An interview with semi-finalist Steven Teref

We recently released our list of 2015 Negative Capability Press Book Competition semi-finalists. We will be posting interviews with each of the candidates.

Steven Teref is the translator of Ana Ristovic's The Soft Zero: Selected Poems (Zephyr Press) and Novica Tadic's Assembly (Host Publications, 2009). His poetry and translations have appeared in The Volta, Asymptote, and International Poetry Review, with work forthcoming in Negative Capability, Tarpaulin Sky, and Aufgabe.

SW:  Let us suppose we are somewhere chatting  -- so where does this interview take place?  In a coffee shop in some city?  In a hotel lobby in Paris? In your kitchen eating chocolate chip cookies? You set the scene. 

ST: My ideal interview setting would be Opera Restaurant in Belgrade. It’s perhaps my favorite restaurant/café in the entire world, no exaggeration. The décor reminds me of something from an Austrian royal parlor frequented by mobsters with their sponsor girls and Belgrade University intelligentsia alike. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition.
Opera website: http://www.operarestoran.com

SW:  What are some of your influences – books, movies, music and / or whatever else – art, travel, etc?

ST: The book that has wielded the most influence over me is Naked Lunch, namely, the chapter “hassan’s rumpus room.” Burroughs’ Mugwumps inform much of what I enjoy artistically and take inspiration from. They are ground zero for me, creatively speaking.

19th and 20th century European avant-garde literature and art loom large in my imagination. As part of that, I love traveling to new countries and losing myself in their art museums. I always end up discovering artists I had been previously ignorant of. When my wife Maja and I were in Vienna recently, I became acquainted with Egon Schiele’s gorgeously grotesque paintings.

Lately, I derive a lot of inspiration from the most ominous and depressing music I can find, such as doom metal, trip hop, witch house—anything slow, heavy, and melancholy: Ufomammut, Tricky, ∆AIMON.

SW:  How long have you written? A little history, here. 

ST: I have been writing since I was 15, so going on 30 years now. I didn’t start publishing seriously until I was about 30, though. Although I’ve devoted most of my creative energy to writing poetry, recently I’ve broadened my scope to include fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction. My translation work has been thus far the most successful. My first big publishing break was in 2009 with the translation of Novica Tadić’s Assembly on Host Publications. My second book of translations, Ana Ristović’s Directions for Use is forthcoming on Zephyr Press. Last year, one of the poems from her collection appeared in The New Yorker.

SW:  What is your job / occupation and how does it affect your poetry?

ST: I teach creative writing and literature courses at Columbia College Chicago as well as creative writing courses for Rooster Moans. I’m often inspired by the course materials and class discussions.

I also work in an adult education department for City Colleges of Chicago and often find myself mining the unintentional found poetry of nonnative English swirling around me every day.

SW:  How do you describe your poetry—important concerns, themes, pursuits?

ST: My work often centers around transformation: disease, desire, survival; embracing the “foreign” without and within. Much of my recent work is informed by my experience with cancer and I’ve strived to find a fitting lyric language that avoids the obvious and sentimental. The foreign within has made me feel like a foreigner without. I prefer the word ‘foreign’ over ‘other’ because ‘other’ is clinical whereas ‘foreign’ is visceral and offensive. It is inappropriate, unapologetic, and therefore, authentic.

SW:  What can you share about your writing process?

ST: I’m naturally drawn to the lyric but push myself to flesh out a hidden narrative that anchors my abstract tendencies. I use a lot of found material and manipulate it into a rich lyric voice. I’ve composed work through a variety of avant-garde processes, such as cut-ups, erasures, various Oulipian strategies. My latest composition method has been rhythmic erasures. I shave a text according to which words fit an iambic, trochaic or cretic line. After employing these methods to generate raw material, I then cannibalize multiple texts and fuse dissimilar limbs together with the result of a Hans Bellmer doll.

SW:  Let’s say you are teaching a workshop; give us a sample exercise / lesson.

One of my favorite exercises involves a six-sided die. I don’t have a name for it but let’s call it the gambling chant or gambling lyric:

1.     From one of her poems, a student picks her favorite line that’s at least seven words (or syllables);
2.     She rolls a six-sided die;
3.     She keeps the first 1-6 words (or syllables) reflecting the number rolled;
4.     Using the 1-6 selected words as anaphora for every line, the student writes a chant;
5.     When the student finishes, she removes the anaphora;
6.     She recites the remaining text which is her new poem.

SW:  What are your thoughts on social media?  Do you have a website? A blog?

 Social media is a major time suck but my FB friends often post interesting articles. I don’t have a website yet. I’m bad, I know. I’m generally not fond of blogs and have no intention of starting one. My poetry journal Ricochet Review has one though: ricochetreview.net.

 SW:   What are you reading at the moment?

I’m a restless reader, reading six books at once. Currently, I’m flipping between John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester’s The Debt to Pleasure and Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

SW:  What is the view out your window?

Treetops and cop cars.

SW:  Your turn – you ask the question – and you give the answer.

What is the secret to the perfect cocktail?

ST: Vermouth. High-quality vermouth will dignify low-quality alcohol whereas low-quality vermouth will ruin high-quality alcohol. I recommend Carpano.

A well-balanced cocktail is like a fine piece of writing. When one imbibes either every ingredient harmonizes to enrich the tingling palate.

Thank you for being a part of Negative Capability.