Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Examining Life: Denise Low Interviews Robert Stewart

Higher: PoemsPoetry Press of Press Americana, 2023 Prize Americana, $15.00

I have known Bob Stewart as a friend and extraordinary editor for years. I admire his precision and store of knowledge about poetics, apparent in his editorial expertise during his tenure with New Letters and in his new book, Higher: Poems, winner of Prize Americana, which has precision in its execution and heart in its content. Stewart balances between narrative and song as he creates ballads about moments of heroism in everyday life. These are nourishing, sustaining poems, like this:

Stopping in the Road for a Turtle by Robert Stewart

Don’t hiss at me. Andre Dubus

rescued that brother and sister

on a highway in Haverville, so let me

here on 55th Street in Crestwood,

6:20 a.m., stop and help you over

to the shrubs.

                        Box turtles I had

as a kid seemed mostly interior,

but you—neck out, jaw wrenching

like an opera singer’s—have less


                        than serpent;

how heroic of us both, then,

with the pace of such progress,

to trust the car-full universe, when all

Andre Dubus meant to do was act

according to his nature, tough guy.

                        It crippled him

on that road, father of many

characters, and each always seemed

stranded outside a bar, or even home,

listening to some grieving soprano

on the radio. Sing, then turtle, hiss

                        your given voice.   (89)

 Denise Low: First, congratulations on winning the Prize Americana for this new book! In its offerings, I notice some folder poems as well as recent. How did you put this collection together?

Robert Stewart: The poems in Higher tend toward a public voice, I believe. I have been concerned lately with the presence in my writing of generativity, as Erik Erikson termed concern for future generations. That is my hope for the book, in any case. Some of what seem to be older poems in Higher might have just been percolating in my brain for years upon years and could be fairly recent. Others are older but did not fit previous books. Before my previous book Working Class (2018), I had not had a full-length book of poems for 30 years, even though I published essays and poems in journals. I can still hear my friend and mentor David Ray say, “These things [poems and stories] don’t go out of date.”  I subscribe to that principle.

My process is simply to keep writing and trust the process. “The good stuff and the bad stuff,” Marvin Bell has said, “are all part of the stuff.”  I looked at what I thought was the good stuff and began to think I had a book on my hands; so, as one does with poems, I tried to conceive of an order for them. That process is mysterious, even spooky to me; but once I got the first two or three lined up, I was on my way.

Denise Low: Titles of your other books of poetry are also simple, such as Working Class (Stephen Austin, 2017) and Plumbers (BkMk, 1988, 2nd edition 2017). What significance do you intend with the title? And I find a pun, “hire,” for Higher, which ties in with the previous two titles.

Robert Stewart: I confessed recently (joked) to an audience that I didn’t realize I’d have to spell the book title Higher every time I spoke in public. I have tried to keep titles fairly clean in general, and a little slant. Many poetry book titles seem to me kind of pretentious. I won’t quote them here, but poetry book titles sometimes make me think of an essay by Robert Hass, where he was being self-critical of an image he’d created; he imagined what the master Basho would say of him: “Hass, you have a weakness for trying to say something unusual.” 

When the book came out, the poet Albert Goldbarth wrote to welcome me into the club of one-word book titles—with his Selfish and others—but, as you note, I already had another book with a one-word title, Plumbers. The manuscript of that book originally was called What It Takes to Be a Plumber. The editor and poet Dan Jaffe talked me out of it, saying it was too wordy. I told a group of friends at a party hosted by Gloria Vando and Bill Hickok that I could not come up with a less wordy title for that book; then David Ray spoke up and said, “Why don’t you just call it Plumbers?”  Perfect. I learned that simplicity can be illusive.

I chose Higher as a title because I was struck by the concept of aspiration, and, indeed, the book includes a fair number of calls to elevation—which does not mean to avert our eyes from reality; it means the opposite. My practice to seek some ascendant chord is really a structural necessity, I think. A good poem won’t strike just one note. It offers the reader contrast, tension, and fuller experience. I’m not saying that my poems do all that, but that’s the hope.

 Denise Low: You reference Christian spiritual practice directly and indirectly in these poems—brave in a time when religious affiliation is not usually addressed in contemporary poetry, which is mostly secular. I’m thinking of “Dog in Church,” “Piranha, Christmas Day,” “Late for Mass,” and the opening poem of the book, “In the Back Pews on Easter at St. Ann’s in Prairie Village, & Simultaneously St. Elizabeth’s in Waldo, St. Frances & Doubtless Our Lady of Sorrows, Midtown.” This last, which begins, “Babies being carried out to howl / in the lobby…,” reminds me of my childhood stints in pews of the Congregational Church of Emporia, Kansas. Babies were always squalling in the vestibule as a background accompaniment to the choir and sermon, and I wondered what that signified. Anyway, what choices are you making when you include this aspect of your life?

