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Sam Taylor


Sam Taylor
The Book of Endings
Some time while you read this page
or the next one, a species-
like you, with your grandmother,
your dozen eggs, your walk in the park,
a species as vast as your life
and the lives of all your ancestors
chasing bison across Old Europe
or huddled around a fire-will disappear.
A species that has found its own
ways of eating, of moving, of
hiding from predators; a species
that meets itself and makes love
in the bark of a tree or on the leaves
of the canopy or in the humid dirt.
And it has come with us for millions
of years, for millions of years,
it has watched the night
and day follow each other, it has breathed
with the frogs, it has wrapped
the stars around it like a blanket,
a patterned music, a map.
At the beginning of this page
there may have been three or four left,
but now there is only one.
And if you read this page again,
it will be another one, another species,
another story of four billion years
telling itself for the last time.
Wherever life began-a word, a wish
breathed into water, a seed falling
through space-it was all of us
there-as it is now
in this unknown last one.
It has bored into wood, it has carried
water on its back, it has drunk
the dew from its back in the desert,
it has fed its young with strips of
leaves, it has built homes out of bark,
it has carved the sky into a song,
it has spoken in ways no man has heard.
It has emerald wings
it has sapphire wings
it has wings of night
you will never see it
it is already gone 


Jataka Tales

From my life as a Christian peasant
I cross my forehead and chest solemnly after kneeling.
From my life as a Sioux, "All my relations."
From my life as a Jew, I curse God in the daylight,
then steal back at night to kneel in the moon.
From my life as dust, I call all things father
and no place home. From my life as water,
I can rest only in the lowliest places.
From my life as a traveling salesman,
I can't stop talking or dreaming of maps,
but from my life as a stone, I have yet to speak.
From my life as a Russian streetsweeper
I eye women carrying bags of groceries
with suspicion. From my life as a clergyman,
all the tears of a body, more than the sea.
From my last life as rain, this endless longing
for the roots of the earth and a woman's shadow.
And, again, from my life as dust, this muted yes,
this meaningless assent to all things.

The Book of Poetry

A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes
was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck
piled high with musky bales. "I love water buffaloes," she burst out
in broken Thai. The monks laughed. I guess that is
a strange thing to say
, she thought, but insisted.
"No, really, I really love them," trying to unfurl herself
clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation
with only a few words. "They are so beautiful, so strong.
Don't you love them?" But the monks just kept laughing.

Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story
of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways
becomes four, six, seven words. In China, Ma
means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold-depending if
it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling. Sometimes context helps,
as when ordering food: No one is likely to confuse
"I want to eat" with "I demand an ugly woman,"
unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then "I want eggplant"
though mistoned "whirlpool shake concubine twins"
is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.

Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
It's not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, "I write," wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, "I am a poet."
Wo shi shi ren. Often, I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
"A poet" I'd repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
"I write poetry," trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. "I write books of poetry."

Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me

shi-which is pronounced "sure" and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb "to be"
in the falling tone-also means shit
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?

To be-poetry-shit. Something fitting in how these words
were assigned the same syllable, the same address.
Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi
was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex
sharing one mailbox. Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,
life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,
rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,
clear water-all crowded into the same syllable-sure,
sure, sure. It was also coincidentally the word for yes.
So, perhaps I had said something else entirely
I thought of all the combinations I might have said.

I am a shit person. I write life.
I am a death person. I write being. I shit history man.

I history being person. I write time. I write books of failure,
books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.

I am a being person. I write to be.
I am addicted to being a man.

I write books of shit, books of clear water.
I am a poet.

It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word
for everything-table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,
time and history and death and life. It was all shit.
It was all poetry. As for my friend, she found out later
water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.
So, "I love penises" she had confided to the Buddhist monks,
the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees
against theirs. "I really love penises," she had insisted,
looking into their celibate eyes. "Penises are
so beautiful, so strong. Don't you love them?" 

Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable
of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer. Sure,
I love penises and water buffalo and the smell
of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,
and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,
and the official from Homeland Security
who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother
the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone
and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted
writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,
here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.

