Terry Taplin on Becoming Imaginary and the Tension Between Oblivion and Meticulosity

Terry Taplin on Becoming Imaginary and the Tension Between Oblivion and Meticulosity

An interview with Terry Taplin, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Terry Taplin was born in Berkeley, CA in 1988, the year of Robert Duncan’s passing. Having begun writing poetry under the tutelage of Judith Lee Stronach, he continues in his life long journey as an eternal student of poetic craft and traditions. A devout believer in the power and importance of the Liberal Arts and drawing deeply from oral and literary poetics ranging from Classical Antiquity to the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the 20th and 21st Century, his writing seeks a synthesis and reconciliation of forms and aesthetics.

With one hand on the human and ecological crises and one hand on the peculiarities of a mindscape equally predisposed to escapism and mingled bliss and grief, the poems of Taplin aim to transport and guide readers through literary microclimates, each striking a tension between oblivion and meticulosity and within which image/lyric are foregrounded and meaning/narrative are subsumed by alchemy and myth.

Taplin’s performance work has appeared on stages ranging from The San Francisco Opera House and The Masonic Auditorium to The Apollo Theater in Harlem and Da Poetry Lounge in Hollywood. His page work has been featured at reading series throughout the Bay Area, including New Poetry Mission in San Francisco,Lyrics and Dirges in Berkeley, Under the Influence at the Emerald Tablet in North Beach, as well as the 2012 Beast Crawl and the 10th Berkeley Poetry Festival in 2012. He holds several local and national slam poetry championships and final-stage performances spanning 2006-2012 across the youth and collegiate circuits, as both a competing poet and as a coach. In 2014 he became the co-recipient of the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Poetry Prize for undergraduate poetry and the Newman Award for undergraduate writing and was awarded an honorable mention in Spectrum for literary criticism. Both the Newman Award and Spectrum are housed at Saint Mary’s College of California, where Terry studies Classical Greek and Latin.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?

First and foremost, I study. By occupation and leisure I am a scholar of Classical and Medieval/Renaissance art, literature, history and philosophy. I am currently a senior at Saint Mary’s, pursuing a Bachelor’s in Classical Languages (Greek and Latin) and will be applying to Graduate programs in Classical and Medieval Studies. Also, I am writer; I started writing when I was eleven (26 this summer) as a student of Judith Lee Stomach and I just never stopped. Over the past few years I’ve been exploring formal and metric verse, revisiting the poetry of the Classical and Medieval worlds and making a study of Modernist and Post-Modern poetics. I consider what I do to be very much rooted in those several literary traditions. I write mostly fantasy lyric, pastoral and what I suspect to be a weird breed of epyllion (short-myth narrative); I’ve also tried my hand at dramatic verse. I write both in free verse and in received form/meter, whatever the poems call for. I consider myself to be a very strange blend of Meta-Modernism and Neo-Platonist New Formalism. I also love to make and unmake categories and aesthetic distinctions at will, so watch out for that.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

One of the hardest things for me to figure out is when projects end and start — knowing when one group of poems is complete, how one poem relates to the others in its group, or how groups of poems relate to one another: whether they belong to one over-arching manuscript or in separate chapbooks. I’m really plan-and-vision based so I view my poems in each their own individual contexts but also in their wider contexts. Sometimes there is one very long poem, and sometimes there is a sequence of short poems, and it can take some time for me to figure that out.

Another challenge that I have isn’t related to process but to community. It can be a tough balance for me to strike between alone-time as a writer and forming relationships with other writers and spaces. I think it’s great to form schools of thought and poetics, but sometimes I perceive lines in the sand and combative aesthetic conventions being raised and debates over who should write what for whom and what purpose and why, the absolute necessity of which I am not altogether convinced. The last century seemed to have a lot hurt feelings among poets, a lot of poetry wars seemed to have been fought: elitism vs. populism, how valid the “I” is or isn’t, the canon, the canon, the canon, that kind of stuff. People just seemed so butt hurt about the Waste Land I guess.

I’ve always felt that one should employ whatever technique or engage with whichever poetic tradition they choose and that perhaps the lower the stakes are the harder the little fist shakes. But I know I was born in the late 80’s so I consider it a privilege that my generation can write how we want without feeling like we’re choosing sides. The challenge for me here is not giving in to the pressure to choose a faction.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for


I once heard Janani Bala, an activist and poet whom I greatly admire, speak of becoming imaginary: this, I think, is very good advice. Become imaginary: fantasize, day dream, practice recalling your dreams the moment you wake up, meditate; practice tuning the ear to one’s interiority, one’s own internal sounds. Push past satisfaction and contentment with everyday life: a lot of people talk of the “magic in the ordinary,” which is fine, this seems to appeal to and work for a good deal of people. To this I would say: there is also magic in mystery, in the unknown, in not-knowing, there is also magic in, like, you know… magic: this is a good thing to embrace. Incorporate a practice of daily inspiration, seek constant and continuous aesthetic and intellectual stimulation; spend massive amounts of time alone; read as much literature and philosophy as you can get your hands on; take cues from painting, sculpture and instrumental and vocal music. Refuse to burden the poems with obligatory/compulsory personality and autobiographies i.e. embrace the removal of self from text by gradients, disentangle the author from the speaker, and allow poems to offer forth their own voices, form myths. Embrace idealism i.e. allow that there are the things themselves and there are also the ideas of things, familiarize with your own ideals and love them.

