A Poetic Variety Show: Talking with Steven Cramer, Author of Listen

Steven Cramer taught one of the first seminars I took at the Lesley low-residency MFA program, and I later learned that he founded the program itself back in 2003. Like most of the Lesley faculty, his bio is studded with accolades: six books of poetry, a page on the Poetry Foundation website, prizes from the New England Poetry Club and the Massachusetts Center for the Book, and bylines in major publications like Poetry, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review. But perhaps more importantly, he’s a sensitive soul with a deep and comprehensive knowledge of literature. When I was writing a craft essay on Dickinson, I went searching for interpretations of a particularly obscure line, and an interview with him was the only relevant result.

His newest book Listen (Mad Hat Press) came out in 2020 amidst all the chaos and isolation of the pandemic. Fortunately, Zoom readings have in many ways made poetry even more accessible than before. And writers often prefer to communicate using the written word. Steven and I corresponded via email for a few weeks, with prodigious results. We discussed the ways that poetry collections come together, the pros and cons of printed page versus screens, and white space as a craft element. And, as I do with every poet I interview, I asked about his individual writing practice, the ways he manages the writing life, and what he might tell poets at the beginning of their careers.

Frances Donovan: Tell me about your new collection.

Photograph of poet Steven Cramer
Poet Steven Cramer

Steven Cramer: Listen was a peculiar collection to assemble.  My previous book, Clangings, arrived in a kind of white, interruptive heat between 2010 and its publication in 2012.  By the time I’d written enough poetry for Listen, some candidates for inclusion in the book dated as far back as 2004, and others came of age as recently as two years ago.  How did these poems talk to each other, if they did?

I was never much good at organizing my own books. I always asked my friends for help.  I had poems that wrestled—sometimes rather covertly—with three years of depression; those had to go together.  I had poems that cast imaginative attention on my different clans—children (tweenish in 2004; by 2019 in no way children); a thirty-plus year marriage; the absences and presences of my diminishing family of origin; and reading, a subject I embrace without apology. With crucial assistance I came up with a first section that starts very dark, goes darker, and then begins to lift its gaze before the second section turns to the erotic life and two of its inevitable outcomes—offspring and death!  A number of poems that grapple with the social world’s impingements on the personal had accumulated for a third section. Finally, there’s a group that, by and large, honors writers I love, through adaptation or homage. I think that last suite completes the upward arc from Listen’s first section. 

Some poetry collections are very consistent, poem by poem, in form and tone.  Except for my one “project book,” Clangings, I have strived for stylistic diversity.  Philip Larkin tells an interviewer somewhere that he thinks of his collections as poetic variety shows: start with the opera singer, then bring out the yodeling dogs, then the plate-spinner, then the comedian, and so on.  I love that, and aspire to it. My own Cavalcade of Stars would have to include the Beatles’ American debut on Ed Sullivan, February 9, 1964.

Frances Donovan: Tell me more about your writing practice today.

Steven Cramer: “Practice” is a good word, no?  In writing, practice never quite makes perfect.  I teach part-time now, so I have more moments to write, or at least more time to fret about writing.  In a sense, I “write” all the time, if taking random notes—on my phone as often as on paper these days—and persistently wishing on a poem in my head counts as writing.  But I almost never generate a first draft in one sitting.  I used to, and would like to more often.  Instead, a first draft of something worth working on tends to assemble itself when I abduct some fragments, often spawned at different times, and put them together and ask them to dance.  When they dance, I try to join in; when they don’t, I go make a very big sandwich.  After a Microsoft Word folder labeled “Drafts and Fragments” grew too big to search files fruitfully anymore, I started a new one, labeled “New Drafts and Fragments.”

Frances Donovan: Has your writing practice changed over time? If so, how so?

