Jim Ross: The title of your new book is Getting To Heaven (and Other Miracles). Many of the poems left me feeling like I just experienced a miracle. Does writing good poetry require creating miracles?
Gary Stein: Great question. Many of the famous “miracles” in history can be viewed as metaphors for some larger event or non-physical transformation. In poetry, metaphors make readers think they are seeing something that wasn’t really there before. It’s exciting and extraordinary. When I taught creative writing, I told students that their greatest accomplishment would be to create an image so unique and hard to imagine that it seemed miraculous.
JR: In many poems, you start out telling a story and end up reveling in metaphors and mystical reflections. Isn’t that another form of miracle?
GS: The triggering story has to evolve into something I didn’t realize I wanted to write about. Basically, my poetic process is an exercise in self-discovery and self-amusement. I need to learn what it is that I wanted to say and surprise myself.
JR: This book contains some of your best work. Why have you been holding these poems back?
GS: A few of the poems didn’t fit into the previous book. Most of the poems are relatively new. The intent was to include more humorous poems.
JR: What have readers told you about how these poems affected them?
GS: I’ve read many of the poems in the book at poetry readings. Many people had little opportunity to read them in journals or magazines. Before readings, hosts sometimes introduced me with comments, such as: “Stein’s poems often begin with a single image and then, like a movie camera zooming out, a wider world is revealed.” Often, people in the audience say that my poems start with a story but transform in ways that affect their senses or emotions. Others simply laugh at poems like “Why My Wife Should Let Me Have a Dog.”
JR: Pull back the curtain on your creative process. Some of your poems are funny, others just plain wacky. Could you share the process you went through to write the unique poem, “Teagarden’s Star.” How did it come about?
GS: One night we had dinner with astronomer Bonnard Teagarden and his wife and learned that he had discovered a star that was named after him. Awed by his achievement, but ignorant of astronomy, I was stunned by the notion that this unknown star had been in existence for millions of years but lost to us until now.
I did not begin the poem intending to tell the story of Bonnard’s drive to reach the space center. I wanted to place him physically far beneath the heavens having to deal with the hard reality of his commute. The rest of the poem is a daydream evolving into a search for God in the heavens and my perpetual search for my lost eyeglasses. On the last point, also see, “The Night My Glasses Fell into a Toilet Bowl Filled with Clean Water.”
Poets make comparisons all the time: Bonnard’s search and mine—his in the heavens, mine more mundane. Curiously, another funny poem in this book about searching and forgetfulness is, “Joy In Heaven on the Return of the Egg That Was Lost.”
JR: You went to Iowa to become a better fiction writer, but you ended up turning into a poet. What happened there that changed you from novelist to poet?
GS: At Iowa I lived with poets and hung out with poet friends. My various housemates included Tom Rabbitt who later won the Pitt Poetry Prize and headed the Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama, and the late Peter Sears who became the Poet Laureate of the State of Oregon. At Iowa I hung out at a local tavern or played cards with Richard Hugo and Galway Kinnell who were on the poetry faculty at Iowa. As I result, I heard and read a lot of poetry, and it wasn’t long before I started writing it in earnest myself.
JR: Wouldn’t it have been cheaper and more direct if you lived, hung out, and played cards with poetry faculty and skipped the fiction program?
GS: I went to Iowa because I was serious about my fiction. As an undergrad, I had been awarded an Honorable Mention in Story Magazine’s national short story competition. In addition, writing fiction encouraged my love of imagery and appreciation of fresh language. In many ways, I discovered my love of poetry because people at Iowa who read my fiction said I had a poet’s knack for imagery. On top of that, the beer in the farm town of Solon Iowa was cheap and the poets I hung out with encouraged me to try writing poetry.
JR: Many of your poems use story telling as a stringboard to something else. You begin with a story, but then something happens beyond the story. Even if you’re not writing fiction, aren’t you still a story teller?
GS: Absolutely. Our lives are stories that evolve every day. The challenge for the poet is to demonstrate in novel ways how our stories transform and enrich us.
JR: How far did you get with the novel you were writing as part of your Iowa program?
GS: I actually finished the novel. The first 100 pages constituted my Master’s thesis at Iowa. At the suggestion of Seymour Krim, I submitted the thesis plus outline to his editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, who didn’t trust he could sell it.
JR: Did you publish any of your short stories?
GS: Yes, I published several in small, local journals.
JR: How long into or after your Iowa program did you publish your first short story?
GS: A year or two.
JR: How long after you left Iowa did you publish your first poem and where?
GS: Two years: 1974, in Prairie Schooner.
