Issue 22/23
cover photo of Louise Brooks
publication date 12/17/1983

Against Myopia: The Dedication of D. E. Steward

An Interview

D.E. Steward was born in central New Jersey in 1936. He’s spent the last
several years in Basel, Switzerland, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Tubingen,
West Germany, and is now living in Princeton, N.J. Dave has written a slew
of unpublished novels. He has one published collection of stories, Four
(Oasis Books, 1978), though his graphics, poetry, stories,
novel excerpts, and reviews have been published in an enormous number of
magazines since 1965, including The New African, Chicago Review,
Transatlantic Review, Kansas Quarterly, Bachy, Beyond Baroque, Center,
River Styx, Vagabond, Scree, Periodics, Webster Review, North American
Review, The Phoenix, Cimarron Review, South Dakota
Review, Eureka, Gargoyle, Telephone, Interstate, The Mill, Panache, Minnesota
Review, Intermedia, The Charlottesville Observer, Mississippi Review, Telegram,
Oasis, Porch, Transition (Kampala), Puerto del Sol, San Francisco Review
of 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 throws
you in with the experimentalists and I guess would guarantee that the NY publishing
world would ignore your work. Does this bother you? Do you consider yourself
an experimental writer?

Steward: Sure, it bothers me that NY publishers might be ignoring my work
categorically, that is in both senses of the word and the double meaning’s
intended. Reputation is more important in trade publishing than most intangibles
and what I’m saying right now probably won’t help mine. It’s what they
go on. But I’m not sure that a rep of being “cerebral, etc.” even
matters. 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 found
agents to be more literary than editors. Their philistinism being less
guarded, sometimes agents let themselves actually be moved by good writing.
Trade editors really have to be careful in order to keep their jobs, that’s
the problem. It’s the nature of their business.

Before putting my foot in it any further, let me refer you to the most
extreme 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 apple
country wants mangos until they’re on the shelves. And then too there are
dozens of other perfectly delicious tropical fruits we don’t get yet. There
are dozens, maybe hundreds, of remarkable writers who have books ready
to be published and distributed that people would be just as ready to read
as those that are available. But trade publishing panders to the base and
saturates the limited market with stuff that’s aimed low and common. If
even a few trade houses started putting more mangos on their lists, the
chain bookstores would sell the good books at the same rate they sell all
those bad books right now. It works that way in European countries and
Japan. 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 of
New York? Mostly crotch scratchers, ho-hum safe little novels, and flashers
from whatever milieu is most fashionable at the moment. And most readers
who don’t go beyond a Walden’s think those are the best that are being

Trade publishing people claim their business is the victim of American
bad taste, that’s absurd, many, many trade books are active debasers of
American taste. Both by the almost Gresham’s law manner in which they occupy
the existing market so that better books don’t find publishers, and by
their own frequent lack of any literary interest at all.

This situation is often the most pivotal problem any serious American
writer has to face. There are so many facets of it, and so many ways to
perceive it. And it’s so terrible for the good writer who keeps losing
to it. That old justifier of trade publishing that goes, “All good
writing eventually gets published” is cruel beyond description to
writers like Carol Berge and any of the rest of us who don’t have five
more decades to invest in chipping away at trade publishing indifference.

And the ironies that blow across the trade publishing morass are deep
and bitter. Significant American books may only get into print somewhere
else, 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’s
last work is characteristic, and these days all that’s much worse. And
of course quite a few fine foreign books written in English never become
available 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 “first
novel.” There he was in Santa Monica sitting happily on his first
and only two thousand dollar advance claiming to me again and again like
rote 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 writer
in Spain like that too, who never published a thing except the journalistic
crap he did to stay alive and who died in his little finca in the sierra
falling into his typewriter, literally. No, the compound ironies of the
righteous writer versus NY publishing are boundless, quite perplexing,
and profoundly sad. But I don’t think they always have been and that’s
what makes it all even sadder.

No, I don’t consider myself an experimental writer. I don’t have many
stylistic matrices, I mean I try most things in the manner it looks as
though they can best be done. Sometimes that results in unusual forms,
and so my mild reputation of being experimental I guess. Probably the self-consciousness
that setting out to be experimental requires, comes from other concepts
of 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 words
themselves are the most important thing for me. I guess I’m sometimes deemed
experimental because I often disregard the old conventions of how things
get organized from words on up.

