D.E. Steward was born in central New Jersey in 1936. He’s spent the lastseveral years in Basel, Switzerland, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Tubingen,West Germany, and is now living in Princeton, N.J. Dave has written a slewof unpublished novels. He has one published collection of stories, FourStories (Oasis Books, 1978), though his graphics, poetry, stories,novel excerpts, and reviews have been published in an enormous number ofmagazines since 1965, including The New African, Chicago Review,Transatlantic Review, Kansas Quarterly, Bachy, Beyond Baroque, Center,River Styx, Vagabond, Scree, Periodics, Webster Review, North AmericanReview, The Phoenix, Cimarron Review, South DakotaReview, Eureka, Gargoyle, Telephone, Interstate, The Mill, Panache, MinnesotaReview, Intermedia, The Charlottesville Observer, Mississippi Review, Telegram,Oasis, Porch, Transition (Kampala), Puerto del Sol, San Francisco Reviewof Books, Pacific Sun Quarterly, Bogg, Carolina Quarterly, Invisible City,and Harpoon.
Interviewers: Your fiction has been described as “very cerebral, reflective,intellectual, with little action, plot, subplot.” This pretty much throwsyou in with the experimentalists and I guess would guarantee that the NY publishingworld would ignore your work. Does this bother you? Do you consider yourselfan experimental writer?
Steward: Sure, it bothers me that NY publishers might be ignoring my workcategorically, that is in both senses of the word and the double meaning’sintended. Reputation is more important in trade publishing than most intangiblesand what I’m saying right now probably won’t help mine. It’s what theygo on. But I’m not sure that a rep of being “cerebral, etc.” evenmatters. Often NY publishing people are foggy about literary criteria.It’s like rugs: roll it out, check the nap, maybe I should say the pile,then buy by the yard. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, usually I’ve foundagents to be more literary than editors. Their philistinism being lessguarded, sometimes agents let themselves actually be moved by good writing.Trade editors really have to be careful in order to keep their jobs, that’sthe problem. It’s the nature of their business.
Before putting my foot in it any further, let me refer you to the mostextreme articulate position I know of the righteous writer versus NY publishing.It’s what William Gass said about it in his New Fiction (Illinois,1974) interview. And I won’t quote. Gass has his books out and I don’t.
People read what they hear about and what’s available. Nobody in applecountry wants mangos until they’re on the shelves. And then too there aredozens of other perfectly delicious tropical fruits we don’t get yet. Thereare dozens, maybe hundreds, of remarkable writers who have books readyto be published and distributed that people would be just as ready to readas those that are available. But trade publishing panders to the base andsaturates the limited market with stuff that’s aimed low and common. Ifeven a few trade houses started putting more mangos on their lists, thechain bookstores would sell the good books at the same rate they sell allthose bad books right now. It works that way in European countries andJapan. People who bother with books at all are literate, curious, imaginative,they read ready to use their full capacities. But what do we get out ofNew York? Mostly crotch scratchers, ho-hum safe little novels, and flashersfrom whatever milieu is most fashionable at the moment. And most readerswho don’t go beyond a Walden’s think those are the best that are beingwritten.
Trade publishing people claim their business is the victim of Americanbad taste, that’s absurd, many, many trade books are active debasers ofAmerican taste. Both by the almost Gresham’s law manner in which they occupythe existing market so that better books don’t find publishers, and bytheir own frequent lack of any literary interest at all.
This situation is often the most pivotal problem any serious Americanwriter has to face. There are so many facets of it, and so many ways toperceive it. And it’s so terrible for the good writer who keeps losingto it. That old justifier of trade publishing that goes, “All goodwriting eventually gets published” is cruel beyond description towriters like Carol Berge and any of the rest of us who don’t have fivemore decades to invest in chipping away at trade publishing indifference.
