Poetry Spotlight: Steven Cramer

Welcome to our new Poetry Spotlight column! Our first feature is one of our favorite poetry books of 2012, contributor Steven Cramer’s Clangings, newly released from Sarabande Books. In this book-length monologue, the speaker engages in “clang associations,” which are speech patterns associated with mental illness and based on sound (including punning and rhyming) rather than logic. While individual poems, such as those we published in Issue 17, offer rich pleasures in their ongoing battle between sound and sense, the full sequence found in the collection offers a strangely moving cohesiveness.  We have to agree with David Ferry, who calls it a “wild ride,” and David Rivard, who says, “Steven Cramer’s new book shreds our airwaves with an inventiveness that is rare. Rare, as in once-in-a-lifetime-if-you’re-lucky rare.” We asked Cramer to answer a few of our questions about how this unique book came into being, and he obliged.

Cramer, who is the author of five poetry collections and the recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Artist Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, currently resides in Cambridge where he directs the low residency MFA Program in creative writing at Lesley University.

How did Clangings, which takes its title and its premise from a clinical term, get its start?

I learned about clang associations from friends who work in mental health.  The examples they described eerily resembled my own countless, fruitless drafts that go nowhere!  I’d been working on something that eventually became the first poem in the book—“I hear the dinner plates gossip”—and the notion of a speaker who “clanged” allowed me to complete it.  The voice in that poem felt urgently confidential, worth closer listening; and the form—five abba quatrains—seemed challenging enough to keep engaging.

They just kept coming, spurred by my reading in books with titles like Dementia Praecox and the Schizophrenias.  Quite a few poems are mash-ups created from my own cache of fragments and examples from the clinical literature.  Throughout, I held to the principle that this voice I’d heard in the first one would ultimately provide approximate coherence.

Because each of the poems is untitled, and each consists of five quatrains, the poems in each section have the capacity to bleed into one another, as if each were almost one poem rather than a sequence of poems. Could you talk a little bit about how you structured the collection?

I love the idea that they “bleed” into each other, that each has some kind of personality but also takes part in a single utterance.  For the year I kept drafting new ones (three in one weekend, once!), I had no fixed notion of what would finally develop.  When I wrote “Dickey’s death feels all over me,” I thought, “well, that’s that,” but the next time I sat down to write, the voice had more to say.  At some point it became clear that the speaker had to get out more often, which led to “So I left my apartment” and some of the ones that depict (mis)adventures with work, sex, and commuting.  When I had over forty of them, Joan Houlihan (bless her heart) helped me see how they might be ordered to create a psychological arc.  I hope some kind of interior journey is apparent to the reader.

This book is rich in sonic pleasures and word play, yet not at the expense of voice or clarity. How did you find your way balancing between sound and sense, considering the premise of this book?

The more I learned about clang associations, the clearer it became that these speech patterns draw on the same mental well-springs that give rise to the associations of a certain kind of poetic language and thinking.  (One study reported that clinicians assumed a passage from Finnegans Wake to be the work of a “clanging” patient!)

The prosodic challenge then led to structural and quasi-narrative cues.  One poem devotes a stanza to each of the five senses; a few follow rough emotional trajectories—say, from curiosity to rage.   Quite a few evoke locations that may be covert, but I hope aren’t opaque.  He remembers (perhaps parochial) schooldays; he picks up someone in a bar; he has sex (I think!); he sees doctors; he dozes off from medication in the last stanza of one poem.  Having a second character, Dickey, allowed for plot development—they could misbehave together, argue, court and fall in love; and after Dickey “dies,” his absent presence is, I hope, felt to the end.

A mind driven by sound: that was crucial to me, as was the impression that this speaker really wants to make sense.  If the book has any of the urgency I hoped for, it derives from an irony that compelled me from the start:  an experience that writers court—language taking on a life of its own–can be intolerable when it becomes “impossible to say just what I mean,” to quote the epigraph from Eliot.

 We published three of the poems from the third section in Memorious. What can you tell us about those poems?

Those three take part in the pattern of elegies/recoveries after Dickey “dies.”  “At first I denied the no-seeums” moves through the five stages of grief; “I hear, in my phone, vocabulary where” grapples with Dickey’s absence through aural and visual hallucinations; “Back on my wings, wings became me” asserts, at first, a “rising above” the loss, but the image of the robin bashing against its reflection pretty much puts paid to that claim.

These are ballpark interpretations, though.  By and large, I think the poems won’t reward those who read them for unifying associations.   I wanted to create a voice/character who believably dissociates. When he loses his train of thought, so do we.   When he blurts out a non-sequitur, it really doesn’t follow.  Some might find it an abdication of authorial responsibility to say that I think he attended a parochial school; Ibelieve he rents pornography; maybe he had—at least for a brief period—an office job. But I found it incredibly liberating to take a kind of hand’s-off stance to my supposed person.

 There’s rumor of a book trailer in the making for this. What was it like to work on such a project, especially for a book that is so reliant on sound?

It was a blast—and a challenge to proofread a moving target.  Here it is, see/hear what you think.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews, and art song, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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