Last words & epigraphs
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Against Myopia: The Dedication of D. E. Steward
D.E. Steward was born in central New Jersey in 1936. He's spent the last several years in Basel, Switzerland, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Tubingen, West Germany, and is now living in Princeton, N.J. Dave has written a slew of unpublished novels. He has one published collection of stories, Four Stories (Oasis Books, 1978), though his graphics, poetry, stories, novel excerpts, and reviews have been published in an enormous number of magazines since 1965, including The New African, Chicago Review, Transatlantic Review, Kansas Quarterly, Bachy, Beyond Baroque, Center, River Styx, Vagabond, Scree, Periodics, Webster Review, North American Review, The Phoenix, Cimarron Review, South Dakota Review, Eureka, Gargoyle, Telephone, Interstate, The Mill, Panache, Minnesota Review, Intermedia, The Charlottesville Observer, Mississippi Review, Telegram, Oasis, Porch, Transition (Kampala), Puerto del Sol, San Francisco Review of Books, Pacific Sun Quarterly, Bogg, Carolina Quarterly, Invisible City, and Harpoon.
Steward: Sure, it bothers me that NY publishers might be ignoring my work categorically, that is in both senses of the word and the double meaning's intended. Reputation is more important in trade publishing than most intangibles and what I'm saying right now probably won't help mine. It's what they go on. But I'm not sure that a rep of being "cerebral, etc." even matters. Often NY publishing people are foggy about literary criteria. It's like rugs: roll it out, check the nap, maybe I should say the pile, then buy by the yard. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, usually I've found agents to be more literary than editors. Their philistinism being less guarded, sometimes agents let themselves actually be moved by good writing. Trade editors really have to be careful in order to keep their jobs, that's the problem. It's the nature of their business.
Before putting my foot in it any further, let me refer you to the most extreme articulate position I know of the righteous writer versus NY publishing. It's what William Gass said about it in his New Fiction (Illinois, 1974) interview. And I won't quote. Gass has his books out and I don't.
People read what they hear about and what's available. Nobody in apple country wants mangos until they're on the shelves. And then too there are dozens of other perfectly delicious tropical fruits we don't get yet. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of remarkable writers who have books ready to be published and distributed that people would be just as ready to read as those that are available. But trade publishing panders to the base and saturates the limited market with stuff that's aimed low and common. If even a few trade houses started putting more mangos on their lists, the chain bookstores would sell the good books at the same rate they sell all those bad books right now. It works that way in European countries and Japan. People who bother with books at all are literate, curious, imaginative, they read ready to use their full capacities. But what do we get out of New York? Mostly crotch scratchers, ho-hum safe little novels, and flashers from whatever milieu is most fashionable at the moment. And most readers who don't go beyond a Walden's think those are the best that are being written.
Trade publishing people claim their business is the victim of American bad taste, that's absurd, many, many trade books are active debasers of American taste. Both by the almost Gresham's law manner in which they occupy the existing market so that better books don't find publishers, and by their own frequent lack of any literary interest at all.
This situation is often the most pivotal problem any serious American writer has to face. There are so many facets of it, and so many ways to perceive it. And it's so terrible for the good writer who keeps losing to it. That old justifier of trade publishing that goes, "All good writing eventually gets published" is cruel beyond description to writers like Carol Berge and any of the rest of us who don't have five more decades to invest in chipping away at trade publishing indifference.
And the ironies that blow across the trade publishing morass are deep and bitter. Significant American books may only get into print somewhere else, sometimes England, sometimes Canada as in the case of Mary Meigs' remarkable memoirs. Books that are published get changed and homogenized. What happened to The Red Badge of Courage and Thomas Wolfe's last work is characteristic, and these days all that's much worse. And of course quite a few fine foreign books written in English never become available in the US. But what it can do to writers' lives is the worst. Never forget once talking with an old guy six months from the grave who, after a lifetime of trying to get his books out, had just published his "first novel." There he was in Santa Monica sitting happily on his first and only two thousand dollar advance claiming to me again and again like rote that anybody who says they write for anything but money is lying. He wouldn't shut up on that and I got up and left. I knew an American writer in Spain like that too, who never published a thing except the journalistic crap he did to stay alive and who died in his little finca in the sierra falling into his typewriter, literally. No, the compound ironies of the righteous writer versus NY publishing are boundless, quite perplexing, and profoundly sad. But I don't think they always have been and that's what makes it all even sadder.
