in Conversation with
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, lecturer and critic. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012), the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. He lives in Leicestershire with his wife, the poet Maria Taylor, and their twin daughters, Miranda and Rosalind. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk. In the conversation below, he discusses Renaissance cosmology, the neurology of music, gaps in rationalism, and much more as inspiration for his work.
Melissa Studdard: Your novel, Melissa, is a large, sweeping orchestral accomplishment, with a multiplicity of voices sounding together to create story through theme and variation, among other musical techniques. As well, the novel is based on a fantastically original premise—that a young girl dies of leukemia and at almost the same moment, all the people living on her street experience the same musical hallucination. How did you originally conceive of the novel? With the concept, the structure, a character, something else? And how did the process unfold for you after that?
Jonathan Taylor: I suppose I often think imagistically: for all the issues with early-twentieth-century Imagism, I sometimes wonder if that’s the starting point for a lot of my poetry. The same, in a much wider sense, applies to both my novels: they both started with one or two images. One tiny image—or concept, or metaphor, or whatever word you prefer—if striking enough can generate a whole book. Or sometimes it’s the fusion of two unexpected images.
Sometimes, it’s a compound of different experiences and ideas that produces one image. That was certainly the case with Melissa. Before I wrote Melissa, I’d been reading a lot on the psychology and neurology of music—for example, Musicophilia by the late great Oliver Sacks. At the same time, I’d been thinking of writing a book along the lines of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock for years—that is, a book which has at its (absent) centre an unexplained, irrational event. I’m superficially a rationalist—but like a lot of rationalists, I’m fascinated by rationalism’s blindnesses, gaps. Alongside this textual background, there were various true stories and experiences, which came to inform the novel’s central concept—most immediately, the rather traumatic birth of our twins; they were tiny, in intensive care, and very ill for the first few months. And, from earlier in my life, growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, there were a few things I witnessed which aren’t unlike what happens in Melissa. I think all of these different things converged and the central concept of the novel came to consciousness all of a sudden (as usually with striking ideas, while I was in the bath).
I knew straight away that I’d then have to write the novel—and I’ve never written a book so quickly, or at least the initial draft of it. The central image—the collective musical hallucination, following a dreadful loss—generated the whole story; I suppose because this was ‘high concept’ fiction, the central image generated the whole narrative. Every book is different, and requires a different method of writing, but this one just poured out. Perhaps because some of the inspiration for it is so personal (almost unconsciously so), I felt compelled to write it. None of which is to say that it didn’t then take me a long while to edit, redraft and reorganize the original draft. But that’s often the case.
MS: Your music feels omnipresent in your literary works, and it’s clear how your love of music has impacted both your prose and your poetry through structure and theme. How has your creative writing in prose and poetry affected your musical composition? And feel free also to talk about how your music has affected your poetry and prose.
JT: The great Australian poet Peter Porter once said that “It’s one of the ironies lying in wait for artists that they may have a talent which is not really the one they want. To come straight to the point, I should rather be a composer than a poet, but alas I have no executive talent for music.” For myself, I don’t have enough talent: I can play the piano up to a low-to-mediocre standard, and I used to love writing amateurish music. In many ways, I don’t believe in innate talent—or at least, not when it comes to writing, which I think is an entirely learnt and therefore democratic art-form. I’m a nurturist in that respect, for most things. But music and maths are the two fields which I think might be exceptions.
I actually don’t write music any more—not since 2008, when the twins were born. I suppose something had to go at that point—it just wasn’t possible to manage family life, a full-time lecturing job and my own writing plus composing all at the same time. I was only ever an amateur musician, and, the more I discovered, the more in awe I was of the good and great musicians. Not that that’s a reason to give up—and I still splash around on the piano, enjoying myself—but I think the poetry, in many ways, took over from the music around 2008. Poetry is the closest form of writing to music, of course, and I think that’s where my composing went: it mutated into poetry. And that’s fine—things change, evolve, and maybe one day I’ll go back to writing music. The musical elements of language have always fascinated me: I think a good writer in any form or genre is also, in a sense, a musician. There’s a songfulness, a lyricism about the best prose, for example: some chapters of Dickens’s Dombey and Son are poetry and a kind of music, with refrains, complex rhythms, even onomatopoeic sound effects. Perhaps all writing—whether poetry, storytelling, or drama—is displaced song and, in fact, dance. It’s all, at the deepest, unconscious level, the same stuff, expressed in different ways.
