GLENN TAYLOR is a father of two, a robotics researcher, a writer and self-taught pinhole photographer and artist. He discovered pinhole photography with his kids at a hands-on workshop at his local library, and has been hooked since. He shoots directly onto paper and develops in a darkroom by hand with Caffenol, an alternative developer that consists of coffee, washing soda, and vitamin C. Find out more at glenntaylorart.com You can find his poem Fireworks and three pinhole photographs in the April 2023 issue.
Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your poem? For instance, how or why you wrote it, or perhaps provide some extra context?
I wrote the poem for a painter friend whose dedication and routine I admire, as an attempt to put into words how I imagine being good at painting must feel. I can’t even mix colours well, so there is an out-of-reach magic about it. Seeing a photo of my friend’s workspace was a glimpse into that magic, that devotion, and the poem just fell out of that.
Why was the poetic form the best fit for this particular piece of work?
The subject is a daily snapshot of an artist’s life, so this short episodic form seemed right.
Do you have a collection of poetry or even a single poem that acts as a touchstone?
I have a book that I’ve run to tatters a few times – The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry. I’m on my third copy. It was an assigned book in a poetry writing class I had a long time ago taught by J. Allyn Rosser, and many of those poets grabbed onto me, and still do – Anthony Hecht, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, Anne Sexton, Howard Moss. I always bring it with me on long trips. Another is Lawrence Durrell’s Justine – a book of fiction, but the language is absolutely poetic. I can open it up to a random spot, read a couple pages, and feel the need to write.
If you didn’t write poetry, how do you think you might access the same fulfillments that poetry offers in your life?
Over the last 4 years, I’ve been branching out. I stumbled into a couple forms of visual arts, including pinhole photography, which have really captured my attention to the point where I started a fine art business about 18 months ago. They’re not the same as poetry, they’re a different part of me, but they give me a similar lightness of being when I make something I like.
How do you revise your work?
For most of my writing life, revisions were endless. I have piles and piles of poems I’m not happy with. But lately I feel a new urgency, so I have a loose goal that when I sit down to write, I want to have something finished by the time I close my notebook and enter the day. I’ll write and re-write and revise and research and sometimes start in a new direction all in one session. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a goal. It has pushed me to shorter form poetry, which has its own challenges, but has given me the chance to try lots of different ideas, and of course the satisfaction of finishing poems. It’s a good feeling.
How or where or with what does a poem begin?
For me, writing starts with reading. I pick out a stack of poetry books, thumb through them randomly or with some select favourites in mind, to get into the right space. In terms of the writing itself, over the last year I have been using another of my creative pursuits – pinhole photography – as prompts for writing poetry. It might be the photo subject, my memory of the place I took the photo, or something entirely different, it doesn’t really matter. So it’s not necessarily ekphrastic poetry that comes out, but this process has been my way in. It started simply as a forcing function to keep my poetry brain active when there are so many other things occupying my attention, but it also has taken me in directions I hadn’t expected.
Are there other art forms that inspire or inform your poetry?
See prior answer, but also music, which often puts me in the right place to write, if not inspiring me to write. I have a lot of memories and emotion associated with New Orleans jazz, and whether it’s the music or the place, I’ve drawn on those. Sometimes it’s lyrics, especially from a few songwriters who write pure poetry. Jeffrey Foucault (@jeffreyfoucault) comes immediately to mind. Visual arts, too – we have a great art museum here at the University of Michigan (@ummamuseum), and several poems have come out of visits there. And sometimes it’s not art, but science. Poems are everywhere.
What are you working on now?
Looking for good ways to present my pinhole photography and my poetry together.
How do you make space for poetry in your daily routine?
I wish I could find time to write daily, but I do at least try to read poetry every day. It takes a while for me to get into the right head space for writing, so it’s usually on the weekends that I can afford that time and the separation from a very different kind of day job. But it can be a skittish thing, like a wild rabbit I’m trying to sneak up on. Sometimes loud noises chase it off, sometimes I never even find it.
What are you reading or watching or listening to lately that intrigues or inspires you?
At the top of my poetry stack lately is Stacie Cassarino, Robin Robertson, Ada Limon (@adalimonwriter), Stacy Gnall (@stacygnall). Each has their own way of making me sit back in wonder at what can be done with words.
Have you ever received advice (or has there been something you’ve learned on your own) about writing or revising poems that has made you a better poet? What was it?
Advice I read early on was: “Don’t ever fall in love with your own writing. Always be willing to throw something out if it’s not working.”
What is it that interests you about pinhole photography?
There are many reasons. One is the experimental, hands-on, DIY aspect: I touch every step in the process. I make the cameras, I develop the photos by hand in a darkroom.
There is also the deliberate slowness of it — because I only get one shot per camera, each shot matters, and so I have to slow down and take my time. And each one naturally takes time – these aren’t point and shoot cameras. During those minutes while I’m taking that one picture, I have to accept what comes. A car passing by, people lingering in the frame, a gust of wind. There’s no viewfinder to show me what I’ll get. There’s a zen quality about it. And developing, too, takes time – measuring and mixing the ingredients, passing each photograph through a liquid that has a mind of its own, all in the skewed lighting of a darkroom, such that I don’t know what’s going to come out, what my picture really looks like until it’s hung and dried. There’s surprise and discovery all along the way.
What can a pinhole photograph convey that another photography medium might not?
There is a texture to them unlike most other photography done today. They’re imperfect, you can tell that they’re hand made. And because of that, there are more stories in the photo than just the subject.
How did you first decide to begin taking pinhole photographs and how long have you been practicing?
My kids and I took a workshop 4 years ago this spring at our local library where they taught us how to make cameras out of simple cardboard boxes. We took one photo each, and the library staff developed them. It seemed like magic that a photograph could come out of a cardboard box with a tiny hole in it. My photo turned out. I got hooked.
I find that some pinhole photographers are interested in the art of the form while some are more interested in mastering the technical aspects. Where do you fit on that spectrum?
It’s a bit of both for me. Every photo is an experiment, whether it’s the handmade camera, or the alternative developer that I use (caffenol). But I also mean to create something beautiful and meaningful in the end.
Can you tell us a little bit about the technique you most often use to take your photographs? What is it that appeals to you about this particular technique?
I only use homemade cameras, and shoot right onto paper, then I develop in a darkroom using caffenol. I shoot mainly onto negative paper, then scan it into my computer to invert it digitally. Then I can crop or resize for printing.
Where do you go for inspiration for your photography?
There’s no one place, but I’ve taken a few trips to old west ghost towns for pinhole work. It’s a fun combination of old-timey camera and old-timey subject.
It seems like pinhole photographers have a special interest and take joy in experimenting—both with the devices they use (often homemade) and the techniques they use. Have you tried other alternative photography methods?
Not other photography, but other experimental art. I make space art using just kitchen ingredients.
Are there any projects you’re working on now or have worked on in the past that you’d like to tell us about?
I’m getting ready to start teaching a couple classes on pinhole photography. I’m spreading the magic!