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creative:impact - Writing is the way this poet thinks

Keith Taylor
Doug Coombe
Concentrate Media
Keith Taylor

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Keith Taylor was born in British Columbia in 1952. He spent his childhood in Alberta and his adolescence in Indiana. After several years of traveling, he moved to Michigan, where he earned his M.A. in English at Central Michigan University. He has worked as a camp-boy for a hunting outfitter in the Yukon, as a dishwasher in southern France, a housepainter in Indiana and Ireland, a freight handler, a teacher, a freelance writer, the co-host of a radio talk show, and as the night attendant at a pinball arcade in California. For more than twenty years he worked as a bookseller in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Then he taught in the undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs at the University of Michigan and directed the Bear River Writers Conference. From 2010–2018 he worked as the Poetry Editor at Michigan Quarterly Review. He retired from the University of Michigan in 2018. He lives with his wife in Ann Arbor; they have one daughter.

His poems, stories, book reviews, translations and feature articles have appeared in many journals, magazines and newspapers in North America and in Europe, including The Ann Arbor Observer, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Birding, Caliban, The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The Fourth Genre, Hanging Loose, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Times, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mondo Greco, New Letters, The Notre Dame Review, Phoebe, Pivot, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Greece, Poets and Writers, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Southern Review, Story, The Sunday Telegraph Magazine (London), Witness, The Wooster Review, etc. His work has also been included in anthologies and other books published by Michigan State University Press, Harvard University Press, Oxford University Press, The University of Michigan Press, W.W. Norton, Wayne State University Press, The Isle Royale Natural History Association, Milkweed Editions, and others.

"The Bird-While" by Keith Taylor
Wayne State University Press
"The Bird-While" by Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor's most recent book is The Bird-while from Wayne State University Press. It won the Bronze Award from the Foreword Indies Poetry Book of the Year for 2017. His recent chapbooks, Ecstatic Destinations (2018), Fidelities (2015) and The Ancient Murrelet (2013),were published by Alice Greene & Co. In addition to larger and edited collections, he has published eight chapbooks of poetry. His collection of very short stories, Life Science and Other Stories, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 1995. With John Knott, Taylor co-edited the anthology The Huron River: Voices from the Watershed (The University of Michigan Press, 2000), which was a finalist in 2001 for the Great Lakes Book Award for General Nonfiction and was selected for the 2001 Read Michigan List by the Governor’s Office of the State of Michigan. With Artemis Leontis and Lauren Talalay, he co-edited the collection What These Ithakas Mean: Readings in Cavafy (Athens, Greece: E.L.I.A., 2002), which was picked as one of the “Books of the Year” for 2002 in the Times Literary Supplement. His book Guilty at the Rapture, which includes poetry, short stories and essays, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2006, and was chosen as one of the Michigan Notable Books of the Year for 2007 by the Library of Michigan. His book of translations, Battered Guitars: The Poetry and Prose of Kostas Karyotakis, done with William W. Reader, was published in the Fall, 2006, by the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman, and Modern Greek Studies at The University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom.

In the Fall of 2001, he was co-host of a 13-week radio program, “Storylines America: Midwestern Literature,” funded by the American Library Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was broadcast by National Public Radio stations in the 8 state Midwestern region and received the “Best Award in Special Programming” from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He was a featured artist on the PBS documentary “Isle Royale Reflections.” The text of his poem “Upper Midwestern Apologia” and his reading of it were used by the composer Evan Chambers in his piece of electronic music of the same title. That prize-winning piece appeared on the compact disc “XVI Concorso Internazionale Luigi Russolo di Musica Electroaucstica” released in 1994 in Varese, Italy. In 2007 Chambers commissioned another poem, "All the Time You Need," to accompany his song cycle, "The Old Burying Ground," which was premiered at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Mi., in December, 2007. That cycle was toured by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra during the winter of 2008, concluding with a performance at Carnegie Hall. A recording of this piece with Taylor reading his poem was released by Dorian Recordings in 2010. A reading of his short story, “The Customer,” was performed by the actor Jeffrey Wright at New York’s Symphony Space; that performance was rebroadcast on the National Public Radio program “Selected Shorts.” Taylor reads his work regularly on the radio, at colleges and universities, in high schools, libraries, art museums, bars and coffee houses. He also lectures widely on contemporary fiction, poetry, the craft of writing, and environmental literature.

Keith Taylor has received a fellowship in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant for fiction from The Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs. He has served as Artist-in-Residence at Isle Royale National Park and at the University of Michigan Biological Station, as well as Writer-in-the-Community for the Writer’s Voice at the Detroit YMCA. In 2002 he was in residence at the International Writers’ and Translators’ Center of Rhodes, Greece, to continue work on the translation of the poetry of Kostas Karyotakis with his co-translator, William W. Reader. In 2004 the translation of two of those poems by Karyotakis was awarded the Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard Award from Poetry Greece. The book that resulted from that project, Battered Guitars: Poetry and Prose of Kostas Karyotakis, was short-listed for the Greek State Translation Prize in 2007, and was runner-up for the TLS/Hellenic Society/Society of Authors Translation Award in 2008.In 2004 he received a research grant from the Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life at the University of Michigan, so he could pursue archival work on a project that attempts to recreate the life of his pioneering ancestors in Alberta, Canada. For the 2005/2006 school year, he was chosen as Writer in Residence at Greenhills School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the Winter of 2007, he was a Senior Writing Fellow at the Sweetland Writing Center of the University of Michigan. In 2008, he was given the Matthews Teaching Award for Excellence by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan. In 2013 he was named A.L. Becker Collegiate Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. In 2018, the Keith Taylor Poetry Prize was endowed as a new Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan.