No, I don't consider myself an experimental writer. I don't have many stylistic matrices, I mean I try most things in the manner it looks as though they can best be done. Sometimes that results in unusual forms, and so my mild reputation of being experimental I guess. Probably the self-consciousness that setting out to be experimental requires, comes from other concepts of what writing is than the ones I have. If your endeavor is the concrete, the image on the page, that's one thing and the ramifications are fascinating, A la Interstate, Harley Lond, Kostelanetz and all the others. But words themselves are the most important thing for me. I guess I'm sometimes deemed experimental because I often disregard the old conventions of how things get organized from words on up.
The words are everything and the form beyond them is inevitable. Like Godard says, it's always there, a beginning, middle and an end, only not absolutely in that order. In America we're so thoroughly inculcated with the conventional tale form that it seems to be very hard for even the most inventive and imaginative readers to back away from it easily. So what do we have? A lot of good writers still writing Saturday Evening Post stories, the form they were brought up on. And American readers accepting it because there it is in print. It's like that person telling Werner von Braun that instead of all the space stuff he was doing, he and everybody else "should all be home watching television like God intended." It's ignorant, cramped and a prime example of how reluctant even bright people can be to live within their own times. The tired old conventional narrative form with all its false directions between lines of dialogue, that found its apogee in the last century, is buggy whipping it. To be satisfied with conventionality in fiction is like sitting listening to a crystal set when the whole modern world is exploding through quad speakers just outside. Sure, people like it quiet, but like genre painting the old and quiet ways will always be there for those who need it.
Interviewers: You've been on the fringe of the NY publishing world for years. You almost landed a novel in 1970, and are, or have been, close to many well-established writers. Your work has been published in many "name" magazines, a fact which usually facilitates subsequent book publication, yet this hasn't been your experience. What do you think has created the dichotomy between this acceptance by periodicals on the one hand, and the blanket rejection by book publishers on the other?
Steward: For the record, in 1968 after a long talk and a promise, David Segal, RIP, turned full around and balked on one novel while he was at Harper & Row. In 1970, the editor in chief of the only major house in New York still owned by one person scurried miserably out of a verbal contract he'd given me on another novel after I'd even done rewriting on it on his demand. About the same time, an agent I had in London, who later became an editor at Knopf, told me positively that a good London house had accepted my South African novel, All of Us Were Born Here. When I got no other word I ran down that London publisher at the Frankfurt Book Fair and he professed ignorance of the deal. Who knows what happens? And then after it happens, or doesn't happen, if anybody ever finds out, who cares? Those are the only close ones I know much about but there were others handled by various agents I've had.
So, no, I have no clear idea about why there's such a dichotomy in my case between magazine acceptances and getting books out. Only one obvious observation on that: most places I publish have editors who care first about writing and only very secondarily about making money on what they do. It's a truism in 1982 to say that small press is where the best writing comes out. While I'm on that, deep bows to the few dozen serious small press editors-publishers. Good small press people have vastly more lit savvy than the corporate publishing people. Publishing's an oblong world, from the fervid dedication of a John Bennett to the naked commercialism of the most venal of the major trade houses.
Interviewers: How many unpublished novels are you sitting on?. I know of something like three Vietnam novels and a South African novel, plus Contact Inhibition, Hormuz, and Bjornoy Radio. Could you run them down briefly and tell us a little something of what each is about?
Steward: Eleven. A couple of those have been rewritten completely years after they were originally finished. In the order I first wrote them, and thanks for asking:
There Is a Dream Dreaming Us was an inventive title when I chose it twenty years ago, now it's almost a self-realization cliché. It's not a bad book. Goes around the world two different ways. The main characters, two Americans, meet in the 1951 retreat from Seoul. It's got bandits and Siberia and everything in it.
We Are Two Things is internal, exhaustive, but not all that bad as a second novel. Parts of it are lyric and in it I think I first began to write all out.
