A Conversation with David Steingass
(The following interview is based on a conversation with poet David Steingass at the Lakeside Street Coffee House in Madison, Wisconsin on November 13, 2013. The interview is conducted by Jerry McGinley, managing editor of Lake City Lights online literary anthology. Joining the conversation is LCL submissions editor Roy Dorman. )
LCL: I guess the best place to start is at the beginning. Can you share some background about how one initiates a life of writing?
STEINGASS: I didn’t know there was such a thing as a poet until I was in high school. My parents had checkbooks, maybe you remember that, and just to the left of the checks were stubs, the check registry. They’d give me the stubs when they were done with the checks, and I’d scribble on the backs of them—this is before I knew how to write. I was only five years old, but I was conscious of writing these poems and stories. That’s my background.
LCL: So you were born writing?
STEINGASS: I hope so. And in Ohio, the town where I grew up, nobody seemed to know about what we call creative writing. I went to college and found a great person there and started to write poems and stories. When they heard I wanted to be a writer, the people in my hometown said, “Oh, you’re going to be a journalist.” I told them, “Jesus, the last thing I want to do is journalism.” I was thinking of the county paper. I didn’t even know about Hemingway, the impact of journalism on his poems and stories. Now I see that journalism can wonderful, but not then.
LCL: Your first book was BODY COMPASS. How did that come about?
STEINGASS: That was my thesis at the University of California-Irvine. The day I took the manuscript to the post office, I didn’t have a title on it, so I wrote a title in longhand before I mailed it. That’s how lucky I was.
LCL: So your first submission is it Pitt Press, and it gets published.
STEINGASS: University of Pittsburg Press. Very lucky, very nice. William Stafford was the judge that year. I was able to meet him through the manuscript and have some wonderfully beneficial conversations about writing.
LCL: Do you ever go back to those early poems? Read them or do anything with them?
STEINGASS: Like read them and cringe? Sure I like them a lot. I think the difficulty is going back to those same subjects too much. Need to try something new. Here’s the thing, I think a lot of times a writer has an idea for a poem that he’s not ready to realize. To take writing advantage of. More and more, I know that’s true for me. I still have poems that I have impressions for, I don’t say ideas, but I had impressions for when I was young that I’m still too unaware to get to. It takes a certain kind of reading or observation to get to that kernel of what wants to happen in the poem. There are some of those impressions I managed to get at in BODY COMPASS, or AMERICAN HANDBOOK, or FISHING FOR DYNAMITE, but there are still some today that I can’t get at. AND I’m still working at some of these impressions that I wasn’t able to get at in those books.
LCL: So if a young writer starting out thinks he has an idea and is determined to craft a poem to develop that idea, well, maybe instead they should let the process of writing decide the direction the poem wants to go in? Are you saying the original idea may not necessarily dictate where the poem goes, but rather the writing itself lets the writer find the heart of the poem?
STEINGASS: Right, as you write it, you find it through the writing. The language rambling on its own. It’s no good if you have the poem figured out before you start. And maybe by the time you’re finished, you’ve said too much. I remember Robert Bly in a workshop cutting the first ten lines and the last ten lines of a poem and then rearrange them, seeing what might happen.
LCL: Back to BODY COMPASS, there’s a poem titled “Midwest UFO.” You read that at a workshop, maybe back in the seventies, and all of a sudden I thought to myself—Hey, that’s something I’d like to try to do. That looks like fun.
STEINGASS: It’s interesting that you say that because that’s one of the ones Bly talked about when he came through Irvine. He looked at two of my poems, and one he just threw out as useless, which terrified and amazed me. A tremendously liberating action. The other poem, “Midwest UFO,” he said wasn’t bad. He said a lot about organization, pacing, and surprise. I made the changes he suggested and found other things I hadn’t realized that seemed to follow. He was always really good at that, talking about throwing everything out except the one line or image that looks good, and then inventing more. I think that’s something that’s really wonderful about him. Everybody’s always scared of changing things. I was in the beginning. Bly went along with the idea that I read somewhere in (Robert) Frost. The first line in the poem, Frost said, is a diving board into your own psyche, which I thought was just magnificent. You know that James Wright poem about the crows on the rooftop? “Today I Was So Happy, So I Made This Poem.” Bly distinguishes between the descriptive and transformed poem. The description is what happened which leads to the transformation “I see that it is impossible to die/… in the oak trees of heaven.” The poem is eight lines long. He saved the kernel, saved the absolute root, and threw everything else out. But he had to get through a lot of fears to get there. Maybe years and years of them to get to the last line: “This is what I wanted.”
LCL: How many years did you do the poets-in-the-schools workshops?
STEINGASS: About twenty-five years. In fact, the last of them may have just happened. Schools are saying they just can’t do it anymore because of standardized testing requirements and budgets. I just did two in the last few weeks, one in Redwing, Minnesota and the other in Mequon, Wisconsin. Mequon was one of the first places I went to in the 1980’s. A couple of years I spent whole semesters in Mequon. Once in Ripon. These were great residencies. I’m just glad I don’t have to depend on them anymore.
LCL: I hear Minnesota is still willing to spend money for the arts.
