The Centrifugal Eye
August 2008 - Interview - Graham
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"Taylor Graham with Dogs"
Artwork by E.A. Hanninen, Photo by Hatch Graham (2005-8)

  with Taylor Graham

Eve Anthony Hanninen,
artist, poet, writer and editor
of The Centrifugal Eye
discusses adventures, both literary and physical, with
Taylor Graham,
poet, writer, search-and-rescue dog handler,
and one well-acquainted with the heat of disturbed nights.

                                      In the Heat of the Night
                              The What Goes on in the Thick of Night Issue

EAH: Taylor, when did you decide “to become a poet?” You say Shakespeare was involved?

TG: We studied Julius Caesar in 10th-grade English, and I fell in love. I’d never paid much attention to poetry as a child. But Shakespeare’s language hooked me. So rich and charged, both in emotion and reasoning, and different from anything I’d read before.

EAH: Trying to decipher what appears to be Old- and Middle-English to most high-schoolers didn’t put you off Shakespeare?

TG: Fortunately, Shakespeare isn’t quite that distant. But I think the differentness was part of the attraction. When I started reading Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation (The Seafarer, for instance), I was really drawn to the foreign feel of the strong alliteration, stresses, and caesura.

In any case, languages have always held an attraction for me. My high school didn’t offer language studies until 10th-grade Spanish, so on one of our trips to downtown Los Angeles — we lived way over the hill from the San Fernando Valley, in Newhall — I found an old Greek grammar in a used bookstore and tried to teach myself Greek. I didn’t get very far.

In school I went on from Spanish to French and German — I wanted to be able to read poems in the original language and not be at the mercy of translations. I majored in German with a French minor, and then earned a Master’s in Comparative Literature, with specialties in Medieval poetry and 19th-Century novels (yes, a strange combination). I spent a year in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, studying Old Provenšal under an Italian professor.

I’m ashamed to say I’ve let my languages slip since I left school; I don’t feel comfortable speaking them. But I love the sound of poetry in the original, especially German.

EAH: Shakespeare and foreign languages led you to poetry, but you didn’t stop with just becoming a poet — in what other occupations have you engaged?

TG: Soon after I met my future husband, Hatch, I got a job as a reporter / photographer for a small weekly newspaper in Rialto, CA. Then we got married and Hatch was transferred to Alaska, and I became a stringer (a freelance journalist) for Copley News Service. When he was transferred, again — this time to Washington DC and we lived in rural Virginia — I was a clerk / typist (along with more interesting things that weren't part of my job description, like investigating accidents and reviewing development plans) for the Virginia Dept. of Highways and Transportation.

When we moved to Alaska we bought a German Shepherd puppy; Hatch had always had Shepherds, and I’d always wanted a dog. Before we knew it, we had several Shepherds and started training them for tracking and then search-and-rescue (SAR). We continued as SAR volunteers in Virginia, and later in California after Hatch was transferred “back home.” We’re retired searchers now, but we still train our dogs every week; German Shepherds don't understand retirement.

In 1982, I started a national SAR-dog newsletter and did the editing and everything else (including bulk-mailing 6,000 copies), and also wrote technical and public interest SAR-dog articles for various publications.

But now I just do poetry.

EAH: You’ve moved around a lot — hopefully, you like travel?

TG: I grew up traveling. My dad was a school doctor and my mom a school nurse, and on summer vacations they liked to take car trips. We drove back East a couple of times, with side-trips to Havana (by ferry) before Cuba was closed off, and up into Canada. In the rainy summer of 1952, we drove the Alcan Highway to Alaska. We got down into Mexico a couple of times. This was before the interstates, so we got to see the country up-close-and-personal, especially since we mostly car-camped. And I’d beg my dad to stop for every horse I saw in a field.

When I was in grad school in Southern California I discovered backpacking, and spent time hiking the Sierra and Southern California mountains and desert. Then I met Hatch, who was a forester / wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. He likes to travel, too. His assignments took us here and there, and I always wanted to get to know whatever part of the country we happened to live in. Beyond that, our search work took us way off the beaten path, sometimes to spots no one in his right mind would want to go!

EAH: Were your search-and-rescue “adventures” mainly in the Sierras?

TG: Adventures, yes. We got started in Alaska, because we could see there was a need. This was in the mid-70s and there weren’t many volunteer SAR-dog units in the States. The closest to Alaska was in Washington State. If someone was caught in an avalanche in the Chugach, he would most likely be dead by the time dog teams could arrive from “Outside.” When we moved to Virginia, a new SAR-dog unit was just forming, so we joined. No high mountain work there, but lots of dense forest. A real challenge, even with compass, to keep from going in circles in those humid jungles. We searched in the Piedmont and the Blue Ridge.

I guess we were pioneers in using dogs to find drowning victims; we happened on that by chance, when our dogs kept alerting into a creek while we searched the adjacent woods. After that, we worked major rivers and reservoirs from boats, and also the tidal Potomac.

