Stein has received numerous awards, most recently the Vernon Louis Parrington Medal for Distinguished Writing. He has been awarded Poetry's Frederick Bock Prize, the 1998 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the Stanley Hanks Chapbook Award, and four Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards for his poetry. In addition, he has been the recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and three such fellowships awarded by the Illinois Arts Council. Named 1989 Bradley University Professor of the Year for excellence in teaching, Stein is Caterpillar Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Program at Bradley University, Peoria, IL. In December 2003, the Governor of Illinois named Kevin Stein the state's fourth Poet Laureate. Stein assumes the position previously held by Howard Austin, Carl Sandburg, and Gwendolyn --Brooks.
Kevin Stein Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
In “The Health Professions,” you wrote, “I hanker to be healed / by poetry.” Despite many writers’ claim that poetry is not or should not be therapy, many of us use it for just that. If this is true for you, why do you think that is? How have you seen this reflected in others, for example, in your students?
All of us find our own salvific means to abide the hour, the day, a lifetime. For some it’s the spiritual, for others the arts or social service. For still others it’s booze’s steady buzz. These modes of relief change during our lifetimes and thus change us in the process – disturbingly, not always to our betterment or to that of our culture. What once salvages us can ravage us instead. That’s what gives me pause about relying on poetry’s supposedly healing qualities. These redemptions are partial, evolving, and apt to disappoint those of us seeking a lasting cure to whatever ails us. Regrettably, this is the way of all ecstatic experiences – of which poetry is decidedly prime: They are by definition uncommon, brief, and fickle. And as William James reminds us in his Varieties Religious Experience, such experience is nearly impossible to recreate within the self and vexingly difficult to convey to others in words. So I don’t expect any single poem or poetry as a whole to lay its hands upon me and transform my life to everlasting smiles and puppies.
But I do think poetry offers momentary succor and relief (much like Frost’s notion of poetry as a “momentary stay” against confusion). And I believe with all the strength I can muster that attention to language is akin to attention to one’s life. I believe as well that doing so helps to negotiate one’s connections with and obligations to the other human beings with whom one shares the planet. Malebranche’s conviction that “attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul” provides a guiding principle not only for living one’s life but also for making one’s art. We strive to be, in essence, the fully “awake” person for whom Thoreau looked in vain. In short, we make then try to fix our poems, as we make then try to fix our lives. We recognize virtues as well as faults. Doing so, we find neither the poem nor the person is perfectible. Still, this quest, futile as it must be, pushes us to modes of betterment that transform our art as well as our being.
Yard sales and romances are fascinating and wonderful, except when they’re not. I detect a hint of sadness (though I’m not sure that’s the right word) in “33rd Anniversary of Yard Sale Romance.” I’d never, until I read this poem, thought of the likenesses between poetry, romances, and yard sales in that all three invite people to pick through someone else’s life. I think the timelines involved in these three are what makes me think that something sad is going on here. Do you think there’s something both wonderful and sad—or something similar to sadness—in yard sales generally? Also, have you ever sold something at a yard sale that you wish you hadn’t, or that you’re glad you did sell?
A poem is a kind of romance between poet and reader, a courtship that plays out with outcomes familiar to authors, readers, and lovers. Ponder, if you will, these parallels. Poet and poem open their lines to the reader, revealing both character and shapeliness. They are then either accepted or rejected by that reader. Or perhaps they’re loved for a while then outgrown, tossed out, or simply forgotten by a reader who, like all humans, is constantly in the process of becoming something new (thus always attracted to fresh experiences.) At most, a handful of people and poems remain part of our lives, meaningful and redemptive over the long haul. The result is that what once was cherished often becomes dross.
That ineluctable eliding is arguably the single constant of our lives and art. Think of how the once swoonily loved boy- or girlfriend now has receded into the crinkles of your brain. He reemerges only when your closet-cleaning uncovers a high school yearbook, the radio plays that song, or she shows up on Facebook requesting to be your friend. Most poems are like that, reappearing, say, only when one opens the refrigerator to discover fresh plums, and bang, there’s Williams’s “This Is Just to Say.” As goes poetry, so goes life.
