Stephanie Burt has written or edited a number of books, including her essay collection Close Calls with Nonsense and poetry collections Parallel Play, Belmont, and Advice from the Lights. A well-known literary critic and scholar of poet Randall Jarrell, she is a Professor of English at Harvard University. Still, none of her books have her name on the cover. They say something else, some other name that maybe fit before, but does not now.
At book signings, she corrects the name. She flips to the title page and crosses out the e and n at the end so that it just says Steph. “I am a trans woman,” she says. “It took me a while to say that, and in another sense to be one, though in a third sense of course I have always been a girl.” She plans to publish as Stephanie from 2018 onward, but that doesn’t mean she wants to pretend she didn’t write her previous publications. “I have no wish to erase any parts of my life,” she adds.
Though it’s the busiest time of the semester, she was kind enough to speak to us. The conversation covered misadventures in erotic writing, how to make inanimate objects talk, and why artists can’t help but to write about the time in which they live. But it started, once again, with some bad writing.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Stephanie Burt: As you may know there is a sequence in Belmont, in the middle of the book, that’s kind of explicitly about sex and sexuality. At the time it was the most explicit / out-there thing I’d ever published, but it’s not the most explicit thing I’ve written; there were several other erotic sequences started before and after that, around the same year, that I scrapped (almost no one has seen them), and when erotic writing fails, it really fails.
That’s one reason people are afraid to try it. And I think people should try it. I may try it again. Sometimes you have to risk real failure to learn something new, or find a new kind of success.
Did you discover any general principles about how to make erotic writing work?
SB: Nope! Try everything; see what happens; the most embarrassing / weirdest / least likely approach may be the right one.
You mentioned trying to new things as a writer. What sorts of experiments made the cut for Advice from the Lights?
SB: Talking objects! prose poems! quatrains! “all poetry is experimental poetry” (Wallace Stevens). I did find myself changing the line lengths and line shapes radically in the last group of poems I wrote for that book (they are some of the poems near the end, in short lines with more white space), but that wasn’t a deliberate cool experiment so much as a gesture of necessity; I felt that I had been writing for and in an America whose institutions were one way, and those institutions were going to break or had broken, and America was maybe going to break, so I wanted to write in broken-up lines, or rather those were the only lines I felt I could write. I’m not sure how I feel now (less urgent, maybe, but just as worried; ALWAYS VOTE IN LOCAL ELECTIONS).
Could you explain a little bit what talking object poems are and how you came to love them so much?
SB: Poems spoken by nonhuman objects and plants and animals encourage the abstraction or the remove from particular social and biographical circumstances, and the remove from narrative, that some people (me for example) seek from poetry anyway. A talking sieve can stand for a lot of experiences, including experiences that do not normally go together when had by humans — and nobody’s going to ask exactly how old the sieve is, or whether it became a sieve through nature or nurture, or whether you have the right to write in the voice of a sieve.
Do you think that art always responds to current events, changes in society for good or bad?
SB: Depends what you mean by “respond” and “current” and “events.” All works of art respond to something. Some works of art respond to national or regional headline news directly; others, indirectly; others perhaps not at all. Stevens’s great late poem “As You Leave the Room” is not at all about the news of the day. But his good poem “Dry Loaf” sure is. And Gwendolyn Brooks’s “kitchenette building” (a nearly random example of a good modern poem many readers will know) responds to social conditions but not to news, so far as I know.
Do all poems reflect the social and biographical conditions that made them possible? Of course they do. Everything does.
So, should writers set out to speak to their time?
SB: You don’t have to speak to your time if you don’t want to speak to your time. But you probably will do it anyway. And if you feel guilty or ambivalent about not trying to speak (or not directly) to your time — then write about that.