Interview – Craig W. Steele

  1.  Have you always been a writer?  When did you know this was a part of you?
    I remember writing one-page “books” as a very young grade-schooler, but my strongest remembrance of “being a writer” happened in seventh grade. We had a short story contest in English class and while I didn’t win the popular vote (finished second), I remember the addictive thrill of writing a coherent story, telling a tale, that not only I enjoyed, but other people did as well. I dabbled with writing as a teen, but then life and career intervened and I didn’t start seriously writing fiction again until about seven years ago, and poetry about five years ago.
  2.  What writers have influenced you?  What writers or poets are you reading now?
    In terms of poets, I think I’ve been most influenced by (in alphabetical order), Kim Addonizio, Billy Collins, Robert Frost (my absolute favorite of the “old timers”), Ted Kooser, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Jennifer Reeser, A.E. Stallings, Timothy Steele (no relation, that I can discover ? darn it) and William Carlos Williams. My ultimate favorites among contemporary poets are Jennifer Reeser and A.E. Stallings ? I can’t choose between them. And recently I’ve developed a liking for the work of Dana Gioia and David St. John.
  3.  Why poetry?
    I’m not sure. I never intended to be a poet. I was always, in my mind, a fiction writer, primarily of short stories, with an eye to becoming a novelist, some day. I began writing poetry as an exercise to improve my fiction writing ? to increase its expressiveness, its rhythm, its imagery, and to be able to do so in a minimal space with minimal words. While that did happen, I found myself writing poetry more often than fiction, writing poetry because I enjoyed writing poetry, not just as a writing exercise, until one day I realized I rarely wrote fiction anymore and had become a poet.
  4.  What does poetry mean to you?
    Perhaps not surprisingly, considering my wayward journey to poetry, to me poetry is the ultimate short story form, not just narrative poetry, but lyric poetry as well (although lyric poems are typically considered “snapshots,” every photograph I’ve ever viewed always held a story). Poetry, to me, expresses the story, imparts the essence of the experience, through imaginative, emotion-evoking word choices, sound and rhythmic (though not necessarily metered) language to make the moment meaningful to the reader (not that the poem has to necessarily have “meaning” or “mean” something, but that it be meaningful). And yes, I have written my own “Ars Poetica,” essentially a credo or mantra I use while writing to stay focused on what I’m trying to accomplish. I haven’t shared it before, but it seems appropriate in the context of the question to do so here:

Ars Poetica
by Craig W. Steele

A poem involves melody
interpreting reality,
enlightening complexity,
enriching sensibility,
infusing souls with harmony.

  1.  What type of space do you need to write?  Do you have a routine?
    I always write poetry in a Mead 9.5 x 6 inch, spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook with a red cover using a mechanical pencil (I used to swear by Ticonderoga #2 pencils, but I love extra-sharp points and got tired of stopping every few minutes to sharpen them) while relaxing in a rocker/recliner in our family room. So ? nothing overly unusual or quirky there; no set times for writing, no special routine. I have discovered that when a poem is being difficult, switching to some other form of paper, such as a 3 x 5 inch blank index card or a Post-it note, helps tease it out, after which it’s transferred to the Mead. I can revise a poem anywhere, however (at the kitchen table, in the shower, in my office at work, for example), and can even do so at the computer. (Curiously, to me, I can only compose fiction and the science writing for my day job at the computer. I also have a different “feeling” in my head when I’m writing fiction or science, compared to when I’m writing poetry.)
  2.  What advice do you have for aspiring writers and those seeking publication?
    I have only three pieces of advice, all of which I try to follow, daily (that’s the tough part). (1) Read as much as you can, not just in the genre in which you write, but also genres in which you have no interest, that have no connection to your writing, or that you might even hate. The brain is a mysterious machine and we can’t predict what fortuitous cross connections might occur. (2) Never give up … and when you do, realize deep down it’s only a temporary break. (3) You don’t have to get published to be a writer or to enjoy writing. Publication is fluff ? the icing on the cake. What’s important is baking the cake and discovering that it’s tasty without icing. (And then, when [not if] you get published, the thrill is indescribable, every time!)
  3.  What does the term “academic” poetry mean to you?
    There are several definitions of “academic” poetry out there, assuming you agree it actually exists (many people apparently do not) and the term is usually a putdown. To me, “academic” poetry is “so what?; who cares?” poetry. To me, an “academic” poem is one that, after I finish reading it (assuming I do), I’m left feeling cheated by the poet, as if I’ve wasted my time and wonder why the poet bothered writing it, or to paraphrase the old saying: “It’s all academic” (i.e, moot or pointless). I equate such poetry with the über-literary, über-obscure poetry prevalent today, especially poetry in which obscurity seems to be the main goal and the primary measure of craft and quality. I don’t believe poetry should degenerate to simple doggerel (part of the fun is puzzling out the poet’s path through the experience), but I do believe you must at least leave the door ajar so a reader can enter the poem (the issue of “accessibility”). Or, as Kim Addonizio says in her 2007 interview at about-creativity.com, a poem needs: “Sufficient clarity and context for a reader.”
  4.  What can we teach and do to get more children and teens involved with the arts and writing specifically?
    As the father of two school-age children and a writer of children’s poetry, I find this to be an uphill struggle. My children’s schools seem to be doing everything correctly: introducing poetry early in the lower grades, making poetry reading a fun experience, engaging the children in poetry writing. And I definitely promote poetry at home. Yet, my children are not drawn to poetry voluntarily (although both are avid readers of fiction and nonfiction books). I checked with my 7th-grade daughter recently, asking her if she’d read or written poetry this year. Her response: “Yes, we have to do both, sometimes.” Have to do both ? oh my, what’s a poet-father to do? But then, I came to poetry rather late in life, both as a writer and avid reader, so I know it’s an avocation that can’t be forced. And the current prevalence of “academic” poetry doesn’t help nor does the current marketing climate for books of children’s poetry which are difficult to get published because, according to the publishers, they “just don’t sell.” Since it’s generally parents, not children, with the purchasing power, perhaps a way to promote poetry, writing and the arts with children and teens is to improve its promotion with parents. I fear, however, the audience for poetry will always be comparatively small and chiefly academic (university/college faculty and students) in this country unless our society undergoes a major cultural shift.