The words are everything and the form beyond them is inevitable. Like
Godard says, it’s always there, a beginning, middle and an end, only not
absolutely in that order. In America we’re so thoroughly inculcated with
the conventional tale form that it seems to be very hard for even the most
inventive and imaginative readers to back away from it easily. So what
do we have? A lot of good writers still writing Saturday Evening
stories, the form they were brought up on. And American readers
accepting it because there it is in print. It’s like that person telling
Werner von Braun that instead of all the space stuff he was doing, he and
everybody else “should all be home watching television like God intended.” It’s
ignorant, cramped and a prime example of how reluctant even bright people
can be to live within their own times. The tired old conventional narrative
form with all its false directions between lines of dialogue, that found
its apogee in the last century, is buggy whipping it. To be satisfied with
conventionality in fiction is like sitting listening to a crystal set when
the whole modern world is exploding through quad speakers just outside.
Sure, people like it quiet, but like genre painting the old and quiet ways
will always be there for those who need it.

Interviewers: You’ve been on the fringe of the NY publishing world for
years. You almost landed a novel in 1970, and are, or have been, close
to many well-established writers. Your work has been published in many “name” magazines,
a fact which usually facilitates subsequent book publication, yet this
hasn’t been your experience. What do you think has created the dichotomy
between this acceptance by periodicals on the one hand, and the blanket
rejection by book publishers on the other?

Steward: For the record, in 1968 after a long talk and a promise, David
Segal, RIP, turned full around and balked on one novel while he was at
Harper & Row. In 1970, the editor in chief of the only major house
in New York still owned by one person scurried miserably out of a verbal
contract he’d given me on another novel after I’d even done rewriting on
it on his demand. About the same time, an agent I had in London, who later
became an editor at Knopf, told me positively that a good London house
had 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 Frankfurt
Book 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 were
others handled by various agents I’ve had.

So, no, I have no clear idea about why there’s such a dichotomy in my
case between magazine acceptances and getting books out. Only one obvious
observation on that: most places I publish have editors who care first
about writing and only very secondarily about making money on what they
do. It’s a truism in 1982 to say that small press is where the best writing
comes out. While I’m on that, deep bows to the few dozen serious small
press editors-publishers. Good small press people have vastly more lit
savvy than the corporate publishing people. Publishing’s an oblong world,
from the fervid dedication of a John Bennett to the naked commercialism
of the most venal of the major trade houses.

Interviewers: How many unpublished novels are you sitting on?. I know
of something like three Vietnam novels and a South African novel, plus Contact
Inhibition, Hormuz
, and Bjornoy Radio. Could you
run them down briefly and tell us a little something of what each is about?

Steward: Eleven. A couple of those have been rewritten completely years
after they were originally finished. In the order I first wrote them, and
thanks for asking:

There Is a Dream Dreaming Us was an inventive title when
I 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 main
characters, two Americans, meet in the 1951 retreat from Seoul. It’s got
bandits and Siberia and everything in it.

We Are Two Things is internal, exhaustive, but not all that
bad as a second novel. Parts of it are lyric and in it I think I first
began to write all out.

All of Us Were Born Here is a strong and unusual novel about
a sabotage organization that was broken up in the Republic of South Africa
in 1964.

No One Has Seen Us is about crossing America East to West,
California in the sixties, fighting fire for the Forest Service and getting
out to Mexico. It’s eerie and wonderful.

Burn Us in the Night is one of what you just called my Vietnam
novels. It’s a projection beyond the ways in which that war was brought
home. By the way, those Vietnam novels aren’t about Vietnam, they’re about
what 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 try
to get at what it is about Germany.

The World is an ironic title used in the same way the phrase
was used by Americans in SE Asia. The novel screams about what that kind
of insular awareness does to people.

Bjornoy Radio is about one person, an Oblomov, in a beach
apartment in Santa Monica. He doesn’t leave it because he can’t do anything
about the war going on outside. A lot of people come to see him. Appreciated
that you published a bit of it in Gargoyle 14.