STEINGASS: I don’t know if you heard what Minnesota did two years ago. The legislature made a twenty-five year commitment to the financial development of the arts. A twenty-five year commitment! I can’t tell you the exact financial details. But one of the things that came out of it that I know about comes from the Anderson Center which is an arts residency center in Redwing and the Red Dragonfly Press which is an adjunct to the Anderson Center. They’ll each receive grants, for example, for the press. They run contests for book length and chapbook publications. The state will give them grants to continue these projects. Minnesota now ranks fourth in the country in the spending for the arts. Do you know where Wisconsin ranks? Forty-seventh. So Minnesota really has a strong commitment to all the arts, but I know most about the writing. There are good poets, good writers, everywhere, encouraged by financial support. It’s a vibrant environment. Great support for the arts in Minnesota. Too bad about us in Wisconsin.
LCL: We’ll change directions a little here. What can you tell us about prose poetry?
STEINGASS: Let’s talk about that. When we first met many years ago, I didn’t even admit that prose poems existed. I hated prose poems, couldn’t imagine poems without lines. But who knows? I read them a lot, and started to think about them more and more, and I liked some of the stuff I read, but I still didn’t know how to put them together. What it finally came down to for me was there were certain poems that I couldn’t put into lines. I couldn’t lineate them. So I tried to write some of them as prose poems, and a couple of them worked. Because I didn’t have to worry about the lines, all I had to think about was what was going into the lines, the imagery, the sound correspondences in the poem. So that’s how I got my start. First, I tried to put some things into lines. When that didn’t work, I tried making them prose. Finally they ended up prose poems.
LCL: And now you have a book of prose poems ready to publish?
STEINGASS: I brought it along. (He brings out the manuscript.) Here it is. It’s called ALIENS and is sixty-five pages long. Of course, it may be a different length eventually.
LCL: Do you have a publisher in mind?
STEINGASS: I hope Red Dragonfly will publish it in the end. I want to get as many of them in print as I can before the book comes out. I’ve been working on it for six years. I had a big surge about a year and a half ago. That’s when I got most of this manuscript.
LCL: How many books have you published with Red Dragonfly?
STEINGASS: They’ve done two, GREAT PLAINS: A PRAIRIE LOVESONG and FISHING FOR DYNAMITE. They did two editions of FISHING FOR DYNAMITE.
LCL: Did you change anything for the second edition? Normally, publishers don’t like changes.
STEINGASS: I changed a lot. Scott King is a real writer’s publisher. He’s a writer himself.
LCL: So how would you describe a typical day for a writer? Are you up at five scratching away in your notebook?
STEINGASS: Not at five, but it’s pretty early. Things are more domestic now—walking dogs and stuff like that. But morning is still the best time. Morning for writing and afternoon for reading.
LCL: Cowfeathers Press which is connected to Verse Wisconsin is putting out a new book called Echolocations. What do you know about that project?
STEINGASS: I’m excited about it. It involves close to a hundred poets. I have a prose poem and two lined poems in it. It’s called ECHOLOCATIONS: POETS MAP MADISON. I wrote one poem about the revolution against (Governor) Walker. Then I always wanted to write a poem about the effigy mounds. I had some notes, so I used this occasion to get at it. Luckily, there was some time before deadline. It took a couple of weeks but I managed to do it. Then my wife said she wanted a poem too. With her dogs. So I was able to write a poem about her walking her dog in Vilas Park, and it turned out okay. I really like the effigy mounds poem—that’s the prose poem. I worked in the mummy they found in the Alps about six years ago. The Iceman of the Alps. It was fascinating. National Geographic wrote about what he was carrying, and included in that was the fact that he was tattooed. They showed the tattoos, which reminded me of barcodes. And I started thinking about correspondences between worlds. Then there was something on television about the Iceman, how they found an arrowhead in his back. Somebody shot him. So I put those three things together and I was able to work the Iceman into the poem too. The Iceman stuff had been lying around in my head for about six years, and I was able to connect it to the effigy mounds.
LCL: Is there anything else you want to talk about before we wrap things up? Anything you want the world to know?
STEINGASS: One thing, I think nothing beats reading. Everybody can talk about what they’ve written, but lots of times they can’t talk about what they read. Reading is just a tremendous thing. That’s where a lot of my ideas are really germinated. You read something and say, well, I don’t believe that. Or you say this is the best thing on the subject I ever read. And it starts you thinking on other things.
LCL: So if you’re talking to a seventeen year old, or anyone really, who wants to be a writer, you’d tell them to read first.
STEINGASS: Read first. Write like crazy, but always read. What’s in your head is wonderful stuff, and everybody has wonderful things in their heads, but they’re latent. The spark usually comes from outside, I’ve come to believe.
LCL: There seem to be more people who write poetry than read poetry.
STEINGASS: I think some of that is the difference between self-expression and art. William Matthews said, “Art is what you make out of subject matter.” And Walt Whitman said that we need great readers in order to have great poetry.
LCL: We’ve talked about trying to read everything you can by a writer. What can you say about that?
STEINGASS: I want to see the whole sweep of a writer, and one book only brings out part of it. That’s why I like to read all the poems, especially the early ones. I never understood Wallace Stevens, but I read an essay by William Matthews, in CURIOSITIES or POETRY BLUES. Matthews was talking about Stevens, and all of a sudden I started to understand Wallace Stevens. My gateway poem is “A Postcard from the Volcano.” Something clicked in that poem. I’ve been reading some other good stuff lately. Do you know Ron Koertge? Good stuff. MAKING LOVE TO ROGET’S WIFE is the selected, and THE OGRE’S WIFE the latest. Fascinating writer. Then there’s Robert Peter’s memoir, CRUNCHING GRAVEL, about growing up in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Peters has written maybe ten books all together. CRUNCHING GRAVEL is a wonderful book. The list of good books is endless.