How We Are: A Conversation with Steph Burt
On the occasion of Steph Burt’s visit to New Zealand, Sarah Jane Barnett talks to the American writer and critic about living as two genders, poetry, criticism and the body.
Poet and critic Stephen Burt has been described as ‘one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation’ (NY Times). Burt is a professor at Harvard University and has published three full-length collections of poems – Popular Music (1999), Parallel Play (2006), and Belmont (2013) – along with several chapbooks, most recently All-Season Stephanie (2015). Burt is also well known for criticism, most recently, The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016).
In 2012 the New York Times Magazine ran a profile on Burt with the headline ‘Poetry’s Cross-Dressing Kingmaker,’ identifing the poet and critic for the first time in public as transgender. Burt – who answers to Stephen, Steph, and Stephanie – has since written about having two genders in poetry and in essays such as ‘My Life as a Girl’ and ‘The Body of the Poem.’ Photo of Steph by Alex Dakoulas.
Sarah Jane Barnett: First, would you like me to call you Stephanie or Stephen, or simply Steph? In December you’re giving a public masterclass in Wellington called, ‘Close calls with nonsense, or how to read new poetry’ (the class sporting the same name as your book which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award). What has brought you to New Zealand?
Steph Burt: Steph or Stephanie in person; Stephen is the name on the books. This summer I’m an Erskine Scholar at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch; they’ve brought me over – and by they I mean the university, but also the wonderful critic and Baxter scholar Paul Millar – so that I can teach a summer course in modern poetry. Of course I’ll be doing some readings and public events, in addition to traveling around both islands with our family, while I’m here.
SJB: You have such enthusiasm for helping people read poetry. Did you grow up with this love of language and literature? You’ve said, ‘I understand the world best, most fully, in words’; can you talk about what happens when you read a poem? I often think that poetry moves through the mind to create an experience in the body – that reading is performative and the poem is created new each time. What do you think about that idea?
SB: I think it’s correct. My colleague Helen Vendler (echoing a letter of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s) has described lyric poetry as a score for performance by the speaking voice: the poem becomes yours when you take it into yourself, which also means taking it into your body, your voice: both the body you have, and the body you wish or imagine that you ought to have.
That’s a general model for what happens when we read lyric poems. When I myself read a poem I also feel like I’m testing out the sonic and the semantic relations among all the words, to see whether I’ll want to come back to them. A good poem is a poem that I want to come back to, again and again.
Full interview here