Contact Inhibition is about three fated people in no time
in no place. It’s a complicated and successful novel. A representative
excerpt called “Sequence” came out in the last Bachy, that’s
no. 18, And like most of my other novels, quite a bit of it has been published
in magazines.

Hormuz, at 80,000 words, is slightly longer than most novels
I’ve done so far. It’s about one white and one black American who live
in California. I did a part of it at a Gargoyle reading at the old Writer’s
Center in Glen Echo so you both know how it goes. It’s mostly dialogue
rooted in the two characters. They review their lives, how they got that
way and their futures. And the future arrives in the book.

Mac is just finished. It’s about a great white hunter and
his wife who have to leave Tanzania, and about a Spanish-speaking woman
from New Mexico.

The only other book I’ve done was in 1978 when I self-published in only
a couple dozen copies a travel book about Japan and Korea called Through
the Solstice
. Then I’ve put together collections of short fiction
for contests and recently I put together my first book of poetry. I’ve
only been writing poetry seriously for a few years. The book’s called Torque.

Interviewers: But you’re not bitter? You don’t envision yourself winding
up like the lunatic you mentioned to me once who wrote obsessively for
years and filled an entire room with text?

Steward: Of course I’m bitter, but try not to be so in a way that inhibits
my work. Probably the worst part about not getting books you’ve done out
is having to hustle for money all the time. But at least in our time money’s
fairly easy to generate in other ways. And then I’ve been very lucky to
get good jobs when I have to. The kind that pay well and don’t cramp but
that 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 realize
you’re sweeping a fire tower and not resent that it’s keeping you from

For me the Forest Service and a good conventional education have always
produced when need be. Details aren’t important, it’s only that you have
to want to badly enough in order to keep writing. The standard definition
of a journalist as a writer who didn’t try hard enough is generally a very
accurate one. Although last year one of the hottest New York agents was
telling me that most novels that get published in New York these days come
from journalists, people who’ve been around Time-Life or whatever long
enough to figure out  exactly what will go. So even the old values,
as John Bennett calls them, get crunched by trade publishing laying its

In the metropolitan countries at least, these are still fat times and
I don’t think I’ll end up filling a room in an asylum with unpublished
work. At DOCUMENTA 6 in Kassel they had a room like that piled to the ceiling
with the illustrated manuscripts of a poor soul who’d been convicted of
child molestation in Switzerland early this century. It was moving to stand
at DOCUMENTA with those manuscripts shoulder high around you. Bittersweet
ending to that one though, not long ago the illustrations he did for his
life-book took off in European art markets and he was the fashionable European
painter of the year recently. Of course all long after he was gone.

Then there’s a new perspective on nonpublication. From here on out accomplished
writers whose books don’t get published may well end up on library microfilm
or fiche or on digital discs. And this technology might be the most enduring
kind 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 early
novel of mine like We Are Two Things in a net of computers
than to have written and published it in an earlier era so that it would
be sitting, in all probability dead, in a few libraries getting eaten by
silverfish and having its sulfur paper about to disintegrate.

Interviewers: I get the sense that the majority of your prose work is
to a large degree autobiographical. Is this true?

Steward: Not to a large degree, no. For example, that story of mine you
published in Gargoyle 20/21 is set in the early 1300s. You’re right though
in 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 from
one and bits from another person I’ve known to create characters. And I
guess 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 work
toward it? What’s your process? How do you get yourself started?

Steward: Usually start anything except a poem with a quasi-outline, a
lot of ideas, quite a few notes. I usually don’t see the ending until I’m
over half finished with a novel. Every day I know pretty much what I want
to do and doing that leads me to the next day’s start. I work from cogent
and brief notes and go to them a lot. Rarely any problem in getting any
piece of writing, least of all a book, started. There’s so much I have
that I want to do!

Generally I write first draft prose on keyboards but early drafts of poetry
on pads. Keyboards don’t inhibit me, I was brought up on them, bought a
typewriter 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 poetry
first 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 do
a book on that one, want to sometime. Imagine the wealth of literature
that we can command! What lies in libraries waiting for us. The literature
of dozens of cultures and many eras. Your DC Anthology, Rick, is testimony
to this depth and it’s only gone to a single filament of what there is
in any major library. We can go from Lady Murasaki to The New Oxford Book
of 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 writers
this year, Latin American next, that sort of thing. And then too I read
a 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 because
biology is the most remarkable endeavor of our age and some of the other
hard 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 narrative
weight. Why? What are you doing?