JR: Do you still ever tinker with writing and trying to publish fiction?
GS: I last tinkered with a short story about two years ago. I have a couple that I think are publishable, but it’s been a while since I sent out fiction. I’m conserving my energy for poetry.
JR: When you switched from writing fiction to poetry, your brain had to change too. You had to re-tread how you think and maybe even how you see. How did that happen? Did it happen all at once?
GS: I don’t know if my brain changed. As a fiction writer, I already had an academic reputation for use of imagery. When I became a poet, I think I began to look at some of my real-life experiences in a different way. I reacted more to how the experiences affected me rather than some fictional character. For example, see poems like “Transport By GPS” and “Advent.”
The novel I began at Iowa (and finished after leaving) was based loosely on experiences I had had during a summer working as a volunteer in a remote Mexican village. When I switched to poetry, I explored poetically events I experienced and things I saw in Mexico. That resulted in several good poems, one of which appears in the new book: “Crossing El Rio San Pedro, Jonotla, Mexico.”
JR: In switching from fiction writer to poet, did what you wanted to say magically become more concentrated?
GS: While at Iowa, writing friends admired some of the imagery I used in fiction, what one writer called my knack for the “bon mot” (clever word or image). More than anything magical in my brain, the fact that poems generally are so much shorter than fiction made me realize that a poem gives much less time to make a good impression. That required me to concentrate more on concise imagery.
JR: You’re a lawyer by trade, yet you’ve been a prolific writer of poetry, have published in some of the most reputable journals, and have published three books of poetry in the past nine years. Do you view the connection between law and writing poetry? Are there any famous lawyers who were also poets? In what ways has the practice of law provided you with experiences and ways of seeing that have made you a better poet?
GS: Lawyers use the same words poets use but for a different purpose. Both want to persuade or impress the reader. Both are in the business of making connections. My favorite responsibility as a lawyer is to listen to the client’s story. The lawyer then compares the facts to other cases and to known legal principles. This is nothing more than legal metaphor or allusion—how one situation compares to or contrasts with others. My poems also usually start with a story—something happens to me or others and triggers a poem that often includes a metaphorical or allusive comparison of one thing to another. The difference is this: legal writing aims to control human activity; poetry to illuminate it.
There have been many well-known poet-lawyers. Over the years they have included Wallace Stevens, Edgar Lee Masters, and Francis Scott Key. Currently they include Greg McBride, poet and publisher (Georgetown Law), David Orr who reviews poetry for the New York Times (Berkely), and Natalie Shapero (University of Chicago). Elsewhere in time and geography: Marcus Tullius Cicero, Juvenal, Francis Bacon, Voltaire and Federico Garcia Lorca. The surprise to me, given the similar processes both pursuits employ, is that there are not more.
JR: Would you recommend that someone who is struggling with their poetry stop what they’re doing and get a law degree to enhance their poetry? If not, what would you recommend that they do?
GS: No, I’d recommend they read a lot of poetry, meet with other poets and compare and discuss their work, and perhaps take a poetry workshop course. More fundamentally, to become a writer of any sort, I recommend becoming a careful listener and observer.
JR: Who are the poets you most admire who you at some level you emulate in your own work or who at least helped you hone your skills?
GS: I don’t consciously emulate any poets but assume that I subconsciously try to achieve what some of them achieve in various ways, whether emphasis on sound, everyday language, syllabics, single syllable words, enjambment, interesting line breaks, use of classic forms (e.g., villanelle).
I like Billy Collins because he’s clever and entertaining and helps us see the humor in ordinary things. Other poets I like at different stages of their careers and for different poems or poetic techniques—poets like Roland Flint spirituality), W.S. Merwin (love of nature), Robert. Frost (simplicity of language, profundity), T.S. Eliot (sophisticated wisdom), Dylan Thomas (music of his lines and meters), Lori Shpunt (keen observer of family life).
JR: What makes Getting to Heaven and Other Miracles a timely book that even people who rarely read poetry, will want to buy and will enjoy reading?
GS: I hope this book entertains, amuses, or connects to experiences/events/emotions in the readers’ lives. Perhaps reading poems like mine will help people to look at everyday things in new or different ways.
Gary Stein’s first book of poems, Between Worlds, was published in 2014 by Finishing Line Press. His second book, Touring the Shadow Factory, published in 2019, won Brick Road Poetry’s Press’s Annual Competition. His poems have been published in many well-known journals including Poetry, Prairie Schooner, The Atlanta Review, Penn Review, Poet Lore, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. Getting to Heaven (and Other Miracles) was published by Finishing Line Press in March 2023.