And the ironies that blow across the trade publishing morass are deepand bitter. Significant American books may only get into print somewhereelse, sometimes England, sometimes Canada as in the case of Mary Meigs’remarkable memoirs. Books that are published get changed and homogenized.What happened to The Red Badge of Courage and Thomas Wolfe’slast work is characteristic, and these days all that’s much worse. Andof course quite a few fine foreign books written in English never becomeavailable in the US. But what it can do to writers’ lives is the worst.Never forget once talking with an old guy six months from the grave who,after a lifetime of trying to get his books out, had just published his “firstnovel.” There he was in Santa Monica sitting happily on his firstand only two thousand dollar advance claiming to me again and again likerote that anybody who says they write for anything but money is lying.He wouldn’t shut up on that and I got up and left. I knew an American writerin Spain like that too, who never published a thing except the journalisticcrap he did to stay alive and who died in his little finca in the sierrafalling into his typewriter, literally. No, the compound ironies of therighteous writer versus NY publishing are boundless, quite perplexing,and profoundly sad. But I don’t think they always have been and that’swhat makes it all even sadder.
No, I don’t consider myself an experimental writer. I don’t have manystylistic matrices, I mean I try most things in the manner it looks asthough they can best be done. Sometimes that results in unusual forms,and so my mild reputation of being experimental I guess. Probably the self-consciousnessthat setting out to be experimental requires, comes from other conceptsof what writing is than the ones I have. If your endeavor is the concrete,the image on the page, that’s one thing and the ramifications are fascinating,A la Interstate, Harley Lond, Kostelanetz and all the others. But wordsthemselves are the most important thing for me. I guess I’m sometimes deemedexperimental because I often disregard the old conventions of how thingsget organized from words on up.
The words are everything and the form beyond them is inevitable. LikeGodard says, it’s always there, a beginning, middle and an end, only notabsolutely in that order. In America we’re so thoroughly inculcated withthe conventional tale form that it seems to be very hard for even the mostinventive and imaginative readers to back away from it easily. So whatdo we have? A lot of good writers still writing Saturday EveningPost stories, the form they were brought up on. And American readersaccepting it because there it is in print. It’s like that person tellingWerner von Braun that instead of all the space stuff he was doing, he andeverybody else “should all be home watching television like God intended.” It’signorant, cramped and a prime example of how reluctant even bright peoplecan be to live within their own times. The tired old conventional narrativeform with all its false directions between lines of dialogue, that foundits apogee in the last century, is buggy whipping it. To be satisfied withconventionality in fiction is like sitting listening to a crystal set whenthe whole modern world is exploding through quad speakers just outside.Sure, people like it quiet, but like genre painting the old and quiet wayswill always be there for those who need it.
Interviewers: You’ve been on the fringe of the NY publishing world foryears. You almost landed a novel in 1970, and are, or have been, closeto many well-established writers. Your work has been published in many “name” magazines,a fact which usually facilitates subsequent book publication, yet thishasn’t been your experience. What do you think has created the dichotomybetween this acceptance by periodicals on the one hand, and the blanketrejection by book publishers on the other?
Steward: For the record, in 1968 after a long talk and a promise, DavidSegal, RIP, turned full around and balked on one novel while he was atHarper & Row. In 1970, the editor in chief of the only major housein New York still owned by one person scurried miserably out of a verbalcontract he’d given me on another novel after I’d even done rewriting onit on his demand. About the same time, an agent I had in London, who laterbecame an editor at Knopf, told me positively that a good London househad accepted my South African novel, All of Us Were Born Here.When I got no other word I ran down that London publisher at the FrankfurtBook Fair and he professed ignorance of the deal. Who knows what happens?And then after it happens, or doesn’t happen, if anybody ever finds out,who cares? Those are the only close ones I know much about but there wereothers handled by various agents I’ve had.
