Interview with Poet Stephen Alan Saft

I want to welcome Stephen Alan Saft to Savvy Verse & Wit. He was kind enough to answer some questions about his poetry and writing inspiration. If you’ve missed my review of his latest book, City Above the Sea, click on the title. Without further ado, here’s my interview with Stephen:

1. In your biography, it states that you have written essays, novels, plays, and poetry. Has any particular genre presented a challenge for you? How so?

All genres have presented a challenge for me at various times. Right now I am trying to write a sequel to my epic poem “Murdoch McLoon And His Windmill Boat” (also published in 2008) and have gotten bogged down in the storyline or plot of the new project. Such is the challenge to the poet who gets inspired to attempt to write narrative poetry. You don’t just worry about how you are going to say what it is you want to say at the moment. You worry about the sequence of events or plot of the piece, and you worry about the characters in the piece, their lives and motives.

2. Your poetry is varied from narrative to free verse and rhyming poetry. How challenging is it to write each of these forms? Do you go through spurts of writing one form or another?

Yes, I do. I am not inspired to write rhyming poetry at the moment, but that could change in the blinking of an eye. When I was writing rhyming poetry before, I was also into writing music using one of music composition software packages. Rhyming and music are strongly linked in my mind. I am debating with myself if I want to go through the effort of getting back into music and all that that entails. Recently I sang as part of a choir in a concert, and I must admit that that got me thinking about music again and how much I enjoy it.

3. What inspires you to write poems, and how long does it take to complete one poem to your satisfaction? How many revisions does it take?

I am driven by two very strong motives. One is to understand the human condition, which is to say where I stand in the continuum of discovery that should be basic to the way we live our lives and to share that understanding with others. I believe that if I am successful at sharing what I have discovered with others, we all gain in wisdom. My second motive—and I admit that the two motives are linked—is altruistic in nature. I am committed to doing good. I want to make the world a better place. This effort begins in the psyche. If we are clear headed, we have a chance to act in such a way to make the world a better place.

I have very high expectations for poetry and art including music and literature in general. Poetry at its best helps us attain clarity—both the writing and the reading. I would say that all the arts to some extent give us this capability.

Some poems are written very quickly, and I don’t do much revising. Other poems end up being long-term commitments. I’m coming back to them periodically and making changes here and there—even if it is just a case of changing one word.

4. Do you have any obsessions you would like to share?

I have many obsessions, but the one closest to my creative work is my obsession with perfection. I am a perfectionist to a fault, and I often give myself no peace because of it. Of late, I have learned to put my current work aside with the expectation of coming back to it later when I am starting to experience diminishing returns. Another issue I have been wrestling with throughout my life is fear of rejection. Of late I’ve gotten more relaxed about the problem of rejection. Earlier it was a major impediment for me and helps explain why so much of my work has been so slow to see the light of day, that is, publication.

5. Please describe your writing space and how it differs from your ideal writing space.

I compose on computer, but I also carry a pocket-size notebook. My poems often begin as images or ideas jotted down in the notebook, but they are always completed on computer. I believe that next to the achievement of writing itself the computer—and here I am referring to the specific achievement of word processing—is a reality that even surpasses the printing press. The concept of the Internet must also be understood as part and parcel of this phenomenon.

Given what I just said, you would expect to find a lot of computers in my house, and you would, but only two of the four are truly functional anymore. I am fortunate that we have a fairly roomy house in the country, and I can use a large part of the lower level for a work space. If I do get involved with music again, I’ll compose in this space as well.

I feel very fortunate to have so much space. Previously I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in a high rise condominium in Arlington, Va. We had an impressive view from our balcony including some of downtown Washington DC, but what we didn’t have was much living space. Before that, we lived in a townhouse in Fairfax, and it was there that I composed the music for my rhyming poems.

6. Music seems to play a role in your poetry, either as an inspiration or accompaniment. What forms of music do you find most inspirational and could you name 5 favorite songs?

I love music, and my tastes are wide ranging. Recently I became a subscriber to the Sirius satellite music system. I thought that Sirius might bring me back to the classical genres, but instead I find that I’m spending far more time with their more pop-music channels, such as their 1940s channel than I would have ever guessed.

