They’re getting serious now. One of the digging things has managed to crawl down right into the pit, and is now slowly but aggressively attacking the sides, scoring them with deep grooves as it tears huge chunks out. The other, perhaps more timid, remains aloft, piling the dirt into massive cones on which I would have dearly loved to have played King of the Castle on as a child. From this vantage point they look great. Maybe up close they would seem a little rougher and more dangerous. But who knows? I guess I could break into the construction site to take a closer look, but for now I am content to admire from afar.
Here is an interview I did awhile back:
Interview with Greg Williamson and Philip Stevens by Philip Tucker
These two acclaimed poets (and friends) will read from their work. John Hollander has called Williamson’s most recent collection, Errors in the Script, “a deeply impressive book,” and the New York Times has praised his adherence to formal verse, calling it “an achievement in its own right.” Of Stephens’ debut collection, The Determined Days, Anthony Hecht wrote, “the cumulative effect of this truly accomplished collection is powerful, disturbing, and authoritative.”Reviews and a bio of Stephens at The Overlook Press.
Why do you write?
Phil: ‘Cause I’m obsessive-compulsive – would that be a good enough answer? I have a lot of flip answers for that, and we could use the flip answers to transition into the real answers… I don’t know what else I would do. It’s better for you then drinking –
Greg: (Interrupts) As I take another beer.
Phil: I guess I get concerns, I get obsessive about certain things I overheard, or things I don’t understand, the way people behave or react to certain situations. They trouble me or bother me and I want to try and get then down on paper. I think sometimes you think that it is going to lead to a greater understanding of the world around you, but usually it just leads to confounding you further. Greg, you pick up from there and then I will think of something better.
Greg: I like writing stuff. (They both laugh) Seriously, and I think that I got encouragement that this was a thing I could do, and I think I would be as happy doing something else if I had any talent for doing it.
Phil: Greg, you were much more succinct then I was. That is one of the things, you’re ok at it, you’re good at or you think that you’re good at it and it’s also a situation where you are in control, or you believe for awhile that you are in control, then you’re not, once you actually start writing. I would like to paint, or be a musician or a singer or something like that. But I’ve gone this far, in this thing, and I don’t want to waste any time trying to learn something else.
So romantic. What or who inspires you? Are there any authors or driving themes that consistently echo through your work?
Greg: Well, it is inspiring and always has been to hear a great line. I remember the first one that blew me away when I was early in high school. We were reading Thomas Hardy, “The smile on your face is the deadest thing alive enough to have the strength to die.” And I thought, ‘That is cool. If I could do that, that’d be fun.’ The sound of all kinds of different authors and who are able to make different styles still sing are inspirational and continue to be so. There are a lot of individual authors I could mention, but there are too many to do so here.
Just on a quick note – you read a line last night, ‘The stare-dead ceiling’?
So. I know what you’re talking about.
Greg: Thank you.
Phil: Greg inspires me….(thoughtful pause)
Greg: Thoughtful pause.
Phil: Well. I think the things people say have been an inspiration to me and the stories people tell each other. When they’re telling a story, it’s meaning something else, and the way people communicate or miscommunicate – has always been an inspiration to me. People talk cross-wise with each other. There’s this tension, that comes out of that, and that fascinates me. As far as poetry goes, for right now, this might change – I like poems that have people in them: Frost’s poems, Hardy’s poems, D.A Robinson’s poems. I have said to people, “What would your rather look at? Would you rather look at a painting that has a landscape in it or a painting that has people in it?” And usually people want to look at people. They’re fascinated with them. It’s where a lot of inspiration for me.
How did you start writing? When did you realize that you were going to be a writer?
Greg: I went to a new high school when I was a sophomore and my senior friends said, ‘Hey, take this class, Creative Writing, it’s an easy A and we’ll all be in it.’ So I did. And the teacher liked my first assignment and gave me a lot of encouragement. That was fun, so I went to college and became an English major and wanted to be a fiction writer. Turns out I wasn’t any good at that. Anyway, I put off my poetry class until my senior year, and then I just loved it and thought it was fantastic. And thought I wanted to give it a try. So finally a couple of years later I ended up in grad school and it really was fun.
Phil: I played the fiddle for a long time. (ominous background laughter erupts) and thought I was going to be a music major. I started writing bad songs about old girlfriends. Continued writing bad songs into college and took a poetry class on a whim – I was going to be a journalist or a musician of some kind. I got obsessive about writing, and just writing down things that I say, essentially making images, and that began to create ideas, and I couldn’t stop – I wanted to. I felt torn about writing because I came from a small town in rural
Greg: Yeah, you don’t tell people you are a poet. At least I don’t. When I moved to Georgia, Karyn went down to months ahead of me and met the neighbors and they asked what we were doing and what I did… and I later said to her, “Why did you…” (he makes a face and then they both snigger) It doesn’t matter really: illegal diamonds, makes crack, whatever. Just don’t tell them that I’m a poet… So I meet my neighbors, Tom and Peggy, across the imaginary line that separates us. She says, “I understand you’re a poet. You write poetry.” I said, “Yes.” She said, (wistfully) “I just love poetry.” Tom, a seventy year old
This is a hard one.
