Steven J. West Interview
I Thought It Was Beautiful When I Wrote It
Amy Wright: Lord, Stephen, you got away with implanting the phrase, “the most sincere tremor of myself” in a 21st century literary journal, then have the dash to claim such vulnerability “means everything to me now.” To what do you attribute your derring-do?
Stephen J. West: You’re making me blush. Derring-do—I can’t think of a better way to write an essay. I think the charm of a good swashbuckler lies in how he presents his vulnerability. He’s indomitable when mixing it up with a foe, but when his love interest is around, he’s as soft and sensitive as ever. As an essayist, I have to believe I’m Errol Flynn, otherwise I would never write anything—let alone expose it to readers. I can’t think of a more swashbuckling writer than Walt Whitman. I just can’t help but get carried away by him.
AW: “Those who love each other shall become invincible,” Whitman writes in his poem “Over the Carnage,” which you are reading in “On Recuperation.” Is part of the “revisionary project” to recoup love? Between poet and critic? Self and fragments?
SJW: I think that line is about the intimacy Whitman demands from his readers. But the attempt at intimacy doesn’t end with the words on the page. It’s almost like he’s expecting a reader to have a real personal connection with him through reading his lines—not just with the ideas, or the language. That’s all there too, but he wants more. It’s intense. If Whitman ever felt betrayed by readers—and this poem says he did—I think it’s because the level of intimacy he offered could never be reciprocated. Like a relationship that’s doomed to fail because one person is light years more into it than the other. Sometimes I want to ask for that level of intensity from my reader. And to answer your question, I am trying to recoup love, and maybe this essay is like the make up after the break up—or the really long letter that gets written by the intense person in that doomed relationship who just can’t get the hint that it’s over and won’t let it go.
AW: What does the “hope-call” sound like? Because I heard a bird the other day whose call sounded just like “brit-tney spears.”
SJW: That’s great! I wish more birds were into pop music. I’m not exactly sure what a hope-call sounds like, but I know it’s a one sided affair. I can’t imagine what the response to a hope-call would be—especially one like Whitman yawped here and there. It might even be unnecessary. I think the importance is in the call itself, the process of it, and that it gets sounded every time his poetry is read. The commitment to the process of calling over and over again is important, not the desire for an answer. That might be the connection I see with editing and revision.
AW: “On Recuperation” is visually overwhelming, pulling a “polyphony of voices” down from the rafters and into the margins. Assuming this essay is among the first of such records, did it change your relationship to the writing and editing process to become more conscious of it?
SJW: It changed the rules, at least. When nothing is ever gone—not a single thing—it threatens how much control a writer has to dictate meaning. With normal editing you delete and erase and change, and everything disappears forever. I sometimes get suspicious of highly polished forms—whether it’s news, art, writing, whatever. I always wonder what’s being left out. I’d rather have the chance to construct meaning, be trusted with the pieces. When I made the choice to stop making edits vanish, to stop polishing the essay, I also handed over some authority to the reader—I like to think I did at least. With this essay, I want readers to connect with me. But not according to what I dictate in a polished form. I want them to sift through the debris that’s scattered in the margins if they want to.
AW: You keep that sentiment “I thought it was beautiful when I wrote it,” inside the document, softer for having survived the drama of the margins. But even as it is preserved, it hints at a loss of relationship between writer and the text just written, as if a moment existed before the winds of others interceded. Is that “sincere tremor” a product of intimacy?
SJW: I hope so.
AW: You speak of the “lyrical move to withdraw,” citing a deletion of the word “reclusive.” The private has changed dramatically since Whitman, considering people front t-shirt proclamations of everything from cancer survival to obsessive compulsive diagnoses. Lady Gaga claims that she protects part of herself in fame by displaying so much, and certainly she strums her fan's chords with an openly voyeuristic persona. Do you think privacy is secured by revelation?
SJW: Great question. You know, I do. When I was in college, I tried to come up with ways to blend in. The most ridiculous idea I had was to shave my head and wear beige sweat suits. I thought if I only wore beige sweat suits, no one could know anything about me; I would be the flesh-toned ghost that sits in the very middle of class and disappears. Luckily I was too afraid to go through with it, so I never bought the closet full of sweat suits like I’d planned to. It would have worked, I think—but not like I conceived it at the time. I wouldn’t have blended in at all, obviously. I would have drawn so much attention to myself that most of my classmates would never have wondered about me in any meaningful way. They would have concluded I was some crazy person and avoided me entirely, or, if they were brave enough to confront me, they probably would have asked why I wore the same thing every day. I could have swashbuckled my way through all the surface scrutiny, inventing new explanations whenever I wanted, and no one would have known what was really beneath the beige sweat suits. The truth that I was just scared to be normal would have remained hidden.
AW: Richard Greenfield in Carnage in the Love Trees, speaks of the century as a bay one enters in a white clipper, sails swelling with an aesthetic—he asks—of “splendor? — symmetry?— the mirrors in conquering armor?” Are the marginalia in “On Recuperation” such mirrors? What do they conquer, or what is reflected by the other that one is?
SJW: I’m not sure they conquer anything. Maybe the marginalia are the remnants of my beige sweat suit. I’ve taken off the armor, and I’m left there exposed in the middle of it all.
Stephen J. West lives and teaches in Morgantown, WV. He studied creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa, and he currently has essays published or forthcoming in Defunct, Prime Number, and PANK. You can follow him on twitter @LOAFbyLOAFWEST.