When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
There was no poetry in my parents’ house, and mostly genre prose. Ian Fleming, not Henry Fielding. From first to twelfth grade, I read what teachers assigned, too often less than once. Then, a literally Byronic (down to the club foot) Senior Honors English teacher, Anthony Galligani—the web tells me he died in 2007—read T.S. Eliot aloud, and the sounds worked on me like a different kind of drug than the ones I’d been taking. At that point, having simply forgotten to apply to colleges, I spent an inadvertent gap year washing pots at Boston’s New England Medical Center, started reading for real (I recall Faust, Ibsen, and some Gurdjieffian claptrap), and applied to Antioch College because my ex-girlfriend, then at Bennington, told me to. Maybe she wanted to make sure I didn’t apply to Bennington!
I arrived at Antioch aspiring to become a high school English teacher, but soon met a number of students already writing poetry, including Stuart Dischell and Askold Melnyczuk, both light years better-read than I was, as they are today. The notion of putting my own words to paper (aside from required “papers”) terrified me, and I stalled for two semesters. By then I’d read more poetry, confirming a love for it; and I suffered agonies of occluded desire—not only about not writing! One day, Stuart said: “Steve, you’re a smart guy; I think you could probably write poems.” Why that flipped the switch I’ll never know, but I still feel gratitude for Stuart’s characteristically matter-of-fact generosity. My first poems were ghastly Eliot imitations, but good came from that: verification that reading schools writing. I just didn’t know yet what it meant to assimilate one’s reading passions. Soon thereafter, two extraordinary teachers, Eric Horsting and Ira Sadoff, began showing me what poetry to read and, as important, how to read it like a writer. Crucial mentors followed after Antioch—Jon Anderson, Marvin Bell, Louise Glück, William Matthews, and Donald Justice—but Ira and Eric nurtured the seeds Mr. Galligani planted. No use regretting one’s late-blooming, but I envy those born into a House of Books.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
Mostly in the morning, but if I’m writing well, the day can open up more widely to permit writing at any time. I’ve always had a study, a “home office”—but recently I’ve been doing much of my writing (this interview, for instance!) recumbent on the living room couch, laptop propped on my front thighs, my wife reading across the room. It seems to work during this weird period of lockdown.
My favorite writer-at-work portrait is a terrifically spooky/moving passage from one of Keats’s letters to his brother George: “…the candles are burnt down and I am using the wax taper—which has a long snuff on it—the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet…” It makes you feel so up-close to Keats, the real person with a body, putting pen to paper. “The fire is at its last click”—I love that.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
For most poets, I imagine an “idea” for a poem equals an image or phrase. I collect random scraps of language, I guess much like a visual artist keeps a sketch book, so I rarely confront the screen with nothing. When some organizing principle begins to line up—and for me it’s often literally related to lines—a draft can materialize pretty quickly. Other times I have to do mash- ups of fragments, over and over, until something, eventually, catches. I tend to write in streaks, and I also tend to go mute for periods. I try to be patient during those silences, but after many years, I still deeply dislike them. Only once—when writing the book-length sequence, Clangings (2012)—did I have that sense of prolonged fluency writers always long for. It lasted about a year and a half, and produced a book, and hasn’t happened in such a sustained way since.
Because a poem’s subject (if it has one) usually arrives late in my writing process, for decades I took as a given Richard Hugo’s injunction: “Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.” These days, as our so-called republic dies, along with thousands of its citizens, I’m much less sure. To be fair, Hugo himself called it “not bad advice but not quite right.”
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Not much of a reader until my twenties, I relied on my teachers, and what they taught, as my early influences. Eric showed me how to read Shakespeare microscopically; Ira was a living embodiment of the wonderfully titled fiction anthology, You’ve Got to Read This. Listening to the Romantics and Modernists, guided by Don Justice’s flawless ear, made my own ear infinitely sharper. But when I became a teacher myself, “influence” in its root sense—a flowing in—took hold in a new way. I had the good fortune, teaching at Bennington (an irony there, I suppose), to devise courses in whatever I felt I didn’t know well enough. The English Renaissance Lyric, Shakespeare (stealing like crazy from Eric), the Romantics, Dickinson and Whitman, Keats paired with Stevens, the New York School painters and poets, family dynamics in drama from Sophocles to Caryl Churchill—for five years I taught at least one course each semester that I also secretly “audited,” a half-step ahead of the often very gifted students nipping at my heels. There’s nothing like the dread of public humiliation to concentrate the mind.
Like anyone who keeps at it for decades, I hope I’ve become my own writer, but I know that originality results from a chemical change involving interacting influences. It’s been pointed out frequently that “originality” has as much to do with origins as with novelty.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book?
In some ways, Listen reacts to—and perhaps recoils from—my previous book, Clangings, the first and maybe last “project book” I’ve written. Some great books of poetry are constructed on the principle of the miscellany—Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, for instance. A book of good poems can win me over as much as a good book of poems. I usually hope readers of my own collections meet, page by page, a lot of formal and tonal variety: a compressed lyric preceding an associative meditation; an unrhymed sonnet following a piece of prose (I’m not big on the term “prose poem”). As for over-arching themes, I believe each of Listen’s four sections revolves around a somewhat distinct emotional and perceptual core, but “somewhat distinct” sounds like an oxymoronic dodge. I believe the fourth section arrives at the unsettling affirmations of art, praising some masters and mentors, and I hope the preceding sections make those affirmations welcome. Why the title, Listen? Variants of the word occur nine times in the poetry, and nine’s a nice round number, like Yeats’s bean rows. The title poem had to end section one, which had to begin with the poem titled “Bad,” if only so the book could say to the reader: I start out “bad,” but keep listening.
Sample poem from Listen:
It got bad; pretty bad; then not
so bad; very bad; then back to bad.
Jesus, let’s let things not get even worse.
A weird fall. Nearly ninety
one day, leaf mold making the house
all red eyes and throats. Don’t think
about Thanksgiving, but hope
for a decent Halloween. Everywhere
gas-powered leaf-blowers growling—
Christ, let’s let things not get even worse.
“Bad” was first published in New Ohio Review, Fall 2009.
Steven Cramer’s sixth poetry collection is Listen, (MadHat Press, 2020). His previous collections are The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (Galileo, 1987), The World Book (Copper Beech, 1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (Lumen Editions, 1997), Goodbye to the Orchard (Sarabande, 2004), and Clangings (Sarabande, 2012). Goodbye to the Orchard won the Sheila Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club and was named an Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Field, Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry and other journals. Recipient of two grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, he founded and now teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University. Website: https://www.stevencramer.com