Steven Karl is the author of Dork Swagger (Coconut Books) and
Sister (Noemi Press). His chapbooks
and collaborative chapbooks have been published by Flying Guillotine Press,
Peptic Robot Press, Lame House Press, and H_NGM_N. Recent poetry and
non-fiction have appeared in The Volta, Real Pants, Coldfront Magazine,
Jellyfish, Pinwheel, Entropy, and The First Time I Heard My Bloody Valentine. He
is a poetry editor for Sink Review and currently lives in Miami, FL, but will
relocate to Tokyo with his wife and daughter in August.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My life did not change dramatically, but there were subtle and gradual changes. I was able to let myself enjoy a feeling of accomplishment, since from a very young age I wanted to write books. As someone who often feels unaccomplished, I suppose it was nice to allow joy into my life and simply accept it. Gradually, as the book existed it afforded me the opportunity to meet and interact with a lot of writers I admired.
Both books are a bit dark, but the first one is also humorous so it was a lot easier to read from whereas, the second one leaves me feeling raw and sometimes overexposed. I’m still figuring out how to live with it now that it’s in the world.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction first, both as a reader and writer. In 6TH grade I wrote a short story (incorporating the week’s vocabulary lesson) called “Ravenous Rick” and it was entered into some school contest where it placed 2nd. In high school my friend & I decided we wanted to be “literary” so we started reading novels and then one of us decided we should read poetry too (although we were still reading two novels to one book of poetry). As a college freshman/ sophomore English major the trend continued of reading significantly more novels than poetry.
I also took undergraduate workshops in both fiction and poetry and wrote horrible fiction imitating some “blend” of Calvino/Borges. My fiction profs were primarily male, egotistical, and only taught dead white men. The workshop atmosphere was pretty competitive and very macho. Maybe I’ll always be a bit too “twee” but it just wasn’t for me. Also, as a multi-ethnic person, I found the all white reading lists to be problematic, especially since I was just becoming aware of Frantz Fanon and reading Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston outside of class curriculum. In contrast, my poetry workshops had wonderful, encouraging, and inspiring female profs that required us to read broadly and critically. Poetry felt alive and necessary and politically charged in a way that fiction (as I was receiving it) did not. I was also slightly better at writing poetry so my interests became more and more focused specifically on poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Each book, each poem is different. My first book, Dork Swagger, came quickly. Some poems remained close to the original, but most were revised. I actually wrote a lot of what is my second book before writing Dork Swagger, and it made a few finalist or semi-finalist lists, etc. but never really clicked as a book. While revising Dork Swagger I also started revising
Sister and more importantly
thinking of how to make Sister
work as a book. So that one changed a lot more from conception to revision than
Dork Swagger and ultimately took a
lot longer. I think Dork Swagger took
about 2 years (although I had written many failed variations of what became the
opening poem over the last 10 years- ha!), whereas Sister probably took closer to five years. For most of my
life I’ve been a volume writer, but in the past two years the writing has
become slower and slower and no where near a final version.
I also have a 1-year old daughter ( I know we’ve talked about our babies/children before), so currently everything is based on taking notes or just jotting down a line here or there and hoping to sculpt it into something later down the line.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
This too changes all the time. After writing three poems in succession very quickly, I knew Dork Swagger was going to be a book.
Sister started out as individual
poems, some of which appeared in two different chapbooks. However, post- Sister I find that I prefer to
think in terms of a “book,” but don’t always have the time or vision to
manifest my ambition.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I had the unfortunate luck to be raised a Jehovah Witness, so from an early age I had to give bible readings in front of the congregation and didn’t suck at it, so I’ve never dreaded public speaking.
For both books I did a mini-tour and will continue to tour (as much as that is possible since I’m moving to Tokyo in August). I enjoy meeting new people and reading with other poets. I’m Aquarius so perhaps you can blame it on the stars that I’m relatively social. I also like coffee and beer and touring is a good excuse to check out local breweries and coffee shops and of course, see friends scattered across the U.S.
