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Boston poet Steven Cramer on writing, rewriting and adaptation

On the podcast: Steven Cramer discusses and reads from his new book of poetry, "Listen," and shares his process

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

About the guest

Professor Steven Cramer is the founder of our MFA in Creative Writing program and the author of six books of poetry, including Clangings and Listen. Steven’s work has appeared in publications such as The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly and many others. Learn more about Steven on his webpage.

In this episode, Steven is interviewed by alumna Andrea Read.

Check out all of our episodes, show notes, and transcripts on our podcast page or just go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Play or Spotify.

  • Transcript

    Georgia Sparling

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. Today's guest is Steven Cramer. Steven founded our low residency MFA in Creative Writing program. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Slate, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other places. He is also the author of multiple books of poetry, including “Clangings," and most recently, “Listen,” which he will read from today, Steven will be joined on this episode by one of his former students, and a fellow poet, Andrea Reed.

    Andrea Reed

    Hi, Steven.

    Steven Cramer

    Hi, Andrea.

    Andrea 

    Welcome to this conversation about your newest book, “Listen." I'm thrilled to be with you here today, having a conversation about everything about it, actually.

    Steven 

    Me too.

    Andrea 

    So I was hoping that you could read the opening poem of the book called "Bad" just so that we can hear your voice and have that in mind as we talk further about the book.

    Steven 

    Sure. And let me just say about it s o people don't run screaming for the exits; it's the first poem in a section that has a lot to do with depression. And because of that, it is, in no way a feel-good poem.  I think every poem is judged on its aesthetic honesty, not on whether it's uplifting or not, but if somebody said, "Where's the poem of yours that might make me feel like, you know, going to tomorrow," it wouldn't be this one. So I just want to say that first, The book is dark out of the starting gate, but there's, I hope, a long track.

    Bad, it got bad. Pretty bad, then, not so bad. Very bad, then back to bad. Jesus, let's let things not get even worse. A weird fall, nearly 90 one day, leaf mold, making the house all red eyes and throats. Don't think about Thanksgiving. But hope for a decent Halloween. Everywhere. Gas powered leaf blowers growling. Christ, let's let things not get even worse.

    Andrea 

    So, now that we are out of 2020 and into 2021, it was amazing to me how the poem speaks so well, to our time, collectively, and individually. I would love to hear you talk about that, the relevance of a poem that was written in one context and yet speaks forcibly in another.

    Steven 

    That was actually my hope when I wrote it, and I wrote it well before the period that most of the poems in the first section, deal with and confront. When it was finished, I was interested in the way "bad" can refer to anything from mood to illness to period of history to hay fever. And that was really important to me. I think now, that introduces a section, when you read the section that follows it, its radius of reference that tightens somewhat.

    Andrea 

    So Steven, I was noticing that from the thread from the beginning of the book all the way through to the end, there's a notion that I would call the therapeutic or redemptive power of seeing, hearing, noticing and being attentive. Well, it actually reminded me of a couple of lines from John Ashbery "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat." And his line about watching, where the lines where he says "and even the least attentive falls silent to watch the thing that is prepared to happen."  I think about that in a lot of these poems. There's a real attention to visual images or descriptions of sounds and paying attention. I just wonder if you might talk a little bit about that process of, in these poems, you and also the speaker, paying attention to what inner world, outer world, and the relationship between the two?

    Steven 

    Sure, as best I can. Well, one of the things that's kind of ironic because I do think that's there, I hope that that the book appeals to the reader senses, and that living in a way in which you allow your senses to be appealed to, is a kind of therapeutic way of being. Or it's better than closing off your senses. Not always, but you know, all things being equal. I think it's better to see, hear, touch, taste and smell than not.

    Interestingly, I consider myself a writer for whom sensory details and images do not come easily. Very often, the early drafts of poems, or the stuff I jot down these days, more and more, type into my phone note app, are more rhetorical than perceptual. And I find that in the process of revision, that transformation from abstract or not-embodied to embodied has to take place not consciously, but has to take place through a different kind of work, which feels like more of meditative work. Again, I think that that relates to that notion of living in the senses is, in some ways therapeutic and not the least, for me, easy.

