Author interview: Kevin Stein on Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age

by Korey Jackson on August 2, 2010

Following is the second in our series of interviews with authors of books in the dcb sphere. For more about the Poetry’s Afterlife book and for ordering information, check out the book’s page on our site and on the University of Michigan Press’ main site.

digitalculturebooks: How did you come up with the title?

Kevin Stein: The title Poertry’s Afterlife rebukes the notion that poetry is “dead” within our culture. As poet, scholar, and professor, I’d literally grown up with the assumption that poetry was knocking on heaven’s door. All of my teachers said so, nearly all the literary magazines bemoaned it, and most of my poet friends thought of themselves as nobly pursuing a moribund art. When I was named Illinois Poet Laureate in 2003, to my surprise I first discovered and then was sweetly flummoxed by the widespread public interest in poetry. What fascinated me was the disparity between the professor’s notion of poetry’s mortality and the spirited reception verse enjoyed when I presented well over 100 readings in schools, factories, nursing homes, churches, urban parks, and rural public libraries. It struck me then that poetic art had not given up its literary ghost. For a fated art supposedly pushing up aesthetic daisies, poetry these days is up and about in the streets, schools, universities, and clubs. Largely overlooked by national media, poetry flourishes among the people in a lively if curious underground existence. It’s this second life, or better, poetry’s afterlife, that interests me.

In what ways is poetry changing in the “digital age” as your subtitle alludes to?

In this crucial (and potentially vexing) moment for poetry, technology will have much to do with poetry’s evolving to satisfy fresh readerly interests. At root, the issue can be traced to this: an evolution is underway both in the manner that verse is created by poets and in the fashion that it is received by readers. Ours is a moment of fomentation, when both the traditional and the experimental wrestle for poetry lovers’ attention and affection. Conventional academic poetry is being challenged by competing versions of Feminist, theoretical, and ethnopoetries that offer opposing ideas of how poetry should be written and of what concerns it should address on the page. What’s more, the very notion of the poem as bound to the printed page also is under dispute. For poetry, our culture’s five hundred year love affair with the paper book faces competition from old and new quarters alike. Now the ancient concept of poetry as inherently an oral experience finds expressions in Slam and spoken word poetries that insist on oral as opposed to written performance and reception of verse. On a new front, various forms of digital and video poetry especially designed for the computer screen stretch the supposed boundaries of creating and distributing verse. It’s a thrilling time for poets and for poetry.

Why does the poet James Wright fascinate you?

For me, Wright represents a key twentieth-century poet who both rides and resists the swing of poetry’s aesthetic pendulum of taste and theory. In my view, this fertile give and take is the basis for all artistic advances. Wright worked at poetry’s polar ends of academic and experimental verse–and he voiced his dissatisfactions with both. Here’s his unpublished toothy ditty on the perils of both modes:

The boring, yapping schools

of beat and slick.

They make me sick.

In seeking what he calls a “furious and unceasing growth” as an artist, Wright tried on for size widely various aspects of poetic theory and form. Even better, Wright scribbled extensive commentary on his literary drafts, reflecting not only on his concerns for the poem at hand but also on his musings regarding larger aesthetic history. Wright’s unpublished, heretofore unseen drafts present a trove of unguarded reflections on the nature of being a poet. These drafts bristle with all the poignant philosophical, aesthetic, and emotional wranglings of a poet in the thrall of making. His drafts are thus portals to the poetic process.

In an increasingly digitalized culture, what’s the future of such literary “papers”?

That’s a thorny question for writers as well as archivists. What we consider to be a writer’s literary “papers” is evolving at a frenetic pace. Once we regarded it only as the poet’s handwritten drafts and notebooks; then we welcomed as well the typescript hunt-and-pecked on a manual typewriter, including all the necessary handwritten cross outs and revisions. Now one can fairly make the claim that literary papers include computer hard drives, portable flash drives, and the like. Given the computer as the site where many poets create their work–sidestepping handwritten draft altogether–one can well imagine many poems never making the transition to paper.  Many draft pieces are revised and amended wholly on screen; thus, archivists and readers will never have the opportunity to follow the map of the poet’s process, its swerves and false starts and backups. Worse yet, a poet may simply zap the unsatisfactory poem into the digital ether with one click of a mouse. In this way poems are going unborn in the computer’s curious death by zeroes and ones.

Within a book on contemporary poetry, why do you include chapters reflecting on youth poems and on how poetry is taught to young folks?

Not only do young people embody poetry’s future, but they also may show us the way to refashioning the interaction of poetry and culture. More than to the written text, young people are drawn to oral, audio, and video poetry, as well as to emerging forms of digital presentation of verse. They innately recognize poetry’s oral roots and its social functions within the larger culture. Just as importantly, their poems reveal a depth of joy that society has generally repressed in most adults. And to the surprise of many, young folks’ poetry exhibits an amazingly sophisticated understanding of our volatile social scene. We ought to pay attention to that. Most importantly, we poets and teachers must, as I like to say, catch kids bfore they learn to hate poetry as it is often (mis)taught in our schools. If we wait until high school or college to offer them the gift of poetry, we have delayed too long. Middle School represents our last, best hope of installing in youth a life-giving affection for poetry that will sustain them throughout their lives.

Kevin Stein is Caterpillar Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Bradley University and has served as Illinois Poet Laureate since 2003, having assumed the position formerly held by Gwendolyn Brooks and Carl Sandburg. He is the author of numerous books of poetry and criticism.

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