“Into the underworld of what is beneath the official narrative”: A Conversation with Sam Taylor about Poetry, Hybridity, and Erasure – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Sam Taylor is the author of three books of poems, Body of the WorldNude Descending an Empire, and The Book of Fools. His poems have appeared in such journals as The New Republic, AGNI, Orion Magazine, Poetry Daily, and The Kenyon Review. A native of Miami, he has been a wilderness caretaker in the mountains of northern New Mexico and traveled around the world with the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship. He currently tends a wild garden in Kansas, where he directs the MFA Program at Wichita State.

KMD:  Your new hybrid poetry book, The Book of Fools, implements several different kinds of erasure, ranging from grayscale to strikethrough, fading texts, and more. As a reader and teacher of erasure projects, I found this approach unique and refreshing. Why was it important for you to implement more than one kind of erasure?

ST: The Book of Fools is a book-length elegy for the earth and oceans. I think of it as a book-length poem, but it is a poem of such an unusual range of forms and visual elements that I also think of it as an art object, or “a plastic Byzantium,” which is a phrase from the book. As the book unfolded, I developed a background intention to create a unity of overall effect through a maximum diversity of forms, partly in response to what was already happening with the text, but also because the book investigates the very nature of the lyric and alternative constructions and ideologies of it.

I always try to listen to the will, potentiality, and needs of a particular text, and I tried to do what each poem in this larger poem-epic seemed to want. There are also, for that matter, pieces that have no erasure or scarification. But the most unique and prevalent facet of the book is probably the use of self-erasure, which you and I have discussed over many years, ever since we each independently originated the practice around the same time, almost twelve years ago.

I began self-erasure as a conceptual innovation, marrying erasure’s deconstruction of authorship back to the practice of traditional writing. And, as you know, even though that was more than a decade ago, those were the first poems in The Book of Fools: An Essay in Memoir and Verse. Self-erasure was particularly applicable to the book’s themes, implementing actions of loss and haunting within the book’s exploration of both personal loss and global, ecological grief. It was also particularly useful to the investigation of aesthetics, because it allowed two or three simultaneous aesthetic statements to exist within each poem, forming a cumulative chord. And the erasure of the “self” encouraged an undermining of literary and psychological authority, while capacitating a journey into an underworld.

I wouldn’t call all the approaches in the book self-erasure, but they all do different things that are related to erasure. What I think of as the most traditional style of erasure is the faded text with a black text netted within (in the mode of Jen Bervin’s Nets, which has also been used recently, for example, by Nicole Sealey in her Ferguson report poems). That mode is excellent for haunting and loss and for highlighting excavation, discovery, and for contrast/counterpoint/distillation between the texts. Using strikethroughs highlights to a greater extent filtering, editing, and self-censoring: all the decisions of what to say and what not to say. It highlights the process of composition itself, and at other times it can suggest a more violent or willful refusal of a text. At some points in the book, extremely faded greyscale is used to recess a text in the far, dimly lit background, to make it barely said, almost unsaid or censored yet present, and capable of being read only through voyeuristic desire and strain. Or, greyscale is used to create a spectrum of emergence and vanishing between silence and speech. 

In all these techniques, I think I am scoring a more complex relationship between what is said and what is not said. I think the line between what is said and what is unsaid is always a primary axis for all poems, but erasure techniques add additional dimensions to this tension, creating a palpable, visible 3D sculpture in the air of speech and silence 

KMD:  Relatedly, is erasure inherently an act of violence?  And how does this readerly tendency to equate erasure with violence change when one is working with one’s own texts?

ST: I don’t think it is necessarily violent, no, though it obviously can be. I don’t think it necessarily is violent for the reason I just said: all poetry, all speech really, involves decisions about what to say and what not to say. Something always must be erased or recessed for something else to be said. 

Mostly I have only practiced erasure with texts I have written. There are two erasures of found texts in the book—a Visa advertisement and a collective Wikipedia entry for the Pacific Garbage Patch, neither of which is a text created for soulful self-expression in its origin. There is a dimension of critique in these erasures, particularly the advertisement, but they are primarily excavations that rescue soulful language from desiccated and commercial language. I have never practiced erasure with the texts of other people’s self-expression, a context that involves greater possibilities of violence and critique (or homage). 

We might understand erasure generally, I think, in the context of competing voices and narratives and long histories in which the narratives of some groups and individuals have been erased or ignored, and in which official narratives are often lies that obscure the actual story. So, in that collective sense, too, any act of something being said involves other things (experiences, voices) being unsaid. Even at an individual level, people have a tendency to build official narratives that may gloss over aspects of their reality.

