Steve Clorfeine's Blog

Interview with Steve Clorfeine by Diana Waldrop/Codhill Press
August 20, 2015, 2:46 am
Filed under: Interviews

Interview with Steve Clorfeine by Diana Waldrop/Codhill Press on the publication of ‘Together/Apart and other poems’

Diana: What went into the inspiration behind this book? Why does it exist?

Steve:  I’m always writing and even though there are spells when I’m not writing, I’m keeping a journal.  I tend to go through what I’ve written and revise, rewrite, and when I see a kind of pattern forming, then I think, well, maybe this could move towards a book. So this is the fourth poetry book – three of them with Codhill and the first one with a different press. I had the title ‘Together/Apart‘ for a long time. That’s how it works for me. In fact, I have the next two titles – I’ve had them for a few years. There was a time when I was really working pretty steadily on all three of these books, and this one got completed, or took its shape, about two years before it was actually published. And then there were delays in the publishing. It was because of the delays that I kept working on the pieces, and then, even up to about a month before the designer got the material, I was able to add pieces to it.

The middle section of the book is called “Postcards” and that’s been a collection of poems that has been around in rough and finished forms for maybe 15 years. A few  appear in Field Road Sky which was published in 2007. One or two appear in the 2010 book, While I Was Dancing, though they’re not in a form that you would recognize as postcards. But the postcard section in this collection is a conscious attempt to group them together.  About the postcard series – I use postcards as a writing exercise with high school students, and in private writing classes.

In the exercise I spread out a pile of postcards, and ask people to pick one and respond to it in any way they want:  investigate everything about the postcard – the picture that’s on it, the way it’s addressed, stamped and postmarked, the commercial description of what the picture is, and the contents. I suggest that – as a way in – one could imagine oneself as an investigative reporter or the nephew or mother of the person who wrote the postcard, or a journalist writing about an event that is the postcard, or just working off the imagery of the front material – the photograph.  I know most all the people who wrote the postcards I’m offering and the ‘responders’ don’t know them at all so it’s always interesting for me to see what they write. High school students do some amazing things with the exercise. They really go off on tangents that are less censored than other adults might do.

Diana: Is it mostly poetry that the students create?

Steve: Yes. I ask people to write in a prose-poetic form – to write in fragments or lists – try not to use small words to link thoughts together.  Don’t be logical.  Let yourself leap from thought to thought; from phrase to phrase. A through line may emerge or a beginning or ending.  Occasionally, the postcard itself tells you the beginning or end – there might be something about the salutation at end of the postcard, or the last line of the text.  Here’s a line that ends one of the postcard pieces in the book:  “‘I’ve thought of you many times over the years, wanting to be in touch.’” That’s exactly what someone wrote at the end of the postcard. And before that I’ve quoted this person directly from the postcard twice, so in a way, it’s like a beginning, middle and end. The first quoted line is: “‘I’d love to see or speak with you.”  Then towards the end, “‘Life has been a bit too full but with all lucky things,” and then the end is “‘I’ve thought of you many times over the years, wanting to be in touch.’”

Sometimes the body of the message gives me the shape and then in between I play around with the other elements of the postcard. For example, this same one has a really long section about the stamp: “Mary Cassatt (or the subject of her garden portrait) flanked by tall blooming bushes, the foreground and background of the painting set apart by the woman’s white dress, her body fitted to a round wicker chair, arms raised, both hands holding a magazine.”  And my comment – “All this on a stamp, six swirling cancellation marks that don’t obscure the stamp’s summer calm.” Then the interjection – “I’d love to see or speak with you,” and then I move to the photograph on the front and  from there I comment – “The profile of a thoughtful seated man, forearms resting on a sturdy wooden chair.”  So I know I’ve made a parallel to the woman sitting in the chair on the stamp and now the man on the front photograph also sitting in a chair.  The parallel interests me and I speculate – “Could he live in the house next to the garden where Mary or her subject sits in the postage stamp image on the reverse side? Having caught a glimpse of a figure in a white dress, might he imagine her snug in a wicker chair in the garden next to his?”

There’s so much to play with and move around with in the information that’s on a postcard. This is coming from a genre that you might call “Found Text.” It was promoted by a lot of writers, particularly poets, in my early experience teaching and studying at Naropa University. In the early years of the Summer Institute, we each taught one course, and then we could take anybody else’s courses.  I did a lot of studying with writers – Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, California poets Joanne Kyger, Diane di Prima – and went to dozens and dozens of readings.  That was a real source of influence for me in terms of my own poetics, and when I started teaching writing in schools, I started looking at people who taught writing in schools.  There’s a fine lineage of writers who developed ways to teach writing in schools – Ken Koch, Jack Collom among others.

Diana: Do you have certain techniques that you always teach or do you change with each class and depending on the students? Do you find one technique that works really well to help people to access that part behind the thinking mind?

Steve:   I like to work with free writing to live piano (my wife plays classical pieces and improvises) as a beginning in private workshops in my house.  I might offer a prompt – a specific word, phrase, or title.  I encourage listening, looking, direct observation of the environment; looking and listening into one’s mind-body of the moment.