The great achievement of the music of the 1940s is that it is far more open ended, that is, less constricted, than the music of other, especially later eras. In the course of a 10 to 15 minute set one can hear a ballad by a great crooner like Bing Crosby or Fran Sinatra accompanied by a symphonic orchestra, then an energetic jazz arrangement of a Broadway show piece, perhaps played by Louie Armstrong or Duke Ellington or Count Bassie and friends, followed by a big band rendition from the likes of Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw or the Dorseys, followed by a funny, even silly presentation by something like the Spike Jones Orchestra. What variety! We have nothing like that anymore.

As for naming my five favorite songs, I couldn’t possibly do it. I’ve been immersed in far too many styles of music and loved too many compositions in each to do that.

7. How would you describe the role of poetry today compared to the Beat Generation of poets, who seem to have influenced your own writing? Do you believe the Beat Poets were more influential than the poets of today?

Yes, I do believe that the Beat poets were more influential than the poets of today, but I need to add that I do see a resurgence. Poetry comes and goes in popularity. and I do think that it is coming back. How much poetry comes back will be the result of the actions of two different groups—the writers of poetry and the readers of poetry. I hope I can be forgiven for sounding more than a little self serving, but I do think that the fact that writers of poetry are willing to tackle long forms like narrative poetry is one very healthy sign. Now will the readers of poetry including those who attend poetry performances be willing to support the longer forms? We will see.

I was recently able to purchase Seamus Heaney’s “Beowulf” at a local Walden Books store in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I take that as a very good omen. Wow, you mean you can tell stories in poetry? Yes, you can! And those stories can be full of action, full adventure, full of emotion? Yes, they can! In fact, our oldest stories including the stories of the Bible and the epic sagas are poetic, that is, metrical in nature, and full of colorful imagery. Yes, yes, yes, poetry is coming back!

Now having said what I said, I need to quickly add that I still write short, lyrical, philosophical poems. I am not totally preoccupied with story telling through poetry. I still write the short stuff too.

8. Please describe your writing routine (i.e. do you get up early or are you a late night writer? Do you sit in your pjs or scribble on buses and in lines at the grocery store?)

I have done all of the above including scribbling on buses. Lately I have been able to use the key hours of the day, which for me are the hours after breakfast and before lunch, for writing. What a welcome change! Previously I had to sandwich my writing into days taken up with the demands of full-time jobs.

9. Many writers will use how-to manuals or writers’ workshops to garner experience. What have some of your writing experiences been like, and did you use these tools to help you? Were they effective? If so, which tools were most effective for you?

I have been a member of one writers group in my life. This was during my early years of residency in the Washington area, where I moved in 1978. Earlier, in college, I took one course with a favorite professor that provided an opportunity to share my writing with others. Both experiences were useful, but they could have been far more useful had I not been so sensitive about criticism and so sensitive about the idea of exposing my inner thoughts to others. I was terribly thin skinned during these periods of my life, and this hypersensitivity was to make me far less effective in getting my work out in the world than I should have been.

I would recommend both approaches—courses and writers groups–to people trying to get started as writers and trying to move their lives along as writers. If you have problems with hypersensitivity to criticism, as I did, you need to be working on that as a separate impediment to success. So what if so-and-so thinks something in a current work of yours could have been done better. Maybe so-and-so is right. Give some thought to the criticism and how you might alter your work accordingly.

If you think so-and-so’s problem is that he is just not in sync with your philosophy of how poetry should be written, then you’ve got to learn to walk away from his criticism. Summon up the courage in yourself to stick with your convictions—with your vision–and move on. To your own self be true.

10. What are your current writing projects or do you have any performances scheduled?

I am filled with ideas for future projects. For example, as I alluded earlier, I have begun work on a sequel to “Murdoch McLoon And His Windmill Boat,” my epic or mock epic story poem. The sequel also involves the use of technology to solve a problem facing us. Now I need a surge of energy to move the project forward. I also want to continue to write short poems, poems of self discovery. And I might even try fiction again. Never give up! Never quit! That is what I keep reminding myself.

I try to read my work as often as possible at the once-a-month Spoken Word gathering in Floyd, Virginia. Other opportunities for readings have been brought to my attention, and I hope to be able to participate in some of these events as well as soon as possible.

Thanks again, Stephen, for answering my questions. City Above the Sea is one volume of poetry that should be on everyone’s shelves.