                            -from Nude Descending an Empire


Poems - Bio - Interviews - Reading

Sam Taylor is a U.S. poet and word-based artist, whose practice ranges from traditional and experimental poem-making to work that marries poetic craft with contemporary art.  He is the author of two books of poems, Body of the World (Ausable/Copper Canyon Press) and Nude Descending an Empire (Pitt Poetry Series, forthcoming), and the recipient of the 2014-2015 Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship.  His work most frequently explores themes of mysticism, sexuality, ecology, politics, suffering, and the mystery of the world.  He is also an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Wichita State University, where he teaches workshops and courses in poetic craft, modern and contemporary poetics, and ecology.  

A native of Miami, Florida, Taylor has also lived in Texas, Virginia, California, Kansas, and New Mexico, where he served for three years as the caretaker of a remote wilderness refuge that was snowed-in during the winter without phone, electricity, or internet.  He cites this experience of living so long apart from all the meanings people have created as an essential foundation of his work. 

Taylor's work has appeared in such journals as The New Republic, AGNI, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, Orion, Narrative Magazine, Poetry International, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cincinnati Review, and Poetry Daily.  A former Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia, Taylor holds two MFA degrees, as well as a B.A. in English Literature from Swarthmore College. He has been awarded residencies at the Corporation of Yaddo, Djerassi, The Studios at Key West, the Vermont Studio Center, the Brush Creek Arts Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Santa Fe Art Institute, and he has received the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and the Florida Review Editor's Prize.


Poems - Bio - Interviews - Reading

An Interview with Sam Taylor by Kristina Marie Darling, first published at Best American Poetry

Kristina Marie Darling:  Tell me about your forthcoming book, Nude Descending an Empire. 

Sam Taylor: It develops the lyrical voice of a citizen-poet engaged with politics, history, and the urgency of our contemporary moment, especially its ecological urgency.

I wanted to find a poetic voice that could speak into history, speak publically, imaginatively, and nakedly into being alive right now.  Living amid global information—and interconnection, and perpetual crisis—I felt it was important to allow “political” concerns into the work in a way that reflected the extent to which they seemed an integral, even an existential, part of one’s consciousness in being alive now.

KMD:  The title is fascinating, especially because it situates the poems in relation to the artistic revolutions associated with cubism and literary modernism.  Do you see the book as an extension (or revision) of the work of modernist poets like Pound, Eliot, etc.?

ST: No, that’s not really what the title is about for me, although I do love the modernists (and cubism, and surrealism). In some way, in fact, I find contemporary poetry deluded when it considers itself beyond the modernist age.  Compared to the monumental originality of Eliot, Apollinaire, W.C. Williams, and Gertrude Stein, the inventions that have happened since seem paltry.  The Apollinaire of Calligrammes or the Williams of Spring and All still read as more innovative and fresh today than most contemporary avant-garde work, and so much work seems to recycle what these and other modernists already did a hundred years ago.

But, the book is titled Nude Descending an Empire for other reasons, at least as much as “reasons” are what determine any title.  Titles usually come to me out of the collective ether, and I say yay or nay, or maybe.  My first book had no good title until I did a five-day hermitage in the mountains with that as the express purpose, and on the third day the title came to me (yes, on stone tablets), and I knew it was right—and then for the last two days I just ate almond butter and walked among the elk.  Nude Descending an Empire came to me much the same way, although while shuffling through the rooms of my house in Wichita, and it felt right because it seemed to connect all the aspects of the book: the poems of political engagement and empire; the poems of hyper-modernity; the poems of wilderness and ecological crisis; the poems of sexuality and naked intimacy of self. 

What the allusion does invoke for me, however, is the international character of the book’s sensibility.  I have probably been influenced by international poetry as much as by U.S. poetry. Poets like Yehuda Amichai, Garcia Lorca, Yannis Ritsos, and Paul Celan have been quite important to me—or the Milosz of “Dedication”—but beyond the influence of individual poets, the character of international poetry—its more bodily-voiced, emotional temperament and its faith in the possibilities of the citizen-poet—were collectively inspiring to me.   As you know, poetry is seen as having a greater relevance in many other societies.  The poets of Mexico are respected figures whose opinions are consulted about public issues; the USSR viewed its poets as so dangerous that it killed or oppressed many of them; and, many countries have appointed poets to diplomatic posts.  I like the idea of a poet as someone who might get up in the middle of a parliamentary meeting and talk about how sad his chair is.  I like the idea of poetic discourse having a place in national, political discourse.  Of course, perhaps that’s just an idea.

