I’ll be teaching a generative memoir class in Roslindale this November and December. At $100 for the entire six-week session, it’s very reasonably priced.
Join writer and teacher Frances Donovan for a mining expedition into your lived experience. Both new and seasoned writers will enjoy a variety of exercises designed to get the creative juices flowing. Using all five senses, we will find bright gems of vivid memory, laying the foundation for longer work or simply enjoying the act of creation. Sign up here.
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.
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-writingself 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).
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.
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.
Flourish, unwashed, unpeeled, bouncy boys; grow, citizen-workers, clothed in good dirt— dearest ones, I place my hope in you— your green is king, in my garden. Chopped, you are cukes, (my Wisconsin mamma loschen)—fluted, celebrated, bobbing in vinegar and dill; tastiest brine. Emperor Tiberius, whom Pliny the Elder called the gloomiest of men, enjoyed cucumbers every night with dinner—yes, an attempt to self-medicate depressions— but was his gloom depression or prophetic vision? Caligula succeeded Tiberius. Today, the sky is blue— so what. I cannot stop worrying about the republic. When a Roman woman wanted a child, she tied cucumbers about her waist; what, you ask, do I want? Regime change. I want a sister or three, subversive, fomenting coffee klatch, chatter, plots against fascists over our Gurkensalat, lopped, swished with sour cream—dearest cukes, delight, nourish, fortify me—I want insurrection.
by Lisa Bellamy. Originally published in Salamander No. 50, Spring/Summer 2020. Reprinted with permission of the poet.
By the man-made lake? A hole so shallow and muddy, all the men held hands, formed a human net and walked toward each other to the center to feel for some kid who might have gone under–there,
on its shore, in the Kodak, me, in my little terry cloth bikini, all round as the moon stomach. I’d worn a Batman mask attached
by a thin rubber band all summer, my hands fisted, the nails bit crescents in my palms.
The summer of my menarche? I stood
against the lazy Susan in the kitchen and watched the President resign on the small TV: I cried because of the cramps and blood, the garter belt biting me. My mother said we’d never see this again and she was wrong:
even married to my father, she couldn’t predict the depth of a man’s rage.
A year after my abortion?
The clinic three stops down from my dorm, three quick stops on the Green Line, and no one shot there yet but escorts needed, one pink set of rosaries flung at my face.
That year, the year of Ferraro, my aunt said she wouldn’t vote for anything
that menstruated, could get pregnant, could bear a child.
– Jennifer Martelli, from In the Year of Ferraro, published by Nixes Mate, 2020. Republished with permission of the poet.
This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the third semester, I studied with poet Adrian Matejka. We spent the semester working on my craft essay, a long term paper that does a deep dive into a particular craft element–in my case, poetic line and how Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks have influenced contemporary intersectional female poets. This is the cover letter to the first packet.
Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my emails this month, as well as for the additional reading suggestions.
It’s funny—my first semester, I did the craft annotations ahead of the poetry revision and writing. This semester, I did my revisions and new writing first, all while stressing out about the craft essay thesis and outline. Either way, the critical work still stresses me out more than the writing and revising. I suppose this is why I’m getting an MFA instead of a PhD in literature.
I was surprised at how quickly I managed to work my way through the stack of poetry books. Some of the collections definitely spoke to me more than others. As you know, I was immediately taken with Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé. I went ahead and order her first book as well, but I just couldn’t connect to it the same way. Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia was a quick read – the language is so beautiful, the narrative so clear and sequential, and the forms of the poems so similar that it reads almost like a novel in verse – in fact, it was an easier read than David Rakoff’s novel in verse.
Reading theory about poetic line was tougher going. I got through the Longenbach in about a day, mostly through extreme effort of will and because it’s a relatively small text. My main takeaway was the notion of the annotating versus the parsing line. He argues that enjambment “annotates,” or calls attention to a word outside of the usual phrasing of a sentence, whereas a parsing line merely ends where there would be a natural pause. I discovered A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, a treasure trove of many different poets’ theories and opinions about poetic line. I rented it as an ebook for a few months rather than paying three times as much to own it. As a result the reading has been slow going. When I read on screen rather than on paper, I find it harder to absorb the material. I’ve been keeping a Word window screen minimized next to the ebook so that I can take notes while I read. I’m about two-thirds of the way through the thing now. The tone of the essays varies a great deal, some of the poets writing almost entirely from personal experience and others trying to make more general pronouncements about the line and what it means. In the introduction, Anton Vander Zee sums up the Levertov essay on the line better than I could: that the line tracks the stress of inner thought, and that the line is a script for performance. Three other takeaways:
Annie Finch’s comments that lines that resonate the most with readers often have interesting meter, and that it would do well for contemporary writers to steep themselves in the study of meter as previous generations of poets did. She used an example from Audre Lorde’s “Coal.”
