Richard Stevenson has read to enthusiastic audiences across the country and in the western U.S., and is the author of 22 full-length books and 7 chapbooks, including, most recently, Hot Flashes: Maiduguri Haiku, Senryu, and Tanka, Parrot With Tourette’s, A Charm of Finches, and Wiser Pills . Richard also occasionally performs with the young adult rock/poetry group Sasquatch (He also used to do a Miles Davis tribute show with jazz/rock/poetry troupe Naked Ear, with whom he recorded a CD (currently unavailable).) He regularly reviews poetry and fiction, and periodically runs adult and young adult workshops. He holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from The University of Victoria and University of British Columbia and teaches Canadian Literature, Creative Writing, Children’s Literature, and Business Communication at Lethbridge College in southern Alberta.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I suppose it would have to be in my tenth grade English class. I had an excellent teacher, Mrs. Salmon, who knew that the best chance she had of interesting her students in the World War I poets Wilfred Owen, Sigfried Sasoon, et al, who were studied as part of the poetry unit of the English curriculumat the time, would be to start with Vietnam era verse and work backwards. ( I grew up in Victoria, BC, and a lot of draft dodgers from Seattle, WA and thereabouts were turning up in hippie coffee houses and whatnot; and so-called protest music (the new rock and folk rock of Richie Havens, Bob Dylan, Donovan, Eric Burden and the Animals, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, etc.) was omnipresent on the airwaves—especially, the new long play, album-oriented rock format on the local FM stations, which I listened to religiously. I got to do a paper or presentation or something on Country Joe’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” Can still remember all the lyrics. Anyway my locker partner was a folkie and played acoustic guitar; it wasn’t long before I was writing lyrics along with the bad unrequited love doggerel and comic strips I was doing for the school paper.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
From all sorts of sources really—depends what side of the street I’m working at any one time. When I was living in Maiduguri, Nigeria, inspiration came from the events happening all around me, the daily culture conflicts and gaffs, news media, expat gossip, African poets—Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Syl Cheney Coker, Tchicaya U’ Tamsi, Dennis Brutus, Oswald Mtshali., etc. The country was in the middle of an experiment in U.S. style democracy, having given up the British parliamentary system, and corruption was rampant, eventually leading to two military coups, the first of which occurred just after I left (good timing there!). When I was writing the Miles Davis poems that got collected in Live Evil, Tempus Fugit, and Bye Bye Blackbird, inspiration came from Brilliant Corners, the jazz poetry magazine, from three great jazz poetry anthologies published in the States, from the Harlem Renaissance poets and more recent Black American poets, and from jazz literature, magazines, and biographies of all sorts; When I was writing my kidlit crypto critter poems, I was reading a lot of sightings reports in magazines like Fortean Times and children’s non-fiction, adult scientific crypto biology tomes and whatnot; when I was doing the Clifford Olson murder poems, inspiration came from the non-fiction accounts written on the case, various criminology and aberrent psych text books, blogs, magazine and web articles, as well as from poets who have written convincingly on aberrent psychology: Peter Stevesn, Lynn Crosbie, Tom Gunn, Ai, Heather Spears, among others. Lately, my inspiration for writing haiku, senryu, tanka, zappai, haiga, and haibun, has come from various translations of the old masters&mdashBasho, Buson, Issa (especially Robert Hass’s translations), Shiki, etc.; from Cor Van Den Heuvel’s various editions of his The Haiku Anthology; from George Swede and Randy Brook’ s Global Haiku anthology; and the example of hundreds of haijin on the web, including the Canadian haijin George Swede, Winona Baker, Marianne Bluger, Eric Amann, Terry Ann Carter, Marco Fraticelli, DeVar Dahl; the various Red Moon anthologies; and literally hundreds of the usual suspects around the globe through internet mags and listservs. I get a lot of ideas for my children’s verse from the op ed pages, even silly sources like the National Inquirer. Basically, I go on these runs, some lasting years and popping up in my work intermittently, some of briefer duration. I do lots of research; keep a haikoodling pad on my person; ransack used bookstores—manifest all the usual nosey poet habits, I suspect.
What is your writing process?
Because I have a very demanding teaching job—six classes,18 classroom hours contact per week, with as many as four courses and multiple sections, plus office hours, committee work (off and on)—I tend to revise and market in the winter and begin new writing projects in the summer months. I used to just write poems, then look for emerging themes to chain lyric/narrative sequences together; then after my third or fourth book, I started dreaming up whole books, conceiving of things in larger blocks, writing and form-fitting the blocks, individual poems into long poem sequences. For some peculiar reason I have yet to figure out, I’ll go on these three-book series runs: three YA verse collections, three Nigerian poems collections; three jazz books. I tend to publish a book a year, so I usually get a rough together in three, four, five months; tinker when I get time and send things out—mostly to electronic magazines (because it’s easier than the old SASE snail mail thing, and time is of the essence, both in terms of composition and keeping returns out there in poet puffery land in the winter. Inspiration might start with an image, a line, a rhythm off a jazz record even! Sometimes, I set myself limitations by using formal prosody—syllabic, accentual, accentual-syllabic verse in obsessive forms—sonnets, rhupunts, villanelles, sestinas, ballades, etc; or work in various free verse nonce forms. I like to set myself challenges, so I end up writing lots of five-finger exercises that get scrapped enroute to better things.
