Interview with Steve Klepetar
Steve Klepetar teaches literature and creative writing at Saint Cloud State University in Minnesota. His work has received several nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. His latest chapbook, My Father Had Another Eye, has just been accepted by Flutter Press and will be out early next year.
SCP: Thank you Steve for taking the time to answer some questions for us.
I would like to begin by simply asking you about the impetus of your work. What motivates you to write? What is your inspiration?
Steve: Thanks Seth. It’s good to talk with you. At this point in my life, the poems, or at least the desire to sit quietly and attend to my thoughts, to search for the voice and the line that gets a poem started, has become such an ingrained habit that it seems beyond motivation and inspiration. Words seem to well up out of me – I can see how the ancient Greeks would have ascribed such feelings to the Muses. Earlier in my life I felt an intense to desire to create. I envied admired friends who could draw, and I was blown away by a friend who did sleight-of-hand magic. I could never get my hands to work right for either of those activities, but I discovered that I could create a kind of magic – or so it seemed to me at times when it clicked – by using words, especially in poems. I think most poets experience joy and amazement when a poem finally ends up right. Sometimes I look back at work I’ve done and think “Did I write that?” or “How did I ever write that?”
SCP: I know you are a professor over at St. Cloud University in Minnesota, can you tell us a bit about the relationship between being a teacher and being a writer? Does it tend to be a symbiotic one or do you find that it interferes with your own creation? Have you encountered any rising literary stars in the classroom?
Steve: For me it has certainly been symbiotic. I am very lucky to have enjoyed strong support from my colleagues in the English department at Saint Cloud State, and from my Dean and Associate Dean. I love working in a profession where reading and writing poetr, and teaching students to do both is valued as important professional activity. It is also very important to me for my teaching that I am also a practitioner, so that I can come to students with experience about writing and editing poems and manuscripts and about submitting work in a professional manner. I try to get students excited about publishing, which adds a more intense dimension to the writing they do during the semester. Two of my former poetry writing students have published books of creative work, and a third has published several books of criticism and has actually become a provost in the University of Wisconsin system. As I like to remind my colleagues, you should always be good to your students; you may find yourself working for them one day!
SCP: In many of your poems I often find images of harsh environments and/or dissolution (Ex. Your poems at Pyrokinection, Blind Oracle Press and even some previously published in CircleShow). Would you agree with this? Do you have any thoughts on the prevalence/significance of these themes?
Steve: I’m glad you noticed that. For me, the landscapes, or as you put it better, “environments,” of my poems are largely symbolic. By that I don’t mean that they are schematic or worked out in advance, but rather that they rise from and connect to emotional states. I think about the environment, say, of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” where the emperor decrees a “stately pleasure dome” with neatly measured walls and towers, but beneath them runs a sacred river “through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea.” It’s a brilliant way of evoking the tensions between artifice and natural power, between the waking world of light and the wild, seething land of dreams. Poetry is one way to get beneath the banal surface of the everyday – a reality which matters, of course, but not the only one – and the deep mysteries inherent in being alive in this strange and wondrous universe.
SCP: As authors and publishers we are at a really exciting turning point in the history of literature. The internet as well as sleeker, cheaper and more efficient technology has opened up vast new opportunities in terms of platform and audience. How do you feel about online literary magazines, self-publishing technologies such as print-on-demand and all the other new and innovative means of getting one’s work out there? Do you think this is a revolution, and if so will it be positive in the long-run?
Steve: When I began writing and submitting poems, there was no Internet available to the public, no online zines. Writers sent their work and a SASE and waited; the process was time consuming and expensive. I began submitting via email in 2004 and it has made a tremendous difference to me in terms of efficiency and the number of markets available. Of course there is a difference in quality between online journals and the work published, but that was true with traditional markets as well. I find this movement to be revolutionary and very positive. It is so easy to find poetry now – and that includes generous samples of the work of established poets as well as those just beginning in e zines. Last spring I used the 2011 edition of The Best of the Net Anthology with my advanced poetry writing class, and it was great to be able to show them the work of contemporaries, some not much older than them, writing in so many different forms and focusing on such a variety of content. I have received many more responses to my work in the last eight or nine years than I ever had before when I only published in print media, and I have had responses from England, France, Canada and Australia as well as from all over the U.S. Those who read and write poetry can connect with one another much more rapidly and easily, and I believe that is all to the good.
SCP: To pose one of SCP’s perennial questions: what, in short, do you think is a poet’s and/or poetry’s role in contemporary American society?
Steve: The simple, wise-guy answer is “To write poems!” My personality is not suited for taking on grand missions (the way Milton did in the 17th Century or Wordsworth in the 19th), but I think even modest poets who write to please themselves or respond to some inner prompting, can play an important role in reminding readers to be attentive, to really see and hear and smell, touch, taste the world, to be alive to the miraculous that we often fail to see because we become blinkered by habit, by the world being too much with us, as Wordsworth so memorably said. Of course poetry can have a powerful social and political function, especially for people who have and continue to suffer violence and oppression. But it doesn’t have to in order to be meaningful. Poetry is not propaganda but art; it not only responds to experience but creates one for the reader.
SCP: Lastly, what would you like to see in terms of the future of poetry publishing? For instance do you wish to see more reviews, more exposure in major newspapers/magazines?
Steve: I suppose it would be wonderful if poets became as popular as rock stars, but I have to wonder if that would really be a good thing. It would be great if newspapers regularly published poems, as they did in the 19th century, say and it would certainly be good to see reviews of poetry books as a regular feature in newspapers and magazines that review books. Mostly I would love to see forums where people good testify to the pleasure they take in reading poetry. I found Robert Pinksy’s Favorite Poem project very exciting and illuminating; so many people responded with such passion to his call, and he appeared quite regularly on the PBS News Hour. Yes, that program is in itself a coterie taste, but in a large population, even a small percentage means that many people have an abiding interest in poetry, and I would encourage any efforts to promote and sustain that interest.
SCP: Thank you so much Steve, for your time.
I also love the Wordsworth who saw the extraordinary in the ordinary, as in that great passage in The Prelude where he remembers seeing a woman coming from a well with a pitcher of water on her head, walking against the wind. “It was in truth an ordinary sight,” he says, but goes on to say that it struck his imagination with such force that he would need colors that had not yet been found to describe the scene’s effect on him.
I love Emily Dickinson for the same reason, the way she finds intensity in the ordinary, and I love the Yeats of “Among School Children,” and “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Second Coming.”
I love Li Bo and Tu Fu, two great Tang Dynasty Chinese poets.
My good friend Joe Lisowski is a terrific contemporary poet – “Google” him; his work in all over the Internet.