Eric Stiefel Playfully Welcomes “Nothingness” in His Latest Poetry Collection [INTERVIEW]

Eric Stiefel lives in Athens, Ohio with his dog, Violet.  He is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where he teaches poetry and composition .  He received the Sequestrum New Writer Award for Poetry in 2018, and his work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, the Penn Review Prize, and others.  He earned his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis and his undergraduate degree from NYU.  His first collection, Hello Nothingness, was published by Main Street Rag in 2022, and his work has been published in journals across the globe. Below are excerpts from his interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: How did you first discover poetry, and how do you try to share your love of poetry with your students?

Eric Siefel: “I got the idea in my head when I was around 10 or 11 years old that I was going to be a writer. I grew up in South Carolina where there is a public residential school for young artists called South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. I did a summer program there before going to their boarding school for my last two years of high school. There was a poetry component of the program, which I just saw as something I would have to work through and then I’d get to work on my novel. 

“I remember reading poems by Larry Levis, Louise Glück and Li-Young Lee and being so struck by the variety of voices and the breadth of emotion their work could cover. I’ve been pursuing poetry ever since and have never even started on a novel. I’ve been wholly dedicated to poetry for the past 15 years or so. That breadth of possibility which exists in poetry is something that I try to share with my students. I had a professor who once told me that you can’t teach your students how to be great poets, but you can foster a love of poetry in them, and that love of poetry is essential toward becoming a poet. I try to show my students poems that will challenge their notions of what poetry can be and break the barriers of what they think they can do with their work.”

James: Congratulations on publishing your first collection, “Hello Nothingness”; at what point did you know you had a critical mass of poems for a book?

Eric: “When I was getting my Master’s Degree, I became friends with a fellow poet Emily Patinos. She was a friend of mine who had collected a manuscript and I think she just wanted to do a swap. She wanted me to have some poems that I could show to her and convinced me to throw everything together into this 50-page bundle. It wasn’t until I was nudged in that direction that I realized I had something worth collecting. It was about a five year process after that initial compilation for the book to reach the state that it’s in now. But the driving force was seeing all the poems together and feeling like there was something coherent there.”

James: You employ prose poetry in several of the poems, “Smoke from the Demolished Power Plant Forms a Humanoid Figure” where you write: “The price of discontent was an obsession with the curve of an eggshell, an arithmetic attraction to a certain kind of light, and a crown of herons yelling grief is a machine.” I love how you hide poetry in the form of prose here and elsewhere. I first experimented with prose poetry in my most recent book and found it a valuable poetic tool. How do you approach writing prose poetry?

Eric: “With any poem, it’s essential to at least consider the form of the poem and how the form of the poem affects the function of the individual poem. For me, a prose poem is just another form in my arsenal where I can add some coherency or standardization of the text, whereas the poem itself might go somewhere a little bit more wild. The poem may do something a little bit more interesting in terms of language and punctuation, or even in sound and rhythm. I’m very interested in the prose poem as an opportunity to allow for the possibility of freedom in a form, like a prose form, which we think might be more mundane at times.”

James: The title of your collection, “Hello Nothingness”, is taken from a line in the poem “The Next Painting Was Full of Dark Clouds”. Talk about the process you went through in finding a title that captured the essence of your collection.

Eric: “I have spent untold hours languishing over the title of the collection. The process was mainly me obsessively searching for what felt like the right fit for years. The collection went through multiple different titles. One of the working titles was “Opalescence Signaling the End”, which is the last line of the other poem you referenced, “Smoke from the Demolished Power Plant Forms a Humanoid Figure”. No matter how much I obsessed over it, nothing felt right. I decided to put aside finding the perfect title for a little while. 

“While reading through the manuscript one day, I came across those lines from ‘The Next Painting Was Full of Dark Clouds’. It’s one of my favorite moments in the book where I get to make a nihilistic gesture of welcoming nothingness in the poem, but I also get to maintain a level of playfulness that is important to my work. It felt kind of perfect that there’s a darkness to it as well as an unmistakable playfulness. That idea felt emblematic of my work.”

James: Your poems in this collection have a dream-like surreal quality in many cases. One example, in “The Eye Is an Amphitheatre” you write:

A man drinking Campari and soda sneers
            from the balustrade of conscious thought—
some echo rippling in a bathtub, the human figure
            growing colder, holding its breath, half-
dressed. 

Where do you find inspiration for these wonderfully unusual images?

