Featured Poet, J.J. Steinfeld interviewed by Emma Lee

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Canadian poet, fiction writer, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published 20 books, including Would You Hide Me? (Stories, Gaspereau Press, 2003), Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions, 2009), Identity Dreams and Memory Sounds (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions, 2014), Madhouses in Heaven, Castles in Hell (Stories, Ekstasis Editions, 2015), An Unauthorized Biography of Being (Stories, Ekstasis Editions, 2016), Absurdity, Woe Is Me, Glory Be (Poetry, Guernica Editions, 2017), A Visit to the Kafka Café (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions, 2018), and Gregor Samsa Was Never in The Beatles (Stories, Ekstasis Editions, 2019), along with two short-fiction chapbooks by Mercutio Press, Curiosity to Satisfy and Fear to Placate (2003)and Not a Second More, Not a Second Less (2005), and three poetry chapbooks, Existence Is a Hoax, a Woman in Fishnet Stockings Told Me When I Was Twenty (Cubicle Press, 2003), Where War Finds You (HMS Press, 2008), and A Fanciful Geography (erbacce-press, 2010). His short stories and poems have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies internationally, including in the Irish publications Boyne Berries, Revival, Crannóg, The Poetry Bus, Skylight 47, and The Stony Thursday Book: A Collection of Contemporary Poetry, and over 50 of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in Canada and the United States.

How did you start writing and what drew you to poetry?

I stumbled upon writing—or writing found me—quite young as a way to deal with the not always hospitable, fair, or senseful world around me, historical or contemporary, societal or personal. I wrote my first poem when I was fourteen for a poetry contest about human rights and race relations when I was in junior high school. My poem was award second prize, a poetry trophy, and was published in a community newspaper when I was a teenager. While I eventually became a writer of fiction and plays, I didn’t return to poetry writing until many years later. I was running to the post office one morning to mail two fiction manuscripts, one padded mailing envelope in each hand, when I tripped and fell flat on my face, but managed to get up and asked someone nearby to mail the blood-splattered padded envelopes and I was taken by ambulance to the hospital. I was stitched up and sent home that afternoon. At home, I attempted to sit at my computer and resume my writing, but I was unable to work at my computer. I sat down on the living-room couch and wrote a poem about my experience, which became “Newly Grotesque,” and was included in my first poetry collection, An Affection for Precipices (2006). After writing “Newly Grotesque,” I began to write more and more poetry, incorporating poetry writing into my existential writing which had been fiction of plays until the poetry-stimulating fall on my face. (For the literary record, those two fiction manuscripts in the blood-splattered padded envelopes were never published.)

Do you have a writing routine?

Perhaps a quasi-routine… I get up, after an inspiring and/or angst-ridden sleep, have a nutritious  breakfast with my wife, Brenda Whiteway, a visual artist whose presence always prepares me for a day for scribbling, and attempt to do battle with mortality, confidence, and the quest for sense and purpose in my writerly existence. Somewhere in that quasi-routine will be a long walk, in which my mind engages with the world around and my imagination and whatever I may be working on that day, poetry, fiction, or plays, sometimes all three during the course of a productive day, but alas, the synapses, neurons, and psyche aren’t always cooperative. At the very least, nearly every day I attempt to submit poems, stories, or plays somewhere in the literary galaxy, which is part of my creative process and quasi-routine. And usually, to wind down after a day of attempting to be creative and productive, in writing or in painting, Brenda and I watch either a film or episodes from a series on DVD taken out from our local library. 

How do you go about editing/reviewing a poem?

I print out poems I have been working on, and annotate the text with different colour pens, and then record those poems and listen to them as I do further editing. Once the text and the reading of the text seem not to disappoint me too painfully, then I hurl the edited poems into the far-off poetry galaxy, in an effort to find out if any one else might be interested, such as the editors at The Blue Nib.

What poets have influenced you?

A response to this question depends on my mood, how well my writing has been going lately, and whether I had an aforementioned inspiring and/or angst-ridden sleep. So, today’s response: Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen.

What projects are you working on right now?

As usual, I am working on poetry, short stories, and plays, but as far as a full-length poetry manuscript, I am putting together a collection of speculative poetry, tentatively titled As You Continue to Wait, which in its current form will include the five poems of mine that appear in The Blue Nib. (In addition, I have two poetry collections, one accepted for later this year and another for 2021, both of which I will in due course be preparing for future publication.)

What are you currently reading?

Leonard Cohen’s The Flame (2018), and a wonderful and wondrous poetry anthology I recently found at a secondhand bookstore, Poetry Speaks Expanded (2007), which not only includes the poems of 47 influential poets, but also three audio CDs of the poets reading their work along with insightful introductions and commentary.

Is there any writing advice or tips you’d like to pass on?

Be alert to the world around you, past, present, and imagined future. Always carry a small notebook with you, and jot down your worldly thoughts and otherworldly, imaginative ideas. Write with all the passion, heart, and insight that your synapses, neurons, and psyche allow. And if I may enter the metaphoric realm, write wholeheartedly as if it will be your final poem (or story or play), but I do wish you many more creative explorations. An earlier poem of mine, “In the Purest Pleasure of Being,” begins with a first line question: “Will this be my final poem?” and ends with “but I will return to my first poem / wrap my thoughts around it / like a child playing with the air / seeing a multitude of creatures / large and small, fast and slow, / in the purest pleasure of being.” 

What’s next for J J Steinfeld?

Another inspiring and/or angst-ridden sleep, and another day of writing, rewriting, and submitting my scribblings in the hope of adding to my body of creative work.

What question would you have liked to answer?

If I may enter a time-travelling-and-time-defying literary universe, I would have liked to answer while in full imaginative flight the following question(s):

Do you think Franz Kafka, whose work and life has strongly influenced your writing, would have sat at a café with you, drinking coffees and devouring delicious desserts, and listened to you read from your 2018 poetry collection A Visit to the Kafka Café? And who would have picked up the bill for all those coffees and sweets, Steinfeld or Kafka?

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