Interview with Alan Stephens


From Spectrum vol.  XXXIV, 1992, by Robyn Bell

Alan Stephens was born and grew up in Colorado. He served in the Army Air Corps, studied English in college and graduate school, re­ceived a writing fellowship to Stanford, and eventually became a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had read his poetry with great interest and in the mid-1980s wondered if he might be amenable to talking about how he worked as a writer. Our conversation took place more or less by correspondence: I would deliver a typed and numbered set of questions (hence the arithmetical look of the interview), and he would return a typed set of responses. When the interview was complete, we decided to let it settle for a time. Rereading it now, noticing that his answers make up for whatever defects inhabit my questions, I am glad that he has consented to its being published.

In addition to teaching literature in UCSB’s English Department and College of Creative Studies, he has edited Selected Poems of Barnabe Gouge (1961). When this interview came about, six volumes of Alan Stephens’s poetry had appeared: The Sum (1958); Between Matter and Principle (1963); The Heat Lightning (1967), which was included in Tree Meditation and Others (1970); White River Poems (1976); and In Plain Air: Poems 1958-1980 (1982). Despite being subjected to my questions, Alan Stephens has continued writing, and since the time of this interview, many more of his poems have been published.

1.  Is the fact that you grew up in Colorado important to your poetry?

Where you are born and grow up is of course important to anybody. I do feel lucky to have been born there. It is beautiful country — high plains, running in low swells to the mountains not far westward, which are high and blue, and snowy along the crests all through the summer, usually; and eastward, running to a flat horizon, where the short-grass prairie begins. The climate is neither harsh nor bland, but bracing. Really an enchanting place. And like many such places, it could be pitilessly hard to get a living from. My parents and their friends and acquaintances in that countryside of small farms and a short growing season had an outlook on things that has remained the basis of my own outlook in the entirely different world I went into later. As a place for a writer to be from, though, Colorado is probably no better or worse than Illinois or Delaware or Southern California. I will add that I continue to be smitten by certain areas of the mountain West and my poems would be different if I weren’t.

2. There are four approaches to writing poetry, if approaches is the right term. You’ve written in all four: accentual-syllabic, accentual, syllabic, and nonmetrical — or “free” — verse. When you’re writing a poem, how do you know which approach to use — and do you employ metrical verse for a different purpose than non-metrical verse?

Thinking about a poem usually incudes thoughts about the metrical (or non-metrical) form it will take. I certainly couldn’t make the decision on meter separately. It is only one of a milling crowd of decisions and choices. But as a worker in verse I will have thought long and hard about the possibilities a particular form offers — the qualities I can bring out by using it, qualities belonging to my subject, I mean. Each of the metrical verse forms can serve many purposes, likewise the non-metrical; in general, though, the non-metrical seems most apt for presenting an immediate experience that has unexpectedly lit up for me. — But then, I think, what about the stunning immediacy achieved in the often intricate metrical forms Hardy uses?

3. Your first book was The Sum and your second Between Matter and Principle. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the poetry in those books, which is very fine, seems in general more formal than the poetry in your third collection, Tree Meditation and Others. Did your sense of what your poetry might include change in some way after the second book?

Yes, indeed. More immediacy, more freshness of feeling, was what I wanted; and different sorts of experience.

4. The title Between Matter and Principle has a specific reference in the poem “My Friend the Motorcyclist,” which that book contains. Does the book’s title also have a wider frame of reference, to, say, “what it is to be in the physical universe?” (“Note” In Plain Air, p. xi.)

Yes. But in a terribly abstract way. I feel quite miserable about nearly everything in that book.

5. An extended sequence, The Heat Lightning, was printed as a book on its own (Bowdoin Press) and is included in Tree Meditation and Others. I wonder how long it took you to write The Heat Lightning.

Not very long. The poems were written up from prose notes written headlong on the spot — I sat half an afternoon under that cottonwood writing as fast as I could. That was in the summer. The next year, during the spring break, living in the cottage provided by the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center in Tucson, I wrote the main poem in about three days, perhaps one or two of the others too. In any case all those poems were written quickly (for me anyhow) as a matter of policy.

6. In a note to Tree Meditation and Others you wrote that the poems were meditations on subjects, not objects — and, later, that “where descriptive they are descriptive meditations, and not meditative descriptions.” I think you use “meditation” to mean something like a focused consideration or contemplation of an idea, and that you warn against the poems being read as descriptive in order to remind us that the description has a purpose beyond its own clarity or beauty, the purpose being to convey, or represent, an idea. Am I on target, or did I miss?

