M. G. Stephens: Interview

Monday, November 21, 2011

When author, playwright, and poet M. G. Stephens was fifteen years old, he had a chance encounter with Thelonious Monk that would change his life forever. In his new, still untitled memoir about growing up in New York’s East Village in the 1960s, Stephens shares his experience with Monk and discusses how jazz music influenced his writing in subsequent years. Also heavily inspired by visual art, Stephens has written eighteen books, including the novels Season at the Coole and The Brooklyn Book of the Dead, as well as such nonfiction works as Lost in Seoul and the essay collection Green Dreams: Essays under the Influence of the Irish, which received the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1994.

Earlier this year, Stephens served as the writer in residence at the Homestead Hotel in Evanston, Illinois, where he completed his memoir project. At the end of his stay, before returning to his home in England, he sat down with TriQuarterly Online to discuss his memoirs, writing, art, and jazz.

TriQuarterly Online: Tell me a little bit about your latest project. How did it come about?

M. G. Stephens: The latest project has been being the writer in residence at the Homestead, which has been great. It’s a place that I would recommend for any other writer. I was finishing up a really long-term project. For about the last ten years, I’ve been working on one book, which is about downtown New York in the 1960s. It’s both a memoir and a kind of cultural history. A couple of years ago, an essay appeared in the Boston Review about the Eighth Street Bookshop and that’s an example of part of this book. In 2003 living in England, I started doing a doctorate at the University of Essex, and my topic was the St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery Poetry Project. I did that from 2003 to 2006, so the research part of this whole ten-year project was done in those three years. I was sixty years old when I got my doctorate, so it was hardly a career move—it was more like a labor of love. But when I finished, the committee and my supervisor said I should put myself back in this work. So from 2006 to the present, that’s what I was doing: putting myself back into that narrative.

TQO: Was writing the memoir a natural process? Did you consider fictionalizing the project, or making it into something completely different?

MGS: No, because I’ve always written memoir. In the mid-to-late ’90s I was affiliated with Emerson College in Boston, and I primarily taught memoir. In the mid-90s creative nonfiction was not a form equal to poetry or fiction in creative writing programs. It’s really only in the last ten years that virtually every creative writing program has included it as a component.

TQO: How have you seen the creative writing MFA develop?

MGS: I’ve been involved in academics totally at the margins. I’ve never been a player. When I was younger, I was affiliated for a really long time with Columbia University in New York. I taught in what was then called General Studies, which was like Northwestern’s School of Continuing Studies, and that’s where creative writing was housed. I think writing programs are great, and I was involved in them, so don’t get me wrong, but [today] it would almost seem that there are too many of them. I taught a course called Introduction to Creative Writing at a university in England, and there were 150 students in this class. That’s not creative writing. So what’s happened is that some academics have co-opted the term, and replaced composition and introductory literature classes, and simply call them creative writing now. I’m not saying that’s true in MFA programs, but I think because there are so many, it’s really limited where people can get published.

TQO: You read at the Homestead from your latest work, the memoir, and it was very concerned with jazz and how the jazz scene influenced downtown New York and influenced you. How did that affect your process working on that memoir? Did that change the way you thought about your writing? Did it change the way you approached it?

MGS: Improvisation was so important to all the arts in the 1960s, and I think it is still carrying forward to this day. I read [at the Homestead] about meeting Thelonious Monk just by chance when I was about fifteen years old. What I didn’t mention in the piece I read is that I’d run away from home, so I was out on the streets of New York and just wandered into a place to get warm, and there was Thelonious Monk playing. Somehow, through a few chance encounters, we became friends, and that’s what the piece is about. When I was connected with St. Mark’s, they equated poetry and performance, which I think is a stunning connection, and it can help prose writers as well. Even the grant at St. Mark’s for an arts program to deal with at-risk youth says that instructors are to teach using improvised techniques. For me, improv doesn’t mean just doing something jazzy in the spur of the moment. In the ’40s, George Russell asked Miles Davis, “What do you want to learn from this jazz music?” and Miles Davis famously answered, “All the changes.” What Davis meant is that he wanted to know every variation there is to make music. That’s what improv is. It’s knowing every way you can go, so in the moment when you’re performing, you can choose from any of those scenarios.

TQO: How do you see digital publishing affecting not just publication but the craft of writing in the next few years?

