July 2008

Wendy Anderson


An Interview with Kevin Stein

Poet Kevin Stein is smart, funny, and a keen commentator on our poignant-jubilant-fraught lives. He’s also genuinely nice. At a reading this past spring, he wore mostly black and a set of funky specs, but also a comfort with himself and his audience, evidenced by his gracious openness toward admirers who approached him. He loves to “talk poetry” and gets downright enthusiastic about his role as Illinois poet laureate. His eighth book and fifth poetry collection, Sufficiency of the Actual -- a title from one of its poems and “my argument with myself and the world that sometimes what actually is, and what actually happens, is stranger and richer than what one could imagine or make up” -- comes out this fall from the University of Illinois Press.

Stein’s poems can be a joyful romp, or sad and full of pain. A lot are amusing. And a lot of the “funny” is mixed with hurt, as he conveys the angst and befuddlement of his growing-up years in the blue-collar factory town of Anderson, Indiana, population at the time about 70,000. He often uses his experiences there to reflect a wider view of the world.

“An American Tale of Sex and Death” from the book American Ghost Roses recalls awkward encounters with sexual longing before it moves into matters much more profound.

First, the longing, in a boy destined for a life of literature:

....Catholic teacher-priests
had ceded the subject to shocked locker
room gossip, so imagine my wonder,
child of the fat book, when I blundered on
Romeo and Juliet in the library
Carnegie’s steel monopoly gifted
my Hoosier town. Oh how the bard’s language
spilled like sunlight through the oft-zitted dome
shrouding my green teenage brain, a verbal
hubbub above the flesh and brash sword play.

He goes on to describe the boy’s fevered enamorment with the play, topped when he and two friends invite a trio of girls to watch Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet at the local theater. No untoward behavior happens with a real girl, but the boy sits transfixed by “Olivia Hussey’s/ olive chest splashed on screen, each breast maybe/ four feet across and deeply cleaved...”

Alas, the girls are “safely station-wagoned off by Mommy,” leaving the dejected friends to walk home, where they meet “truth” on several levels: A gang of black youths gives them a beating; the gang is enraged because Martin Luther King, Jr. has been killed that very day; a lone black man aids the boy, puts his glasses back onto his swollen face, and tells him: “Face it, you at the wrong place at the wrong/ time, brother.”

Stein ends the poem with the narrator’s look back on a fast friendship with a black teen who takes revenge for his beating and their divergent life paths (one in prison, one who writes sonnets), and a quiet “truth” about any painful truth, whether narrow or wide: “Look it in the eye or you’re blind.”

“My working-class town was clearly divided along lines of race and class,” he says. “I found that disturbing and a measured element of my growing up, and it shaped my view of the world and the larger society.

“It was a tough, sort of mean place. My reading and my trips to the Carnegie Public Library [in his hometown] afforded me, not an escape from that, but gave me an alternative vision of the world; and I think at some point that was so alluring I thought to escape from that rough-and-tumble experience.”

Stein recalls a favorite poet, James Wright, who also grew up in a hard-bitten, working-class environment and escaped through “idyllic, romantic, commune-with-nature” poetry. “I think my early poems did the same sort of thing. Over time I made peace with those subjects; and I have found those subjects that were endemic in my town to be the ones that matter most to me.” He reflects a moment. “I don’t like to think I write a lot of poems about my growing up, but I suppose I do.”

Indeed, many of Stein’s poems depict harsh lives. He writes of “a teenage pal who’d gulped down Drano while his mother/lay dying with cancer.” Of a friend’s father who “worked with bruise as Kandinsky did with chalk,/ knuckling punch/ over punch so blood shone through his mother’s skin as sunlight/ through stained glass.” A boy with a dad “too shaky to screw himself out of the chair/his Parkinson’s a blight...” searching his father’s drawers for a checkbook to pay an overdue bill and finding instead “a single yellow envelope scrawled/ in his schoolboy’s hand, ‘Mary Francis’s hair.’"

