Kevin Stein

recorded in Dunlap, IL

 

Kevin Stein

Hi, this is Kevin Stein. I live in Dunlap, Illinois. Actually, outside of Dunlap, Illinois,

a village of eight hundred, a village of four hundred when we moved to our home twenty-eight years ago. It’s kind of…it’s a bucolic, heavenly place. We spend most of our time outdoors, or if we’re inside we’re looking outdoors. One can get really sentimental about the birds at the birdfeeder, or the doe with the limping right leg that you see every morning and every evening—wondering what happened to that doe over winter, and gardening, and flowers, and we’ve got an orchard! And all these things that if you were going to try to describe what one might think a stereotypic artist’s or poet’s home would be like—I guess, you know, we have a lot of those things. That’s good. It’s vivifying. I’m lucky my wife, Deb, loves it. And our kids, Joe and Kirsten, did, too. But I want to tell you it’s also a lot of work: a lot of weeding and mowing and planting and chasing the rabbits out of the vegetable garden. So it is not all Wordsworthian. It involves a kind of labor. Isn’t that funny how beauty and labor are connected? Ah, the lucky few who don’t have to worry about that. That’s where I live now. I grew up in Anderson, Indiana, a really tough working class town. I grew up on West Fifth St., on a quarter lot. Our house was hard on the alley so that when people walked down the alley you basically could reach into our house, and it was an alley that ran behind our house. It was a pretty tough place, with all the vices of the lower working class: a good amount of racism, a good amount of violence, a lot of drinking, a lot of bad relationships between men and women—luckily not in my family, my parents were the exception to that. But I would ride my bike, as a little kid, down to the river, White River, which was anything but white—it was a polluted and brown, muddy river—and I would spend most of my days there, I suppose, imagining living in a place like I live in now.  So I’m happy to be out of that locale, but that locale is still in me, and the good folks that I knew in that working class venue, that locale, they taught me a lot and I certainly can’t escape those things in who I am. So, place for me has always been immensely important. It’s a thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about.  


The Knox Writers’ House

Do you feel that expanse—you can see out to the horizon right here—frees up mental space in your head for writing? Do you think moving from the urban, even the small town urban, to the rural, changed your writing?


Stein

I really do. It was Frost, and probably Adrienne Rich, who talk about inner and outer weather, so there is connection between the inner and the outer. I’ve always been attracted to the West. Deb is really fond of the West. It’s that elbow room. It’s psychic elbow room. You see so far. Anything seems possible. One’s vision, to see—Emerson’s seer, that big floating eyeball thing—I do think there is that connection. Yes, I do spend a lot of time looking directly north and just seeing the prairie roll, and I hope things come to me unbidden that way, but yes, there is a kind of psychic elbow room and it’s important to me. I know that if I lived in downtown Chicago, for example, I’d find things to get excited about and I’d find things that would populate, things that would give psychic elbow room or maybe just elbow me, and that would be the thing that I would write about. Mostly, I just don’t understand how one lives in a place and does not engage that place in one’s writing.


The Knox Writers’ House

Yeah, can you talk about kinship in writing? We are definitely a map, and we’re interested in location and geography, a writer’s geography, but also we’re interested in community. Do you feel you are part of a writing community here? Or anywhere? Is that important to you as a writer?



Stein

You know, I think writers—the writers I know—spend most of their time feeling alone. Often times that aloneness is generative; other times of course it’s destructive. But it is a solitary art, probably enjoyed by readers often—most often, more often—in a solitary way, too. I want to feel part of a bigger movement, but not a movement of aesthetic or a movement that has a credo or a series of dogma (as in, “This is how you write a poem! All others are fools! Only we realize the supremacy of the image—or the narrative!” or whatever). I think the kinship you speak of certainly lessens that writerly loneliness and it enables the work to happen. You have to have pleasure from the work itself—it has to matter to you, because no one else is ever going to be able to give you enough love, support or kudos or back-pats or bottles of wine to make you feel good about your work if you don’t feel good about your work.


KWH

Do you feel like you are writing in conversation with any other writers, living or dead?


Stein

That’s a great question. I have a love/hate, mostly hate/love relationship with Eliot, T.S. Eliot, and you know Eliot, he was so sure that all poems talked to other poems—a poem only means something as it is in relation to all other poems—. I don’t know that I buy that. I think I do on an esoteric level. Who am I conversing with? Yeats said, A rhetoric is an argument with another person; poetry is an argument with the self. And so, often times, I feel that I’m arguing with myself. The poem, the new poem, “Wrestling Li Po for the Remote,” is that argument that I have been having with myself. I guess it’s part of the larger conversation I’m having with current American Poetry. I’m just really bored with poems that are all about the self. I’m bored about poems that are all about language display. I’m bored about poems that are all into fragmentation—and “Oh God, the world is so fragmented and our work must be fragmented!”—and all those things bore the hell out of me, and I’m sure they bore a lot of other folks. So my conversation with myself, my argument with myself, is partly an argument or conversation with what I see going on among my peers and with those who are following me and those who proceeded me. I just feel like so much of American Poetry has not paid attention to the interaction of the personal and the communal and the private and the public, and I’ve just kind of gotten ticked off about that. Well, I just don’t really know how to articulate this. I’m not necessarily talking about political poetry, because that’s the most difficult thing to write, but about poems that don’t have the world in them…this world. I love Robert Rauschenberg—I’m lucky to have a couple of Rauschenberg prints on my book covers. This is his painting, it’s a combine painting—it’s titled “Rhyme,” ha ha ha, pretty nice—but as you can see here’s a man’s necktie, and what Rauschenberg would do, as you probably know, in his combine paintings he would paint things into his paintings, so stuff of the world—so if a poem wants to be of this world it has to contain the stuff of this world, and so Rauschenberg would paint this stuff in there. I guess I feel like that’s what I want poems to have in them…. What I’m after, what I want is a poetry that engages a moment with the stuff of the moment, and it isn’t afraid to have an opinion. Isn’t afraid to be wrong.


To a Blossoming Pear Tree by James Wright

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