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2004 Writers' Forum
Stephen Thomas

Stephen Thomas was born and raised in Auburn, Washington. He studied at St. Edward's Seminary, Marquette University, Cornell and the University of Washington. He has worked in a wide variety of trades: farming, road work, carpentry, restaurants, advertising, and most recently teaching. His Cabaret Hegel was, briefly, a hotbed of performance art in the mid-80s. His poems have appeared in Poetry Northwest, Exquisite Corpse, The Temple, The Seattle Times, The Seattle Weekly, West Branch, and many other publications.
photo credit: dean wong
Listen to this Interview (MP3)
32:17 / 12.9 MB
Interview with 2004 Curator Belle Randall
In this interview, recorded March 9, 2004, Stephen and Belle discuss form, performance, metaphor, memorisation, sound sense, youth writing, and more.
ST









This is called "Nailed," and it’s epigraph comes from Spinoza, a philosopher whom I much admire, who doesn’t appear to like poetry, based on what he says here and elsewhere: "Those who are ignorant of the true causes of things confound everything and without any mental repugnance represent trees, speaking like men, or imagine that men are made out of stones as well as begotten from seed, and that all forms can be changed the one into the other." That’s from part IV of The Ethics, which is called "Of Human Bondage," a title you probably know from
BR Maugham
ST

Maugham, yeah, good ol’ Maugham. Anyway, the poem once again is "Nailed."
[reading of poem]
BR






Thank you. That was Stephen Thomas reading "Nailed," and finding himself to be nailed by Spinoza. The sound of your poems is obviously very important, or they certainly, have a sound… when I was looking at them today I was thinking they seem to be pretty much free verse and yet they seem to be written pretty much in iambs; is that the way you’re conceiving of them?
ST










Well, let me answer that question the long way around. When I was in High School, I started out writing in free verse and I had a teacher, Father Melvin Farrell, who had studied at UW with Roethke, and he brought me up short. He reminded me of what Frost said, trying to learn to write verse without rhyme and meter is like learning to play tennis with the net down. So I changed my tactic and I began imitating, and I’ve been struggling against the iambic beat ever since. It’s the framework against which I struggle. And I know when I break out of it, but it seems natural to me even though of course it’s largely artificial.
I was reading Lorca the other day. Lorca wrote about duende, that’s this theory of this deep spirit that a poet has to have in order to really accomplish something and he characterized it as something you struggle against. So, yeah, iambic’s what I struggle against.



BR



Well... Frost said, too, there’s just loose iambic and tight, and I think that, at least, of many poets writing free-verse that’s true, and it also seems to me that without an expectation you can’t create a sense of surprise really.
ST That’s right. I’m in complete agreement with that.
BR


So one of the reasons I use iambic meter when I’m writing free verse is to create that, you know, disjunctive sense when you do abandon it.
ST




























Well I remember years ago, you remarked on a poem of mine that was arrayed on the page in these odd stanzas of my own invention: they consisted of 3 long lines with various indentations with a monologic line and that was repeated. And you said you heard the iambic behind it and said that you wondered why I chose to employ it. And that stuck with me. I realized in that case, the poem was called "Crow’s Song," I was trying to isolate that one-word line, that one syllable line to really make it tense. I think the poem opens if I remember correctly:

I didn’t see crow
fall out of the tree
but heard it’s clan set
such
a ruckus up
as from my study
couldn’t be ignored
Maybe
the world’s flexed coil's
wringing out a bead
of revelation’s what I thought
So
Out I went.....

And so, I was trying to make a stanza out of that, that "rang," that would wring out like a rag to make the beads stand up. So I guess I was working with the iambic with the same idea. Trying to work against it somehow.

BR




Yes, well, I’ve been reading Frost on meter recently and he says, "we like our walking stick, sort of a twisted straightness. I like that too. And I think, even if you’re going to try to write really free verse and not have a regular pattern (or, that’s one way of defining it), I’m glad I have a background in formal poetry.
ST





Right. And then you have to ask yourself, "Free of what?" It’s free, okay, what’s it free of and what’s it free to? And of course, what it’s free of, it carries with it. What’s the epigraph of Merwin’s book The Lice…? There’s a riddle: "That which we caught we left behind, that which we missed we carried with us." It’s about picking lice off your body …well, maybe iambic pentameter is that lice.
Form






BR



Well, it’s hard when you’re used to writing with constraints. It’s really a way to help you pore over every phrase, isn’t it? For me it becomes so much part of the process that just to look at freedom, is hard. Harder.
ST









