Smile Politely

Kevin Stein: Poet Laureate, future celebutante

While in town for the Early Spring Literary Festival, Illinois State Poet Laureate Kevin Stein took time to talk about artistic kleptomania, Charlie Sheen, and trying to fill the giant shoes of former poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks. Stein gave two talks on March 14, the first on his most recent critical work, Poetry’s Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age, and the second, a reading of his poetry.

(Editor’s note: This is part of Smile Politely’s ongoing coverage of the university’s Early Spring Literary Festival, which is in its last day today. Click here for a complete schedule of events.)

A lot of your poetry talks about music or musicians — Marley, Coltrane, Hendrix, Elvis, and others — and you mention “artistic kleptomania” in Poetry’s Afterlife. So do you feel like you steal ideas or get inspired from music?

I hope so. My general feeling is that, for me, the arts intersect in really interesting and vivifying ways, and that I often think about what I try to do with a poem in terms of what I like about music or art or architecture. Architecture is supposedly “frozen music” and so there are so many parallels that seem to fuel and feed my interest. And at times when I’m unable to find a verbal notion of where to go with a poem, I rely on a visual notion or a musical notion, and I’ve found that to be a great gift.

I will admit freely to being a frustrated musician, and a not-very-good artist, but I care so much about those things that words and the page and performance became my palate or became my rock band, if you will.

Were you ever in a band?

I was in a garage band. We practiced in my parents’ basement for many years. My long-suffering parents, I might add.

Which music, then, inspires you the most? You also mentioned architecture. Is there one particular style of architecture or music that inspires you the most?

No, I’m a serial, eclectic person. You mention “steal,” and there’s that great line by T.S. Eliot who says that bad poets borrow, great poets steal. I have always felt like that artistic kleptomania that I talk about as being excited and energized in unsuspecting ways. I am so eclectic, I mean, look on my iPod … everything is on there from Bill Monroe bluegrass to Mozart to Marley to Hendrix to Patsy Cline to Hank Williams, for heaven’s sake. (My wife cannot believe that is on there.) So it’s really just whatever catches my attention and whatever takes me. I’m very much taken with art as an ecstatic act. To be transported … the Greek aksestani … means to be transported, to step outside yourself and to be moved beside yourself and that’s what I love and find so vivifying about art.

You have a reputation for being a little bit irreverent in your poetry — do you act that way in your daily life, or do you just let that all out in your writing?

[Laughs] My wife or my mother might be able to answer that best. I think, like most people, I’m a mix of opposites that are tugging at each other all the time. I do have a reverence for tradition, and I admire the passing down of rituals over time, but I also admit a certain lack of patience with things that are in place forever for no good reason, and the unwillingness to change and adapt.

That’s probably part of the irreverence. It’s probably a dialogic relationship where the two extremes are pulling against each other. I’d like to think my poems praise and celebrate, and sometimes in praising and celebrating one has to be irreverent about something else to praise that thing you’re after.

The titles of your poems are often very descriptive and lengthy, and quite often funny, like “That Other Four Letter F-Word The Gods So Love” or “To Bob Marley’s Toe,” where many other poets title poems obscurely. How do you decide on the titles for your poems?

Titles are, I think, vexingly difficult. I have always enjoyed a kind of funky title. I learned a bit of this from James Wright, who learned long titles from the South American poet Juan Ramón Jiménez and also from the Chinese poet Li Po. I think [the long title] is so wonderful because it sets a narrative context. One never needs to return to that context; it’s conveyed immediately, and the rest of the poem can be about a leaf falling. I just find that so exciting. Wright had some wonderful titles: “A Message Written in an Empty Wine Bottle That I Threw into a Gully of Maple Trees One Night at an Indecent Hour.” So I guess I like theatrical titles, almost filmic titles. I guess I like having more expansiveness.

Surprise seems to be a tactic you like to use in your poetry, for example in “Thinking of Genesis while Watching the Oscars” or “Wishful Rhetoric.” Do you start the poem with the surprise in mind or do you develop that later as a twist?

If I know where a poem is going, I don’t write it. It’s absolutely drained of urgency for me. And the two poems you mention, particularly “Wishful Rhetoric,” does have that spin at the end in the revelation. The fact that all that stuff I was saying had to do with my dad’s death didn’t occur to me until I was three-quarters of the way through the poem. I really agree with what Frost said, that if there’s no surprise for the writer, there’s no surprise for the reader.

When can we expect your next volume of poetry?

I’ve got a manuscript together, but the book as a paper object is imperiled a bit, so one never knows. It’s not easy to find a receptive audience or a receptive editor. Anyone who doesn’t say that is either really, really, really successful or is a liar. Or perhaps maybe both combined.