I think the sub-poem in the book that speaks to both levels of this most is the piece titled “[There Ought to Be a Law Against the Truth / (There is.)].” In this poem—the erasure of which is “America executed itself like a laser upon your real feelings”—an underclass of “illegal” people hold the true perception of what is going on beneath the socially programmed myth.

Part of what I am doing in this book is going into the underworld of what is beneath the official narrative, both what is out of frame of the typical, classical poem and what is beneath the official stories of the self or culture. The journey into the underworld is placed in a mythical context with Orpheus, an artistic context with Picasso and other painters, a psychological context in the personal excavation, and a global social-economic-ecological context, but the book tries to access and embody all this through a literal, textual underworld. The text is layered with different simultaneous narratives, said and unsaid and half-said, and the speaker and reader travel into this underworld and rescue things from it.

To return to the other part of your question, I think self-erasure can actually be a humble practice, rooted in the difficulty, the precariousness of making any claim upon the world. It features a reticent skepticism towards one’s own self, an awareness of all the competing narratives and constructs, and a willingness to undermine one’s own creation. Only if you know how hard it is to write a good poem, can you know how hard it is to then erase, ruin/rune, or scarify that poem. All of these might be viewed as extreme acts of “negative capability,” of residing in and creating from a state of not knowing, which is a humble state. Ironically, the book, which speaks about Keats and the concept of negative capability directly within it, was eventually published by Negative Capability Press, a pure coincidence, after being a runner-up multiple times for the National Poetry Series. 

KMD:  I’m intrigued by the way that, through self-erasure, you’ve allowed a past self and present self to coexist within the same rhetorical space.  To what extent is self-erasure a conversation between past self and present self, or between parts of the self or parts of consciousness?  

ST: While the book as a whole is involved very much with the relationship among past and present selves, I don’t see that as something that self-erasure is particularly engaged with. I suppose it creates a layered time perspective in the polyphony of the poem; an erasure is also a revision, and a re-vision looks again, looks back. Orpheus is told not to look back (and does) in the process of rescuing (excavating) his love from the underworld (already, ironically, a backward looking act).

I think all poetry involves a conversation between different parts of the self. (That was Yeats definition and contrast with rhetoric, right?) Self-erasure allows alternative aesthetic and psychological constructions to simultaneously resonate, resulting in a more complex chord. But for me, the conversation between different parts of the self occurs within most of what I write, and here especially across poems in differing styles and aesthetics of lyric. 

KMD: What is the relationship between erasure, violence, and environmental justice?  

ST: I’ve heard the term ecopoetics so many times, and I’ve often wondered what people mean by it. To me it implies that the poetics, and not just the subject matter, deliberately embody ecological concerns or advance ecological perception. But it seems it often is used in a way that is almost just an updated neologism for “nature poetry” or poetry of environmental concern. I’ve written in that mode before, but here I think I intend the poetics to directly reflect ecological concerns. There are, first, all the forms of vanishing that are enacted, specifically through erasure. Second, there is an effort to embody with language the plastic garbage gyres that are the central focus of the book’s eco-elegy for the ocean. I designed some pieces to be analogous in their poetics to a gyre of swirling materials, and sometimes from this gyre an erasure of a more focused lyric is netted. Meanwhile, there are pieces in which language is fragmented and its particulates are deployed and recur to mimic the particulates of plastic in the ocean (and toxic chemicals in our bodies). The book intends to develop an interdependence of the private self and the public and ecological collective: outer is inner, and inner is outer, and what we do to the world we do to ourselves. 

KMD: What are you working on now? What can readers look forward to?  

ST: Readers, as citizens of earth, can probably look forward to more dystopias, to climate change, to AI and cyborg singularity, to approaching the asymptote of the obsolescence of the soul. On the other hand, I hope they can also look forward to heavenly bliss. And, I have on my agenda miraculous thinking.

Otherwise, readers have nothing to look forward to from me. But they should follow me. They should follow me to the bathroom and the Cajun Shak. They should follow me to France and Ecuador. I might write a million dollar poem, or cut up the horror of American atrocity to make suburban pastorals, or write a book about how to have a conversation or be a man. But I won’t be erasing myself again any time soon, at least any more than I already am. I wish everyone well out there, in solidarity and prayer. And you can always say hi.