Steven Cramer: Yes; I used to write long-hand as an aging teen; then I moved to a Selectric in college and graduate school; then, if I remember correctly, I skipped the short-lived advent of the word processor and went right to a desktop computer, and then to a laptop.  Somewhere along that continuum, my living room couch began to sub for my desk.

A less glib response involves a change in attitude.  I continue to hate not writing, and never enjoy my silences; but I think I don’t hate my non-writing self quite so much anymore.  With maybe twenty years left if I’m lucky, the portions of those years I’ll devote to writing and reading poems feel like meals yet to be enjoyed.   In all things remaining to me—poetry among the most central, but not exclusively so—I hope to amble, not sprint, through those years.

Frances Donovan: Do you find that you’re doing everything on the computer these days?

Steven Cramer: Just about.  I don’t even print out drafts much anymore.  I do save versions of poems-in-progress with numbered suffixes added to their filenames, to help me distinguish earlier incarnations from later ones.  And as I said, my phone’s becoming more and more my sketch pad.  Last Christmas I received—as I always do—a handsome little notebook in my stocking.  For the first time I thought: what will I do with this? 

When I teach, I comment electronically on all student manuscripts, but I still print them out for workshop discussion—in larger and larger fonts, I’ve found, dispiritingly.  Track changes and comment boxes have lifted a heavy weight, since I’ve always detested my handwriting.  Inscribing or even just signing a book for someone provokes the same anxiety I feel when asked to calculate a tip.  What’s your writing drill?

Frances Donovan: I compose prose on the computer, but I find that I need to do my poetry free-writes in longhand. Likewise, I prefer to print out a piece I’m working on, so I can edit and write marginalia. Has the computer changed the format of the poetry you write? For instance, I know some people make extensive use of white space in their poems.

Steven Cramer: I’m pretty much a flush-left, ragged-right kind of poet—when the poem’s in verse—although some months ago I did create (can’t say I “wrote”) a number of “self-erasures”—texts made by electronically whiting out passages from incomplete drafts of my own.  Performing the erasure operation on myself had a kind of bracingly masochistic feel to it.  They hide out in a folder I haven’t opened in months.

White space denotes a visual experience, so I find it a problematic term to apply to poetry, which is fundamentally a verbal and auditory art form.  Of course, a poem first presents its look on the page to readers—if they’re reading it, not listening to it—but that look doesn’t change whether or not the poem is read.   I don’t get the point of simply looking at a poem (except perhaps to estimate the time it may take to read).

A very moving deployment of indentation and dropped lines (my preferred terminology) happens in Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.”

Has an ashtray ever performed a more poignant walk-on? 

Frances Donovan: That’s a lovely poem by Frank O’Hara. I’ve also done a self-erasure poem! It appeared in Fire Poetry Journal. I got the idea from a poem of Lesley Wheeler’s in Cold Mountain ReviewUse of white space isn’t to every reader’s taste, but I find it can be very effective.

Steven Cramer: Oh, me too, but as I said I think it’s misguided—or at least limiting—to treat white space in poems as simply a visual effect.  In O’Hara’s poem, the lines indent and break eccentrically to convey the speaker’s shifting emotional states, and thereby they also orchestrate readers’ responses to those states.  I could spend the next seven hundred and thirty-three words praising the poem’s expert syncopations of tone. I’ll stick with our ashtray, which is among the last things one expects, on first reading, to follow the gentle imperative “put out your hand,” so the dropped, indented line to position the word not only reinforces our surprise, it also suggests that our blazing, loving, afire, tender, writhing, screaming speaker does his own double-take: “I said that?”  And we say, “of course you said that; where else did you think all your ‘blazing’ and ‘afire love’ would end up?”  O’Hara was a master of spontaneous craftsmanship.

Frances Donovan: You mentioned commenting on student manuscripts. How does your teaching life relate to your writing life? Some poets seem to find teaching draining, while others find it inspiring.