Back in California, we did many searches in the Sierra — we live in the mid-Sierra, not far from Carson Pass — and also in the Coast Ranges and the Central Valley, sloughs and hobo jungles, and down south in the desert, just about any kind of terrain where people can go missing. Also, from California we’ve been flown by the military to search in Alaska and Arizona, and we were part of the U.S. Team to the Mexico City earthquake in 1985. We’ve searched other domestic disasters as well, including the Loma Prieta earthquake, East Bay firestorm, Los Angeles riots.

EAH: Sobering.

My father was a mountaineer and climbing instructor in Washington State for many years, so I’ve closely watched news reports about tourists, hikers and climbers getting lost in the Cascades and Olympics. Occurrences seem to heat up in the summer months.

How often were you called in to search year-round in the consistently-warmer, southern U.S.?

TG: I’d say summer was our busy season. But we’d get called to search for mushroom pickers in the fall, Christmas tree cutters and skiers in winter, drowning and homicide victims year-round; also kids who wandered away and elderly walkaways any time of year. We’ve searched for little kids lost from remote cabins in rugged country in a cold rain — nasty!

When we got a call, we’d have to be prepared for almost anything. A search “outside of town” could turn out to be way out, practically in the next county, accessible only by helicopter. And a July callout to the Owens Valley could have us suddenly airlifted to 11,000 feet. I’ve had to share my granola bars with other searchers who were expecting better accommodations, and I’ve put electrical tape over a partner’s glasses to shield against snow-blindness in July. In the mountains, you never know what to expect, and a searcher doesn’t want to become part of the problem.

EAH: You obviously have more than basic knowledge of outdoor survival. What three things would you advise people to do if they should become lost in the wilderness?

TG: There’s a slide show for school kids called “Hug-A-Tree,” developed by a former Border Patrolman, Ab Taylor, a friend of ours. We used to give the program a lot; it was a good way to introduce kids to search dogs, as well as teach them what to do if they got lost. The main point, “hug a tree,” is to stay in one place; the less ground a lost person covers, the quicker searchers can find him. Other points: carry a big, plastic trash bag (a couple of bags for adults) to make an improvised poncho-shelter for keeping warm and dry; carry a whistle. These are things you need to pull together before you head out for your hike.

Also, let someone know where you’re going and when you should be back. It wouldn’t hurt to let that person know what you’re wearing. And give him a piece of aluminum foil on which you’ve stamped your bootprint — so the mantrackers (searchers highly skilled at finding footprints) can follow you. And, as Hug-A-Tree teaches, when lost, “make yourself big:” spell out H E L P with rocks or branches so the helicopter can see it.

I know, this is more than three things. Most important, stay put. Carry that trash bag. Give someone your itinerary so we’ll know where to look.

And keep a positive mental attitude; believe you’ll be saved. Try to turn this experience to the good: write a poem in your head, and commit it to memory till you’re back home and can write it down. (But of course that’s not part of Hug-A-Tree.)

EAH: As you mentioned earlier, sometimes during search-and-rescue missions you’re looking to recover victims of homicide. Has this aspect shown up in your poetry much?

TG: Any search with an unhappy ending is likely to become part of a poem. I find it helps me if I can turn the bad stuff into poetry. Often my poems are composites of several searches for, say, little lost boys, or missing boaters, or avalanche victims. I usually look at the situation from the searcher’s point of view — clues left behind as evidence of what happened.

EAH: Do such thoughts ever keep you awake at night?

TG: No, what keeps me awake is not so much the bad endings — although they always weigh on the mind — but rather the searches without endings. I keep wondering if I missed something — if I didn’t read my dog right, or if I didn’t get her where she needed to be to catch a scent. Knowing how to work a very large piece of land, to take advantage of weather and terrain, is both science and art, I think, and it’s very worrisome. A searcher has a lot of country to cover in a shift, and back at the command post he has to estimate his POD (Probability Of Detection), which the search bosses will plug into their calculations for planning where to send teams next.

I’ve found lost people on the basis of a couple of nose-tilts by my dog— when she only got a whiff here and another there, and I had to put it all together, figuring out the wind and so many other factors. On another, unresolved search, did I miss a nose-tilt while I was looking for footprints? It’s a scary responsibility.

And because I'm also an insomniac (since 9th grade algebra), I usually wake up sometime after midnight and lie awake for several hours thinking uncomfortable thoughts. Not just about old unresolved searches. I have lots of lying-awake-at-night poems about things like what to do with all the old National Geographics.

EAH: Ah, yes— such as recycle for art scrap, donate to reluctant organizations, or cover stacks in canvas for camping sit-upons, etc. . . . I’m starting to wonder if most writers are insomniacs. For me, warm nights make it even worse. How do you combat the heat of summer nights?

TG: I pass hot summer nights with the windows open (our form of air conditioning), sweating and hoping for a breeze, or the call of an owl. If the moon's up and I'm awake, I may look out at moonlight through the trees and wish it would grant me a more cosmic perspective and put me, poor human, to sleep.

EAH: Do seasonal temperatures affect the productivity of your writing? Does anything?

