Spring 2020, Volume 28

Interview with Steven D. Schroeder

Interviewed by Bill Neumire

Q 1: Can you track the development of your "Wildlife Weaponization" idea? And its connection to your development of the manuscript?

A: For reader reference, the manuscript is called Encyclopedia Dystopiapocalyptica, and it uses apocalyptic and dystopian tropes (from literature, film, games, etc.) to address our contemporary world. I started this manuscript well before the election of 2016, so the world has caught or surpassed many ideas I thought were ridiculously over-the-top at the time.

Sadly, I’m not the type of poet who saves draft iterations or poem origin stories. I know a phrase close to “the final honeybee has been” sat alone in my notebook before I wrote a first draft of the poem. The title might have been the second element—this is from a series that I wrote for the titles to provide the only context at a reading, rather than resorting to expositional “here’s what you need to know for this poem” patter.

My poems often emerge when I mash up disparate topics, lines, and oddments. In this one, I was thinking about how aging can change one’s worldview, and clearly I read about the use of animals for military purposes (e.g., dolphins being trained to find underwater mines). Those collisions—personal concerns with absurdist social or political details—inform much of the manuscript.

Q 2: How, if at all, would you differentiate our current moment from previous ones in terms of the concerns laid out in these poems? The known unknowns, the "fake place," the parts of us that exist on lists we didn't know existed? It seems like there's a mix here of very contemporary troubles with very longstanding ones. 

A: Many of the poems in this manuscript contain that duality, where a phrase or object is specific to right now but also indicative of big historical concepts, with the added complication that the apocalyptic and dystopian tend to have a futuristic cultural connotation. Though this particular example isn’t in the book, think of the connection between “Covid-19”—a topical and technical term—and “pandemic,” which has been around as an English word for several hundred years and as a concept for so long that it’s represented among the biblical Four Horsemen.

The major era-independent themes of this collection include manipulation of language to suit the power structure, scapegoating an other as a means of maintaining control, and lies we tell ourselves about our own complicity. To me, the timely aspects are our awareness of such problems and ability to speak about them, as well as the details of how advanced technology interacts with and affects them in ways we barely imagined.

Q 3: What effect are you aiming for in couching the content of these poems in such pleasingly sound-rich landscapes?

A: E. E. Cummings’ use of wordplay and sonics is one of my poetic touchstones. Many of my favorite contemporary poems lean that way too, from the lush soundscape of Franny Choi’s “We Used Our Words We Used What Words We Had” to the incantatory litany of Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “Poet Wrestling with the Fruit”, from the stuttering rhythms of Larissa Szporluk’s “Cuckoo” to the headlong rush of Dora Malech’s “Oh Grow Up”.

I want my own poetry to work both on the page and aloud—linguistic and aural devices are almost second-nature to me at this point. Also, my subject matter tends toward heavy and bleak, but I still want to give the audience something engaging and enjoyable to hold onto, even if it’s in juxtaposition. Or, looked at from the opposite perspective, maybe the engagement and enjoyment are bait before the poems spring their traps.

Q 4: What is the relation of these poems to your collection as a whole? What role do you see each serving?

A: As the title suggests, the manuscript’s formal organizing principle (albeit in a loose sense) is as an encyclopedia. It’s interesting to use that frame when thinking about each poem’s place in the whole: they’re self-contained but add their little bit of information to a picture of the book’s world. 50-60 poems could never compose a complete picture, of course, but arguably neither could a real encyclopedia’s worth of articles.

About these three poems individually: Each is part of its own series, and each also interacts with poems on nearby pages, sometimes serendipitously. But I didn’t generally think “the book needs a poem about X” while writing. I tried to pursue whatever intrigued me and then determine whether and where there was a fit. (However, the title of “Known Unknowns” might have come from needing a “K” in my alphabetical order.)

Q 5: "Words of Cat Aphorism & Affirmation" seems different in form, content, and approach from the others in this group. How do you see it working within the manuscript?

A: As I mentioned in my last answer, it’s part of a series. Those “Words” poems feature motormouthed and adversarial speakers (a dissatisfied client, a password you can’t remember, etc.). Beyond the surface subject matter, they could be my subconscious arguing with my conscious, or maybe my poetry taunting me. (I’m deeply skeptical of metapoems, and yet…) 

This poem is an oddball in both its series and the whole collection (probably no more so than, say, the poem that uses a dinosaur apocalypse as its jumping-off). If we consider cat personalities and behavior as coming from a human—the petty dictatorial relationships, the narcissistic attention-seeking, the moment-to-moment fickleness—it’s amusing but also applies to some powerful people, putting it right in the book’s thematic wheelhouse.

Q 6: How, if at all, would you say your three collections relate to each other? Has there been any kind of progression or connection in terms of style, content, mode, craft? Would any of the three have disagreements, or agreements with the others?

A: The primary progression from my first book to now is that, fortunately, I continue to strive for improvement as a writer. Each represents an evolutionary step over the last in terms of how the poems work together, what end they’re working toward, and the delicate in-poem balances between elements like sound and sense, engagement and mystery.

There would certainly be disagreements between the collections. They get gradually more suspicious of my autobiographical anecdotes, for one, and of gratuitous puns. Each new project, to some degree, intended to better my writing in areas where I perceived previous weakness. In fact, many poems from the first book now almost seem (to me, at least) written by someone else.

For all that, there are common threads through all three, some already mentioned. Sociopolitical concerns. Internal rhyme. Anaphora. Lists. Humor—The Simpsons as a major influence. Love of speculative fiction from Tolkien to Orwell, Le Guin to Márquez. Willingness to go down a research rabbit-hole for the sake of a single phrase. Fire. Dark turns. And bulldozers, for some reason, have appeared in each. It suggests a word that aptly describes my writing: eclectic.