MGS: There’s an old fellow I know in London, a photographer. He was in World War II when he was a teenager, serving with the volunteers, putting out the incendiary bombs that fell around St. Paul’s and that area in the east of London. We were talking one day over coffee, and because he’s a photographer, he’s not afraid of technology, even though he’s probably in his mid-to-late eighties. He’s probably the first person I knew that had some kind of tablet for reading books. I asked him why he was so enamored of this electronic book, and he put it really nicely. He spends a certain amount of months every year in Cyprus, and he said, “You know, at my age you can’t be loading up with forty books in your suitcase, so I load them onto this machine, and I stick it in my bag, and that’s it.” So you can load this tiny machine with all of the work of Dickens or Shakespeare, and you go off on your journey around the world, and there it is whenever you want to read it. I find that that very appealing. The nice thing about an e-book is that you can just do it yourself. You don’t even need a publisher, because they’re not going to have any more advantage than you have when it comes to marketing.

I really worry about intellectual property, though, and I worry about someone photographing all of our books without our permission and thinking that they’re going to own half the royalties: that I strenuously object to on constitutional grounds. To be a professional writer, somebody who makes his or her living from writing, becomes harder and harder, and that’s not a good development. But at the purely intellectual level, it’s a great thing. As long as the ground rules are fair and the people who create these works are compensated, then it’s going to be fine. On an ecological level, it’s very good that we’re saving paper and a lot of other resources, and there is something nice about being able to move in the world so lightly while carrying a hundred books in your knapsack.

Everything is changing as a result of changing technology in the last couple of years, with these social platforms. I have started writing very short poems; some people would say they’re not even poems—they’re just a couple of words, but I think it’s an impulse that comes from the restricted word formats. I like to be challenged by the technology around me. Let’s face it; a lot of the more mechanical poetic forms are also results of technology. I’m sure one could draw a strong connection between the Guttenberg press and the sonnet. The sonnet is a very mechanical form, and it almost reflects the mechanical age in which it came about.

TQO: Who are some people you’re reading now? Who inspires you?

MGS: Let me tell you about some writers that I always read, because they’re worth mentioning always. At least once a year I read Dubliners. I love that book. I love all of Joyce, but [elsewhere] he’s not as easy to read as he is in Dubliners. I also regularly read Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table. It has aspects of fiction and memoir and essay writing, as well as beautiful scientific aspects. I read that book in both English and Italian. With Italian I have to keep a dictionary at hand, but as the years go by I get better at reading it in that language. I love rereading Hubert Selby’s books. I knew him personally, and he was both a literary mentor to me when I was a very young writer and a spiritual mentor in a later part of my life.

I travel with certain books wherever I go. One of them is a little copy of Thoreau’s Walden. I know that book the way some people know the Bible. Lines of it are burned into my head, and I know just where they are in the book.

TQO: Who is someone you’re reading and admire but say, “That’s not something I’m interested in doing,” or even “That’s something I couldn’t do”?

MGS: Anne Carson, the poet. I don’t really know her work that well, but I’ve been reading little bits and pieces of her in the last few months. I saw a boxed book of hers in a store and realized that she was doing something really interesting. It was one long stream of paper joined up, almost a work of visual art. These are ideals that one can aspire to. For me, it tends to be historians or very clever poets. Of course there’s the whole world of art. Here in Chicago you have the Art Institute. It’s special. The Philip Guston pieces there are some of the best I’ve ever seen. They’ve got Rauschenbergs, and the list goes on and on. It’s an incredible museum. Those are things that one couldn’t possibly ever do, but beautiful stuff and very inspiring.

TQO: Are you interested at all in creating visual art yourself?

MGS: In London I do a lot of paintings of moons. I have hundreds of paintings of moons. I just started doing these cut-ups. Last year, maybe as an outgrowth of doing this long book, I started doing actual visual collages. I’m sure you’re aware that a lot of writers do collages. It’s almost like a literary medium. I do quite a bit of that, and I do see an intimate connection between writing and visual arts.

The moons are an outgrowth of a lifetime of reading Yeats, who seemed to write a lot of poems about moons. And also a personal fascination with the moon. I just still am utterly flabbergasted each month when I see it out the window. It’s an extraordinary thing. [Laughs] I don’t know why we stopped worshiping it.