Today we are fortunate to have Steve King of the blog Excursions and Diversions in the spotlight. Welcome, Steve.
Thanks, Laurie, for inviting me to be a part of your continuing interview series. I’m very honored.
Why don’t we start with a brief rundown of the basics.
I live in Albany, New York with my wife, Margaret. We’re both retired—she from a career teaching in the public school system and I from state government service. When I left, I was managing a small administrative agency. I was responsible for the whole of the administrative operation: personnel, finance, budget, facilities management and the like.
My presence here I owe directly to Joe Hesch, a name familiar to all, who has been both a friend and professional colleague for close to thirty years. I happened upon one of his posts and followed the links back to d’Verse. I took a shot a submitting a poem called “Mr. Lincoln’s Mirror.” That was in 2011, and I’ve been participating ever since.
What does your normal day look like?
Though retired, I have a number of businesslike preoccupations that keep me busy. I’m a board treasurer for both a theater group here in Albany, and for a small research library and museum based in New York City. I’m also chair of a charitable foundation that supports programs for the blind and visually impaired throughout upstate New York. All in all, I’m spending more time in front of spreadsheets than I anticipated when I left professional life.
Rm w/ Vu
© Steve King
All rights reserved
I turn from where I stand at the window.
The pane is double frozen with the rime
of hard December. Outside falls the shade
that marks the fullness and the hard limit
of these diminished days: the stunted light
that traps my vision and denies my gaze.
There is a fire to draw the spirits close,
and here in welcome silence have I paused
to greet the murmurs of another world
that breaks its slumber when the sun subsides.
The gathered shadows whisper, and the flame
becomes a mirror for the soul’s own light,
reflecting bold and bringing now to life
the shuttered vision of a heart’s midnight.
I have but to wish, and then to see,
to catch each fleeting vapor at its dance;
and yet, how often fails my busy eye
to linger in this dreamy panoply.
There are hard limits to the use of words,
and in the silence that surrounds each thought
I play both sorcerer and crystal glass.
I am what shall, and what shall never, pass;
what soon will once have been, yet always is.
The memory of an echo of a song
tolls to proclaim an hour longtime gone:
the music of some quaint antiquity,
soft prelude to the chorus of regret;
it is all of me and all I know,
the silence and the song and the regret.
There will be song; there will be silence yet.
All this little world is still twilight,
and in the dizzy moments that lead me
to the ascent from twilight into dreams,
I rejoice to sing delights like these,
if only for a moment to assure
that I have grasped them ever as they are;
that something of the quaint eternal stays,
to salve the grind of intervening days;
that in the shapes of a receding past,
there might be found a moment set to last
more than this instant.
What secrets have we,
if such things reach the limits of their spell
with cooling embers, come the morning knell?
What memories of wonder have I kept
secure from scrutiny, thinking others slept?
Must it be vanity to wrest desire
out from the ashes of the midnight fire,
to wait, to see, to hear as I would do,
and trace a vision I might render true?
I woke to find full daylight on the world.
A backdraft from the empty hearth proclaims
the morning’s greeting and dispels all dreams
that might have lingered to enchant a dawn.
The brittle music of the winter wind
sifts through the lapses in my dark redoubt.
Outside, a frozen light grips on the air,
one that would foster fear were I in need,
but there is kindling left to conjure dreams,
and last a season more against despair.
I am not fit for dreams or dreaming now,
and know not when nor where my waking leads,
for now the empty echoes only haunt.
There are others stirring in the house,
caught in the coda of their own silence,
fit music for the morning’s overture—
though I have kept some few imaginings
to whisper bright reminders to the soul.
A challenge for the vision that endures:
the empty window frames a lifeless scene,
a fast and unrelenting monochrome,
a hieroglyph inscribed in ice and grit.
I shall find lingering charms to caption it.
What direction would you like to see your poetry evolve to?
I can’t say I’m consciously looking for it to evolve. I write in a variety of styles and voices—at least that’s what I try for. I like writing “large” and I like writing “minimalist”—and I get equal enjoyment from each. I’m comfortable writing in careful meter, but I also enjoy idiosyncratic writing, where there may be no specific recurring meter and where the lines may seem at first to be unconnected or disorganized to the eye. I also gladly use rhyme to add emphasis and to bring closure in certain circumstances. Starting with a blank slate, I gravitate toward whatever language or literary tool will be helpful in illuminating my idea. Sometimes I start out with lines of free verse and end up with a tight couple of stanzas in certain and predictable meter. The opposite progression also occurs. Looking at the work, I don’t know if it’s possible to trace an evolutionary path, but I may be too close to it to recognize the fact. I would like to continue using a variety of approaches and, ultimately, to be seen as someone who is able to write comfortably and coherently across a spectrum of style and voice and content.
Well, I do have some perspective, gained, I guess, as a result of having lived long enough to receive criticism often, and for a variety of things. I try and discipline myself not to take criticism personally, and to look for the constructive opportunities there, even if I think the critic isn’t necessarily trying to be a friend. I’ve asked for criticism on occasion. As you know, it’s very easy to get lost in words and phrases and ideas, especially those with which you’ve lived for a long time. They can morph into a kind of symbolic shorthand that only you can understand. An objective viewpoint can be helpful in working through that. I haven’t encountered any criticism I’d consider to be mean spirited or truly negative. Mostly it’s consisted of helpful observations about the technical elements on the page, and (mercifully) not ones that question, say, whether the idea that’s being developed is worth the waste of further time.
When writing a poem, how do you know you’re done?
