Interview with Alan Stephens
October 1996, Kate Dennis
(Note: Kate was a student of Robyn Bell’s, and this interview was an assignment. My copy has a note on it from Stephens saying the interview “took place at 9:00 a.m., and my head was feeling the effects of a poor night’s sleep — migraine & big pill have their place in it.” — A.A.S.)
May I put this over here? (l ask about my tape recorder.)
Sure. Wherever it needs to be.
I ask him about his boyhood — and how he got interested in literature. “Uh . . .” He’s quiet for a few seconds. “I’m trying to remember . . . Is that thing going?”
Yeh. But it’s voice activated — so it should go off when you’re not talking.
Well, I’d say, maybe to start with, that back then, by back then I mean the early nineteen thirties — I was born in 1925 — a very tiny minority of people went beyond high school into college. And many people didn’t go through high school but stopped at the seventh grade. My father went through the seventh grade and got started in the eighth grade, and then he was needed to help his father, my grandfather, with the harvest, and from then on he just worked on the farm for his father.
Seventh grade — that would be the first year of junior high? The same way it is now?
Yeh, that’s right. Seventh grade would be the first year of junior high. It took money that the great majority of people simply didn’t have to go beyond the eighth grade. So, there wasn’t a lot of reading in our household or among the people we saw — friends and other associates. The Saturday Evening Post was the magazine that came — which gave us what we read in. There was a bookcase that had a few old books in it which were not interesting.
Do you remember what they were?
A book about cowboys, gunfighters, which I didn’t get to finish because my mother took it away. It disappeared. I think one was a Sir Walter Scott novel. It didn’t interest me. And one was a book of poems, cowboy poems, done in dialect, you know, sort of fake dialect. I did not much like that. And then Charles and Mary Lamb’s tales from Shakespeare. Summaries of Shakespeare’s plays. Which I didn’t spend any time at all with. There was an old bound volume of Scribner’s magazines. The first and only thing I read in it was a ghost story in which a deaths-head moth took on great importance and which frightened me so badly that I put a lot of effort into keeping my mind off it in the following ten days or so. Later on I could let myself remember how badly it had scared me. I didn’t read anything else in that book. And there was Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads. The poem that stayed with me was not the then-famous “Gunga Din” but one called “Danny Deever,” with its refrain, “For they’re hanging Danny Deever in the morning.”I tried but failed to think of a way for Danny Deever to avoid what was coming.
I remember doing some reading in junior high and high school but for me and for my friends — and I went to school, by the way, in the town, rather than the country school; it was close enough so that I could walk, about three miles — we were interested in other things, sports and girls, and gave minimum attention to the literature, not to mention the other subjects, that was taught. And I don’t suppose it was taught very effectively. So from there into the army for twenty-seven months . . . coming towards the end of that period, when I was in the army, it was a time when the services were sending people home . . . the war was over . . . and I got some spare time . . . they just hadn’t gotten around to sending my outfit back home yet and I did spend some time in the camp library. That’s when my first serious reading was done. Reading that made me thoughtful. And it was a single book — Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up. I think I mentioned that in class, didn’t I? Yes. But it was the first thoughtful writing that I’d ever read. I suppose it’s second rate. It’s not a book that’s lasted.
Is that the paperback you got when paperbacks came out?
Yeh. That’s right from the camp library. I liked that story. The first paperbacks came out in, what? The late forties I guess. Late forties or early fifties. No, it would have been late forties — maybe 1948. In a drugstore. It was a single little rack with this brand new thing — paperbacks. They were twenty-five cents. And one of those was One Hundred American Poems [edited] by Seldon Rodman. It was certainly an interesting selection of poems that I got. The poem that got my attention was called “Voyages”, by Hart Crane. I couldn’t understand a word of it. That was the summer after I had gotten out of the army and before I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder. And I was working on the farm. That was the first serious and difficult reading I had ever attempted. And I didn’t ever get anywhere with the poem, except for the fact that I was really dazzled by it. (Which is not a bad thing.) It seemed like something very powerful and very beautiful, absolutely inaccessible to me. I thought that if I just kept on studying it, it would come through to me. And it didn’t. That was because I simply didn’t have the background or the practice with reading that sort of writing to get anywhere with it. But still I suppose that the first real serious literary effort I made was to try to understand that poem.
