An Interview with Steven Wingate, by Jennifer Fandel

Steven Wingate’s short fiction has appeared in Slice issues #3 (“In Translation”) and #12 (“Obsession”), including an audio excerpt in “In the Telling” featurette here. I’ll be exploring Thirty-One Octets: Incantations and Meditations (WordTech/CW Books, 2014), which is Wingate’s second collection of poetry, with this self-proclaimed genre nomad.

Wingate_OctetsAll of your poems in this collection are written in octets, which are eight-stanza poems. How and when did you discover that this form was right for what you wanted to say? How bound did you feel by this form?

The idea for this book started when I was reading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I love that Eliot takes on the big questions, like our place in the universe, and since the Quartets are full of that kind of exploration and I wanted to follow his path, I told myself “If T.S. Eliot can write four quartets, then I’ll write eighty octets.” But I didn’t have a precedent for what an octet was, and hadn’t encountered it as a form before. So I went about my daily life, listening to the voices in my head the way writers do, until the idea of using anaphora the repeated phrase that has deep roots in human culture, especially ancient forms of incantationstruck me. To this day we use it in rituals and prayer to summon up the gods, as we did thousands of years ago. Eliot is interested in what changes (or doesn’t change) with humanity over time, so incantation felt in line with that homage. So I rolled with it, and from there it was a matter of listening for first lines that I felt I had to work with. I wrote the eighty I’d promised myself, but then winnowed them down.

The octets have a real free-association feeling to them, pulling things from all parts of the brain and from the great wide world as a whole. Does the poem on the page have any resemblance to your writing process for these poems, or is this associative feeling something that you worked for in the revision process?

As I listened for those good first lines, I hung into the ones that would open up into a broad variety of perspectives on myself and human life in general. I wanted to follow that Modernist idea of fragmentation, of looking at a thing or an idea in multiple ways and generating meaning from the collision between those perspectives. Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” perfectly represents that Modernist line of inquiry for me. Each stanza in an octet is a meditation (though much more effusive) in the way that each stanza of “Blackbird” is a meditation. What I looked for in those first lines were vantage points where I could see into my various changing selves over the years and into the changing world. So the free association you notice is built into the book from conception, rather than applied from the outside stylistically.

I wrote the Octets with pen and paper, following advice I got from the late Colorado novelist Kent Haruf, who—in order to beat writer’s block—literally pulled his wool cap over his eyes so he couldn’t see what he was writing. I simply took off my glasses and scribbled into a notebook so I could escape my internal editor for a while, and after I got through with that initial burst I handed the notebook over to that editor and said “What can we do with this?” The revision process was all about sound—tons of reading aloud to get the tone the way I wanted, which was oracular or confessional or Old Testament prophet-y depending on the poem. In terms of the way the lines took shape, my role model wasn’t T.S. Eliot but Allen Ginsberg—and through him Walt Whitman. I saw Ginsberg read a couple times and loved the incantatory nature of his long, breath-centered lines, which are a wonderful fit for prose poetry. They allow you to steamroll through with a line of thought, create tangents that have tangents, create contradictions that have contradictions. I don’t think I sound anything like Ginsberg and don’t attempt to, but he’s definitely my first point of contact to the poetic tradition of the long line. The human voice is an instrument, a physical thing, and to me Ginsberg is the standard-bearer of that idea.

You address the reader (“you” and sometimes even “dear reader”) often in this collection. How did you envision your interaction with the reader when you were writing and revising these poems?

I always feel emotionally intimate with poets when I’m reading their books—if I don’t, I put the book down. If poetry isn’t an open window into the inner life of a fellow human being, then it becomes mere style and I’m just not interested in it. So the direct address in the Octets is all about owning that intimacy, calling attention to it, making it part of the reader/writer interface. It has completely gone out of fashion as a literary device, which is another reason I’m perversely drawn to it. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries it got used all the time. Why not bring it back? It breaks the fourth wall the way avant-garde theater does, acknowledging that’s there’s an interaction going on between writer and reader that’s extremely tangible—and to me is the basis of the literary experience—but usually gets glossed over in the interest of making that experience transparent and smooth. We tend to efface it, but I wanted the opposite. I tried to vary my use of the device, so that it’s sometimes used in that sincere, 18th or 19th century way of saying “Hey, come closer” and sometimes used perversely—such as putting the reader/writer dynamic in a situation where it isn’t expected.

What I like about this book is the combination of playfulness and seriousness, particularly as it comes through the voice of the speaker. The self mediates between a pretty big ego and an honesty thats not afraid of making oneself look bad. I trust this voice because it embraces the depths of the “I.” Were you at all afraid of putting this speaker out there for readers, especially as many would read it as a revealing of yourself?

I write poetry the same way I want to read it—if it’s not a window to an inner life, not an invitation to experience being through another’s perspective, then it’s not worth doing. I guess that makes me a card-carrying confessional poet, doesn’t it? There’s another approach that has gone out of style for no good reason. Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, etc. all have busts in the poetic pantheon, but their approach is often deemed “sentimental” today—and that word is sort of the ultimate damnation among a literary community that’s highly invested these days in some form of activism. There’s so much writing out there that’s in some way utilitarian, meant to increase consciousness or foment political action. I see so many anthologies and journal issues dedicated to environmental and political issues that I wonder if the pendulum has swung a bit far. What’s at the other end of that swing? The confessional, the inner, the unique spiritual life of the individual human being. The ego, id, and super-ego (if I can get Freudian for a moment) all arguing amongst themselves. In terms of being exposed for the jumbled mess

I am, I figure that I’m already “out there” in the world for anybody to read in a variety of ways. People who meet me read the body language that I communicate without being aware of it, social media contacts see my various rants, governments and corporations read my purchase and travel data. There isn’t much to hide, and hiding is a waste of energy.

