Interview with Marilyn L. Taylor & Five Poems

By Wendy Vardaman

Summer Sapphics

Maybe things are better than we imagine
if a rubber inner-tube still can send us
drifting down a sinuous, tree-draped river
                        like the Wisconsin—

far removed from spores of touristococcus.
As we bob half-in and half-out of water
with our legs like tentacles, dangling limply
                        under the surface

we are like invertebrate creatures, floating
on a cosmic droplet—a caravan of
giant-sized amoebas, without a clear-cut
                        sense of direction.

It’s as if we’ve started evolving backwards:
mammal, reptile, polliwog, protozoon—
toward that dark primordial soup we seem so
                        eager to get to.

Funny, how warm water will whisper secrets
in its native language to every cell— yet
we, the aggregation, have just begun to
                        fathom the gestures.

WV: How has being Poet Laureate of Wisconsin affected you and your writing?

MLT: Well, let me put it this way, Wendy: being Poet Laureate of Wisconsin has been, for me, the culmination of just about everything I’ve dreamed of achieving, professionally speaking.  I felt enormously honored when I first heard about my appointment back in the fall of 2008, and I feel equally honored today.  It’s been hugely rewarding.  A bit all-consuming, perhaps—but deeply and utterly gratifying. 

WV: What was the best part of being Poet Laureate? The most challenging?

MLT: The best part of being PL has been getting to meet so many wonderful, welcoming people from all over the state.  Many of them are already interested in poetry, others are quite new to it, but every single one of them made me feel as though my visit provided them with something of value.  And there is nothing more rewarding than that.

The most challenging part, on the other hand, is managing your time.  Learning how to say no.  All those practical things I’ve never been good at.

WV: Why should states have Poets Laureate? Could you talk about some of the events you’ve done as Poet Laureate?

MLT: One of the great unrecognized truths in this country is that people actually like poetry.  They want to hear it read out loud, they want to read it themselves, and—as you know—many people even want to write it.  The State Poets Laureate are very happy about this state of affairs, and consider it their own unique challenge to send the word out even further, in order to gain still broader acknowledgment of this relatively unsung art form.  And I have to add that it works.  Some of the events that convinced me of that include a reading I gave that was accompanied by a string trio in Viroqua; speaking to 300 enthusiastic retirees who came to listen at UW-Green Bay; presenting a reading with actors and actresses from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater; participating in book festivals in Eau Claire, Appleton, Fond du Lac, Madison, Waukesha, Amery . . . well, I could go on and on.

WV: Did you have goals for your term as Poet Laureate, and do you feel you accomplished them? Do you have any advice for the next Poet Laureate, Bruce Dethlefsen?

MLT: My primary goal as Poet Laureate has been to act as a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood representative of the art of poetry itself in this state, and to enlarge its artistic footprint, so to speak.  During my two years in that capacity I think I more-or-less succeeded, although my predecessors, Ellen Kort and Denise Sweet, got the ball rolling beautifully, and I know my successor will take it even further and do it wonderfully well.  My advice for him?  Don’t let the invitations overwhelm you, Bruce.  Learn to say no if you need to.  Also, be sure to tune up your car.

WV: You wrote an article for Verse Wisconsin about your experience with the United Poets Laureate meeting last year in Kansas. Could you update us about that group & its future plans? What are the benefits to poetry of an organization like United Poets Laureate? [Read Taylor's article here.]

MLT: The United Poets Laureate are on a roll!  A great “convergence” of state Poets Laureate from across the country happened March 13 and 14, 2011, in Lawrence Kansas, with some terrific readings and panels scheduled for both days (see for more details). Both Bruce Dethlefsen and I participated.

Also, a splendid anthology titled An Endless Skyway, featuring poems by 38 of us, will be published by Ice Cube Press at about the same time. I’m very pleased to add that we’ve obtained blurbs for the book from Maxine Kumin and Coleman Barks, with others to come.  You’ll be hearing a great deal more about this soon.