Sure. Well, what does Goethe say? Goethe said something like (I’m gonna mis-mangle the German) "nur im gesetzt könn wir freiheit finden." Only in the context of laws could we discover freedom. And I believe that’s the case. My friend Mark Svenvold, who’s no mean poet, quoted Auden to me, he said Auden defined a poet as someone to whom arbitrary difficulties suggest possibilities. And that’s certainly true for me. The arbitrary difficulties of formal choices, even in the context of free verse, make it possible for me to discover anything. So I’ve gotta have a structure there to work against, or there’s no discovery.
BR




You’ve also been narrowing your choices in a way recently in terms of subject matter. You seem to be focusing, I don’t know how recent it is, it’s recent for me, a series of poems treating the death of a father, or a death from several points of view. How long has that subject been your preoccupation?
ST





















Well, I think that preoccupation is almost over with. I think about three years. Three or four. I sat with my father as he was dying. And, I listened to his breath. And… it was an arresting experience. And what it did for me, was it made me realize that I had to change my manner in order to make available to other people the experience that my father and I were having together: He dying and me witnessing. So I, at least I believe, in the series that I wrote of poems out of that experience, I wrote in shorter lines than I’m accustomed to, and I think more ragged lines. Lines that are less musical. And it seems to me, in some extent, in some of those poems, I broke out of iambic pentameter, at least as much, because the way he breathed at the end of his life was highly irregular. It was sporadic. The breaths didn’t come with ease. And as I watched his heartbeat on the monitor, that too was erratic. I don’t know if I got it yet, and now having said that, articulated it now for the first time really, I’m asking myself: did I accomplish what I really wanted to accomplish poetically? Which was to… make something ugly. Well, maybe ugly’s the wrong word… make something that’s not as smooth as I’m accustomed to make, ‘cause I know I can do the smooth, but that wasn’t what that was about.





















BR




I know my mother’s death from emphysema was certainly a struggle with breath and, you know, finally, that took all her effort, you know she couldn’t speak or, anything, but just breathe. Maybe, in a few minutes you can read one of those poems and we’ll listen for that.
ST










The series is called The Music of Attachment for several reasons, and one of them [is that] from my point of view the music of attachment is breathing. When I sit at night, which I try to do every night, I’m advised to concentrate on my breathing. Just in and out and just clear my mind. Of course, as I do that, I realize just how clogged up my mind is with all sorts of worries and imaginations and hopes and regrets and resentments, and all of that. And what accompanies all of those, what I come back to, and I say ‘Oh! there I am, I’m off in another kingdom,’ I come back to the breath. So that’s one of the things that is behind that.









BR


Well, when you read your poetry, it’s embodiment in sound is so much a part of it. Is that when your poems are most fully realized, is when they’re spoken?
ST












Yeah. Definitely. Yeah, I believe so. I’m a believer that the purpose of the poem is to alter the reader’s experience of himself or herself in the body, you know. And that’s why I pay attention to the line breaks, the lengths of the line and the rhythm because, it’s my belief, and Charles Hartman really articulates this really well in his book Free Verse. That, if we’re paying attention to the line it speeds up our heart, it speeds up our respiration. And it’s that speeding up and slowing down of the respiration of the heart that gives us the experience, the emotion, that’s the motion in the emotion, that allows us to get at what the poet’s doing. With, to, around us, for us. We join him there. So, to get that, you have to read the poem aloud, that’s my belief.
I was teaching Whitman today to my students, and I just love Whitman, he’s grown on me over the years. We got to the end of "Song of Myself," and I teach them to look at it as though, well ask them, ‘How could he get away with this in the middle of the 19th Century, being so sexually explicit?’ And, one of the answers to that question is, at the time, people were used to discarding the vehicle and going straight to the tenor of the metaphor. So they wouldn’t take him at his word. "He didn’t really mean that he meant.…" I mean, this is kind of the way we read "The Song of Solomon." It’s a metaphor, it’s about the soul. He’s not talking about a blowjob here, it’s about some kind of spiritual union.
Metaphor











BR Well, to an extent he certainly is.
ST





He is, but, he’s also talking about the literal level. And again and again in that poem he brings it down to that literal level. And you’ve gotta have both. You can’t have one or the other. ‘I am the poet of the body and the poet of the soul.’ And actually that’s the way I think about myself too. The spirit is the breath. There it is. And of course…
BR That’s what breath means at its root isn’t it?
ST Yeah.
BR




Good, I’m really glad to hear you say it. I’ve heard so often, either with my students or in conversation with myself, I’ll be posing an either/or sort of thing about literal and metaphorical and I come back to the thing of both. And I think that’s right.
ST Yeah. In one of these poems I think I make that quite explicit.…
BR See if you can find that.
ST

I believe I can. It’s… I think it’s called "Interval," which I believe is one of the most successful poems in the series.
[reading follows]
BR Thank you, I think that’s a powerful poem.
ST Thank you.
BR





