Ten Questions

For Steven D. Schroeder. Steve edits The Eleventh Muse literary journal for Poetry West and works as a Certified Professional Résumé Writer. His poetry and reviews are recently available or forthcoming from Verse, The National Poetry Review (where he won the Laureate Prize), The Laurel Review, CutBank, and Verse Daily. Steve is the seventh of ten poets to answer this series of questions (past and upcoming contributors here) – warm thanks to him for doing so, and for the interesting texture added by his answers below to the overall picture.

1. In this 2003 interview, Canadian poet George Bowering quotes Shelley: “The poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.” Do you think the poet has a specific role to play in human affairs in this century? If so, what is it?

No, I can’t say that the poet has a specific role to play–more like a multitude of possible roles. The relative obscurity of poetry makes the legislator role increasingly unlikely, though there’s clearly still room for exceptions from Dana Gioia (though he’s well acknowledged) to Poets Against the War.

2. Talk about the importance of poetry workshops to you as a poet – now and in your earlier development. Do you differentiate between in-person and on-line workshops?

Workshops were important in my poetic development after I obtained my undergraduate degree in creative writing. As someone who didn’t write much poetry for several years and didn’t know about the local poetry community in Colorado Springs when I started again, I found online workshops like Eratosphere and Poetry Free-for-All crucial in taking the first steps of learning about my own writing and the writing of others. They became less important when I reached a stage where the shallower readings typical of workshops were no longer necessary to pick up glitches, but most poets I know still have quasi-workshops of other poets close to them, and I still participate in a private online workshop and a local one.

There’s obviously more traffic in an Internet workshop than for a local one, and maybe a little more tendency for flamboyantly negative critiquing because of the relative anonymity and distance. Still, I think at their hearts they’re similar animals–equal portions of quid pro quo back-scratching, nasty backbiting, and genuine attempts to help with poetry. To me, the most critical task in looking for a workshop is to find one where the responders take the time to read the poem multiple times and give a true deep reading rather than “Nice images” or “I don’t understand this line.”

3. Comment on this passage by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall in his 1983 essay Poetry and Ambition: “Horace, when he wrote the Ars Poetica, recommended that poets keep their poems home for ten years; don’t let them go, don’t publish them until you have kept them around for ten years: by that time, they ought to stop moving on you; by that time, you ought to have them right. […] When Pope wrote “An Essay on Criticism” seventeen hundred years after Horace, he cut the waiting time in half, suggesting that poets keep their poems for five years before publication. […] By this time, I would be grateful-and published poetry would be better-if people kept their poems home for eighteen months.”

I recall that passage. The general idea of letting your poems sit for a while and coming back to them, even if you think you have a final draft, is a good one. I do think, though, that unless you’re a big name or a self-publisher, anything you write will have such a long shelf life between when you “finish” it and when it appears in a book that you don’t have to specifically worry about holding them back–it’ll happen naturally. That belief, of course, may be based on the fact that I’m an inveterate tinkerer. Of the previously published poems in my current manuscript, I’m sure at least 50% have been noticeably modified since they were published in journals.

4. Comment on this passage from Why Poetry Criticism Sucks, an article by Kristin Prevallet in the April 2000 issue of Jacket magazine: “It is very difficult to write poetry criticism and not have poets feel personally maimed […]. For some reason poetry criticism does not advance the formal, intellectual, or contextual parameters of poetry. It always gets confused with the personal.”

I skimmed that whole article, and it seemed too generalized to me, though I sympathize with the sentiments. In context, I think that statement is putting more of the blame on the poets taking things personally than on the criticism itself failing, and that seems at least somewhat reasonable to me. Poets are sensitive, perhaps oversensitive sometimes, and the po-biz world is small. I do see quite a few reviews, however, that blur the lines between commenting on the work and making ad hominem attacks, so it’s not a one-way street.

5. Do you have an internet presence? If so, describe it and comment on the state of the poetry blogsphere. If not, why not?

I have a poetry website, including a blog which has been up for 2 years now. The poetry blogosphere is a pretty good microcosm of both the general blogosphere and the general poetry world. Much banality (some of it still very engaging), much weirdness (some of it entirely inspired), discussion of theory (dry and otherwise), and too many outsiders dismissive of it because it’s new, without really having any idea what it’s about.

6. To what degree have you been published and to what degree has that helped or hindered your development as a poet?

I’ve been published in quite a few excellent print and online journals, though the upper tier of 20 or so print journals has eluded me so far, and I don’t yet have a full-length book out. If anything, publication has been a mild help to my development because it gives me incentive and helps me measure myself against publications of other poets I greatly admire while driving me to improve and try new things. Publication probably hurts the growth of poets who are too easily satisfied, but then numerous things would do that for them.

7. Comment on today’s huge numbers of on-line poetry publications.

Seems pretty similar to the huge number of small, low-production-value paper zines that used to be around (and still are to some extent). Some of them are good, some are terrible. The online versions theoretically have a greater reach, but I bet many of them end up having the same loyal audience of 30-40, plus the authors in any given issue. Many of the best online journals, like DIAGRAM, MiPOesias, Octopus, three candles, and No Tell Motel, do things in ways that print journals can’t while publishing eclectic and edgy poetry, and I think they do reach a sizeable audience.

8. Self-publishing has become inexpensive and relatively painless. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

If you have the quality of work to pull it off, more power to you. The thing is, there are enough small/DIY sorts of presses around that if you have that quality of work, I bet you can find someone else to publish you and avoid the ingrained (and too-often justified) bias against self publishing. If I started a tiny press (or a journal), my emphasis would be much more on getting other people’s voices out there.

9. What do you see as the biggest opportunity facing a poet today, in comparison to 50 years ago?

The Internet, surely. I haven’t read everyone else’s responses yet, but the ones I saw said the same thing, and I can’t imagine any of them saying something else, unless they consciously avoid the answer to suggest another.

10. What do you see as the biggest challenge to a poet today, in comparison to 50 years ago?

Depends on the poet’s goals, I suppose, and I also must acknowledge I’m ignorant of exactly how the poetry world was 50 years ago, but I think the biggest issue, to paraphrase blogger Charles Jensen, is that there are more poets than ever at the table, and the poetry pie is smaller.

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Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

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