You probably didn’t think I could say so much about the title, but the title is also rather brash, which fits many of the poems.  The book is dominated by a bold, direct, public voice speaking into history, speaking into a crowd.  But, beneath that, there’s also a real diversity of style within the collection—perhaps seven or eight different kinds of poems—and, for me, the cubism of the title ultimately comes into play as a metaphorical figure for this diversity, for all the different angles of stylistic approach.

Lastly, the title takes a classic aesthetic artwork title and fucks with it in order to remind us that empire is the basic condition in which most art that we know (including ours) is produced.  Some might see a critique of modernism and its apolitical temperament in that, but that would be simplistic to me, especially because the dadaists and surrealists, with whom Duchamp is most closely associated, were themselves committed to politically engaged art.  But, regardless, I can sympathize with both the desire for artistic political engagement and the desire for pure aesthetics. 

When I started the book, around 2005, I was very much reacting against the aesthetic isolationism that had reigned in U.S. poetry in the eighties and nineties.  Of course, so were many other poets at the same time, though I would not see their work until much later.  The character of U.S. poetry has swung back to political engagement, but at the time I thought I was going it alone.  I’m not sure that I can imagine ever not writing in both modes at different times—the engaged and the purely aesthetic.  I guess I have a problem with only practicing aesthetic isolationism, with not engaging at all with the real conditions in which one lives.

KMD:  As you mention, your book engages many pressing social issues, which range from the current environmental crisis to the global economy to the rise of social media and technology.  To what extent does poetry constitute a form of activism, a resistance to mainstream culture? 

ST: This is a huge question, and one that I’ve thought about a lot, so I have a lot of thoughts but no simple answer.  Poetry is poetry, and activism is activism would be one answer, and to continue with such half-syllogisms: Poets can be activists, and activists can be poets; perhaps, activists need poetry, and poetry can inspire activism.  But, I am wary of looking to poetry to directly do the work of activism, and even more wary of it intending to do such work.

No doubt, a poem’s presence in the world can have effects that cannot be anticipated.  Everything that is part of the world influences the world somewhat, and in this sense everything is “active”—a tree or a book or a song—one never knows who it will affect or how.  A powerful poem will likely affect people, and people in turn will do what they do, participating in, or “changing” the world. If we consider everything—any created object or piece of language of any kind—as an active force creating the world (and perhaps we should), then perhaps poetry is directly a form of activism. 

But, a poem cannot, in my opinion, set out to achieve a particular purpose and still be a poem.  That’s part of what makes something a poem: Unlike everything else in the world, it is not trying to achieve any particular outcome—no outcome other than that mysterious outcome that is a poem.  If it is trying to make something happen, then a poem will not happen.  And, this is what is responsible for so much “bad” political poetry in the world, which usually is not poetry at all, but propaganda. 

Yeats said we make rhetoric out of the quarrel with others, and poetry out of the quarrel with ourselves. I don’t entirely agree with that.  One can easily make poetry out of an argument with the world, but one cannot make poetry at all if one believes one has the answer before one sets out into the poem.  The difference between propaganda and poetry, as I see it, is that propaganda knows what it wants to say from the beginning and poetry does not.  Poetry discovers it along the way and is surprised by it.  It requires Keats’ negative capability.  I also think Frost’s “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” is an impeccable touchstone for political poetry. 

Auden’s statement too that “poetry makes nothing happen” is hard to improve upon.  This is what makes poetry different from almost every other activity in the world, which is trying to make something happen.  But, poetry isn’t an absence of happening; it is a magnificent happening that is apart from all practical, utilitarian goals.  The “nothing” poetry makes happen is not an absence, but the wonderment that brings the world into being, that makes everything happen.  I think Lao Tzu says something about the center of a wheel being “useless” and yet being absolutely essential for the wheel.  I’d say that’s analogous to the relationship between poetry and activism, between poetry and active efforts to preserve and foster the flowering and freedom and justice of life.

