INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN CRAMER: clangings, and association vs. dissociation

Steven Cramer by Anna AsquithSteven Cramer, a poet we interviewed last year about his writing process, will be coming to the bay area to read from his new book, Clangings (Sarabande Books) on April 11, 7:00 pm at A Great Good Place for Books, 6120 LaSalle Avenue, Oakland. I encourage all of you who can make it to attend and support this East Coast writer in his debut West Coast tour! If you aren’t yet familiar with Clangings, the reading will blow you away.

Steven is the author of four previous poetry collections: The Eye that Desires to Look Upward (1987), The World Book (1992), Dialogue for the Left and Right Hand (1997), and Goodbye to the Orchard (Sarabande, 2004), which won the 2005 Sheila Motton Prize from the New England Poetry Club and was named a 2005 Honor Book in Poetry by the Massachusetts Center for the Book.  His poems and reviews have appeared in numerous literary journals, including AGNI, Antioch Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Field, Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New England Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Slate, and Triquarterly. Recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he directs the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge.

LITSEEN: Steven, I heard you read from Clangings in January in Boston, and was blown away. For those who may not be familiar, can you tell us about your new book?

ClangingsSTEVEN CRAMER: Clangings is a dramatic monologue in 49 poems, the speaker manifesting speech patterns of schizophrenic or manic thought, “clang associations” being mental connections between dissociated ideas through rhymes, alliteration, sonic puns, etc. I called the book Clangings because it seemed the best metonym for a whole range of related kinds of expressions: pressure of speech (talking real fast); derailment; loose association, word salad—and my favorite:  Knight’s Move Thinking: thought moving like the knight in a chess game—forward then left or right.

LS: Tell us what prompted and inspired you to write such a book?

SC:  Examples I heard about or read in the clinical literature resembled my own drafts that go nowhere.  I’d been working on a short poem that eventually became the first poem in the book. The premise of a speaker who clanged allowed me to complete this draft. The voice in that poem was clearly not me, but felt urgently confidential, worth closer listening; and the form — five abba rhyming quatrains — seemed challenging enough to keep engaging me.  The first poem goes like this:


I hear the dinner plates gossip

Mom collected to a hundred.

My friends say get on board,

but I’m not bored.  Dad’s a nap


lying by the fire.  That’s why

when radios broadcast news,

news broadcast from radios

gives air to my kinship, Dickey,


who says he’d go dead if ever

I discovered him to them.

I took care, then, the last time

bedrooms banged, to tape over


the outlets, swipe the prints

off DVDs, weep up the tea

stains where once was coffee.

Not one seep from him since.


What, you wander, do I mean?

Except for slinging my songs

wayward home, how do things

in people go? is what I mean.


You can also watch the trailer: 

One of the articles I read referred to the creative writers as “masters of language,” while the schizophrenic or manic can be a slave to language. Another clinician made the point that manic or schizophrenic speech and creative writing may draw on the same well-springs of the irrational, but the former is spontaneous, unbidden; while constant revision is necessary to achieve the latter. My project in Clangings was to create a believable “slave to language.”

“Dickey” grew out of the need for a rhyme, but now that I had another character — and a fruitful master/slave dynamic between a speaker and his language — more poems in that voice and in that form developed. In some poems, I created mash-ups between my own drafts and adapted examples from the clinical literature. As the project developed, two challenges kept it interesting. One was simply maintaining variety within the formal constraint of the five quatrains rhyming abba. The form helped keep the dissociations “in shape,” as it were.

The second challenge involved how to develop and stick with a voice/character who believably dissociates.  When he loses his train of thought, so do we. When he blurts out a non-sequitur, it really doesn’t follow.  Along with the form, then, a recognizable, consistently inconsistent voice had to hold the project together.  If the reader could believe in this voice/character, then he could say things that “don’t make sense” but still cohere emotionally. In some poems I was working toward exploring certain emotional trajectories:  from a kind of gonzo reverence to rage, for example, in this one:


My notion of heaven?  Um, plumb garden,

symmetrically, what wanting rings about.

By the fifth or eleventh prayer—right?—

it’ll come to some soul of an equation,


the aqueous solution at the equinox.

Dickey tells me it’s a very big number,

a numb digit; particulate, therefore

it ducks the riddle grain put to the fox.


Forks can’t solve it any more than a kettle.

Forks and kettles are found in the gospel

where they go horn to horn with the devil.

Look, here’s his hide, bristling in a bottle.


How come certain hydras upset me?

How many earthworms fit in a home?

When did the cool of a garden go warm?

I think it stems from how HeeHe made a body


out of fish He couldn’t school to swim.

Like a surgeon, with His slice to inside,

He overshadows the light he divided.

He created swine to swindle them.


LS: Can you tell us more about the relationship between disassociation and association?

SC:  I recently read this by Tony Hoagland in The Writers Chronicle: “Associative thinking arises from delight about the ways things go together. Dissociative poetry arises from the emphasis on how things do not connect.” He’s right, of course, but that distinction between association and dissociation is constantly being interrogated and subverted by disjunctive poetry, no? Can’t we (don’t we?) also delight in how things do not connect? Or if not delight, be moved by in some way?

One clinician refers to schizophrenic speech as “unintelligible to some degree,” which sounds an awful lot like Stevens’s “the poem must resist the intelligence/Almost successfully.”  That same researcher refers to the schizophrenic’s confusion of identity as a question of “which of the various Me’s is the true me?” What question could be more basic to poetry, or to human psychology?

LS: What fascinating ideas! I know you are coming to the Bay Area in April to read from Clangings— would you be able to give us more information about this?

SC:   On April 9 I’ll be doing a reading/talk with clinicians in a joint Psychiatry/Medical Humanities event at UCSF.  The reading at A Great Good Place for Books is free and open to the public.

Follow this link for more info on Steven Cramer’s Bay Area reading.

July WesthaleJuly Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot580 SplitQuarterly WestMuzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com