WV: What changes have you seen, if any, in the Wisconsin poetry community in the last 5 years? How about nationally?

MLT: I feel strongly that the Wisconsin poetry community has not only broadened, it has also deepened.  Every year I see more and more ambitious, sophisticated poems by Wisconsin poets featured in the best poetry journals. I also hear them at readings, and even get to choose from among them for the WFOP Museletter Poetry Pages.  Much of this work compares very favorably with what’s happening in poetry nationally—and I emphatically include the eastern seaboard when I say this.

WV: Michael Kriesel compiled an “encyclopedia” of WI forms/formalists for the last issue of Verse Wisconsin (104, Fall 2010), including both traditional forms, like sonnets, as well as new forms, like his “threesome” or the WI “justified poem.” What do you think of newly invented forms? Do you find any of them tempting, or do you prefer the traditional? Would you put them in the same category as, for instance, the sonnet?

MLT: I love experimental form!  I greatly enjoy reading the work of its practitioners—Michael Kriesel himself, of course, and also Mark Zimmermann, Wendy Vardaman, Karl Elder, CX Dillhunt, Lester Smith, Jeannie Bergmann—among a number of other Wisconsin poets who are doing some amazing things with form.  Would I write in experimental forms myself?  Well, sometimes I’m tempted, especially by the idea of inventing a whole new one—but I usually prefer to take on the traditional forms instead, and pack them with un-traditional content.

Rondeau:  Old Woman With Cat

Osteoporosis  (one of life’s indignities)
is such a splendid name for the disease—
all those little o’s, holes in the bone
where the rain gets in, rendering a crone
like me defective, porous as Swiss cheese.

I’m riddled at the hips and knees,
roundsided as parentheses
since my shrunken spine has known    

and my extremities
have shriveled into lacy filigrees,
breakable as glass on stone.
Naked at the window ledge I drone
to my sleek, supple Siamese:

WV: Do you think of the prose poem as a form?

MLT: Well, it’s a matter of clarifying what is meant by “form.”  To me, a prose poem is a product of that borderland area between poetry and prose. (Hence the name.)  If a genre-blending piece of writing is defined as a “form,” then yes, the prose poem qualifies.

WV: Who are some of your favorite formalist innovators right now and what are the sources of that innovation?

MLT: Some of my favorite contemporary innovators in form include Kim Addonizio, Molly Peacock, Greg Williamson, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Dick Allen.  These are poets who know how to write articulately and gracefully in the traditional forms, but who frequently choose to break the rules on purpose.  The results are often splendid.

WV: It seems to me that I've seen a lot of sonnets lately, even sonnet crowns, from poets who don't write in form all the time, but try it sometimes. Do you think more people are writing poems in form? Are there any trends to watch for (or watch out for) in formal poetry?

MLT: I just finished writing an essay on precisely this subject for the new print version of the journal Able Muse.  In a nutshell, I’m claiming that current trends in formal poetry are pushing the envelope, breaking the rules to some extent but never entirely (a sonnet, for instance, remains recognizable as a sonnet)—and creating what I refer to as “semi-formal poetry.”  Grab the Winter 2010 issue of Able Muse for more on this, if it interests you.

WV: Do you find some forms easier than others to work in? Do you think some forms are harder than others to bring off?

MLT: I personally love to work in the sonnet form.  I get a huge kick out of writing in meter (although I work hard to keep it flexible and not rigid), and enjoy the challenge of articulating what I have to say in fourteen lines.  I never feel “boxed in” by these limitations; I feel liberated and stimulated by them.


           —Talbot Island, Florida

Felled by a gale as deadly as Vesuvius,
three adolescent live-oak trees have spread
their naked bodies on the beach—oblivious
to the explicit fact that they are dead.

Maintaining the accoutrements of “tree”
they sprawl across the sand, immobilized—
three topknots floating in the shallow sea,
three clumps of frizzy pubic roots, exposed.