All of Us Were Born Here is a strong and unusual novel about a sabotage organization that was broken up in the Republic of South Africa in 1964.
No One Has Seen Us is about crossing America East to West, California in the sixties, fighting fire for the Forest Service and getting out to Mexico. It's eerie and wonderful.
Burn Us in the Night is one of what you just called my Vietnam novels. It's a projection beyond the ways in which that war was brought home. By the way, those Vietnam novels aren't about Vietnam, they're about what we were doing there. This one's about a dystopia.
November 3, 1943 is about one day in Europe when a lot happened, when a lot of people died. It's about only a few of them and in it I try to get at what it is about Germany.
The World is an ironic title used in the same way the phrase was used by Americans in SE Asia. The novel screams about what that kind of insular awareness does to people.
Bjornoy Radio is about one person, an Oblomov, in a beach apartment in Santa Monica. He doesn't leave it because he can't do anything about the war going on outside. A lot of people come to see him. Appreciated that you published a bit of it in Gargoyle 14.
Contact Inhibition is about three fated people in no time in no place. It's a complicated and successful novel. A representative excerpt called "Sequence" came out in the last Bachy, that's no. 18, And like most of my other novels, quite a bit of it has been published in magazines.
Hormuz, at 80,000 words, is slightly longer than most novels I've done so far. It's about one white and one black American who live in California. I did a part of it at a Gargoyle reading at the old Writer's Center in Glen Echo so you both know how it goes. It's mostly dialogue rooted in the two characters. They review their lives, how they got that way and their futures. And the future arrives in the book.
Mac is just finished. It's about a great white hunter and his wife who have to leave Tanzania, and about a Spanish-speaking woman from New Mexico.
The only other book I've done was in 1978 when I self-published in only a couple dozen copies a travel book about Japan and Korea called Through the Solstice. Then I've put together collections of short fiction for contests and recently I put together my first book of poetry. I've only been writing poetry seriously for a few years. The book's called Torque.
Interviewers: But you're not bitter? You don't envision yourself winding up like the lunatic you mentioned to me once who wrote obsessively for years and filled an entire room with text?
Steward: Of course I'm bitter, but try not to be so in a way that inhibits my work. Probably the worst part about not getting books you've done out is having to hustle for money all the time. But at least in our time money's fairly easy to generate in other ways. And then I've been very lucky to get good jobs when I have to. The kind that pay well and don't cramp but that do teach me things. But then jobs in themselves do keep you from writing. As Gary Snyder says, when you're sweeping a fire tower you have to realize you're sweeping a fire tower and not resent that it's keeping you from writing.
For me the Forest Service and a good conventional education have always produced when need be. Details aren't important, it's only that you have to want to badly enough in order to keep writing. The standard definition of a journalist as a writer who didn't try hard enough is generally a very accurate one. Although last year one of the hottest New York agents was telling me that most novels that get published in New York these days come from journalists, people who've been around Time-Life or whatever long enough to figure out exactly what will go. So even the old values, as John Bennett calls them, get crunched by trade publishing laying its asphalt.
In the metropolitan countries at least, these are still fat times and I don't think I'll end up filling a room in an asylum with unpublished work. At DOCUMENTA 6 in Kassel they had a room like that piled to the ceiling with the illustrated manuscripts of a poor soul who'd been convicted of child molestation in Switzerland early this century. It was moving to stand at DOCUMENTA with those manuscripts shoulder high around you. Bittersweet ending to that one though, not long ago the illustrations he did for his life-book took off in European art markets and he was the fashionable European painter of the year recently. Of course all long after he was gone.
Then there's a new perspective on nonpublication. From here on out accomplished writers whose books don't get published may well end up on library microfilm or fiche or on digital discs. And this technology might be the most enduring kind of publishing of all, whenever anybody pushes the retrieval buttons. Then how often are the dead books of even last year checked out of libraries? For one, in the future I'd rather have the typescript images of an early novel of mine like We Are Two Things in a net of computers than to have written and published it in an earlier era so that it would be sitting, in all probability dead, in a few libraries getting eaten by silverfish and having its sulfur paper about to disintegrate.
Interviewers: I get the sense that the majority of your prose work is to a large degree autobiographical. Is this true?
