blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Part I

Leslie Shiel: This is Leslie Shiel speaking with Steve Scafidi about his book Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer. Last night, September 27th, Steve gave the Fifth Annual Larry Levis reading.

Welcome, Steve.

Steve Scafidi: Thank you. It's a delight to be here.

LS: Steve, I'm looking at this wonderful book, and one of the things I love about it so much are all of the different textures, that it could be possible to have such an erotic poem, like "The Latitudes of Desire," that is all one sentence over a page and a fourth, juxtaposed against a poem like "Prayer for a Marriage," a very tender poem in three-line stanzas, that you could have poems like an "Ode to Rosa Parks" juxtaposed with a poem written to somebody who set a speaker's truck on fire. So the amazing textural differences in the poems, the whimsy of the Jimmy Tombs poem. I was wondering if we could talk about how such a book was put together, sustaining the long work.

SS: There is, I've noticed, a wider variety to the poems than I had originally thought, and I'm really glad about that. And I think that it partly came from . . . the putting together of this book was interesting in that I had three separate manuscripts at one time, and I was invited to send a manuscript to LSU Press and I sent the three manuscripts, and I was told by the editor, Dave Smith, that what I ought to do was make a single book of the three books. At first I thought, "No, I'm not going to do that," and I actually wrote him a letter and said, "I'm sorry, but thank you very much for offering," because what I'd needed was an editor and for some reason I expected him or them to be that and I really resisted at first, that kind of hard look that we have to take at our work, which is difficult to do emotionally because we love our poems, but it's also difficult to do, I think, because it's hard to see. And particularly I think these three manuscripts had a different kind of sense to them, each of them, and they were too unified in that way, and I think a book that has the kind of diversity that our lives have is more fascinating and in the end more interesting to us than, and this is not some kind of necessary truth, but books of unified themes are fascinating, but I wanted to make a book that reflected more of my poetic life over the past ten years, so that you do have poems that are sometimes very different sitting next to each other. And I like the idea of two rocks banging together.

LS: In putting together that manuscript, then, you had to leave out some poems. I'm thinking specifically of a poem called "The Kiss" that you read at the Eric Schindler Gallery about a year and a half ago in Richmond and a letter you wrote to me about putting together a manuscript, and you wrote, "Even the poems you do not include play a part for you in the book." I'm wondering if you could talk about that, the poems that are not in the book and what they have to do with the book.

SS: That is an excellent question because that's something I love to think about are the poems in putting a book together, and especially now, moving on to new work, you wonder, "What are you going to end up including?" But you can't think that way, really. You have to love each poem and make each poem work and happen and lead to the next one. You can't really think that way because it's not good, unless you're making a book, and when I'm writing poems I don't feel like I'm making a book necessarily. But when I was putting this together there are those ghost poems, all those poems, you write for ten years and you write every day, that's a lot of work. And some has been thrown away and abandoned over the years. Some is just beloved, and some of those most beloved poems of mine I didn't include in the book. And that is interesting that, I started to see a shape, and I think writers, poets in particular, when they put a collection together, I think when you put a book together you have a chance to make something that is larger than a mere collection. So I was looking for unities and so that meant that I had to leave out some poems that might have said something another poem says but maybe not in the way the book needed. So I was lucky to have options, that there were maybe three or four poems that were doing something similar that helped me decide what to keep and what to throw away.

LS: That must've been a joy for Dave to receive that in the mail then after your letter, and then it happened. And speaking of absences and presences and ghost poems and the fullness of sort of the harvest that is there, the book was accepted for publication but you still felt that there was one poem that wasn't written and that was the "Ode to Rosa Parks." So the book was accepted. That poem had not been written and wasn't in it yet. What's that story?