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Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays to meet creative guests rooted in Washtenaw County and explore how their creative businesses, products, programs and services impact and add to our local quality of life, place and economy. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. You know, in the same way, a visual artist creates images to help us see the world. A poet uses words to do the same. Most--and both--have the power to link us to our hearts and souls. Keith Taylor is a poet. Welcome to creative:impact, Keith.

Keith Taylor: Thanks for having me, Deb. Great to be here.

Deb Polich: Yeah, I'm excited because I want to start out with your words. Would you do us a grand favor of reading one of your poems?

Keith Taylor: Favor? It's my pleasure. This is a little poem called "Responsibilities."

I keep the theaters filled with seeds,

So jays come down noisy and unforgiving.

They chase off starlings,

then build their nests out back.

I watch them from my study.

While far away, towers fall and ancient cities crumble.

Deb Polich: That makes me want to hold on to those words for a moment. And your voice as well. So, Keith, when was this published?

"Ecstatic Destinations" by Keith Taylor
Alice Greene & Co.
"Ecstatic Destinations" by Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor: Let's see. It appeared in this little chapbook of poems published by a little press in Ann Arbor that does pamphlet-sized books that appeared in 2019. It does, to me, feel like a COVID poem, although it was written before COVID. I think I published a magazine, probably 2018 or so.

Deb Polich: Well, I actually thought of it, you know, being so timely because we're changing seasons. The birds are arriving and returning.

Keith Taylor: Yup.

Deb Polich: And, of course, and, unfortunately, about towers and stuff. The war in Ukraine.

Keith Taylor: Exactly. That's why I picked it to read.

Deb Polich: You know, people often ask me how I know if it's art. I don't know that anybody can really say that. Others have their answers. But my answer is, if I can find meaning or contemplation each time I encounter a piece, then that, for me, is art that I want in my life. And poems do that, right? Wouldn't you say?

Keith Taylor: That's what I would say. Yes. And sometimes they grow. This poem, interestingly enough, has become more meaningful to me. I think that when ancient cities crumble, I think I was thinking of one of those classical cities in Syria that ISIS destroyed when I took it over.

Deb Polich: Sure.

Keith Taylor: But now, it feels completely relevant.

Deb Polich: Right. Absolutely. So, you mentioned that this was a chapbook. What's a chapbook?

"Let Them Be Left" by Keith Taylorr
Alice Greene & Co.
"Let Them Be Left" by Keith Taylorr

Keith Taylor: Chapbook is a short book of poems, usually around 20 pages. Poets like to do them because they can put a bunch of things together and see how they look together. And that can either change or expand or shrink when they put them together in a larger book. And we have this lovely little press over in Ann Arbor.

Deb Polich: Alice Greene?

Keith Taylor: Alice Greene.

Deb Polich: Yeah, Alice Greene's great.

Keith Taylor: She's doing these beautiful little books.

Deb Polich: That's awesome. So, I have to ask you. Is there a difference for you between hearing or reading poetry?

Keith Taylor: Not as profound for me as it is for some people. I try to make sure that my poems do sound well. I try to feel that I'm trying to try to get the feeling that they reflect my voice. And I do enjoy listening to poems, although it is much, much easier to come back to poems on the page when you want to revisit a poem, when you want a form to grow on you. So, I'm probably more inclined toward the page, but that may be an indication of my age and education too.

Deb Polich: Who knows? Right? We are where we are. So, speaking of where we are, where were you? How did you discover your voice? How did you find your love for poetry?

Keith Taylor: Always a tough question, but I grew up in a very, very religious and conservative religious family in western Canada. I grew up memorizing the Bible, the King James version of the Bible.

Deb Polich: That's a lot to memorize.

Keith Taylor: I didn't memorize at all, although I knew some old men who had.

Deb Polich: I bet.

Keith Taylor: The whole New Testament. My family moved to the States just before I began high school. And so I'd gone from a rural environment to an urban environment. It was South Bend, Indiana. I'd gone..it was the late sixties. Lots of things going on. And I became very troubled. I wanted to break from my religious upbringing. In that process, somewhere in that whole swirl of things, I discovered poetry and..what was I? 14, 15 years old. And I've been stuck there ever since.

Deb Polich: Did you always just have the confidence to write or were you ever...you know, sometimes when you start writing poetry as a teenager, like I did, which I will never share my poems with anyone, you kind of almost get a little embarrassed by it. Did you already just have the confidence?

