A Conversation with Stephen Burt
If Rolling Stone could have a resident poet, it would be Stephen Burt. He’s an advocate of science fiction, literary experimentation, wholehearted earnestness, and just general awesomeness. Burt’s interests are vast—his literary influences range from 19th Century prose, to ultramodern poets. His work has appeared in The Boston Review, Poetry, Slate, The London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and many, many other swell places. He has published three poetry collections, Parallel Play, Belmont, and Popular Music (which won the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 1999), in addition to many critical essays. He currently lives in Massachusetts, where he is a Professor of English at Harvard University.
Professor Burt was kind enough to answer my dubiously open-ended questions with a smile. If there was ever any doubt that he’s a kind soul, this should snub it. Stephen Burt is a maker of kings (or so says the New York Times), but he’s also a human being. For Burt, writing is about personal identity. It is the cultivation and reflection of one’s self and of one’s actions. He is in the unique position of being a critic, a poet, a professor, a journalist, and a person all at the same time.
First things first: Who do you read? Who have you read? Who do you wish you’d read?
The last book of contemporary poetry that I (re-)read with great pleasure was Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda. The last book of any kind that I reread with great pleasure was the book I taught again this morning, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which is inexhaustible. Some books and writers I often recommend, from the distant past and from the present, that most of my friends haven’t read until I bring them up: the 19th-c American poet Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt; the Welsh poet Robert Minhinnick; the Newfoundland poet Mary Dalton; the avant-garde fiction writer Carla Harryman; the science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon); Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore; Engine Summer by John Crowley; the right-now trans novelist Imogen Binnie. Some books and writers many of my friends have read, but many others have not, whom I find inexhaustible: Yeats, Keats, Woolf, Willa Cather, Eliz. Bishop, Richard Powers, Randall Jarrell, John Ashbery (start with Houseboat Days, I think), Walt Whitman…
Do you think poetry benefits from humor?
Of course. Almost everything and everyone benefits from humor. Bad things happen to your psyche, however, if you try to be funny about everything, or funny all the time. As the ghost of W. H. Auden tells James Merrill through a Ouija board in Merrill’s grandiose yet awesome comic epic The Changing Light at Sandover: “AH MY DEARS/ I AM NOT LAUGHING I SIMPLY WILL NOT SHED TEARS.” I recommend the first part of Sandover very highly, by the way (the rest of it’s up and down).
Would you speak a little about elliptical poetry?
If I must. You know those bands that had one hit fifteen years ago and keep hearing it on the radio and sort of make a living by touring and playing it but can’t get anyone to hear their new stuff? That’s how I fear I will feel about “elliptical poetry.” And/but I’m glad I made up the term: it turns out to have been one of a few terms (another, perhaps pejorative, was “Third Way”; another, less descriptive, was “hybrid”) coined in the late 1990s to describe poets who tried to put together aspects of the 1970s-80s avant garde—its difficulties, its open spaces, its distance from prose sense—with aspects of older lyric poetry—its sense of the personal, of strong emotion, of somebody’s life behind the poem. The paradigmatic elliptical poet was and is C. D. Wright, although you can find plenty of other people whose work sort of fits the description then and now. No really good poet can be subsumed under any general description, but no poet can wholly escape her time.
(Okay—I promise never to ask you about elliptical anythings ever again.)
Where do you place yourself when you write? Do you approach the page as a critic or a poet?
I place myself where nobody can easily interrupt me, if I am trying to write poetry, which turns out to be hard. Sometimes I literally hide. Or stay up really late.
I approach the page in terms of what I am trying to write—as a poet, or as a scholar writing first for experts, or as a critic-explainer-reviewer writing for a larger interested audience. The roles compete for time and energy, of course, and discoveries made while I am playing one role can influence what I do next with the other, but the roles are almost entirely distinct in my head.