MS: That’s beautiful—displaced song and dance. Speaking of different forms of expression, you are also a scholar, and your works contain an abundance of knowledge about various subjects, including medicine, math, astronomy, and more. What is your research process for creative projects?
JT: It entirely depends on the nature of the work: every book I’ve written has been written in a different way, with different modes of research. I think a writer is someone who is interested in the world around them. One of the problems with the way that Creative Writing is taught at all levels is that the majority of ‘workshops’ take place in enclosed classrooms; but this promotes the idea that all you need is yourself and a piece of paper. Of course, a lot of good writing can be generated in this way—but writing is not just inward-looking but outward-looking too. There’s not an easy way of dealing with this issue—and, of course, a lot of writing is partly solipsistic; but I think it’s also important to encourage new writers to seek things out, if only by (for instance) visiting local art galleries to write ekphrastic poems, or writing personal essays about texts which changed their lives, and so on and so forth.
For me, I often get the strongest ideas and images from non-fictional sources—neurological texts, historical texts, and, of course, music. In fact, these often come before the writing, a priori: I read Musicophilia before writing Melissa; and I read The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler before writing my first poetry collection, Musicolepsy—and his description of Renaissance cosmology, and the ‘Music of the Spheres’ runs (sometimes explicitly, sometimes underground) throughout the book. I suppose, again, this is why I’m always a bit suspicious of contemporary poets (for example) who only read other contemporary poetry: I think a writer should read widely and eclectically, way out of their own fields—and particularly non-fiction. If you look at the reading which someone like Yeats did around his poetry, it’s bizarre, eclectic, odd. That’s the way you open yourself up to the world, and it means you don’t end up, frankly, just writing poetry about poetry.
MS: Robin Lewis states in Leftlion Magazine “Jonathan Taylor’s first poetry collection orbits the two planets of astronomy and classical music … Monumental pieces of music are intelligently dissected to get at the heart of what makes them resonate so lastingly …” and I would add that one result is that the grand, cosmic nature of music is highlighted. What made you decide to intertwine these two subjects, and what do you feel is to be gained by looking at them together?
JT: As I say, some of the concept for Musicolepsy arose as an accidental consequence of reading a lot about Renaissance cosmology. I was fascinated by the idea of the Music of the Spheres—so much so, I wrote a chapter about the subject in an academic book published a few years before, called Science and Omniscience in Nineteenth-Century Literature. Increasingly, over the years, my academic interests and Creative Writing have converged and overlapped.
Some of the poems in Musicolepsy look at astronomy, some at music, some both simultaneously. It’s in the work of Renaissance cosmologists like Johannes Kepler where the connections between music and astronomy are most explicit—but, strangely enough, they pop up in many other places as well: Freudian and Jungian psychology and ideas of the unconscious, modern neurology, even contemporary physics all draw on the ancient imagery of the Music of the Spheres, in different ways. In the poem I’ve shared below from Musicolepsy, ‘Black Hole in B-Flat,’ modern astrophysics meets Kepler and the ancient idea of the Music of the Spheres. This is what poetry can do, I think: it can explore images across time, transhistorically as it were, in a way that is more difficult in prose.
In the end, of course, one of the reasons I write so much about music is simply because I love it—it’s so much part of my life—but can’t play it well enough myself. I think Walter Pater was right when he said that all art aspires to the condition of music: music, at its best, is the closest art-form we have to dreaming, and what Freud would call the royal road to the unconscious. It speaks to us on a much more visceral level than prose fiction, which is (at least ostensibly) a more ‘conscious’ artform.
MS: Would you share either a poem from Musicolepsy or a new poem and unpack it for us? How did it come to you? Is there a backstory or unstated context? What important themes are you exploring?
Black Hole in B-Flat
Astronomers using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory have found, for the first time, sound waves from a supermassive black hole . . .
