Steve Myers is the author of the full-length poetry collection Memory’s Dog and a chapbook, Work Study, as well as scholarly work on William Butler Yeats and Irish poetry. He has published in many poetry journals in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Dark Horse, Gettysburg Review, Poetry East, The Southern Review, and Tar River Poetry, as well as in the Pushcart Prize XXXVI anthology. His work has also been anthologized in Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania and An Introduction to the Prose Poem. He is professor of English at DeSales University in eastern Pennsylvania, where he teaches courses in creative writing, contemporary poetry, and American literature, as well as a course on the history and culture of South Africa. A Pennsylvania native, he has also lived abroad for extended periods in Scotland and Italy.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve said somewhere that your father was a natural storyteller and that he taught you to read. Could you comment on this?
Steve Myers: In my desk drawer I keep several old, black-and-white photographs in which my father and I are stretched out on the floor, looking at a book, or I’m on his lap in an easy chair, looking at a book. And while we began, I’m sure, with simple books about animals, wild or domestic, until I could master letters and then words, the stories he read to me were out of Greek mythology, Kipling’s Just So Stories,the Brothers Grimm, Aesop’s fables–serious literature, or, more pertinently, stories that take the intelligence of children seriously. He also read wide-ranging selections of poetry from a children’s anthology that I still have on my bookshelf. And then, at night, the time when children were traditionally read to, he instead spun original stories from his own imagination, long stories that often had to be told serially, over several nights. They always involved animals, faraway landscapes, and fictional characters on various quests, and inevitably, just as tension was building in the story, he would introduce into the action me and my sister as characters. My father was the source of many blessings in my life till the time he died, none greater than this gift of story.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you make of poets and survival – by survival, I mean making ends meet?
Steve Myers: Certainly in the U.S., since the financial collapse of 2008, it’s been difficult for a great many people in general to make ends meet, especially if they’re young and regardless of whether they’re poets. But for poets in particular, having some sort of “day job” is close to essential, though some, I imagine, manage to put together a satisfactory arrangement working one or two part-time jobs. In the writers’ workshop I’ve been a part of for years, five of us are or have been educators in some capacity or other, one runs a small business, one does construction work, and one has an entry-level business job.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you foresee the death of poetry in future? Do you think there has been a decline in poetry reading?
Steve Myers: The luminous American poet Lucille Clifton used to speak of some ancient ancestor–you might picture him or her living near South Africa’s “Cradle of Civilization”– stepping outside of a cave one morning, looking out on a scene of stunning beauty, and murmuring “Oh!” Clifton would add, “…and that was the first poem.” Impossible to see the death of an art that’s been with us since the dawn of human time. As for a decline in reading poetry, and I’m speaking again of the U.S., studies have shown there’s been a decline in all reading, across all age groups, in recent years. I don’t think poetry reading has registered a significant decline because its level of readership was never terribly high to begin with.
Geosi Gyasi: Having taught literature for 25 years at a Roman Catholic university, have you ever found out why a student would want to study literature?
Steve Myers: Students who first arrive at my university wanting to study literature often want to do so because they enjoy it and were good at it in secondary school. Some arrive with a vague belief in literature’s ability to make them a better, “more well-rounded” person. Then, as they pass through course after course, they begin to experience written texts as providing tremendous insight into the “texts” of experience, of their everyday lives. They begin to find themselves better able to negotiate the latter because they’re increasingly able to negotiate the former. They begin to see poetry as a means of discovery and an important mode of (often non-logical) thinking. They come to understand how a great poem, or novel, or play can extend their sense of compassion, sharpen their insight into human psychological motivation. And the sheer sense of wonderment for the student whose life might not yet have taken them much beyond Philadelphia, to step for the first time into an Mda novel, or a Szymborska, or a Hikmet, or a Neruda poem.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you know that you would one day become a writer?
Steve Myers: I knew early on that I’d likely make a career in education and wanted to become a writer, as well, though for years I assumed I’d be writing fiction. As it happened, I haven’t attempted to write fiction for a very long time, and my life has taken me through journalism and scholarly writing before bringing me to poetry.
Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most difficult part of writing?
Steve Myers: For me, the editing. Images, sounds, flickers of insight, phrases–they all arrive whether I’m actively looking for them or not. In fact, they arrive more often when I’m not. But to shape the draft once it’s on the screen in front of me takes time, patience, vigilance, and a particular kind of self-denial familiar to all serious artists. It’s difficult, which is why we all regularly call on the editorial skills of one or a small number of fellow writers to guide it further.
Geosi Gyasi: You grew up in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. What do you remember about your childhood with regards to writing?