    Andrea 

    I was noticing in "South Belknap,: for instance, where you say, "Mark writes on the whiteboard men are not disturbed by things but by the view they take of them." And then there's this moment that bifurcates to there's people who are scribbling this sentence into notebooks on their laps, but there's two or three looking out the window and these images are very precise. "They see water from a fountain surge, plume, crest, then fall into a pond, no bigger than a toddler's pool. And a boy with sinewy clots of hair, still as a page in a picture book, bows to read his cell phone, and sparrows fly into and out of out from the azaleas and roses flicker of fire from a magician's fingertips."

    Steven

    Thank you for reading that passage. When I was working on that poem, at some point, I realized this poem was going to behave more like a camera with a microphone than the way many poems behave as metaphors for human speech. This poem doesn't really have a speaker, it has a narrator. There's no I or we. There may have been an early draft, a "we" that I rubbed out because I wanted the poem to almost be, at least in the first half, something one might overhear. But of course, there are visual images in there. And that pivot you talk about? For me, I hope it works for the reader as a kind of opening up of a window. So not only does the camera move out and look elsewhere, but there's a sense of fresh air that comes in after-- [laughing]

    Andrea

    Totally, yes. Exactly.

    Steven 

    After the pain of the things that people report about their lives. I suppose it's worth saying just for context that South Belknap is a building on the campus of McLean Hospital, where I did spend some time as an outpatient. And those group meetings became very familiar. There's nothing that's said, as far as I can recall, nothing said in the poem is a literal transcription of anything said in any of those meetings and of course-- although I think someone did actually say when asked as a sort of icebreaker, "what's your favorite food?" And she said, "I hate food," and which was just so disarmingly, just cut through everything. I mean, it wasn't an icebreaker so much as a wall break. Because this person, in three words, was telling the absolute truth.

    Andrea 

    Yes. I think that's another-- speaking of truth and honesty, there's a vulnerability and a lot of the poems that comes in very simply and quietly. I think, for me anyway as a reader, that kind of simple claim to being open is really moving, draws me completely in. There's one, this prose poem called "The World." You say, "I saw two futures. One, a moonlit shoreline. One, a diagnosis. There was a third future I didn't see."

    And there's something about that line, There was a third future I didn't see," that I thought was so moving. I think that there's a deceptive simplicity in that line. I wasn't expecting it. I was thinking two futures: one this and the other that. That's the expected syntax, and this was completely different. And it was disarming, actually.

    Steven 

    Well, one of the things-- I don't know whether how conscious I was at this, but when I do read pieces of prose, we call them prose poems, but I find that term "prose poems" problematic, so I just tend to call them pieces of prose. But some of my favorite pieces of prose by poets are often very irrational, and associative, if not dissociative, but they often use the syntax and simplicity of diction that we associate with prose rather than poetry. I think that was something that was very liberating at the time I was working on them, was not having to think about the rhythm of the line.

    And also a certain kind of, fable-like qualities of the total effect, and allowing the irrational into the poem, as I think in that one, it does take certain kinds of associative turns. A couple of them I think you would identify as a surreal prose poem, maybe that one, not so much. But just to find a way to say very simply, something unexpected. Like, there was a third future I didn't see. Of course, I set it up by saying "I saw two futures." If I had said "there were two futures," that might have been just a simple contradiction. The future you don't see is the future, right?

    Andrea 

    Yes. [laughter]

    Steven 

    The other ones are, in a way, they're not so much the future as they are the events you anticipate taking place in the future. The future, you can't see.

    Andrea 

    That's right. So speaking of these prose pieces, one thing I noticed about the book, too, I was interested to hear you talk about the different formal considerations because there are these prose pieces, there's a sonnet, there's three-line stanzas, four-line, 11-line.  I mean, all kinds. But there's, in general, a kind of container-like quality without feeling constricted. I was just wondering if you could talk about how your formal considerations played into the writing of these poems?