As for the question of whether poetry is “a resistance to mainstream culture,” I think it is part of the culture; and, while it’s often a fringe minority part, poetry is also often the vanguard of the culture (though it can also, ironically, be the rear guard).  The age of the poetic image heralded the 20th century.  Confessionalism in the sixties, seventies, and eighties was presciently ahead of the curve of reality TV and the memoir-craze of contemporary literature.  Allen Ginsberg, whom I quote in the epigraph of this book, has amazingly become part of mainstream culture; he’s featured in Apple ads for god’s sake.  He was a radical communist, investigated by the FBI, who wrote absolutely in resistance to mainstream culture, and yet amazingly he is now mainstream culture. Gay marriage is legal in many states, and marijuana isn’t far behind.  We will see the ultimate triumph of his “pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.”  And, Walt Whitman’s radical philosophy that was shocking even for Thoreau and Emerson, the most enlightened men of his day, is now a commonplace of new age spirituality.  Great poetry is a vanguard of the culture.

KMD:  You spent some time as a caretaker at a wilderness refuge without phone, electricity, or internet.  How does this inform the book?

ST: Well, there are certain poems directly about it, but I think it’s everywhere in the book.  I lived there the better part of three years, and during much of the winter, the refuge was snowed-in and deserted.  It was not unusual to go a week or two or three without seeing or talking to another person.  It was a profound experience of the world as it exists before the introduction of human meaning.  Between having this direct experience and reading a lot of history at the same time, I came to feel that the basic assumptions of our civilization are basically insane.  I came to see our ecological crisis as the fulfillment of a long history of violence, domination, lies, alienation, and insanity—in one word, empire—and I think the book suggests that a livable future requires that we wholly inhabit our body-heart-mind and charter a new paradigm. When I left the mountains, I was extraordinarily sensitive to all the noise and creations of the 21st century, so the experience was central to that aspect of the book as well.  In other words, from this experience of transcending meaning and being immersed in the natural world, the collection looks out on the hyper-modernity of our age and engages with urgent social and ecological contexts. 

KMD:  I've already seen an early draft of your third book, which is stylistically innovative in its use of erasure and footnotes.  I know that you're also experimenting with other kinds of word art.  What are the advantages of working across mediums?

ST:Well, to some extent, I think all these projects use the same medium: words.  But, I like different styles and approaches because that’s just what art is to me.  I don’t relate to doing the same thing again and again, writing the same kind of poem for fifty years.  I understand writing the same kind of poem three or four times, or maybe even twenty times, but once I have really got it, then I want to do something else.  Different kinds of poems are like different kinds of creatures, or different kinds of experiences, and I like a world with a great diversity of creatures.  Eliot says:

“Because one has only learnt to get the better of words

for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which

One is no longer disposed to say it.  And so each venture

Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate . . .”

                                                                        (“East Coker,” V)


I want to find the words for the thing I don’t yet have the words for.  I started writing this experimental third book because I was pursuing some truth, and that was the only way to pursue it.  It began with a very simple lyric poem that seemed perfectly successful, but I was dissatisfied with its easy emotional statement and closure.  I didn’t feel that it had reached the truth.  So, it gave way to a sequence that kept getting more complicated because that was the creature I was pursuing.

As far as working with different materials, there are a few reasons for that.  One is that—in the context of a visual culture in which language is mass-produced, commercially sponsored, and driven toward emptiness—I want to find new ways to resurrect the power of words, to confront viewers with text in new ways.  I also simply identify as an artist first, an artist who happens to primarily use words.  Another reason is that I am horrified by the overproduction of “poetry,” and the more people who do it, the less I want to do it, or to do it in that way. And, yet another reason is that I think we are moving beyond being a book-centered culture into a post-literate, or image-literate age.  That’s not to say that I think books are going to die out or something.  I think there will always be books, and I think I will always write books, but I am interested in using words in public, spatial, and visual ways as well.  Really, I guess it all just comes down to seeking forms to express what you have to express, or to add to the world what you are hungry to read or see.

KMD:  What else should readers know about your forthcoming collection?

ST:It was co-written with Bob Dylan.  Also, it gives great foot massages, and it will keep all of your secrets to itself.

