Clara Burghelea Chats with J. Taylor Bell
POET BIOGRAPHY (J. Taylor Bell is from Fort Worth, Texas. He is studying an MA in Poetry at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he is the Seamus Heaney Center International Scholar of 2018-19. His work was shortlisted for the Mairtín Crawford as well as the Overland Fair Australia Poetry Prize and has appeared in The Tangerine, Honest Ulsterman, A3 Review, and other publications. You can peep at his extremely occasional twitter banter here @jtaylorbell1)
Interview with our Featured Poet of Issue 39, J. Taylor Bell.
Clara Burghelea: So, tell me a little bit about how you started writing and what drew you to poetry.
J. Taylor Bell: As both of us may painfully realize before this interview concludes, brevity has never really been my strong suit. I think that I have a terrible and bizarre fear of being misunderstood, so I tend to over-explain everything. A wonder then that I’m so drawn to poetry, notorious for being the breath mint after the long steak buffet of…literature… But when you think about it more, it kind of makes sense, because there is a real clarity to good poetry — a deep conveyance of emotions and understanding that otherwise doesn’t really seem to get translated in everyday language and other mediums. Or if there is some aspect of emotionality and understanding to it, it’s abstracted, which requires a bit of imagination, which is work that I don’t always want to do when I’m experiencing art.
In terms of when I started writing, my earliest memories of writing are when I was 11 years old. I used to print out short stories about a sentient chicken nugget from McDonald’s and then take them to school the next day, distributing them surreptitiously to my fifth grade classmates at recess. I don’t know what’s happened since then. Clearly somewhere along the way I ran out of good ideas.
Clara Burghelea: How would you describe your poetic style?
J. Taylor Bell: Like a really great massage after a long day of work, but work is where you actually just mostly sit at a desk and listen to podcasts, and the massage is like the ones that they give to people in the middle of the mall in front of Auntie Anne’s and Forever 21, and it goes on for way too long until you’re both really uncomfortable with it.
Clara Burghelea: How do you begin a poem?
J. Taylor Bell: The first step is usually to sit at a table or a desk with your head in your hands staring vacantly into walls for about 30 minutes, trying to think of something to say. Then once you’ve figured out that you don’t know how to say it, go for something smaller, and then figure out how to say it interestingly. And for me this usually manifests itself as a kind of absurd proposition or a declaration. I don’t know why. I’ve always liked poems that begin this way. Mary Ruefle’s poem/essay about shrunken heads: “It is sad, is it not, that no one today displays any interest in the art of shrunken heads.” or John Berryman when he said: “Life, friends, is boring.” Something to argue with, but something that is also arresting. Half the time, after editing, the propositions end up dissolving out of the poem anyways, but they’re always there serving as the sort of nucleus of the thing. You can usually sense them, even if you can’t see them.
Clara Burghelea: Do you have a writing routine?
J. Taylor Bell: For a while I was going to General Merchants on Ormeau Road every morning and trying to write a sonnet, but then I kept running into Marcella Prince there, and I felt like I was crossing a territorial boundary, so I switched over to the 367 cafe. But I don’t know. I feel too guilty taking up space in all of these public places for so long when I’m only drinking a coffee. Plus if we’re being honest I’m probably living somewhat above my means dropping 3.50 every day on iced lattes. So now I’m dividing my time between my room, where the sound of my roommates going to and from the bathroom tends to disrupt any sort of….flow…. and the desks in the university library, which are mercifully quiet, yet sometimes painfully far away on rainy days. Hemingway wrote standing up in the early mornings, one of my friends can’t write anything before midnight, and I’d say about the only limitation I impose on myself is this: never write while eating. That would be a shame and a disservice to the meal. Plus, if you are like me, you’re very susceptible to sauce mishaps, and I often get distracted by particular flavors anyways.
Clara Burghelea: So, tell me a bit about your editing/reviewing process.
