Below is a lively email interview with poet Steve Kowit, conducted over the course of a couple of days in late April, 2011. Steve taught an MFA workshop that I took in Spring, 2010. As I am a huge admirer of what Steve calls "accessible poetry," and of Steve's work in general ("Lurid Confessions" is a favorite), I very much looked forward to asking him some difficult poetry-related questions, and he did not disappoint. Enjoy!
1) At what age do you recall hearing/reading your first poem, and/or being inspired either by either a certain poem or poet? At what age did you write your first poem? Do you remember it? Would you be embarrassed by it today, or would/do you look upon it fondly?
One day when I was about 11 or 12, I was upstairs in my little bedroom in the back of the house and started improvising a long rhythmic rap about witches—or a single witch. I don’t remember the details but I have a strong memory of the incident. I must have carried on for half an hour or more. I suspect lots of kids play with language in that manner. When I was done I walked down stairs to the rest of the house, the living room, dining room and kitchen, and at the foot of the stairs was my mother. She’d been standing there the whole time listening to me carry on, inventing my epic poem or rant or rap or whatever it was. She was overjoyed and told me she thought it was wonderful and had been listening the whole time. It’s always difficult to really pin down with certainty what events were seminal in one’s life, but I’ve always thought her pride and pleasure at that moment was so enormously validating that I became, at that moment, a committed writer. Also, during those years my folks and sister and I used to play a particular word game together. I don’t quite recall the rules and I’ve never seen anyone else play it but it was a wonderful family game played with pencil and paper. So my folks obviously loved language, too. My mom became an excellent scrabble player and we all played that too during my adolescence. Again when I was about 13 I wrote, for a class project, a small book about a slave rebellion in the south—a fictional account of a slave uprising. I drew the illustrations and colored them in with crayon. I know the book still exists somewhere in my house. Obviously, I was already a budding novelist. But then when I was 9th or 10th grade, I had an English teacher named George Bailin who was a serious poet and to gain his respect I started writing poetry and fell in love with the craft. I don’t recall my first poem. I’m sure it was very Hart Crane-ish because I discovered the poetry of Hart Crane around that time in high school and fell in love with him. A copy of Crane’s poetry was the first gift I ever gave a girl I liked. I’ve been writing poetry ever since. I won a literary award for my poetry when I graduated high school (I was also captain of the tennis team) and then again in College (there too I was also captain of the tennis team).
2) What sorts of activities inspire you when you experience writer's block, or are you one of those rare creatures who never experiences writer's block, or doesn't believe in it? Are you a yogi? a meditator? An adrenaline-junkie? Geographically-unstable (a traveler)?
I discovered Ouspensky and Gurdjieff through my early interest in Hart Crane. I entered the Church of Scientology after my wife and I had done a year of traveling in Mexico and Central America and had landed in Miami. Then when I got to San Diego I entered the Gurdjieff work and after a few years left that work and became a Zen student of Maezumi Roshi and Tich Tien An in Los Angeles. I practiced Zen for several years in San Diego under the Zendo run by Joko Beck in PB. All that work of course has affected my consciousness, who I am. They have, perhaps, deepened my sense of life and how to live. So they enter my poetry to be sure. But I’m not sure they have been any sort of antidote for writer’s block. I do go long periods without writing poetry, but my guess is it has more to do with working hard as an English teacher and using up lots of my creative energy that way. I have great admiration for writers who can sit down and work every day. I still aspire to that sort of life. Perhaps next year when I’m more or less retired I’ll produce more work than I usually manage to do each year. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced something called “writer’s block” although, as I’ve said, there are lots of periods when I’m simply not writing or not writing much at all. I traveled in Mexico and Central America for a few years when I was running from the army. They wanted me dead in Vietnam. Or they wanted me to kill some Vietnam citizens so the US could make sure that country never unified and was able to have a free election—because, as in the case of Korea, it was perfectly clear to the government that a free election would mean the overwhelming victory of the Communist Party. So I left the country. But since then I’ve done almost no traveling whatsoever. Techin has consumed most of my adult life—that’s about making a living, of course, but it’s also something I love doing and have always wished to do well.
3) How important are titles, both to poems and to manuscripts/books? For example, "Lurid Confessions" has a "title poem"; do all of your books? What is your process for titling poems -- poem first or title first?
No, titles usually come late in the game though sometimes I have a working title to begin with. But like the poem itself, it is likely to get revised. The publisher of “The Dumbbell Nebula” didn’t want that for a title but after we looked over lots of alternatives she agreed. The publisher of “The First Noble Truth” definitely didn’t want the title I had put on the manuscript, which was “That Salome, She Sure Could Dance.” They suggested “The First Noble Truth” because they liked the poem a lot and thought it would make an appropriate book title. I’m not at all unhappy with that choice. My book “The Gods of Rapture” had another working title for a long time but I grew dissatisfied with it and recall that one day, I decided I had to find another title and “The Gods of Rapture” came to me quickly once I had started thinking of a new title. Sometimes, of course, the title of a poem is very helpful to the poem and sometimes gives the necessary contextual information that isn’t in the poem and let’s the reader get what the poem is trying to express.