When I went to the university I first tried journalism and that bored me. So I went into political science. And I found that the teaching there and the material were interesting. And I thought I’d just go on and study political science. I remember one class I was really dazzled by was French constitutional history. You know, the French changed governments every couple years so you’re learning about this very volatile form of democracy that the French had. I liked that. And I admired the teacher because he knew so much. I took a class in U.S. labor law and I liked that too. That interested me. And again I was deeply impressed by the powerful intelligence of the man that taught it. He’d come in and just start talking right away and talk until the hour was up — and instruct us every moment of the time. Very impressive. All that I found interesting.
But meanwhile, I guess, that first encounter with that poem that I didn’t understand kept nagging at me. And so I took literature classes. And though I didn’t get much out of them, I thought, well, there seems to be more there to get into than, say, political science and labor law in the United States. So gradually I arranged to go over and become an English major, and I started reading on my own. I thought when I took my first Freshman English class, first quarter, and wrote my first paper that I had written a terrific paper. I remember boasting to the girl that I was going with about how good it was. And what a shock it was when it came back with an F on it. And she was terrific [the teacher]. I went in to see her, “What’d I do wrong?’” And she showed me what I’d done wrong — all over the place. It was a real mess. She was probably twenty-five years old and just all business. And knew her business — knew about how to go about teaching barbarians, you know, like me, how to write these things. That was a major experience. Her explanations were clear and convincing. And every explanation taught me something as she went over my paper. She was marvelous.
I transferred from the University of Colorado to the teacher’s college — for financial reasons. I needed to save money. I had a girl I was going to marry so I was saving my money. There was a teacher there named Donald Drummond who had a creative writing class. And I wrote poems for him. That was the first regular poetry training I had. I was there for a couple of quarters and he told me I should go to the University of Denver to study . . . so that’s what I did. By that time we were married. I remember that my father drove us from Greeley to Denver. It was fifty miles. This would have been in his Ford Sedan. But we got all of our possessions into that car to make our move. And with Alan Swallow I found myself in classes that were full of veterans of varying ages and experience who were dead serious about writing. That was my first saturation in the business of getting things written. And it was good.
Alan Swallow was a kind of disciple of the Stanford critic, Yvor Winters, who was very severe — against free verse. Very much in favor of formality in verse and the use of traditional metrics . . . you know . . . iambics and all that. So I got a thorough working over of my poems, which were not metrical, and learned to write metrically with Alan Swallow, using Winters’ books as my guide. And I’m trying to remember now . . . I guess it would have been in my last year that I applied for a fellowship at Stanford — a writing fellowship — and was granted one so that I spent the next year at Stanford with a group of Stanford fellows. There were Thom Gunn and three other men besides me — there were five of us men and two women. So there’d be seven kids in the class, young people. And what it amounted to was writing poems and bringing them to class and handing them out to the other students — pretty much as you go to class and have Robyn and your fellow students go over your stuff. But, as I say, it was very much Winters things that we learned.
And I stayed with that pretty much in my first book that Alan Swallow brought out. He had a press. He was not only a teacher but a publisher. And it took awhile to unlearn what I’d learned from Winters, so that when I wrote metrical verse it wouldn’t be like the Winters . . . from the Winters school of poetry. And also I taught myself the kind of non-metrical verse that I wanted to write. With a lot of help at first from a deep and enthusiastic reading of William Carlos Williams’s poems. And all the while reading like mad trying to catch up. Here I was in my middle twenties finding out about and learning things that, say, in the best schools in the United States and England, you would have found out about and studied when you were fifteen and sixteen and seventeen. So I was way behind. And I’ve been catching up ever since, I feel. I really do. And, of course, when you teach, that’s when you really learn the stuff.
John [Wilson] and Robyn say that sometimes, “I never knew this until I taught.”
Absolutely. Yeh. That really forces you to give relentless attention to what you’ve assigned. And to think about it because you can’t just read it and go into a classroom, that’s not enough, you’ve got to do some thinking about it. Have a few things to say that will be of use to the students. Because it’s all new to them. So they have, you know, something useful to go on. Teaching takes up, took up, for me, a tremendous amount of energy. And yet I was also getting my education from it because I came to a place where I was always allowed to teach what I wanted to teach, even in the English department. We’d have to teach freshmen English. But the department was run by intelligent people, mainly Hugh Kenner with Marvin Mudrick, who had plenty of say about what was going on. The people they trusted, they allowed to teach just what they wanted. So when I got ready to find out about say the Greeks, the early Greek poets, lyric poets, I bought a Greek grammar and a Greek dictionary and got enough Greek so that I could follow Sappho and Archilochus, what they were saying in the original, and show it to the students. We went slowly, but we’d get through poems or scraps of poems, a number of fragments by Sappho. We could spend possibly two classes where we went over short fragments by Sappho.