(A) I wished to call attention to the distinction between the materials of a poem and its subject.

(B) I mean by “meditation” something like an impassioned rumination on something, over a more or less long period of time. By “something” I mean a subject, an experience, which includes among other things ideas, of course. Each good poem is about a lot of things.

7. You’ve said that you started thinking of the poems as meditations with the third book. Yet your earlier poems also seem to me meditative. That is, they think, rather than effuse, which is why they are appealing. Do you view the poetry in your first two books as meditative?

I was determined, back then, to make the organizing force and inner movement of a poem a fiercely driven train of reasoning. (I was reacting, in this, from the prevailing Symbolist modes. It is dangerous to let yourself be governed that way by what you’re against.) Last year one of my students, Abby Loomis, wrote a marvelous paper on reading William Carlos Williams, to which she gave the title “Thinking with a Poem.” By taking “with” to mean “by means of” you have a good description of what I was attempting in those earlier poems.

8. Some Renaissance poets, such as Donne and Herbert, wrote formal meditative verse. Your dissertation was on a Renaissance poet, Googe. Another Renaissance writer, Sidney, I believe especially appeals to you. If you can answer this briefly, what do you like about the poetry of the English Renaissance? The question of influence is useless, but I wonder if you’ve found Renaissance poetry helpful somehow to you as a writer?

It was my MA thesis that was on Googe. [The dissertation was on Edwin Arlington Robinson.]

Any piece of good writing can be helpful. (The poets of the Renaissance seem to me simply the best in English.) The great thing is, of course, to make yourself able to avail yourself of the help the good writers offer.

9. Your fourth book, White River Poems, is a narrative concerning a massacre that took place in Colorado in 1879. Although it is an extended sequence, of poems and some prose sections, from different people’s points of view, as a whole White River Poems strikes me as a real, and distinctly American, epic. Was that your intent?

I thought of it as a tragedy — an attempt at a tragedy.

10. Why did you omit including any excerpts from White River Poems in the volume of new and selected work, In Plain Air?

None of the excerpts seemed able to stand on their own.

11. Your degrees are from (is this right?) the University of Colorado, Denver University, and the University of Missouri. Those place names interest me, and so do the schools, because they’re slightly off the beaten path. Was that intentional?

Not intentional; blind chance. CU was the university nearest home when I got out of the air force in 1946. I went to DU because the writing program was recommended, and to Missouri because I was offered a TA job.

12. I think that you taught for a while after getting your doctorate and then accepted a fellowship in writing to Stanford. Why did you go to Stanford, and was it useful as a place to learn and write?

I went because it offered a remarkable program and being awarded a fellowship meant a year off from my duties at Arizona State. I learned plenty there. Some of what I learned I later had to unlearn painstakingly; a process that took, in some phases, many years. Unlearning is harder than learning, I have found. What you have to unlearn, if in the first place you really learned it, took it to heart — has become a part of you, working with the rest in your thought and feelings. So to unlearn, in such a case, is to perform a pretty delicate kind of surgery on yourself.

13. Among the new poems in In Plain Air is a sonnet sequence, Running at Hendry’s. Well, sonnets don’t seem easy to write; yet yours have not only the form, they also contain a sense of immediacy, as though they were written while you ran. How did you write them?

A subject and a bit of phrasing (sometimes just two or three words) would form in my mind while I was running. At the end of my run, gasping, and dripping sweat, I would sit in my car and write a note, and only then drive home. That same day, or the next at the latest, I would write the sonnet at a sitting (that was a rule I never broke: sometimes the sitting went on for maybe five hours). Of course I revised later, but never altering the basic structure or character of the poem.

14. Among other books her article considered, Mary Kinzie wrote about In Plain Air, in the American Poetry Review, and she titled her article “Outsiders.” What do you think of that title?

A perfect title. I was delighted by it. Whenever I have gone inside I have soon become uncomfortable, with myself and others. So I became a Cat That Walks by Himself. I wasn’t robust enough to face down the moral dangers of participating in the literary life. This is an important subject (in what Lawrence called, very properly, “the narrow world of letters”). Some great poets have taken it up — Jonson, Pope, Yeats.

