I’d think about primrose in winter: A Conversation with Eric Stiefel about Hello Nothingness — curated by Tiffany Troy

Eric Stiefel lives in Athens, Ohio with his dog, Violet, where he recently earned his PhD and teaches writing and poetry. He received the Sequestrum New Writer Award for Poetry in 2018, and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Penn Review Prize, among others. He earned his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and his undergraduate degree from NYU. His work has been published in journals across the globe.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem last set up the collection that follows?

Eric Stiefel: I decided to order that poem first in the collection mostly out of intuition in the beginning. It felt like a good introduction to the collection, but as I sat with it, and as I left it in that position, I started to realize that it captured a good deal of the mood that I was aiming for in the collection. If you think about the concerns of that poem, it features a speaker who’s encountering a landscape and admiring the desolation and beauty of that landscape while considering the series of specters the collision of experience and memory within that landscape conjures—I think that tension is emblematic of something the poems in the book do as a whole.

TT: I definitely agree with you, and I love how in “The Next Painting Was Full of Dark Clouds,” the speaker becomes almost a character in the landscape in his walking and looking. Much has been made of the title of your book, and there are many ways to read the title. Could you speak a little about that?

ES: The title comes from that poem you talked about, “The Next Painting Was Full of Dark Clouds,” and as I imagine anyone who’s written a manuscript probably knows, coming up with the title that encompasses all of your ideas or everything that’s going on in your work can be exceptionally difficult. I cycled through probably half a dozen or so titles before landing on this title, Hello Nothingness. One of the main things that drew me so strongly to this title was the playful sense of nihilism that comes with its juxtaposition, as the title suggests an awareness of oblivion or nothingness alongside a willingness to greet that nothingness with curiosity.  What does this nothingness mean, and what does it say about our lives?  That’s a central idea to the collection as a whole, so I was quite satisfied when I settled on it.

TT: I’m very happy for you because it’s such a great title. Can you describe the process of writing this collection?

ES: I’d accrued dozens of poems near the end of my MFA program, when I hadn’t published much yet, most of them just floating around my hard drive while I tried to figure out what to do with them.  I had some sense that they were connected, but the idea of structuring them into a cohesive manuscript felt too large and too daunting to pull off.  Eventually, one of my friends, poet Emily Pittinos, convinced me to throw together fifty pages worth of material so we could swap manuscripts to give each other feedback (with her manuscript becoming her first book, The Last Unkillable Things). 

But once I compiled everything in a single manuscript under the relatively low-pressure circumstances of trading manuscripts with a friend, I started to see patterns of ideas, images, themes, moods, and modes of communicating across the spectrum of the manuscript.  After four or five years of tinkering, revising, adding, and cutting different poems, the shape of the collection started to settle, having grown from a disorganized flux of poems and ideas into something that grew and shaped my poetic practice for much of its life. 

TT: How did you organize the poems into its three sections?

ES: I went to a talk that the poet Allison Joseph gave on performing for poetry readings, and she made an interesting point about how standup comedians organize their jokes into four or five minute clusters before organizing those clusters of jokes into an hourlong performance.  I’d already ordered the manuscript different in earlier iterations, but the process of pairing poems together, one poem at a time, felt more diligent, more careful, more intimate. 

After organizing groups of poems in cluster of four or five, I was able to take inventory of some of the broader moves the collection makes to organize the collection into different movements with varying, yet still connected, concerns.

TT: How does form inform your collection, and by that I mean when you write poems, do you write in form, or do you find a form afterwards? How does form enable you to sort of tell the story, a narrative, or an image in the collection?

ES: I have a fascination with the sonnet. I don’t often write in the strictly metered, perfectly rhyming sonnets that existed more prominently hundreds of years ago, but the idea of the sonnet as a set of rhetorical structures and possibilities, rather than an arbiter of rhyme and meter, is something that appeals to me.  After studying form and prosody, I quickly realized how much form can shape the way we interact with poems–from looking at the poem as a physical object on the page, to navigating a poem as a reader, to affecting the way that we read it out loud. Form can be used to create new connections or heighten tensions, to heighten a poem’s sense of lyricism or mimic other genres. 

