Sam Taylor 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. He is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Wichita State University.
Q: Tell me about your forthcoming book, Nude Descending an Empire.
A: 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.
Q: 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.?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: You spent some time as a caretaker at a wilderness refuge without phone, electricity, or internet. How does this inform the book?
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.
Q: 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?
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.
Q: What else should readers know about your forthcoming collection?
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.”
Read a poem from Nude Descending an Empire here.