By Doug Holder
Poet Steve Luttrell is the newly appointed Poet Laureate of Portland, Maine. He is also the founder of the well respected, and much lauded small press literary journal “The Cafe Review.” I was glad to speak to Luttrell so I could ask him how it has been being a Laureate, and pick his brain about his fine literary journal. It is always good to have a poet laureate on my show on Somerville Community Access TV “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer,” especially when there is no official Somerville Laureate selected by the city to interview.
Doug Holder: Steve you started the Cafe Review in 1989. Most small press journals fold after a year or two. What is the secret to your success?
Steve Luttrell: I think the big part is how fortunate I have been to work to work with the people I have. It has not been a solo effort. Over the years there have been a dozen people that have worked with me. They are currently working with me, and they are poets, artists and writers. They are people who volunteer their time. We are a volunteer staff so everybody gets along well. We have our differences of opinions–there is a lot of give and take.
DH: Can you tell us about the interview you conducted with the poet Robert Creeley 15 years ago or so?
ST: He was at his summer residence on the Maine coast. He told me to meet me at a well-known diner Moody’s. I walked in and he said, “Could I get you a cup of tea or coffee?” I was in the presence of this man I read and admired for years and he was asking me if I’d like a cup of coffee. The point being was that he was a real down to earth–feet on the ground–type of guy. He had a lot of interest in different things. So I did the interview in his summer home, and put it on tape. I transcribed the tape and sent it to him. We kept going back and forth. We finally came up with a product we both liked and we published it.
DH: I am told that The Cafe Review was sort of birthed in a cafe.
ST: Well, there is a small cafe in Portland, Maine, where a bunch of us used to read poems in the backroom. This was in the mid 1980s. The owner was happy to see us because we bought stuff. That went on for a number of years. At one point someone suggested that we had a lot of great poetry being read, and said we should save some of the stuff. I started going around after our readings and gathered the poems up and put them in a little stapled 20-25 page chapbook.
In those days we were a monthly. I must have been insane to think that I could keep up with that. In 1992 we switched to a quarterly, which is a much more doable format. We started dealing with more than local poets and brought in visual artists. The Review sort of evolved on its own.
DH: You are the newly appointed Poet Laureate of Portland, Maine. I know Robert Pinsky was a very active poet laureate–bringing poetry to the people so to speak. Do you have the same style?
ST: I don’t know much about the man’s poetry. I do agree with you that he was a real man of the people. I admire that. I am a huge fan of the new poet laureate W.S. Merwin. We will have to see what he does. I just like his work. I think he done some wonderful translations. But Pinsky was a wonderful laureate. You have to give back to the community that honors you in that way.
DH: What would you say to the City of Somerville to encourage them to appoint a poet laureate?
ST: If you are honored by a city and you return the honor it can only be a good thing. I think Mayor Curatone should consider it. The Poet Laureate position in Portland, Maine has brought attention to the fact that there are some very creative people in the city and that the city has a rich literary history.
DH: You have been quoted that “you know what you like” when it comes to poetry. Well what do you like?
ST: I’m pretty eclectic. For me it is a poem that I can read a certain amount of times and still think I get something out of it. It is like a good home movie. The title of one of my poetry books is “ Home Movies.” I view poems that way. They are like home movies. They are tracks in the snow. I can see where I have been. I consider it a good poem if it places me back when I wrote the poem, where I was, when I “found” the poem.
DH: I always joke with Gloria Mindock of Somerville’s Cervena Press that we are “holy fools” because we spend a lot of time publishing and make little or no money from it. Why do you do it?
ST: It feeds my spirit. It puts me in a position where I am reading and interacting with a wide variety of poets in a more direct way–much more than I normally would.