Steve Burns Interview, with Davon Loeb
First off, how does it feel to be on the opposite side of publishing again? I imagine running APIARY Magazine leaves you little time to write yourself—let alone, submit poetry. Furthermore, do you think your perspective on literary publishing, its processes, its joys, and its frustrations have changed now that you run a highly-successful magazine? Additionally, how does celebrating other writers’ work affect you, as a poet?
Finding the time and the brain-space (that sort of sweet spot between frantic inspiration and equanimity) to write while strategizing ways to promote and inspire community of writers is extremely difficult. Running a magazine is constant work. There aren’t enough hat racks to hang all the hats I wear. I definitely appreciate the people who are brave enough to run indie presses, magazines, and publishing houses. Recognizing, however, that writers in Philadelphia are constantly seeking community and a place for publication keeps me energized. I love being that conduit. I almost embrace the challenge of being overworked because it forces me to make my personal time precious. Poetry, then, becomes even more precious. Celebrating the work of other writers serves as a reminder that this work (APIARY) is absolutely necessary. Writers need a platform, a space to share their work that is accessible. I say “accessible” because APIARY’s staff is part of the community it represents — we’re all hustling together. Celebrating other writers’ work also helps me tune in to the larger conversations our community, our city, and our country is having whether it be political, economic, or spiritual. It keeps me informed and it certainly keeps me humble. I am not writing in a vacuum. The culture of writing is always in flux. I love having my finger on the pulse of that.
Does Philadelphia as a place play a specific role and purpose in your writing? How does this city that is both richly historical but also contemporary—that is incredibly troubled but also hopeful—that is spewing with creativity and art but also with forgotten faces and wrecked buildings—how does this city and its duality affect your writing and your work at APIARY Magazine?
Philadelphia has only recently entered my writing. While I am NJ born and raised, my father lived in North Philadelphia as a child with his parents; my grandmother on my mother’s side lived in South Philly for a time. My great grandfather, mentioned in “Inheritance,” actually lived in a Sears house courtesy of the G.I. Bill just outside the city. Sears slapped up these sort of lego-style homes for men coming home from WW1. That house is still there (and so is the Steel Mill). These discoveries, thanks to my wonderful Aunt Joyce, have filled in much of the gaps in my family history and have, I think, explained why I love Philly so much. I’ve always felt a connection to the city. I’m hoping the more I investigate my family’s past, the more I can recover, and the closer to Philly I can become. I also recognize that this city is constantly shifting. I would argue that Philly is undergoing a revival - but it is one of economic exclusivity. Folks call Philly the city of “Eds and Meds” for a reason. We’re seeing repercussions of the expansion of those industries as younger, wealthier people move in to neighborhoods across the city. I am guilty of this too. There are certainly many problems in Philly but I’d like to simply say this: remember that your neighbors are your neighbors. Love, support, and give back to your community. This has been one of APIARY’s greatest lessons.
Your poems all address manhood in one way or another. The men in these vignettes take on the multitudes of masculinity—from a great grandfather soldiering in WWI, to laying brick in a Pennsylvania steel mill—to a father-to-son passed-down hunting bow, and then a young man juxtaposing himself and an army mechanic. So, if anything outside of the lines, what do you think it means to be a man?
From an early age my father taught me that, above all, family is everything. He also taught me to always have a job. He got me my first two jobs at 14: one as a dishwasher, the second as a jack-of-all-trades at a garden center. This was my father’s way of showing me he loved me. I was never really tough or strong, but I played into that role now and then as a kid (don’t ask me about my football days). I always associated masculinity with some kind of unshakable toughness, an unconquerable grit. My father taught me that strength is not physical; it is an endurance of the heart. Even on his worst days, my father will still tell me he loves me. That is true strength. To me that is what it is to be a man. It is also what it is to be human. I should point out I in no way endorse the sort of “man up” mentality instilled in young boys during their first loss at a tee-ball game. Men should be free to emote, to dress how they want to dress, to kiss who they want to kiss, and be who they want to be. Women have those same freedoms. Gender is, of course, also a spectrum. I don’t want to necessarily define masculinity through my writing, but explore, subvert, and question its underpinnings.
Your poem, “Inheritance”, on so many levels, is a love poem—rich in sentiment, in admiration, and longing—the gentle way the heart longs for someone or something. While at the same time, this poem is also a eulogy, a memorialization of a man and his legacy—of the workings of his body, his jobs, and his life. Thus, what do you want readers to know about your great grandfather? And what does his story say about your own?
