Marilyn L. Taylor served as Milwaukee's poet laureate in 2004-05. Her work has been published in The American Scholar, Poetry, The Formalist and other journals, and in a handful of solo collections: The most recent, The Seven Very Liberal Arts, was published this year as a limited-edition chapbook by Pennsylvania's Aralia Press. Thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Taylor has also been nominated for the Poets Prize for her 2005 collection, Subject to Change.
She is a contributing editor to The Writer magazine, teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, leads workshops for poets in settings that range from the Woodland Pattern Book Center to Lawrence University, and consults with and coaches other writers. A native of Chicago, Taylor attended high school in Madison and returned to take a degree in mass communications from UW-Madison.
Taylor makes three appearances at the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival. She is one of three poets scheduled to read from their work at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19 at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. Taylor then facilitates a workshop on "Resuscitating the Hopeless Poem" at 1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20 at the Madison Public Library's Main Branch. And she delivers an introduction and opening poems for Marilyn Nelson's appearance at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 21 at the Overture Center's Wisconsin Studio.
The Daily Page: Who do you envision in the audience for your Wisconsin Book Festival reading on Thursday?
Taylor: Well, I hope the audience includes people who think they might like to hear a few strong voices from beyond the greater Madison poetry universe. I'm well acquainted with the other two poets who will be reading with me Thursday evening (Kate Sontag and David Graham from Ripon College) -- and I can say with absolute confidence that they write terrific stuff, and they read it exceedingly well. So I encourage everybody to come, and to bring their friends, family, and assorted groupies.
Who ought to attend your Friday workshop on revision, and why should they attend?
I don't think there's a single poet in the world -- no matter how successful or widely published -- who wouldn't welcome hearing about some new techniques for improving a poem that's just sitting there, refusing to come alive. Or one that could really use a makeover, extreme or otherwise. So it stands to reason that every poet in the world should probably attend.
What is your family heritage, and how do the cultures represented in that heritage compare to U.S. culture in terms of support for poets?
Since I have an ordinary name like Taylor, people tend to think that I'm a WASP, i.e. a flatlander, culturally speaking. This is not actually the case -- I am half Jewish -- although that heritage is rarely apparent in my work. However, it does seem to me that over the past 20 years or so, a non-mainstream cultural heritage has become a motivating factor, a touchstone for many poets, often affecting their work in exciting ways. I am acutely aware that this has not always been the case.
What was the first poem you read or heard that persists in memory? What was your reaction to it upon introduction, and what is your reaction to it in retrospect?
The first poem that persists in my memory (notwithstanding children's poems by A.A. Milne and R.L. Stevenson) was probably Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody." I still think it expresses with astonishing grace and straightforwardness the insecurities of youth, of being a young girl and thinking you are and always will be a terminal loser.
When, where and how did you come to recognize yourself as a poet?
I'd known forever that I was a writer, and I actually wrote prose -- advertising copy and journalism -- for a long time. It wasn't until the 1980s when I took my first poetry workshop as a grad student that I was told by my professor that I was probably a poet. I decided to believe him.
You've written rondeaus, villanelles, clerihews, sapphics, even an impressive crown of sonnets. Of all the various formal structures, which is your favorite to compose in, and why do you take pleasure in it?
The sonnet is my favorite. It forces me to compress into fourteen rhymed and metered lines something Im very eager to say in the first place. The challenge is to express it as "naturally" as possible under these extremely artificial conditions, and when I succeed I'm ecstatic. Some poets think I'm certifiably insane for feeling this way, and that I'm probably a masochist. They may be right.
Which formal structure have you found the most daunting to work within?
Saphhic stanzas are ridiculously difficult. The lines have to fit a certain metrical pattern consisting of trochees and dactyls -- and it can be a real challenge. This is not everyone's idea of a fun way to spend the afternoon.
As a formalist, what metric or formal structure do you find most captivating as a reader? And which do you find the most confounding?
All metrical and/or formal structures can be captivating only if they are part and parcel of a good poem. The meter must underscore content -- and vice versa -- or it becomes strictly decorative and show-offy. I consider artificial, sing-song, "Hallmarkian" meter to be confounding -- and an instant turnoff for me.
Where do you turn for inspiration when the well of ideas runs dry?
To other poets. The ones I am currently reading for purposes of inspiration are Marilyn Hacker, Albert Goldbarth, Pattiann Rogers. And Richard Wilbur, always.
Which poets do you read most often as exemplars of the craft, and which for relaxation and pleasure?
The poets of earlier centuries tend to serve as my icons -- Shakespeare, Browning, Swinburne, Dickinson, Millay, to name just a few. For pure pleasure I read many poets, some of whom are formalists, some not. Right now they'd include May Swenson, Elizabeth Bishop, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Dick Allen, as well as Wisconsin poets Robin Chapman, Jeannie Bergmann, Mitchell Metz, Bruce Dethlefsen, Susan Elbe, plus many others whose work I deeply admire.
What accounts for the tendency in your work to emphasize the visual and conceptual and downplay the olfactory and auditory senses?
Do I do that? I'm not aware of it.
