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Stars and Scoops

An Interview with Barry Sternlieb   printer  

Barry and Julian, a beloved rescue

Poet Barry Sternlieb recently joined the rank of SR contributors, appearing in our spring and fall issues of 2012. The author of four chapbooks and the editor of Mad River Press, he and his wife live in the hill-country of Massachusetts. The SR recently sat down with Mr. Sternlieb to discuss in detail his life, inspirations, and very unique perspective on the republic of letters.

Some authors and poets start at an early age, while others stumble upon writing through their life experiences. Were you always a writer or did you start somewhere else? 

I didn’t have much interest in literature until 1967, my third year at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ. Back then, for very good reason, American culture was undergoing a well-deserved extreme makeover and I found myself more than happy to get caught up in it. It was in that crackling, emotional, imaginative, idealistic, and intellectual atmosphere that I met a few students who actually wrote poems, something I could never remotely imagine myself doing. Apparently I wasn’t the only one, because in 2004 I reconnected with my wonderful 12th grade English teacher who was truly delighted to hear what I had accomplished, but didn’t hesitate for a second to say, based on my performance in her class, a writing life of any kind should have been completely out of the question. For some reason, I take great pride in that response!

Right or wrong, I was free to interpret ideas
and spout opinions . . .

Well, in addition to the rich social Eden of college life, I was passionate about my literature courses. It was ironic that they should seem so much more alive than biology, but that was the case. Right or wrong, I was free to interpret ideas and spout opinions while trying to find the handle on critical expression through essay and discussion. I met my future wife in those classes, so that’s probably another reason why I have such affection for that time. Anyway, I vividly remember the day I walked into the college bookstore, not for assigned texts or supplies, but to buy a few random poetry collections just for the hell of it. I walked out with The Back Country by Gary Snyder and O Taste and See by Denise Levertov. They’re still together on my overflowing shelves, weathered by use, surrounded by thousands just like them. Graduating less than two years later, I left that snug university incubator for a summer-long intensive education course that led me directly into the furnace of the Bronx, a very green 20-year-old teacher, but one who believed in making a difference where hopelessness often called the shots, who suddenly felt compelled to write something vaguely in the shape of poems, accumulating and cherishing poetry collections, wolfing them down at night while trying on the distinctive styles of their authors. So the world changed again, even more drastically, and for the next five years I got another education where I learned a whole lot more than I taught, in a place whose concrete intensity sharpened my senses, my abilities, and my resolve to keep writing, if only for myself.

Your poems are often focused on natural settings or specific locales—New Mexico, a garden, mountain streams, and many references to the Asian traditions and people. What draws you to these scenes in particular? 

 When asked a similar question about specific foreign places to which he had been, Jack Gilbert said, “Rather than writing a poem about those places, they create something I write about.” I like the unexpected angle of his response, because it inverts the energy, and focuses on going deeper than the ordinary surface perception to arrive at one more intimate and genuine. If I'm truly tuned in, a location, whether real or described, will somehow provide that unmistakable entrance to a poem whose roots run through the tangible spirit of the place. But that's for the reader to decide.

 I live a rural life, so home for me provides an abundant supply of natural imagery, but I always find that getting away for a while, living the rhythms of another place, invigorates my consciousness, and gives a welcome boost to my spiritual immune system. New territory spikes the force of attention which zeroes me in on details, the raw material of drafts. Actually drinking at the source, the physical act of travel, which I don't do very often, has yielded what I think are some successful poems. When my wife and I go to places like Alaska, the American Southwest, or Europe, we usually avoid cities and explore rural areas. On a recent trip to England, we booked working farm B & B's from Dartmoor to the Scottish Highlands. In 1999, we stayed in a northern Italian stone village called Fanghetto, perched in the Maritime Alps just south of Provence that was already 400 years old when Columbus sailed. Also, if I can translate the secondhand experience into convincing language, traveling through books is a good alternative to the real thing. In those cases, it all boils down to conviction. If you don't buy into my poem’s premise about a particular place and time, the poem is dead in the water. 

I love to explore and interpret tradition, making the past come to pass again. I'm strongly attracted to the cultures of ancient Japan and China where ritual, religion, and art shared a common vision, where beauty and use were a single braid, even in the pursuit of violence, and where discipline—which I often lack—was essential. So when intriguing books like In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki or The Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima find their way into my hands, I can't wait to dig in for that detail or description that holds a poem waiting to escape. 

In addition to writing your own poetry, you are the editor of Mad River Press, which specializes in a particular art. Tell me more about what you do there and why you consider your methods to be special.
In 1983, I began to gravitate toward the idea of editing, which seemed like a natural progression to promote strong work I believed in. I admired the look and feel of those small literary journals I subscribed to, that had published my early poems, but being somewhat laidback about business, I was instinctively wary of their deadlines, production costs, design challenges, and distribution pressures. Then, just by chance, a chapbook I had ordered from Adastra Press arrived in the mail. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before: a letterpress book printed from handset Goudy Bold type, each crisp black light-catching letter bitten into 80 lb off-white Strathmore stock, then hand-sewn into a single tight signature. It awakened me to an aesthetic tradition I didn't know existed. My long love affair with printing began that day. Now, looking back, I see how a vast range of doubt, struggle, and failure ultimately mulched into solid achievement which gave me an identity, a place to fit in, and a sustainable independence, edgy enough to earn the respect of those whom I respected. I ordered more Adastra books, expressing my admiration for such unique quality.

I felt chosen by that letterpress,
rather than the other way around.

By coincidence, Gary Metras, the printer and publisher, lived only an hour away. He invited me over to experience the process myself, to mix vibrant inks, handle fine textured paper, set and distribute type. That was all it took. For the next few years, in his meticulous basement shop, I slowly learned the ropes. In 1986, after my apprenticeship, I bought a funky old 6 X 10 inch hand-crank tabletop platen press rehabilitated by a retired pressman in Worcester, set up a tiny shop in my dungeon-y basement, bought a load of Garamond Oldstyle type with accessories, and called the whole thing Mad River Press. I felt chosen by that letterpress, rather than the other way around. As the years passed, I made a few more incredibly helpful, generous printer friends like Michael McCurdy, the great wood engraver, and Sam & Sally Green of Brooding Heron Press. McCurdy later gave me his huge Vandercook Universal III proof press, circa 1969, quite a gift. Well, those moody old presses drove me crazy, but with ink and paper now in my blood, I went from project to project, at first finding artwork in libraries, or getting wood engravings from McCurdy. Then, in 1990, I began a lasting collaboration with the painter and graphic designer, Julio Granda. The Vandercook, which weighed 2400 lbs, was housed at the business of a commercial printer in town, Bob Nackoul, a wizard with presses and the patron saint of printing-supply junkies like me. One way or another, he solved every problem I couldn't handle, and there were plenty. My wife, Maureen, has also been an integral part of the process, advising, occasionally typesetting, and weighing in on color and design decisions for every project.

“Sole Impression,” from the Sewanee Review, 120.4

I'm not a natural when it comes to this work, and plans often wander off course. Sometimes what's completely unexpected actually improves on the original design. I welcome those lucky accidents, or perfect imperfections, when they arrive, but I'm uncompromising and, every once in a while, dump the entire print run into the recycle tub, scrub my original plan, and start over from a fresh perspective. Trouble of one sort or another is usually waiting in those primitive wings. Eventually, however, I get the job done right, although my instinct works more like the logic in Steven Wright's joke where he picks up his car and the mechanic tells him, “I couldn't fix your brakes, so I made the horn louder.” My ace in the hole often turns out to be trial and error. But my standards are high, and press runs deliberately small, so maybe I can help restore just a fraction of what our mass-production-mad culture sacrifices to the gods of progress every day. As much as possible, I want this prolonged focus reflected in the inimitable end result, not just for my own sake, but also to honor the gift of trust from all those poets, unknown to well known, who put their work in my hands.

Today's technology, amazing as it is, can't reproduce the impression of letterpress printing, the debossed symbols and lines trapping light, echoing loud and clear through the fingertips. Also, there's a certain soul in the obsolete that nourishes my passion for working alone, slowly, quietly, one handfed sheet at a time, paying careful attention to detail, keeping the heart of low-tech craftsmanship beating a while longer. When the set-up is done, and I’ve got the color, pressure, and measurements nailed, then I can get a good rhythm going, tapping into a meditative solitude that feels like an awareness of the world without me. At this point, I've become somewhat fluent in ink, paper, lead type, and cast iron, communicating with them so each project might achieve the balance, understated elegance, and character which will make all the difference.

Here’s a tired but always important question: Who inspires you, both in and out of the world of letters? Who do you like to read, and who makes you keep going when the well of creativity runs dry?

Many people have sustained, motivated, and influenced me along the way, but since I'm completely self-taught, my writing path has stayed mostly in the shadows. I have no experience with creative writing classes, no mentors, no degrees beyond a BA. I've never attended any organized poetry workshops or spent any time at conferences or colonies, although I believe whatever path feels right for others is absolutely fine. The end result is all that matters. From a distance, the academic politics of poetry are very entertaining, sometimes enlightening, and although I have no vote, I feel invested in the debate. My wife, Maureen, is the most ravenous fiction reader I ever met, and we represent the end of the book food chain, meaning our house has become one immense bookshelf of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art, and nature.  From that angle, we understand the rationale of hoarders. Over the years, my most inspiring teachers were, and still are, the poems in those books, and their kindred spirits: critical essays and biographies. Can't give them up.

My first inspiration to write came from that small wild circle of friends back in college. Twenty years later, I was honored to repay that gift of energy and imagination by printing the excellent work of the two most important to me: Will Lane, who now teaches at Gettysburg College, and Mark Esrig, who is a labor union organizer in the Southwest. I didn't realize it in 1967, but they were laying the groundwork for what became my path. Those seven people I mentioned in question #3 have been essential in helping me stake my small claim as well.

I notice that in most collections a handful of poems
will stand out, and those might be the indispensible ones.

A serious addiction to books and journals really kicked into high gear around 1970, and hasn't let up, so that's how I mingled with the many tribes of my contemporaries. I'm a slow learner. For quite a while, I couldn't tell the difference between the obvious skill and accomplishment of work I was reading, and my own rookie attempts at quality. But those wishful embryonic stabs at coherence were fun, pure and simple. Luckily, I'm still in touch with that original impulse, the pleasure and possibilities from flinging words around like paint. Now, however, the fun takes on a more serious dimension, so I require much greater amounts of time and patience to iron a finished poem out of its many revisions.

I notice that in most collections a handful of poems will stand out, and those might be the indispensable ones. I try not to impose my standards or opinions on others, but I can't buy into the hype of the current blurb epidemic either. My presswork spans the style spectrum from Richard Wilbur, Louise Gluck, Jack Gilbert, and John Haines to Michael Gizzi, Laura Chester, Paul Metcalf, and Clark Coolidge. I'm willing to give any poem a chance, regardless of form or content. I don't know what's good for me, but I know what I like. As far as I'm concerned, every poem faces the same simple question: is it worth reading more than once or twice? Will it hold up under the weight of subsequent readings, never getting old, always delivering? The ones I can't stop returning to over the years become necessities for me. I mine them for ideas or incentive whenever I hit a dead end.

It's challenging to be on the outside looking in, trying to find great homes for my own poems, most of which usually spend at least a few years in the wilderness of revision, one actually wandering around for eleven, my record so far. With writing, like printing, it pays to be relentless. When it came to craft, Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I try to practice what he preached. I don't want the subject drowned by language, or the self to get out of hand. Ideally, with the finished poem or presswork, my struggle to get there will be disguised by the naturalness known as sprezzatura. If at all possible, I try to address certain social and political realities as well, but subtly, the way penetrating oil brings out the seasoned grain of wood.

Who among us, in 3013, will be left standing?

Inspiration has many incarnations, and one of the most powerful is to read an excellent, well-edited publication in which my work appears. An acceptance every now and then is a dose of pure energy...and amazement...and gratitude. I never take such an honor for granted, so I'll subscribe to help keep that journal afloat. I enjoy sending out to literary journals because when you choose to write in a vacuum, without feedback from friends or teachers, rejection becomes an important part of the revision process. I'm grateful for the many lessons in patience and humility I've learned from editors and has-been printing presses. I hope they've saved me from the embarrassment of inferior work escaping into the world. Deep down, I hope some of my poems and presswork will inspire others. But natural literary selection makes perfect sense. The work that deserves to last will persevere despite the odds, always growing on us, eventually leaving every trend in the dust. It will have an enduring “intensity of insight, not made up to just fit the occasion” as John Haines put it. Who among us, in 3013, will be left standing? It's an interesting coincidence because the only inimitable American originals I was lucky enough to actually hang out with—Jack Gilbert, John Haines, and Paul Metcalf—also shared some of this attitude. I had the privilege of publishing Gilbert four times (three broadsides and one poem in a handmade letterpress anthology), Haines three (a handmade letterpress chapbook and two broadsides) and Metcalf four (an offset chapbook, one anthology poem, and two broadsides). These guys didn't pull any punches…Such extremely enjoyable, irascible, and generous characters to be around, to work with, have lunch and talk shop with….all three now gone. I wish they'd been younger when our paths crossed.

Finally, I derive a steady flow of inspiration from my family, including our beautiful animals past and present, and from the two and a half hill-country acres in western Massachusetts that Maureen and I bought in 1976. At this point, both our daughters, Kirsten and Kyla, are successfully self-employed, which gives us a strong sense of pride. Kirsten owns a small high-end invitation business, and once in a while I do letterpress printing for her. Kyla owns a consulting company specializing in non-profit development. Whenever needed, I do content writing, editing, and proofreading for her. Things come full circle.