SS: Well, that's interesting, too, because during the editing process I did a lot of, I think, improvement to many of the poems in here and if you could see a proof copy of the book, it's very different than what is finished. But that poem in particular I did start after the book was accepted, and it was something that I, Rosa Parks was someone who I had been thinking about and thinking about Southern history in particular. So this poem, I started writing it, and it happened to be when the book had already been taken. But I did want to make a point of including one of these poems that was new, for one thing, brand new, which was a risk because I finished that thing right at the last second that I could possibly work on it, and there is a typo in that poem partly because of that, but it will be fixed for the next printing. I think, something I said in the reading last night, she is someone who I think stands for what is greatest in the South and what is greatest in our country, too, this kind of, when I think of courage which is something that I do tend to think a lot about because I do tend to think that poets are called to it, and I think sometimes when we believe too much that poetry makes nothing happen, if you believe that, I think you risk a kind of cowardice as a writer and especially as a poet, and I think you're missing the chance to say what you mean, to think about what you mean and consider it, and in some cases stand up for it, which I don't think we think about that much as poets, in particular. We like to think about the delight and the freedoms and the possibility we have, especially as Americans I think, too, that there are certain things we take for granted. Everyone says poetry is ignored all the time and all this business, and maybe poetry has a different place in this country than it does in some other more politically charged countries. But I do think there are poems that people write, or could write, that could bring conflict, could change their lives. A nd I think you have to risk those, too, and I think it's easy not to even think about that and to write the comfortable poems of your life, which I don't think is enough sometimes. So, in that light, I was thinking of people who do such a thing, and I was thinking about, frankly, the courage of the Southern soldier, too. All these boys who died, and they stood up in the face of certain death, and many survived and most didn't, it seems. But I do think there is a tradition of that kind of standing up in the South, and I know it's hard sometimes to particularize what it is that makes a Southern poet a Southern poet—and I'm not really sure what that is—but I do think that there is something in the South, and it has to do with the great argument that's going on right now about heritage and hate and all of that. But there's something that does seem to always be humming in this region that I think people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King understood. That's a long answer.

LS: And that leads me to this poem, "Who Wants to Know What Love Is Worth?" At the very end of the poem, you're addressing John Keats, and the speaker says, "yes. It is spring, John Keats, and you are dead, and I am sorry. / Truth and beauty are not all I need to know. They never were. / Though important, I need something more. It hums and whirs."

One of the things that I love about this book is in that hum and whirring, you have everything from a wife boiling pasta next to prison guards. You have Robert Johnson. You have a woman at a 7-Eleven with a broom jumping out of her hands—this whole mix of the public and the personal, the concrete and the imaginary, of the historical and the personal seems to form that humming and that whirring that make the poems poems of great truth and beauty, what you take in with the poems. So I was wondering if we could talk about, in light of what is happening in the world right now, a year after the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, and sort of a mood and the country of fear of a possible war—last week I attended the Geraldine Ford poetry festival and heard such a sane and powerful conversation about what is happening and art in the midst of that, and one of the things that happened was that poets were asked to read one poem of their own, thinking of the theme "Envisioning a New Future." And so to hear poets like Stanley Kunitz, the amazing Kunitz, and Lucille Clifton and Robert Bly and Naomi Shihab Nye and the Polish poet Adam Zagjewski read one of their own poems and then another poem, many in translation—I was thinking the poem of yours I would read, if asked, would be "Something New under the Sun," the poem that starts the manuscript. I was wondering if, one, you would read that poem, two, talk about why you led the manuscript with it, and three, discuss this: At the time it was written, these events had not happened. Does a poem change in the context of what's happening in the culture around it? Will this poem now be read differently because of those events?

SS: Thank you. Yeah, I will read the poem.

["Something New under the Sun," by Steve Scafidi, from Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer, published 2001 by Louisiana State University Press.]

Thank you for requesting that I read that poem. I like to think about it, too. because it's a poem I don't think enough about now, and I rarely ever read it, and I'm not sure why, though I'm glad to have the opportunity today to do both things. So I think that since 9-11 there has been a kind of quiet response by a lot of poets, and I think that seems wise. I guess all I should do is speak from my own experience as a reader and a writer afterwards, is that I find that it is the daily response that our poetry has to the world around us that is a comfort, I think, to so many people who rarely read poems in the first place but who have been reading poems more since 9-11. I think that poetry is a kind of witness, and it has been one for a long time, like you said, to the truth and the beauty of our ordinary lives. And I think that we hunger for that kind of sensibility after 9-11. I think as a poet, as a writer, I find that my process hasn't changed any, and as a reader it hasn't changed, either. But I do think that you're right that there are poems that will be read differently because of it, and I think that there's—and in particular in this book there's a poem called "To Whoever Set My Truck on Fire," and I think about that poem often in the context of what happened because it is a very violent poem, and I like that about it. And it is an unrepentantly vengeful poem, and it makes me a little uncomfortable to tell you the truth reading it sometimes. But I think that's part of the beauty of it. I think a poet should be made uncomfortable by his or her books sometimes, especially as you move away from it. But about this poem in particular: I like this poem—I think it's okay to admit it—I do like this poem for its quiet affirmation of the possible. I like that it is, I thought, a nice way to begin a book, talking about just the way these words have come to me, and they come slowly, tenderly, tangibly, shy and meanderingly, like something wild, but we never think of wild things like that. But that is often the wild things I see, that's how they move, a possum, deer, raccoon, that's how things move around around us out there, and it seems when I think of nature and when I think of the divine, and if I'm ever able to think about those things with any clarity, I think of those things the way I think about the wild.