Arielle Greenberg’s concept of the hyperextended line, using Rachel Zucker as an example. I did an annotation of Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative last semester and immediately knew what she was talking about. She points out that the hyperextended line can take many forms, including enjambment or visual use of the whole page, but that “the effect is always once of muchness, of multitude … an anti-stream of consciousness: a careful but cluttered working through of a complex thought.” This is something that I struggle with as a poet: making an idea or a narrative clear to the reader while still working through a complex thought. I can think of at least one poem where I might try the hyperextended line as a way of evoking this complexity.
Camille Dungy’s beautiful metaphor of prose as a vista of the ocean, and poetry as a vista that includes the shore, with line breaks being “the predictable moment of physical return, the abrupt interruption, the edge, the beach, the tide break, the line-break, the shore.”
What my reading of both the Longenbach and A Broken Thing make clear is that the concept of poetic line is slippery. Like so much of poet-craft (and indeed of physics), the closer you look at the thing, the more slippery and ill-defined it becomes. A kind of quantum.
At your suggestion I did some more research on Rich and Brooks. There are lots of retrospectives about the arc of Rich’s career in the popular press but fewer about Brooks. I spent some time with the Lesley online library searching for academic journal articles. The last time I remember searching through academic journal databases was at Vassar in the 1990s. It’s odd – I can access some materials directly from my study at home, but if it’s not available online I don’t have the luxury of perusing the stacks for the paper article. My biggest complaint about the low-residency model is the lack of easy access to a library.
As instructed, I’ve included an aesthetic statement for each of the poems in this packet; they are included with the contents page of the main “poetry” document. Because one of the poems includes extremely long lines, I had to save it as a separate document with landscape instead of portrait layout.
While revising “On the Ferry to Spectacle Island,” I decided to use the stepped line as a cue that the narrative is moving back in time, and to signal the return to the present moment with new stanzas. In terms of lineation, I’ve been focusing on ending lines with stronger words and avoiding beginning them with prepositions. As I’ve said – and as you know – the rules of poetic line are slippery. But I feel as if I’m able to intuit more easily what makes a strong line versus a weak one.
I’ve been wrestling with “The Marigolds, the River, the Oaks” for years now. It was in my application sample, and I’ve worked it with both Sharon and Kevin – possibly worked it to death. I finally decided to explode it from a sort of ghost sonnet into this new cross-out form. I’d gone in the direction of saying too much, but the original seemed to say too little. So I figured I’d show my work this time. Let me know what you think.
Originally, I’d included “The Window,” another poem I’ve worked quite a bit, but decided to switch it out with something very raw. I wrote “thirty-five years later..” just a couple of days ago and this is only the second draft. Once I have more distance, it should benefit from the music-oriented revision technique from your seminar. I’m curious to hear what you think of the form. I’d like to experiment more with use of white space – in my teens and 20s I used stepped and triadic lines a great deal more, but moved away from it, mostly because it’s so difficult to get the spacing right with the new web content management tools.
As you can probably tell, “Assembly Square” is my paean to D.A. Powell. I was struck by how Morgan Parker managed to replicate the rhythms of his lines in her latest book, and thought I’d try for a similar cadence. It may or may not become part of my own voice, but I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor regardless. I recently reviewed some of my packet material from first semester and see that Sharon and I agreed that I should focus on line. It was after reading C.K. Williams that I began writing longer, looser lines. D.A. Powell also does such innovative things with it.
When I started this cover letter I feared that I wouldn’t have enough to say, but now I see that I’ve almost written a book. I hope that you find the craft essay outline satisfactory. I’ve revised it a number of times and am simultaneously anxious that it is too granular and that I’m leaving out something important. I look forward to your feedback.
Hopefully we will be able to speak on the phone – or better yet via video chat – in the next couple of weeks. Mark and I are celebrating our 10th anniversary the weekend of Feb. 16th to the 19th, so I will be traveling, however we can still arrange to speak during that window is that is what works best for you. In general, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are the best times for me to speak in real-time. I can also make a Monday or Wednesday evening work if necessary. Monday is Presidents’ Day, so perhaps we could try speaking that evening?