Diana: Interesting, so you listen it and you write what you think it’s saying? Or…?

Steve: Not so much that—you just write. You don’t try to think about what it’s saying; you just follow the impulse that’s set up in you through listening. I usually ask people to listen for a minute before they start writing and just notice where they are and what they’re bringing to this situation. We work on slowing down and paying attention to details of how you’re feeling – what your state of mind is. Sometimes I base a writing exercise on asking people to look at what’s been the general state of their mind in the last 24 hours. Then I give a prompt – a phrase or title – and they’ve got this head start – having looked at their state of mind. It’s like opening a window and looking out/looking in. So you’ve got a landscape there as the ground.

Diana: Do you have an example of the types of phrases you would use? Do you just think of them on the spot?

Steve: No, I usually plan them. Sometimes I take them from someone else’s writing. If I read a paragraph or two from someone’s writing, I might use four words or the beginning of a phrase from that.  Sometimes I’ll create the phrase myself.

I teach in the Cooperstown high school every year.  Two years ago I noticed that I was really getting tired of what I was doing. I didn’t force myself to change anything, but I started listening to a 4-CD set of a hundred poets and writers from 1898 to 1990 reading their own work. It Includes the earliest (or only) recordings of Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein.  The recordings aren’t fully audible, but you get a sense.  The contemporary writers and poets are varied and really interesting and there were pieces that I honed in on and listened to three, four, five times in order to make a selection what I wanted to work with.  That was the development of another way of working. I asked the students to just listen and get the feeling of how the writers were working with spoken rhythm, with sound, imagery, with their own natural delivery

I speak about writing from influence. I pared the recordings down to three or four pieces, and played each piece twice – first for listening and after the second time I asked them to write in that cadence, under that influence—just write under that influence. Although these are advanced writing classes and it’s 8:25 in the morning in high school and they have whatever inhibitions they have—…I’m impressed by their willingness to go with it – the rhythms of early Le Roi Jones, for example – really turn them on.

I teach a workshop in my home in Kingston once a month and each time there are four to seven people. When I’m preparing for that, I go through all the materials I’ve collected, and I think about what’s drawing my attention. Then I’ll go back to shelves of poetry books—I’ll go through a few of them and choose some pieces that resonate at the moment, and I’ll start the class like that.  Often I’ll read an excerpt from one or two books that I’m currently reading to point out different elements of style or content.  So it’s a writing workshop but it’s also a conversation workshop. We share inspirations of other people’s works…

Going back to the book, the postcard poems form the middle section. The last section is called “Place.”  I’ve used the word place as a location for a series of poems a few times.  Field Road Sky was mostly lyrical, rural-oriented poems. Until five years ago I lived pretty deep in the countryside around here. A lot of my writing was drawn from being in a rural place and having a way of seeing and feeling the environment from day to day.  An event like an interaction with another person or an animal might be significant because it was the only thing that happened in a day.

Most of those poems began as journal notes that were later shaped and sometimes collaged. I might go through a journal and copy out 50 phrases or paragraphs from a period of six months to a year, cut them up and see how that might fit together into a section or a whole piece.  For example, a narrative developed around the path across the road from where I lived.  I walked there often, so there were seasonal impressions of that path which produced the structure for several poems – just that in itself.

In ‘Together/Apart’ – in the final section – “Place” – the places are all imagined. One is a dream.  A couple of them came from a moving and writing duet I do with a partner. Those are images evoked by moving with eyes closed, and combined with free writing, like this one from “The Quarry”:  “Over smooth rocks, over watery crevices on their bellies, the women slide like creatures who go silent when approached. When alone they splash wildly, propel themselves off the rock face into air and fly or fall downward, catch the waterfall climb back up triumphant and fly down again.”

Diana:  There are three sections of the book – you’ve spoken about the middle section – ‘Postcards’ and the last one, ‘Place.’  What’s  the first one?

Steve: The first one is called “Together/Apart.”  Much of that is about relationship. And then there are a couple of spring poems in there.  But the first seven are relationship poems. They investigate the dynamics between two people – some of it drawn from my own experience, my own relationships, and some of it I’m just playing, extrapolating. I’m certainly taking liberties.

Diana: How would you say these three parts connect? Or what is the thread underlying the poems?

Steve: I don’t know that there is a thread.   My questions are: “Who I am in my writing at this point; what do I want to put out there?”  Some pieces have been waiting on the sidelines – waiting to be fitted in.  I’m pleased with the collection ‘Together/Apart’.  I hear it as my voice now,  even though it’s not “now” anymore.  The newest poems just slipped in about six months ago; the others are anywhere from the past two to seven years. The last piece in the book is sourced from a guy who sublet my apartment many years ago and wrote me a note in broken English that was like a mirror of my life.  Later I transformed it into a performance piece where a character comes back from a two -month theater tour, re-enters his apartment and sees this note on the table. The performance begins with me reading this note.  Then it transformed again in the next iteration of that performance piece.  In the third iteration 15 years later, I brought it up to date by shifting it from the apartment note to a mixture of the apartment note and a note that someone who sublet my house in the countryside had written to me and in addition, the imagined note I would have written about staying in my house.  It’s a less demanding piece than most of the others.

