An interview with Rob Taylor

Rob Taylor is the author of three poetry collections, including The News (Gaspereau Press, 2016), which was a finalist for the 2017 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Rob is also the editor of What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood Editions, 2018) and guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (Biblioasis, 2019). His fourth collection, Strangers, will be published by Biblioasis in Spring 2021. He lives in Port Moody, BC with his wife and children.

How did you begin writing, and what keeps you going?

Matsuo Basho wrote the following over 300 years ago:

“In this mortal frame of mind, which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices, there is something, and this something can be called, for lack of a better name, a windswept soul, for it is much like thin drapery that is torn and swept away by the slightest stirring of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. It must be admitted, however, that there were times it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always waving between doubts of one kind or another. At one time it wanted to gain security by entering the service of the court, or at another it wished to measure the depth of its ignorance by trying to become a scholar, but it was prevented from either by its unquenchable love of poetry. The fact is, it knows no other art than the art of writing poetry, and therefore it hangs onto it more or less blindly.”

I don’t think I could add anything to that! (Translation by Robert Hass.)

Have you noticed a difference in the ways in which you approach the individual poem, now that you’ve published three full-length collections?

I wouldn’t say any changes are tied to the books, per se, although I now have to try to silence a voice that says “How is this going to fit in the book?” as I work through the early drafts of a poem. The changes have just come steadily with time, and with adjustments in my life circumstances. More than anything, I write far less “false starts” – less scribbles that I work into a first or second draft and then abandon. This is partly because I have a better sense of when an idea of mine has “poem potential” and partly because, with two children under five at home, I don’t have the time to futz around: if the poem can’t manifest itself much of the way to a first draft in my mind, I’m probably not going to record it on paper.

For the past twenty years, I’ve carried Five Star notebooks in my back pocket. I’ll fill one every nine months or so. When I was younger I would write poems starting on the front page, and life-detritus (to-do lists, shopping lists, directions, phone numbers, etc.—I don’t own a cellphone) starting on the back page. The two would move toward one another, eventually meeting around 2/3rds of the way through the notebook (i.e. 2/3rds poems, 1/3rd detritus). When my son was born, I started writing the detritus from the front and the poems from the back. They still meet around 2/3rds of the way in, though the poem-detritus ratio has flipped.

I guess the above has caused the nature of my poems to change, too. What I write now is both more rushed and more essential to me, and I work hard to protect that sense of urgency in the poems during the somewhat-less-urgent editing process.

How has the process of putting together a manuscript evolved? How do you decide on the shape and size of a manuscript?

I’m obsessed with book craft: how a book can empower or obfuscate the poems it contains. I had a wonderful editor for this, Robyn Sarah, who worked with me on my first book, The Other Side of Ourselves. Robyn devotes an entire section of her essay collection Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry (Biblioasis, 2007) to book editing and sequencing. So much of what I’ve come to value is contained in there, or was suggested to me by Robyn during the editing process: keep books short, minimize section breaks (most hold little value), focus on how each poem will speak to those immediately before and after it (not just the content, but the sound, the shape),  consider how the poems will appear on the page (especially how longer poems will break between pages and page-turns), avoid putting too much pressure on individual poems (Robyn was against titling books after a poem’s title – a rule I am about to violate with book #4!), etc. And, of course, be ruthless about what gets in.

All of those rules apply to general collections, but also hold true for most themed work (my last two books, and the new one, are all themed), with the through-line of all the advice being that a book is like a living thing: it rolls and rises and undulates, and you need to give it the space to do that –to go where it needs to go; to be different things for different people.

What poets have influenced the ways in which you write?

Oh God, so many. I thanked Sue Goyette, Jennica Harper and Nora Gould in The News for writing books that helped me envision my own book. In the new book (which is in part about literary lineages), I point to Elizabeth Bishop, E.D. Blodgett, Robbie Burns, C.P. Cavafy, Don Coles, Jack Gilbert, Louise Glück, Jim Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Kobayashi Issa, Larry Levis, L.S. Mensah, Czesław Miłosz, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, Richard Outram, P.K. Page, Elise Partridge, Al Purdy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Ross, George Seferis, Sue Sinclair, Wallace Stevens and Nick Thran as having shaped one or more of the poems.

You edited a volume of Best Canadian Poetry, as well as a collection of interviews between Canadian poets. Why do you feel this work is important, and what have you learned through the process of putting together each collection?

Writing poetry takes up space. Hopefully you make vital use of that space, but no matter what you gobble up some paper and shelf-space and attention. To me, books like Best Canadian Poetry 2019 and What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation are about making space for others. I need that equilibrium in my life.

I also think poets need opportunities to gather - readings and parties and the like - and many isolated poets (like me, now, wrangling two kids, and like me, then, a beginning writer who didn’t know any poets) are only going to be able to attend such gatherings on the page. I think of those two books first and foremost as parties full of good people, good thought and good poems. And you don’t have to clean up afterward!

What have I learned? I’ve developed a deep respect for the work of the anthologist, that’s for sure. It’s a monumental task. And I better appreciate the depth and range of work being written in Canada. These books forced me to rove about. If you settle in one place (geographically, aesthetically, politically) you only ever see a sliver of what’s out there.

How important has mentorship been to your work? Is there anyone who specifically assisted your development as a writer?

I’ve been lucky enough to take courses or workshops from Aislinn Hunter, Steven Heighton, Karen Solie and Rhea Tregebov. All of them have been very helpful to me, especially Aislinn early on (whose Kwantlen University course I audited after my undergrad – the only formal creative writing course I took in my first decade as a writer) and Karen more recently (her notes on The News helped make that book happen).

Great teachers (Is that the same as mentors? I don’t really know what a mentor is, for all we talk about them!) help me better see my writing for what it really is, and what it could be next. 

What are you currently working on?

I’ve been finalizing edits for my next poetry collection, Strangers, which will be published in Spring 2021 by Biblioasis.

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