Q&A: Rob Taylor, The Other Side of Ourselves

Welcome back to Q&A, my ongoing series of interviews with authors I like, special Conflict of Interest Edition. This time I’m thrilled to talk with the first peer of mine to publish a book: Rob Taylor, author of the new poetry collection The Other Side of Ourselves.

I’ve known Rob for a number of years, dating back to our occasionally intersecting orbits at Simon Fraser University in the mid-aughts. Rob co-founded a successful poetry zine, in which I published a bad poem based on a pun about bullshit; I worked at the student newspaper, in which Rob published a slew of thoughtful, very funny pieces. (One that springs to mind was a feature wherein he tried to figure out the fewest possible steps between different places on campus. In the accompanying photos he was wearing brightly coloured goggles, for some reason.)

And Rob’s poetry is, frankly, stunning. I thought so back at SFU—he once described watching 1st-year students cramming for exams, their “highlighters flashing like emergency flares”—and I think so now, after reading The Other Side of Ourselves.

Here’s our conversation. Heads up: it’s a long one.

* * * * *

You’ve published your poetry widely for a number of years now, but The Other Side of Ourselves marks your full-length debut. While preparing it, how much did you think about the first impression you were giving off to the poetry world at large? Did you try and make the collection somehow representative of your identity as a poet (interests, sensibilities)—or was it simply a clearing house for the previous year’s worth of work?

Rob Taylor: A damn good question to start off. I was concerned that I show my diversity, covering a variety of forms, themes, and techniques that, hopefully, would provide something for every reader (and every critic!). When the book was accepted by Cormorant, however, my editor (Robyn Sarah) cut out the poems that didn’t fit in the main lyrical vein. More specifically, she cut out the poems that were showy but hollow—that sounded more interesting than they felt. This freaked me out, as these days the Canadian poetry world seems much more focused on technique than content, and when it comes to content, plain-spoken emotion is on the outs. And here was my editor cutting out the technically sophisticated poems and replacing them with less technically torqued, but more heartfelt, poems…

I resisted this process for a while, but then I sat back and thought about what I was trying to do, which was to produce a great book, not cover my ass. I decided that I’d rather make a book that felt cohesive than a “safe” hodgepodge of poems. I knew I would get a tongue-lashing for that from those in different aesthetic camps (and I already have), but that seemed a small sacrifice for producing a more purposeful, emotionally resonant book.

That review in the National Post was interesting—it posits that poets can either be “cool,” or else they can genuinely engage with human feelings and interactions. You were deemed to be the latter. What do you think of that binary, and your place in it? Are those two things really incompatible?

RT: In the reviewer’s defense, it’s hard to put “hooks” on poetry books, and trying to do so often leads to goofy binaries. Not doing so, though, makes it hard to write a cohesive short review (especially when covering multiple books). It’s best not to take the rhetoric of the short review too seriously. [Authors everywhere, take these words to heart. Please.]

As for my place in the goofy binary, I’m certainly comfortable being the genuine, uncool guy. When asked about clarity and simplicity in his poetry, W.S. Merwin said that he wanted, ultimately, for the reader to feel like they’d written the poems themselves. That is a more interesting and fulfilling goal to me than being “cool,” which as a posture is more concerned with the author than the reader.

All that said, of course, “cool” and genuine aren’t incompatible, so long as your understanding of “cool” is sophisticated enough to require honesty, vulnerability, and humility.

Diplomatic to the end! Let’s back up a little: you and I met in 2005 at Simon Fraser University, a weird little mountaintop school just outside of Vancouver. I knew of you as a poet from the very beginning, thanks to High Altitude Poetry, the campus zine you co-founded. Can you tell me a little about how poetry had entered your life—and what inspired you to branch out and create your own outlet for it?

RT: I didn’t come to poetry until midway through my history degree at SFU—at the time, it felt like I was coming to it very late. I began accumulating poems, here and there, by W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, W.C. Williams, etc., that I couldn’t shake from my head. Al Purdy was the first Canadian poet to worm his way in there, and that was a turning point for me: until then I hadn’t thought of poetry as something that Canadians could do.

I helped found High Altitude Poetry having only written a dozen or so poems. That was less rash than when, one year prior to HAP, I founded SFU’s curling club having only curled once before. In both cases I was motivated partly out of personal interest and partly out of my bewilderment that SFU didn’t have pre-existing clubs for these things. Seriously, pre-2001 SFU students, what was the deal with that?

And what was the moment you switched from “poetry as something Canadians could do” to “poetry as something you could do”? Were you at all self-conscious about taking the plunge?

RT: It wasn’t my first poem, but the first time I set an extended period of time aside specifically to write poetry was on a vacation in Campbell River (I had the travel budget of a poet long before I considered myself one). I spent a whole afternoon at the beach, staring out at the ocean and waiting for something to happen. Eventually something did, and while in hindsight the poem was terrible (seven metred, rhyming stanzas comparing my soul to a pebble), it was exhilarating at the time. I’ve been addicted to that thrill ever since.