Either that, or, as Ben Lerner said, that: “The relation between the lyric I and the lyric poem / is like the relation between a star and starlight. . . Some lyric poems become visible long after their origins have ceased to exist.”
An Interview with Sam Taylor by Rebecca Seiferle, first published atThe Drunken Boat
Rebecca Seiferle: I remember being struck by the singularity of your work when I first had the chance to publish it in The Drunken Boat. That was, almost unbelievably, eight years ago, and it’s very exciting to see where your poetic project has taken you. In Nude Descending an Empire, your poems seem to have taken on a centrifugal energy, sweeping ever larger concerns into the gravitational pull of the lyric.  What do you see as the most important influences in that evolution?

Sam Taylor: Well, the collection began with a desire to develop a kind of lyrical voice that could sing within the actual conditions of the world, a desire to discover what that voice would say.  This quest had different aspects: On a personal level, I felt like my first book had largely sidestepped a direct, “I”-centered, singing lyricism, which seemed to reflect some level of myself I hadn’t fully inhabited.  Meanwhile, I was bothered by what I called an aesthetic isolationism in American poetry at the time.  And, in a global world of constant information, “political concerns” seemed to be almost an existential part of the experience of being alive, part of any honest and aware subjectivity.

The incubating time for this book were the post-9/11 Bush years, an experience of living in a country whose leaders walked a line somewhere between reckless hubris and evil deceit and greed.  Meanwhile, imperial agendas aside, the urgency of Global Warming was becoming undeniable, and while the administration was in denial, it still seemed possible that we might mobilize in time to do something about it.  The peace dividend at the end of the cold war was receding from view but still seemed within imaginative reach, and with it the dream that we could transform the world into a marvelous place, a global community, remained alive within the ominous new winds.  It seemed we were at a crossroads, in which the full capacity of our voices, might be of some use.  Of course, that may have been naïve—doubly so considering the glacial pace of poetry publication—but I still feel that I needed to discover the voices in this book. I had no agenda though—and I think this is important—other than to include whatever an urgent, feeling voice would include in its song, while moving toward the mystery of a poem.

While there were many important influences—from Whitman and Ginsberg to W.S. Merwin and Yehuda Amichai—I think the most important touchstone for me was Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York, a book I love both as poetry and as record of this sensitive, pastoral soul suddenly thrown into modern New York City, circa 1929.  I have the image right now of a chemical or thermal reaction, a hot poker plunged into cold water, or the reverse; the cante jondo, the deep song, thrown into the city.  I wanted to move toward a voice that was that naked—not necessarily personal, but that rooted in the core of one’s being—and singing, even if the song turned frightening or ugly, as Lorca’s sometimes does.  I think that as a culture we are accustomed to a diminishment of feeling, which is why it is rare to encounter a free-ranging song, and even more so to encounter an earnest one.

RS: You've said that in this book you wanted to develop "the lyrical voice of a citizen-poet engaged with politics, history, and the urgency of our contemporary moment." You wrote most of this book from 2004-2010; how is the context of the poems in the world now different from the context in which the poems originated?

ST:  I’m glad you asked this question.  While the book began in dialogue with the U.S. empire, as the collection evolved, it became more and more about empire as a general pattern, an impulse toward domination in human societies and individuals.  To that extent—though one of the aims of the poems was to speak lyrically into its particular moment—I hope the book also transcends its particular nanosecond. 

As much as the book wrestles with the imperial hypocrisies of the United States, it is also rooted in the sense that the ideals of America—never fully realized—are noble and enlightened and worth fighting for (even when that involves fighting against what the nation is doing).  One of the epigraphs is Ginsberg’s “America when will you be angelic,” which for me is not only the lodging of a complaint with America’s failure, but an expression of its promise. 

Just in the past few months, the global landscape has dramatically shifted in ways that underscore some of the ways that the United States, for all its faults, can still be preferable to the other alternatives.  Still, these recent events also highlight how much has been lost in the past 15 years.  At a time when we should be mobilizing to create an ecologically sustainable world, we are instead responding to barbaric and authoritarian threats that have partly grown out of our country’s recklessness and indifference.  Regardless, I’d say I’m even more convinced of the book’s vision for the only livable future.  Many of us have always been citizens of, have always been fighting for, the republic of the heart—what Martín Espada perhaps called “The Republic of Poetry”—one nation of all people based in celebration and relationship rather than domination and alienation.  Recent events are disheartening because they not only show how far we are from that, but they throw the whole view of a progressive evolution into doubt.