I hope all is well with you in Indiana (or on the road) and that you are accomplishing what you’d hoped to during your sabbatical.
Reading Amorak Huey’s Boom Box brought me back to my adolescence in the late 1980s, listening to hair metal bands and hanging out in disreputable locations. His experience, which includes an early, traumatic house fire and growing up in rural Alabama, doesn’t mirror mine exactly (which includes an early, traumatic move across the country and growing up in urban Connecticut), but the poems made me feel in touch with a kindred spirit – not just the disaffection and nihilism of the teenage years, but the yearning for something greater.
Huey spent 15 years as a reporter and editor before making the switch to academia – he teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan now. He’s written three books of poetry and two chapbooks, including one from Porkbelly Press, whose handmade books are works of art in their own right. He is co-author, with W. Todd Kaneko, of the textbook Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology. His poems have appeared in many prestigious journals, including The Southern Review, Poet Lore, and Crab Orchard Review. In 2017 he received an NEA fellowship in Creative Writing. He was kind enough to speak with me via email about his work and his writing life.
Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?
Amorak Huey: Reading. For sure, reading is what brought me to writing. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house full of books. My parents gave me a love for storytelling and language. I have this vivid sense of the feeling that reading something amazing does in my body: that ache in the back of the throat, the quickening of the pulse. At some point, I decided: I want to be able to do that. To write something that makes someone else feel something. Emily Dickinson’s line about poetry making her feel the top of her head had been taken off — like that.
Donovan: Tell me a little about your development as a poet. Did you pursue formal training or are you self-taught? Do you belong to a workshop or writing community?
Huey: Formal training is such an official-sounding phrase, but very clearly it applies to me. I was an English major in college; after I graduated I went straight to graduate school in creative writing, but it didn’t take and I dropped out after three semesters. I ended up working as a journalist for many years before going back for an MFA, which I did at Western Michigan University, where I studied with Nancy Eimers, William Olsen, Daneen Wardrop, Bob Hicok, and Mary Ruefle. The MFA took me six years because I was working full-time in Grand Rapids and commuting to Kalamazoo for a class or two a semester. My current writing community consists of my colleagues in the Writing Department at Grand Valley State University, an online poem-writing group of friends assembled by the poet and fiction writer Chris Haven, and the writers I’m connected to via social media, Twitter in particular.
Donovan: What poets do you keep returning to again and again?
Huey: Traci Brimhall, Layli Long Soldier, Catie Rosemurgy, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks, Natalie Diaz, Matthew Olzmann, David Kirby, Emily Dickinson. There are others. It’s a long list.
Donovan: What are you reading right now?
Huey: I recently read Sam Hawke’s City of Lies, and I’m finishing up the novel Seven Blades in Black by Sam Sykes; I’m saving John Sandford’s latest, Masked Prey, to be a reward for the end of the semester. Sandford is my favorite cop/thriller/mystery writer. I admire the impeccable cleanness of his prose, and the pacing of his storytelling. Poetry wise, I am savoring my way through Traci Brimhall’s newest, Come the Slumberless to the Land of Nod; it’s so, so incredibly good. Other recent/current reads include Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, KC Trommer’s We Call Them Beautiful, and Marianne Chan’s All Heathens. I just finished teaching Franny Choi’s Soft Science and Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas.
Donovan: Very few poets can make their living solely through book sales or reading fees. What’s your day job?
Huey: I teach writing at Grand Valley State University.
Donovan: Tell me about Boom Box.
Huey: Boom Box came into existence as a collection in 2015, when I realized that my current manuscript was really two projects. I took all the poems that were linked by high school, heavy metal, pop culture, and Alabama and created the first draft of the collection. After three-plus years, two significant revisions, an editorial consultation with Maggie Smith, and 20 rejections, Sundress Publications accepted the manuscript. Working with Sundress editor Erin Elizabeth Smith, I revised the collection one more time into the shape it now is, and it was published in March 2019.
Donovan: Your descriptions of adolescence in the age of heavy metal really resonated with me. How did you come to write about this part of your life? Is it something you’ve explored in your previous work, or is this a new topic for you?
Huey: Nostalgia has always been one of the driving forces of my writing, as I assume it probably is for many people. And I’ve definitely always been interested in using the language of pop culture — whether it’s movies, music, literature, television, sports, whatever — in my poetry. My first collection has a lot of that in it. At some point, I realized that I had been mining this territory (high school, hair metal) a lot, and that’s when I assembled this group of poems into Boom Box. I tend to work in poems, not in projects, which causes problems for me when it’s time to shape what I’ve written into a book, so the threads and links between these poems are something that I discovered after I written them.