Robert Stewart: I once felt sheepish about using religious references in my poems, partly because I don’t see myself as devout or clear-headed. However, I try to live in wonder. The Catholic tradition has been integral to my life, and I am, therefore, both respectful of that tradition and angry toward it when the Church fails. In one poem, for example, I expect the priest “to apologize to us all.”  In the poem you mention about babies in church, I try to turn what had been an annoyance—babies screaming during Mass—into what I think is something playful and sacred. These things exist, and I am sustained by some truly great writers who write about religious practice, such as Brian Doyle, Mary Gordon, Sharon Olds, Marilynne Robinson, Marie Ponsot. I am just now reading essays by Czeslaw Milosz, as he examines his own life as a Catholic. I am not alone. The key word there is to “examine.”  I tend to eschew ideologies, but many of my “higher” values have been shaped by a religious education.

 Denise Low: I appreciate the authenticity of your writing and its integrity, seen in a poem like “My Father’s Haunt,” where you go into your father’s old bar in St. Louis. The familiar repartee with “men in overalls” shows your comfort with working class background. My own father wore overalls to work on the railroad, so this struck a note. Thank you for your honesty. How has this background affected your writing?

Robert Stewart: My grandfather was a plumber. My father was a plumber and later an executive in the plumbers and pipefitters union. One of my brothers and a nephew still work with the tools. I worked, as well, as a ditch digger and in the sewers of St. Louis, so I do feel at home with those working people. Moreover, what they do is profoundly honorable, in my view. When my first book, Plumber, came out, I left a stack of about ten with my father, who lived across state from me in St. Louis. The next time I visited, he said to bring more copies. “What are you doing with them?” I asked. He was taking them to the union hall and selling them. I have to say, I felt incredibly moved by that. One never gets over certain early experiences. Just this September 2023, I published an essay called “The Hole” in Italian Americana (I am the grandson of Sicilian Immigrants), which is about my work in manholes, excavations, ditches, and other forms of going down into the earth, its dangers and culture.            You asked earlier about titles, and I will add the two-word title of my 2018 book of poems, Working Class. That kind of generality normally would put me off; but I had played around with other titles, all fancy poetic images, cute, clever, and I decided, no; I want to just say something direct in the title and let the poems complicate the matter. That’s also what I hope for Higher.

 Denise Low: Anything else you would like to add?

Robert Stewart: A young woman student once asked Maxine Kumin how Kumin could tell if a student had potential to succeed as a poet. What do you look for? the student asked. Kumin answered, without hesitation, “Does she or he like to to play with words," Kumin answered, without hesitation. I happened to be present for the exchange, and I never forgot it. I included a coda to Higher, which is a quote from William Blake, “Energy is eternal delight.”  One of my criteria to measure how a poem would hold up includes how the language kind of dances, despite the seriousness of the content.

Denise Low: Bob, thank you for affirming here and in your new book how Socrates’ statement is true eternally: The unexamined life is not worth living.

 Robert Stewart is the former editor of New Letters magazine at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he was also editor of New Letters on the Air, a nationally syndicated literary radio program, and BkMk Press. At UMKC he taught poetry writing, magazine writing, and magazine editing. His books of essays include Outside Language (finalist for a PEN America award) and The Narrow Gate: Writing, Art & Values.   He has won a National Magazine Award for Editorial Achievement in the Essay category, from the American Society of Magazine Editors. His books include  Plumbers (poems, BkMk Press), and others. Poems have appeared in Denver Quarterly, The Iowa Review, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Mangrove, Stand, Notre Dame Review, The Literary Review and other magazines. Anthology editorships include Spud Songs: An Anthology of Potato Poems (with Gloria Vando, benefit for hunger relief), and Decade: Modern American Poets (with Trish Reeves) and Voices From the Interior. He also is co-editor of the collection New American Essays (with Conger Beasley Jr., New Letters/BkMk Press)

Interview and reading from New Letters On the Air, audio.

Three poems from Higher published in The Montreal Review

BOOK DESCRIPTION OF HIGHER: POEMS: “The poems in Higher are at once direct and resonant, celebratory of the natural world and of spiritual aspirations. Rising from a working-class, blue-collar sensibility, these pieces range from a short work about using a sledgehammer on a street crew to a multi-part longer work about animals in changing nature. These lyric poems include subtle metrics and enough narrative to drive events, often with elegiac references to a military vet friend, a brother, a Sicilian grandmother, and literary heroes. Their focus ultimately returns to hope and care for children, often with no small amount of humor. This collection – from the winner of a National Magazine Award and Prize Americana – attests to our ability to pay attention, to detail what we see and what we hear, and, as such, aspire to joy.”