15. The word “spirit” appears in some of your poems, and we’ve talked about how hard, or impossible, it is to define. Fortunately, everyone knows what it means. I won’t ask you to define it. But why doesn’t the word “soul” show up? [Note: on rereading I noticed “soul,” used in White River Poems, and asked about it. AS’s response to that occurs later.]

Well, I’m willing to say I can think of “spirit” as what it is we have to have, to be; “soul” as something we can get along without.

16. Your poetry seems to go out of its way not to be conventionally poetic — it doesn’t effuse or enthuse, and it’s sort of short on funeral notices and valentines, conventional ones, anyway. Instead, the reader is more likely to find a young slug, tomato worms, fresh water entering salt, depositions, you running with your sons, the habitat of the magpie. So I guess you meant the epigraph to In Plain Air: “and let me in these Shades compose /Something in Verse as true as Prose.” Any comment on the epigraph?

I love that epigraph. (Of course I am not alone in writing about the sorts of subjects you mention, and the anti-poetic has been, for some time, itself a stern convention.)

17. Please forgive this question. The title of Sonnet 27 — “Light Like the Beautiful Trout Fly Name: Pale Evening Dun” — indicates (other than what it refers to, light) your long devotion to fishing. How’d you start fishing, and do you prefer fly fishing to other kinds?

Nobody in our family fished, nor did any family friends, but I was wild about it. As soon as I was allowed to leave the farm by myself I would walk the almost seven miles to the nearest fishing — a weedy little lake at the edge of town. I’d spend the day there, entranced by the look and movements and smell of the water and the occasional gleam of a fish in the depths. Home in the evening I’d present my catch to be cooked: bluegills and crappie, dry and no longer firm after the trip over the hot dusty road. Even today the sight of fishing tackle in a store is for me an intoxicant. I like fishing with dry flies because I admire how they’re made, at once exquisite and tough, and because dry-fly fishing is active fishing. You cover a lot of water at a time, and you keep moving, and meanwhile the concentration this fishing requires is, for me anyhow, restful. Then too, nearly all places where there are trout are exhilarating. Many of these places have been ruined in my lifetime, many more are being ruined. I think all will be ruined eventually.

18A. Light in your poems sometimes seems to refer to perception, as well as to a physical phenomenon. Any comment? I didn’t think so.

I’m crazy about light. Like darkness, too. Also air.

18B. The very lovely, complicated poem “A Puff of Smoke” argues against the idea that the mind is infinite: “Why, it’s an activity. /And it stops.” It stops, presumably, with death or the loss of consciousness (the poem discusses being anesthetized, and convalescing, and noticing the way the spirit depends on the body, though the spirit’s the only one that can learn). Does your note to Sonnet 22, “Visitation,” refer to the same idea? “It was a Greek mistake to connect the sacred with the permanent, the sacred being phenomenal like everything else. . . .”

I believe the idea in the footnote to the sonnet is the offspring of the idea you refer to in “A Puff of Smoke.”

19. Once teaching “A Puff of Smoke” I noticed that the class really resisted following the poem’s idea that the spirit is temporary. (It was an unconscious resistance; they liked the poem, but would get up to this aspect of it, which is pretty important, and veer off into . . . some interpretation that allowed for infinity or permanence. I think.) If that is the conclusion one is to draw — and I think it is, though you leave a slight out — did you always recognize the impermanence of the mind or of the sacred?

Before writing these poems I’d reached no settled conclusion on these (or any other) big subjects. That is still so with me. I move slowly, laboriously, with frequent pauses along the way (a process full of interest for me, but dull to talk about). I have found clarity very hard to achieve, and, when achieved, a momentary condition. (Ben Jonson says a cripple on the right road out-travels a courier on the wrong. But then the cripple, too, can always take a wrong turn.) On the particular notions you ask about here I will say that, not being a philosopher or a theologian, I never considered them separately but came by them in the course of prolonged brooding on the subjects of the poems they appear in. They arrived with the rest of the bundle. That’s always the case with the ideas in my poems.

20. Once, you noticed, with some disapproval, that a word you’d used, “draggled,” was misprinted as “bedraggled.”  I’m trying to get you to talk about the language that you use — or your sense of diction — by asking why the misprint was annoying?

It substituted the tired-out form of the word for the brisk form, and it disrupted the rhythm in that line.

21. Why did you teach yourself Greek?

I taught myself a very little Greek, at age forty, because my mind was stale and because I wanted to make direct contact — so far as I could, which was very slight — with Homer, and Archilochus, and Sappho. (The little I acquired has all but vanished.)