Steven Cramer: I came to teaching comparatively late, having spent the second half of my twenties, after graduating from Iowa, as your basic publishing workhorse.  After a stint earning cracker crumbs at David R. Godine, I got divorced and made a living wage of crackers as Managing Editor at a long-kaput social science subsidiary of Harper & Row, Ballinger Publishing Company.  Lord, their books were deadening—most memorable title:  Industrial Solid Waste—but after my stint there, I damn well know my serial commas; why we have long-term goals while our goals are long term; and where to stick a semicolon.

For roughly thirteen of the thirty-eight years I’ve been teaching, I’ve wandered from classroom to classroom as a Nomadic Adjunct.  May I use arrows to signify my careening career as a teacher?  If I may, it goes like this:  M.I.T. → Boston University → Tufts University → Bennington College → Boston University → M.I.T. → Queens University → Lesley University, where I’ve worked since 2003.  From those years of teaching the art of reading and writing—founding and directing the Lesley MFA program required a hybrid administrator/teacher—I have two firm beliefs about teaching:  it’s a job like any other, and it’s a job like no other. 

Cover image for Steven Cramer's book of poetry LISTEN

Teaching can drain quite differently than a more conventionally stupefying job (like Ballinger’s) can drain; it uses an imaginative muscle that at least resembles the muscle one puts into writing.  Thinking hard and helpfully about other people’s poems can leave little energy to think about one’s own.  And since pondering someone else’s poems gives pleasure (usually), teaching can seduce as well as interrupt or derail.  On the other hand, isn’t teaching one of the noble professions, right up there with curing diseases, combatting poverty and injustice, or listening and talking to people in healing ways? I’m very fortunate now to teach only those graduate students who are “preselected” to want to learn something by working with me. I hope never to have to grade a poem again, but even when my teaching involved, in part, a kind of implicit “pitch” to persuade some students that writing and literature matter, the glories outnumbered the downers.

As for inspiration, I’ll risk candor and admit that teaching graduate creative writing workshops doesn’t often result in student work—good as it can become—that motivates growth in my own writing.  With some dazzling exceptions, even my most experienced and devoted students—devoted, I hope, to poetry, not to me—tend to explore territories of vision and style that I’ve already encountered, although hardly surveyed completely.  This doesn’t mean I don’t learn and benefit in other ways—the enthusiasm of shared discovery; the tonic reminder that my aesthetic viewpoints are as subjective, even myopic, as anyone else’s; and perhaps most important, the constantly self-renewing appreciation that every work of art in progress, no matter how inchoate or halting, has a human being behind it; and in front of it, a potential future.

However (and it’s a big one) teaching the creative reading of great poetry—in English from Henry VIII’s reign to the real thing copyrighted 2021; in translation even further back and farther afield—has excited my own poetry in ways I can describe and in ways I can’t.  I taught the English Renaissance sonnet for at least two semesters before the fourteen sonnets in Goodbye to the Orchard happened to me. I will reread Emily Dickinson at any time, with any takers; and while I still haven’t finished my homage to Dickinson that I started in 2019, every word I commit to my laptop screen strives to at least approximate the spirit of the standards she held herself to: “a Word made Flesh is seldom/And tremblingly partook.”

Frances Donovan: So you find reading the classics really inspires your own poetry. Interesting. Do you get similar inspiration from reading contemporary poetry? I’ve found books like Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec both inspiring and sort of… “look upon my works and despair.”

Steven Cramer: If I understand the import of your quoting Shelley, I’ll take that bait first.  The human penchant to admire others at one’s own expense—the imposter syndrome, the zero-sum game of homage—hobbles and misshapes so ubiquitously, you’d think “they” (whoever they are) would have found a cure—just the way “they” didn’t for male-pattern baldness.  People who make things for aesthetic purposes—maybe all people—hear at least one of two voices: 1) you’ll never know whether your stuff is any good; 2) your stuff is no good.  The first voice is tolerable, maybe even benign, since its truth has a kind of healthy disinterest about long-term value.  The second voice comes hissing hot from hell.  It’s useful to recall that Ozymandias’s taunt—inarguably on Voice #2’s team—issues from a heap of ruins in a desert.