I only became self-conscious about my poetry when I first shared it with others, which happened at the second HAP meeting (yes, I helped found a poetry club having never shared my poems with anyone—rash, as I said). My heart wasn’t in my throat, but it was definitely making plans to relocate. Luckily, those first few poems had jokes in them, and I got laughs, which as reactions go is inferior to the “poetry noise” (“mmm” or “ah” or, my personal favourite, “hm”), but was more than enough on that day. Since then, both the quality of the poems and my self-consciousness about them have increased steadily, almost in tandem.

How do you think SFU specifically affected your development as a poet?

RT: As I’ve touched on above, SFU shaped my development as a poet by its absences, and the opportunities those absences granted me. I don’t think my story is uniqueSFU is a school with a short history and an often indifferent student body. If anything has developed as a tradition there, it’s that if you want to see something happen, you better make it happen yourself. I found that to be liberating.

When it came to poetry specifically, for those outside of the English department there were few venues to share and discuss poetry, either in person or in print (for instance, the English department’s presence in general campus life was so minimal that I didn’t learn of the existence of SFU’s literary magazine, West Coast Line, until my 4th year). Even after helping establish High Altitude Poetry, I felt like an outsider in SFU’s writing community, which made it easier for me to do my own thing without fear of repercussions. 

While at SFU I wrote hundreds of poems and sent them off to dozens of magazinesI started with The New Yorker and worked my way down. At first, everything was rejected (and, in hindsight, probably ridiculed around editing tables), but eventually a few magazines took interest. By the time my book was accepted I had over 100 poems published in magazines, journals, and anthologies.

In the last few years I’ve gotten to meet a number of talented emerging writers who have hardly begun to “emerge” because they are too afraid to send their work out. Almost all of them have taken a creative writing program of one sort or another, and most have spent a decent amount of money studying their craft. Because of all this, the pressure they feel to succeed, or at least to not make asses of themselves, seems to paralyze them. If I’d taken the same path I probably would have been paralyzed as well. Even now, the more I learn about the publishing world, especially how small and sharp-edged it can be, the more hesitant I am to put work out there. To an extent, that caution is a good thing (there are many things I wish I’d held back on), but I’m still glad that I was comparatively reckless early on. 

No matter how much you prepare and polish and incubate your work, you’re going to make a fool of yourself at the beginning. And you’ll keep making a fool of yourself for years afterward, probably for your whole life. Lord knows I haven’t stopped. But if you keep at it this miraculous thing happens: people read your work, take it into themselves, and turn it into something more beautiful and mysterious than you ever could have imagined on your own. To be able to spend your life being a part of that process is humbling, and well worth pushing through those first nervous steps.

I didn’t learn that at SFU, though—I was so enthusiastic and ignorant that I failed to realize I was supposed to be nervous.

Something I’ve always found intimidating about poetry is how delicate and intricate and ornate a form it is. If poetry is building a ship in a bottle, a novel is more like building an actual ship. What makes a poem successful to you—both as a writer and a reader?

RT: I’ve never thought of poetry as delicate or ornate, though it is often intricate (and occasionally intimidating). I mostly think of it as big things compressed into small vessels—in this sense your ship-in-bottle metaphor is fitting. But the metaphor is also deceptive—the ship in the bottle is small, and the difficulty is in constructing it within the constraints of the bottle; the poem, on the other hand, only appears small and the difficulty only appears to be writing the poem within the constraints of the form (this is especially true for formal poems, sonnets, sestinas, etc.).

In fact, the poem is incredibly large, and the difficulty is in fitting something incredibly large into something much smaller without damaging it, so that down the road the reader can unpack it and restore it to its original size (or possibly an even larger size). So it’s more like a zip file than a ship in a bottle, I suppose. In this sense, a poem is no different than a novel, except that in a great poem the zip file is more efficiently compressed.

There are so many things that can make a poem successful. I’m not of the opinion that a poem must last through the ages (must “help prolong the Latin names around the base,” as Larkin put it in “An Arundel Tomb”) in order to be a success. If it offers catharsis to writer or reader, challenges an assumption, produces a laugh—any of these are greater accomplishments than many works of art achieve, and should be relished. 

Perhaps more helpful here would be my thoughts on the ideal poem. For me, the ideal poem gives pleasure immediately on first reading. What that specific pleasure is is not overly significant; what matters is that there is pleasure first. As Robert Frost said, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” to which W.S. Merwin added “And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight.” Both ring true to me.

The second requirement is that the pleasure produces a curiosity, and a desire to re-read the poem. On subsequent readings, the poem then needs to prove layered and nuanced enough to consistently release new bits of pleasure and induce new bouts of curiosity, every reading encouraging another, accruing pleasure along the way. To make a poem that lasts like that indefinitely is probably impossible, but there are certainly some poems that are still alive for me after dozens of readings.

Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy The Other Side of Ourselves: Amazon (Canada); Amazon (U.S.). Rob also encourages you to go out and support your local flesh-and-blood bookstore, as do I.

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

Previously on Q&A:

Alison Espach, The Adults

Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

DC Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To

Patrick deWitt, Ablutions

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel

Justin Taylor, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever

Molly Young, Troubleshooting

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