LS: I love that kind of, what I would call, radical power at the end of that poem, and I think it would be such an inspiration to writers to say back up a couple of steps and start to name the details of your lives and see what happens from there, that kind of act of dailiness. It makes me think of something that you said when we had a conversation in your home just over a year ago. We were talking about dailiness and the life of a poet and where the imagination comes into that. We were talking, actually, about the occasional poem, and I was wondering, "How do people ever do that, to be asked to write a poem for something?" I just wasn't sure about that, and I loved your response at that time, and you may have changed your opinion since then, which we could talk about. You said something like, "Well you know, Leslie, every poem is an occasional poem. Every poem comes out of some kind of immediate urgency, invitation, or need." And then you talked about it literally that there were at least three poems in the book that were written for specific occasions. And we also used the words communal and community, that that could be part of the daily practical life of a poet. If you are asked to write a poem, you accept that invitation and do the best you can.

SS: Right, I think that's great. There is a daily and practical life of a poem, and I think that since 9-11 that is part of what people are recognizing, and I love that about the response that so many people, especially Americans, have had to their poets and their poems. They've been embracing something that I think poets do, we do have duties and no we don't like to talk about it so much or maybe to use that word, but we do. And I think that we take care of things, we take care of those duties, we live up to certain responsibilities by writing the poems we need to write without setting up too many rules for ourselves.

Speaking of occasional poems, poems where you do have a rule setup, like, "Well, I'm going to write a poem now about this," which is hard, but I love doing that actually, and it helps me. I like to write all the time so having an occasion to write one is always a helpful invitation, but I do think that, I love how you put that, about that kind of urgency that every poem does have this immediate reason for being here. Even when it's done, when it's been sitting around for ten years, I think that if it's a good poem there's still that need for it to be around and a need for it to be written. I love as a writer to look at the blank page that way and to think of what urgencies there are that I need to pay attention to. And when I think that way, there's really no writer's block, there's no stopping, there's no silence that's crippling or anything like that, because when I think about what's available to me and I think about opportunities, I do think every poem has an occasion. And I think about the old poet laureates of Britain who wrote poems for state occasions, and I think about an American poet writing, our occasions are often—I wrote some for a birthday present for my mother. And I think about the state occasion of my family. I'm the poet laureate of my family, that's for sure, and I take a great amount of joy in writing poems for people, and I think some people maybe don't like that so much, but that's not really true. I think people really do like to get a poem and to know, too, that their lives or the specific particulars of their life or their day can become a part of a poem so easily too. It is a wonderful kind of communication, and it's a surprising one.

Part II

LS: This is Leslie Shiel speaking with Steve Scafidi about his book Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer.

I love that this poem, "The Hayfield Chandelier," you had told me before that one of your mother's closest friends was moving away, and you wrote this poem as a space for them to co,e together. And whenever I read this poem to students, I think of you as an architect and a builder, that you have literally built a place between here and California where these two women can be together in this poem. And I love that.

SS: I know, I like to think of it as I'm a road builder, there.

LS: A road builder, that's great. You know, in talking about this urgency and how each poem is an occasional poem, this morning, I was reading one of the letters that you sent me with a possible precursor to this book, a manuscript called The Fifth Horse?

SS: That's right.