J. Taylor Bell: Like I said before, that proposition that I often use to begin a poem usually dissolves slowly through the process of editing. Otherwise, if it’s a narrative-driven poem, then I’m always looking for a more interesting place to start than the beginning. Ever since taking a workshop class with Leontia Flynn, where she spent the whole semester suggesting that all of my poems could be shorter (which is entirely fair, let’s be honest), I’ve looked for fat that can be trimmed wherever possible. Getting friends to tell you what they don’t think is necessary is also a really beneficial thing to have in life.
Clara Burghelea: What poets have influenced you and your work the most?
J. Taylor Bell: There are lots of ways to answer this question which seem disingenuous, so in my best attempt at an objective answer, I’d say that Hera Lindsay Bird and Frank O’Hara are the two poets who I most often find myself reading and re-reading and (sub)consciously plagiarizing. Anybody like Susannah Dickey or Jake Hawkey that is good at subverting the arrangement of a poem is bound to have an influence on this stuff as well, since they are good at it, and it’s always something that I’m attempting to do.
Clara Burghelea:What types of poems do you find yourself writing most? Do you have a recurring type?
J. Taylor Bell: Like the scene in The Big Lebowski when they’re scattering Donny’s remains in the ocean, but the wind is blowing the wrong way, so Jeff Bridges just ends up covered in ashes, I’m always trying to write something that is the right combination of funny and sad. No idea how that comes off though.
Clara Burghelea: What projects do you have going on right now?
J. Taylor Bell: As maybe evidenced by that last response, I’m more interested in the way that poetry can respond to film than the way that it responds to things like oil paintings, Greek Mythology, or other poems and traditional fine arts. Remember when Paxman said that poetry has “connived at its own irrelevance?” I suppose I’ve always really taken that to heart. So I’m working on a collection of poems titled “MOVIES I’VE CRIED AT”, which is almost entirely autobiographical and, based off the title, should be probably be pretty self-explanatory, ha.
Clara Burghelea: What are you currently reading?
J. Taylor Bell: Last week I finished hiking for 35 days on the Scottish National Trail. I found a copy of The Grapes of Wrath in a hostel in Durness and read the whole thing on the bus rides back to civilization, and reading it now at 28 has been so much different than the required reading as a teenager in high school. It’s a seriously brilliant book, and so much of it went over my head when I was younger, which feels now like an experience that I missed and I’ll never be able to fully recover. I’d recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it again as an adult.
Other than that, I’m also enjoying Bresson’s “Notes on the Cinematograph”, Ruefle’s “My Private Property” (thank you Susie again for lending it to me), and eagerly anticipating Ocean Vuong’s new novel.
Clara Burghelea: Advice for aspiring writers out there?
J. Taylor Bell: When I was 21 I had what you might call a “formative” and pretty bad heartbreak. It felt so inexplicable, and I was so sad all of the time. So one day I sat myself down, or maybe stood in front of a mirror or something, and said okay Taylor, seriously you’ve got to stop eating Chipotle burritos for lunch every day. It can’t be good for you.
The other part of that self-reinvention was that I started keeping a journal. But instead of simply writing prosaically about what I’d encountered that day, I tried to make every journal entry a type of poem. Rhyme, form, feet, meter, imposing some sort of constraints on myself to spurn a bit of imagination in how I reflected on my day and my life. That discipline has sort of carried over into the present tense, and I’m really glad that I started doing it, however late in the game I might’ve been. So yeah, don’t eat Chipotle every day.
Clara Burghelea: What is next for J. Taylor Bell?
J. Taylor Bell: I’m excited to finish this collection of poems about movies I cried at, and to continue watching and crying at more movies. Exploring the boundaries ekphrastic poetry, and how the emphasis that poetry places on fine art is often a class issue, is something that I’ll hopefully be pursuing more in the future. Other than that, I’m considering getting a haircut finally. And I’ve got to run to the store to pick up some salad tomatoes to go with the frozen falafel balls I’m about to put in the oven. I’ll probably eat those while finishing Braveheart tonight. Happy Tuesday.