SO MUCH IS BURNING
By: William Taylor Jr.
16 Poems/5 Photos/$10
The eyes of a poet often find beauty in rubble, and hope in a sea of sadness. So Much Is Burning by William Taylor Jr. is a study of poetic transcendence, an examination undertaken by a writer well suited to seeing common miracles. Taylor’s work conveys longing as well any poet writing today. I first encountered his work five years ago when I discovered his wonderful poem “Being Lonely” in Zen Baby. It was such a remarkable poem of searching sadness that I have never forgotten it. So Much Is Burning demonstrates why Taylor has attracted such a devoted following in the small press.
This collection is grounded in place and set on the humble stage known as the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. I asked Taylor why he wanted such a sharp thematic focus. “I had the idea of publishing a collection of poems and photographs all about a particular place, or city. I originally had the idea while living in Santa Cruz. Nothing came of it until I moved to San Francisco and the Tenderloin about a year ago. A lot of poems came from just walking around and hanging out in the neighborhood. Most of them were written in maybe a six month period. I would just send batches of them to David as they were written, and then we’d [David McNamara, Editor of sunnyoutside] usually discuss whether or not a particular piece fit the mood, or theme of the book, and go from there.”
Taylor’s ability to find beauty and hope in this sad town is demonstrated in his poem titled, “At the Corner”: “It is mid afternoon / and I am already tired of the day / Just another thing wasted / another sad mistake / and at the corner of Geary / and Leavenworth / the sky is perfect blue / high above the bus stop / where the strung out / red-haired prostitute waits / her crazed eyes almost / but not quite / beautiful.” And again, in his poem titled, “Like the Dripping of Rain”: “The 4:00 a.m. sound of the / tranny prostitute’s heels / click clacking up and down Post St. / beneath my window / is strangely comforting, // like the dripping of rain / it lulls me to a gentle sleep.”
Only a few lines in this collection step perilously close to becoming melodramatic such as in, “The City”: “Some days the city is a beautiful / as anything that’s ever been // and some days the city is a living thing / whose only purpose / is to devour you slowly / and completely, body / and soul // with jagged / poisoned teeth. // Some days the only victory / is to be alive enough to feel it.” Taylor’s gift is restraint, and in this poem I feel he may have chosen other words than devour, jagged and poisoned teeth to describe this city.
I asked him about what he does to walk this line between pathos and the melodramatic with such agility? He told me, “In much of my work there is a certain mood or feeling I want to convey and I simply try and use the best words possible to do so. I don’t know how else to explain it. I do believe there is sadness in beauty and sometimes beauty in sadness. When I am affected in some way by something I try and write about it in a way that will make the reader feel whatever I felt at the time of the experience.” I also wanted to know if Taylor was filled with as much pathos as his poems often depict. “I don’t think so. I’m generally relatively happy in my everyday life. I tend to release my dark side, if you will, in my writing. Most happy stuff tends not to make interesting reading. To quote old Thomas Hardy, If a way to the best there be, it exacts a full look at the worst. Meaning, the dark aspects of life must be confronted and accepted before any real peace of mind or happiness can be achieved. A kind of peace must be made with the darkness.”
Here is another poem from So Much is Burning titled, “Sucker’s Bet”: “I imagine most of the / people in my neighborhood / don’t believe much in poetry / and I’m not sure if they should / it’s a sucker’s bet / to look for beauty in these / sad broken streets”
I believe the roots of the writer’s voice can be found by looking at his or her life. Since Taylor used “Jr.” in his pen name, I asked him to tell me a little about his father. “My father was a WWII veteran. I think there was a lot he experienced in the war that he never really talked about. His father, from what I gather, was an abusive alcoholic and a preacher. My dad had nothing good to say about him. All of my life my father was a devout atheist, bitterly critical of organized religion of any kind. My mom was, and still is a practicing catholic. It made for an interesting relationship. My dad generally was a quiet, decent man, prone to fits of violence when provoked in a certain way. Now that he’s gone, of course, I wish I’d known him better.”
I also wanted to know about Taylor’s training as a writer, “Right after high school I attended a junior college in my hometown of Bakersfield for a few years. I mainly took art and literature classes. I did well in those, and not so well in the classes that I wasn’t as interested in. I’ve never had much discipline for the classroom setting. I’ve never liked doing things in groups. At the time, I didn’t have a job in mind that a degree in literature would help me get. I didn’t have an interest in being a teacher. I was rather directionless, as far as school went, so after a few years I dropped out.” I asked him when he began writing, “I’ve been actively publishing probably about 15 years now, since my early twenties or so. I told myself that when I had written what I thought to be 100 good poems, I would start submitting. I got a fair amount of encouragement early on; a lot of my work was being accepted by the little zines and such, so I just kept at it.”
When he told me his two favorite dead poets were T.S. Eliot and Robinson Jeffers I began to see Taylor’s writer’s soul come into sharper focus for me. “Eliot was probably the greatest poet writing in English in the 20th century. A true poet’s poet. You can read his best work over and over and never tire of it. There is always something new to discover. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is probably my favorite poem by anyone, ever. Jeffers was the last great poet of the epic tradition. He captured the natural beauty of the earth like few poets could. He found comfort in the fact that the universe and the great beauty of things will continue long after humankind is gone, when there is no heart left to break for it, as do I.”
It’s such pleasure to read Taylor’s work and meet his city. He is a writer with a long future, and an audience that will grow. I was pleased to learn that Chuck Nevismal’s Centennial Press will be publishing an expansive collection of new and selected poems by Taylor called, Words For Songs Never Written. No date has been set for that release, but it is about time this fine poet got a book large enough to showcase his considerable talent