Six Questions: An Interview with Steve Scafidi

Steve Scafidi, who hails from West Virginia, is an award winning poet who has been featured in the 2014 edition of Best American Poetry. Some of his awards include the James Boatwright Prize, the Larry Levis Reading Prize, and the Miller Williams Prize. He has published four books in his lifetime, titled “Sparks from a nine-pound hammer” (2001), “For love of common words” (2006), “To the Bramble and the Briar” (2013), and “The Cabinetmaker’s Window: Poems” (2014). Below is an interview I conducted through email with Professor Scafidi, where he gives a little away about his life as a poet.

Kelly Moran: How has your West Virginian environment affected the themes and topics you write about most in your poetry?

Steve Scafidi: I grew up in a place that was mostly woods and fields and streams and hills.  I spent most of my childhood alone or with friends getting lost in those places. Somehow that seemed to form my imagination into a thick underbrush of tangle and vine where tall trees must be climbed and waters crossed. I don’t always write directly of such things, but I see value in wilderness and find that my own mind is a kind of wilderness—a place I don’t fully understand all of the time (it doesn’t even seem to be my own all of the time), but that I have faith in. My poems come from there. Writing is getting lost and finding oneself anew day after day. The sorrow is that much of that exterior wilderness I grew up in is now mostly lost to houses and strip malls. Wild places seem to be endangered everywhere. The wild places in our heads remain hopefully and the joy and duty of the writer is to travel there—to explore and see.

KM: What is the reason for your minimal punctuation  in “Thank You Lord for the Dark Ablaze” and how does it enhance the poem’s message?

SS: I rarely use an abundance of punctuation in my poems because I like—to some extent– the lostness it creates for the reader (and the writer) and because the line-breaks themselves,  I believe, provide enough clarity and guidance for the reader—like hash-marks on the side of a tree on a mountain trail. But I wanted that poem to go so fast—like some old jalopy not meant for high speeds—that it risks falling apart.  Even a simple comma is a stop, or caesura, a pause. Time doesn’t really wait for us to figure things out. We must figure life out as we move. I make that happen in the poem. You must learn to think on your feet. A poem or a song or a story or a novel or a painting or a tv show or a circus-act provide stops, caesuras and pauses. Art lets us think and wonder. Otherwise we are hurtling somewhere we don’t know where. There are some poems I read over and over because I need time to slow down and I need to rest and think.  Do you have any art that you love and return to continuously? I hope so.

KM: What do you think is the biggest issue in contemporary American poetry and how would you address it?

SS: Poetry is too big and weird and wide-ranging and alive for me to find one fault and try to address it. I believe every useful poet is trying to write the poems that she needs and which she cannot find anywhere else—unless she writes it. So every poem a writer makes is a kind of criticism of the world. The only important aspect of contemporary poetry that I am currently anxious about is my own blank pages that I would like to see full of the lovingly drawn lines of my own effort. An empty notebook is like a mapmaker’s beginning. She is about to draw shorelines and mountains and the lives that carry on there. An empty notebook that remains an empty notebook forever…..well, that is the end of the world. I have empty notebooks and that frightens me. I do now swear to return more happily more curiously more wildly to that blankness and to see what happens.

KM: I have read that you are a carpenter as well as a writer, in what ways, if any, are carpentry and writing poetry similar?

SS: I work as a cabinetmaker. That is a general term. What I really do is conservation work of American and English furniture made anywhere from the 16th to the 20th century. I work for a man, Nick Greer, who has done this work for 40 years. We do work for the National Gallery, the Smithsonian and other museums around DC and we also work for private clients who have old and battered furniture. Such work is a good complement to the nightly work of reading and writing. It used to be that I felt a great division between the two vocations of mine. The physical work of cabinetmaking now often causes me to wonder and think and muse more than it used to. And now I find poetry, always a work of the psyche, to be more physical as rhythm and the ear are essential to it.  Some poems will make you stomp your feet. So as I have aged I find more similarities. They both have challenges. One gives me money and one gives me peace. They both are mostly joyful.

KM: Can you explain who Laura is or what she represents in “On the Occasion of an Argument beside the River Where I Live” and what she meant to you when you wrote it?

SS: Laura was a friend who thought poetry, especially my poetry, was a waste of time. She thought that the only way to approach truth in experience was through philosophy and argument. She found poetry to be a frivolous waste. We argued one night and I wrote the poem.   She may be right. Poetry, and especially my poetry, may have little to do with the truth she was after. I simply do not care. Good luck to her. Keats famously said that truth and beauty are all we need to know on earth.  That seems a little better. Aristotle said that art existed not only to instruct but to delight. He welcomed human passions and stupidities and pleasures and horrors into art with the idea that if we could see such things on the stage or the page we could feel and understand them.  My poem invites you not just to think but to feel something.  Laura later made the wedding rings my wife and I still wear. She is a lovely person and an old friend.

KM: What is one piece of literature that particularly affected you? Can you describe your response to it upon reading it for the first time?

SS: The one piece of literature that has meant the most to me lately is S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. That novel, written when Ms. Hinton was a high-school student, a teenager, is currently my favorite book and I struggle really to say why. The story is heroic and sad and lovely and there is a poem by Robert Frost at the center of the novel. That poem, which I will quote entirely at the end of the interview, is beautiful and the characters in the novel talk and think about the poem. Their use of the poem—as a touchstone—a thing to wonder at and think about—illuminates their lives. That is what poetry can do at its best—illuminate.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay”

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

–Robert Frost

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