So, no, I have no clear idea about why there’s such a dichotomy in mycase between magazine acceptances and getting books out. Only one obviousobservation on that: most places I publish have editors who care firstabout writing and only very secondarily about making money on what theydo. It’s a truism in 1982 to say that small press is where the best writingcomes out. While I’m on that, deep bows to the few dozen serious smallpress editors-publishers. Good small press people have vastly more litsavvy than the corporate publishing people. Publishing’s an oblong world,from the fervid dedication of a John Bennett to the naked commercialismof the most venal of the major trade houses.
Interviewers: How many unpublished novels are you sitting on?. I knowof something like three Vietnam novels and a South African novel, plus ContactInhibition, Hormuz, and Bjornoy Radio. Could yourun them down briefly and tell us a little something of what each is about?
Steward: Eleven. A couple of those have been rewritten completely yearsafter they were originally finished. In the order I first wrote them, andthanks for asking:
There Is a Dream Dreaming Us was an inventive title whenI chose it twenty years ago, now it’s almost a self-realization cliché.It’s not a bad book. Goes around the world two different ways. The maincharacters, two Americans, meet in the 1951 retreat from Seoul. It’s gotbandits and Siberia and everything in it.
We Are Two Things is internal, exhaustive, but not all thatbad as a second novel. Parts of it are lyric and in it I think I firstbegan to write all out.
All of Us Were Born Here is a strong and unusual novel abouta sabotage organization that was broken up in the Republic of South Africain 1964.
No One Has Seen Us is about crossing America East to West,California in the sixties, fighting fire for the Forest Service and gettingout to Mexico. It’s eerie and wonderful.
Burn Us in the Night is one of what you just called my Vietnamnovels. It’s a projection beyond the ways in which that war was broughthome. By the way, those Vietnam novels aren’t about Vietnam, they’re aboutwhat we were doing there. This one’s about a dystopia.
November 3, 1943 is about one day in Europe when a lot happened,when a lot of people died. It’s about only a few of them and in it I tryto get at what it is about Germany.
The World is an ironic title used in the same way the phrasewas used by Americans in SE Asia. The novel screams about what that kindof insular awareness does to people.
Bjornoy Radio is about one person, an Oblomov, in a beachapartment in Santa Monica. He doesn’t leave it because he can’t do anythingabout the war going on outside. A lot of people come to see him. Appreciatedthat you published a bit of it in Gargoyle 14.
Contact Inhibition is about three fated people in no timein no place. It’s a complicated and successful novel. A representativeexcerpt called “Sequence” came out in the last Bachy, that’sno. 18, And like most of my other novels, quite a bit of it has been publishedin magazines.
Hormuz, at 80,000 words, is slightly longer than most novelsI’ve done so far. It’s about one white and one black American who livein California. I did a part of it at a Gargoyle reading at the old Writer’sCenter in Glen Echo so you both know how it goes. It’s mostly dialoguerooted in the two characters. They review their lives, how they got thatway and their futures. And the future arrives in the book.
Mac is just finished. It’s about a great white hunter andhis wife who have to leave Tanzania, and about a Spanish-speaking womanfrom New Mexico.
The only other book I’ve done was in 1978 when I self-published in onlya couple dozen copies a travel book about Japan and Korea called Throughthe Solstice. Then I’ve put together collections of short fictionfor contests and recently I put together my first book of poetry. I’veonly been writing poetry seriously for a few years. The book’s called Torque.
Interviewers: But you’re not bitter? You don’t envision yourself windingup like the lunatic you mentioned to me once who wrote obsessively foryears and filled an entire room with text?
Steward: Of course I’m bitter, but try not to be so in a way that inhibitsmy work. Probably the worst part about not getting books you’ve done outis having to hustle for money all the time. But at least in our time money’sfairly easy to generate in other ways. And then I’ve been very lucky toget good jobs when I have to. The kind that pay well and don’t cramp butthat do teach me things. But then jobs in themselves do keep you from writing.As Gary Snyder says, when you’re sweeping a fire tower you have to realizeyou’re sweeping a fire tower and not resent that it’s keeping you fromwriting.