Eric: “A lot of the time, I find inspiration for my poetry in other pieces of art. When I wrote ‘The Eye Is an Amphitheatre’, I was thinking a lot about the film ‘Annihilation’. There isn’t too much resonance between the two, but there’s a sense of unease and discomfort that I wanted to try to portray that would be difficult to define. I wanted to find images that would be both a bit bewildering, but also images that were clear in their emotional significance. That image of someone drowning or holding their breath in a bathtub while being half-clothed has a feeling of being weighed down or compressed that felt very poignant to me.”

James: After reading “All Night” I sought the beautiful poem that, in part, inspired your poem (by Alejandra Pizarnik. You’ve also employed ekphrasis for several poems in the collection, including “Encountering Judith and Holofernes”. How do you approach writing poetry inspired by other poets and by works of art, so that the resulting piece is something novel and reflects your voice?

Eric: “I’ve written a lot of ekphrastic poems across my career as a poet. One of the things that I realized, it tends to be more interesting, at least for my work, when ekphrastic poems are talking about my experience with a piece of art rather than merely describing the piece. It makes more sense to look at the piece of art itself rather than to have me describe the way a shadow hits Isaac’s face in the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’. What I can talk about is my experience of interacting with that piece of art and what it made me think of. With ‘Encountering Judith and Holofernes’, it’s a lot about the mental state I felt after seeing that painting in person. A lot of times these ekphrastic poems are attempts of expressing that experience.”

James: You have a skill in crafting the titles of your poems that reminds me of advice I received from a poet colleague, that poetry titles also need to serve as headlines that pull in the reader. A good example is your poem “I’ve Gone Missing and Wondered What the Implications Were”. The title is so intriguing. This is even more important with so much poetry shared online. What is your approach to creating titles for your poems?

Eric: “Fortunately, that’s a process that has become easier over time. As I write poetry, there are times when I’ll start with the title. I may have a title in mind that evokes a feeling or mental state that I’d like to explore. For example, I have the title ‘World Without Magic’ stuck in my mind and I haven’t written the poem yet. I’m looking forward to the day when I figure out how to write that poem. Other times, the language comes first or the idea comes first, and I’m stuck with the painful process of trying to discover the right title for a poem. With titles, I try to capture a sense of what the poem wants to do, or what the poem wants to express in a way that will intrigue a reader to move forward into the poem. The title ‘I’ve Gone Missing and Wondered What the Implications Were’ doesn’t give away the content of the poem, but it does motion toward this lost sense of self or loss of identity.”

James: The poem “Birdwatching / Melancholia” reminded me of Safia Elhillo’s extraordinary contrapuntal poems, which we discussed in her interview on the podcast. The contrapuntal is such a complex form of poetry to create. Did you start this poem with the form in mind, was this poem actually two independent poems that worked better together, or did the form emerge during the revision and editing process?

Eric: “I was thinking explicitly about the contrapuntal form when I wrote that poem. I had recently read Haruki Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’, which is a novel that is told in almost a contrapuntal form. All of the odd chapters follow one character while the even chapters follow a completely different character, and the two never actually meet or interact. There’s this compelling and engaging narrative that evolves and the idea of someone doing that in a novel was so stunning to me that I wanted to try doing it in a poem. The text in the left hand column is concerned with the physical and everyday experiences of the speaker, while the right-hand column is an insidious, metaphysical, and existential gloom that’s lurking on the outskirts of the poem. I wanted a poem where readers get access and separate doses to both a speaker’s physical actions and their internal state.”

James: What have you learned about revising and editing poetry that you pass along to your students?

Eric: “I try to empower my students to revise boldly. I don’t want them to become beholden to a particular poem in a certain form. When I teach, I try to teach from a place of understanding my students and tensions with their poems, and then help them realize those intentions rather than telling them. Oftentimes teaching is a process of showing my students how their intentions can be better met. My goal is to help them identify moments in their poems that aren’t meeting their goals and then give them the confidence to make revisions that will help realize those goals.”

James: What is most exciting about the poetry being created today?

Eric: “The internet is an exciting tool for poetry. Just 50 years ago, there were far more obstacles with not only publishing poetry, but also with finding and reading poetry. Before the internet, we would have been limited to journals with wide circulation or the books that were available in your local bookstore. Now with the proliferation of the internet and digital publishing, we have access to journals across the globe. Also, I am excited by the possibilities of experimental poetry and digital poetry. It seems like so many contemporary poets are exploring new possibilities in their work. I read Kristin Bock’s ‘Glass Bikini’ and I didn’t expect there to be a 20-part love story in outer space near the end, but it fits the context of the book and expands the realm of possibility in poetry to me. In some ways, it can feel like it’s hard to be noticed in a world where there are so many different venues, and yet so many of them are still difficult to publish one’s work in. But at the same time, I’m excited by the breadth of experimentation and creativity in contemporary poetry.”

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