As intellectual and emotional construct, the yard sale fascinates me for the ways it illustrates how physical things can elicit emotional states within us. The yard sale reflects a time capsule of whom we loved, how we dressed, what we ate, and what we sat upon, slept in, or drank from. These things chronicle how we became what we are. Their tense embodies past not present reality – or at least that’s what we must persuade ourselves in order to cull these things (and ideas) from our lives. Yes, a note of sadness resides there. But an equal measure of joy attends these things we loved, wore close against our skin, stacked carefully upon our shelves, and saved our pocketfuls of quarters for. These things once really mattered to us, and now they may again mean something to someone new – fleshing out a fresh life in the bargain.
I aspire for “33rd Anniversary of Yard Sale Romance” to be musically rich, emotionally risky, and historically resonant. Yes, I know what you’re saying, “That’s asking a lot!” But only in risking largely may our inevitable falling-short make a worthy poem. On one hand, the poem reflects in cherished things a moment once richly lived, a celebration of what was once but now is gone. A “Time of the Season” faded into the next season, and the next, and so on. On the other, that cornucopia overflowing with crock pot, turntable, and dusty paperbacks invokes an “anniversary” of another sort. The poem’s lovers have matured together beyond patchouli into a realm of things (and emotions) that is different but equally sustaining. In all pleasures there bristles a current of pain, lingering just beneath the lift of ecstasy that bids us rise. I’d like the poem to venerate both.
I read that you wrote that poets should look beyond their reflection in their own coffee cup for inspiration. It seems to me that this is true not just for poets but for people generally in our interactions with the world. This view seems reflected in “Parable of the Sentence,” as well. Other than literary influences (or if you’d like to name some, in addition to literary influences), where do you look—and where do you advise looking—for inspiration and to keep things fresh and interesting?
Among the many allures tempting the contemporary poet, two stand out for me as particularly worrisome. One urges solipsism, the other vapidity. The first is represented by the poet whose worldly view looms no larger than the circumference of his coffee-cupped reflection. Me, me, me, he insists, a navel-gazing uber-Romantic whose story is the only story. Confessional poetry has its value, and surely all of us have felt the need to chronicle our lives’ most electric moments. But please, let the world in there, too, so private history locates itself in public history. I’m after this connection in “Immigrant Song,” where my hometown’s loss of 25,000 union jobs left most of us desperate to get out and thus out-swim our town’s economic tsunami. The second temptation is the lyrical compulsion to make only music. It’s the poet who keys a musical line that falls lovely on the ear but in turn ignores the larger world’s cacophony, its ugly off-key symphony of war, oppression, and hunger. That’s the cautionary note I hope to give “Parable of the Sentence” – that language can make verbal beauty but also may conceal harsh truths, as does the cynical phrase “collateral damage.”
To “keep things fresh,” as you say, try to stay in the world rather than writing about it from the poet’s high cloud. Read others’ poetry, of course, but also read several newspapers (especially the Police Beat for its saga of quirky human behavior) as well as a slew of magazines online and hard copy. Try to read both those with whom you anticipate agreement and those with whom you assume an adversarial stance. Oft times, your assumptions will prove to be wrong on both counts. Read philosophy and history and aesthetic theory with eclectic and chaotic abandon, for your life is not a class with tests you can prepare for. Take walks with the dog, drink too much black coffee, listen to your spouse, and start up conversations with the gal working the gas station cash register. Look at and inhabit art. Walk around in good music and risk a listen to what you don’t like or understand. In restaurants practice the poetic art of the overheard, noting less what is said than how it is spoken.
In sum, live a life of engagement. You’ve enough time to be alone. Your poetry desk necessarily insists upon solitude and informs seclusion’s sustaining pleasures. It’s the solitary locale where all your forays out into the world come back home to you – and then through you reenter the world among their kin. After all, as Rene Char insists, poetry is “the contribution of the creature to creation.” For me, it’s less a challenge of finding inspiration than it is the trial of grounding myself in human community.
What are you most proud of doing as Illinois’s Poet Laureate, and what do you have planned? What does your position entail? In what ways should we encourage the reading and writing of poetry in our communities? What successes have you seen in this regard?