One golden curl clipped from the kid sister
askew in mother’s arms, rheumatic fever,
dead before ‘29’s crash -- in those old days
back when there was no cure, as there’s none now,
my friends, to quell this ache. Love makes us pay.

He writes plain funny things, too: of “The Other One,” yet another writer named Kevin Stein whose name appears with his on Amazon.com, who “pens tales of dragons,/magic castles, and sorcerers tapping wands/ both good and evil... No doubt he’s creeped out by my buntings,/ race riots, and the too thin deaf man / with lopped-off hands.” Then there’s “Etiquette and Epiphany in the Post-Workshop Men’s Room,” which relays the “rules” of behavior in a public restroom while introducing the varied strange characters in a writing workshop, interspersed with stereotypes, religion, and the wacky connectedness of us all. “First Performance of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Band Puce Exit” recounts with hilarity a teenage band, “pubescent groupies lingering on basement steps,/ first on the block to show hearing loss,/ first to wear paisley with polka dots/... music... our ticket out.” Then the poem does what Stein poems often do -- it veers into the tragic future of its characters, then swerves back, to end on the bittersweet.

Where does Stein’s humor originate? “I found it almost salvific, humor in the face of those harder realities. In terms of biography, my father had a wonderful sense of humor; and we as a family often engaged in laugh sessions, extending a story or a metaphor... and everybody [could] participate in it. Even if it was sort of sad, one found an angle of humor in the situation.”

“Valentine’s Day Boxing at the Madison County Jail” is another such marvelous rendering of funny with frank awfulness. A young man is fumbling his way to bliss with a young woman. “...[H]er happy planet / converged with mine in a TV-lit room at the exact instant/ her doting father,/ county Sheriff, fifth-degree black belt in judo and karate,/ his chest/ as broad as the Magnavox console whose flickerings we necked by,/ opened/ the family room door...” The sheriff forces the young man to box Reggie, an Army middle-weight “who’d boxed his way out of Nam” and ran a hair salon till he got six months jail time for selling dope. In jail, Reggie is put into matches, and the boy imagines how angry Reggie must be to dole out punishment to a skinny kid who might well become the sheriff’s son-in-law.

“What a sprawling poem,” Stein says now. “I did date the sheriff’s daughter. Much of that is autobiographical. This poem also illustrated the racial situation in my town.” Once licked, the young white man continues where he left off with the sheriff’s daughter. Once freed, African-American “Reggie” is unable to reopen his business, as the cops “circled its uninhabited planet like white moons gone mad.”

Stein also worked in factories to earn money for college, and he writes about that. In “Night Shift, after Drinking Dinner, Container Corporation of America, 1972, “ he tells about a worker who has pumped himself up to do the unthinkable: use one of the machines to sever his own trigger finger, to avoid the worse fate of going to Vietnam. 

Stein describes his initial nervousness about working in a factory. “I worried what they would think of me, wanting to be a fancy-pants poet. But they were very supportive.” He remembers getting coffee and hearing someone whisper, “Stay in school, kid.”

“It was good money, and also a reminder of where I was from.”

Today as a scholar, a professor, and director of the Creative Writing Program at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, Stein is a ways from where he began. But he worked hard at his achievements. He describes the care he takes in selecting artwork for his book covers -- a Kandinsky painting graces American Ghost Roses -- and also remembers being jealous of wealthier classmates who were taking art lessons his parents could never afford. He made use of that energy to “manipulate words to make paintings.” In other words, to make poems. Colors and the emotions they convey come up in a few Stein poems.

He also loves architecture. “It’s said architecture is ‘frozen music,’ and I love that notion of making visual the invisible sonic notes of music. I’d like my poems to have that quality of making visible the unseen and making the seen disappear in music.”

As poet laureate, Stein initiated the first-ever audio compact disk poetry anthology featuring nationally renowned Illinois poets such as Li-Young Lee, Lisel Mueller, and Haki Madhubuti reading their work. The name, “Bread & Steel,” illustrates the rich agricultural and industrial heritage of the state. To learn more, go to www.cafepress.com/breadandsteel. To read more about Stein’s other projects as poet laureate, go to www.bradley.edu/poet/stein.