    Steven 

    I can talk about that ad nauseam. [laughs] So I'll have to edit myself, but I'll start with the book previous to “Listen," “Clangings,” was an obsessively mono-formal book, in the sense that every poem, except the last one, is comprised of five quatrains rhyming A-B-B-A. And it's a book-length sequence, and it's in the voice of somebody who is undergoing a thought disorder condition associated with schizophrenia, and manic episodes called clangings. So, that was a very obsessive project that involved getting as much out of a single prosodic form as I could.

    There are two reasons why I think, at least two I can think of, for why “Listen” is, in terms of just the formal experience the reader has, as the reader turns from one page to the next, diametrically opposed to the experience the reader would have reading through “Clangings.” One of them is that a good number of the poems, in “Listen” were written before I wrote “Clangings” and a good number were written afterwards. “Clangings” sort of just like came out, not out of the blue, but it was not what I was expecting to do. And then it became what I had to do for almost two years. The earlier poems in “Listen,” I had to postpone thinking about them as a book. In fact, that was a major challenge; how did the two different periods of poems end up talking to each other? So that's one thing.

    But the more important thing, I think, and I hope this is true, I just finished a book of poems, I won't say who it's by. I thought that they were, by and large, terrific. But every poem on the page, with an exception of two or three, was one long stanza, usually going to the end of the page, or going over into five to ten lines on the second page, all of them. I got tired of-- even before reading the next poem, I just thought, "Oh, it looks like the last one." Now, that's a superficial way of judging something that has to be read. I really thought the poems were good and I really like this poet, but I just wondered, doesn't this poet feel any sense of how a difference in form might be a different challenge and release a difference in viewpoint or tone or attitude? Because most of the poems are pretty much the same. They're very consistent in terms of the tonal, the timbre, of expression.

    And then I also thought, as a reader, I just thought, some of the books I like best as books-- everybody talks about how a book should be unified, and I think that's true, but it should also be very dated. Y think I love reading a book that the next poem that presents itself says, "Okay, you have to read me differently than you read the last one." So that's part of utterly without any sort of relation to thematic content, or subject, I wanted the book to offer a different shape to the reader, as the reader, assuming the reader moves through the book sequentially, which of course, lots of readers don't, including me. When I get a new book launch, I read the short ones first. 

    Andrea 

    [laughs]

    Steven 

    Philip Larkin has a wonderful metaphor for this. He always thought of his books as variety shows. So, it's like, maybe you start with the opera singer, and then you have the dancing bear. And after that, you have the ventriloquist and I just love that metaphor, because it's so unpretentious, but gets at the notion of the appeal of variety.

    Andrea 

    Yes, exactly. And the whole idea of, if you're going to sort of, ultimately speak to a reader somehow, or a listener, that they have to be listening. They have to want to listen.

    Steven 

    I was just going to say, obviously, there are a lot of poets who feel otherwise. Richard Hugo, I'll talk about the dead. Every book by Richard Hugo, every poem looks more or less the same. Rhythmically, they're very similar. They are blank verse, generally use blank verse, verse paragraphs, three or four per poem.

    Andrea 

    I think that one of the things that happens then in your book, because of all these different formals structures that you're allowing yourself to use, they do take on different tones of voice, different registers, different sets of illusions. For instance, there's a wide range of reading going on and illusions in terms of art and other literature and other writers, which I think really broadens the reach. Just how you talk about the idea of the world, in your prose piece, "The World," it kind of creates this sort of accordion-like notion of what the world is: there's an intense inner which you are inhabiting and the speaker in a lot of these poems is thinking about memory, being very attentive to all of that. And at the same time, bringing in lots of references from elsewhere, which I think expands the world in the book.

