Thursday, August 23, 2012

Interview with Poet and Publisher Steven Allen May

Steven Allen May is the author of several poetry collections; co-publisher of Plan B Press, an independent press currently located in Alexandria, Virginia; and a familiar face in the DC, Philly, and area poetry scene. I've known Steven since he published my first collection, _____(Want/Need) and since then, we've done several readings together. One thing I really admire about Steven is the fact that he has maintained a long writing and publishing career without sponsorship from a university.


Me: How did you come to writing?

SAM: I started out making stick figure comics and the “writing” part was filling the “bubble clouds” with what the figures were saying. That led to making up stories with drawings, but what sealed the deal was taking the poetry elective in my Sophomore year of HS. I have been writing ever since.

Me: Would you mind telling me a little about your writing process: do you write every day, do you have a specific routine, etc.?

SAM: In an ideal world, that might be true. Routine? What’s that? I squeeze in writing between my “stay-at-home” Dad role. Kids first, writing second. My poems tend to get shorter – haiku like – and/or are fragmented together over time. At night I am so exhausted from the day that I don’t have the will or energy to write.

Me: How has being a parent affected your writing?

SAM: See answer to question 2. In a word: “completely”. Also, my subject matter changed especially once I began a single father for my first batch of children, all sons, from 1980 – 1996. It can’t help but affect what one is writing about since it is what one is living with/through. I recently marveled at the level of work that I generated between 1995 (as my sons were leaving home for college and life) and 2006 (when my second family started with the birth of Julia Jean May).

Me: Much of your work that I’m familiar with is performance based. What’s the difference between a poem that’s meant to be read and one that’s meant to be heard, or is there one?

SAM: A number of things influenced this direction in my work. I have been incredibly affected by the work of Laurie Anderson, even though I would never call her a poet. Anderson’s multi-media performances have been so stimulating at so many levels that I wanted to bring that level of energy and multi-disciplinary artistic approach to poetry presentation. “to make the witnessing of poetry unboring” has been a motto of mine. That’s one reason I loved my experience at the “art incubator”, the Soundry, when it was operational. It was the perfect venue for the overall experience of PRESENTING art in the most merging way that I have ever had the pleasure of being involved with.

When I started Bardfest in Berks County, PA back in 1999, I wanted to present as many different ways of witnessing poetry as I could so there were spoken word bands, one man dramatic presentations, poetry on video tape, poetry with dance, etc. Poetry is the most plastic of art forms, in my opinion, and English is the most plastic of languages on the planet so there really are only the confines of the brain as to what can be done and how art can be shown.

Poetry on the page that is not topographically interesting defeats the purpose of being on the page. To really “get” a poem or a poet, one must hear the work; listen to the poet. You appreciate his pausing and phrasing and everything by hearing the poet – live, recorded, on video tape, etc.

Me: You’re very involved in the literary scene wherever you are. What’s the importance, do you think, of a poet giving readings, supporting other writers by going to their readings, etc.?

SAM: I remember hearing somewhere that “no one stays whole in a vacuum”. I believe that’s true. Artists in the USA do not get support from their fellow citizens as much as they need to. Artists need to be alone to create but being too alone makes them crazy as well. They need interaction with fellow artists. It’s an absolute must. I find that artists tend to stimulate one another to further creations and thoughts which lead to further creations. One of the things I was trying to prove by starting a 30-day poetry festival in a mostly rural area is that creativity and culture were EVERYWHERE.

Besides, wherever I go, I am there! Either I find an existing scene or I create one. It’s in my blood. I like the interaction as much as anyone. It isn’t always easy, but most things that are worthwhile aren’t easy. Gotta push the boulder up the mountain!

Me: Is it difficult to balance your work as a publisher with writing? Do you find that publishing others hurts or helps your writing?

SAM: I have to remember which hat I am wearing. We publish work that is dissimilar from my own. Otherwise, it’s like hatching clones. There are some poets whose work is like mine, and that does spark me onward to write things, but what we are mostly looking for are “complete thoughts”. Collections that have an anchor, a focus, a story, and stay with it throughout. No tack-on poems, but from beginning to end are “complete thoughts”.

I have come to appreciate prose poetry greatly from publishing Robert Miltner and Jason Venner, for example. I wasn’t really familiar with the form before starting Plan B Press.

Me: When did you found Plan B Press?

SAM: The idea to start a Press began in 1998. But we really began in 1999. What was the impetus for starting a press? The Press was meant to be the publishing arm of Bardfest and publish people who participated in the festival, primarily those who lived in Central PA. Plan B Press was the joint effort, both Idealistically and in practical terms, of Dianne Miller and myself. We had met at a coffeehouse in Lancaster, PA where I was hosting a series called ‘Two Thought Minimum’. This was 1996, I believe. She had picked up on an idea I mentioned one night about having a newsletter and she created “Two Thought Minimum”, a poetry newsletter which existed for a few years. When Bardfest was being planned, Dianne served as the Vice President of what became the Berks Bards, the organization which runs and supports the festival. In one of our idea sessions we thought it was be useful to have a publishing wing and that became Plan B Press.

As it turned out, Plan B Press evolved from poets in Central Pennsylvania to one focused on Philadelphia-based poets in 2003 after Katy Jean & I took over running the Press. We have since become a Press that publishes poetry from across the country and from Europe as well.

Me: As a publisher, you must’ve noticed the glut of online journals and e-presses out there. Is this a positive or a negative? Where do you see publishing going in the future?

SAM: The jury is out on the future. I would counter the argument that it’s a good thing to have so much access to publishing that anyone can do it by saying that just because they can doesn’t mean they should. We strongly believe in editorial control. It seems to be a minority view, but there is entirely too much garbage being published that has no business being in print. It’s a world were Vanity Presses are a numerous as mushrooms.

We believe in print, in ink. It might be seen as a foolish position in the future but a book is paper and ink, anything else is TEXT. If one wants to read TEXT, then electronic publication is ideal for them. I like the physical object called a “book”.

Me: Who are you reading?

SAM: Well, right now I am working on a collection called “cities at the bottom of the world” which is about Antarctica so I am reading a lot about that continent. For pleasure? I have bookmarks in a half dozen books, easily. Who are your inspirations? Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Duchamp, Norman H Pritchard, EE Cummings, Allan Kornblum (founder of Toothpaste Press and Coffee House Press), and others too numerous to name.

Me: What’s next for Steven Allen May?

SAM: Let me consult the Magic 8 Ball.

Me: For Plan B Press?

SAM: There are a few really big projects I have to get to but for now, it’s Fall 2012 season.

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