So form is something I’m constantly thinking about, even though I don’t write in inherited form often. At the same time, I believe every free verse poem creates its own kind of nonce form. Every poem has form in one way or another, and so the relationship between form and meaning and content is something I’m always thinking about and always tinkering with. There are certainly poems where I started by thinking about the form, like “Birdwatching/ Melancholia,” which is a contrapuntal poem where the two separate columns speak to and against each other at different moments.

TT: I admire how in “Birdwatching/ Melancholy,” you take a form but you make it new as well. I also particularly enjoyed the poems where it’s almost like pieces of a puzzle spaced out so that the stanza that come before could fit together in addition to the space within the paragraph.

ES: Thank you. That’s very kind. I’ve never known what to call what you’re talking about where there’s a kind of flowing indentation but it it’s something I do quite a bit.

TT: I think we should invent a name for it. Maybe it would be called floating stanzas or something cooler, and I’m sure it’s going be a thing soon.

The speaker to me is almost always in conversation with the addressee or with himself. Could you speak about that?

ES: It’s very important to me when I’m writing those poems that the ‘you’ is not necessarily a figure that a reader might not have access to. Some of the poems might be talking about romantic relationships, but I’m always conscious of the perspective of a reader. I don’t want it to be a letter where only the addressee would understand what I’m talking about. At the same time, in a lot of these poems, when the speaker is talking to some you, the speaker isn’t necessarily saying things that I might say to another person. It’s more of an interior dialogue that I’m giving space to, you know, not unlike characters interacting in a movie or play.

TT: Is the speaker one or different voices? How do you go about crafting the voice?

ES: There are different voices that my poems borrow to speak through, though, most of the time, I don’t think so consciously about things like voice during the writing process. Most of the time, my poems come from fragments, lines, or images I’d like to explore, or even interesting titles. There’s a poem in this collection called, “Smoke from the Demolished Power Plant Forms a Humanoid Figure,” as an example, that started with its title. 

When I’m composing the poems themselves, it’s a matter of identifying what about these fragments speaks to me, or which voice does this line speak from or speak to, and which voice is louder, which voice has something to say. So it’s not something that I think about so consciously, but I certainly notice the push and pull of different modes of speaking as I write.

TT: Who are some of your major literary influences and how do they find their way into the collection?

ES: Let’s see. Wallace Stevens is a huge influence of mine. I’m teaching an Introduction to Poetry and Drama course and it pains me that I haven’t gotten my students to come around to Stevens yet, but there’s still time. But about the poems themselves, “Volta” is in conversation with Stevens. There’s there’s actually a pretty good number of poems in the collection that I see as being in conversation with other poets or other artists, whether it’s explicit or not.

Other major influences would be Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was talking to my dissertation director about Hopkins two weeks ago, and he said something along the lines of the amazing thing about Hopkins is that you get the sense that he had the entire command of the English language at his disposal that he was willing to use. I don’t think that I’m as daring or as trailblazing as Hopkins, but I try to keep that spirit of freedom and of following wherever the verse takes you, and not worrying too much about rules. Three more contemporary influences, would be Cathy Park Hong, Matthea Harvey, and Rae Armantrout. They’re all poets I view as ferociously brave in their work and what their work does. Where the boundaries of their work might lie seems to always be shifting and changing. I don’t think there’s as many direct references to Hong because her work is so language-based and experimental in a certain way. But Matthea Harvey is someone I’m always thinking about, and always influenced by, like the way that she uses enjambment in such refreshing and interesting ways. I was listening to a recording of a reading that she gave, and the person who introduced her referred to her work as part mischief, part melancholy, and as soon as I heard that it was something I kind of identified with.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts you want to share with your readers?

ES: My favorite thing that anybody has ever told me about poetry is that every good poem should have at least one line where, if you said to a stranger on the street, they would look at you like you were crazy, or you would scare them or startle them somehow. That idea of poetry reaching into startling truth of human experience is something that draws me to the medium and is something that makes the medium so exciting for me. So I’d want my readers to think about that and appreciate the startling but beautiful turns that poetry can take.