22. In your classes, you don’t present yourself as a poet, and I imagine that socially that is about the last way you’d introduce yourself. I admire that approach (or retreat) and wonder why you adopt it.

Temperamental reasons, I suppose. Logical reasons, too. For example, in the classroom your job is to do justice to the work of the great writers.

23. As a format — as in “The Vanishing Act” — what do syllabics offer that the other ways of organizing a poem’s structure don’t offer? Or, if you prefer a better question, how’d you come to write “The Vanishing Act”?

(A) Certain tones of voice, certain kinds of particular movements of words, movements just not possible in other forms.

(B) To poke a little fun at several people who were awfully excited about syllabics back then.

24. You read a great deal of prose — Hemingway, Babel, Borges, Pasternak, Parkman all come to mind. And, of course, Santayana. I strongly doubt that you read prose to discover ways of treating your own subjects, but I wonder if the prose you read is useful to you as — here it comes — a poet?

I don’t read a lot. In the first place I’m too restless physically, though I keep at a book as best I can. In the second place prose or verse that moves me I often can’t read uninterruptedly for long: I’m always having to stop to give thoughts and emotions time to complete themselves; or I am moved literally, I have to get up and leave the room, maybe walk around the house. On the other hand, reading which doesn’t move me like that I can’t keep my full attention on for more than a few minutes. Hence my extensive ignorance. — As to the usefulness of the prose I read to the poems I write — the idea is foreign to me. — But wait, I did versify a paragraph of Parkman, and some passages from John Muir, didn’t I? But when I picked up those books it certainly wasn’t to look for materials for a poem. It was joy reading, to use a phrase my wife once used.

25. I believe you’ve been working on a new body of work and that some of the new poems are quite “formal” in structure, by which I mean that their architecture is really something, though they read so naturally. Yet you very much respect William Carlos Williams and wrote what is for my money the best review of Pictures from Breughel (Poetry, 1963), actually, the single best set of remarks on Williams I’m familiar with.* He said that the sonnet is dead . . . , and he also had a deep distrust of traditional meter. I’m wondering how you’ve kept from hardening into a set of attitudes, or a party line, such as “unmetered verse is better than metered verse” or vice-versa?

I see incomparably fine work in all the kinds of forms poets have taken up with — including some superb poems cast in classical measures, during the English Renaissance.

26. You don’t belong to a particular school of poets or poetry, do you? Has this been a deliberate choice, or a matter of your natural inclinations?

(A) I hope not.

(B) Inclination.

27. Did you know Alan Swallow?

Yes.  As teacher and friend.

28. Some of your poems mention the people in your family. Do they ever read your work as you’re in the process of writing it?

No, nor does anybody else. I never feel it is fit to read till it’s finished (if then).

29. I can’t imagine you doing an exercise or practice poem. From the start did you write only when you had an idea in mind and have you ever been surprised at how it turned out?

Always I write about a subject I have thrown myself into and thrashed around in for a whole period of my life.

I couldn’t write an exercise or practice poem — for me it would be like eating air. I’m familiar with the how-do-I-know-what-I-have-to-say-until-I’ve-said-theory of writing poems, in which writing is a way of prospecting for a subject, often in the subconscious. This is for people who want to write a poem, not for people who have a poem to write. For me the impulse to write only comes when my mind and feelings find themselves occupied tooth and nail by a subject.

30. Since you’re practical, I can imagine that when you realized writing poetry was going to be what you did (or one of the major things), you might have set out to acquire a suitable kind of education, including but not restricted to a thorough literary education. Well, all this question means is, did you set out to learn or do specific things? Too wide-open a question, probably.

I got an official education in order to get a job and so have money for self and a wife and children and dog and cat. Writing poems was to be done in a sort of secret life: also in secret was the unofficial, and real, education I was (and still am) trying to acquire.

31. You have some sharply witty poems, I think, such as in the Toad Sweat sequence, but they aren’t ironic. What’s your attitude toward irony?

I find most irony tiresome. As used in recent literature it’s a cop-out; in life, as when, for example, the same month I acquired a lovely, new fly-rod I also acquired a bad back, it seems an especially irritating form of low wit. — Back to literature for a moment. Actually I mean by literary irony both of the Big Two: tragic irony, e.g. Oedipus Rex, in which there is, to my mind, too much of the gleaming mechanism in the way it works; the cop-out I mentioned is in the second kind, Romantic or self-directed irony, and its simpering descendant, camp. [Later revision: I take back that crack about Oedipus, having subsequently spent a lot of time rereading, and reading about, the plays of Sophocles.]