I’m glad that my job requires me to write criticism, and permits me to write poetry. I think it would be hard for me to have it the other way round, since when I do more work, spend more hours, on scholarship or criticism, the work gets better and I know that eventually I will have something I can publish. With poetry you could get something amazing in half an hour (if you worked on a lot of other poems, perhaps fruitlessly, beforehand), or revise and rewrite for weeks and end up with an oops. That’s also what makes writing poetry so much fun, when it is fun. It should be fun. (But it is also scary.)
Let’s talk about drafts. Do you like them? Do you hate them? Is there a system to the way you introduce new material into the world?
I try to save drafts, though it’s harder now that I do more revising on computers. I tend to start poems in handwriting, convert them to text files, print them out and carry them around, so that I can revise and revise them in handwriting and then enter changes into the text file and print them out so that the process begins again. Sometimes it takes years; sometimes I’ll put a poem away and then go back to it months later, and yes, sometimes I return to an earlier draft. If that’s a system I don’t know what *un*systematic revision would be.
I do think that the poems that come with no, or with little revision, are the gift you get for all the other poems that take so long to revise. And that some of the poems I spend a long time revising turn out to be dead turkeys no matter what I do.
If I had more time in my life and fewer non-writing-poetry things I wanted to do (writing essays and books, teaching, playing with kids, doing dishes) I don’t know how many more poems I would begin, but I’m sure I’d spend more time in revision, and bring more of the drafts I’ve begun to completion.
You teach a class on science fiction, yes? Would you speak to the value of science fiction (or absurdist fiction, fantasy, whathaveyou) in our society today? I ask because I believe it does a tremendous amount of work, but doesn’t receive a proportionate amount of recognition.
I agree! If you are talking about recognition and reputation, things are getting better on that front: writers who come from a high-culture literary background, or who have been rewarded by the high-culture trade-press world, write works that are without a doubt science fiction, and get rewarded for writing them. Never Let Me Go. Oryx and Crake. Cloud Atlas. But writers who grew up, as writers, within the science fiction world, writers who are at home with its conventions, don’t get recognized as I think they ought to be recognized in the wider (and more academically acceptable) literary world. Ted Chiang, for example. On the other hand, the within-science-fiction standards for what constitutes “good writing,” or “prose style,” still set the bar too low.
You also ask about the distinctive value of science fiction: not who likes it now, not how much we like individual science fiction works, but what the genre in general does for us that other genres (such as realist novels) don’t do. I just finished supervising a very thoughtful Harvard undergraduate senior thesis that gives one among many possible answers to that question: the thesis writer, Tili Sokolov, argues that when we read SF, we learn to imagine a world that is not our world and could not be our world, and in doing so we learn to live in a world that contains other imaginations, other minds, without letting those minds displace our own. Her argument, which is subtle and convincing, is also an argument that anybody who already likes reading SF should apply to Jo Walton’s bildungsroman Among Others, which is a book about being a teen in the 1970s and reading SF; that book, in turn, says that SF can save your life.
A good number of our readers are young people. What were you up to at that age?
I was lucky enough to be doing a lot of things at once—I was a relatively happy (though also a workaholic and anxious) teen (to make up for a not-so-awesome childhood). I was trying to figure out if I wanted to be a molecular biologist or a literary critic or a poet or a songwriter. I’m glad I figured it out not so long after that.
I was taking Quiz Bowl competitions very seriously, and I don’t regret doing that—they were fun, and it’s a sport, and I am in favor of sports for people who like playing sports. I was taking high school debate seriously as well, which may have been good (I learned how to put forward an argument) or bad (I was bad at it, though some of my friends excelled).
I was totally confused about gender, because I didn’t have a category for what I was or who I am— except for “crossdresser,” the terms that describe me correctly (transgender, both-genders) didn’t exist: I knew I wasn’t a drag queen or a gay man or someone who was desperately unhappy with my male body all the time, but I knew I was queer in some way, and I wrote about gender anxiety in anguished verse and prose, and if somebody I trusted had asked “Do you want to be a girl?” I would have said, “yes!” But nobody asked.