Did you use translations also?
Yeh. But what I would do was just take the Greek word, the Greek characters, and turn them into Roman characters so that they could see what the words looked like, to pronounce them to show how Sappho’s words went. And the order in which they came and all that. And they could hear the sound in the Greek. And then we’d just translate them. That was fun. I once taught a class in which we did Greek, Sappho; Roman, Horace; Italian, Leopardi; Spanish, who was the Spanish poet? Antonio Machado. No German. I guess those were the four languages we studied. But it was great fun. (Later on I worked through The Odyssey and The Iliad in the Greek, five lines a day at first, then ten, then fifteen, and finally twenty lines at a time.) That’s what you could do here, you see, as you couldn’t in any other campus that I know of. That is if you wanted to learn something and teach it, you could do it. So teaching and getting myself educated all came together but, as I say, it took much much energy. But I can’t begrudge it because when you’re going to teach a thing you really have to pay attention to it beforehand. You don’t want to have an embarrassing time in the classroom. Sometimes you have an embarrassing time anyway. But with the energy left over I was writing some poems.
How many books of poetry have you written?
Well, if you just counted books, I suppose seven or eight. But some of them are the little tiny chapbooks. I published three sort of chapbooks. I guess four books with covers and three chapbooks. This may not be accurate. I really don’t keep these things in mind. Once I have a thing published I put it behind me and do not think about it at all. And one reason is — you know the reading that we did?
It was very hard for me. Because I had to go back, I wanted to pick some poems from my earlier stuff. And I never look back ever at those books and to go back and look at those poems, it seemed like I was just being dragged back into states of mind that I left behind so long ago. It was a very trying experience. Costly. It brings back things and I live in the present and in the next day or two. I don’t like to revisit what I’ve done. It was a strain on me. And then there was the aftermath of the reading, too. I could not stop thinking about the experience for about five days. Thinking about the glitches in my reading and all that. It’s funny.
When you read in class, not the reading, but when you came to John’s class — Oh, yeh? — It was funny to me because . . . well, it was so new to me. Because it was the first time I’d read it. And it was, I guess, old to you. And yet, it was kind of new to me too, because I hadn’t looked at it in so long.
Do you think you’ll do any more readings?
I don’t think so. It’s not the reading. I kind of enjoyed reading the poems. It’s the getting ready for, its like making any kind of public appearance, there’s a strain on my nervous system. I’m not as sturdy as I once was. I’d rather . . . it’s a matter of deciding where to put your energies. What’s left of them. I’ve also decided that it’s a time to do something that I did about fifteen or sixteen years ago. Stop writing for a couple years. So I’m going to stop writing for a couple of years. Just to let old habits subside and dissipate so that when I start again I’ll have, I hope, something different to say from what I’ve already said.
How often have you done that, stopped writing?
Just twice. This will just be the second time.
Is it hard not to write? Hard not to write? Do you find yourself wanting to write? (He laughs.) No. No. Uh-uh. The let-up’s heavenly, as Robert Frost says in one of his poems. (He stops for a minute.) Well, how’s that? Is that enough?
Yes, thank you for your time, it was very generous.
Any further questions?
Well, I was going to ask you about your wife but I’ve already kept you.
Oh, my wife.
Yes, Max gave me two questions that he thought should ask you. One of them was that I should ask you about your wife.
Oh, yeh. I met her when I was at the University at Colorado. She was going with this other guy. And I liked her so well at first sight that I decided then that I would marry her.
The first time you saw her?
Right. It was some kind of a picnic, I think it was. I decided that if I was going to do this that I would be serious about it. And so I went back to the dorm and sat at my desk and wrote out a schedule because I knew that she was graduating, she was two years ahead of me. This was in the spring quarter and I only had about five weeks in which to get this business done. So I wrote out a schedule of how it would go. What I would do first and second and third and so on. And I followed it and about three days before she was due to graduate and leave for a job up in Wyoming, we agreed to get married. It worked out pretty good.