Steward: Toward the end of Hormuz I describe the book’s
two characters totally, from quality of toenails to quality of scalp, taking
many pages for each person. OK, of course that was a retort to people who
say 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 that
since all of us have only 640,000 hours to live and since many of those
are gone in my case, I’m surely not going to blow time on trying to match
anybody’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 excitement
of art is its intelligence, and intelligent art only has to imply in order
to convey. Another is the nature of our existence now. Not that people
are all the same now, but their lives and attitudes are remarkably standardized
and 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 thing
that’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 an
encyclopedic knowledge of how things work and where things come from. Are
you just naturally inquisitive? Who are your models for the compulsive
listing, cataloging?

Steward: Sure, I’m naturally inquisitive and can’t imagine how anybody
cannot be. Ignore equals ignorant.

Now I’ll dispute you, I don’t often catalogue or list. Whenever I do maybe
I’m picking up old influences of Thomas Wolfe and Henry Miller. What I
do often do is go on about a landscape and what lives on it more exhaustively
than 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 anything
not human is inconsequential. Everything in our view must remain in our
ken or we can right now relegate our future to totalitarian political forms
and the viciousness of bare concrete. And our arrogant elevation of ourselves
above and apart from our environment is not in the least new. In the West
even our main religions are founded on it and in large part it’s the article
of faith that’s allowed the vast barbarities that have characterized so
much 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 about
the truth, truth simply is. My truth, your truth, sure, but there are absolute
truths. OK, so one problem is that in the Anglophone world, literature
usually doesn’t become valuable for its ideas until an era or two after
it’s written. We’ve codified that into a principle that now reads: don’t
write about ideas.

But to your point, I hope it is an artificial distinction. Truly have
no idea whether or not it is because I revere imagination over anything
else I’m able to muster as I write. I don’t understand how the wonder of
pure imagination works, am awed by it, am fascinated with launching imaginative
passages as I write, and feel I have more than a modicum of it–maybe even
the mini-synopses of the novels I’ve written that I gave you earlier shows
that. One thing could be that one person’s imagination may be another’s
irrelevancy or obviosity. Maybe I have a banal imagination. Hope not.

Interviewers: Hard science plays a large role in your writing. You claimed
once that Godel, Escher, Bach with its stress on “artificial
intelligence, recursive reasoning, and paradox” would change the times
the way George Steiner’s After Babel had before it. Has anything
really changed?

Steward: No, and yes, and then yes it will change. But not as a result
of the book. Great books out of the liberal tradition don’t actively get
reified. Abstracts become actual fast only when you’ve got Pol Pots around.
People who don’t realize that computers are offering us new freedoms and
patterns of thought are as touchingly absurd as the anti-plastic people
were a generation ago. Computers, AI, all the rest of what’s growing from
these staggering modern technologies, won’t do us in, they’re precarious
goat 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 Steiner
as real? That he doesn’t care what they think helps his ideas no end. Look
how his A.H. book is shaking the accepted wisdom right now.

Interviewers: I seem to perceive two rapidly dividing camps over the new
technologies and their application to the writing/composing process. You’ve
done a lot of writing on computers. Is it the way to go?

Steward: Imagine the “I” in this question is Rick. And being
a publisher, Rick, you must know a lot more than I do about how computer
applications are working out in that realm. From my point of view as an
individual 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’s
here. We can’t go out and bury all the computers and get back to letter
press just because letter press still looks nicer. What will probably happen,
if traditional typography is essential to enough people, is that soon there’ll
be computer composers that will imitate exactly the old letter press look
and its textures. That will be done as easily as watches with LCD graphiced
analogue 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 can
make it took like a watch. All this sort of thing is a lot like putting
potmetal federal eagles over the doors of mobile homes, but if people want
to 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 this
seems unpopular. What does the cycle enable you to do? Create a larger
picture? 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 cycle
I did, published it, and that induced me to do another. Lee published that
one in Bachy too. I look forward to doing more. Cycles, in
my slight experience with them, enable kinetic intensity and rapid capture
of cascading experience. Altogether now I’ve lived in thirteen countries
for more than a couple of months each and wish I had done poetry cycles
out of every one of them. But all things come in their own good time and
I didn’t even venture to write any poetry at all until after nine or ten
novels. As it is one of the two cycles I’ve done is mostly about England
and 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 single
poem can generally manage. Akin to fiction? No, I don’t think so.