For me the Forest Service and a good conventional education have alwaysproduced when need be. Details aren’t important, it’s only that you haveto want to badly enough in order to keep writing. The standard definitionof a journalist as a writer who didn’t try hard enough is generally a veryaccurate one. Although last year one of the hottest New York agents wastelling me that most novels that get published in New York these days comefrom journalists, people who’ve been around Time-Life or whatever longenough to figure out exactly what will go. So even the old values,as John Bennett calls them, get crunched by trade publishing laying itsasphalt.
In the metropolitan countries at least, these are still fat times andI don’t think I’ll end up filling a room in an asylum with unpublishedwork. At DOCUMENTA 6 in Kassel they had a room like that piled to the ceilingwith the illustrated manuscripts of a poor soul who’d been convicted ofchild molestation in Switzerland early this century. It was moving to standat DOCUMENTA with those manuscripts shoulder high around you. Bittersweetending to that one though, not long ago the illustrations he did for hislife-book took off in European art markets and he was the fashionable Europeanpainter of the year recently. Of course all long after he was gone.
Then there’s a new perspective on nonpublication. From here on out accomplishedwriters whose books don’t get published may well end up on library microfilmor fiche or on digital discs. And this technology might be the most enduringkind of publishing of all, whenever anybody pushes the retrieval buttons.Then how often are the dead books of even last year checked out of libraries?For one, in the future I’d rather have the typescript images of an earlynovel of mine like We Are Two Things in a net of computersthan to have written and published it in an earlier era so that it wouldbe sitting, in all probability dead, in a few libraries getting eaten bysilverfish and having its sulfur paper about to disintegrate.
Interviewers: I get the sense that the majority of your prose work isto a large degree autobiographical. Is this true?
Steward: Not to a large degree, no. For example, that story of mine youpublished in Gargoyle 20/21 is set in the early 1300s. You’re right thoughin that I do generally write about things I know fairly well at close hand.Let me get out of this one with the cliché about taking bits fromone and bits from another person I’ve known to create characters. And Iguess I know myself best so that’s where I’ve taken the most bits.
Interviewers: Do you outline a book or write the ending first and worktoward it? What’s your process? How do you get yourself started?
Steward: Usually start anything except a poem with a quasi-outline, alot of ideas, quite a few notes. I usually don’t see the ending until I’mover half finished with a novel. Every day I know pretty much what I wantto do and doing that leads me to the next day’s start. I work from cogentand brief notes and go to them a lot. Rarely any problem in getting anypiece of writing, least of all a book, started. There’s so much I havethat I want to do!
Generally I write first draft prose on keyboards but early drafts of poetryon pads. Keyboards don’t inhibit me, I was brought up on them, bought atypewriter at nine, started to write letters to people on it.
Interviewers: Who do you read?
Steward: Anybody who interests me and as much as I can. Reading is everything.I keep a pile of books all going for different moods. Try to read poetryfirst thing on waking up to get started as far out of the banal as possible.If I listed names here the list would have to be very long. I could doa book on that one, want to sometime. Imagine the wealth of literaturethat we can command! What lies in libraries waiting for us. The literatureof dozens of cultures and many eras. Your DC Anthology, Rick, is testimonyto this depth and it’s only gone to a single filament of what there isin any major library. We can go from Lady Murasaki to The New Oxford Bookof American Verse, skip on into the deep banks of our direct contemporaries,and then back to Lady Murasaki via the French, the English, the Russians!,just the Russians are almost enough to fill a whole life with reading.As I read at all methodically, I like to read in blocks. Scandinavian writersthis year, Latin American next, that sort of thing. And then too I reada lot of books other than prose fiction and poetry.
Interviewers: What magazines?
Steward: Everything that comes to hand in the small press network. TLS.NYR. Scan others like New Republic, Science, Nature,New Scientist, Scientific American. I’m a science groupie becausebiology is the most remarkable endeavor of our age and some of the otherhard sciences aren’t far behind.