TG: I don't think the weather has much to do with whether I write. If I get an idea, I forget the weather. I drop everything and start scribbling — sometimes on an old envelope while steering down our little dirt road and hoping I don't end up in the ditch. If I don't write it down, it's lost. And I have to drive it to the end, write the whole first draft while it's fresh in mind. . . . I can’t come back and try to pick it up later, without losing the energy that triggered the thing in the first place.

EAH: You’re a passionate writer. Yet, you told me you don’t write love poems. No steamy sex scenes, either. Why not?

TG: I don't know; I guess that isn’t a pressing poetic concern for me.

EAH: Okay, then what is?

TG: Place. The Earth we inhabit and, specifically, the piece of ground where I find myself at the time — even if it’s just passing through, a rest stop for the dogs at the end of a dirt road where we might happen on a hidden creek — who knows what treasures a dog’s nose may find. I have lots of poems about this kind of discovery. If you travel with dogs, you meet all sorts of unsigned and sometimes derelict places. I love derelict places, where wildflowers and unkempt green life manage to grow in spite of man’s worst doings.

I was an environmentalist, of sorts, even before I met Hatch. In fact, that’s how I met him. I was burned out with my failed dissertation, and enrolled in a wildlife management class at the local community college. Hatch was the instructor. We were both concerned about overpopulation and over-consumption, and we still are. I chose to not have kids. I spend a lot of time thinking about trash — as in, all the stuff we send to the landfills, and what will become of these all-consuming billions of us?

EAH: What do you do to alleviate some of these worries about polluting the land, etc.?

TG: We try to live as simply as we can. Cultivate our garden. Our 22 acres grow a lot of trees. We drive only when necessary; we have a hybrid SUV (we need a vehicle that can hold three German Shepherds and a bit of gear), but by preference we take our 38 mpg Fit (the dogs fit, but not the gear). We recycle. Attempt solar cooking, although at our elevation and with so many tall pines, we don’t have the best situation. Use a windmill to pump water.

Hatch is a wildlife biologist, and after he retired we spent ten years on a nestbox project. Cavity-nesting birds have lost habitat as land is cleared for development and people cut down dead tree limbs around their homes, and / or replace wooden fenceposts with metal T-posts. Hatch built hundreds of nestboxes and located them on public and private lands. We had bluebirds, swallows, titmice, nuthatches. . . .

EAH: You’re not the only “improvers” in your family history; care to tell our readers about your latest, hot writing project?

TG: My current obsession is with writing a collection of poems, Walking with Elihu, about the American peace activist Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith (1810-1879). He's a distant relation of mine, and I've heard about him all my life. He taught himself mathematics, astronomy, and about 50 languages while working at the forge. Of course, with my fascination for languages, he's been a kind of hero for me. After he gave up blacksmithing, he devoted himself to humanitarian causes, especially peace, and organized a series of international peace congresses in Europe. President Lincoln named him consular agent to Birmingham, England. I've written about one hundred poems, and am at the frustrating stage of looking for a publisher for a somewhat unconventional book of poems. But I'm in no hurry; Elihu was a very prolific writer and I'm still wading through his books. One of my favorite poems from my manuscript is an alphabet poem that incorporates words in just a few of the languages he could read (including Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Sanskrit).

EAH: Are you active in your community as a writer?

TG: I'm involved in two weekly poetry workshops here in El Dorado County and help organize two monthly readings. One workshop, Red Fox Underground, is a small critique group. The other, Tuesday at Two, started nine years ago with a few poetry lovers who didn't think they could write poetry (my husband included). I've been experimenting with exercises to get over their "I can't write poetry" and other forms of writer's block; surprise, they're poets! As an offshoot, I'm writing a column for Rattlesnake Review (a quarterly put out here in El Dorado County by Kathy Kieth) called "Making Fun of Poetry," based on some of our workshop assignments.

EAH: Before we close the interview, how about give us a sample exercise for breaking through writer’s block?

TG: One of our very favorite Tuesday at Two exercises is the “word-can;” we’re addicted to it, do it almost every week. We each draw one or two words from a coffee can, and we all have to use every word drawn in a poem, on the spot. It’s best to do it in a group; peer pressure is a wonderful antidote for writer’s block. If you’re faced with, for instance, “nervous,” “hot air balloon,” “ironies,” “organ,” “childbirth,” and “along the coast,” it helps to have friends sitting around the table groaning and sighing, but all of them starting to put pens to paper.

For a solo exercise, how about “a trip not taken”? Imagine a place you’ve always wanted to go. Now, tell about the trip in lavish detail. Use all your senses. Make an adventure. I like to throw in a bit of foreign language, and music, some history. You might write the poem to an imagined travel companion: “remember how we . . .”

"Night Owl" - D.J. Bryant 2008

Taylor Graham is this issue's Featured Poet.
Read more about Taylor on her Poems page and enjoy her Essay.

“Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?'
"Then a voice says to me, 'This is going to take more than one night.'"

                                                                                ~Charles M. Schulz


Contemporary Poetry with an Eye Towards Resistance

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