I thought I had lost the following interview–but I just recently found it. It was conducted on my Somerville Community Access TV Show Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer in 2004. The audio tape is archived at the Poetry Room at the Lamont Library/Harvard University.
Steve Cramer is the author of four poetry collections, the latest being “Goodbye To The Orchard” (Sarabande 2004). His poems and criticism have been in the “Partisan Review,” “The New Republic,” “The Paris Review,” among others. He was the recipient of fellowships from the “Mass. Artists Foundation“, and the “National Endowment for the Arts.” He has taught literature and writing at B.U., MIT and Tufts. He currently directs the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. I talked with him on my Somerville Community Access TV Show “Poet to Poet/Writer To Writer.”
Doug Holder: Steve, the MFA program at Lesley University is barely a year old. Can you talk about it, and what makes the program unique?
Steve Cramer: It’s a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing. We have four genres: Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and writing for young people. We will have our first graduating class in the Summer of 2005.
Doug Holder: Can you define “low-residency?”
Steve Cramer: The first low-residency program that I know of was at Goddard College in Vermont. The low-residency programs were conceived as programs for older people who had been through college. It was for folks who had perhaps given up on writing, and then had gone back to it later. In our program writing students and experienced writers can work together in the old way, through the mail, in a one to one relationship. In order to fuel-inject this experience this program holds residencies of about ten days twice-a-year; where everyone in the program, students and faculty get together. We hold workshops, there are seminars, readings, so people leave energized both to rework their writing and to experiment as well. It is a collective experience, followed by an intimate experience between a mentor and someone looking for a mentor. The result is a MFA.
Doug Holder: Can you talk about the faculty you hired?
Steve Cramer: In terms of faculty who live in the area we have Michael Lowenthal (fiction), and Rachel Kadish (fiction). We also have Janet Sylvester who teaches poetry at Harvard. A number of our writers are not American writers, but they do write in English. We have a Jamaican writer Wayne Brown, and Rachel Manley, the daughter of the former prime minister of Jamaica. So we have a diverse faculty.
Doug Holder: A former student of yours, who has just joined us, David Sirios, told me your collection “Goodbye to the Orchard” might refer to the orchard at Bennington College where you taught for awhile. Is that true?
Steve Cramer: It’s true and not true. I taught at Bennington for five years. For most of that time my family lived in this seedy apple orchard. There are a number of poems where the orchard figures in. The title poem: “Before the Orchard,”was actually started when we were leaving the orchard. It was a poem I could not finish at the time because I moved out. It was only after a year or two, that I finished the poem “Goodbye To The Orchard.”
Basically the “orchard’ is an emblem for me of a natural state that at first is cultivated, but left alone will revert back to a wild state.
Doug Holder: Can you tell us something about “Sarabande” the house that published your book?
Steve Cramer: It was founded by two poets. I don’t know what drove them to start an independent literary press. They market books well, and they have a great board of directors. They have a chapbook series. They have published chaps by: Frank Bidart, James Tate and others. It is a very canny way to attract people to their press.
Doug Holder: You start and end your book with a “loose” translation of a poem. Can you talk about the structure of this collection?
Steve Cramer: The book begins with a poem that is a loose translation of ” Throw Yourself Like Seed” by Miguel de Unamuno. My recently deceased mentor, the poet Donald Justice, did this all the time. Whenever there was a period in which he wasn’t writing his own poems, he either worked on a translation of a poem, and tried to improve it, if he felt it was lacking. I knew both translations would form the foundation of the book. The first one sets the terms of the book, and the last one by the same poet “It is Night In My Study” “ was about writing a poem and imagining your own death as the conclusion of writing this poem.
In “Throw Yourself Like Seed” ( the lead translation) I don’t agree with the premise that your work, your art, is the single lasting thing. I was very conscious of starting with a poem I don’t agree with. In terms of what door I would like the reader to enter, I believe it.
Doug Holder: In the poem “Body on the Brain”, you really have another take on the body beautiful. I quote:”When we add our stink to a stranger’s stink from the next stall, two stinks/stink less than one-and isn’t this/ how mind and body mate when we’re in love.” Are you talking about true love as a sort of mating of warts and all?
Steve Cramer: This is a poem that has offended more people than any other that I have written. It was posted on an online magazine called: “Slate.” And it was available for immediate comment after it was posted. A cyber population got involved right away, and had some responses like:’ You ruined my day!’ “Thanks for sharing.” I took it as a badge of honor. Yeats wrote : “ … and love is pitched in a tent, near the place of excrement.” We are essentially body in almost all of our life experience. We are bodies with sophisticated software, with a little free will mixed in.
Doug Holder: A prominent poet told me if a young student asked him if it was a good idea to attend a MFA program, he would say: “What … Are you crazy? Go to law school, there are jobs there. Join the Merchant Marines, at least it’s more interesting.” How would you respond to this?
Steve Cramer: MFA programs have been fodder for comments like that since there have been MFA programs. If someone came up to me and said: “Should I go to a MFA program?,” I would not answer it with an answer but with a series of questions. An MFA program is the institutionalization between the master artist and the apprentice. I would tell them if they think they are going to get a teaching job somewhere other than Murray, Kentucky, they are fostering an illusion. To work with people on an art, who are masters of the art, is not a new idea. I don’t think it is a culturally ruinous thing to have a lot of people interested in writing. Very often if they don’t become writers, they become passionate readers.
Doug Holder: David can you tell us about Steven Cramer, the teacher?
David Sirios: I was an older student. I was very serious about poetry. I found Steven to be illuminated and illuminating on the subject of poetry. The way he taught Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Gluck, John Ashbury, was really great. You taught me things I would never of learned on my own.
Doug Holder: Thank you gentleman, for joining me on Poet To Poet/ Writer To Writer.
Doug Holder is the host of Poet to Poet/ Writer To Writer — airs at 5PM on Tuesdays on SCAT Channel 3 on an irregular basis.