Following in the footsteps of the late Gwendolyn Brooks is admittedly a daunting task. Like Ms. Brooks, I have focused on finding ways to bring together our state’s poetry and our state’s citizens. And I’ve often enjoyed the opportunity to put poetry in locales where people least expect it, bringing the laureate office into the 21st century.
First, I’ve welcomed the opportunity to give roughly 150 readings and presentations in a variety of venues. I’ve done so in nursing homes, rural libraries, factories, as well as urban grade, middle, and high schools. I’ve read poetry on WGN radio’s morning drive time with Spike O’Dell when listeners must’ve wondered how poetry snuck on their cars’ AM radios. I’ve also read a poem on FM Classic Rock radio where Vonda the DJ cut from The Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” to an astonished me. I’ve presented a poetry-sermon in church, read poetry under a tent in Chicago’s Millennium Park, dressed up in a tuxedo to speak before a Board of Directors, and visited innumerable community college and university classrooms. I’ve enjoyed the great privilege of handing out Mendota, Illinois’s yearly poetry prizes to a public library crammed with guys in overalls, teenagers, and kids fidgeting in their seats. In each venue I have been reminded that Joseph Epstein is wrong about poetry being “dead.” In fact, I’d say poetry is enjoying a lively aesthetic “afterlife” (and I’ve published a book of essays to illustrate that very point: Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age).
Still, because a laureate can be at only one place at a time, I’ve initiated a alternate means to reach our citizens: two internet websites to promote Illinois poetry (www.bradley.edu/poet and www.poetlaureate.il.gov). There, I’ve gathered work by Illinois professional poets in text, audio, and video – the latter two appealing directly to young folks and students who’ve grown up expecting an audio-video milieu. Another popular aspect of these sites is Youth Poetry featuring wonderful poems written by Illinoisans ranging from kindergarten to college.
A third mode takes advantage of poetry’s oral allure and of our contemporary audience’s fondness for audio. I’ve edited an audio CD of 24 Illinois poets reading from their works. The CD Bread & Steel appeals to poetry lovers and to teachers of poetry at all levels. What’s more, all funds from the sale of the CD have gone to support my Poetry Now! project through which I donate money to each public or school library I visit. These funds underwrite the purchase of poetry books by Illinois poets, and my websites track nearly 40 participating libraries and list books acquired through the project. (See http://www.bradley.edu/poet/poetrynow/index.shtml)
One final venture supports the work of young poets and those writers just emerging into publication. With the State Library, the Secretary of State’s office, the Illinois Association of Teachers of English, I cosponsor a statewide poetry contest for grade, middle, and high school students. In addition, the Secretary of State, the Illinois Center for the Book, and the State Library work with me to offer a statewide Emerging Poets competition offering cash prizes to poets who have begun to appear in print but who have yet to publish a book.
By the time I leave the laureateship, I’d like to have made something lasting and tangible as opposed to having spun a mere vapor trail of memories.
33rd Anniversary of Yard Sale Romance
When a buck bought your “Time of the Season,”
tick tock, ding dong, brrrring brrrring,
you became the Etch a Sketch drawing me,
the Whiffle ball my bat had lost, and I the kite
you lofted across the day’s electric sky.
Because tick tock ding there was war
I platooned green army men and you stacked
blocks whose alphabet spelled our rifled future.
Then you the tabled dishes, mismatched cracked,
you the Denby and Wedgewood, your grandmother’s
gilded tea cup even I might be poured in,
one lump or two, sweetened to meet the folks.
By noon’s tock you became the sun-faced clock
and I your Ray-O-Vac double A, then you the crock pot
burnt orange and avocado, so I was the dial
turned “Off” or “High” in true Seventies fashion.
Tick bong ding, it was time of the season for loving –
the always-party – so you were the glossy LP
and I the spindle you spun around at 33 1/3,
the needle riding your groove and song.
After dinner you were lavender heather,
paten leather, crinoline, and Irish lace.
When you lit our exotic melancholy,
the patchouli burning in you was me.
Everything was tick ding, brrrring ring,
you the tumbling racks of paperbacks dusting
our Age of Aquarius. You the Romance novel
and I the one bedded to savor your story.
