Five Questions for Steven Cramer
Steven Cramer is the author of four books of poetry: The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987), The World Book (1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997), and Goodbye to the Orchard (2004), which was a Massachusetts Honor Book in Poetry for 2005, and won the Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club. He is also the director of the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The following is a five-question excerpt from a longer interview previously published here
- Steven, with all that responsibility, life must be a constant balancing act. How do you do it? Is there a secret to your success?
There’s no secret, and “success” is a relative term. I seem to need to write, I need a job—no “seems” about that—and I love my family and want to know them. If you want all three, you have to forget about Yeats’s dichotomy between “perfection of the life and perfection of the work.” You accept, ahead of time, that you will be imperfect at all you do, and do the best you can.
- When do you find the time to write?
I find time in the mornings, during the lulls between the MFA program’s residencies, and occasionally when I can’t sleep. But as I get older, I’ve noticed that, as often as not, time finds me. I do have to clock the hours, but scribbles throughout a week or so—or a few lines tapped our and saved in a computer folder I call “Drafts and Fragments”—will coalesce into drafts later on. Who knows?—maybe there’s a book in there called “Drafts and Fragments.” I sometimes think that it’s more accurate to say that one has to find patience to write, then time will comply.
- How do you, as a poet and as a teacher, go about instilling a love for the written word in your children? Do you encourage them to write poems or stories themselves? And if they grew up to be accountants instead of pursuing some more artistically-oriented occupation, would that disappoint you?
It would never disappoint me if my kids grew up to be whatever it is they aspired to be—with some exceptions, of course—and if it has little or nothing to do with the written word, or love for it, so be it. Any time our children have shown an interest in something, we’ve encouraged them in that interest. So far, they’ve been drawn much more to sound and pictures than to words—although my daughter reads habitually. If I try to instill any “lessons” about language, those lessons involve staying alert to how language moves us, instructs us, lies to us, transports us; that it’s powerful. In the long run, though, I think parents do more protecting than influencing. Then, it’s a matter of nurturing them toward their (genetic?) predispositions. The best approach to parental influence, it seems to me, is to follow the Asian proverb: “wait until they’re falling, then push.”
- Has family ever gotten in the way of poetry to such an extent that you’ve felt resentful? Has poetry ever gotten in the way of family to such an extent that you’ve felt resentful? And, if so, how do you deal with those emotions?
Yes on both counts. When a child wakes up with strep throat on one of your “writing mornings,” and your wife can’t miss work, and so it devolves to you to drive your child to the pediatrician, you grumble a bit. That’s just the normal, chronic conflict between art and life. My resentment against poetry is different, more elusive, and maybe deeper. I sometimes wish I didn’t feel the need to write poems, because writing poems is hard (for me), and only a pleasure when the poem begins to take shape, more or less, on its own. And I’m not very good at weathering dry spells gracefully, even though I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m pretty sure I won’t give up writing. Still, I imagine that people who don’t do something silly like write literary works—but who are productive and creative in other ways, not easier ways, but perhaps ways that involve less angst—are somehow happier, less conflicted, better reconciled. A complete fantasy, of course.
- For the writer on a budget – perhaps the writer who’s just graduated an MFA program and is looking for something to help herself keep learning – what’s the one publication on craft that she should be reading? The one journal she should be reading?
For the writer on a budget, there’s the library (or there used to be?). Many university libraries still buy good books of fiction and poetry, and good literary journals. A library is still a good place to read.There is no one journal, or one book on craft, that beats out all the others. The best “craft books” are the books by masters. Read, and memorize, Stevens’s or Frost’s best blank verse poems (“Sunday Morning” and “Directive” are good starting points), and you’ll learn more about iambic pentameter than you will from any handbook. If you want a “textbook” on significant detail in fiction, try Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works.