RS: You lived in isolation for several years as a caretaker in the wilderness of New Mexico. I remember corresponding with you about that experience, since it was one we had in common. In your interview at The Best American Blog you discuss how out of that experience you “came to see our ecological crisis as the fulfillment of a long history of violence, domination, lies, alienation, and insanity—in one word, empire—and I think the book suggests that a livable future requires that we wholly inhabit our body-heart-mind and charter a new paradigm.” How do you view poetry as a way of wholly inhabiting our body-heart-mind?

ST: While poetry might be a way of wholly inhabiting our body-heart-mind and that certainly parallels the quest of this book —I wouldn’t want to claim that such a development is in any way the special province of poetry. I’d be more likely to say almost the opposite: That if we wholly inhabit our body-heart-mind, some kind of poetry might be an inevitable side-effect. The quest of this book was only part of a larger, ongoing quest of how to live (Merwin: I went from “room to room asking how shall I live”). I feel as if I am always trying, struggling, discovering how to more fully inhabit the body-heart-mind; it is a constant occupation. I wouldn’t care much for a way of doing it in poetry that is not continuous with doing it in life, and perhaps that is where I part ways with Yeats.  

I would say my frustration with a great deal of poetry is that it does not seem to inhabit the full range of consciousness, but rather seems to restrict itself to one dimension only, usually the intellect.  The intellect is marvelous, and I love poets like Robert Hass and George Oppen and T.S. Eliot—and perhaps early Jorie Graham—whose poems are brimming with intellectual exploration, but I love them because that intellect is woven with heart, and sometimes also with sex and with guts.  I have a theory that poetry should travel through all the energetic centers of the body, all the chakras in the Yogic system—not necessarily in any single poem, but overall.

But, as for how poetry can be a way of inhabiting the whole body-heart-mind, I think it is inherently a vehicle for exploration and discovery, always voyaging into the inchoate realms that do not yet exist within a public language or even within our awareness.  Bringing these realms of experience into language and the public square is important, but so is reminding ourselves that even that which we possess in language we don’t really know.  So, it’s not merely a matter of making the unknown known.  It’s also a matter of remembering that our very being is unknown and that we can only fully inhabit it when we relinquish our conscious, linguistic maps.  In other words, we expand the public square, but we also return the public square to the mystery.

RS:  In the Best American Poetry blog you state that you “find contemporary poetry deluded when it considers itself beyond the modernist age.  Compared to the monumental originality of Eliot, Apollinaire, W.C. Williams, and Gertrude Stein, the inventions that have happened since seem paltry.” And yet your own work seems to have a great deal of inventive energy.  How do you enact that poetic inventiveness both in terms of your subject matter and formally?  Or how does it enact you as a poet?

ST: What’s important, I think, is to give expression to whatever you need to say, to give life to what you seek.  Sometimes that requires wild invention or innovation, other times only small variations within an established art form or mode.  Pound’s injunction to “make it new,” entirely deserved in 1900, has mixed with a restless and ambitious consumer culture in such a way that we sometimes now value novelty over significance.  If I were going to name a few of my favorite books from the 2000s, two would be Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw and Anne Carson’s Beauty of the Husband—innovative yes, but in ways motivated by necessity and content—and Robert Bly’s My Sentence was a Thousand Years of Joy, which hardly seems to be doing anything dramatically new and yet reinvigorates the possibilities of a lyric as much as any book I’ve seen.

I don’t necessarily care about always innovating as a goal in itself as much as always doing something vital and different as an artist.  I don’t understand how so many poets write the same book again and again throughout their life.  I always want to say something different—always want to have a new quest—and to a certain extent, yes that enacts an inventive energy, but it is the quest at the center that is important.  The beautiful thing about a quest—which is a term I received from Gregory Orr—is that you are searching for something you don’t already possess, a voice you don’t yet command, something that you don’t yet know how to say, and indeed don’t yet know.  The beauty of poetry is that it shows you something that you don’t yet know, a part of your face perhaps that you’ve never seen.  If there is not a quest—if there is just an intellectual exercise or a desire for novelty—then it rings hollow, lifeless.