Interviewers: You’ve been accused of never describing people in your work.Usually the dialogue, or interior monologue, carries the entire narrativeweight. Why? What are you doing?
Steward: Toward the end of Hormuz I describe the book’stwo characters totally, from quality of toenails to quality of scalp, takingmany pages for each person. OK, of course that was a retort to people whosay I don’t do it enough. But what was I doing in that? I was writing.When I let dialogue or interior writing do it, then I’m doing it that way.The only explicit answer I can give you to your “Why?”, is thatsince all of us have only 640,000 hours to live and since many of thoseare gone in my case, I’m surely not going to blow time on trying to matchanybody’s idea of how to narrate prose fiction. I’m writing. I’m writing.And I don’t mean this testily. One thing is that part of the excitementof art is its intelligence, and intelligent art only has to imply in orderto convey. Another is the nature of our existence now. Not that peopleare all the same now, but their lives and attitudes are remarkably standardizedand that frightening fact implies new ways of writing about those lives.I don’t mean to reify the way I write, but what I just said is one thingthat’s behind my usual avoidance of conventional narrative. It’s boring.I’m not trying anything using conventional narrative.
But talking about style is poisonous so let’s get off that one.
Interviewers: You seem obsessed by tiny details. Your writing shows anencyclopedic knowledge of how things work and where things come from. Areyou just naturally inquisitive? Who are your models for the compulsivelisting, cataloging?
Steward: Sure, I’m naturally inquisitive and can’t imagine how anybodycannot be. Ignore equals ignorant.
Now I’ll dispute you, I don’t often catalogue or list. Whenever I do maybeI’m picking up old influences of Thomas Wolfe and Henry Miller. What Ido often do is go on about a landscape and what lives on it more exhaustivelythan many people who frequent mostly asphalt and concrete care to confront.If I have one cause, it’s against the Bernard-Henry Levy dictum that anythingnot human is inconsequential. Everything in our view must remain in ourken or we can right now relegate our future to totalitarian political formsand the viciousness of bare concrete. And our arrogant elevation of ourselvesabove and apart from our environment is not in the least new. In the Westeven our main religions are founded on it and in large part it’s the articleof faith that’s allowed the vast barbarities that have characterized somuch of modern history and life. But no need to go on about the obvious.
Interviewers: You also seem more analytical than imaginative at times.Or is this an artificial distinction?
Steward: In the realm of ideas there simply isn’t much imaginative aboutthe truth, truth simply is. My truth, your truth, sure, but there are absolutetruths. OK, so one problem is that in the Anglophone world, literatureusually doesn’t become valuable for its ideas until an era or two afterit’s written. We’ve codified that into a principle that now reads: don’twrite about ideas.
But to your point, I hope it is an artificial distinction. Truly haveno idea whether or not it is because I revere imagination over anythingelse I’m able to muster as I write. I don’t understand how the wonder ofpure imagination works, am awed by it, am fascinated with launching imaginativepassages as I write, and feel I have more than a modicum of it–maybe eventhe mini-synopses of the novels I’ve written that I gave you earlier showsthat. One thing could be that one person’s imagination may be another’sirrelevancy or obviosity. Maybe I have a banal imagination. Hope not.
Interviewers: Hard science plays a large role in your writing. You claimedonce that Godel, Escher, Bach with its stress on “artificialintelligence, recursive reasoning, and paradox” would change the timesthe way George Steiner’s After Babel had before it. Has anythingreally changed?
Steward: No, and yes, and then yes it will change. But not as a resultof the book. Great books out of the liberal tradition don’t actively getreified. Abstracts become actual fast only when you’ve got Pol Pots around.People who don’t realize that computers are offering us new freedoms andpatterns of thought are as touchingly absurd as the anti-plastic peoplewere a generation ago. Computers, AI, all the rest of what’s growing fromthese staggering modern technologies, won’t do us in, they’re precariousgoat leaps in the progress of the evolution of our species.