    Steven 

    In some ways of the things that I know I do, to a certain degree habitually, although I hope not habitually in the sense of relying on them rather than experimenting, but I know I do make a lot of allusions to what I've read or movies I've seen or music. And I sometimes feel like "Okay, Cramer. It's time to dial that back a little bit." I'm not at all apologetic about the possibility that one of my subjects is reading one of the greatest sonnets ever written by Keat, so I'm first looking into Chapman's Homer is about his excitement, having found a good translation of Homer.

    I don't think of reading as somehow separate from life, or writing as separate from life. I also often find it weird when people say, "Oh, another poem about poetry." And I'm saying, "Yeah, but maybe it's a good poem about poetry and why shouldn't poets write about poetry?" It's something that's pretty central to their lives.

    Andrea 

    Speaking of other poets and poetry, one of the things that I was really, really intrigued by, in this book, were a lot of references or lines included from lots of poets from everyone: Wallace Stevens, Laura Jensen, Emily Dickinson, William Blake. I was especially intrigued by, what you call in your notes, either adaptations or derivations of the Mandelstam poems, the three and then the Ingeborg Bachmann poem at the very end, and the Montale poem. So could you talk about that process?

    Steven 

    Sure.

    Andrea 

    Oh, yes. And the Solomon poem, yes.

    Steven 

    Some of it is very utilitarian. If I'm really not seized by a subject, an exercise that I often perform to try to prime the pump, is to read around in anthologies of translations. I find a poem translation that I can imagine the original being a really good poem and I think the translation is terrible. [laughs]

    I know, that's kind of, arrogant. I am a monoglot, I have a little bit of German and which is, and I forget, the Bachmann poem is German. I've done some other adaptations of German poems. With those, I really do try to both consult the original and puzzle it out for myself in the original. But I found often, such as the Monte Stone poem, I read lots of different versions of that very famous, Untitled poem that was the turning point or the tipping point to the end of his life. 

    Andrea 

    Right.

    Steven 

    It's commonly referred to as the Stalin epigraph. He, apparently read it at a number of private readings, one of which may be, more than one of which, had an informer in the audience.E very translation I read, I thought, "It can't be as awkward as this." So I said, "Let's see what happens if I try to pump it up a little bit." So I read every translation that I could find, and put them aside. I took notes. I just thought, I know it sounds weird, but I just thought, "I think I can do better."

    And then the other two, one is a very early poem, and one is a quite late poem near the end of his life, and when I wrote those, I realized that putting them together as a triptych created a kind of thumbnail biography of the poet, the very young poet before the downfall, the poem that caused the downfall and then a poem from his interior exile and Voronezh, where he's with his wife. When I finally put it together, they were published. It's interesting because the Stalin epigram came out in AGNI, and then another magazine, Sugarhouse Review. wanted to publish all three as a sequence and I had to get in touch with AGNI and say, "Can I publish it again?" They said, "Of course, go ahead." So it didn't come out as a triptych until--

    Andrea 

    Oh, okay. So you didn't envision it in the beginning as a triptych?

    Steven 

    No, no, I just did the stolen epigram. I don't recall what led me to go back to it. It was actually a book of translations that I had used to read one of the many versions of the Stalin epigram that I found. I took enormous liberties with it. te last line makes a reference to home in the Stalin version, and there's no reference to home, there's a reference to Georgia. But that was Stalin's home. The word "Georgia" just didn't fit. The irony of him experiencing the response to killing people as a kind of hug from home. That's what I wanted to get across. I don't know, but anybody reading the poem, I assume, in Russian would make the connection of Georgia since that was Stalin's home.

    Andrea 

    Right. Right.

    Steven 

    So they are definitely not translations and I don't claim at all-- the term Lowell used and got criticized for was "imitations." So I don't think of them as translations. They are definitely adaptations.

    Andrea 

    There's a way in which an adaptation like that really allows one to be even more intimate with a writer. There's a translation, and then there's allowing that work to somehow help you write something new. How would you say that in terms of say, fitting into this book, into “Listen,” what do you think that these adaptations, how do you think they fit in? Lke this one, for instance, this sequence?

    Steven 

    The Mandlestam sequence?

    Andrea 

    Yeah.