Diana: What do you mean?

Steve:  Many of my poems make leaps and challenge the reader/listener to resist trying to figure it out logically but rather to catch the arc and just ride it, tune in to the felling of it, to the way I’m speaking it or the way my voice has written it down. My writing is coming more from my voice than from a literary perspective. I’m speaking the words that I’m writing. Many of the poems work as spoken pieces.  They have a spoken sense in a way that someone reading them might not have the patience or inclination to make sense of them.  On the other hand, someone who’s interested could read it at different times and get something that they wouldn’t have gotten in hearing it read aloud one time only. I guess it goes both ways.

Diana: As far as the form of each poem, is it just kind of random or did you use a specific form in writing these poems?

Steve: The relationship poems are all “he” and “she.” That was a choice I made.. Once in a while, an “I” will slip in, like in this one – “I draw a picture with a story—it’s you and somehow more.”  But generally it’s he and she or you. Some of the poems in ‘Together/Apart’ have numbered stanzas. The longest is five stanzas.  That’s a way of letting the reader know I’m moving from one thought to another, when I’m jumping from one time frame to another. There’s a long poem called “Begin Again, Spring,” and it’s based on notes that I made when I sublet an apartment about five years ago on the upper west side and I stayed there a week at a time.  It was Spring and I would take a walk every day in Riverside Park or Central Park—so this poem is a collection of notes from those walks and I mixed them together as if it was one park – one day.

Often, repetition is part of the structure – like referring to a dream and referring to the moon, in the poem “Here’s What Happens.”  Sometimes it’s a dream shaped into a story—like the piece “S. Klein on the Square.” It’s a story. It moves that way. There’s a flashback in it, but basically it moves right along—in what you could imagine to be 5 or 10 minutes of time passing.

Diana: How do you know when a poem is finished or ready? Or do you ever know?

Steve: Maybe I’m a little lazy about that because I tend to know that it’s finished when the last line works. And there may be more work on it, above the last line, going all the way to the beginning, but sometimes that’s the way I know.  I might be looking for the ending and it may come from the body of the piece itself – as if it was heading that way from the beginning. In one of the postcard poems, I’m in residence in a theater school in Amsterdam and I’m writing to a friend.  I’m using her actual postcard and my imagined response to her – I’m using both of them.  At the end I write, “Imagine us meeting in the Gemeente Museum wearing clogs speaking like Nederlanders.”  I’m mixing two worlds in different time frames. The postcards seem to find their own endings.  In a short story – that’s where I often struggle with an ending.

Diana: Do you write more poetry rather than short stories?

Steve:  I write more poetry or I publish more poetry. I’ve only published one nonfiction book though two projects that have been going on for some years—one is a kind of memoir piece – a collection of stories from the time I was 8 or 9 until the present.  Most of them are childhood stories. And the other book I’m working on is nonfiction – based on my journals and travels in India for the last 20 years.

Diana: is that like the Nepal book?

Steve: The Nepal book was published in 2000 and was based on three long trips to Nepal. This one begins in ’95 and goes until I stop traveling to India and get this book out. It’s a hard one because India is changing so fast. The earlier notes I kept are so different in tenor from current ones.

Diana: As far as reading poetry, what advice would you give, or maybe take for yourself, about how to read poetry? I don’t think there’s one answer to that – does that make sense?

Steve: You mean if you pick up a poetry book, how to read it?

Diana: Yes, because you can read poetry and you’re not really feeling it because you’re trying to intellectualize it. So basically, how do you stop intellectualizing it and actually get into it without getting stuck on the mental level?

Steve: That’s an interesting question. Two things come to mind: one is based on the choice of poetry you want to read at any given moment.  Where does that come from? I’ve got three shelves of poetry books. If I’m looking for inspiration for a writing workshop or to read aloud to someone, I often browse through familiar collections to see what I’m drawn to.  Once in a while there is a book that belongs to my wife that I’ve never opened up.  So I take it down and flip through it until something catches my eye. It could be a phrase or a reference to something that interests me, and so I’ll go back to the beginning of that poem, and I’ll read it through.  Then I look at the poems before and after that one…and that process in itself slows me down.  Because I was just looking, I already had an appreciation for a sort of random inquisitiveness. I wasn’t expecting anything.  Other times I’ll take a familiar collection and I’ll search out poems in it that I haven’t looked at before.

The second thing I was thinking about in relation to your question is that I sound poems out in my head – I’m actually reading them aloud and listening to that voice in my head. That could be helpful to people who tend to intellectualize – read it aloud or just speak it out in your head so that you’re not dwelling on the words but you’re letting the words come into you. Feel what that stirs up in you. You can always intellectualize later, but it’s probably not the best way to begin.