I hope Steiner’s After Babel really did change the times.Did you know that most academics don’t seem to be able to accept Steineras real? That he doesn’t care what they think helps his ideas no end. Lookhow his A.H. book is shaking the accepted wisdom right now.
Interviewers: I seem to perceive two rapidly dividing camps over the newtechnologies and their application to the writing/composing process. You’vedone a lot of writing on computers. Is it the way to go?
Steward: Imagine the “I” in this question is Rick. And beinga publisher, Rick, you must know a lot more than I do about how computerapplications are working out in that realm. From my point of view as anindividual writer, not only do word processors speed things up immensely,the tricks you can do with them for me have made for some substantial graphics
But to answer the question, of course it’s the way to go because it’shere. We can’t go out and bury all the computers and get back to letterpress just because letter press still looks nicer. What will probably happen,if traditional typography is essential to enough people, is that soon there’llbe computer composers that will imitate exactly the old letter press lookand its textures. That will be done as easily as watches with LCD graphicedanalogue faces and ersatz hands are for sale all over the place right now.People want a watch to look like a watch, then make the chips that canmake it took like a watch. All this sort of thing is a lot like puttingpotmetal federal eagles over the doors of mobile homes, but if people wantto try to live in a time behind their own that’s their business.
Interviewers: Now you’re writing long poetry cycles at a time when thisseems unpopular. What does the cycle enable you to do? Create a largerpicture? Something more akin to fiction?
Steward: Leland Hickman who ran Bachy for its last issues,RIP, Bachy, not Lee, he’s going strong, responded to the first long cycleI did, published it, and that induced me to do another. Lee published thatone in Bachy too. I look forward to doing more. Cycles, inmy slight experience with them, enable kinetic intensity and rapid captureof cascading experience. Altogether now I’ve lived in thirteen countriesfor more than a couple of months each and wish I had done poetry cyclesout of every one of them. But all things come in their own good time andI didn’t even venture to write any poetry at all until after nine or tennovels. As it is one of the two cycles I’ve done is mostly about Englandand I’ve never even lived in England. To go on answering your question,sure within their intensity, cycles do allow a great deal more than a singlepoem can generally manage. Akin to fiction? No, I don’t think so.
I used to read Kazantzakis’ Odyssey Sequel in Kimon Friar’stranslation, probably the most significant modem cycle of all, uncomprehendingof the depth of its wonder. Now I understand better. One thing poetry cyclescan do for anybody who tries to write them is get them off the petty andmundane.
Interviewers: How do you decide what will be poetry, what will be fiction?
Steward: I don’t know. For one thing I don’t decide. There must be someautomatic relegation. Give you an example. Not long ago I took a note I’dmade months before that read something like “Write a story about guaruras.” Guarurais current New World Spanish slang for a bodyguard or any other sort ofhired gun. Anyway, note in hand, I thought to myself, yes, that’s interesting,and wrote a poem called “Guaruras.” How it got from story topoem over a period of months I don’t know. More probable than any otherexplanation is that there was something the day I wrote it that would havemade it a poem no matter how I’d designated the idea before.
Of course ideally I’d like my prose to get so poetic that there wouldbe little distinction between forms.
Interviewers: You’ve stated that “all poetry has to adhere to a humanscale.” Could you elaborate on this?
Steward: Gretchen, I think we were once trying to define poetry and Ihad this “adhere to a human scale” idea but now can’t recovermy line of reasoning, whatever it was. Let’s see, might I have meant thatpoetry, by nature of its laser economy, cannot avoid humanity, while thereare frequent trade novels that manage in hundreds of pages to never oncetouch human reality? No, it was something more subtle than that. I justcan’t pull it right now.
Interviewers: You’re also outspokenly political, in conversation and lettersas well as in your work. And your experiences in Vietnam and South Africamakes politics a natural component in many of your novels. How can youincorporate your views into prose or poetry without overwhelming the workwith rhetoric and topical analyses?