RS: What was the inception and process for the four poems taken from Nude Descending an Empire included in this feature?

ST:  “The Book of Poetry” was a poem handed to me by the extraordinary coincidences and meanings included in the narration, many of which I discovered along the way.  Nevertheless, it was a difficult poem to get right in that it had to establish so much information before it could really take off, and it had to patch together all these different modes—narrative, expository, lyrical, humorous, and serious—in a seamless way.  To make matters more difficult, I lost some of my first draft to the poem when I left my notebook in a taxi on my last night in Xining, China while saying goodbye to a friend in the rain.  It took me a long time to muster the fortitude to try to resurrect the poem.

“Madagascar,” by contrast, was mostly an outpouring or single flow of writing, and I think one without a defined point of beginning or ending other than the process of writing.  I revisited it only to make small changes, additions, and subtractions to bring it to its final form.

“#DeadFacebookFriends” was one of a series of poems with that hashtag title that emerged from the experience of seeing the poet Steve Orlen’s Facebook page sometime after he died.  I was particularly haunted to see a guest who was apparently unaware of his passing leave a note on his wall that said something like “Hey I haven’t heard from you, I have some new pictures to show you.”  That put this title phrase in my head and got me thinking and writing this series of poems, exploring all angles of the situation.  This poem here has traveled quite some distance from the original provocation.  I haven’t finished the others, but think I still might make a chapbook out of them some time, though by saying so, I’m almost certain now not to.

“Testimony” is one of my favorite poems, and I am reluctant to talk about it.  I wrote certain key parts of it on a typewriter while I was living in the woods with my partner.  While it is not about trees or animals or anything, I think it might be as much of a wilderness poem as any poem.  I was also reading lots of the travesty we call history or civilization, and I became convinced that many of the foundations of our civilization were insane.  One such pillar, of course, is the historical violence against women, the body, and sexuality, but another is the effort to make the world mean something beside itself.  The world does not need meaning to be meaningful or miraculous!  At the time though, I didn’t even care that much about working things up into poems, and the final poem didn’t come together until I returned to it and added significant new passages a couple of years later.  It can sometimes be hard to reenter a voice much later, but I was able to do it in this case, and the poem took on a new life with the final movement.

RS: What directions are you exploring in your new work?

ST: I am nearly done with a third collection, a book-length experimental poem that incorporates a number of innovative techniques (including self-erasure, alternative lyric constructions, and hybrid memoir and essay-like passages) into the larger arc of an accessible narrative, while marrying personal, confessional themes with global, ecological ones.  It is probably the most innovative work I’ve done.  In a way it continues the political/ecological concerns of the second book but it is much more personally exposed.  If the second book was largely concerned with a public lyrical voice, a way of inhabiting the whole energetic self in public, this third book is much more concerned with private realms of experience (in the context of global catastrophe) and with the difficulty of saying anything. 

But, I largely consider that book already to be a matter of the past.  So, when I think of new work now I think of two things.  At a level of traditional page-oriented poetry, I am starting fresh in the discovery stage, which is the most exciting time for me, and I’d rather say little about it at this point except that it will be different from everything else.  After the experimental, stylistically focused, and elegiac third book, I think it may be more celebratory, lighter in tone, more inviting—a romp through the pleasures of the modern world.

At the same time, I have been exploring poetry as word-art occupying visual, spatial, and/or sculptural dimensions.  I’ve done a series of word art pieces forming words out of the natural materials available in a given environment or landscape—sort of a fusion of Jenny Holzer and Andy Goldsworthy.  As I worked on these pieces, and struggled with the element’s constant disintegration of the text, I began to foreground this tension between the enduring fixity of words and the constant flux of the world’s materials.  I am also developing a number of other word-art ideas.  I think I will always write traditional poems, but our culture and technology is changing so fast, shifting toward a post-literate, image-centric literacy, and I want to engage at this level as well.  Moreover, in a world of mass-produced, commercial-sponsored, empty language, I am drawn to find ways to re-enliven language by producing unorthodox, spatial encounters with the power of words.  So, there are now two parallel tracks to my quest.


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