During the holidays late last year, you read your sonnet Reading the Obituaries to 50 elderly residents at an assisted living facility. Was that as awkward as it sounds?
On the contrary, the residents loved it! This poem has way more to do with the changing fashions in girls' names than it does with dropping dead, and the people in the audience caught on immediately.
Where, when and how do you prefer to write?
I prefer to write in a quiet room with no interruptions, no distractions, no deadlines hanging over my head. I compose directly onto the computer screen, and I am at my most productive between the hours of 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.
What single phrase has given you the greatest satisfaction to write? What was your immediate reaction upon writing it? And how did it serve the greater poem?
I tried, but I find I just can't single out such a phrase. Sorry.
In terms of gratification, how does being nominated for a Pushcart Prize compare to winning a Dogwood Prize -- and how do either of those compare to having your work included in Poetry magazine's 90th anniversary anthology?
I felt that winning the Dogwood Prize was a huge honor. The judge was Jay Parini, who has a deep understanding of formal poetry, and I was deeply complimented by his selecting my work. The Pushcart Prize nominations have been gratifying, but lots and lots of poets receive them. The anthology inclusion was very nice as well, but why they chose the particular poem they did continues to mystify me. It's not very good.
Where do you display your Dogwood Prize and all the other award plaques and certificates bestowed on your work?
Proud as I am to have won them, none of these things are on display.
What did you find to be the biggest upside and biggest downside of serving as Milwaukee's poet laureate?
Biggest upside: being recognized for doing the thing I enjoy the most. Biggest downside? I don't think there was a downside.
Back in the mid-1980s, Madison's poet laureate observed that people in our society did not want to read poets' work, but they did enjoy hearing poets read from their work. Does this reflect your own experience? And how has the situation changed over the course of your career?
The audience for poetry is pretty small to begin with; it's been out of fashion for some time, although I think it's coming back with a lot of vigor these days. Hearing a good poem read aloud can be a lot more fun at first than reading it in a book, if the poet is a good reader -- but it can also serve as an impetus to seek out more good poems in books and journals.
This same poet ascribed our collective disaffection for poetry to being taught by English teachers who hated poetry. When you attended grade school in Madison, do you remember teachers like this? And which grade school did you attend here?
I didn't go to grade school in Madison; I didn't move to Madison until I was between eighth and ninth grade, and I went only to West High. Regarding teachers: I don't think the situation you describe had to do with their "hating" poetry so much as it did with their being genuinely unfamiliar with it, and perhaps frightened by the thought of teaching it.
Soon after you graduated from UW-Madison, you took a job as an advertising copywriter for Sears Roebuck. How does that discipline compare to the discipline of composing poems in strict forms?
Writing catalog copy, and 30- and 60-second radio and TV spots which I did later for the Chicago Tribune, teaches the art of compression in an emphatic way, as you can imagine. Strict forms also insist upon compression, big time. So I guess it was good training for what was to come.
There are flashes of great humor in your work, yet it is also often preoccupied with mortality, the insistent passage of time, remote memory and the infirmities that come with aging. What accounts for these tendencies, and are they reconcilable?
Thanks for reading my work so closely. Yeah, you're right. I am in total denial about aging in my real life, so I tend to dwell on it a lot in my poems. Clearly, these two tendencies are not reconcilable. Humor or no humor, I am clearly doomed.
The title of your 2000 collection, Greatest Hits, 1986-2000, hints at an appreciation for rock music, folk, country, jazz, bluegrass or some comparable music genre whose artists release greatest-hits albums. What is your all-time favorite greatest-hits album, and which is the worst greatest-hits album you've ever bought?
The "Greatest Hits" title was not my invention. It's part of a whole series of chapbooks by various poets -- i.e. So-and-So's Greatest Hits -- from Pudding House Press of Cincinnati. I find the title slightly embarrassing because it sounds so self-aggrandizing. But -- since you ask -- my favorite greatest-hits music album is probably the one from The Eagles, or maybe Simon & Garfunkel -- which certainly says something about my age, doesn't it? Oh well. The worst one? I seem to recall something ghastly by Brenda Lee.
What is the last volume of poetry you read that you would recommend to your friends, and why would you recommend it?
A tough question; there have been many. I do think Dick Allen is one of the most under-rated, overlooked poets in the country, and I would strongly recommend his latest volume titled The Day Before. It is filled with beautifully written poems that will stay with the reader for a long time. Many of them are actually upbeat -- a rarity nowadays.
Other than poetry collections, what was the last book you read that you would recommend to others, and why would you recommend it?
That fabulous novel, Atonement by Ian McKuen, stands out in my mind. It is as close as prose gets to poetry in terms of pure grace, depth, and gorgeousness.
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, which are you most compelled to see?
Probably Ted Kooser, because I find his poetry irresistible; also Marilyn Nelson, a poet I've known and admired for years.
Why do you live where you live?
Because I just love freezing, six-month-long winters with all that nice wind screaming off the shores of Lake Michigan.
Do you have any tattoos?
No, but I have all of Shakespeare's sonnets on a microchip embedded in one of my molars.