Hugh Behm-Steinberg on Applying Pressure and Multiplying Meaning
Hugh Behm-Steinberg is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and the recipient of an NEA fellowship. His books include The Opposite of Work (JackLeg Press) and Shy Green Fields(No Tell Books), as well as several chapbooks including Sorcery(Dusie Chapbook Kollektiv) and Good Morning! (Deconstructed Artichoke Press). He is the author of two libretti: Terrible Things Will Happen But It’s Going to Be Okay: A Donner Party Opera with composer Guillermo Galindo, and a children’s opera based on the Chinese folktale, The Clever Wife, which was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera for their Opera to Go series. He also collaborates on text/sound art projects with Matt Davignon, and is a member of The Crank Ensemble. He is currently collaborating with his wife on an illuminated manuscript re-working of Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th Century Sufi masterpiece The Conference of the Birds.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
I teach writing at California College of the Arts, where I edit the journal Eleven Eleven.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
I find writing prose to be very very difficult; it’s hard for me to turn the English teacher inside my head off, the voice that erases sentences before they get started or makes them sound all ornate and poety. A good sized chunk of my first book, Shy Green Fields, came out of failed attempts to write a garden essay.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Three things: Write a lot, write regularly, setting space and time aside to work. Read a lot, go to lots of readings, read writers you’ve never heard of, that turn you on or challenge you. Become part of a community, hang with people who are also engaging in creative work, be a good reader of other people’s work, show your work to other people, volunteer your time to support the organizations that sustain creativity around you.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes: I get to live the life I want.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
When I was ten I wanted to be a herpetologist: I loved snakes and lizards, without ever having to deal with them. I think I was drawn to understanding monsters, because I was big into mythology and science fiction at that age too.
What is your fondest memory?
The day I first met my wife; I was going to Jewish meditation services at Chochmat Ha’Lev in Berkeley when this gorgeous woman walks in. I kept saying to myself “sit near me, sit near me,” and lo and behold, she sat near me! So I thought I’d just hate myself if I didn’t talk to her, so I started talking, and we kept talking and talking and talking.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I never fall out of love. I am loved, I love back, and I flutter inside when I think about how lucky I am to get to feel like this.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A better, more empathic polity.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art is pressure applied so that meaning multiplies. We live in a culture that is increasingly meaningless and unthinking, so yes, art is necessary.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a series of bird poems that will become the background for a re-telling of Farīd ud-Dīn Attar’sThe Conference of Birds. The text will be part of an illuminated manuscript in collaboration with my wife Mary.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
The poet whose work I love the most is Paul Celan; how he makes meaning from the most debased of tools, the redemptory capacity of poetry.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Find a way to make it cheaper to live here.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
When I was in grad school at the University of Arizona, there used to be this evangelical preacher at one end of the quad, preaching hellfire and seeking converts, etc., and at the other end of the quad was this Hare Krishna guy, chanting and seeking converts. The strangest thing I ever saw was watching the two of them taking a break and have lunch together.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With fifty words I can write medicine; with fifty dollars I can make a rather extravagant meal.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Lavender, fennel, rosemary, tomato leaves – garden smells.