Phil: Oh god.
Greg: I think recently, in the last couple of years, the poet that has influenced me more then any other is James Merrill.
Phil: Was Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, D.A Robinson. Ellie Sysman and (angry pause) some Weldon Keyes. Fiction would be another thing. We won’t go there.
Greg: If we’re going to go to fiction I would say –
Greg: Well yes, Claire has long been at the top, but…Thomas Finchin.
Phil: And I would go with Robert Finwarrin.
You both seem to have made it as writers – (they make faces as this statement) – bare with me, you seem to have established yourselves as poets – reluctant poets, with capital P’s, you seem to be making a living, to have accomplished what young college writers always dream of doing, but usually end up not. So what advice would you give to those writers who want to get to where you are?
Greg: I have an answer but it just sounds like –
Phil: Mine’s pretty crass.
Greg: Sounds like Alan Iverson, ‘You can be anything you want’. I don’t know, read a lot, work hard, be hard on yourself and be patient.
Claire: Persistence… would seem to be…
Phil: Sit your ass in the chair. Listen to what people say, but if you disagree with them, carry around what they said because you might find that it applies somewhere down the road and you think that you are so wise and say, ‘That doesn’t apply to me’ then you’ll find out that it does. Another thing that I think is important is that, don’t ever think that getting something published is going to change the feeling of inadequacy or insecurity that you have about your work.
I disagree. (general laughter) I think it is one thing to sit back and say, ‘Yes, I’ve published a few books, I’ve gotten a few reviews, it really hasn’t affected me like I thought it would. But it’s there on the shelf. There’s Robert Frost, there’s Yeats, and then there is yours. It may be an insignificant volume but it is on the shelf.
Phil: No, it’s just like journalism. You write a great story, causes lots of trouble, but your editor does not give a shit the next day. What have you done for me lately. That is how you feel as an author. Ok, I did this, what am I going to do now? Cause that is done, it took a lot of tears, a lot of heartache. But you get that one done and you think, I’m not going to be able to do that anymore.
Greg: I agree with Philip though.
Phil: Of course you do. (Greg indicates he agrees with Phil T, not Phil Stephens) Oh.
Greg: I mean it doesn’t mean that it makes it any easier, but it is rewarding to have people appreciate what you’re doing, what you have been trying to do for so long.
Phil: I’m not saying that’s not rewarding.
But I think there is a key difference that maybe you forget down the line; if you’re sitting in a fiction writing class, if you’re graduated from college and you’ve been writing all night, every week, ever month and you have nothing published – I think that person is in a different mind frame then someone who has two published novels, you’ve been well received, you’ve made a couple of speeches and now you’re facing your third novel – it’s a different challenge. But you know that you are on the record.
Claire: Except I think that one of the things that is so hard now that so much is published – I remember hearing someone say, ‘Novels have a shelf life between yogurt and cheese’ You want to believe that your book is there – there is a moment when you walk into a bookstore and your book is there and that’s very exciting. But more often than not you go over to check and it’s not there anymore. When you’re aspiring to publish, there is so much that goes on in your fantasy life, but fantasy is always grander than reality. It is wonderful. But it is also anticlimactic. I was talking to someone the other day who finished a manuscript, ‘When do you celebrate?’ Do you celebrate now? When you get a publisher? When the book comes out? When its in your hand? When you get your first review?
When its in your hand. Just to answer your question. (laughter)
Phil: Well, I can remember when I turned in my manuscript… this sounds stupid… alright, I’ll go ahead and sound stupid… I cried. I was so damn sad. It was done. That was part of my life that was over. This thing that I was obsessed about was over. And I thought, ‘I have to do this again.’ (‘again’ said with despair, incredulity, pain and self pity) But yes, you’re right. But all I’m saying, it’s a different kind of anxiety, the anxiety switches. But my advice is this: don’t ever think its going to change, that it’s going to make you finally feel like, ‘I’m a Writer.’ It doesn’t. It doesn’t to me. I still feel like, ‘What the hell am I doing?’
Claire: That’s true for life in general.
When do you think you made it? Is there a point in your career when you said to yourself, ‘Now I am no longer dreaming, I’m a poet.’
Greg: Well, I don’t really know how to put this, but it answers both of those questions. Some of what you asked was couched in sort of a career way. There are career writers. Gradually it becomes easier to publish, people come to know who you are, you get invited to opportunities like this, and that’s wonderful. But artistic goals are as far to reach as always. It’s like a mirage in the desert. You want to get better, you want to get better. It doesn’t really change. You don’t ever feel like you’ve arrived.
Phil: I’ll just take what Greg said and make a personal addition: When I figured out what direction I was going in, first the poetry manuscript, I felt vaguely in control, I was confident that I could do this – that was a really good feeling. For awhile. And I think that is an important feeling. I’ve made it because I know what my subject is, and I don’t care what other people think. That may not be an answer. It’s you and the page. The greatest percentage of time, so.