What was on the list? It must have been a great list.
You know, I wish I could remember. It would be pretty entertaining, I think. But it was a schedule, you see. There was no time to waste, I figured. Because first, she had to be attracted away from this other guy. I had been going with her roommate. So I knew her slightly. I guess it was when she started seeing this other fellow that I realized how much I liked her and I better get going. I’ve never told her about that. She doesn’t know that I laid out a schedule for this. And it worked. She went off to a job in Wyoming at a resort and I went back to the farm and raised forty acres of beans for my father. Pinto beans. He gave me one field to take care of and I got my room and board and at the end of the summer when the beans were harvested, he took me down to Montgomery Ward’s and bought me a Pendleton shirt and that was my total recompense for raising that field of beans. But I didn’t resent that. My dad was getting old then and needing to think about retiring. You know, a farmer can’t go on forever. It’s demanding physical work and he was getting into his middle sixties then, so that was okay with me.
I guess my last question, the other question Max gave me is, he said he couldn’t imagine you growing up and working on your father’s farm and that that’s probably because he knows you and knows that’s not what you went on to do? Could you imagine staying on your father’s farm and being a farmer?
I don’t think so. Not after I’d found out in the army how interesting books could be. And that there’s thinking to be done in order to make sense of things. The farmer’s life is a physical life, I really do believe this, that you either . . . you can do physical work or mental work, but you cannot do both of them. They’re incompatible. They both take energy. I don’t mean to say that farm people are not intelligent. Among the most intelligent people I’ve ever known are the farmers who were our friends back then. Some of those people had minds as quick and powerful as any I’ve encountered since. And I would say that the kind of reading that you do and that Max does and that we do here in Creative Studies takes just as much energy as farm work. It’s just energy put to a different kind of effort.
But if you’re farming, and especially back then, before farming was mechanized, we were working with horses and hand tools. The work day was ten hours a day in the field. That is to say, you got out there and you worked for five hours, then you had dinner, which is the middle meal of the day and then you worked five more hours. Oh, before you went out you had to milk the cow and feed the calves, and you had to feed the horses and groom and harness them and take care of the chickens. And after this day in the fields you had to take care of the horses. First, take the harness off and curry them and give them their water and their grain and their hay. Then do the other chores, milk the cow again, that’s twice a day. Then go in for supper. That’s what we called the evening meal. Big meals. Big meals. That was a regular farm day, six days a week. Nowadays, farming is all mechanized. And it had begun to be after the war. My dad had a tractor by then. But we still had horses. We used a tractor and horses. And a lot of the work was still hand work — with a hoe and pitchfork and shovel, pick and crowbar, all that. It wasn’t that I disliked it. A lot of it I enjoyed. I enjoyed irrigating, that is irrigating farm land in Colorado, I enjoyed haying, stacking hay. I even enjoyed hoeing. Going up and down the field, weeding the beans. Some of the work was just hard and probably too hard for somebody of my build to go on with as you get a little older. My brother still farms.
The same farm?
No, that farm got sold. But my brother now farms nearby. He’s spent his life that way. It’s all machines now, like everything else, it’s all been mechanized. He just rides in enormous expensive machines doing his planting and his harvesting and the rest of it. So that’s a whole other era back then. It sounds very quaint. And it seems very quaint, too, looking back on it. Just how slowly things went. Also you didn’t hear engines. It was quiet. The world was quiet. There was no such thing as weed eaters or leaf blowers. And the automobiles in the thirties, there weren’t a lot of them. Population for one thing was thin. Maybe three or four cars during the day would go by on the dirt road that went by our farm. We would know three out of four times who it was driving the cars. And about half the time we’d know what they’d been doing, why they’d gone to town. It was quiet. That’s something I was thinking about just a few weeks ago. I live in a quiet part of town, just down on the creek there. We have just one street which is well off the main set of streets in that neighborhood. So few cars go by. And yet there’s always some damn noise being made down there. The neighbor with his leaf blower or somebody with a chain saw. Those chain saw sounds carry, you know. The mowing. The mowers are all noisy. We had a hand-pushed mower that made a soft clicking sound. That sort of work has disappeared from our world.
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