An Interview with Hugh Behm-Steinberg

V Navarro: Hugh, we at Sweet love your work, and so we want to know: what creative projects have you been working on lately?

Hugh Behm-Steinberg: I finished my bird poems project about a year or two ago, as well as a chapbook of prose pieces on The Sound of Music. I’ve also been involved in an experimental music project with my friend Matt Davignon called Oa, where all the sounds we produce are based on pre-recorded vocal samples. We’re currently working on a cassette and our second album. Here’s a link to a recent interview about that project. Lately, I’ve been working a lot with narratives — short little weird ones, and longer pieces of fiction.

VN: The divide between prose poetry and short fiction is sometimes a tricky one for me in my own work. How do you decide the categorization of your narrative pieces? Is genre important to you during the writing process?

HBS: I tend to sort by length: if it goes past a page, and the piece is primarily narrative, then I start treating it as fiction. I relax/tighten the language, cut the disjunctive poety bits, focus on character and plot. The formatting of prose when you’re sending it out to journals is different than poetry (there’s this thing called “Standard Manuscript Format”). Double-spacing, tabbed indents, etc. Also, if pieces bunch together, they’re poems; if they want to be on their own, they’re fiction.

I think genre has become less important for everybody. What’s changed from when I first started writing prose 30 years ago is that there’s much more acknowledgment that there’s more of a spectrum in prose; really short prose can still be prose, have prose readers, have a prose audience. It isn’t just well crafted short stories and novels with anything else that doesn’t fit only considered as poetry.

VN: Your poems are often surreal and dreamlike, two qualities I try to cultivate in my own poems. However, I often worry that my readers may struggle to experience my work if the images become too unreal. Is this a concern for you as well? How do you keep your poems grounded?

HBS: I think all great poems have something mysterious, unknowable at their heart. So I don’t worry too much about struggle or being grounded.

What prompted my bird poems was the opposite: I was worried my writing had become too slick, that I could write anything and it would sound gorgeous, and thus kind of bullshitty or fake. So I looked to making things rougher, more discordant. Really long lines. Couplets that don’t connect. Cram lots of stressed syllables into the line. Avoid revision — write another poem instead.

When you change your form and your practice, eventually you become a different sort of poet, and that’s really liberating. Then you get more interesting problems.

VN: Speaking of revision, what does your revision process usually look like?

HBS: I tend to write quickly, then do a short proofreading lookover, but I’m not a big fan of revision at this point in my writing life — I’d rather write a new poem then endlessly fuss over an old poem. Most of my revisions take place when I’m sending work out for publication. Enough time has passed and the changes are a little easier to make.

VN: I’m intrigued by the incorporation of images in your chapbook Sorcery and how they organize the text. What was your process for selecting the images and placing them between and around the poems? Do you see them as illustrations for specific poems, or do they work to serve a different purpose?

HBS: My wife is a visual artist — Sorcery was our first collaboration together. We did the whole thing in Word, including image correction. It was like building a house with a Swiss army knife. She picked the images, out of various esoteric illustrations, to form a sort of counter narrative to the poems. All our subsequent Dusie chapbooks are collaborations between my text and her digital collages. My second book, The Opposite of Work, has a flipbook that riffs off one of the poems. J/J Hastain has a good take on what we hope to engender in our collaborations:

VN: I’ve heard that you and Richard Siken are former classmates and good friends, and that the two of you often have discussions on poetry and, sometimes, disagree. Can you give our readers a glimpse into these conversations?

HBS: That’s a hard question to answer because Richard and I hardly talk anymore — we’ll chat when we see each other at AWP, but that’s pretty much it. I don’t think it’s anything personal, our lives are just in different places. I think we were big influences on each other when we were in grad school. We were both pretty voracious readers, worked with collage and white space, and interested in how emotion/feeling/rhetoric could work with the tools of experimental poetry (which at the time largely eschewed emotion/feeling/rhetoric). He was the one who suggested writing a poem a day every day for a year, a project I now do every ten years (and will kick off round three in February, 2017). Richard and I were (and are) both interested in and influenced by other art practices — working from the idea that poetry isn’t a narrow thing, but a way of thinking/being that can inform other creative acts. We’d talk a lot about sound and noise, how a line can really resonate when there’s a little noise mixed into the poem, because we both really cared how poetry sounded — we felt there were a lot of poems with good ideas or moments, but would otherwise just clank, or were the opposite — they sounded good but nothing in them stuck. I think I became more into noise than he did, that’s probably why I got into new music.

VN: As an editor for the journal Eleven Eleven, what has been most exciting to you about the work you’ve been publishing recently?

HBS: That’s an interesting question. In poetry, I’ve seen a transformation in what constitutes “experimental” poetry, with a dialling back of emphasis on form, irony and conceptual planning and a foregrounding of emotions (especially anger) and personal experience/opinion/voice. Long overdue, imho. In prose, I’ve seen a resurgence in work that is more fluid, playful with structure, and willing to incorporate ideas and themes that were once the sole territory of genre fiction.

VN: With that said, what role do you think literary texts play in our current cultural moment? Has their role changed over the last few years? Do we need poetry, stories, and essays for different reasons than we did before?

HBS: I’m answering this question after the election, during which “current cultural moment” means something horribly different than before. I’ve always thought that we exist in a culture that lies to itself, and the writing is often part of this. Increasing the only places you get paid for writing is in the various tentacles of marketing.

We ought to be using writing to be truthful, but it’s probably not a bad idea to learn how to work with doubleness in our art, allowing us to say one thing to our audiences and another to our censors. Start reading lots of writing that took place under authoritarian regimes for models — we’re not the first country this has happened to. Most importantly, we need to nurture, celebrate and protect our communities — there’s a role for literary texts in this too.


 … return to Issue 9.2 Table of Contents.