Steven Reese is a poet and professor in the English Department at Youngstown State University. His poetry book Excentrica: Notes on the Text, has just been published by BlazeVOX publishers. He resides in Youngstown, OH.
What are your concerns as a poet, the themes to which you keep returning, and why?
I think I’m often writing about the rhythms of experience, whether the experience is personal or historical, private or public—in fact, those terms define part of the rhythm. And I’m interested in the language we use to describe those rhythms, which can be limiting or expansive, punitive or encouraging, inherited or self-made in some fresh way. The “why” is at least partly because these elements are what poetry is made of: language and rhythm. Poetry is sometimes associated with flights of fancy, obscurity, some kind of “out-there” element that divorces it from common experience; but the poems I value and that I try to write are very directly connected to lived experience, its rhythms, its music. The best book I know on this matter is by the American philosopher John Dewey, called Art as Experience.
Tell us about your recent book. What inspired it?
The book coming out from BlazeVOX publishers, up around Buffalo, is called Excentrica: Notes on the Text, and it’s a strange little bird. Its left margin reproduces passages from a book of poems called Excentrica, by a poet named Renate Stefan, whose first language is German but who writes in English and Romanian and French as well. The right margin—also in verse—provides commentary (or tries to) on the passages in the left margin. The real poem—or verse-essay or lyric criticism or whatever name it might go by—is in the right margin, generated by the prompting of the text on the left side. It’s like footnotes on drugs. But good drugs. I have forgotten to say that both the book of poems Excentrica and its author, Renate Stefan, are complete fictions.
What inspired Excentrica may best be expressed by this line from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Circles," from which my book of poems quotes frequently: "the life of [human beings] is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end."
I've always loved how literature takes me out into the world, expands my own world--I think this is one of the best reasons to be an English major!, or at least read widely. Etymologically, the word eccentric means away or out from center; conventionally, that means not normal, not what most people do. But, if Emerson is right, the ex-centric is the person who expands his or her circles with energy and delight, and so much of literature confirms and applauds that expansion. That's what inspired the book--in some ways, it's a love letter to literature.
When did you first start to write poetry? Has teaching been a boon or hindrance to your art? Please explain.
I first started to write poetry in grade school, but did a little "chapbook" of poems in junior high that I think was my first "serious" effort, guided by a very good teacher-poet in the Ithaca, N.Y. area whose name I've forgotten--and I'm sorry to say that because he was a poet who inspired not just by his writing but by his taking it out into the world--ex-centrically.
Teaching has been without question a boon to my writing, again for ex-centric reasons: in the classroom, your personal, inner pleasures in the text aren't work a damn unless you can carry them over (the literal meaning of translation) to others. In fact, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet James Wright wouldn't teach "creative writing" to his students, only lit. That's extreme, but it makes a point: nothing will better expand the circle of your own abilities than setting them beside the best of what's been done already.