Interviewer: John Amen
JA: When did you start writing?
SR: I wrote my first poem when I was nine years old. I kept writing poems through my teenage years, pretty much hiding them in my desk drawer. Had there been a high school magazine I would have submitted them. My writing outlet at that time was mostly journalistic, as I was the editor of my school newspaper in grade school, junior high, and high school.
JA: Were there other writers in your family? Did you get support and
encouragement when you were young?
SR: There were no other writers in my family. There were no books in my house. No one on either side of the family had ever gone to college. My father (a self-employed plumber) would read paperback science fiction and adventure novels, then throw them away. I got no support and encouragement when I was young, but I got no derision and discouragement either. I had the advantage of having parents who trusted me and left me entirely alone. I was a straight A student who never caused them trouble. This was my ticket to total freedom. My only contact with poetry was nursery rhymes until I was a freshman in college. However, I remember something powerful happening in my brain when I was very young and read the line “and the dish ran away with the spoon.” This was language used differently than in any other context: it was language “physicalized.” It stated a thought by picturing-forth. It was a factual lie (dishes and spoons don´t run), yet it felt totally true. I discovered metaphorical thinking on my own. I knew that in my mind dishes ran away with spoons, and pretty much all other ways of using words were more boring and less true.
JA: What is your educational background?
SR: I was born and reared in Dallas, Texas and attended Bonham Elementary School, Spence Junior High School, North Dallas High School, Richardson (Texas) High School, North Texas State University, and University of San
Francisco. I got a BA in English from San Francisco State University, began the PhD program at Berkeley, quit when I saw they were training me to be a critic (I wanted to write the poems those critics studied), and returned to San Francisco State, where I got an MA in Creative Writing.
JA: Could you tell me a little about your work habits? Do you write everyday? Have you ever experienced periods of “writer´s block?”
SR: I write when an urgency wells up in me to do so. When I spend time in New York, I write almost constantly, as I deliberately walk the streets by day and write by night. Anything can bring on a poem: a real event, a word heard in a TV commercial, part of a newspaper headline, a misunderstood statement on radio, a memory triggered by some current event. After the
initial triggering event, there will usually be an immediate accretion of thought and imagery toward that event. One image-cluster will follow another and the poem pretty much self-generates until it ripens with itself and then concludes. I had a very dark and silent period between 1983 and 1992, caused by a clinical depression which I had to seek medication to get free of. I had been a heavy drinker for years and quit in 1978. Then I became chairman of the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State in 1980. The kinds of stress related to the job, and the legacy of drinking as a buffer against all the unresolved feelings I felt toward my daughter´s death from leukemia in 1972, apparently came crashing down on me, and all my wells dried up. I don´t think this was really a “writer´s block” so much as a result of depression. I think writer´s block is more a loss of faith in one´s senses.
JA: How big a role does revision play in your writing process?
SR: Some poems (for example, the ones appearing in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine) came out the first time much as you see them in final form. Maybe a few words were changed. I let the music do the thinking for me. The musicalized thoughts follow one on another much as one movement follows upon another when you´re dancing. With very long poems, I will overwrite tremendously … maybe fifty pages, and then I will go through and underline the interesting parts and see if when put together they make a
poem. The final poem may be only one page. But most of the time, my poems in finished form have not been revised very much. There is no fixed rule. Revision is neither right nor wrong. The only rule is that the resultant poem have Livingness.
JA: When I compare your early work to some of your more recent poems (such as some of the ones published in this issue of The Pedestal Magazine), I recognize an increasing tendency on your part to incorporate into some works a wonderful sense of humor. This seems to reflect a certain depth or deepening of perspective, an ability to experience the throes and vacillations of life while concurrently maintaining a certain sense of self or voice. Are you conscious of this, both as a writer and a human being?
SR: I am aware of a certain gallows humor in my work. This is even more apparent in my paintings. Humor is one of the major wisdoms, I think. It is the monkey on the philosopher´s shoulder. Every serious truth has its comic truth on the flip-side. The dish running away with the spoon is partly humorous. In my opinion, a truthful metaphor or a good poem (no matter how sad its subject matter) makes me smile, makes me feel good. So humor lies close to any truthful proposition. It is one of the measures of whether something is true or not.
JA: I very much like your piece, “Alone in Love.” I especially like the line, “I am loved but feel alone.” There is a wonderful sense of paradox and humility in this line. It is ironic, that our lives can be so full, and yet
we can still feel alone. That is a sentiment with which many people will deeply resonate. Would you be willing to talk a little about that poem, perhaps even describe what was going on in your life at that time, what inspired the piece.