With that being said, I don’t always give good readings and sometimes readings are poorly attended, or the energy of the place is off, so I have a lot of complicated emotions surrounding my own inadequate performance or putting too much value on readings and then getting bummed out and have to work through feelings of futility, etc. So I like giving readings, but don’t always feel good about them.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
While my two books are quite different they both contain political poems. Sometimes the poems are interrogations into the heteronormative ideas of manliness, or they are actively pushing against and questioning a patriarchal society. I’m also interested in violence— how it’s used in oppression, as well as how we consume it as entertainment.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think all writers should aspire to have a role, but I’m cautious about assuming that authority and defining it for anyone other than myself. The idea of a current role is a complicated one as well, because genre influences most of our role expectations, and I think a lot of writers are intentionally pushing against and attempting to destabilize those expectations.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like working with an outside editor and I find feedback instructive. I chatted on the phone with J. Michael Martinez (my editor for the Noemi book) about using “a” versus “the.” Editors have the ability to pick up and question extremely subtle nuances. As writer we make decisions throughout the process of writing and revising, but it doesn’t always guarantee that we are engaged in metacognition for every word in each line we write. Editors, if the experience is positive, can allow us an opportunity to re-enter our work from a perspective that is not unique only to ourselves.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Chris Salerno told me that when his first book came out, he sent it to writers he admired. I’ve often returned to this idea, because most of us work very hard at writing books, deal with huge amounts of rejections, and then FINALLY get a book published, only to become timid about letting the world know about it, especially the writers we admire the most. And who doesn’t like getting free surprise books in the mail?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry, whether solo or collaborative, to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I really enjoy writing collaboratively and have done so with both poets and artists. I think once I’m in Tokyo I’ll really miss my friends and living in the U.S. so I imagine I’ll do more collaborative writing as a means of keeping up a creative dialogue. Although I haven’t gotten a ton of writing done recently, what writing I have done has been in the form of lyric essays and non-fiction vignettes. The appeal of these forms is that it’s another way of writing a sentence or completely breaking apart the sentence.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have much of a routine. I’ve often fantasized about it, but my work schedule fluctuates a lot, so every semester the routine would have to change. This is a roundabout way of saying I often implement routines only to abandon them. A lot of my friends write and publish significantly more than I do and I think a lot of this is because they have routines. I go back and forth with being envious of them and their routines, and being okay with my smaller output and not having a routine. And honestly, now that I have a daughter every day begins with her— writing either happens or it doesn’t. I have to be okay with that.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Oh, I like inspiration. I understand it is often over-used and can feel superficial, but for me it remains important and meaningful. When I’m stalled, I’ll often seek out conversations (face-to-face, phone, email, etc.) with friends to kick-start the brain and shake me out of my malaise. I’m mostly upbeat, but I can be plagued with pessimism and anxiety and my friends know it, so they have been and continue to be extremely generous with their love and encouragement. I also find a lot of inspiration in film and music.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The smell of a freshly mown lawn. It doesn't remind me of Philly (where I was born) but it does remind me of living in South Jersey, Eugene, and Portland, Oregon.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Both of my books are heavily influenced by film and music. Visual art is also an influence, but the writing that comes out of it has been less successful for me.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh, there are so many of them. But I frequently return to Myung Mi Kim, Inger Christensen, James Schuyler, and Joseph Ceravolo.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Perhaps a residency. Even in grad school I worked a lot, so the idea of having entire days to write is still something I fantasize about.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’m rather hopeless in this regard. When I was really young I thought I’d be a lawyer or an astronaut. However, I found studying for the LSAT to be completely dreadful and could never actually visualize myself as a lawyer. As far as being an astronaut, it was the pure daydreams of youth since I actually never bothered to put an ounce of effort into it becoming something I could do.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I like playing basketball, but my handle is non-existent and I am acutely aware at how below par I am at it, so enjoyment is often diminished. I suppose writing doesn’t have to feel good and yet, it feels good knowing that I don’t have to feel good and can still be productive and contribute something to society.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m unreliable when it comes to greatness, but some recent books I’ve read and enjoyed are: Khadijah Queen’s Fearful Beloved, Taylor Jacob Pate’s Becoming the Virgin, Sade Murphy’s Dream Machine, and Sarah Bartlett’s Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Out.
I recently saw the film The Lobster, which I did not think was great, but did thoroughly enjoy Joe (Hall) and Cheryl’s (Quimba) discussion of it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m somewhat poorly alternating between three different books. The first is a poetry manuscript that needs a bit more research and editing, the second is a hybrid book on cults, and the third is a non-fiction book of mostly vignettes.