about that now. He’s thinking about serendipity and what it means and can we build serendipity into the system now.
Holdship: It seems kind of counterintuitive.
Taylor: It does doesn’t it? Yes. If you build it into a system, is it any longer serendipity?
Holdship: That’s deep.
Taylor: That is deep.
Holdship: Alright. Can you even believe that story about his great-grandmother? Who knew? Meanwhile, Shaman Drum is now a little Italian street food restaurant. If you ever come back to town, it’s called Piada. Please visit michigantoday.umich.edu for more stories and podcasts. You can find Listen in, Michigan under the topics tab. Just scroll down to podcast. We also can be found at iTunes, Stitcher, Tune In, and Google Play music. Okay, thanks for listening. I hope to have you back next month. Until then, as always, Go Blue.
Write what you know
Poet Keith Taylor isn’t your typical outdoorsman: you won’t find him climbing Mt. Everest, running a marathon, or racing across town on a bike with really skinny tires.
You will have far more luck scanning the benches at Veterans Park in Ann Arbor. There you might see Taylor scribbling in his notebook, experiencing the outdoors on his own terms. That’s where he created much of the work that appears in his new poetry collection, Ecstatic Destinations.
“I was thinking about those French painters who did all their work outdoors,” he says, “en plein air. So I decided to write all these poems outdoors.”
Allusions to the deer cull, Allen Creek’s “revenge,” and other local events and experiences read like a warm love song to Taylor’s adopted hometown. The native Canadian settled in Ann Arbor after falling in love with a woman from Detroit. Here, he nurtured his other loves — selling books (the original Borders Books and Shaman Drum kept him alive for many years) and teaching creative writing to graduate students and undergrads as the A.L. Becker Collegiate Lecturer at U-M. He also was director of the Bear River Writers Conference.
Taylor has written or edited some 13 books or chapbooks, including Ghost Writers (co-edited with U-M professor/author Laura Kasischke), The Bird-While, and Fidelities. His work has appeared widely in journals, magazines, anthologies, and newspapers. Taylor also has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and support from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.
An avid birder and environmentalist, he also was recruited to teach at U-M’s Biological Station in Northern Michigan during the summer, “because they needed someone who could teach scientists about writing.” Taylor recently completed his last stint up there, a place he loves dearly due to its proximity to some of Ernest Hemingway’s most inspiring getaways.
In this episode of Listen in, Michigan, Taylor speaks about his love of nature, Ann Arbor, and serendipity. Plus, he reads poems! Hear more “Listen In, Michigan” podcasts and subscribe at Google Play Music, iTunes, Tunein, and Stitcher.