32. The title In Plain Air refers to the clarity those poems aim for (and achieve), I believe. Did you also intend a reader to think of the French term en plein air, “out of doors”?

Yes, though only mildly. I had to have help from John Ridland in finding that title in the first place. (He owed me a title.)

APPENDIX—Re: White River Poems

1. Meeker doesn’t seem to be in hell, but the “condition of fire” puzzles me, because I think of fire as in hell.

Meeker isn’t in hell but up in the sky — the “condition of fire” as I remember is from Plotinus, and is celestial not infernal.

2. Book Three begins by asking “Is a self /so precious, Piah?” Later we learn that in ’88, in a demeaning aftermath, Piah — “not. . . /to dwell in a kind of cyst /in somebody else’s body politic” — committed suicide. He goes as a warrior would go, “to vapor!” The idea maybe is that when the kind of self he has no longer has a chance to exist intact (if that’s ever possible), no longer has a chance period, then it must go out, instead of becoming a grotesque mockery, at the same time that in the long run a particular self isn’t necessarily so precious. Also, is Jack unmalleable?

I think you have the logic of Piah’s story. I would want to check it again. Jack is unmalleable, yes.

3. “The bear went over the mountain . . . “ how does that go?

“The bear went over . . . to see what he could see.”

4. Meeker talks about his wife not having a soul, while he pretty obviously has one. In what sense does his develop? (It doesn’t seem here something one would really want to have, because so troublesome.)

It happens that, like the theologians themselves, I have entertained various notions of the soul at various times; in this poem the notion arose that the soul is a condition, the result of spiritual overload, during an episode of suffering — soul, that is, as a certain quantity of cramped or baffled or unstoppered spirit: you find soul in this sense for instance in the poems of George Herbert — for unstoppered spirit see the poems of Robert Herrick.

5. I accept that it’s a tragedy, rather than an epic, but it sounds like a tragedy in the Frost or Boethian sense, a tale of conflicting goods (not good vs evil).

Right — a story about conflicting goods. There are some villains in the poem, but they are in the background.

SOME OPINIONS on teaching that showed up unescorted by questions:

Always when reading a set of papers it seemed the really good students were saying the things I should have said, the others more or less what I did say.

Apparently with teaching literature, as with child-rearing, a right way to do it doesn’t exist. You will do some harm no matter how you proceed. You can only hope to see that your heart is in the right place. (And the head can’t be in the right place when the heart isn’t.)

I think that in every real poet there’s a certain ferocity, deep down maybe as in Herbert (he was from an old family of warriors and his brother said he was hot-tempered), or out in plain view as in Milton or Archilochus, or glinting under the surface as in Marvell — so, I want to tell my poor students but don’t, there should be a matching ferocity of spirit in you, so that once properly trained, you take on a poem with the energy of a leopard attacking another leopard, very quick and busy and accurate and the whole thing soon over. Only, of course, unlike the attacked leopard, the poem, you hope, comes out of the encounter unmarked and radiant with its own vitality brought out. And the same goes for you. I do deplore that fussy creeping along inch by inch, over the skin of an anesthetized poem, which is proudly called “close reading.” The word “close” is pleonastic. There is just reading, in my opinion. A poem’s not written for mental cowards. When going after a poem, you would do well to have in mind Milton’s phrase “. . . though terror be in love / And beauty.”

The first thing to be settled in teaching literature is, who’s going to be the star here? The student? The teacher? The writer? From a wrong choice here come several of the perversions that flourish in the profession.

Something about the encounter of literature with society; that is, the great masters and, in their respective cultures, “the narrow world of letters,” out of which they rise free: the result is that the most these cultures are able to get from the masterpieces in them is a set of more or less faint rumors of paradise, and hell, and the actual earth. We call these rumors education. Picasso said, “When I was young and unknown, only a few people understood what I was doing. Now that I am old and famous it’s still the same!”

Best thing said of teaching poetry is Frost’s “You don’t want to put too many words around a poem” — this is connected with the hard fact that, when teaching a poem, you must be, as Robert Graves said about reading one, in a state of grace.

*  The brief review of Pictures from Breughel can be found at