Modern and contemporary poetry inspires me all the time.  I hope to never stop learning from poets younger than myself, although I can’t claim—can anyone?—to be well-read in my art.  During my six years as Staff Editor for The Atlantic Monthly, I knew the poems of many books before they were books.  When I taught nearly everything at Bennington for five years, I earned my private PhD in literature.  Best not to name specific living poets I admire, or don’t; better not to name those currently reigning monarchs I feel are less dressed than some believe. 

I’m not great at taking aerial views, but I do sense a prevalence of affectation in a good deal of new poetry.  I don’t mean (just) an absence of humor, or (just) unrewarding obscurity—I quite love many poems I don’t really get—but rather an allergy in a lot of poems I read to self-examination, and a fetish for received ideas recycled as illumination.  Louise Glück calls it “ersatz thought”—in her essay titled Ersatz Thought!—and I think I know whom she has in mind, but I ain’t telling.  I’d like to write an essay titled “Against Pretension,” but such an essay would have to name names.  When I wrote reviews for Poetry, I named names.  I’m not fully proud that I did so.

One last comment on this subject.  After nearly fifty years of writing poems, I’d like to believe that if I write a good one, its style sounds like my style.  Not me; my style.  Many—too many—have heard me say that a finished poem no longer belongs to its poet.

Frances Donovan: Are there other ways besides reading poetry that help you refill your creative well?

Steven Cramer: Yes, but those ways seem to me quite haphazard, even covert.  I’ve had no sustaining hobbies.  My wife tells me I made omelets avidly for about a  year, which I don’t remember.  I do little other than write, read, teach, and try to live as peacefully and honestly as I can.  (Which reminds me of a great sentence I read recently:  “Peaceful, honest people have the right to be left alone.”  I find that to be a patently true statement, although I imagine some other feel otherwise.) Often, I’ve written well on vacation, back when we had vacations—not fueled by anything specific in the location; just something about sitting somewhere different.  I go through phases when I devour nonfiction on a particular subject—consciousness, evolution, the Third Reich, the death of the universe, the Beatles.  Those subjects have found their way into my poetry.  Paradoxically, perhaps, silence—not writing—seems to restore some of my creative reservoir.  I don’t like that form of revivification—nor am I likeable during those periods—but I may have turned a corner recently—from tolerating silence to embracing it.  Okay, not embracing—maybe an elbow bump.

Frances Donovan: How do you think popular perceptions of poetry as an art form have changed over the course of your career?

Steven Cramer: Seems to me the rub here is the word “popular.”  A poet whose name I forget—that’s telling in itself—remarked years ago that only one poet since Tennyson has achieved true fame:  Allen Ginsberg.  I might have added Sylvia Plath to make a duet, but in the last undergraduate creative writing course I’m likely to teach in my lifetime, blank stares met the invocation of her name.  I’m not sure that twenty undergraduates constitute a representative sample to assess a public figure’s popularity—and I didn’t try out Ginsberg—but certainly college students have better antennae for popularity than I do. 

Restricting the control group to people who read poetry for pleasure, I’d start with that notion of pleasure. I’m on the thin ice of hunches here, but I sense a decline in the perception of poetry as a site where reading seriously rewards pleasure.  I hear many say that they read for self-affirmation, inspiration for their own writing, out of curiosity about a freshly “popular” poet, and even out of a sense of duty.  None of those strike me as bad reasons for reading poetry, if any bad reasons for reading exist.  But my favorite off-rhyme—as many who know me have heard too often—is labor/pleasure.  Poetry needn’t always please by virtue of a reader’s hard labor, but paying attention—at least for distractible me—always involves sitting still, and I know of no poetry that rewards distraction.