Sun-bleached to marble whiteness, they could pass
for Roman statues, fallen but intact,
still clinging to the crumbling godliness
we give to every ancient artifact

in our hopeless attempt to reconcile
the chill of the horizon’s long, thin smile.

WV: What advice do you have for a poet who has never worked in form but would like to try it or has just started out with form? How about for those that have done a bit but would like to go deeper?

MLT: I think it all depends on how the poet feels about meter.  If he or she enjoys working with the regular rhythms of the English language, I’d say try a sonnet, a villanelle or a rhymed quatrain and see what happens.  But if meter presents a problem, I’d suggest instead taking a stab at a pantoum, a sestina, or maybe simply an acrostic.  (Any poet unfamiliar with these terms is strongly advised to shell out for a copy of Lewis Turco’s invaluable New Book of Forms; they’re all right there, defined in detail!)

The 84th Street Care Home

                        If you’re not ready for a nursing home,
                        live where you belong—in a comfortable
                        house in a pleasant neighborhood.
                                                           —the Yellow Pages

We live in this house.
It fits right in.
Its windows face
the long afternoons.

It fits right in,
and no one would guess
the long afternoons
mean nothing to us

and no one would guess
that the other houses
mean nothing to us—
except for the little boys

that the other houses
gather in a dusk.
The little boys
think we’re ghosts

gathering at dusk
to frequent their dreams.
They think we’re ghosts
when our night visits seem

too frequent. Their dreams
make them shudder—
our night visits seem
like shadows, wavering but persistent.

Make them shutter
their windows, face
their own shadows. Wavering but persistent
we live in this house.

WV: As editors, we sometimes see formal poems that sound like they might have been written in an earlier century. What can poets do to avoid that problem? When, if ever, would it be effective or appropriate?

MLT: Alas, methinks this particular problem is way too much with us, late and soon!  The sonnet, in particular, seems to trigger something archaic in the brains of many otherwise normal, well-meaning poets—resulting in work that is almost comically out of date.  My advice to anyone tackling a traditional form for the first time:  write in the language you actually speak, slang and all!  If you don’t, you are running the risk of coming across like your great-great-grandma’s grandma.

WV: Do you think there is anything particular to the formal poetry practiced in Wisconsin or the Midwest? (or to Wisconsin poetry in general?)

MLT: No, I do not. I have heard this claim from a few of my poet-friends, but I think they are dead wrong about it. In my opinion there is no such thing as a “Wisconsin form” or a recognizable “Wisconsin poem,” even if it’s all about cheese.  Formal poetry knows no geography.  Subject-matter does, of course.  But form?  Not a chance.  Form is form, and it transcends state lines, average yearly rainfall, indigenous livestock, the presence or absence of light rail, and the popularity of hand-crafted beers.

Piano Overture

He came to our apartment twice a year
to tune my mother’s piano.  All day long
we tiptoed, trying not to interfere
with what to us were strange, unearthly songs.

He never struck a heavy, luscious chord—
only fifths, fourths, octaves—clean and spare;
brandishing his hammer like a sword,
we watched him wring concordance from the air.

Taut as pulled wire, he’d lean into the keys,
his practiced fingers pressing note on note,
hunting down aberrant harmonies
and any latent quaver in the throat.

At last the piano, gaping and undone,
its very heart exposed for all to see,
would wait in silence, chastened as a nun,
for the blasphemies of Chopin and Satie.

WV: What will you work on when you’re finished being Poet Laureate?

MLT: I’m hoping to emulate UW-Madison’s amazing Ron Wallace, who devoted a year of his life to writing a sonnet every day.  I can’t think of anything more rewarding than doing just that—although I might throw in a villanelle or two, and even some free verse now and then, just for the heck of it.  And when the year is over, I’ll choose a selection of  decent ones from among the 300-plus I hope to have written, and put them together as a new book.  This is my dream scenario right now.

An earlier interview with Marilyn L. Taylor by Wendy Vardaman (previously published by Free Verse) is available to read at Taylor's website.