Do you ever have the feeling, sometimes occasionally fear that formal metrical poetry is vanishing? I feel as if metaphor may be too. We seem to be so explicit about everything, with nothing being said tacitly anymore. And that’s one thing I love about poems, the sense that they mean what they say explicitly and so much more.
ST Right.
BR And that’s an experience in the language, that more-ness.
ST


















Indeed. I don’t know if metaphor is disappearing, but I notice that at work, teaching high school students (something that I’ve already alluded to), they don’t understand metaphor. They use metaphors, but they’ve lost the vehicle. They don’t understand, for instance—and we do this a lot of times in our speech, I mean we live in an age when the most powerful metaphors come from business. The most frequently used metaphor that I’m aware of in our culture is the metaphor of the ‘bottom line.’ What’s that? It’s a profit/loss statement, which we use as a metaphor for the absolute truth. Now in the days of Worldcom and Enron, how the ‘bottom line,’ which we know to be a fabrication of accounting tricks can be a metaphor for the absolute, is just absurd. But it can be, because people discard the vehicle and just hang on to the tenor. And that’s one thing that I think is destroying metaphor, people don’t pay attention to both. We’ve lost that stereo-optical vision that’s allowed what Keats called ‘negative capability:’ the ability to hold to things simultaneously in our minds without… getting crabby about it.
Metaphor


















BR






Mm hmm, well, yeah. You seem to be saying it even more definitely than I do. You’re talking about your teaching, and I remember also standing up for these old fashioned elements of poetry, traditional form, that you’ve sometimes assigned memorization. Did you want to talk about that? What is the value of memorization, such an empty exercise, so many students must think at first.
ST














Oh yeah… it’s the greatest thing you could do for yourself as a poet… to incorporate somebody else’s words into your spirit, to have it by heart. I don’t call it memorization because my students are wont to memorize. That’s what cramming is, that’s just getting things on the surface of your mind or, I call it the bulimic school of education, you know: binge-purge-binge-purge. I ask them to have it ‘by heart.’ And when they have it by heart, and I mean it literally, if you have it by heart then your heart moves with it, you’re not distracted by the words on the page, the words can carry you away and alter you, alter your heart rate and alter your respiration. I also believe that when you have it by heart you steal from it automatically and it gets into your own work. That’s what happened with me with Dickinson. I remember Dickinson just blew me away when I was twelve.
And I memorized her verse and it entered into me in a way that I have to struggle against. So, you know, Auntie Em is part of my duende, I struggle against her all the time, ‘cause she’s more powerful than I am so I have to fight her. Same happens with Plath, and A.R. Ammons, the poets that I honor. I imitated them, got their poems by heart, and then they had me, and then I had somebody that I was always in a dialog with. And I see that again and again in the poets that I admire. They’re talking both to me, and to the people that they’ve struggled with, the people that they’ve learned from and that they honor and that they need somehow to slay, if you will.
Duality











BR






Mm hmmm. Somehow I remember either talking to a student from China, or reading that memorization is the main way of teaching poetry there, and it seems as if, not only that the poems become part of you, but that they’re there, it might be ten years later that suddenly they are apt. Something that you wouldn’t really have understood when you initially memorized it may be just, ‘Oh!,’ and that’s wonderful too.
ST






Yeah, and it structures your consciousness and then your consciousness is ready when it comes. So you’re just walking down the street and then all at once, ‘Oh, I get it, that’s what she meant when she wrote, "heavenly hurt it gives us/we can find no scar/but internal difference/where the meanings are."’ You just get it when you’re carrying it around with you, when you catch that certain slant of light.
BR




Right. Right. I believe that very much. Even this quarter teaching too, these are adult students but they judge things too quickly because there’s that feeling that, oh, years from now this may come together and mean something to you, you can’t tell yet.
ST














And that’s one of the reasons I write poems for the sound. I believe if a poem is structured with the sound in mind, it can be memorized. And I would like my poems, one of them, two of them, to enter into someone else’s consciousness in the way that Dickinson’s and Ammon’s have in mine in a structuring way. And how can that be if the poems aren’t memorable? I don’t want somebody to struggle to commit something that’s purely conceptual to memory. I can’t remember Olson. I can’t remember a lot of poets who are mainly about ideas, and who use the page to deploy their words in what appear to me haphazard patterns. That’s for the eye. And I think it was Yeats that said, "I remove everything from my poems, it’s just for the eye." ‘Cause, for me it’s an auditory experience. And then, auditory and then vocal, the two go together.
BR




Mm hmm. And yet, there is, at least for me, it’s sort of equally important the privacy and silence of a reader alone reading something off the printed page, the value of which is sometimes challenged when all of the emphasis is on performance.
ST





Well, I believe that we’re all carrying around our Globe theatres here on our shoulders. Robert Bringhurst describes one of his poems in, I think it’s Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, as a duet for solo intelligence, something like that. And what he’s drawing my attention to is that, his poems can be spoken simply in the theater of the mind.
BR They make a sound and it resonates there.
ST













