Marilyn Taylor and Sebastian Matthews featured at Great Lakes Writers Festival

by Tom Montag

Poet Marilyn Taylor and poet and memoirist Sebastian Matthews are the featured writers at this year’s Great Lakes Writers Festival at Lakeland College, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The festival started yesterday with a reading at 11:00 a.m., which I attended, and it continues through this afternoon. There were workshops scheduled yesterday in the afternoon with Taylor and Matthews, and another reading by the writers in the evening. They will read again this morning, and conduct more workshops this afternoon.

Marilyn Taylor was one of the people on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission who interviewed me when I was a finalist for that appointment in 2004, and she recognized me when I came into the auditorium before the reading; God bless her heart. When I was introduced to Sebastian Matthews, he asked me about my work; his host on campus, Jodie Leidke, had been telling him about my Vagabond project.

Marilyn Taylor is a former Poet Laureate of Milwaukee and a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She said she was beside herself with joy at being invited to the Festival, “and it’s an honor to be the opening act for Sebastian Matthews.” She is the author of several books of poetry, three of which I was able to purchase before the reading.

Taylor is a poet who is comfortable with the traditional forms. “I like writing sonnets,” she said. “I like having a vessel. It’s not a dead white male thing, as I’ll try to convince you.”

She may take to the traditional forms, but not necessarily the traditional content. “Reading obituaries is fun,” Taylor says. “Looking at their names, you can almost guess when they were born.”

Now the Barbaras have begun to die….

“Fifty or sixty years from now,” Taylor commented, “the obituaries will be full of Ashleys.”

Taylor said she invented her “Aunt Eudora” to contain an old woman’s sweet crankiness. “Of course, the old woman is not me,” the poet averred.

Reading the romance novel, her cheeks take on a bit of bloom….

Milwaukee “is not exactly your tourist mecca,” Taylor notes. However, back in the 1970s, a busload of Japanese tourists disembarked in the city, and Marilyn Taylor was the first local color they saw. Several tourists snapped her picture. She has written about the experience. “I think I’m the first poet to rhyme Milwaukee with Nagasaki,” she said.

Taylor has written sonnets to famous poets. Wallace Stevens, which whom she shares a birthday, is one of those poets, along with the resulting 13,000 ways of looking at a bird, a nightgown, or the plucking of a strange guitar. Edna St. Vincent Millay is another.

Ah, the streets you could have danced through. Ah, practitioner, why didn’t you?

“I have a poem about the mother of us all,” Taylor said, meaning Lucy, that bit of bone out of Africa.

I can feel her stirring in the core of me….

Taylor was tenting in Africa, with only tent-cloth between her and the wildlife at night, in the immense dark. A lion roared loudly and frightened the poet. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the woman leading the group. “They almost never harm humans.”

And she read to us from “a crown of sonnets,” where the last line of the first poem is the first line of the next, and this continues through all the sonnets until the last line of the last poem repeats the first line of the first. These are “Notes from the Good Girl Chronicles.”

When the friendly skies were full of virgins….

all this before I’d poured a single drink….

and slaps me, hard, three times across the face….

Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Maidenform! Just watch my baby take the world by storm….

but nobody would ever want me now….

something called The Feminine Mystique….

throwing away her happiness like that….

just look: the skies are filled with friendly virgins….

Sebastian Matthews is a poet and memoirist in his own right, and is the editor of his father’s poems, essays, and interviews. His father was William Matthews, which becomes a burden if you are trying to establish your own way in the world, I suppose. “He’s William Matthews’ son,” people might always want to say.

No, he is Sebastian Matthews. His memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps, tells us how he has found his way.

For the Thursday morning reading, Matthews read excerpts from a single long piece of prose. We all have seminal experiences which shape our lives, and perhaps this is Matthews’, this night of teen-age drinking and hiking miles in the dark to get to town, of walking through an apple orchard, of his friend falling and cutting his throat open on the sharp edge of a reflector along the road.

“Sometimes your subject matter chooses you,” Matthews said. I couldn’t agree more.

The whole summer I had the sense that something big needed to happen….

Her pretty, other-side-of-the-tracks face….

We knew we were acting dumb, but we couldn’t help ourselves….

He reminded me of my brother, always coming up with a plan….

The moon drifting along the tree tops like a buoy….

Alan’s hands were out in front of his body and he looked crazed. I was glad to be his friend….

We walked with our heads down, pushed forward by momentum….

This is where things get spread out….

Alan sliced his neck open on its crude edge….

Wishing I was anywhere but where I am….

Matthews finished his reading. Host of the festival, poet Karl Elder, came to the podium. “Every muscle in my body hurts with the tension of hearing that,” he said. “And I’ve read it before!”

This year’s Great Lakes Writers Festival was off to a good start.

Thanks to Tom for this reflection. Read his blog The Middlewesterner.