Sometimes I know and sometimes I only suspect. I’m particular about endings, especially. As with most of us, my endings aren’t meant to be just the last words that are read;they’re the recapitulation of, and final punctuation for, all the ideas that have come before, even if the restatement seems slightly different in tone or style. I’d like to make the experience be like watching a play with a great final curtain line. I know it doesn’t always work that way. I realize no one—me especially— hits a home run every time. Lacking the home run, I’ll finally finish a poem when I get to the point where the changes I’m making aren’t any better or more effective than the words they’re replacing. As long as my idea is still intact and the work has the hoped for intellectual integrity, I’ll consider it finished and be satisfied with hitting a single or a double. And of course, some of the things I start end up impossible to improve sufficiently and are set aside.
Just to be clear though, the finishing process might take considerable time. I have pages that are twenty-five and thirty years old—things that I frequently revisit and rework—that are still what I would describe as drafts. Even when all is going well, I don’t turn things out in a hurry, which is evident from the relatively small number of posts I’ve had in the three years I’ve been doing this.
Are you ever surprised at which pieces of work your readers respond to?
Yes. I’ve put out pieces that I thought were good which received practically no commentary or response. On the other hand, I’ve posted works that I thought were somewhere in the middle, but which received a large response. One in particular puzzles me: a poem called “Out of Amnesia.” I was pretty satisfied when I posted it, but I really didn’t think it was over the moon. The page-view count for that one is five or six times the number of views that ordinarily come my way. I still can’t figure that out. I guess this kind of anomaly should teach us all to trust our first instincts and not worry unduly about others’ reactions.
If you had to choose one word to describe your poetic inspiration, what would that be?
Eclectic. I draw from many sources: fiction, history, philosophy, science, popular literature, and practically anything else I might lay my hands on. Sometimes movies. I’m not well-schooled in poetry itself. I’m sorry to say I have practically no knowledge of established contemporary poets or literary movements. For some reason, my poetic reading never ranged far beyond the Pound/Eliot/Williams era. I do enjoy Yeats, and there are others that, when I happen upon them, I’ll read and enjoy. In particular, I would include Stevens, Rilke, Plath and Sappho in this latter group. I guess I became distracted when my formal studies ended. My main art activity at that point became live theater.
Theater, too is an inspiration. Performing before live audiences made me aware of the powerful impact of the spoken, as opposed to the purely written, word. If there is one constant in what I write, it’s that I try to design it for spoken performances. I don’t care how well a piece may scan or read: if I don’t think it will sound right, I go back to the drawing board.
Over the years, I’ve made it a point to become familiar with many of the foundation documents of the Western tradition: various translations of Homer, the Bible in its entirety, a couple of different translations from Hebrew of The Five Books of Moses, and the Gilgamesh Legend, which I include because it’s based in the geographic area from which the story of Abraham arose, and because it’s much older than the Bible. Shakespeare too, of course.I’ve gone through all of these, and many other older works, a number of times. In fact, if I like any work, I tend to keep the book and eventually re-read it. The good thing about that is you get to know your favorites pretty well. The downside is that it limits the range of things I see.
I’d say that the majority of words I’ve read have come from novels.
As an undergraduate, I was a literature major, so I was exposed to the traditional canon. But I was never passionate about criticizing or analyzing writing. I suppose the residue of all this reading somehow informs what I produce now, but I couldn’t say how any of it triggers a given literary response in me.
© Steve King
All rights reserved
Seven sails on the dark sea rose.
I show my face to the moon,
my ear to new tides.
When will the winds turn to me?
My mind sings with harbor sounds
while all memories protest—
each strain lifting
a weight of ancient wishes.
The shoreline gathers spirits
that would seem as men:
another and another and still…
each rapt in rediscovered calm,
clouds for lodestars,
dead reckonings for dreams,
mouthing silently the old sea psalms.
Done with this sea, I am.
Done with all spirits, dreams and songs.
How full of want,
the belly of this emptiness,
how heavy,still,the hand
of the untethered past.
But how lightly ride those seven sails,
free of the tides at last.
Do you believe that poetry could change people or society as a whole?
I can only speak on the basis of my perspective in the USA. There are two answers to this: With respect to changing individual people, I would say ‘yes.’ People are so complex and are affected by so many things, I would think that a good poem, or good writing in general, could trigger thoughts and impressions that would lead an individual to consider the world, or aspects of it, differently.
As to the question of changing society, I’m not sure that poetry can have a decisive widespread impact by itself, at least not at the moment. I know there were periods in US history where artists have had an effect on the culture and politics of the time, the 1960s being a good example. But there were a number of change factors coming into play during that era and it would be hard for me to say with certainty, for example,that Bob Dylan’s work would have been so decisive in moving people if it hadn’t arisen in the context of an already changing social and political scene. Much artistry then seemed to be flowing in accord with the rising tide of the counterculture. Looking back, I just don’t know where the one began and the other left off.
From my very limited experience, it seems that poetry will always be hard to write. Perhaps it’s even harder to internalize and understand, and this will always be a limiting factor. Many people today just wouldn’t think to get relevant life information from poetry or art. There are also so many non-literary distractions and diversions for folks, especially young folks, that didn’t exist fifty years ago. There are economic pressures now that keep some people and families preoccupied with things as basic as maintaining their standards of living.
It seems to me that, notwithstanding the efforts of enthusiasts like us who populate the blogs, there isn’t a widespread wave of poetry or poetic sensibility washing over the powerful institutions of American society. I’m not even sure what the circumstances would be that would generate such a wave. Perhaps there needs to be an overwhelming shared sense of discord and vulnerability before people pay close attention to things that by their very nature seem intangible and non-practical, such as verse. Others may disagree, but I just don’t have a sense we’re near the tipping point for that.
Well, we can change that can’t we… one poem at a time? I certainly hope so! Thanks, Steve, for letting us get to know you a little better.
If there are any questions I missed, please leave them in the comments for Steve.