    Steven 

    In this section of poems, the first section which really does, I hope, in a fairly prismatic way, chart a trajectory from Bad to Listen, which charts a period in my life where I really struggled with very serious depression. That poem, The Mandelstam poem, and the poem After Thomas Solomon, I think of those two poems. They both come somewhat later in the series. It seemed to me that after Bad and Self Help Map and the Zuni Fetishes, which is about going to Santa Fe, but actually not being able to escape your inner life, even though there's all this outer life, for you to look at. The world is, of course, as interior as it is exterior, and it's not a nice world that one is inside. Cosmography of Melancholy, I think of as the descent into hell.

    So when things start to, when the world re-enters, one of the ways it reenters is through these other voices that are less personal and more political. The Solomon poem is really a kind of an end-of-the-world poem, and the Mandelstam poem, one of the things that I love about the third section, which I hope I've rendered honestly, is how much is how the capacity to affirm, despite what the speaker has gone through, is very much connected to the sustenance of intimacy with another person.

    Andrea 

    Yes, exactly. And that comes up. That's a thread that comes up throughout the book, I think.

    Steven 

    Yes, yes.

    Andrea 

    Yeah, definitely.

    Steven 

    Yeah. It's like, "Thank you, dear for being here." [laughs]

    Andrea 

    Yes, yeah. Exactly.

    Steven 

    And that's very personal and very rooted in my own 33-year-long marriage.

    Andrea 

    Yes. I mean, there's that beautiful line in “Listen,” "It's you I'll be listening to at the last." And that's definitely the idea of love and intimacy with a particular person through time, as one of those redemptive threads, so to speak, really comes through.

    Steven 

    Yeah, works for me doesn't work for everybody but it works for me. I'm only 67, which isn't that old, but I can't help but think about mortality. I find myself not particularly obsessed or afraid of my own death. I don't want to be pre-deceased. I really don't want to be pre-deceased, which is its own form of selfishness in a way.

    Andrea 

    Yes, that's a good point.

    Steven 

    "I want to go first, so I don't have to experience losing you," which is, as you probably know, that's a beautiful notion that Emily Dickinson lays out in her longest poem "I Cannot Live With You."

    Andrea 

    Yes, exactly. I have a two-part question. One side of the question is, how often, assuming it could be quite often, are you surprised by your own poems? Meaning where they start and where they end up? And the flip side of that question is, have you ever resisted writing a poem that kept insisting on itself?

    Steven 

    The first question for me is easier to answer them the second one. No poem that I finished or kept or valued didn't, in some way, have that surprise. Even if I set out, I don't really think I ever set out to write a poem about a particular subject. For me, that is trying to drive a car with no fuel in it. So every poem that I've written, that I've finished and cared about, has surprised me in some way. Often enough, what surprised me, hasn't surprised others. I rely on people who I trust to read my work to help me sort out when that feeling that something surprising has happened in the process of writing a poem, that I'm a little benighted about it.

    It's not as surprising as I think it is. And that can sometimes lead to throwing it out, sometimes it's about revisiting it. It's interesting, because what Heather McHugh has said, "Write for clarity, revise for strangeness," and I do the exact opposite. My first drafts are dissociated. They are often gibberish, and because they're gibberish, or not really even first drafts, they're not anything. They're just language on the page, sometimes scattered over a number of pages and it's only by revisiting them that I begin to sense the way the different parts of what I've written are talking to each other.

    Now, I'm sure like everybody else, I hope, I've also had those very, for me, rare experiences where a poem has come quickly and more or less unbidden. And you feel like, "Man, why weren't the gods not on my side all the time?" [laughs] Because they're gods. They don't do that for you. [laughs] But, I've had that experience, and I actually had that experience with “Clangings.” It was at a point where I was sometimes drafting two, maybe even three a weekend.

    Andrea

    Wow.

    Steven

    That was a project that's so obsessed me, and the voice and the character so inhabited me that the act of writing didn't feel quite like dictation, but there wasn't what is the common experience, for me, which is a lot of agony before I get into it. I don't like writing at all. I like rewriting. That's where the zone opens up for me.