Yes, right. And Laurel White made this point during our vocal training the other night… we hear a different voice than we speak because our voice is in the same resonating box, the same subwoofer as our hearing apparatus. And so we have a different internal voice and when we know our voices, and when we read with our eyes, if we’re accustomed to reading aloud we hear ourselves even without articulating sometimes. And I think that’s a highly evolved skill and I don’t think you can get there unless you are accustomed to struggling with the line breaks and accustomed to trying to pronounce the syllables as they appear on the page, because the mouth moves with less readiness than the eyes. And it’s the mouth that trains the verbal consciousness I think, not the eyes. At least it is in me.
BR






How do you think about line breaks? I’m asking partly because I have a student who’s floundering around; she’s a prose writer really and she thinks that studying poetry, she wants to do it to help her prose, but immediately people are questioning her line breaks, and she’s interested in people’s rationale in free verse for breaking the line. Is yours rhythm entirely?
ST
























Well, it’s not entirely that, but mainly that. Levertov makes the point in her essay on the subject that the linebreak affects the milos, the sweetnes, the melody of the poem; and Hartman makes the point that the linebreak produces an emphasis, particularly if it breaks in the middle of a grammatical or syntactic unit, but produces an emphasis on the first stressed word in the next line, and that that emphasis then calls up echoes of all the words that it’s chosen from among. I think the example was the Auden poem "Musee de Beaux Arts," where he breaks the line so that the first stressed word in the line is, ‘how well they understood suffering, the first masters. Its / human dimension’—and "human" being at the front of the line is brought forward with so much stress that it makes you think, well, what are the alternatives? There’s animal, is there such a thing as angelic suffering? I mean, after all it’s about a winged boy falling out of the sky, and that raises the issue of the suffering of God. And you get that, all about bringing out the unnatural stress on the word human, by breaking the line. So I don’t understand line breaks, but I’m always thinking about them. I’m always thinking ‘what am I doing here?,’ because it’s in that way I believe I communicate to my reader what his or her range of choices is. I think that line breaks help us to score our poems, so that the emotion that we’re after is recoverable by our readers, who haven’t heard our voices.
BR That was well said.
ST Thank you. I’ve been thinking about this for years.
BR






I’ll have to play this for my student. You know, we’re running out of time and I want to hear you read another poem, but…. You’re so committed to the activity of poetry and you talk about the effect of Emily Dickinson upon you when you were twelve. And, I don’t mean to presume autobiographical things when they’re not, but the father in the poems you were reading, you said ‘speech was not his métier.’
ST Yes. He was a very diffident man.
BR

So how did you fall into this ocean of literature? What were the influences do you think, that led you…?
ST






Well, when I was twelve—actually when I was a wee boy, my brother Jim and I shared a room. And we had to have the lights out at 9:30, which was too early for either of us, and Jim had committed a lot of Robert Service to memory. So he would recite "The Cremation of Sam McGee," and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," and… this delightful poem, the title of which I never came across which goes,
The antiseptic baby and the prophylactic pup
Were playing in the garden when the bunny gambled up
They looked upon this creature with a loathing and despise
For it wasn’t disinfected and it wasn’t sterilized
They said it was a microbe, a hotbed of disease
They steamed it in a vapor of a thousand-odd degrees
They froze it in a freezer as cold as vanished hope
And washed it with permanganate and carmelated soap
They sheared it’s rubber whiskers and took it by a hand
And elected it a member of the fumigated band
Now there’s not a micrococcus in the garden where they play
They bathe in pure iotaform a dozen times a day
And they imbibe their rations from a hygienic cup
The bunny and the baby and the prophylactic pup
Now, I didn’t know what fifty percent of those words meant, but it was utterly delightful, so I got infected early and then when I was twelve and, Mrs. Sable I believe it was, brought a recording of Julie Harris reading Emily Dickinson...
BR Ah, the Belle of Amherst.
ST



Yes. I was just… nailed, I was utterly nailed when I heard her say, ‘I heard a fly buzz when I died/the stillness in the room was like the stillness in the air between the heaves of storm’ it just blew the top of my head off.
BR


Well it’s almost redundant to ask you to read another poem because you’re saying poems all the time, but let us hear another one of yours.
ST

Okay. I’ll do, "Twenty O’s," because it’s short and it’s about sounds again, it’s about vowels.
[Twenty O’s reading follows]
BR Thank you so much
ST Thank you.
BR


I have to exclaim that I heard that echo of ‘he sings in the chains like the sea,’ that works out so beautifully there. ‘He sways in his guise….’
ST

‘—like a loosely socketed…’ yeah, it’s… yeah, Dillon Thomas, my fave, at least at one time. Thank you, Belle.
BR Thank you.
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