This is a good question. The answer is one I’m still working through and will continue to work through. I would like readers to consider their own pasts, to think of all the footsteps, breaths, sacrifices, illnesses, late nights, early mornings, home-cooked meals, car rides, and friendships that lead to where they are at this very moment; to consider where your great uncle worked and what his industry was or where your grandmother walked in the Italian market on Sunday mornings. Can you follow those footsteps? Is your great grandfather’s home still standing? I don’t know if I want readers to know anything specific about my great grandfather; I just want them to know that their own story is worth exploring. It is also worth owning and taking responsibility for. Both my great grandfather and my grandfather participated in two of America’s greatest conflicts, for better or for worse. That’s something I think about. My great grandfather’s relationship to Philadelphia and its industrial past is what interests me currently. He was, first and foremost, a laborer. My Aunt told me that, before getting the job at a steel mill, he was prepared to be a coal miner. He took one step in the mine, and turned right around. I believe the quote was something like, “You wouldn’t catch me dead in here.” Considering how many men actually died in the coal mines back then, and our president’s current fascination with bringing that industry back, this anecdote has asked me to reevaluate my relationship to the economy of this country as well as what work means me to me.
Lastly, your poems are breathless; literally, I almost run out of breath reading them. You pay very close attention to cadence by naturally flowing each sound into each word into each line. It seems effortless; though I’m sure, you’ve spent hours reading aloud, cutting words, and arguing to yourself, “is this comma is really necessary?” As much as this interview is about getting to know Steve Burns and about your poems’ content, we also want to know about your craft—about how you develop and write your poems. Please do tell…
First: You’re right. I spend way too much time arguing with myself over commas, line length, and (most of all) sonic power. I almost always start writing with an image that’s been nagging me. Once I’m able to identify what the image is asking me, the poem slowly unfolds through the rhythm of writing. The musical vibrations of the poem build the foundation of the poem; from there I cut and move lines around. I am definitely in favor of short, concise lines. Poet, Daisy Fried, used the word “muscularity” and that stuck with me. I try to pack as much into my lines as possible, or I ask readers to trust me as I string them along, tumbling down the poem to construct a single image or concept. I struggle with inserting punctuation because I want my poems to perform on the page like they would if you were hearing them read aloud. I also want my images and movements to stretch as wide as possible before coming to a close because; frankly, it feels so good to compose a poem I often feel out of breath myself. My hope is to impart that feeling on the reader.
I keep a German pocket watch
picked from the jacket of a dead man
by my great grandfather
in the corner of my underwear drawer.
The one fact I have about him is this:
he was mustard gassed in a trench
over machine gun fire
when machine guns were new.
He took one breath and held it
his entire life. Carried that lump of gas
in his throat, then his lungs
which would transform into cancer
after years of dressing in blue overalls to
pound metal and lay brick for furnaces
in a Pennsylvania Steel Mill.
What kind of hurt earns a Purple Heart?
In Okinawa my grandfather traded his cigarettes
for chocolate and a small Japanese flag.
A paperwork mixup and flat feet made him a clerk
who came home with a kind of holiness, dreaming
of olive tents, olive jeeps, “the good ole boys”
serpents cutting through the grass
birds passing overhead in the night
a musket ball lodged in the jaw
of a skull
beside the stone embankment
that feels the sun at first light
as it travels sharp and ragged
like an arrowhead
fragmented and left for the earth
to consume and spit back
in some other form.
Between each ancient buried rib sprouts
evergreens, pines, thistles
on and on each hill sleepless
against the next.
We have these rolling hearts
my father and his
where no moss can grow.
A tree falls somewhere
and I’m not sure how it sounds
but the bark is rough on our hands.
How many dead men can you hide in a drawer?
For years it carves a new hole in me
it gets in the corners of my eyes
behind my ears.
I taste it between meals
and I inherit. And I hope to God
what might bloom again
My Father’s Bow
Was given to me
with a leather shooting glove
soft from age
bow-string still taut
limb curvature still solid
he killed only once
when his hair was long, like mine
when he rolled up the sleeves of his red flannel
when a small black lab followed his brown boots
after my mother came and went
when things changed
and things changed
when he pinned a small fox in the fall of ’70
my father regretting the day
he loosed his bolt
from the nock
and caught something sharp
in his heart —
a single drawing
the end of a love
brought by a bow
and given to me.
A Note on Our Kitchen Table
Dear Lauren, I know you’re on the phone
with Alex who’s in South Korea
working on army helicopters
but I thought you should know
I bought an avocado for us to share
between the two of us.
The bike ride home from the bar was wet
my boots soaked all the way through
and under the porch three strays are sleeping
hidden from the rain, again
this girl at work, she dropped
her promise ring
the $400 thing
it slipped right off
when she was waiting tables
she found it three days later
tucked in the corner of her apron.
We’re all a little lost, Lauren
your husband will come home soon
and I hope you’ll smile
maybe draw a little more
I hope love persists
despite the new summer thunderstorm
I see rolling in
through the cat-clawed window
of my dusty bedroom, despite
the neighbor’s hatchet
how it comes down
and splits all 6 feet of me
like dry firewood.