Author Q&A: Steve Healey

Steve Healey is the author of two books of poetry, 10 Mississippi and Earthling, both on Coffee House Press. His poems have been published in magazines such as American Poetry Review,The Awl, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Jubilat, and in anthologies, most recently The New Census: an Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry. He lives in Saint Paul, MN.

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TBL Author Q&A Series: Steve Healey

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

In college, I played drums in a post-punk band. We were listening to Sonic Youth, The Butthole Surfers, The Minutemen, Wire, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and other bands whose music relied as much on a certain sound as it did on a certain artfully shocking approach to the lyrics.

Those bands taught me how to use language in a completely different way—not just to convey a certain “meaning” or “truth,” but as a performance that could challenge and provoke an audience. In my 4th year of college, I signed up for a poetry writing class—I thought it would be an easy way to earned credit while (secretly) writing song lyrics for my band. But pretty soon I became much more interested in writing poetry than lyrics.

You’ve published two books of poetry and numerous poems online —what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed and posted online? How has that shifted over time?

Cover letters do matter, I think, when sending work out. I used to believe that editors wanted to hear mostly about my literary accomplishments (previous publications, awards, education, etc). But I’ve come to believe that, just as importantly, they want to know that I actually read and appreciate their magazine, and understand how it fits into the literary landscape.

Years ago I was an associate editor at Conduit magazine, and I was amazed at how many form cover letters we received that made no specific reference to Conduit but then went on to brag about having been published in countless other magazines I’d never heard of.

Editors want to know that you’re a fan of their particular magazine, that you want to be published there and not just anywhere. It’s not unlike romance and friendship—you can’t expect to get the love without giving some love yourself.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

I think I’ve always been interested in performing the voice of the mind on the page—the mind with all of its digressions and inconsistencies, its self-doubts and messiness. In my first book, Earthling, that mind voice would go on longer journeys and keep discovering new territory, but in my second book, 10 Mississippi, I became more interested in repetition, so that voice tended to move in a circular or spiraling pattern, sounding more anxious and obsessive.

Seeing my poems as trying to represent the mind in process helps me avoid trying to express a “profound message.” I’m more interested in what the mind is doing than the “wisdom” the mind produces.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

My influences keep changing and growing, partly to avoid boredom, and over the years I think I’ve learned to appreciate a wider range of aesthetics. Wallace Stevens was the first American modernist to blow my mind, and I keep returning to his work. I’ve had a long obsession with Cesar Vallejo’s poetry. But I keep discovering new poetry that either took me a while to connect with or that has been published more recently.

Lately I’ve been admiring the poems of Alice Notley and Eileen Myles, especially how they mess with punctuation, syntax, and language in interesting ways. I think their work has helped inspire wonderful powerful poetry by a slightly younger generation of women who are tapping into new confessional impulses, like Sarah Fox, Catherine Wagner, and Rachel Zucker.

If I could recommend just one book of poetry that’s come out in recent years, it would be the anthology called The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. I’ve learned so much from this book and encountered so many great writers in these pages that I’d not yet read, including francine j. harris, Tarfia Faizullah, Franny Choi, and Jamilla Woods.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when
approaching different publishers? Earthling and 10 Mississippi have both been published via Coffee House Press, but your poems and essays have been published by many different magazines. I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses and other publishers.

Before publishing my first book, Earthling, I tried for years to win various prestigious first book prizes. I was a finalist several times, but I never won. Then it occurred to me that I could just send my manuscript to book presses that I admire and ask them to consider it for publication. So I sent it to three presses with a personalized cover letter explaining why I admired them and why I’d love to be published by them. I received two positive rejections and one acceptance from Coffee House Press.

Book prizes have plenty of benefits and many great books have been published through them, but there are other ways to get first books published. I’ve heard some book prize winners complain that they didn’t feel strong connection and support from whatever press published them, but Coffee House and I chose each other in a very direct way, and they’ve been awesome to work with.

What can you tell us about your experiences as a professor?

I love teaching college students, and in my creative writing classes, I’m especially interested in exploring alternatives to the traditional workshop method. Instead of spending most of class time critiquing student writing, I want us to focus on generating new work and exploring the contexts for that generating. So we do a lot of in-class writing exercises, reading aloud, discussing sample writings and related social issues.

It’s a cliché among teachers to say that we learn as much from our students as they learn from us, but in my case, it’s especially true. My students are often very different from me—I’m a white, middle-class man, and most of my students are not traditional middle-class teens fresh out of high school. They’re often a bit older, often people of color, sometimes children of immigrants, usually low-income, often working a job while taking classes, sometimes parents themselves. I’m constantly amazed by the energy, creativity, and intelligence of these students. Many of them have lived through serious hardship or trauma, and yet they show up, willing to learn, and they bring deep experience and power to their writing.

As a white male professor with plenty of privilege, I’ve had to work hard to recognize my blindspots and biases, to build trust with my students, to understand where they come from, to offer them assignments and readings that are really relevant to their lives. These students have helped me transform what I think creative writing is, what it can look and sound like, what it can do in the world, and I’m totally grateful to them for those lessons.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

I often share with my students the well-known Chuck Close quote: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” I’m not against feeling inspired, but I think Close is suggesting that sitting around doing nothing while you wait for inspiration to zap you from the sky doesn’t usually work. Whatever inspiration I feel usually comes from the writing process itself.

I should also say, though, that the process can involve staring out the window, taking a walk, reading, etc—I often called these activities “good procrastination” if you’re really engaged with a creative project while doing them, as opposed to “bad procrastination,” which means you’re not engaged, simply avoiding.    

This idea also applies to a writer’s long-term development. Less experienced writers (usually students) often want someone (usually a teacher) to tell them if they have “the right stuff.” They want to be anointed a literary superstar and told that they have arrived at greatness. But great potential as a writer doesn’t mean anything unless you keep writing, recognizing your weaknesses, developing your skill and awareness. You have to keep showing up for your writing practice.

What are your artistic/professional goals for the future? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I’m finishing my third book of poetry, and I’ve been working with editors at Coffee House as I do final revisions. Unlike my previous books, this collection of poems has a strong autobiographical undercurrent. It explores my experience growing up with a father who was a CIA spy during the Cold War, and how this family narrative reflects a larger culture of secrecy from that time into our current surveillance state.

I didn’t set out to write a book that was so personal and political, but a couple years ago I started to see the pattern in the poems I was writing. Now as the book’s vision comes into focus, I’m eager to get it out into the world.  

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