An Interview With 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 the director of the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And he is also a husband and a father of two.
E. Christopher Clark: Steven, with all that responsibility, life must be a constant balancing act. How do you do it? Is there a secret to your success?
Steven Cramer: 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.
ECC: When do you find the time to write?
Cramer: 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.
ECC: 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?
Cramer: 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."
ECC: Do you ever worry about what your kids might one day think about being featured in one of your poems? Is that something you have to consciously avoid thinking about while writing? I'm thinking specifically of a poem like "Body on the Brain," where, alongside the many other vivid (and occasionally repulsive) images you paint for the reader, you describe your reaction to "the porridge / Of my daughter's diarrhea".
Cramer: For a while, my daughter forbade me to read "Body on the Brain" if she was in the audience. She was rarely in my audiences, so it wasn't a problem; but at one reading I did change the line to "the porridge / of my son's diarrhea"—it was a bookstore, and he was browsing the superhero section—sacrificing the alliteration on behalf of familial peace. So far, my children have been mostly indifferent to their appearances in my poems. I certainly don't worry about it, since I'd never have anything mean-spirited to say about them. When my own parents were alive, some of the poems I wrote about my family of origin posed challenges, both personal and aesthetic; but I've always tried to maintain some kind of loyalty to the truth of the art. I like to believe that nothing human—including bodily fluids—is alien to the artist, or to the audience interested in art.
ECC: 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?
Cramer: 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.
ECC: I imagine that, early on in the development of the Lesley MFA program, when the program had only twenty or thirty students, you were able to take a look at most of the manuscripts that came in. How often, if at all, do you get to look at the work that's coming in now? Is it something you miss?
Cramer: Interestingly, now that we have many more applications, and much tougher decisions to make on writing samples, I spend more time reading the entire applications of those prospective students whose writing struck our faculty as most promising. But it's true that I don't get a chance to read many of the writing samples aside from the poetry. I do teach one or two poetry students every semester now, and that's a great pleasure.
What I miss most is the intimacy of those first residencies, when I knew everyone. Just this last residency, I realized that I didn't know the name of every student in their fourth semester—let alone the newer students—and that was sad. At every new-student orientation, I now say, "you will get to know your faculty advisors much better than you'll get to know me." And that's true, and as it should be, but still . . .
ECC: As a teacher and mentor to students coming through the program, what is it like to watch a poet's voice develop? Can you describe the sense of satisfaction (assuming there is a sense of satisfaction) that you feel when you attend a graduating student's reading, hear in the words they are speaking how far they've come, and realize that you're part of the reason they've gotten to where they are?
Cramer: The graduating student readings are wonderful, celebratory, culminating events—both because of the work they read and because of the communities that have developed over two years. You'll hear a graduating student thank two other students for "helping her to keep going"; and you think, they may indeed keep going. Sometimes I was part of the reason they kept going for two years, but it's usually a very indirect role.
But much more important, to me, is that sense that the program has solidified a commitment, turned a felt need into a long-term loyalty to the art of writing. Of course, plenty of aspiring writers receive MFAs, and then life gets in the way of their fulfilling their promise; or, they decide (for completely honorable reasons) that they don't want to devote so much of their time and attention to making literature.
ECC: As a student in the Lesley MFA Program, I was fortunate to hear you read, for what I think was the first time (or one of the first times), the poem "Nice," which opens the second section of Goodbye to the Orchard. I seem to recall you being a bit nervous about sharing it. I think you might have been unsure if it was finished and perhaps unsure if it was a prose-poem, or the beginning of an essay, or something else entirely. What is it like for you to read something aloud in front of people for the first time? Do you think the intense nature of the biannual residencies in the low-residency MFA program model are particularly conducive to this kind of sharing?
Cramer: I don't think I read "Nice" for the first time at Lesley, but I do know what you mean about the mix of nerves and excitement when reading a new piece. Like many writers, I'm most interested by—and most unsure about—my new work. I often don't know that a poem is done until I've read it out loud (in private and in public) many times. "Nice" was the first prose poem I ever published; I've since written more, and published a few of them. I prefer just the word "prose" to "prose poem" because I associate poetry with lines—the one technique of writing that's unique to verse. In prose, you're working with the sentence—and the phrases and clauses that constitute the sentence—as the unit of rhythm and the measure of perception and tone. In verse, of course, those elements of language interact with lines, stanzas, and enjambment, as well as a whole range of linguistic properties that focus on the line as a discrete component of form. So I sometimes think, without lines, you don't have poetry. But then I write these paragraphs, and I know they're not fiction, or essays, so what are they?
I think it's great when faculty read work in progress at a residency, work they know isn't finished. It reminds everyone that good writing is almost always brooded into being.
ECC: 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?
Cramer: 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.
ECC: And, lastly, what's next for you? It's been a couple of years since Goodbye to the Orchard. Is there another book on the way? Do you feel pressure to get something out there every four or five years? And if you don't, what advice would you give to the young writer who is obsessing about his publications (or lack thereof)? Should be more concerned with simply writing good work?
Cramer: I'll work backward on your questions—the way I like to ride trains. A writer must be more concerned about writing good works than about publishing; but that doesn't mean a writer shouldn't care about publishing. Literally, "to publish" simply mean to make known publicly, and no writer (other than the secret journal-keeper) leaves out thought about that part of the process. But these days—with blogs, personal web pages, a virtual universe of Internet magazines—I worry about a de-emphasis on another crucial aspect of publishing: independent editorial decisions. Writers shouldn't be the exclusive judges of their work's value; we need editors to serve as readers, to decide (one hopes impartially but passionately) what's worth being made public, and what is not. Of course, editors don't necessarily agree, and shouldn't; and it seems good for literature that we have more and more editors who disagree more and more—as we do writers. As the poet Nicanor Parra wrote:
Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.
I've said this over and over to students: just because your writing gets rejected, that doesn't mean it's bad; just because it gets accepted, that doesn't mean it's good.
I've written roughly forty poems since Goodbye to the Orchard. I keep them in a binder, alphabetized by title. This mode of ordering short-circuits a tendency to think of them as a book, until something impels me to start arranging the poems in another way. I'm working very slowly (I always work slowly) on a sequence of poems. If I finish that sequence and it works, I'll begin shuffling these forty-odd poems to see if they start talking to each other. I do feel some pressure to get a fifth book to my publisher, Orchard having come out in 2004. But I accept that I'm not one of those writers who will have a new book out every three or four years. Writing, for me, is too hard. Let me finish by quoting the rest of that poem by Parra. It's a fitting conclusion: "In poetry [read: writing of any kind] everything is permitted / With this condition, of course: / You have to improve on the blank page."