Donovan: What do you do to be a good literary citizen?
Huey: Oh, man. I fear that anything I say here sounds like bragging. I have no idea if I’m a good literary citizen. I try to be. How about I talk instead about what I see others doing that makes me think of them as valuable members of the community? I appreciate people who celebrate other writers, sharing their poems and successes. I appreciate people who come to the community as readers first. When I give my students advice about navigating the community, I talk about the need to be sincere, to participate in the conversations out of generosity and support and a sincere interest in what others are doing — not because you think you’ll get something out of it. You can’t have this mercenary approach: I’ll follow these writers on Twitter, and post links to these poems and journals, and in return I will gain X amount of social capital, or Y editor will solicit my work. I don’t know. Be a real person. Be kind.
Donovan: What does your writing practice look like now? Has it changed?
Huey: The only thing stable about my writing practice is its inconsistency. I fit my writing around my family and my job, and that looks different every day, every season, every year. I go through long productive periods, but also lots of dry spells. Sometimes I write in front of the television. Sometimes I write after everyone else goes to bed. I think maybe I’ve gotten up early to write once or twice? That sounds so good, but mostly it’s not me. Sometimes I write between loads of laundry, or while dinner simmers on the stove. Often I just don’t write. I’m a mess.
Donovan: How do you make sure that writing-adjacent work doesn’t take the place of actual writing?
Huey: You have to do both. I don’t have a magical answer to how you make room for them both — you just have to decide that they are both important enough to fit into your life. And that it’s okay to have periods where one takes precedence over the other.
Donovan: Artists often talk about the importance of refilling the creative well. What do you do to replenish yourself?
Huey: Reading. Listening to music. Taking care of my body. Actually that last one is a problem. Writing and running sort of occupy the same space in my life, and so I’m not very good at making time for both of them. I’ve been running regularly this spring (I’m ridiculously slow, but at least I’m out there moving), which means I’m writing less than I’d like to be. I remain a work in progress. Anyway, reading is the real answer to this question.
Donovan: What do you wish someone had told you when you were just starting out in your poetry career?
Huey: That it’s okay to be ambitious. That no one knows what they’re doing; we are all just doing the best we can to figure this stuff out. That impostor syndrome never goes away. That the “career” of a writer is a continual push and pull between nothing ever being enough and being entirely fulfilled when one reader is moved by one thing you have written.
Donovan: What’s next for you?
Huey: My next poetry collection, Dad Jokes from Late in the Patriarchy, comes out in 2021, again from Sundress. I’m working on my second, or second and a half, draft of a novel: historical fiction, set in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Roslindale just welcomed a new creative space called Create Art in Community, and I’m excited to be offering a generative writing workshop there this April. Please join me for some exercises designed to get the creative juices flowing and encourage play with words. Both new and experienced writers should enjoy the class. All forms of writing welcome: poetry, fiction, memoir, or any combination.
Wednesday evenings, 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Four dates in April 2020: April 1, 8, 15, 29
Create Art in Community, 11A Corinth Street, Roslindale MA
In the heart of Rozzie Square. Roslindale Village stop on the Needham Line Commuter Rail, multiple bus lines from Forest Hills. Municipal parking lot close by and free on-street parking.
Eileen Cleary seems to have found a way to clone herself. In addition to holding two MFAs from two different Boston institutions, she manages the Lily Poetry Salon and publishes the Lily Poetry Review. Her Lily Poetry Review Press will be publishing its first titles soon. She has studied with teachers near and far and seems to know everyone in the Boston poetry scene — and many on the national scene as well.
Eileen is a nurse and poet who earned an MFA at Lesley University and second at Solstice of Pine Manor College. She is twice a Pushcart nominee and has work published or upcoming in journals such as Naugatuck River Review, J Journal, The American Journal of Poetry, Solstice, and Sugar House Review. Her work has appeared as a Rainworks Installation in Newton, Massachusetts.
Frances Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?
Eileen Cleary: I’ve always loved to read poetry. I had a sense that I could write it from an early age. But, I never wrote it seriously until I wrote a poem in response to unethical research on human subjects. I was a different person when I reached the end of that poem, and I could never go back to being a person who didn’t write poetry.