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Interview With Seth Steinzor

After reading To Join the Lost by Seth Steinzor (my review), I got to thinking about why anyone would “dare” take on Dante and modernize it.  Given the daunting task ahead of Seth when he undertook  the project, its no wonder that there was a very organic germination of ideas as he wrote.

Although some of the epic poem worked better for me as a reader than other places (which is pretty typical with larger poetry works to begin with), it is a solid first book with a great deal to say about our modern world.  Whether you agree is another issue altogether.

Seth was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and writing in general, so without further ado, please give him a warm welcome.

1. To take on Dante must have been a daunting task, so what prompted you to modernize the tale? Do you have plans to modernize the entire Divine Comedy?

It didn’t start out as a project of modernization, although it certainly was daunting at first. For a while, until I relaxed into it, I felt as if I were building a scale model of the Eiffel Tower out of toothpicks. The idea that got me going is a good example of the convoluted way my mind works. I had loved Dante’s work for decades, but, being neither a scholar nor a critic, I always found myself at something of a loss when I tried to explain to people what I saw in it.

At last I realized that, as a poet, I could speak most comprehensively, vividly and precisely through poetry, and I also realized that the best way to describe what I saw in the Commedia was to place myself in the middle of it. “Modernization” was a consequence of that, but not a goal in itself.

2. Your training as an attorney must have been informed by your younger years as a poet, learning how to use an economy of words and to play with meaning in an effort to reap a desired result. What first drew you to poetry and later to the law? And have the two facets of your life ever conflicted on the page or elsewhere?

Law shares with poetry an extreme sensitivity to the meanings of words and punctuation, and a strong concern with matters of form. Of course, “meaning” in law and “meaning” in poetry are two different concepts. As long as I can remember, I’ve written poems. What drew me to law is a longish story, but basically, after I graduated from college, law presented itself as an interesting and congenial way for me to use my natural abilities and proclivities in the cause of justice. I spent about a year and a half working as an investigator for a Public Defender in Vermont, and then went to law school.

Law school itself turned me off, and although I graduated and passed the bar exam, I didn’t practice law for another eleven years, until I was given an opportunity to do an appellate argument and had great fun with it. I started working as a lawyer not long after that. My experiences working as an investigator and as a lawyer have fed my life as a poet, most conspicuously in the “thieves” and “fraudsters” sections of To Join the Lost. The only conflict, really, is that I have to work to make a living, and that takes time and energy away from my writing.

3. How much of your day job was modified and adapted to fit into To Join the Lost?

A lot. Several sections of the book were drawn from my legal experiences and knowledge. Also, as a lawyer, I have evolved a habit of thinking syllogistically, which in turn has made it easier to relate to Dante, whose primary mode of discursive thought was through aristotelian logic.

4. What kinds of obsessions, habits, or requirements do you have when you write? (i.e. love of chocolate, total silence, raging metal music in the background, etc.)

I need it to be quiet and still. In my house, my computer is in a small room lined with bookcases. The windows are too high to see out of. There’s an oriental rug on the floor and too much clutter on the horizontal surfaces, but it is a still and calming place. When I’m away from home, I use a spiral notebook and a pen and I can jot thoughts down just about anywhere, but for sustained effort I need the isolation and quiet.

On the other hand, once I have settled into the right space – physical and psychological, and the work is flowing, my cat is welcome to come and sit on my lap. I type and she purrs, until she gets bored and goes away. I usually write in the evenings after dinner, or on weekend mornings. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep until I have jotted down whatever lines had popped into my head. About half the time, that “inspired” stuff turns out to be worth keeping,and half the time, it’s junk.

5. What one piece of advice did you receive early on as a writer that propelled you to keep going and who said it?

This is a tough one! The temptation is to recall some bit of ego gratification I received, like when a beloved teacher told me,”You’re a poet.” But honestly, writing is just something I would have done anyway. I wasted a lot of years, time and energy going nowhere with it, however, due to substance abuse and other issues. The best piece of writing advice I ever got, the only one that has really made a difference, was so simple: write every day. I don’t remember where I first encountered it, or who said it in a way that finally sank home, and I don’t actually achieve it, but I actively aspire to it. Even if all I get is one line or phrase, even if I end up crossing that line or phrase out later, the discipline and constant attention to the work make all the difference. It took me years to understand this.

Thanks, Seth, for answering my questions. I wish you much success with your poetry.

  • Pingback: Seth Steinzor, author of To Join the Lost, on tour November 2011 | TLC Book Tours()

  • Fabulous interview — it was great getting some further insight about Mr Steinzor and his work!

    I especially liked his response “Law shares with poetry an extreme sensitivity to the meanings of words and punctuation, and a strong concern with matters of form,” as I appreciate the connect between two seemingly unrelated disciplines!

    Also, Steinzor joins the list of lawyers-turned-authors I admire and envy — leading me to believe surviving law school teaches enough of what it takes to write — and complete — a book!

    • Audra: great observation, though it now makes me wonder if I should have gone to law school simply so I could complete a book!

      • In the spring I got a bunch of books about law school and the LSAT because I thought the same exact thing! (Then realized that the debt likely wasn’t worth it!) 😉

        • And to think I stopped at I have to take the LSAT!

  • Thanks for featuring Mr. Steinzor on your blog. I always enjoy learning about authors and their writing processes!

    • I’m glad that you enjoyed the interview.

  • Great interview! And kudos to Steinzor for being brave enough to take on Dante.

  • I have to admit, half of the attraction of reading To Join the Lost, for me, was reading that the poet also worked in the criminal justice system. I love that he says he works for the “cause of justice.” That’s definitely the impetus in the first part of the Divine Comedy!

    • I liked that aspect of the poet myself. That’s a fascinating connection between his “cause of justice” and his love of Dante.