Steward: Not to a large degree, no. For example, that story of mine you published in Gargoyle 20/21 is set in the early 1300s. You're right though in that I do generally write about things I know fairly well at close hand. Let me get out of this one with the cliché about taking bits from one and bits from another person I've known to create characters. And I guess I know myself best so that's where I've taken the most bits.
Interviewers: Do you outline a book or write the ending first and work toward it? What's your process? How do you get yourself started?
Steward: Usually start anything except a poem with a quasi-outline, a lot of ideas, quite a few notes. I usually don't see the ending until I'm over half finished with a novel. Every day I know pretty much what I want to do and doing that leads me to the next day's start. I work from cogent and brief notes and go to them a lot. Rarely any problem in getting any piece of writing, least of all a book, started. There's so much I have that I want to do!
Generally I write first draft prose on keyboards but early drafts of poetry on pads. Keyboards don't inhibit me, I was brought up on them, bought a typewriter at nine, started to write letters to people on it.
Interviewers: Who do you read?
Steward: Anybody who interests me and as much as I can. Reading is everything. I keep a pile of books all going for different moods. Try to read poetry first thing on waking up to get started as far out of the banal as possible. If I listed names here the list would have to be very long. I could do a book on that one, want to sometime. Imagine the wealth of literature that we can command! What lies in libraries waiting for us. The literature of dozens of cultures and many eras. Your DC Anthology, Rick, is testimony to this depth and it's only gone to a single filament of what there is in any major library. We can go from Lady Murasaki to The New Oxford Book of American Verse, skip on into the deep banks of our direct contemporaries, and then back to Lady Murasaki via the French, the English, the Russians!, just the Russians are almost enough to fill a whole life with reading. As I read at all methodically, I like to read in blocks. Scandinavian writers this year, Latin American next, that sort of thing. And then too I read a lot of books other than prose fiction and poetry.
Interviewers: What magazines?
Steward: Everything that comes to hand in the small press network. TLS. NYR. Scan others like New Republic, Science, Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American. I'm a science groupie because biology is the most remarkable endeavor of our age and some of the other hard sciences aren't far behind.
Interviewers: You've been accused of never describing people in your work. Usually the dialogue, or interior monologue, carries the entire narrative weight. Why? What are you doing?
Steward: Toward the end of Hormuz I describe the book's two characters totally, from quality of toenails to quality of scalp, taking many pages for each person. OK, of course that was a retort to people who say I don't do it enough. But what was I doing in that? I was writing. When I let dialogue or interior writing do it, then I'm doing it that way. The only explicit answer I can give you to your "Why?", is that since all of us have only 640,000 hours to live and since many of those are gone in my case, I'm surely not going to blow time on trying to match anybody's idea of how to narrate prose fiction. I'm writing. I'm writing. And I don't mean this testily. One thing is that part of the excitement of art is its intelligence, and intelligent art only has to imply in order to convey. Another is the nature of our existence now. Not that people are all the same now, but their lives and attitudes are remarkably standardized and that frightening fact implies new ways of writing about those lives. I don't mean to reify the way I write, but what I just said is one thing that's behind my usual avoidance of conventional narrative. It's boring. I'm not trying anything using conventional narrative.
But talking about style is poisonous so let's get off that one.
Interviewers: You seem obsessed by tiny details. Your writing shows an encyclopedic knowledge of how things work and where things come from. Are you just naturally inquisitive? Who are your models for the compulsive listing, cataloging?
Steward: Sure, I'm naturally inquisitive and can't imagine how anybody cannot be. Ignore equals ignorant.
Now I'll dispute you, I don't often catalogue or list. Whenever I do maybe I'm picking up old influences of Thomas Wolfe and Henry Miller. What I do often do is go on about a landscape and what lives on it more exhaustively than many people who frequent mostly asphalt and concrete care to confront. If I have one cause, it's against the Bernard-Henry Levy dictum that anything not human is inconsequential. Everything in our view must remain in our ken or we can right now relegate our future to totalitarian political forms and the viciousness of bare concrete. And our arrogant elevation of ourselves above and apart from our environment is not in the least new. In the West even our main religions are founded on it and in large part it's the article of faith that's allowed the vast barbarities that have characterized so much of modern history and life. But no need to go on about the obvious.
