BOR Contributor Interview: Steven D. Schroeder
by Mary Biddinger and Sara Tracey
Poet, editor, and BOR 1 contributor Steven D. Schroeder discussed inspiration, publishing, and advice for the future generation of writers with editors Mary Biddinger and Sara Tracey . Here's the interview, for your enjoyment and enlightenment:
Why poetry? How did the writing life start for you?
When I was six years old, I wrote a story about how I was going to be a cheetah policeman and give them tickets for going over 55 miles per hour (when that was the national speed limit). Then there was the terrible fantasy novel I worked on during calculus in high school while copying my friend's homework. I originally studied fiction in college (actually, I originally studied computer science in college with the intention of designing computer games, but clearly that didn't work out). I ended up moving to poetry because I have the writing version of a short attention span and try to compress everything into the smallest possible space, even when I sprawl.
Where do you find inspiration? What themes or images keep popping up in your work?
I think half of the answer is that I've always liked wordplay: rhyming, puns, spoonerisms, euphemisms, anagrams, and plain old mellifluous phrases. I try to work that verbal/sonic element into everything I write, even prose, without sacrificing the content side. The other half of the inspiration question is nebulous, so I'll say the Poetry Ferret scampers into my room each night and squeaks ideas in my ear. They usually end up being subjects of particular personal relevance to me, with lots of fire, entropy, unreliable narrators, and alcohol. Damn that ferret. (I've also been trying to work an untruth into all of my poems recently.)
Who are you reading? (Or what's your favorite book of 2007/08?)
There's a temptation here for me to name a dozen books by friends, but I'll stick to two of those: Theories of Falling by Sandra Beasley and A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York. I'm a browser when I read poetry, picking a poem here and a poem there from a book, but I read Sandra's book straight through in just a few days, and every poem fit right. Jake has been one of the kindest people in my own poetic growth, and his new book is stunning. His writing and thinking amaze me.
Of people I don't really know, I always enjoy the hell out of Dora Malech's work (surely her first book will be published soon). I've just started reading August Kleinzahler's Sleeping It Off in Rapid City , though I'm not especially familiar with his poetry yet. In non-poetry news, I'm reading Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas and thinking of how I can steal from its ideas in the area of unreal-but-plausible world creation, whether in poetry or prose.
Who are your biggest influences (literary, mentors, other)?
The single person besides myself most responsible for me being a poet is Mark Jarman, who was my undergraduate advisor and teacher. I was a technically passable writer but an unformed, graceless poet when I started taking poetry classes, and he really helped me figure out the music in poetry, and that I could write better stuff that was true to me. That his influence led me to be not particularly a metrical poet, not mostly a narrative poet, and not remotely a poet of faith amuses me a little.
My other influences are eclectic. “Ozymandias” was the first poem I loved. I simultaneously identify with and want to get beyond the cynicism of Philip Larkin, Alan Dugan, and Weldon Kees. I've been stealing poem titles from lines by friends like Gina Franco, Adrian Matejka, and Aaron Anstett. (If you're a friend I haven't titled a poem after yet, just wait.) Most of my reading and viewing habits are middlebrow and nerdy: Tolkien, a good Western, pirates. My writing reflects that taste: epigraphs/inspiration from Calvin and Hobbes , Patton Oswalt, The Simpsons , etc.
Which literary journals (besides Barn Owl Review, of course) do you enjoy most?
Of course I love Barn Owl Review so far and want to thank the editors for including me in such great company. I'm also obligated to mention my own journal, Anti-, which tries to present a wide range of styles and poets. Beyond that, I tend to like journals that likewise don't confine themselves to one “camp” (a concept I loathe anyway). Some of my favorite journals are Gulf Coast , DIAGRAM , Court Green , and Octopus . Having a fun, memorable name that's not Insert-University-Here Quarterly Journal of Poetry helps a bit too.
How has your work as an editor influenced your own writing and your submission strategy?
It can't help but influence my writing when I get to see work from people who are writing in ways I'd like to—it means I'll always have something to improve my poems toward. In terms of my own submissions, I've become much more careful about selecting poems to meet the taste of specific editors and making sure editors know I've done my homework on their journals. However, I've come to disdain certain types of jumping-through-hoops guidelines that journals choose to impose: no simultaneous submissions, snail mail submissions, the claim that a draft posted to an online workshop constitutes previous publication. Perhaps I need to stop now.
You recently started the online journal, Anti- . What was the process of developing your own journal like and how is it different from your previous editing experience with Eleventh Muse?
