Q&A with Poet Mary Lou Taylor

By Kat Meads

Photo: Christina Olivas

Q&AIn honor of National Poetry Month, WSQ asked Spartan Bookshelf poet Mary Lou Taylor, ’70 English, to share some of her poetic influences and writing practices. A native of Chicago, Taylor grew up in Los Angeles, a setting that inspired her first poetry collection, The Fringes of Hollywood. Her second collection, Bringing Home the Moon, was published last year by Aldrich Press. She is a trustee of SJSU’s Center for Literary Arts and past president of Poetry Center San Jose, headquartered at the Markham House in History Park, downtown San Jose.

When did you first realize you wanted to write poetry?

Taylor: When I was eight I wrote a poem. I can remember rhyming “profound” and “abound.” In the sixth grade in Indianapolis we put out the Orange and Black, and poetry was part of the newsletter. So I wrote poems for the paper. I retired from teaching in the late ’90s and the next week wrote the first poem I’d composed since elementary school. It was about Hollywood. Words came pounding onto paper because this was a most familiar subject. I grew up on “The Fringes of Hollywood.”

What are the “ingredients” of your writing practice? Do you have a favorite place to write? A preferred time?

Taylor: At first I ignored all the figurative language and meter I learned at San Jose State and just let what came come. Now I realize that I need to use much of what I learned, even all the literary devices I’ve forgotten. Do I remember the difference between synecdoche and synesthesia? Definitely not. So I need to review. I write in three places: often at the computer, often on my yellow pad, and at times on the back of an envelope. Mornings are good times to write, but whatever time is available is when it happens. I don’t write every day.

What is the best advice you received as an aspiring poet?

Taylor: Fortunately, Poetry Center San Jose features many famous poets, as does the Center for Literary Arts. Galway Kinnell used a poem of mine as an example of mystery in poetry, which he felt was a necessary ingredient. Lunch with Linda Pastan came at a time when rejections were coming my way. Her words: Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.

You’ve long been involved with Poetry Center San Jose, as president and on the board. How did that relationship begin?

Taylor: In the early ’80s Poetry Center San Jose, then affiliated with San Jose State, shaped its board. Nils Peterson, Naomi Clark and Conrad Rushing chose two candidates, Frances Roberts and me. When I was president, we hired a new executive director, Alan Soldofsky, now head of creative writing at SJSU. At the time PCSJ had no center. In 2000, three members, including myself, signed a contract to lease the Edwin Markham house at History Park as the new headquarters for PCSJ. This was truly a poet’s house. Markham, who attended San Jose State, was the most famous poet in America 100 years ago after writing “The Man with the Hoe,” a political poem about the peasants’ plight. History Park allows us to use the grounds, beautiful and spacious, for events. We have open house for members on selected days, and the PCSJ’s Naomi Clark Library holds over a thousand poetry books, available for checkout by members. This summer PCSJ will host a children’s poetry workshop at the Markham House. A Poetry Festival featuring the new San Francisco Poet Laureate is scheduled for September. (For details, contact David Eisbach.)

Through PCSJ and SJSU’s Center for Literary Arts, you share many connections with the larger San Jose writing community. How is that community important to you as a writer?

Taylor: I must start with my time at San Jose State and the English professors who inspired me: Dr. Elsie Leech, Roberta Holloway, Dr. Robert Woodward, Nils Peterson and Naomi Clark. Whatever Robert Pesich, now president of PCSJ, said to the powers-that-be at the Montalvo Center for the Arts the night we attended a reading by Juan Filipe Herrera, the next day I was awarded an artist residency there. That time allowed me to produce Bringing Home the Moon and to work on a chapbook. Being a CLA trustee has allowed me to meet different people in the writing community—professors, yes, but also community residents on the committee. The CLA will co-sponsor my reading at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library on campus this month. The poets laureate are another connection to the writing community. I take every class I can with Sally Ashton, a previous Santa Clara County poet laureate. My poetry groups—Peerless Poets, Poetry Salon and Poetry Circle—are all lifelines. And Poetry Center San Jose has been and still is the organization that keeps me in contact with the poetry world and connected with the poetry community.

Jody Ulate

Jody Ulate, '05 MA English, is editor of the Washington Square blog and printed alumni magazine.

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