I submit for consideration these two perceptions of poetry as an art form:  1) a poet I respect recently asked (rhetorically) a group of other poets: what’s the use of literature?  I assumed the question presupposed that such a use existed, and could be identified.  2) In her essay on reading, “Disinterestedness,” Louise Glück (hey, she was my teacher, after all) posits this ideal of the reading self at its most receptive: it suspends opinion and response. . .attempting, instead, neutrality, attentiveness.  I vote for Viewpoint #2, knowing fully that such an ideal—like all ideals—proves impossible almost all the time.

Frances Donovan: In my experience, the life of a publishing poet involves three different kinds of effort: generative work, which requires the spirit of play, intuition, and the unconscious; revision, which requires analytical thinking (and a touch of intuition); and the po-biz, the business of poetry, which requires organizational skills and emotional intelligence. How do you balance (or juggle) these three kinds of work?

Steven Cramer: You’ve categorized these three efforts crisply and persuasively, and they pretty much hold true for me.  More and more, however, I’ve found that the border between generative work and revision is at best a sometimes useful fabrication.  For me, rewriting a poem-in-process involves just as much intuition as the first draft.  I’ve traded in the word “revision” for “completion,”since that feels closer to what I do—which, as I described earlier, feels like assembling a Lego model without instructions.   In some ways, I guess this process resembles the opposite of erasure.  I’m a helpless quoter, and so can’t suppress two.  Heather McHugh said, “compose for clarity; revise for strangeness.” With some exceptions, I do precisely the reverse. And this is the first sentence in Edward A. Snow’s sublime book, A Study of Vermeer

According to Klee [Snow’s a quoter too!] there is a crucial moment in the creative process when the free inspiration of the artist must cede to the obligation to be true to the thing being created. He described it as the moment when the painting acquired a face. “Now it looks at me,” he would declare.

That still makes my neck hairs tingle.

The business of finding an audience for one’s poetry does indeed demand organizational skills, which forsake me as often as not.  I’d need an explanation of emotional intelligence, at least in this context, to understand how it pertains to po-biz (surely one of the uglier coinages in English, no?).  Put as simply as I know how, given the opportunity—or uncovering an opportunity themselves—poets need to raise their hands and say, “I’m a poet too,” whether or not they get called on.

Frances Donovan: Is it necessary to have an MFA to succeed in the po-biz?

Steven Cramer: Gosh, I hope not.  Because I devoted twelve years to directing an MFA program, I could go on and on and on contemplating every major word in the question, but I might like myself less afterward.

Frances Donovan: What advice would you give to a poet just starting to send out work or find a publisher?

Steven Cramer: From a practical perspective, whatever advice I have probably shows my age.  I think “publication” still means that a gatekeeper is involved—that is, someone other than the poet, who might have said no, said yes.  Self-publication only applies to the most reductive meaning of the word: the work goes public.  If you assent to that distinction, then show your work to anyone who might find it interesting.  With so many resources online now, seeking publication, while unspeakably boring, takes time but little effort.  I may be wrong, but I haven’t found any evidence that the process is “rigged”—as it may have been a few decades ago.  It does seem to me that some elements of editorial decision making have become collectivized, as with Poetry.  Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, unless the impulse not to offend misshapes aesthetic judgment.  But I hope that individual editors—whose deep experience as readers substantiate their necessarily subjective choices, for or against—don’t go extinct.  I don’t know if they’ve become an endangered species.

I do have one two-pronged piece of advice concerning the psychology of seeking publication: just because a deeply experienced editor turns down your work, that doesn’t mean the work is bad; just because a deeply experienced editor accepts your work, that doesn’t mean the work is good.  Whether we’ve ultimately written good or bad work, we’re not invited to that debate, if indeed our work lasts long enough to be argued over; and anyway, by that time, we’ll be earth.

Steven Cramer’s latest book Listen is available from Mad Hat Press and Porter Square Books.

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