STEVEN CRAMER: an arrow in a bow pulled back and released

Steven Cramer is the author of four 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 (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.

Steven’s poems and criticism have appeared in numerous literary journals, including The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Partisan Review, Poetry, and Triquarterly; as well as in The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poets and The POETRY Anthology, 1912–2002.

Steven has taught literature and writing at Bennington College, Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tufts University. Recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, he currently directs the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge. More information about his work can be found here.

I know Steven Cramer because I am a current MFA in Poetry student at Lesley University. As the Director of the program, Steven was my point person at Lesley when I was first applying to schools, and became an invaluable resource for me. In fact, I think it was my extensive phone conversations with him that ultimately convinced me to attend Lesley. He helped me find funding in the form of a scholarship, put me in touch with different faculty members, talked me through all of my questions about Lesley and low-res programs in general, and ultimately made me fall in love with the school.

July Westhale

July Westhale: What books do you love and are currently reading?

Steven Cramer: I’m having a terrific time rereading the new Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer. He’s a poet who mattered enormously when I was young, and he still does. “Vermeer” and “Romanesque Arches” are permanent poems, and there are many others. I’ve finally gotten around to reading Kevin Prufer’s work: very strong, much gravitas. Robert Walser’s utterly unique “Microscripts” are astonishing. Check out the story and person behind this work.

What writers do you admire?

Emily Dickinson is the greatest American poet; John Keats was the greatest English Romantic. In my study I have a grave rubbing from her headstone, and a replica of his death mask. Their work and the example of their dedication to their art keep me humble. You find new astonishments whenever you return to their great poems. T.S. Eliot’s work, read aloud by my high school Senior Honors English teacher, made me wish to become … well, a high school English teacher. Not long after that, though, I discovered that I wanted to write poems.

How did you get your start? Did you attend an MFA program or not? If not, how did you learn your craft?

A late bloomer, I was fortunate in both friends and teachers while I was an undergraduate at Antioch College. They encouraged me to turn my awe for poets and poetry into the gumption to try writing poems myself. One class in particular, Advanced Poetry Workshop, taught by Ira Sadoff, was life-changing. Aside from Ira’s own inspired teaching, the class included Jean Day, Stuart Dischell, James Galvin, Sarah Gorham, and Laurie Sheck—to name just those who went on to publish books. During and after that class, I felt like an arrow in a bow pulled back and released. There was no turning back from poetry.

From Antioch I went directly to the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. At 23, I was probably over my head. I learned a great deal, developed as thick a skin as I could, and was led into many discoveries. I learned the most from Donald Justice and Louise Gluck. Don was the most important. From him I came to understand that a poem which doesn’t employ its lines in ways crucial to both local and total effects is not a poem. It may be something else that’s good, but it’s not a poem. The example of prose poems complicates that notion, but not by much. For the vast majority of poetry—symmetrically formal or asymmetrically formal (free verse)—how one line turns into the next constitutes a crucial aspect of all of a poem’s systems: rhythmic, perception, structural. It’s the only element of literary language that distinguishes poetry from prose. The only one. Period.

How has your career evolved over time?

“Evolved” may suggest too much deliberation, or at least orderliness. I gravitated to publishing first, then to teaching, which I’ve come to love. Before taking on this job at Lesley, I was a teaching nomad—MIT, Tufts, BU, Bennington, Queens University MFA Program. Now I do more administration than teaching, and I’m more financially secure, but getting restless. I miss the classroom, which is an endangered species.

I don’t think writing—especially writing poetry—can be rightly described as a career. I’ve written poetry as often despite my career as because of it. I’m lucky to work at a job that supports writing and the arts, but I’d stop working, on behalf of my writing, if I could. I’d keep teaching, but I’d do that for free, because if I could stop working, I’d have become rich somehow.

What’s your daily working method? How much time do you spend writing each day–and how do you MAKE THAT HAPPEN?

On a recent sabbatical, I wrote every day and often all day. I’ve rarely had the luxury to be so disciplined. I tend to write in streaks and then go fallow. I hate going fallow, and never feel I’ll recover, but always have. That last claim feels risky, since I’m fallow now. Getting back into writing, for me, is always painful. My early drafts don’t put me in “the zone.” Rewriting—and sometimes piecing together drafts and fragments—puts me in the zone: head-down, like a cobbler, or maybe a whittler.

How do you balance work and life?

Imperfectly. Yeats wrote: “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work”; the novelist Alice Mattison said (somewhere): “I’d have been a better parent if I hadn’t been a writer, and I’d have been a better writer if I hadn’t been a parent. But I wanted to be both.” I’m in the Mattison camp.

Based on your background, what advice do you have for me?

Any advice I offered might be better if based on your background, not mine. But here goes: if you’re not independently wealthy, find some livelihood that gives you sufficient time to think about writing in a way that leads to writing. That doesn’t necessarily mean teaching. Take every opportunity you can to raise your hand and say “I’m a poet too.” If there’s something about the writing of poetry that scares you, do that scary thing. Assume that not everyone is going to like your work. Learn from your contemporaries because they are using the language in the moment you are living in. Let the living tradition (however you define “tradition”) influence you; the most remote styles and attitudes were once contemporary. You learn much more from looking out of a window than into a mirror. Don’t cultivate a “voice”; cultivate voices.


July Westhale is a writer, femme shark, activist, and archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She writes poems, long curly letters, academic articles, art criticism, travel essays, interviews, book reviews, & the occasional terrible short story. She does not normally wear blazers, or drink lattes.

She was recently named a 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry for LLF’s Emerging LGBT Voices Writing Residency, an Artist in Residence at Dairy Hollow Writers Colony, a runner up in the Femme Bot & Arsenic Chapbook competition & an indentured servant atCopper Canyon Press. University of Wisconsin at Madison’s lit journal Women in REDzine just named her one of their “top 10 inspiring political poets of 2011.”