John Taylor is a leading authority on European poetry. He has contributed translations and articles on the subject to the Times Literary Supplement and to the Antioch Review since 1997. His most recent book, A Little Tour through European Poetry, is available from Transaction Publishers. Taylor also writes poetry in addition to writing about it. Here he talks of his creative process.
The essays, book reviews, the Antioch Review “Poetry Today” column—all these pieces are written at home, in my little French house in Anjou, in my study lined with books some of which go back to my teenage years in Des Moines; and the translations are done there as well, with a bilingual dictionary just to my right on my desk, or sometimes on another table, or even on the floor when I am revising. But the personal writing?
For years now, I’ve written my poems and short prose texts almost exclusively while riding on trains. Between here (Angers) and Paris, and especially between here and Nantes, a trip I take regularly because of a regional literary association in which I participate.
Why write on trains? Because I am no longer surrounded by those well-thumbed dictionaries and uncorrected galleys, because I can isolate myself in the train car, especially if I shrewdly analyze the train schedule and select a time slot in which the regional train is rarely crowded; then I slip into a window seat on the less picturesque side of the train, put my bag on the aisle seat, and extend my legs along the floor to discourage anyone from sitting across from me—I am not really misanthropic, there are plenty of available seats. Soon the majestic Loire River will be flowing parallel to the rails, kindly not soliciting my attention.
I pull out my notebook, my blue pen. Although I type my book reviews and translations directly into the computer, the personal writing is produced first in the notebook. And I correct those first drafts in the notebook as well, before transferring them into the computer for further revision. Maybe if I could write the poems and short prose texts in my study at home, I would type them into the computer from the onset. But I cannot. I write them out by hand on trains.
Recently, fortunately (I must say), the number of meetings in Nantes has increased. Moreover, I have been working on some collaborative literary-artistic projects with an artist-friend, Caroline François-Rubino.
She has produced three series of paintings that have solicited poetic responses from me. I receive her work by pdf, print it out, slip it into a folder. Then I tuck that folder, along with one full of administrative documents for the regional literary association, under my arm before taking bus No. 4 to the train station.
Today, entrenched in my window seat in the regional train, which is actually more comfortable than the internationally touted TGV, I’m looking at a photocopy of one of Caroline’s paintings from her series called “Portholes.” The series immediately reminds me of my boat trip from Piraeus to the island of Samos in August 1976. That was no ordinary boat trip, no vacation whatsoever. During that boat trip, I decided to stay in Europe, after a year spent studying at the University of Hamburg, and not to return to the United States. I was twenty four years old.
The ticket collector has just asked me for my ticket. I show it to him, along with my senior citizens’ reduction card (for nearly four decades have gone by since that decision made on the boat to Samos). He says “Merci, Monsieur” and goes down the aisle to the next passenger. Now I’m truly alone and will remain so for 58 more minutes. (My uncrowded train is also the slowest one between Angers and Nantes.) I’m already studying the photocopy of Caroline’s painting, open my notebook, and jot down:
you knew new night would encircle day breaking ever less lit
John Taylor is the author of Paths to Contemporary French Literature (volumes 1–3) and Into the Heart of European Poetry. He has written several books of fiction, short prose, and poetry, most recently The Apocalypse Tapestries and If Night is Falling. He writes for the Times Literary Supplement and authors the “Poetry Today” column in the Antioch Review.
© 2015, The Antioch Review