(I think most articulate, introspective people, at seventeen, are confused about some aspect of gender or sexuality, but it’s not always the same aspect or the same degree of confusion; the more you can talk about it with people you trust, the faster the confusion might resolve.)
I wrote poetry a lot. I read poetry a lot. I was looking for models. I was reading a lot of John Berryman, a lot of Robert Lowell, and Auden, and Merwin, and Conrad Aiken, and Keats. But Berryman most of all. I was just learning to like realist fiction, having enjoyed only non-realist fiction (sf, fantasy, absurdism) until I was about 16.
I was quite aware that I attended an exceptionally good high school, marked by class privilege as well as political liberalism. Some of my friends—especially those I knew through the science fiction community of greater Washington—were not so lucky.
I had already made some of the friends I feel closest to today. Your results may vary.
You’re standing face-to-face with your undergraduate self. What do you need to hear?
Trust yourself; read widely; keep doing radio. Learn a classical language. Travel, even if you have to write travel guides. Write criticism (for example, reviews) that real people who are not giving you grades want to read. (That is advice I mostly took; those are things I did right.)
Learn a modern language well enough to speak it instead of English for days at a time, well enough to visit the country. Take languages seriously: they will help you in ways you can’t even anticipate if you advance as a writer in English. (That is advice I wish I had taken.)
Experiment with gender and sexuality now—take advantage of every safe space you can find to figure out who you are and what you want, sooner rather than later; confide in your friends. If there’s something you can’t confide in your current friends, find a way to meet more friends; that doesn’t mean you’ll ditch the ones you have.
Learn something about the literary practice, the verbal arts of a non-Western culture, even if you are not going to learn its language. Do not condescend to anyone. It’s not necessarily their fault (not the fault of your peers, and not the fault of your professors) if they don’t know things you think that they should know. Skip a beat and figure out if you’ll be helpful, or persuasive, before you tell anybody that they’re wrong. (And then, sometimes, if it helps, tell them.)
Write thank-you notes. Observe courtesies even when you feel hurried. When someone expects more formality, more politesse, from you than you expect from them, and you give them what they expect, they will be more likely to help you (even if you know they already like you).
Conversely, remember that other people’s time is valuable.
Accept that you are going to define yourself through what you do with words; that means you will be spending a lot of time typing, and a lot of time in libraries, quietly. But don’t let that keep you from going places and doing things in person, too.
Do you think poetry is a means to an end, or is poetry its own aim?
Poetry for me is its own end, its own aim—but individual poems can also, as horses take riders, have other aims too. You can write a poem to redefine romantic love, or attack (or even advocate!) imperialism, or undermine the tradition of all-too-simple protest poems, or classify types of upstate New York snow; poems that do all those things (which are ends) have survived, and will survive, because they do so much to meet the ends internal to the language, to their language, to poetry qua poetry.
What do you hope to find through your own poetry?
That depends on the poem. But I do think the strongest poems, the ones that have meant the most to me—whether they are poems I wrote or whether instead somebody else wrote them—attempt to present, or to resolve, through the imaginative use of language, problems that could not be solved in the “real” world, the world that exists beyond language and beyond the poem.
Stephen Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. His essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense (Graywolf Press, 2009) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His other works include The Art of the Sonnet (Harvard University Press, 2010), Something Understood: Essays and Poetry for Helen Vendler (University of Virginia Press, 2009), The Forms of Youth: Adolescence and 20th Century Poetry (Columbia University Press, 2007), Parallel Play: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2006), Randall Jarrell on W. H. Auden (University Press, 2005), Randall Jarrell and His Age (Columbia University Press, 2002), and Popular Music (Center for Literary Publishing, 1999). His latest collection of poems, Belmont, was published by Graywolf Press in 2013. He taught at Macalester College for several years before becoming a Professor of English at Harvard University. He lives in the suburbs of Boston with his spouse, Jessie Bennett, and their two children.