The obvious difference is the online format of Anti-, which allows for a much cheaper overhead cost, more flexibility of presentation, and more democracy in getting the poetry out. The only real drawbacks are eyestrain and the cumbersome formatting/page building process of HTML, but the advantages are huge by comparison. Of course, I still need a good visual designer no matter what the medium, as my strengths lie elsewhere. A. D. Thomas has done a great job making Anti- look the way it does.
Another difference that might not be as immediately obvious to an outsider is that I'm truly my own boss at Anti- , whereas with The Eleventh Muse , even though I was the editor and raised virtually all of the money to produce and distribute it, I was still accountable to the Poetry West organization that “owned” the journal, and sometimes to the embarrassing squabbles and borderline personality disorders of such local poetry groups. I prefer being able to do basically whatever I damn well please with my journal.
As an accomplished poet who does not have an MFA, would you care to weigh in on the debate over whether the MFA is an essential degree for writers? What advice would you give folks who don't want an MFA, but worry that they won't be able to sustain a writing life without it?
It may be a stretch to call me an accomplished poet, but I'll let that slide. The no-MFA part will also likely be moot soon enough, as I expect to be in a program by Fall 2009. Anyway, the MFA isn't essential to either your writing or your publishing as long as you're talented and dedicated, but it sure can help with both if you know how to find the right program. I think a key if you don't go the MFA route is to find another way to contribute to the poetry community conversation, whether through a journal, a press, or a reading series. Those are the opportunities the academic community offers to be involved that you have to make on your own without.
I'd also love to hear your thoughts on making a living in a field that's related to writing. Could you tell us about your job, and how it does (or doesn't) overlap with your creative side?
For those who don't know (or if my standard bio note isn't right around here somewhere), I'm a Certified Professional Resume Writer. I actually don't do that much resume writing at this point—I'm managing a team of other writers. I stumbled into resume writing (friend of a friend of my mother) after college when I was working at a video store, but it was good to learn that there were actually a few non-teaching things one could get with an English degree. Anyway, probably the biggest similarity between resumes and poems is the requirement for language compression, having to say things in exactly the right way and without surplus words. Otherwise, I'm happy to say they're far enough apart that writing resumes has rarely sapped my desire to write creative stuff after work.
Something that I admire in your work is the sense of humor, and the irony, both of which are rather difficult to pull off in a poem. How do you manage to make poems both witty and poignant at the same time ?
If there's a default thing I want to do, it's “make this poem funny and ____.” Funny and poignant, funny and creepy, funny and sociopolitically relevant, whatever. At the risk of getting slightly confessional and slightly arrogant, one of the things that keeps me going is that I can make people laugh, and I know it. But even if I could explain how to do it, I'm not sure I would. If I make the blank portion of the equation genuine, the humor seems to creep in on its own. And I'd like to tell you what I think of irony, but unfortunately I don't know what irony is.
Recently, in celebration of National Poetry Prompt Appreciation Day, you posted some excellent prompts on your blog. How do you feel about prompts, and would you mind sharing a few of those here?
I'm not quite anti-prompt, but anytime I try to write to one, I find that the goodness really happens when I abandon or negate it. The only kind of prompt I really don't like is the overly restrictive. You know, “Write a dramatic monologue in the voice of a rosebush, using terza rima , the word ‘echolocation,' and a twist ending.” (Watch someone try that now.) Here are three of my favorites from the post you mention—I hope they leave plenty of wiggle room:
- Write a poem that functions as a map.
- Make an unsupportable assertion, then support it.
- Write a beautiful poem with a spiteful persona.
If anyone actually creates a viable poem using any of these, I expect full credit as Prompt Creator. Or at least you can e-mail me and let me know.
Finally, what three pieces of advice would you give to an undergraduate Intro to Poetry Writing class filled with students who are writing their first poems since scribbling in notebooks in junior high?
So you saved the question I'm least qualified to answer for last. I'll give it a shot anyway.
- Read all the poetry you can, both classic and contemporary. If you're not a reader, you're not going to be a writer.
- Learn all the elements that go into a poem before you try to write a whole poem. The first step in an Intro to Drawing class wouldn't be “Draw a picture, and we'll all critique it.”
- Write what you enjoy and enjoy what you write.
A few of you may be taking this because you think it's an easy credit. The accuracy of that belief aside, here are pointers for you too.
- Poetry is completely subjective and there's no real way to determine its quality, so anyone who criticizes your poems has something against you personally.
- Poetry is all about self-expression, so none of your drafts should take longer than five minutes to write or require any editing.
- Be sure to participate in class by asking your teacher if you can get extra credit for going to on-campus poetry readings.
Thank you for your thoughts and advice, Steve, and very best wishes to you and your poems.
Links to Steven D. Schroeder's work online: