Steven D. Schroeder is the author of two poetry collections: Torched Verse Ends (2009) and The Royal Nonesuch (forthcoming 2013). His poetry is available from New England Review, Pleiades, Verse, and Indiana Review. He edits the online poetry journal Anti- and works as a certified professional resume writer. Recently, Associate Poetry Editor Matt Sumpter spoke with Schroeder about his pop culture influences, his use of poetic line and line breaks, and his editorial preferences.
Matt Sumpter: One of the most memorable things about your poem “X” (featured in The Journal issue 37.2) is how it navigates its subject matter at different depths. The poem wryly acknowledges that, yes, it is a poem about comic book/television/movie characters but refuses to settle for that. The tension between superficiality and poetic insight seems like an important one to navigate when writing about pop culture. Is that what drew you to this topic, or was it something else? Do you often find yourself drawn to pop culture?
Steven D. Schroeder: I rarely write about pop culture directly, but it comes up often either as something relevant within a bigger picture or as a starting point to careen away from, which is how I think of this poem. If there ends up being depth to my approach to pop culture, it’s not specifically from a conscious deep-versus-shallow consideration, just a reflection of which writing makes me happy. Certain aspects of pop culture are also perennially integrated with what I write in a way that may not be obvious to a reader. For example, I would say that the key influence on my writing sensibility is The Simpsons.
The series that I’m currently writing, which includes “X,” is apocalyptic/dystopian, which of course is a pop culture subgenre itself. Many of these poems start out as mash-ups of disparate topics that I’m thinking about, where I see how they fit together and what unexpected ideas pop up as a result of the pairing. It’s interesting to me that the relationship side of this pair comes across as, if anything, more dystopian and apocalyptic than the superhero side. Of course, many superhero stories have fascistic implications, so maybe it evens out.
MS: As a follow-up, is there something particular about the X-Men that made you want to write a poem about them, something that sets them apart from other characters or stories of their type? Do you have a favorite character?
SDS: Outside just a couple references, there isn’t anything specific to the X-Men in the poem. I was more interested in general superhero archetypes than specific characters. The aspect of the X-Men that’s most appealing to me for this poem is that their dynamic has typically been superteam-as-dysfunctional-family, which obviously fits the theme. I’m also drawn to how flawed some of them are as people. This whole answer makes me start to imagine a poet superteam roster, so I’d better get to the rest of your question. As you might be able to tell from the adamantium reference, I was the cliché 14-year-old whose favorite was Wolverine. Cloak and Dagger were in the X-Men at some point, right? I liked them too. Ultimately, I’d have to jump sides and universes to say that I’m a Joker guy. Maybe that comes through a bit in the more anarchic parts of the poem.
MS: This poem employs an aggressive use of lineation that I’ve noticed in some of your other work. By “aggressive,” I don’t necessarily mean that the enjambment is harsh or wildly unorthodox but that the meaning often changes or is modified between lines. It doesn’t seem like this poem is a series of sentences you later lineated but the result of a process in which you allowed lineation to torque or augment the poem’s logical directions. The question, then, begs itself (especially from a poet whose first book is entitled Torched Verse Ends): What is your relationship to line, and how does a poem’s shape (whether ad hoc or pre-fabricated) influence your composition process?
SDS: Thank you for asking this question, which states the way I look at line and line breaks at least as well as I would say it. In particular, I, too, use the word “torque” for what I want to do with poetic language. For me, both line and form have to be organic. I don’t have a set idea of a line that I write words to fit, but I definitely don’t write a prose sentence and then figure out places to break it. I determine the form as I create it, and I produce both the sentence and the line in harmony. Peanut butter and honey, or an analogy like that. Kind of the opposite of the approach espoused by Philip Levine’s “A Theory of Prosody,” if you take it at face value.
MS: As editor of the online journal Anti-, do you find that you have to keep Steven-the-writer and Steven-the-editor separate? Or do they mutually inform each other?
SDS: The only way that my writing and editing sides interfere with each other is when the nuts and bolts of preparing the journal cut into my writing time. Otherwise, they’re another great combination. Reading and selecting poems as an editor gives me many opportunities to think about what I love and can aspire to in the writing of others. Just in terms of the apocalyptic poems, I’ve gotten ideas from recent work in Anti- by writers including Gillian Devereux, C. Dylan Bassett, and Aubrey Ryan.
Starting my own journal has also allowed me to meet writers I now count as friends, as well as get my own work out into the world. As someone who regards community as both a benefit and a necessity of creative writing, I can’t say enough positive things about editing. I’m sure my friends who edit superb startup journals like iO, burntdistrict, Linebreak, and Vinyl would agree. And, yes, that is an obvious and filthy bit of flattery.
MS: And just so you have your own chance to sound off on this issue: What are you against in poetry?
SDS: I recognize that 99% of what I’m against in poetry is pet-peeve stuff, not especially important or set in stone. Nonetheless, here are a few things you can expect not to do too well with me: workshop-assignment sestinas, essays about what’s wrong with poetry now, charging for “open” submissions, and the phrase “I remember…” (especially as the first words of a poem).
For fairness, and to end on a more positive note, here are some things I’m very much for in poetry: litany, kineticism, social justice, hip-hop flow, performing poetry from memory, obviously fictional statistics, paradoxes, self-aware Newspeak, whiskey as word and substance, and the collected poems of Jake Adam York (miss you, Jake).