Embrace the reception of poems as visions, self-induced or otherwise; become comfortable with designing poems, court forms and structures and then forfeit control and become intimate with detaching and let the poems take you along on their own terms. Dissociate from the voices that warn us against sounding pretentious, resist the urge to rebuke convention by convention, reject the voices that tell us that such and such mode or technique is “outdated” or “too contemporary”. Do not, do not, do not shy away from form and tradition, do not fear being too post-modern, do not fear romanticism, do not fear retro-modernism, do not fear nostalgia, do not fear sentimentality, do not fear erudition, and do not fear languages other than English, it’s okay to not know things, it’s okay to have special knowledge. Read Ezra Pound and read June Jordan, don’t be afraid to like both. And straight up have fun!

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

This is a tougher question: I would have to say that I do consider myself successful. Although I take my writing very serious i.e. no matter what I will always write and give myself over to my writing and have professional feelings and philosophies regarding the craft, I don’t really see myself as a “career writer”, nor do I plan on making myself one. I certainly have a desire and will to publish and to explore new ways to write and new things to write, but I don’t really plan on relying on poetry to feed me; writing for me is a matter of lifestyle, my purpose as a writer has always been to write stuff that I myself would enjoy reading. I consider myself victorious if I can get someone else to like something of mine, but my concept of success rests on the drafting and revision of poems that I truly want to write. If I feel as though I have done justice to things seen in my mind then I consider those successes. When I do get around to submitting things, or booking readings, I feel immense gratitude to those who respond positively to my work.

When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel


There is a very beautiful recording of an Old Roman chant called “Terra Tremuit” set to slide images that usually takes me to a very good place in any mood.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

I pretty much have spiders in the bank.

What is art? Is it necessary? Why?

Art is the articulation and external rendering in various media of interior realities. Art is the creation and transmission of myth, the articulation of the way in which a person experiences their world; I consider this to be a sacred act and radically close to the origins of religion at its most honest and unadulterated by state-power and moral policing. This I firmly believe to be a necessity and, even if it weren’t, art wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon, no matter what anyone says.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently revising a manuscript of experimental forays into lyric, monologue and pastoral. Earlier this year I wrote a sequence of single page post-modern pastorals as part of a January Term coarse on Ecopoetics with Brenda Hillman; the series is a mash up of scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the New Testament Gospels which I would like to release as a chapbook. I’m looking around for places to submit these. And I am sketching another collection of poems, long poems and mini-sequences that navigate the similarities of mysticism and art. I have a pretty heavy booklist lined up for this project — the best thing about attending a Liberal Arts school with a Great Books program is having some great books in the library: I’ve got a bunch of stuff ranging from the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint Thomas Aquinas to the Romance of the Rose to books, sort of field classics, on the history, art and thought of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and there are some philosophers of those periods that I’ve been trying to track down for years.

I would like my next collection to be sort of a meditation towards a compendium, or anti-compendium of all these things. With these I would like to challenge myself in a number of respects: applied aesthetic philosophy — or atleast enthusiastic scholasticism, complexity of structure and how far I can stretch and combine concepts within cohesion. Robert Duncan’s Medieval Scenes was a big, encouraging, inspiration to pursue this one, as were Ezra Pound’s Cantos and — you guessed it, the Divine Comedy. It’d be hard for me to say what such a collection would be “about” other than passion and ecstasy and terror and fascination with the divine and with the felt unsaid, for me everything is music and ritual and with these poems and their attendant permitted geekdulgencess I mean to ponder: why not?

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I spend a lot of time studying ancient, mediaeval and modernist poetics and aesthetic philosophy. The kind of work I have been experimenting with and would like to master is a kind of synthesis of Old and New forms and anti or counter-forms. Having been learning Greek and Latin, I would love to revive classical meters and utilize what I’m learning to really stretch the limits of both English grammar and prosody. A big part of my M.O. is the infusing of the ritual aspects of ancient Greek poetry and the dream vision/mystery play elements of medieval poetry, especially in regards to lyric and dramatic verse, into my own writing.

In a nut shell there are three kinds of writing that I admire most: the epic, the visionary, and the difficult. The epic and heroic traditions for me are a no brainer — I’m obviously predisposed to the Homeric and Arthurian traditions for this; I’ve always been drawn to the occult, the hidden, the mystery traditions of the East and the West and poetry/poets that have this bend really speak to me. I have a great love for the difficult and strange, stuff that’s hard to read either due to inversion and undermining of the reader’s expectations of language or sheer unfamiliarity with a poem’s structure, techniques or content, I love fragmentation, imagistic and syntactical; I love poems that contain specialized knowledge. For me the poets that really epitomize this are: Homer, Theocritus, Virgil, Ovid (yes still, even now); Dante, who for me is the ultimate and is my first impulse to read poetry seriously and is precisely what I have always thought poetry to be; Milton and Blake; the High Modernists Yeats, H.D., and poor old Eliot and Pound fussy, troubled and brilliant though wracked by hate. The poets of our own particular day who lead the pack for me are Brenda Hillman, whom I have had the pleasure to learn from and to hear read over the past year, and Evelyn Reilly, whose work I think is daring and phenomenal in the truest sense of the word. There is no short supply of many more and diverse poets, but these are those whom I have the most knowledge of.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

I grew up in Berkeley. The only thing I would change is the density, I would have less population and development and wouldn’t event think twice about it, industry be damned. No seriously, industry be damned, cosmically speaking.

What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?

With 50 dollars I could get some of my friends stoned enough to listen to my crazy nonsense, with 50 words I can make the reader feel stoned.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I would have to go on an endless pilgrimage to all the sacred sites of the world which my presence wouldn’t be an intrusion upon and to all the big art centers: honestly I need to see every single piece of famous and historic artwork in the world.


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