Steward: Once I flew across the south coast of Vietnam but that’s theclosest I’ve come. I was a grunt in Korea right after the war there, asa U.S. Army draftee, and from that was fairly well able to imagine whatwas going on in Vietnam later on. I made it in South Africa for six monthsbefore I had to leave for Swaziland and anybody who’s ever been in SouthAfrica even six days would have to be very, very self-absorbed not to learnthat in some places politics are more important in the lives and more onthe minds of many people than, say, singles bars. So why aren’t politicsas valid to write about as singles bars?
What that runs into, especially in the Anglophone world, is the old tabooagainst writing fiction about ideas. There’s a complicated history to thatone that has to do with the literati getting burned by red scares, theHitler-Stalin Nonaggression Pact, and a fork in the road way back at thebeginning of the century when it was decided that art was art and everythingelse was something else.
Your question implies that I’m a didactic writer full of topical analyses.Of course there’s nothing deader than last year’s topical analyses, andso that’s often a fatuous thing to work in. Then some people’s profunditiesare other people’s topical analyses, and I don’t think we can tell forsure which is which until way down the line. There are endless examplesof topical analyses coming on through as literature in 19th century Russianwriting, and then the Cantos will be read forever for all their absurditiesof anti-semitism and funny money.
Interviewers: Have you tried writing for film? Or do you consider it acomparable art form?
Steward: No. And no again, I don’t consider a film a comparable art form.Once I was almost escorted directly to the eastern Polish border for sayingthat at a Soviet propaganda fest in the Crimea. Often it’s the people whowant to inculcate simplistic ideas fast and thoroughly into masses of otherpeople who believe that film is comparable. And that’s a revealing paradox:that ideas as such aren’t deemed by most to be worthy fodder for fictionand poetry while if any good movie manages to get across an idea everybodygurgles about how great it is.
Movies are fine. I love them, if they’re good. But they’re something else.Not even as comparable to literature as, say ballet is to opera. As wego toward laser disc video recording of camera images a lot of the realfilm people, who love to touch it in the cutting rooms, are in a tizzy.And according to two old pro movie people I know, laser disc video imagesfor movie house screens is right on top of us, and at four thousand linesto the inch! If you look for an analogy of that kind of change in literatureit’s probably about like moving from the handcopy and oral tradition toGutenberg.
Interviewers: You were surrounded by a large writing community duringyour recent stay in Charlottesville, Virginia. You’ve commented to us beforeyour surprise that the majority of the young poets and writers were notsending out their work, as though they expected to be discovered. Any comments?
Steward: Charlottesville gave me my first exposure to workshop writers.I still have some friends there and so won’t say more. Except that I hopeevery high school, college, community organization and shopping centerin America starts a creative writing program to give all those people (notmy friends, they’ll do OK on their own) a livelihood because that’s whatit looks to be that most workshop writers really want to do. And that’sfine I guess. When I was small everybody was playing canasta. Writing’sprobably better for people than playing canasta or watching the tube. Inmostly being chicken about submitting their work, at least I guess workshopwriters are being realistic about the market. That’s more than can be saidfor the rest of us. But a lot of these workshop people don’t even reallyknow about small press, they’re riveted on The New Yorker andbeyond. Amazing.
Interviewers: We’ve argued about regionalism in writing. Yet I think youhave a peculiarly West Coast drift in most of your work.
Steward: Right, I probably am against everybody else’s regionalism fromthe arrogance of my own. My West Coast drift is somewhat an assumed posebecause I haven’t lived there all that long. But the freedom and tolerancethat seems endemic to it stays with anybody who’s enjoyed it. And I liketo pull for it over the depressing myopia of New York because if there’sany hope of getting trade publishing decentralized in the US, the firstcounterpoint will be California. Washington could be the second. Go toit.
