getting to know steven riel and his new book Fellow odd Fellow
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
Poetry as presented in the textbooks at my public grammar school seemed to be inconsequential, whimsical fluff. By contrast, the language I encountered in the Roman Catholic Church in which I was raised (in hymns, the liturgy, and biblical readings) drew me with its dense textures and freighted meanings. In public junior and senior high school, we students were asked to memorize and recite sections of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and soliloquies from Romeo and Juliet. At the beginning of my sophomore year, I transferred to Wilbraham & Monson Academy. I was fortunate enough to have the late Roger Lincoln as my English teacher during my senior year, and by then I had matured to the point where I began to perceive how poems worked. (Coincidently, Mr. Lincoln much earlier had a profound influence on another student: Galway Kinnell.) As a sixteen-year-old, I resonated initially with the closet-ed expressions of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Decades later I wrote my critical thesis for my MFA program about his use of female personas as masks.
I began writing poems for high school assignments, but I believed I wanted to write fiction. After a few years in college (at Georgetown University), I realized that the nature of my imagination lent itself instead to poetry. There I took a workshop taught by Roland Flint that helped clarify this for me. I started to write poems that openly addressed gay experience, and could sense that those sprang from a deeper place and consequently possessed more power. Before graduating, I had two poems accepted by “adult” journals.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite place or time to write?
This has changed over the years. I am a librarian and during the past 17 years have held managerial positions at Harvard. Because of this, I possess the full energy needed to write early drafts only on weekends and vacations. I write early drafts in longhand in unlined sketchbooks. I can feel the letters and words more deeply when I write by hand, and this strengthens my connection with the sounds. Eventually I key a new poem into my computer, but if I’m having a thorny problem with revision, I often go back to longhand explorations. I read later drafts aloud to myself and eventually record myself reading them. I have discovered that this helps me hear them outside of myself and reveals to me what needs fixing.
I take a commuter train to and from work, and have grown to treasure the designated “quiet” car. There I can revise poems and jot notes for poems I’m moving towards drafting.
Where do your poems most often come—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I do not have any one predominant trigger, although it is rare that a sound is my starting point. (That being said, I recently wrote a poem that was inspired in part by the sound of Elizabeth Taylor’s voice in her White Diamonds perfume commercial.) My triggers have varied: dreams, places, images, objects, ideas, feelings, words, artworks, memories. I can think of one instance when the starting point was the last line! A few times I did not have any sense of the “why” of the trigger or the “aboutness” of the poem when I began it.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Virginia Woolf was my first great love: beginning when I was 16, I delighted in everything of hers I could get my hands on.
The poet who influenced me the most in my younger years was Adrienne Rich. Her poems literally changed my life. Perhaps surprisingly, Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems” rather than the work of another gay male poet showed me that it was possible to write poetry about the stuff of queer existence—about what most mattered to me. It feels almost impertinent to say this, but after Dark Fields of the Republic appeared in 1995, I began to lose interest in her new work by and large. It did not seem to match her earlier standard, lacking much of its remarkable tightness and intellectual rigor. Her more recent poems often had a loose, fashionably post-modern style, and were somewhat predictable. Perhaps this development allowed me to break free of being too strongly influenced by her.
I read a lot of poetry, so I have many influences. Probably the deepest besides early and middle Adrienne Rich have been Shakespeare, Dickinson, Tennyson, and Kinnell. I go back to them often. As I mentioned, I studied Tennyson’s poetry for a few years, eventually delivering the paper that grew out of my thesis at the International Tennyson Symposium held in Lincoln, England in 2009 to commemorate the bicentenary of his birth. I learned a great deal as a poet both from examining his notebooks and seeing how he studied the history of the English language and used its root Germanic sounds to great effect, and from growing to appreciate how ambitious he was in what he attempted during a long and continually inventive career. He was braver artistically than most critics acknowledge.
I have a spiritual sense that a chunk of my work is part of and in dialogue with the tradition of gay poetry in English. As a college student, I worked in a gay bookstore in Washington, D.C., and devoured the books of the handful of openly gay poets at the time: Ed Cox, Harold Norse, Kenneth Pitchford, Walta Borawski, Thom Gunn. As our society changed, and with it gay publishing and scholarship, my “companions” have increased considerably, with principal guides being Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, D.A. Powell, Wayne Koestenbaum, David Trinidad, Richard Howard, and David Groff. A pivotal book for me was Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979).
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
Fellow Odd Fellow involves a good deal of mirroring, even in its title. In several poems, the speaker explores his effeminacy by comparing himself to female celebrities and characters. In the longest poem in this book, I grapple with some of my most serious flaws by interrogating Tennessee Williams about his similar ones. The middle section of the book deals with my younger brother’s illness and death: David died of AIDS at the age of 28. I am lucky not to have shared his fate. So there’s quite a bit of comparison, overt and implicit. I’d say the overarching themes are otherness (oddness), grief, and an attempt to plumb the impact of war on boys and men.
Since I already had three chapbooks published, assembling this book was complicated. Because it had the potential of reaching a larger audience due to international distribution, I wanted it to include my best poems from the last 30 years, but I needed help determining which exactly those were, mixing the more recent poems in with the older ones, composing a new and vital whole. In a few cases, major revision was needed. The poet Roberta Feins helped me a great deal, as did my editor at Trio House, Tayve Neese.
Read and watch a reading of Steven Riel's poem, "White Diamonds":
High-stakes poker in a black and white resort.
Prequel: grand entrances. First: stacked
goddess flirts with attendant paparazzi;
next: Adonis disembarks down tarmac escalier.
Backdrop: oasis with its desert horizon. Swaying
palm fronds, billowing sheers that beckon
and hint at pharaoh-sized beds, baths, unguents,
fragrant cotton. Mythic tryst. White buck of a god’s
unbuttoned, as yet unfingered, silk.
Save him. So you can have him.
The Isis in you intervenes.
Not so fast, Von Ryan,
you warn, in a carefully careless drawl
that veils its lurking growl. Reputation:
the fastest woman in the known world,
whose flames the Vatican’s mouthpiece deigns to condemn.
News flash: unrepentant.
These have always brought me luck:
on the table you toss many-carat clip-ons.
Easy come, easy go. Cleopatra’s pearl dissolved,
a wager cheap vinegar won by eating away.
What are gems or vows to a velvet purr--
what is luck when heaven blesses with savage cleavage,
double-rowed lashes framing amethyst eyes--
Go ahead, Marc Antony, throw the dice.