    Your second question of whether I felt a poem go off in directions that were actually fruitful directions and I was kind of resistant to it. I'm sure that's happened, but my feeling is this is one of the reasons why I really rely on friends who read my work carefully. Because if I will show them a draft, I'm willing to show them a draft that I know is not even close to having found its form, and I'm open to it. I may be the last person to know the direction the poem seems to be steering itself toward that is too hot for me to be aware of, and they may help me with that. More often, I feel the poem go off course in a way that doesn't interest me and I just have to walk away. In the long run, that's kind of liberating because you know, 90% of what we produce is probably not going to amount to much.

    Andrea 

    Exactly. That's right. I was hoping that that maybe you could read "Bohemia Lies By the Sea." I had realized that Anselm Kiefer's, one of my favorite painters, and he has a painting that was inspired, of course by this by Ingeborg Bachmann's poem.

    Steven 

    This is an adaptation of probably her best-known poem. One of the liberties that she takes, which of course is a liberty she takes from Shakespeare, is that Bohemia doesn't lie by the sea. I think she is playing with the fact that in Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," Bohemia is a coastal-- I don't think anyone really knows whether Shakespeare did that deliberately or he just didn't know-- a lot of people say he gets Italy really wrong in his plays set in Italy. Of course, there are people saying "This proves he's not there, there was no Shakespeare."

    A couple of the liberties that I took with the poem is I added an epigraph from "The Winter's Tale" that Ingeborg Bachmann does not have in her poem that just felt, in a way, I think of the epigraph from a Winter's Tale as kind of an epigraph to the whole book, rather than just when I decided that this belonged as the last poem. The epigraph was already on the poem. Once I put it where it was, I thought, "Oh, that's, that's not a bad thing to say to someone who's gone through what the speakers go through, in the book itself."

    Andrea 

    Yes, exactly.

    Steven 

    This is, I would call this poem, in some ways, kind of surreal. This is not a poem that I feel I have necessarily unpacked all its mysteries. "Bohemia Lies by the Sea."

    Thou art perfect, then our ship has touched upon the deserts of Bohemia. The Winter's Tale, Bohemia lies by the sea. If the houses here are green, I'll step into a house. If the bridges can't hold up, I'll walk on firm ground. If every age loses its labors of love, I'll give up mine here. If I'm not the one, someone is and worth what I'm worth. If a word limits me now, let it limit me then. If Bohemia lies by the sea, I'll believe in the sea. And if I believe in the sea, I can hope to see land. If I am the one, anyone is and worth what I'm worth. I don't want anything else. Let me go underground. Meaning under the sea, and rediscover Bohemia. I'll wake up making peace with what I've ruined. From the bottom is where I'll know I'm not lost. Come here you Bohemians, sailors, harborside whores, ships adrift. All you Illyrians, Venetians and Veronese- don't you want to be Bohemians? Don't you want to play in the comedies that have us weeping laughter? Don't you want to go wrong 100 times as I went wrong, and couldn't withstand the trials? In time I withstood them -as Bohemia, one fine day, withstood them, was pardoned, and now lies by water. I'm still on the edge of a word and another country. More and more, I'm on the edge of everything. I'm a citizen of Bohemia - an itinerant actor, holding and held by nothing, allowed only to watch the shore of my choice from the questionable sea.

    Andrea 

    Beautiful. That is a perfect way to end this book, which is really this incredible inner journey, I think. "By the questionable sea" which ultimately, that's where we all are: a questionable sea. Beautiful. Well, thank you, Steven.

    Steven 

    Thank you. Thank you very much.

    Andrea 

    This was wonderful.

    Steven 

    This was a deep pleasure.

    Andrea 

    It was.

    Georgia  

    [music playing]

    Thank you for listening to this episode. For more information on Steven and Andrea, check out our show notes. Steven's most recent book is “Listen” and it is available wherever books are sold. We'll be back with another episode in two weeks.