I was blown away by the believable craziness of many of the details in these poems. (Im particularly thinking of Columbus seeking a route to the East Indies so he could score madras cloth, which he found erotic as underwear.) Where do these crazy things come from?

Mostly from my own craziness and wonder. We live in an unbelievably incongruous place—everything about human society is stitched together from so many different kinds of cloth that it’s amazing we even function. Every day of our lives, even as we fling ourselves into a computer-centered future, we use Stone Age technology. We don’t question the customs we use constantly that we’ve borrowed from a culture that was absorbed and/or destroyed thousands of years ago. Every word we use is a tiny little cultural collision with an enormous, weighty history.

So we’re really living in a web of contradictions, and in fact we are a web of contradictions. I find this fact glorious—the most beautiful thing about our species. Every day, without even writing poetry, I’m using words and gestures and social rituals and ways of looking at life that come from all over the globe. This excites me more than I can ever explain, and as I’m typing this response out I have to keep myself from running around the room like a little child. I feel tremendously lucky to have been born at a time when those connections and collisions are so visible to us, so I dive into them whenever I can and follow them. I guess that’s where the craziness comes from.

Throughout my reading of this collection, Whitmans lines “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)” from “Song of Myself” kept coming to mind. Do you find any connections between your work and that of Whitman? Who are your main influences?

That line from Whitman is completely behind the spirit of the OctetsI’m really glad the connection is visible. I’ve always loved the way Whitman says what he wants to and rolls with it, even if he’s changing his tune midstream. He trusts that he’s going to make the language work so that we follow him along his twists and turns. Whitman’s multiplicitous approach to the self was a gateway to Modernism, as people who are far more scholarly than I am have noticed. But I don’t try to sound like Whitman any more than I try to sound like Ginsberg. Their influence is really more at the bones of my work, rather than its skin.

In terms of that skin, I look to the European and American experimentalists of the 20th century. My big three heroes are Gertrude Stein, Antonin Artaud, and William S. Burroughs, whose relationship with language is completely free and fearless. Lots of people find Stein’s work totally self-involved and pedantic, but they should read it aloud—or even better, sing it—and they might change their tune. Artaud, though I’ve only read him in translation, saw the world and his own inner workings from a completely idiosyncratic perspective and pulled absolutely no punches in expressing that vision; it’s no wonder they locked him up in the nuthouse. Burroughs and his word-hoard (the basis for his novel Naked Lunch and more) are important central ideas to me, and I reference it in the Octets—though I use horde, the way it’s spelled in Old English, to reach back toward history again. Each of us has a

word-hoard that represents all our influences, all the histories we carry inside us. I have a host of other influences in this vein, but Stein, Artaud, and Burroughs have always been my go-to people in terms of language.

What are you working on currently, and how is it connected to Octets?

Lately I’ve been going more and more digital, and I’m heading down that path largely because of the Whitmanesque “multitudes” of self that I started digging around in with Thirty-One Octets. We are all walking, moving word-hoards, streams of interlocking story. Our self-conceptions and personal narratives are ever-shifting and draw from all possible sources—who we used to be, who we wish we could be, what we lie and tell others that we were. Technology gives us tools to explore this multitude of perspectives in a way that pen and paper have a hard time keeping up with.

My first foray into digital literature is daddylabyrinth {}, a digital-only book about my life with my father and my life as a father. It’s built on Scalar {}, a media scholarship platform that I’ve adapted for lyric nonfiction, and I’ve been able to travel the world with it (Singapore, Korea, England). That’s a dream come true for me—all I’ve really wanted from the writing life is a chance to explore the world. I’m also finishing up an interactive film about being a second-generation American, called Talk With Your Hands Like an Ellis Island Mutt, that will premiere in Norway in August of 2015. It’s built on Korsakow {}, another new platform I’ve gotten to know. So right now my writing life is all about finding new digital tools that take me deeper into the self-fragmentation process. (Fortunately I have a very stable home life, or I’d worry that this would make me as crazy as Antonin Artaud.)

Ultimately, I’m a genre nomad. I grow a variety of literary crops, most of them strange herbs and spices, in a variety of fields. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time with the digital crops. But I’ve got a novel on the market right now and when my agent sells it, I’m sure I’ll become more interested in fiction again. And more poetry will grow up out of the ground, too—I even write a few new octets here and there. I just have to keep making my rounds and see when the plants are ready. I don’t have any one literary crop that’s commodifiable, but man, do I get to grow a lot of cool stuff.

Steven Wingate is a multi-genre author whose work ranges from print to interactive media. His short story collection Wifeshopping (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008) won the Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In 2014, Thirty One Octets: Incantations and Meditations was published, and his digital lyric memoir daddylabyrinth premiered at the ArtScience Museum of Singapore. He currently teaches at South Dakota State University.

Jennifer Fandel is a poet, book reviewer, and book publishing professional who lives in St. Louis. Her poetry has recently appeared in Measure, museum of americana, Midwest Gothic, RHINO, Sequestrum, and the anthologies Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse Press, 2015) and Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland (Ice Cube Press, 2014).