SR: I´ve been married for thirty-nine years to my high school sweetheart. Yet still I realize there is some way in which we are all profoundly alone. As well as I know my wife, I cannot really Know her. Love of another, and
feeling loved, may be our greatest human solace … yet sometimes I am aware of how short even that closeness falls to really eradicating the root loneliness that haunts us. All it took to trigger this kind of thinking was to see a skeletal-stage leaf float by in a swimming pool. All the green had rotted away and only the stem and veins were left. Yet it was still, technically, a leaf. It “looked like” the phrase, “I am loved but feel alone.”
JA: I know that you taught writing for many years at San Francisco State University. Did you enjoy teaching? Do you feel that teaching others helped you to become clearer about the methods and approaches you yourself utilize when writing? In other words, was teaching also a learning experience for you?
SR: I taught at San Francisco State University for twenty-three years and enjoyed almost every minute of it, but it taught me nothing about my own writing. I had a particular skill, a kind of x-ray vision by which I could
see what was wrong with a student´s poem. I would use the analogy of the pediatrician. I was the pediatrician, the student was the parent, the poem was the child brought to the doctor. I was good at “diagnosis” of any health problems in the poem by passing the “hands of my eyes” over it. Then I´d tell the student what I saw (felt) about the poem´s health. Also, in literature classes I wasn´t so much a “facilitator” as I was a zealot for poetry … something rather resembling a protestant TV evangelist. I felt I was good at what I did and 100% committed to every poem that passed in front of me for decades. It felt good to love what I did for a living, and it was the perfect job for a poet. At age forty-five, I was able to resign because my wife was making more money in royalties in a month than I made in salary in a year. We moved from San Francisco to New Orleans, and I put all the time I´d spent teaching and being chairman into painting.
JA: Speaking of painting, it is worth reiterating that you are a prolific painter as well as a writer. Do you feel that there are certain experiences, images, or sensations that are more conveyable through one medium than the
SR: Paintings are hallucinations, and poems are crazed songs. In the “real world” neither is logical or even useful. Both resemble madness more than sanity. Both are insanely fixated on a certain idea-image to the exclusion
of the rest of reality. Obviously one is addressed to the Eye and the other to the Mind´s Eye. Paintings and poems have more in common with each other than either has in common with, say, a pair of shoes or a recipe for making a
cake, because paintings and poems are 100% symbolic, and shoes and recipes aren´t symbolic; they simply are what they contain.
JA: How would you describe the differences for you between the act of painting and the act of writing? Do you find writing to be a more deliberate and cerebral process than painting, or vice versa?
SR: For me, since I paint slowly, painting is more deliberate, and poeming is more spontaneous. Both are equally cerebral, if by that one means “mental.” I am both a self-taught painter and a self-taught poet.
JA: You are, at this point, a very well published and critically acclaimed poet. Was there a time when you weren´t getting the reception you desired? What was that time like for you?
SR: I am a well-published poet, but I do not think of myself as a critically acclaimed poet. In fact, I think I am an “outsider” poet because my work is outside the style of any school or style of poetry. I almost never publish in magazines unless asked for submissions, and have always thought of being a
poet as a “calling” and never a “career.” So I have done precious little to establish or advance a career. I believe in publishing strong books and persist in my hope that good books will attract reputation and critical attention. So, in answer to your question, I would say that I am right now “not getting the reception I desired,” and I feel isolated, and can only hope that a) more people read my work and respect it than I know, or b) there is a place in the history of poetry for the great Isolatos and that I´m one of
JA: What would you say to someone who claims, “It´s the writing itself that matters, not whether the piece gets published?”
SR: Well, I take the word “publishing” back to its root: “to make public.” In my case publishing is like giving birth … giving public life to the poem. So as the poems stack up, I constantly ask myself, “Which of them are book quality?” When I´ve got ninety pages of book quality ones, I publish a new book. I give the poems a life separate from the life of my Self. I send them forth into a Public Life. Would you invest all your love and attention on a child, then when that child was twenty-one years old, refuse to let the child out of his or her room to exist in the world separate from you? Unpublished poems are like children locked in their rooms until your death.
JA: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
SR: I would say read poetry from every age and every country. Engulf yourself with verse. Follow what you love, even if it´s out of fashion. If your poetry comes from comic books because you love comic books, follow that impulse. Only by doing so can you be great and more than an imitator of others. I paraphrase the words of the great and strange Austrian novelist, Thomas Bernhard: All great art comes from exaggeration; with some the approach is understatement, in which case we would have to say they exaggerate understatement. Think of the moments of your life as Visions; even sewing up a hope in a sock is a Vision on the level of those seen by John in The Bible. Nothing is too lowly to trigger a chain-reaction of metaphors. Finally, there are no rules; not even this one.
JA: Thank you, Stan. We are very excited that you are part of The Pedestal Magazine´s debut.
SR: Thank you for including me.