Interviewers: You also seem more analytical than imaginative at times. Or is this an artificial distinction?
Steward: In the realm of ideas there simply isn't much imaginative about the truth, truth simply is. My truth, your truth, sure, but there are absolute truths. OK, so one problem is that in the Anglophone world, literature usually doesn't become valuable for its ideas until an era or two after it's written. We've codified that into a principle that now reads: don't write about ideas.
But to your point, I hope it is an artificial distinction. Truly have no idea whether or not it is because I revere imagination over anything else I'm able to muster as I write. I don't understand how the wonder of pure imagination works, am awed by it, am fascinated with launching imaginative passages as I write, and feel I have more than a modicum of it--maybe even the mini-synopses of the novels I've written that I gave you earlier shows that. One thing could be that one person's imagination may be another's irrelevancy or obviosity. Maybe I have a banal imagination. Hope not.
Interviewers: Hard science plays a large role in your writing. You claimed once that Godel, Escher, Bach with its stress on "artificial intelligence, recursive reasoning, and paradox" would change the times the way George Steiner's After Babel had before it. Has anything really changed?
Steward: No, and yes, and then yes it will change. But not as a result of the book. Great books out of the liberal tradition don't actively get reified. Abstracts become actual fast only when you've got Pol Pots around. People who don't realize that computers are offering us new freedoms and patterns of thought are as touchingly absurd as the anti-plastic people were a generation ago. Computers, AI, all the rest of what's growing from these staggering modern technologies, won't do us in, they're precarious goat leaps in the progress of the evolution of our species.
I hope Steiner's After Babel really did change the times. Did you know that most academics don't seem to be able to accept Steiner as real? That he doesn't care what they think helps his ideas no end. Look how his A.H. book is shaking the accepted wisdom right now.
Interviewers: I seem to perceive two rapidly dividing camps over the new technologies and their application to the writing/composing process. You've done a lot of writing on computers. Is it the way to go?
Steward: Imagine the "I" in this question is Rick. And being a publisher, Rick, you must know a lot more than I do about how computer applications are working out in that realm. From my point of view as an individual writer, not only do word processors speed things up immensely, the tricks you can do with them for me have made for some substantial graphics
But to answer the question, of course it's the way to go because it's here. We can't go out and bury all the computers and get back to letter press just because letter press still looks nicer. What will probably happen, if traditional typography is essential to enough people, is that soon there'll be computer composers that will imitate exactly the old letter press look and its textures. That will be done as easily as watches with LCD graphiced analogue faces and ersatz hands are for sale all over the place right now. People want a watch to look like a watch, then make the chips that can make it took like a watch. All this sort of thing is a lot like putting potmetal federal eagles over the doors of mobile homes, but if people want to try to live in a time behind their own that's their business.
Interviewers: Now you're writing long poetry cycles at a time when this seems unpopular. What does the cycle enable you to do? Create a larger picture? Something more akin to fiction?
Steward: Leland Hickman who ran Bachy for its last issues, RIP, Bachy, not Lee, he's going strong, responded to the first long cycle I did, published it, and that induced me to do another. Lee published that one in Bachy too. I look forward to doing more. Cycles, in my slight experience with them, enable kinetic intensity and rapid capture of cascading experience. Altogether now I've lived in thirteen countries for more than a couple of months each and wish I had done poetry cycles out of every one of them. But all things come in their own good time and I didn't even venture to write any poetry at all until after nine or ten novels. As it is one of the two cycles I've done is mostly about England and I've never even lived in England. To go on answering your question, sure within their intensity, cycles do allow a great deal more than a single poem can generally manage. Akin to fiction? No, I don't think so.
I used to read Kazantzakis' Odyssey Sequel in Kimon Friar's translation, probably the most significant modem cycle of all, uncomprehending of the depth of its wonder. Now I understand better. One thing poetry cycles can do for anybody who tries to write them is get them off the petty and mundane.
Interviewers: How do you decide what will be poetry, what will be fiction?