I used to read Kazantzakis’ Odyssey Sequel in Kimon Friar’s
translation, probably the most significant modem cycle of all, uncomprehending
of the depth of its wonder. Now I understand better. One thing poetry cycles
can do for anybody who tries to write them is get them off the petty and

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 some
automatic relegation. Give you an example. Not long ago I took a note I’d
made months before that read something like “Write a story about guaruras.” Guarura
is current New World Spanish slang for a bodyguard or any other sort of
hired gun. Anyway, note in hand, I thought to myself, yes, that’s interesting,
and wrote a poem called “Guaruras.” How it got from story to
poem over a period of months I don’t know. More probable than any other
explanation is that there was something the day I wrote it that would have
made 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 would
be little distinction between forms.

Interviewers: You’ve stated that “all poetry has to adhere to a human
scale.” Could you elaborate on this?

Steward: Gretchen, I think we were once trying to define poetry and I
had this “adhere to a human scale” idea but now can’t recover
my line of reasoning, whatever it was. Let’s see, might I have meant that
poetry, by nature of its laser economy, cannot avoid humanity, while there
are frequent trade novels that manage in hundreds of pages to never once
touch human reality? No, it was something more subtle than that. I just
can’t pull it right now.

Interviewers: You’re also outspokenly political, in conversation and letters
as well as in your work. And your experiences in Vietnam and South Africa
makes politics a natural component in many of your novels. How can you
incorporate your views into prose or poetry without overwhelming the work
with rhetoric and topical analyses?

Steward: Once I flew across the south coast of Vietnam but that’s the
closest I’ve come. I was a grunt in Korea right after the war there, as
a U.S. Army draftee, and from that was fairly well able to imagine what
was going on in Vietnam later on. I made it in South Africa for six months
before I had to leave for Swaziland and anybody who’s ever been in South
Africa even six days would have to be very, very self-absorbed not to learn
that in some places politics are more important in the lives and more on
the minds of many people than, say, singles bars. So why aren’t politics
as valid to write about as singles bars?

What that runs into, especially in the Anglophone world, is the old taboo
against writing fiction about ideas. There’s a complicated history to that
one that has to do with the literati getting burned by red scares, the
Hitler-Stalin Nonaggression Pact, and a fork in the road way back at the
beginning of the century when it was decided that art was art and everything
else 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, and
so that’s often a fatuous thing to work in. Then some people’s profundities
are other people’s topical analyses, and I don’t think we can tell for
sure which is which until way down the line. There are endless examples
of topical analyses coming on through as literature in 19th century Russian
writing, and then the Cantos will be read forever for all their absurdities
of anti-semitism and funny money.

Interviewers: Have you tried writing for film? Or do you consider it a
comparable 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 saying
that at a Soviet propaganda fest in the Crimea. Often it’s the people who
want to inculcate simplistic ideas fast and thoroughly into masses of other
people 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 fiction
and poetry while if any good movie manages to get across an idea everybody
gurgles 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 we
go toward laser disc video recording of camera images a lot of the real
film 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 images
for movie house screens is right on top of us, and at four thousand lines
to the inch! If you look for an analogy of that kind of change in literature
it’s probably about like moving from the handcopy and oral tradition to

Interviewers: You were surrounded by a large writing community during
your recent stay in Charlottesville, Virginia. You’ve commented to us before
your surprise that the majority of the young poets and writers were not
sending 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 hope
every high school, college, community organization and shopping center
in America starts a creative writing program to give all those people (not
my friends, they’ll do OK on their own) a livelihood because that’s what
it looks to be that most workshop writers really want to do. And that’s
fine I guess. When I was small everybody was playing canasta. Writing’s
probably better for people than playing canasta or watching the tube. In
mostly being chicken about submitting their work, at least I guess workshop
writers are being realistic about the market. That’s more than can be said
for the rest of us. But a lot of these workshop people don’t even really
know about small press, they’re riveted on The New Yorker and
beyond. Amazing.