Keith Taylor: No, I don't think I've ever had the confidence. I'm 70 now, and I don't think I have the confidence now. The lack of confidence is maybe one of the motivations for doing it, because every time I'm stepping out there into a nervous and uncertain place, and, that, I find that inspiring.

Deb Polich: Wow. That's really interesting, because I would think, as an accomplished poet, an award-winning poet as you are, you'd be really there. This is creative:impact on WEMU 89 one FM, and I'm here with my guest, the award-winning and published poet Keith Taylor. So, you taught creative writing for a long time at the University of Michigan. Is being a creative writer different... I mean, can a creative writer write poems, or is it different for poetry versus creative writing in general?

Keith Taylor: Oh, I think it's a little bit different. I think the intensity of the poem, the importance of the image in the poem is always there. The processes, though, I think, are similar. You've got to sit down and you've got to get it down and you have to find some access to your imagination. If that's going to be in a longer story or a novel, that's going to be one thing. In an essay that's going to be another. And, in a poem, it's going to usually be a small moment. Not always, but usually a small moment.

Deb Polich: Small moment. So, you know, before and during your tenure at the University of Michigan, you've had a variety of other positions. You've been a bookseller. You've spent time working as a camp boy. We could probably do a whole show on camp boys in the Yukon. You were a freight handler, a co-host of a radio show, and as a dishwasher in France, among a lot of other things. If I may plagiarize another University of Michigan famous poet, you seem to have taken the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference. My appreciation and perhaps apologies to Mr. Robert Frost. But how does your life experiences and interests influence and inform your poetry?

Keith Taylor: Yeah. I mean, my life experiences have shaped me one way or another, and I went looking for them. I was still of that generation that you could imagine a life as a writer outside universities. That's gotten harder and harder to do, although I think we've lost something in the way. And I wanted to get away from my background. So, I would go out and explore the world and do things that that would stretch my experience of the world away from the small, farming religion that I grew up in.

Deb Polich: So, that's really fascinating. You know, many people shy away from reading or writing poetry. Why do you think that's the case?

Keith Taylor: Yeah, that's a tough one because it's been so central to my life. But I think that very intensity I talked about, it's very hard to read. For instance, I can't read poetry before I go to sleep because my mind is going too fast. I'm trying to, you know, jump from one thing to another. I'm paying too much attention to individual words. But give me a long prose passage, and I can read that and drift off to sleep in no time.

Deb Polich: So, I mean it's really you being in the right place at the right time.

Keith Taylor: Yeah. And I think that a lot of people aren't willing to give that for whatever reason. And this could be very good reasons but aren't willing to give that kind of intensity to, you know, very short passages. And, you know, you're never quite sure if you're getting your reward from poetry. Sometimes, it'll come back years later. But the immediate thing is I'm not getting a story. I'm not getting intrigued. So, it becomes a false difficulty.

Deb Polich: Do you think the spoken word movement, or perhaps a rock star like Amanda Gorman, is actually encouraging people to get into poetry?

Keith Taylor: Absolutely. I mean, even if it's not the first thing in my mind, that whole movement in the last 30 years has done wonders for expanding the audience, brought lots of people into the art.

Deb Polich: Yeah. I mean, and she's amazing to listen to and to read.

Keith Taylor: Yeah.

Deb Polich: I mean, she's just a great example. I encourage people who may not know her work to check it out. She's really amazing.

Keith Taylor: Definitely.

Deb Polich: As they should also check out your work too. I didn't mean--

Keith Taylor: Thank you, Deb. It's OK.

Deb Polich: Or I wouldn't have said otherwise. So, you are now continuing to write even though you're not still at the university. And what are you working on right now?

"The Dress of the Poem" by Khaled Al’Saa’i
Khaled Al’Saa’i
University of Michigan Museum of Art
"The Dress of the Poem" by Khaled Al’Saa’i

Keith Taylor: Oh, I have a whole another book of poems I have ready to get out there. And that is a book that came together during the during the plague. Things keep coming. Once you put poems out in the world, they drift back in interesting ways. And a painter from Dubai has just done a painting after one of my poems, and it was just hung this week at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. You know, those kinds of things happen, and they're just wonderful. You do want to do everything you can to help.

Deb Polich: So, your words are--it's kind of funny the way I started the show out about artists showing the world and you speaking the world, and here it comes together in this artist's work from Dubai, connecting the whole world and being at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. So, I'll encourage people to do that. You know, Keith, thanks so much for being on the show and sharing your words and thoughts. And it's really, really, truly been a pleasure. Thank you.

Keith Taylor: Wonderful. Deb. Thank you. Thank you for all your work.

Deb Polich: Oh, of course. That's award-winning poet Keith Taylor, publisher of thousands of lines of poetry. And his publications have won awards and are available everywhere. Find out more about Keith and his work at WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host for creative:impact. Please join me again next Tuesday to meet another creative Washtenaw guest on this, your community NPR radio station, 89 one WEMU and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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