Steward: I don't know. For one thing I don't decide. There must be some automatic relegation. Give you an example. Not long ago I took a note I'd made months before that read something like "Write a story about guaruras." Guarura is current New World Spanish slang for a bodyguard or any other sort of hired gun. Anyway, note in hand, I thought to myself, yes, that's interesting, and wrote a poem called "Guaruras." How it got from story to poem over a period of months I don't know. More probable than any other explanation is that there was something the day I wrote it that would have made it a poem no matter how I'd designated the idea before.
Of course ideally I'd like my prose to get so poetic that there would be little distinction between forms.
Interviewers: You've stated that "all poetry has to adhere to a human scale." Could you elaborate on this?
Steward: Gretchen, I think we were once trying to define poetry and I had this "adhere to a human scale" idea but now can't recover my line of reasoning, whatever it was. Let's see, might I have meant that poetry, by nature of its laser economy, cannot avoid humanity, while there are frequent trade novels that manage in hundreds of pages to never once touch human reality? No, it was something more subtle than that. I just can't pull it right now.
Interviewers: You're also outspokenly political, in conversation and letters as well as in your work. And your experiences in Vietnam and South Africa makes politics a natural component in many of your novels. How can you incorporate your views into prose or poetry without overwhelming the work with rhetoric and topical analyses?
Steward: Once I flew across the south coast of Vietnam but that's the closest I've come. I was a grunt in Korea right after the war there, as a U.S. Army draftee, and from that was fairly well able to imagine what was going on in Vietnam later on. I made it in South Africa for six months before I had to leave for Swaziland and anybody who's ever been in South Africa even six days would have to be very, very self-absorbed not to learn that in some places politics are more important in the lives and more on the minds of many people than, say, singles bars. So why aren't politics as valid to write about as singles bars?
What that runs into, especially in the Anglophone world, is the old taboo against writing fiction about ideas. There's a complicated history to that one that has to do with the literati getting burned by red scares, the Hitler-Stalin Nonaggression Pact, and a fork in the road way back at the beginning of the century when it was decided that art was art and everything else was something else.
Your question implies that I'm a didactic writer full of topical analyses. Of course there's nothing deader than last year's topical analyses, and so that's often a fatuous thing to work in. Then some people's profundities are other people's topical analyses, and I don't think we can tell for sure which is which until way down the line. There are endless examples of topical analyses coming on through as literature in 19th century Russian writing, and then the Cantos will be read forever for all their absurdities of anti-semitism and funny money.
Interviewers: Have you tried writing for film? Or do you consider it a comparable art form?
Steward: No. And no again, I don't consider a film a comparable art form. Once I was almost escorted directly to the eastern Polish border for saying that at a Soviet propaganda fest in the Crimea. Often it's the people who want to inculcate simplistic ideas fast and thoroughly into masses of other people who believe that film is comparable. And that's a revealing paradox: that ideas as such aren't deemed by most to be worthy fodder for fiction and poetry while if any good movie manages to get across an idea everybody gurgles about how great it is.
Movies are fine. I love them, if they're good. But they're something else. Not even as comparable to literature as, say ballet is to opera. As we go toward laser disc video recording of camera images a lot of the real film people, who love to touch it in the cutting rooms, are in a tizzy. And according to two old pro movie people I know, laser disc video images for movie house screens is right on top of us, and at four thousand lines to the inch! If you look for an analogy of that kind of change in literature it's probably about like moving from the handcopy and oral tradition to Gutenberg.
Interviewers: You were surrounded by a large writing community during your recent stay in Charlottesville, Virginia. You've commented to us before your surprise that the majority of the young poets and writers were not sending out their work, as though they expected to be discovered. Any comments?
Steward: Charlottesville gave me my first exposure to workshop writers. I still have some friends there and so won't say more. Except that I hope every high school, college, community organization and shopping center in America starts a creative writing program to give all those people (not my friends, they'll do OK on their own) a livelihood because that's what it looks to be that most workshop writers really want to do. And that's fine I guess. When I was small everybody was playing canasta. Writing's probably better for people than playing canasta or watching the tube. In mostly being chicken about submitting their work, at least I guess workshop writers are being realistic about the market. That's more than can be said for the rest of us. But a lot of these workshop people don't even really know about small press, they're riveted on The New Yorker and beyond. Amazing.