Interviewers: We’ve argued about regionalism in writing. Yet I think you
have a peculiarly West Coast drift in most of your work.

Steward: Right, I probably am against everybody else’s regionalism from
the arrogance of my own. My West Coast drift is somewhat an assumed pose
because I haven’t lived there all that long. But the freedom and tolerance
that seems endemic to it stays with anybody who’s enjoyed it. And I like
to pull for it over the depressing myopia of New York because if there’s
any hope of getting trade publishing decentralized in the US, the first
counterpoint will be California. Washington could be the second. Go to

If small press, or whatever does it, can really bust the hold New York
has on trade publishing, get ready for the Golden Age. We have the awareness
and depth of sensitivity in consciousness right now in American writing
to do it. Whitman’s great American dream is here. The language is ready
and is bubbling with it. We’re in a fucking renaissance but the whole thing
is bottled up by a few sales managers in New York who worry about profit
and 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 and
awareness, and this rolling, sonorous, great language of ours, but the
only writing most people find available to read is either journalism or
nice little books people write about their own cats or their own little
dicks or their own little glorianas. Or maybe one of the trumped-up big
bombshell novels that are always coming through that the system can’t wait
to 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 that
put me off even reading poetry for ten years after. Maybe English departments
are better now and then I was subjected to an especially costive one. Writing
courses now probably are much as they looked to be then, although now that
they’re an industry onto themselves they’ve reached a critical mass and
the whole thing may result, as I suggested only mock-jokingly before, in
a new literate way for many people to spend leisure time. Then I’m always
trying to see the best in anything.

Interviewers: You’ve spent most of the past decade in Europe. How are
American writers received over there? What writers have penetrated the
foreign market and made it to the shelves? And what would you say the major
differences are between the writing communities in this country and abroad?

Steward: In Europe all writers, American and otherwise, are accepted and
rather 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 casual
about it, under one percent of the population. Have no idea what the true
percentage is in any European country but there’s no doubt that the European
to US ratio roughly approaches an inverse one to figures on handgun death
rates and everybody knows what those are. The United States in these matters
is quite an exotic place, quite different in its generally-held values
from most countries, certainly from European countries and Japan.

Checking my own impressions about the last two thirds of your question
with James Phillips, a poet from Seattle who’s lived for most of the last
ten years in Paris and Tubingen, he enforces what I was going to answer
about Beat and anecdotal poetry from America finding the biggest response
in Europe. Europeans go for the open page exuberance they think is characteristic
in American writing. What has come out of their own tradition of French
symbolism to semiotics, the hermetic tradition if you will, doesn’t seem
to much interest Europeans, as it appears now in American poetry that is.
Wallace Stevens is barely translated or read in Europe while Charles Bukowski’s
been vastly successful in Europe for years. Except for the biggest names
in America, who all come through to Europe in translation, the other American
writers who make it are a strange mixed bag, and not a very full bag. It’s
almost as though language barriers are like high walls that people are
trying 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. But
Europeans still read vast numbers of American books. Go to the Frankfurt
Book Fair sometime and you’ll see that one of the main things going on
there is Europeans buying rights to American books.

Relying again on Jim Phillips’ impressions, he’s absolutely tri-lingual
and really lives within Europe while I am a foreign resident when there,
the communities of writers are always much more formal in Europe. And then
the old days of dozens of American “writers” hanging around the
sunny places in Europe pretty much ended with the collapse of the dollar
in the mid-seventies. Then to give a hint of how good European lit people
see some of the difference between communities, Carl Weissner in Mannheim,
describing a German TV interview with Nelson Algren says, “what a
difference from our Kraut pseudo-intellectual, crypto-bohemian accountant
types 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 about
it whenever I can, except for times like this interview, that I enjoyed
doing with the two of you and thank you for.

Interviewed by Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody circa 1983