If small press, or whatever does it, can really bust the hold New Yorkhas on trade publishing, get ready for the Golden Age. We have the awarenessand depth of sensitivity in consciousness right now in American writingto do it. Whitman’s great American dream is here. The language is readyand is bubbling with it. We’re in a fucking renaissance but the whole thingis bottled up by a few sales managers in New York who worry about profitand loss. That’s the horror, it’s Henry Miller’s rattlesnake in the freezer,that we have all this in America, all this common profound experience andawareness, and this rolling, sonorous, great language of ours, but theonly writing most people find available to read is either journalism ornice little books people write about their own cats or their own littledicks or their own little glorianas. Or maybe one of the trumped-up bigbombshell novels that are always coming through that the system can’t waitto finish the package on and move off onto T-shirts, the movie screen,and then the CRT.
Interviewers: Did you study English or creative writing in school?
Steward: No, neither. I took normal liberal arts English courses thatput me off even reading poetry for ten years after. Maybe English departmentsare better now and then I was subjected to an especially costive one. Writingcourses now probably are much as they looked to be then, although now thatthey’re an industry onto themselves they’ve reached a critical mass andthe whole thing may result, as I suggested only mock-jokingly before, ina new literate way for many people to spend leisure time. Then I’m alwaystrying to see the best in anything.
Interviewers: You’ve spent most of the past decade in Europe. How areAmerican writers received over there? What writers have penetrated theforeign market and made it to the shelves? And what would you say the majordifferences are between the writing communities in this country and abroad?
Steward: In Europe all writers, American and otherwise, are accepted andrather respected just on the face of their being writers. Europeans read.In the US we have only maybe two million readers who are more than casualabout it, under one percent of the population. Have no idea what the truepercentage is in any European country but there’s no doubt that the Europeanto US ratio roughly approaches an inverse one to figures on handgun deathrates and everybody knows what those are. The United States in these mattersis quite an exotic place, quite different in its generally-held valuesfrom most countries, certainly from European countries and Japan.
Checking my own impressions about the last two thirds of your questionwith James Phillips, a poet from Seattle who’s lived for most of the lastten years in Paris and Tubingen, he enforces what I was going to answerabout Beat and anecdotal poetry from America finding the biggest responsein Europe. Europeans go for the open page exuberance they think is characteristicin American writing. What has come out of their own tradition of Frenchsymbolism to semiotics, the hermetic tradition if you will, doesn’t seemto much interest Europeans, as it appears now in American poetry that is.Wallace Stevens is barely translated or read in Europe while Charles Bukowski’sbeen vastly successful in Europe for years. Except for the biggest namesin America, who all come through to Europe in translation, the other Americanwriters who make it are a strange mixed bag, and not a very full bag. It’salmost as though language barriers are like high walls that people aretrying to chuck books over and that a few make it over but most do not,and that whatever books do get to the other side come across by luck. ButEuropeans still read vast numbers of American books. Go to the FrankfurtBook Fair sometime and you’ll see that one of the main things going onthere is Europeans buying rights to American books.
Relying again on Jim Phillips’ impressions, he’s absolutely tri-lingualand really lives within Europe while I am a foreign resident when there,the communities of writers are always much more formal in Europe. And thenthe old days of dozens of American “writers” hanging around thesunny places in Europe pretty much ended with the collapse of the dollarin the mid-seventies. Then to give a hint of how good European lit peoplesee some of the difference between communities, Carl Weissner in Mannheim,describing a German TV interview with Nelson Algren says, “what adifference from our Kraut pseudo-intellectual, crypto-bohemian accountanttypes boldly usurping the TV screen all the time.”
Interviewers: What are your plans?
Steward: To write as much as possible and publish as much of it as I can.To stay as clean of opportunism as I’m able. And to avoid talking aboutit whenever I can, except for times like this interview, that I enjoyeddoing with the two of you and thank you for.
Interviewed by Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody circa 1983