Interviewers: We've argued about regionalism in writing. Yet I think you have a peculiarly West Coast drift in most of your work.
Steward: Right, I probably am against everybody else's regionalism from the arrogance of my own. My West Coast drift is somewhat an assumed pose because I haven't lived there all that long. But the freedom and tolerance that seems endemic to it stays with anybody who's enjoyed it. And I like to pull for it over the depressing myopia of New York because if there's any hope of getting trade publishing decentralized in the US, the first counterpoint will be California. Washington could be the second. Go to it.
If small press, or whatever does it, can really bust the hold New York has on trade publishing, get ready for the Golden Age. We have the awareness and depth of sensitivity in consciousness right now in American writing to do it. Whitman's great American dream is here. The language is ready and is bubbling with it. We're in a fucking renaissance but the whole thing is bottled up by a few sales managers in New York who worry about profit and loss. That's the horror, it's Henry Miller's rattlesnake in the freezer, that we have all this in America, all this common profound experience and awareness, and this rolling, sonorous, great language of ours, but the only writing most people find available to read is either journalism or nice little books people write about their own cats or their own little dicks or their own little glorianas. Or maybe one of the trumped-up big bombshell novels that are always coming through that the system can't wait to finish the package on and move off onto T-shirts, the movie screen, and then the CRT.
Interviewers: Did you study English or creative writing in school?
Steward: No, neither. I took normal liberal arts English courses that put me off even reading poetry for ten years after. Maybe English departments are better now and then I was subjected to an especially costive one. Writing courses now probably are much as they looked to be then, although now that they're an industry onto themselves they've reached a critical mass and the whole thing may result, as I suggested only mock-jokingly before, in a new literate way for many people to spend leisure time. Then I'm always trying to see the best in anything.
Interviewers: You've spent most of the past decade in Europe. How are American writers received over there? What writers have penetrated the foreign market and made it to the shelves? And what would you say the major differences are between the writing communities in this country and abroad?
Steward: In Europe all writers, American and otherwise, are accepted and rather respected just on the face of their being writers. Europeans read. In the US we have only maybe two million readers who are more than casual about it, under one percent of the population. Have no idea what the true percentage is in any European country but there's no doubt that the European to US ratio roughly approaches an inverse one to figures on handgun death rates and everybody knows what those are. The United States in these matters is quite an exotic place, quite different in its generally-held values from most countries, certainly from European countries and Japan.
Checking my own impressions about the last two thirds of your question with James Phillips, a poet from Seattle who's lived for most of the last ten years in Paris and Tubingen, he enforces what I was going to answer about Beat and anecdotal poetry from America finding the biggest response in Europe. Europeans go for the open page exuberance they think is characteristic in American writing. What has come out of their own tradition of French symbolism to semiotics, the hermetic tradition if you will, doesn't seem to much interest Europeans, as it appears now in American poetry that is. Wallace Stevens is barely translated or read in Europe while Charles Bukowski's been vastly successful in Europe for years. Except for the biggest names in America, who all come through to Europe in translation, the other American writers who make it are a strange mixed bag, and not a very full bag. It's almost as though language barriers are like high walls that people are trying to chuck books over and that a few make it over but most do not, and that whatever books do get to the other side come across by luck. But Europeans still read vast numbers of American books. Go to the Frankfurt Book Fair sometime and you'll see that one of the main things going on there is Europeans buying rights to American books.
Relying again on Jim Phillips' impressions, he's absolutely tri-lingual and really lives within Europe while I am a foreign resident when there, the communities of writers are always much more formal in Europe. And then the old days of dozens of American "writers" hanging around the sunny places in Europe pretty much ended with the collapse of the dollar in the mid-seventies. Then to give a hint of how good European lit people see some of the difference between communities, Carl Weissner in Mannheim, describing a German TV interview with Nelson Algren says, "what a difference from our Kraut pseudo-intellectual, crypto-bohemian accountant types boldly usurping the TV screen all the time."
Interviewers: What are your plans?
Steward: To write as much as possible and publish as much of it as I can. To stay as clean of opportunism as I'm able. And to avoid talking about it whenever I can, except for times like this interview, that I enjoyed doing with the two of you and thank you for.
Interviewed by Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody circa 1983