Parable of the Sentence
Music’s the lyric’s Master Card, jauntily
trilling meaning’s trainless station,
the sentence our lost locomotive.
Hold onto your wallet when the poet lilts
about a blonde moon, beauty vapid but efficient
in the fashion of Mademoiselle, and napalm.
Back in the day a poem fed upon caboose
as much as engine, all that chugging
beginning and ending a period with one.
Subect we verb waited for coupling’s
object syntax, our Penn Central,
the B & O, the Reading Line linked,
certain what was coming would end
with kerchiefed men waving from a window,
the swaying red lantern’s satisfaction.
Everywhere great arms lifted, steeled wheels
clank-clunked, and what one knew moved
inexorably distant but still on track. Period.
Everything on track. AIG, Standard Oil, GM,
dogs asleep in slant sun. Everything,
the baby in her bath water, on track.
Our President not yet explaining how
the known unknowns won’t get you
but the unknown unknowns will.
Tracks on everything, even the moon,
certainty as shiny as the Shah’s gold bed.
Collateral and damage not yet wed.
Everything on track. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
All things verbed, the sentence so trusted
signs point us the way home.
The Health Professions
When students plead for “Dr. Stein” to save
the poem they cradle like a sick child,
it’s no good to protest I’m not that kind of.
A sudden grand mal shuddering conjures
sixties TV’s Marcus Welby, M.D.,
Ben Casey, and handsome Dr. Kildare
until I assume their elegant efficacy,
the kindly perspicacious demeanor.
If you’re young, you likely can’t decode
those references. Google them. I’ll wait.
Now you too see their white skin, white teeth,
white lab coat, the coiffed hair impeccably white
or not. You witness the good doc sauntering
down a pristine hospital hall with all
the epistemological calm of Apollo stepping into
the golden chariot, off on his rounds of bringing
light to the darkened mass of us below his feet.
My students want their wounds debrided,
the threat vitiated, our disease made right in ways
we all wish to be back-patted and cheek-kissed –
a gesture so grandly French we’re resigned to
our brilliance. Like them, I hanker to be healed
by poetry. Physician, heal thyself has not exacted
its miracle within me, as a laying on of my hands
does little for them, these dewy ones the world
has yet to hurt sufficiently. What a monster I am,
have been, and ever shall be – world without end, Amen.
You’re a beast, too, dear reader. You covet
a colleague’s promotion, the neighbor’s Mercedes,
your son’s heading the game-winning goal.
Tsk tsk, such pettiness. We only play the good Dr.
In this we are human, an inkling brewing in you
despite the green tea, your pill box brimming,
Sunday school, mommy’s rule, and Hobbes.
Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère.
We ache to cure what we’ve made ourselves,
the human experiment botched but beloved.
We, in whom a torch-bearing mob nightly clambers
to our throat’s iron gate – the frenzied crowd of our
selves shouting to ourselves, “Dr. Frankenstein must die!”
The Breckenridge backpack
water, granola, stale trail jerky,
garage band broken when the Delco’s
migrated like geese down Dixie’s twin tracks,
whistling bye bye.
There’s Donny wailing lyrics Vox amps feedback
Mark’s drumming one-armed cop until groupies blink
then pony up.
Studious Jerry’s flannel fingers, Tom’s thumbing long-neck
even night can’t ink. At bottom, there’s big-haired me, raking a pick
through minor chords.
Out here, alone but risen 12,340 cleft feet up Hoosier Ridge, namesake
of my escaped-state’s
swing-shift fisticuffs, nothing’s sentimental about wind thwacking my jacket,
my cap. Even pica scurry from any human S.O.B., which I’d been in my neck
of the woods.
There, Led Zeppelin clenched their lyric’s knuckled fist. Back there plink plunk,
music punched my ticket. Dig it, if I’d stayed it’s a grave I’d dug. Now no drunks
plying the chemical river,
no bread-loaf brick streets, no more reeking glue-sniffers’ heaven, sticky bailiwick
Bruce who’d grunt, “Man, you’re one mean mo-fo,” his tongue black as burnt wick.