4) Southern California, specifically San Diego, where we both live, is not traditionally considered a poet's paradise. You're from Brooklyn and even went to Brooklyn College for your BA. Brooklyn, as you know, is now a very trendy and artsy neighborhood. Do you think San Diego's artistic reputation could similarly change? What shifts in the population's mentality would have to occur for SD to change in such a manner? What other shifts might have to occur?
I’ve lived here for well over thirty years. It’s a big, spread-out town. UCSD has its own poetry world, its own poetry culture. It’s mostly language-oriented poetry that gets produced at that university and the poets they bring in to read are almost always Language Poets. The three universities have their own populations of poets but they don’t really integrate with the large, diverse and lively poetry community here in town. State (SDSU) and UCSD have their own poetry scenes that are not really part of the larger community. There is an active performance/slam poetry scene here in town and there’s an active North County scene and there’s a lively poetry scene in the city, where there are several poetry reading venues. But there’s no journal that I know of devoted to poetry or literature for that matter, in San Diego, except for State’s Poetry International—which is top notch-- and Fiction International. The poetry scenes that are vital parts of the American scene have always been in New York and the Bay Area, though of course there are many cities like San Diego that have lots of poets, lots of weekly readings and open readings and poetry events. The university based poets and teachers usually aren’t an integral part of those lively scenes, and in fact the poetry produced from the universities is considerably different from the community poetry. UCSD is into thoroughly opaque post-modern stuff. Any emotion is suspect. State is more about mainstream American poetry: sophisticated, a bit oblique, modernist. The community scene is more populist and accessible. When we lost Quincy Troupe, we lost the presenter of the big poetry events each year. He did a wonderful job bringing nationally recognized musicians and writers together and got terrific audiences. For a few years Border Voices also was able to do something of the sort. But no, poetry isn’t at the center of the town’s cultural life. In my opinion, the most important poet we’ve produced in the past couple of decades is Dorianne Laux.
4) How important do you think it is for a poet to "network" with other like-minded poets? Do you network? Without getting into a lengthy e-conversation about whether technology is killing, improving, or merely changing the face of "art": What do you think it means to be a working poet in today's society of facebook, twitter, and kindle, where the average attention-span is measured by the tera-second?
I think if anyone wants a “career” in poetry, wants to publish extensively and pick up readings and prizes and teaching jobs and editorial jobs, networking is important—networking in the old-fashioned sense, meaning getting to know the poets around. Editors are far more likely to publish people they know or who are recommended to them by people they know. So poets who schmooze with other poets who are “valuable” to know, probably go further in that world of getting a reputation. That has nothing, of course, to do with being a better poet. But it’s important if you want to get your work into the world. As far as the contemporary world of Twitter and Facebook, I suspect it can also be very useful in terms of careers, but I’m myself so marginal to that scene and so uninterested in it that I’m not the one to give good advice. My advice would be to become good friends with the most famous twenty poets in the country! It sure as hell couldn’t hurt! And with the editors of the major houses too, for that matter. Either sleep with them, take them to dinner, get invited to their parties, give their kids expensive gifts for their birthdays… I confess the advice I’ve just given, however excellent it is, sounds wretched to me. But I’m pretty anti-social.
5) Not to be too cheesy, but what is your proudest accomplishment/moment as a poet? Why?
I think I’m proudest of deciding fairly young, in my late 20s, to write a poetry that is totally accessible. It means bucking the fashions of course. It’s a relatively small club, the poets who want people who are literate to always be able to understand precisely what they’re saying. I think the club contains Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, Kim Addonizio, Dorianne Laux, Ron Koertge, Charles Webb, David Kirby and maybe three dozen other notable American poets. A small club. Among those whom we’ve lost in the past few years certainly Ray Carver, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Bukowski. Carver’s motto was “No tricks.” Amen.
I wanted to be an avant garde poet when I was in my early and mid-twenties, but Ginsberg and Jeffers convinced me that I really wanted to write a thoroughly transparent poetry in which clarity was a decided virtue. I confess that obscurity seems to me a dreadful flaw in poetry and poets whose poems don’t really mean much of anything are poets I simply don’t bother reading. The notion of a poem being “mysterious” is greatly misunderstood in our culture: it usually means a person who writes intriguing images and lines that are incomprehensible. That’s not mystery; it’s mystification. So I’m somewhat proud to be writing against the American grain, wanting ordinary literate people to love my work. All that other stuff –95% of American poetry—is just about killing trees. I don’t appreciate the academic disdain for political or socially conscious poetry, either. What I want is a large poetry, a poetry of compassion. Whitman, of course, is the ultimate model. A poet who wanted there to be no veil between himself and the reader. A poet who cherished all life. That, of course, is my own aspiration.