interview with Richard Allen Taylor

AAL Cover.psdArmed and Luminous
Poems by Richard Allen Taylor
Main Street Rag Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-1-59948-596-6
Cover Price: $15.00

Click HERE to order your copy at Main Street Rag

I found Richard Allen Taylor’s latest book thoroughly entertaining and simultaneously intriguing in its unusual presentation of angels. So, armed with a Catholic upbringing and my own assumptions about angels, I endeavored to find out more from the author himself. I am illuminated by our thorough discussion and think you will be, too.
      ~ Anne Kaylor

What inspired you to write a book about angels, and what challenges did you face?
For my MFA degree, I needed a thesis of at least fifty-five pages of poetry. I noticed the word “angel” often popped up in my poems, so it became a viable option. When I heard a lecture from fellow student Rikki Osborne on “Microcosms”—imaginary universes in which the author creates an entire world with its own rules, laws, and customs—I loved the idea. And, after studying books on “accretion of detail”— which means readers acquire knowledge and understanding of a theme as they progress through a book—I decided to take this approach.

So, I began by creating a universe populated by angels and people, but with limits and restrictions—created by me—on what they could and couldn’t do. For example, my angels are forbidden to appear in human form or to interfere with human actions without explicit approval from God, Gabriel, or Michael. Then, to explore how angels would act and feel in everyday “earthly” situations, I assigned them jobs (in the book, Gabriel, as the manager, does this). Like us, not all angels are happy in their work, and some complain openly.

My idea coalesced after reading Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine, an outstanding poetry collection built around the Annunciation—the scene in the Bible where Gabriel tells Mary she’s pregnant with the Son of God. I knew I didn’t want to duplicate Szybist’s work, but I greatly admired her poems and how she pulled them together, using free verse and formal forms, serious and humorous treatments, and shifting points of emphasis.

I did encounter some pretty daunting challenges. Starting with the Bible, the most logical source, I looked up all passages mentioning angels, but I found surprisingly few. The Bible cites only two by name, Gabriel and Michael, and has vague references to others, such as the “angel of the presence of the Lord” (sometimes interpreted as God). I found more angel references in folklore and fiction, plus what theologians have written over the centuries. I lucked out when my sister-in-law, Peggy, shared the wonderful book Angels: An Endangered Species by Malcolm Godwell, which summarized a lot of angel lore.

I found it impossible to adhere to theological correctness. I know some will be put off by this or think poems about angels silly, but I never intended anyone take this book too seriously. If they do, they’re missing the point. Also, given the dearth of data about angels in the Bible, conflicting legends, and fanciful representations in pop culture, I chose to embrace certain concepts and ignore others. For instance, I shunned the idea everyone becomes an angel at death—my angels are recruited and trained; there’s nothing automatic about it.

Probably my biggest challenge came in balancing the need to adhere to a theme while letting my writing flow naturally. My head stuffed with angel facts and myths, I then blended in my own life experiences to produce work I hope is both informed and organic.

Overall, I think Armed and Luminous mixes what we think we know about angels with what we are surprised to know. For me, that’s the dichotomy that keeps the book interesting.

Not all the poems appear to be about angels. Why is that?
I embraced the notion, set forth in the Bible, that one should be hospitable to strangers—that, by doing so, many have entertained angels. To me, this means anyone we meet could be an angel, so several poems remain ambiguous. One or more characters might be
an angel, but we’re not sure.

Why do your angels not have wings?
Based on my reading, especially in the Godwell book, angels didn’t have wings until artists painted them in the middle of the fifth century. (An interesting aside, the Catholic Church forbade artists to depict angels until then). Through these paintings, the idea caught on. To me, it’s intuitively clear people would assume anything that came down from the heavens would need wings. I don’t think people then had a concept of “beaming” from point A to B, like in Star Trek.

Is there some underlying religious message in these poems?
Angels appear in all major monotheistic religions, and I did not intend to proselytize or advocate any particular one, though I’m sure my Christian bias shows. But yes, I think religious and spiritual messages are embedded in this book, some explicitly. In one of my favorite poems, “Creation Story,” the humor stems from the idea humans need God because we are sinful—that, if we didn’t have sin, we’d be stuck as a “bunch of naked vegetarians” in the Garden of Eden, not useful or progressing as a species. I also hint that maybe we never left the garden, that this world is the garden, and we ought to take better care of it. Beyond this, I think those who don’t believe in God or angels can have fun with these poems. And if some readers are led to think about their assumptions on faith or spirituality, that’s great.

You mention a “spirit light” in some of these poems. What is this and what is its purpose?
The spirit light is a metaphor for the spiritual power that originates with God and exists in angels and people. My idea that angels can point the spirit light at their human clients and induce a positive influence without physically interacting is a nod to folklore and fairy tales which feature magical or mystical objects, such as the ring in Lord of the Rings, Excalibur in the Arthurian legends, and even Mary Poppins’ umbrella. The spirit light does not appear in all the poems; I didn’t want to fixate on it, but I wanted the reader to carry the idea through the book as an agent of positive change. I also wanted to make clear that angels—my angels, anyway—have limits, so the spirit light doesn’t always get the desired result. In the poem, “This spirit light isn’t working for me,” the angel complains to Gabriel about a malfunction and gets a lecture in return, with Gabriel pointing out that what’s in the head and heart matters, not whether the “gadget” is working.

What inspired the poem “Angel of White Space” and why choose it as the last poem in the book?
Having bestowed god-like powers on myself to comment about God and angels, life and death, heaven and earth, I felt it only appropriate to give my personal angel (muse) the final word. I was thrilled she helped me write an Elizabethan sonnet, though equally humbled knowing other poets could take the same ideas and write better poems. Turns out, my muse gave less than complimentary feedback in her poem.

Still, I’m proud of the book. It reminds me of a story about a man who, passing a brick mason at work, asks, “What are you building?” The brick mason replies, “the world’s most beautiful cathedral.” The man says, “Well, maybe you ought to talk with your supervisor. He thinks you’re building a warehouse.” That’s how I feel about this book. It may not be a cathedral, but it’s at least a sturdy warehouse and not likely to fall down in the next rainstorm.

What do you want the reader to take away from reading this collection?
I want the reader to feel entertained by the humorous parts and enriched by the serious parts. I don’t have illusions everyone will like every poem or feel moved by the poems in which I meant to elicit an emotional reaction. I hope some will find one or two poems that really resonate for them. Finally, I hope readers will find cause to contemplate their own assumptions and beliefs about God, angels, life, death, heaven, and hell; to ask questions—like “what do I believe and why do I believe it?”—and to gain some benefit in doing so.