LS: And you had written me four concerns that you had about the manuscript. Near the end of this letter, I love what you are writing here, and I'm thinking about this connection to the urgency and the need for the poems. At that time you were thinking a lot about the epic, you were in Arizona, sort of working that out, and you say, "This obsession with epic has had a strong hold on me. Throughout this process, I have discovered the truth of something I knew all along. Poems come from inside something. They are the passage out of that thing. The trouble I've had is projecting 'long poem' onto something rather than having the faith of a farmer, that that green comes from underground by its own kind of muscle."

Steve, in this book—when you write poems come from inside something, they are the passage out of that thing—do you have any thoughts what the passage with this book has been? Or is it still too soon to its publication?

SS: Oh, I like that question. It is soon, but I do think that there is this kind of organic departure from what you've done in the past. I think that, as a matter of fact, I've been, there's been a kind of resistance I've noticed in writing some of my new poems. There's been a resistance to any kind of resemblance of the poems I've been writing to what is in the book. And resistance is really ridiculous. I respect it and I'm going to honor it somehow with poems in the future, but for now, I think you need to move along. And so there's going to be a clear resemblance, and that's a good thing, even. It is early to talk about it, but I am curious. And that is, I think, what makes us curious, as writers, when we have a poem and we're done with it. And then you think, "Ah, what's next?"

LS: Well, I'm imagining that the third party in our conversation would be anybody listening to the interview, and there may be beginning writers out there who are wondering how to start to make their words public and people who have been doing it for awhile who may be in a stuck place. And I'm thinking about when you were in Arizona, that there was a period of time there where you became very self-conscious about revising and you told me that everytime you had a pencil in your hand, you would start to write something and then erase it and it became hard. And I think that most writers come to that point in the process, like when do you learn to let fly and where does the act of revision really deepen and help? And where does the editor become too strong? And at that point, you gave yourself an assignment where you would write across the page, and you had a whole set of requirements for yourself that I'm going to ask you in a minute, but the number one thing I remember about that conversation is that you told yourself, in starting to write, you would not allow yourself to erase for this series of drafts for a period of three months, that if you had written, let's say, a gnat into the first line of the poem, you could not erase that gnat. If you did not want that gnat in there, you had to kill the "gnat" off in the next line or in the body of the poem. Can you talk to us about that assignment and how, as you said later, it led to such poems as the gorgeous and erotic "The Latitudes of Desire"?

SS: That's interesting because I know that poets like Charles Wright speak proudly of their powers of erasure and tearing holes in paper with that eraser. I know about that. But I think it can be murderous at times, especially for a young writer, that you can get too precious, especially in a first draft, where for me, I can't do that because it stops everything up and it just ends up killing things. So what I did was—and I found that I was being murderous to my imagination, it felt like, nothing was good enough. No imagining whatsoever was good enough for me, which was ridiculous and is bad for you. So I said, well, let me defy this by no matter what—and I set up a group of rules about what I was going to do and it ended up being my thesis, which I don't even know if I consider them poems, necessarily, but I love them because how much I learned from that experiment. I think that is something that MFA programs should be used more often as experiment. But the rules I set up were that I was going to write a hundred poems, minimum, and they were each going to be twenty-eight lines and the lines were going to be as long as the margin of a piece of loose leaf paper. And I was going to celebrate nonsense in these, and I was going to move by rhyme and by rhythm. And I was going to, not erase, but like you said, revise. If I didn't like something that showed up earlier, it had to be changed by what I wrote next. So that, that was fascinating. And what it ended up doing, and I think this is important, especially for young writers to remember, that it affirmed . . . Every day, I was right there letting things happen. And it's not free-writing so much because I did have enough rules, some I even mentioned, that kept it regulated, somewhat tightly, but at the same time allowed for this flow of language that I think we have going on at all times. I think—you know, we dream at night, no matter if you're writing or not, and no matter if you remember or not, you are dreaming. And started to believe that we are dreaming at all times, even when we're awake. And so that increased my urgency to be present to the page and just start writing and see what would happen. And I found it was extraordinary. All these fascinating, nonsensical rhythms in stories just poured forth. Every day it was something brand new, and I was shocked. And I started to be so grateful and started looking at the first draft as this holy thing, and I think about William Stafford sometimes, and he was such a poet of the first draft. And it is an amazing thing when you go from nothing to something, no matter what that something is. It's miraculous for us. And so I've always remembered to celebrate that and never forget that. And I've since learned to love revision. And I do think that it still takes a good bit of—you know, we're always cultivating this critic, our own critic that we need to write poems. And it's easy for that critic sometimes to go overboard or for us to have a misunderstanding with our critical powers. And so that, our critical faculty just takes over and will kill things, at least mine will, often. So I have this constant battle. But for the most part, I've come to really enjoy revision as adventure. Often in the first draft, the miracle that it is, is something full of opportunity. And that's the way I go back to my poems, is thinking about opportunity.

