When I first met William Taylor Jr. he was sitting alone in a chair, quietly sipping one of many glasses of red wine he would have throughout the evening. He drank with a measured, matter-of-fact composure that assured anyone who might be watching he would not break with sadness -- though, clearly, it weighed on him. I knew, because I too had been a reclusive poet. I, too, had spent the majority of my time isolated from other people, measuring my own worth with the size of the world. It was one of those rare times when someone says, "You absolutely have to know this person..." and instantly I felt they had been right.
Immediate kinship aside, I was still surprised by the meek greeting I received, an alchemical mixture of sincerity and timidity by which I recognized The Real Thing.
William's poems are transcendent, heartbreaking, the type of writing that turns a cliché inside out and exposes the hollow, discarded husk of expression hallowed, being stretched to the limit, ringing.
The progression of his poems -- he has been published widely over the years in the independent presses -- hones an unflinching gaze at the more sordid aspects of the world around us, internal and external, into a calm (even when desperate there is resignation) attitude. Alternately, one has the sense of accepting the world and everything in it for what it is -- of burying one's face in one's hands, or throwing them in the air and running for the nearest bridge, depending on the afternoon.
So often romanticism dies with familiarity -- even with the most beautiful of persons, places, or even ideas. As Henry Miller said, "One's destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things." We live in a place and if we are strong or persistent we grow into it in the same way a plant grows into a pot, or an animal a cage; we come to the city with a certain self-awareness and maybe a glint of destination, however vague, in the heart.
Having maintained residency in the same Tenderloin apartment for the past 8 years, this is something William Taylor Jr. has confronted on a regular basis. So, when he seemed to disappear from public events over the past year, I thought I had good reason to worry.
Lately, though, he has re-emerged, shining, with a warm smile and friendly eyes, a steady and even inviting presence. When we met at Vesuvio recently I asked if anything had changed in his personal life. "Not really," he said. "Sometimes I'm kind of reclusive; I tend to go back and forth as far as getting out there a lot, and then staying home a lot."
The cause for his recent change may well be his first book of fiction, An Age of Monsters (Epic Rites Press). The collection, which includes 15 stories, some of which date back as far as 10 and 15 years, was an unexpected result of sending one in to the zine Tree Killer Ink; the editor, Wolf Carstens, asked William if he had any others. "I've been writing stories as long as I've been writing poems," he told me, "but I'm slower with them so they get kind of scattered over the years, and I went over all the stories that I've written and found a fair amount I still like, and wrote some new ones, and they all kind of worked together eventually."
When asked if there was a noticeable difference in how he approaches story writing as opposed to poetry, William replied: "My fiction I tend to write it when I'm in a better mood, and... there's a lot of darkness to a lot of it, and greediness, I guess, but I think I put more humor in my stories sometimes, and I have fun with them because a lot of times I'm not as personal as the poetry. I'm not digging down into some dark thing, you know; I'm just kind of telling a story and having fun." He pauses, and the silence between us is comfortable. "I tend to be more lighthearted, I guess."
Those worried that the fragile balance of beauty and sadness that typifies much of William's poetry might eventually give way to a desperation or depression that would render the author unable to write can breathe easy, at least for now. To me, at least, it is clear that William Taylor Jr. has seen the city with new eyes. He has continued to create without ulterior motive: he wants to be pure, to express his changing self, to fight the crystallization of self into place.
To celebrate, he has asked some of his friends and favorite local authors to read with him at Space Gallery this Thursday night. The bonus? Both William and Julie Michelle, who contributed a title-page photo to each of the stories, were born this week and will celebrate their birthdays together.
William Taylor Jr. celebrates the release of An Age of Monsters on Thursday, November 17, 2011 at 7pm at Space Gallery, 1141 Polk Street in San Francisco. For more information visit williamtaylorjr.net.