What is your revision/editing process?
This varies, also depending on the project. With haiku and senryu, for example, I write thousands of the little beggars—sometimes just fragments, faux haiku, failed attempts—and then winnow the online files down to the best 210 or so for a full-length book. I’ll have hundreds of things I thought were good enough to e-mail to various online zines or anthologies: I’ll take my cue from the ones that got published, so at least there is the benefit of all those extra readers to determine worth; then I go on to backfill with things I think are decent, published or not. Most of the chaff ends up on the cutting room floor. With my free verse lyric or narrative poems, my dramatic monologues, I tend to write the book, parcel it out to lit journals and online zines, various anthologies looking for poems of a particular stripe or theme; edit as I go; then I edit the whole collection stem to stern, first doing a substantive edit, then doing a line edit. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a good editor and this process will continue after a book has been accepted—gutting this poem, re-writing that one, changing the order, cutting lines and stanzas, re-thinking and re-tooling entire poems; even writing new ones that “fit” the book. I generally overwrite everything—individual poems and writing long books, then cutting them way back… This might have something to do with my earlier comment about my writing in threes: first book wrestles with form and content; second book perfects it; third recycles leftovers. I’m kidding, sort of, but I’m not one of those anal poets that squeezes everything down to the quintessece of dust; I like to let readers decide what they like and just try to do the best job I can with any one poem. Irving Layton said something important to me years ago at Banff: “If you’re one of those poets who waits for inspiration to strike before lifting your pen or pencil, you’ll be standing around a long time in the rain before you get hit. You might as well keep busy!” I believe that. Books and anthologies are one form of winnowing wheat from chaff; time is another. I try to park my ego on the shelf on the way in the door. Some might say this makes me less ambitious; I like to think it makes me less pretentious, more open to others’ views.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Oh yeah! Bad doggerel inspired by the likes of the Moody Blues and Donovan. Pretty scarey stuff I’d send my girlfriends in traditional sealing wax sealed letters. Awful stuff. Hell, I could give Rod McKuen a run for his money in the old days! As I mentioned above, it got started after listening to Dylan, Cohen, Country Joe and the Fish. Pedantic stuff, maudlin, sentimental iambic pentameter dreck. I wrote reams of it. Then I discovered margaret Atwood, J. Michael Yates, Sylvia Plath and Al Purdy. there followed reams of free verse dreck in confessional mode. 😉
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
Tons! Start with the League of Canadian Poets’ web links for young poets: www.youngpoets.ca/ (I’d also recommend their text, Poets in the Classroom edited by Betsy Struthers and Sarah Klassen; go to www.placesforwriters.com and follow the bouncing links. Read any book on prosody and the practice of poetry you can find, but especially anything by Robin Skelton (The Practice of Poetry, The Poet’s Calling, Poetic Truth, Shapes of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metres From Around the World). Lewis Turco (The New Book of Forms), John Hollander , Paul Fussell (Poetic Meter and Poetic Form); Michael J. Bugeja (Poet’s Guide: How to Publish and Perform Your Work); Spreading the Word: Editors on Poetry, Revised and Expanded Edition, compiled by Stephen Corey & Warren Slesinger. My fave big resources would be The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan and A Poet’s Guide to Poetry by Mary Kinzie (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing series); in addition, read some good books of essays: The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo, Twentieth Century Pleasures by Robert Hass, Best Words, Best Order by Stephen Dobyns; The Vernacular Muse by Dennis Cooley; Body Inc.: a Theory of Translation Poetics by Pamela Banting; and antholgies galore! I’ll just mention a few: for haiku; Carpe Diem: Antologie Canadienne du haiku/ Canadian Anthology of Haiku (and any of the Red Moon anthologies—go online) and, if you get interested in spoken word poetics, The Spoken Word Revolution (Slam, Hip Hop, & the Poetry of a New Generation) edited by Mark Eleveld; advised by Marc Smith; and Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry edited by Gary Mex Glazner. If course if the would-be poet hasn’t read much contemporary poetry, I’d start collecting anthologies of all kinds. Most important: read contemporary literary magazines (Arc, The Malahat Review, Canadian Literature, The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, Event, Descant, to name but a few Canadian journals of note; read street zines too, and e-zines—check the links off placesforwriters.com; go to New Pages (online). The more esoteric and avant garde language poetry places, journals, and whatnot, are also available from the links on www.placesforwriters.com
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
Oh yeah! I wish. Go to the League of Canadian Poets or your local writer’s guild (addresses available off www.placeforwriters.com) to see how you can book a poet.