– NASA-Chandra, 9 September 2003
For 2.5 billion years you’ve groaned,
B-flat 57 octaves below middle-C.
For 2.5 billion years you’ve moaned
for no-one, because no-one
could hear you from Perseus Cluster
250 million light years away,
your galactic ground-bass a million billion
times lower than human hearing,
dog hearing, even Keplerian hearing,
who would have been hard pushed
to retain an equal temperament
in the face of such monotony—
more monkish medieval drone
than planetary polyphony,
as if Palestrina never happened,
and Bach dozed off at the organ
shortly after the Big Bang,
his elbow resting on a pedal point
over which he dreamt his flickering fugues,
short-lived as novas,
short-lived as life,
short-lived as anything but you,
sucked back down
into your B-flat abyss.
My poem ‘Black Hole in B-Flat,’ which I wrote for NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory in Harvard, attempts to reconnect one of NASA-Chandra’s discoveries with a much older, mystical and philosophical tradition of astronomy. It originates in one of NASA-Chandra’s most well-publicised discoveries. In 2003, scientists detected ‘for the first time, sound waves from a supermassive black hole’ (NASA-Chandra 2003). The black hole emitting soundwaves was in the Perseus Cluster, and the soundwaves were said to be a B-flat, 57 octaves below middle-C. What poetry allows me to do is explore the uncanny resemblances between this modern cosmological discovery on the one hand, and older notions of the Music of the Spheres on the other.
Since this is quite an old poem now, I thought I’d share another one too from my forthcoming second collection, which similarly mixes musical and scientific metaphors:
After Thea Musgrave, Green, and Robert Macfarlane
We are the irruption of noise into music:
ariosos disintegrate in our hands
while discordant clusters round low F
shake the earth beneath our feet.
Our symphonic scores rot,
violins are resurrected as trees,
but that tremolo F remains below all
and remains to the last,
persistent as fossilised plastic
or a nuclear legacy radioactive
for 10,000 years.
This poem came to me after attending a talk by the writer Robert Macfarlane, at Leicester University. He gave a fascinating speech about the idea of the ‘Anthropocene’—the notion that the human race has now had such a radical effect on the planet, that we have changed the geological strata; in other words, we have polluted the Earth so much in the short time we’ve been here, that we are now living in a new geological age, the ‘Anthropocene.’ Around the same time I attended this talk, I’d got to know a piece of music by the contemporary composer Thea Musgrave, called Green. This is a short piece for twelve strings commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble, first performed in 2008. Its title implies an environmental subtext. The piece pits a beautiful upper-string melody against a recurring low discord, clustered round ‘F’ in the bass, which traumatically disrupts the music—not unlike the effect of the human race on ‘green’ nature.
MS: You’re so incredibly versatile—you write novels, poetry, and non-fiction. You compose music. You write radio plays and scholarly books and articles. I’d love to hear about any upcoming projects. What can we expect next from you?
JT: I suppose I don’t necessarily see it as being “versatile”—rather, like yourself, I’m primarily a “writer,” who writes in different forms and genres at different times. I sometimes advise my students not to pigeon-hole themselves: rather than call themselves a “poet” or “playwright,” the neutral term “writer” allows much more freedom. Clearly, the different forms all have their own specific challenges, and specialization can be a good idea for many people, certainly at first. But I love the excitement of taking on new writing projects that represent radical departures from what I’ve done before. When Leicester City football club won the British premiership a couple of years ago, I was asked by BBC Radio 5 to write a short radio drama about it—even though I knew next to nothing about football, and hadn’t written a radio drama in over ten years. But it was fun to do it—and fun surprising people who expect a certain kind of writing from me. A writer should try and surprise and occasionally freak out their readers (otherwise, why should a reader read more than one work by any writer?). This “versatility” or lack of specialization has its drawbacks, of course: it’s meant that a lot of poets think of me as a novelist who writes poems, and a lot of novelists think of me as a poet who writes novels; academics think I’m a creative writer, and creative writers often think I’m an academic. Oh well, at least it makes life more interesting, and I quite like the idea that I’m outside any camp. It appeals to the anarchist in me.