Steve Myers: One story in particular: I was ten when our teacher told us we were all to write a composition on a figure or event in American history. The compositions would then be entered in a contest sponsored by an organization for whom the growth of the American nation and its emergence as a superpower in the world was a cherished narrative. My father, who began his career as a history teacher, suggested I choose the Underground Railroad as my theme. So I wrote the paper and thought I accomplished it very well, was thrilled with the possibility of winning the contest. But I did not win, though it speaks to the significance of the event in my young life that more than 50 years later I still remember the name of the little girl who did win. Ten or 15 years later, though, my eyes gradually opening through education, I realized that at least in the America of the early 1960s, the Underground Railroad was not a story that ran as a particularly cherished thread through the sponsoring group’s version of their cherished narrative, and that my father had assigned me a topic that would insure I could not possibly win. But he saw the Underground Railroad as essential to my understanding of history, in particular the history of race in America–another of those blessings I mentioned earlier.
Geosi Gyasi: Your full-length poetry collection, “Memory’s Dog”, appeared in Fall 2004 from FootHills Publishing. Tell us about the writing process?
Steve Myers: I began writing poetry in a committed way in my early 40s–absurdly late for a poet. As a result, I feel that I need to keep at it very regularly. I’m one of the early risers–the hours between 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 are sacred to writing and editing poetry. Then, because I teach a great deal of poetry in my university classes, I end up speaking and thinking about it for several hours beyond that each day.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you look up to any writer for inspiration?
Steve Myers: I was slow in discovering the novelist James McBride, but The Good Lord Bird captivated and energized me more than anything I’ve read in recent years. Then I went on to read his memoir, The Color of Water. Very different book–same sense of being taken over and energized. Poets? When I find my writing becoming clogged and tired, I turn to Frank O’Hara. When I’m looking for extraordinary depth of experience and wisdom, Seamus Heaney, Czeslaw Milosz. I repeatedly and compulsively return to Elizabeth Bishop. I’d find life terribly diminished without the work and friendship of John Bargowski, Dan Donaghy, Harry Humes, Paul Martin, Elaine Terranova, Michael Waters.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your chapbook, “Worksite”? Was it difficult to complete?
Steve Myers: In the early years, when I was first trying to figure out what I was doing as a poet, I discovered the poems I was writing that seemed most real, most genuine to me, featured women and men at work. Looking back, some of those poems seem deficient now, in one way or another. But there are several in that collection I still believe in wholeheartedly.
Geosi Gyasi: Your four-prose-poem sequence “Bloc” won the 2006 Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize sponsored by the journal Quarter After Eight. What, in your view, can be classified as a prose poem?
Steve Myers: A poem with an undeniably strong narrative bent that nonetheless shares the poem’s focus on the moment and its instinct for sudden revelation, explosive image, and the musical phrase But it’s always difficult to surrender the tension achieved by the poetic line..
Geosi Gyasi: You have a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and have been ordained. I am not sure if it is appropriate to ask this; but are you “religious”?
Steve Myers: I have a strong religious sensibility and an equally strong sense of skepticism; that’s probably why I found Yeats so appealing when I first began to read him. I’m no longer a church-going person, though my wife and I sang for many years with an Anglican Church choir, and it’s fairly often that a musical phrase from a Thomas Campion or a Richard Farrant surfaces in my head. As I wrote in the Contributor’s Note to the poem “Desert Cell” that you so kindly noticed in Rattle, Charles Wright’s describe his poetic content as “language, landscape, and the idea of God,” and that pretty well describes my own poetic project, too.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you cope with “literary world” and “spiritual world”? Is there any link between the two worlds?
Steve Myers: The doorway to both is Attentiveness.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your memories of your college days?
Steve Myers: I had a terrific experience at Allegheny College in northwest Pennsylvania. Largely through the influence of Dr. F.S. Frank, my engagement with literature deepened there in a profound way. Dr. Jeanne Braham’s passion for poetry was infectious and intoxicating. I was surrounded by friends who were similarly infatuated by learning, and we all managed to maintain a social life consonant with that of many American undergraduates in the late 1960s, early ’70s. I spent a year studying in Glasgow, which got me to Europe for the first time; I later returned for a year of graduate study and have traveled in Europe often since.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever encountered a hard time getting published?
Steve Myers: My situation’s that of virtually every serious poet at work in America today: you send poems to good journals that read, say, 4,000 submissions a year and publish maybe 50 of them.
Geosi Gyasi: Are your children big fan of your writing? Do they read you?
Steve Myers: Our son enjoys my work, in particular because he’s also in literary studies, finishing his dissertation this year at Notre Dame University. That’s another way of saying he’d enjoy my work more if he had time to indulge himself, which at present he doesn’t. Our daughter’s work is in politics, which keeps her similarly busy. My wife is a wonderful first reader of my poems; her artistic field is music, so she has a somewhat different and particularly helpful perspective on my writing, in contrast to fellow writers who see the poems in workshop settings or through personal correspondence.
Geosi Gyasi: You probably have a word to end the interview?
Steve Myers: I’m honored to have been asked, Geosi. Thank you.