LS: "Revision is adventure." Let's talk about that practically in the life now. Huge changes in the life and what that does to revise, maybe, your process of writing.

A little context here: When you lived in Virginia, you used to take long night walks through the Fan. It seemed to me that you were a person who loved long periods of solitude. And you knew what to do when you needed to give your writing something new. You told me once what an algebra class did for you, and you told me once that you waited out a semester and washed dished at the Strawberry Street Café because you needed to do something physical and then got back into the work. Then you moved to Arizona and you wrote once that it takes a good six months to get used to a newlandscape. And now you're a new father, and so those long periods of solitude may be changed. What do you do in the life to get back to a kind of steadiness, if that is important, and how does reading play a role in that during times of transition?

SS: I find that when I'm not reading, I'm probably not writing. And I find that reading is always come first in a way. Without reading, I don't really know what I'm doing, and I often don't trust what I'm doing if I'm not reading something. And there are touchstone poets who I return to regularly in times of crisis or the opposite. When I need a kind of meditation or I need a kind of calm that's familiar to me, I'll return to those poets, and at the same time, try to keep a steady stream of poets I'm unfamiliar with, from the past and currently. That's important.

LS: What happens to your writing? Do you just ride with the change? Do you keep with it daily?

SS: Well, that's interesting that my wife Kathleen and I had a child, Isabella, and it does—and I know you have a beautiful daughter, Jordan—and it changes your life, I think. Wait, I don't think, I know. It's only dawning on me, probably, but it changes your life. And I am someone who loves solitude, and I think a lot of writers are and we require it even. And so it's been a real challenge to find that old kind of calm. But I think what's called for now, as your life changes, is a new kind of calm. There's a new way of meditating in a practical, daily way. I've never been someone who sat down and closed my eyes and sat quietly. I'm too restless to do that. I'd make a terrible Buddhist, I'd make a terrible congregant of any church because my knee is always moving. So taking walks and writing poems is the closest I can get to that. And so, I have found it to be a challenge, but I think it's imperative, also, to find ways to cultivate that kind of restless peace.

LS: Well, Steve, I'm wondering if to end, unless there is nothing else that you really want to say, I've got two things going through my mind. One, this poem "Ferocious Ode" seems to me to be such a poem that talks about that hum and whir, that there could be something like a family drama mentioned, and then it goes straight from abstraction into "it breaks dishes," that the poem constantly undercuts itself and then evolves into something else, breaks and evolves, breaks and evolves. So I'm wondering if you would be willing to read that poem and then to possibly end the interview by telling us one story of the tribe. Something that happened to you in poetry, maybe with another poet, a story, a word this poet gave you, that you could also give to our listeners today.

SS: This poem is called "Ferocious Ode."

["Ferocious Ode," by Steve Scafidi, from Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer, published 2001 by Louisiana State University Press.]

I think I'd like to say something about Larry Levis. He's not someone that I knew personally, though I did go to one of his readings in Virginia, and you were there. Afterwards, in his hotel room, there were about eight people hanging around, relaxing, and watching a really terrible horror movie on a TV and making fun of it so delightfully. I remember sitting there and thinking this is one of the wonders of life that you can sit in a room with strangers and friends and a poet who you admire and have a great time and know probably you're going to leave in fifteen minutes and it's all over with, but you're not going to forget it.

I think that there is something about Larry Levis's poetry that I think that is freeing for so many of us who love his work. And I think that he is one of those poets who is always giving you permission to move along and to try the new thing because he does it so richly in all of his books. And he does it so deeply, and deeper in each successive book, that he also gives you hope, I think, as a writer, that there's going to be a really interesting evolution in your life and in your work and you can't guess it, but you have to write your poems to find it out.

LS: Well, Steve, thank you so much. It's been a delight, and I look forward to an ongoing conversation.

SS: Me, too. Thanks.  

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