Given that your poetry is all sold in book form, but that you talk about many other forms of poetry in Poetry’s Afterlife, I’m curious to know if you own an e-reader?

I don’t, but don’t have any real aversion to it. I like the book as a sensuous object. You know, I have three laptops, two iPods, an iPhone, I feel like I’m pretty immersed in the digital world, but the e-reader is not yet what I’ve come to. It’s inevitable. There will be a time where paper books will be kind of like art books now. They’ll be printed in very small runs and not available widely. Bewail it all you will, folks, but in 25 years, 50 years, that’s what’s going to happen.

So Poetry’s Afterlife is available as an electronic publication. Are you okay with your poems being sold as electronic publications?

Yes, I would be. I think American Ghost Roses will be released as an ebook by the University of Illinois Press. I’m okay with that. I think anything that gets words in the hands or before the hands or the eyes of readers is a good thing. However we can facilitate that so that folks can think about language and their connections to others, I’m all for it.

You seemed surprised that most print poets that you talked to about technology looked as if you had sold your soul to the “digital devil.” Do you think poetry communities should encourage multimedia-type poetry?

It’s about art and it’s about ways to create and distribute art to the listener and reader, to the populace.The fact that there is this incredible variety of digital and computer-aided poetry, those technologies are giving us different ways to distribute and receive art, and I’m very much pleased by that. One of my poems on being a Neilsen family was interpreted by [eight] digital collaborators. They did incredible things with the poem, to reinterpret the poem and also reinterpret how readers engaged it. That was really exciting for me, because I’ve been frozen on the page. I’m at a point now where I welcome fresh ideas and fresh experiences with art. I don’t want to grow old and not take advantage of potential opportunities. I hope I can still learn.

So what do you see as the future of poetry? Digital media, print poetry, a mix?

We’re in a transitional period, probably a couple of decades easily, where there will be a mix of page poetry, online poetry, digital and performance and spoken word poetry. My book was written in response to the idea that poetry is dead. The media somehow thinks it’s not sexy to grab on tothe idea that there are little old ladies in Mendota, Illinois clutching their poems as if their poems mean the world to them. It’s not cool to talk about kids doing spoken word. It’s much easier to say, “The plane fell out of the sky, these people died. Poetry’s dead.”

I think poetry’s in a transitional period, and it will be a blend of all of those things. People are free to pick and choose what they like and put their bucks and their attention there. But I think it’s a really interesting kind of pluralistic mix, a “chaos” as a number of poets and critics have said. Poetry was ruled by a very small group of folks in our century, for a good deal of the time and what the digital world is doing is bringing a kind of democracy, and with that democracy comes a kind of chaos. I think it’s akin to that in the arts, established orders are being challenged by fresh means and fresh technologies, fresh ideas.

In the past in the U.S., it seems like there were pop poets — maybe like Edna St. Vincent Millay — and like some poets still are in other countries. What do you think it would take in the U.S. to see that again? A poet with the popularity of Paris Hilton or maybe Snooki?

Or Charlie Sheen whose poetry is now selling for $600! It’s out of print, you know. It’s pretty typical Charlie Sheen fare, from what I’ve seen quoted: Vapid.

I think some would argue that even if that were to be possible, that’s not a good thing, because those folks would argue that to reach that kind of popularity, it also has to be as vacuous or mindless as Snooki or Paris Hilton, and I think that’s a valid argument. On the other hand, you have a poet already in America, Billy Collins, who enjoys widespread readership, and he was able to get an essay in The Wall Street Journal, for example, comparing poems and cartoons. His experience does say that poetry can sell 100,000 or 200,000 copies, as much as a novelist. I think that’s fantastic.

What do you hope to do as Illinois Poet Laureate that you haven’t done yet?

Be as famous as Snooki, maybe [laughs]. No, no. You know, I kind of had my own bucket list after I got over the shock, frankly, of being named, because following in Ms. [Gwendolyn] Brooks shoes is a daunting task, and there are so many wonderful poets in Illinois. This is a state with not only a rich history, but a rich present moment. [But] I tried to set up a kind of list of things I’d like to do, and many of those things I have done. One thing I’d like to do that I haven’t done as much of is radio. I’ve begun to do segments on our local PBS station, and I think I’d like to, over the next couple of months, try to increase that exposure.

You mention “laureateering” not being a job most poets would choose — it sounds like a tough job to generally improve the visibility of poetry. Do you find it daunting at all or has it become easier?

With practice everything becomes easier, I suppose. What is daunting about it, I think, is trying to find fresh ways, new ways to connect people and poetry.

To learn more about Kevin Stein or his efforts as the Illinois State Poet Laureate, please visit: or


*This interview has been edited for length and content.

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