Hello and welcome to the Twyckenham Notes interview series!
We have the pleasure of introducing Stephanie L. Erdman, a Professor of English at Lake Michigan College with degrees from Purdue University and Indiana University South Bend. She lives in Niles, Michigan working as a vacuum cleaner technician by day, sneaking across the border to Indiana by night, and occasionally teaching private writing workshops.
In this interview, we discuss Stephanie’s first full-length collection of poems, Pyrrhonic, and learn about her relation of poetry to the nature of reality (think metaphysics, mathematics) as well as her very specific writing methods. And ultimately, Stephanie gives her answer to the question of, in consideration of the scope of the cosmic timeline (think the eventual death of our sun – yikes!), why should we aspire to write poetry in the first place? What role does poetry play in this seemingly infinite reality we inhabit?
TWYCKENHAM NOTES :: We want to start by saying congratulations on the publication of your first book of poems. It is great to see an area writer reach this creative milestone and even better that we get to talk to you about it. Can you tell us about how this collection came to be?
STEPHANIE L. ERDMAN :: Thank you so much. This collection started as my Master’s thesis at IU South Bend. The original intent was to create a new form of agnostic ecstatic or beatific language but it ran out of my control a bit. I began doing intensive research into the writings of Simone Weil, Denis Diderot, and Gerard Manley Hopkins and realized that there was a language of doubt underneath the language of religion. It felt like a good fit, as I was finishing my graduate degree to really invest in and investigate the doubt that I was feeling about myself and my craft through writing about it.
Did completing and publishing this manuscript help to eliminate this self doubt? Or has it stayed the same? Evolved?
I think the self-doubt has just become more fervent. There are some elements of the collection, the more time I spend with it, with which I’m unhappy. I think most of that is normal; like any writer, I don’t feel like anything I write is ever truly complete and to have the pieces published feels like I’m forcing them to remain incomplete. There is also this new pressure to create a new collection. I feel like maybe I’ve leveled up before I was truly ready which adds a new element of anxiety and doubt.
How would you describe the poems in Pyrrhonic? What are the overarching themes that you would say this collection embodies?
While the poems are very stylistically disparate, there are ideas that interconnect the poems; specifically, doubt and vulnerability. I tried to approach a world that was fragile, changing, and sometimes unpleasant. I put the speaker into isolation in otherwise dark places and tried to find a way to exalt those places that would be familiar to readers. It is a narrative in the sense that it explores a period in my life where I was extremely unsure, living in this Imposter Syndrome, and attempting to find a map out.
How does your ‘map’ look these days?
My map is divergent. I have so many diverse goals because I fill so many different roles. I have goals when it comes to my academic career; getting my ultimate degree so that I can better serve my students and develop a curriculum better suited to my skills. In terms of writing, I want to continue my education because I want to be able to further develop my personal voice and I want to be credentialed and qualified to teach creative writing. I also do want to move forward into writing a second collection. And in my primary profession, we’re always working to expand the business. Right now we’re working on finding a new location to better suit our needs and traffic. It seems like life was much simpler in my grad school days when I had a very singular focus.
Are these poems that are close to the poet, or is there an element of persona?
I think all of these poems, like most of my work, are incredibly personal. I try to always tell my own truth. If there is a persona, it is of a speaker who is far more composed, pragmatic, and active than myself; an idealized version of myself that knows the answers and enacts them for herself; an idealized version that is far more expressive and less vulgar than myself. I also created poems in this collection in which the speaker is generic and somewhat unimportant; I wanted the reader to be able to recognize the places, the situations, and the settings in order to really allow them into the language of the poems.
Pyrrhonic is an interesting title for a collection and an interesting word on its own. Can you tell us about the title?
I think the title came into existence far before the collection was a real thing. Like most good things in my work, it was a shower thought. The title is a portmanteau of the words pyrrhic and ironic. Pyrrhic refers to a war in antiquity in which the victory was deemed so costly (in terms of lives lost and assets spent) that is was basically a null victory. It seemed fitting idea for this project that I felt sure was going to burn me out. Despite the definition that exists at the beginning of the book, pyrrhonic is an actual word on its own but not in the sense in which I use it. Interesting, pyrrhic victory shares a root with Pyrrhonism, an ancient Greek philosophy of skepticism and doubt; so, the title functioned to really encompass not only the themes of the text but the place that I was in while I was writing it.
Something About Margarine
Tying our hands in advance,
cupped around cathedrals
of pause. Speaking of
Of light where engorged
seas lapped breakwater over
our breakfast table, broken yolks.
Monks with pumice-rounded
skulls—in the dark, pondering
light—wrote Kyries without
the octave (sharp pictographs
relating tones to one another).
Four-line staff of jacklighting
deer or spotlighting carp
with spears. Gripping
giant, muscled heads
like the torsos of philand’rous
lovers. Damned ugly with
their wet bellies. Some Proteus!
“the sailor in his boat
balances equally against
the infinite forces
of the ocean. (Remember
that a boat is a lever.)”
Remember how breath is toned
the music of tide pools,
those words we don’t say
to one another. We
yell across the lunging
sound. We’re made of
harbors—how concrete sets
underwater: mechanics lost
for ages. Dampen fingers before
they touch. Barbed wire blank—
“At every moment the helmsman—
by the weak, but directed, power
of his muscles on tiller and oar—
maintains equilibrium with air and water.”
The untranslated notes we leave.
I remember when we still
pretended at subtle calculus
when phone lines draped too deeply
apart. Distance and dinner
burned when we imprinted
each other with couch pleats
ignorant of all those equations…
“There is nothing more beautiful
than a boat.”
What are you interested in as a writer? What are you trying to bring into the light with your poetry?
I always end up sounding glib when I try to answer these types of questions so bear with me. Language has always been something that I’ve been drawn to and it’s interesting to me in the sense that there is a common skein of meter running through language, music, and mathematics (which I think of as the language of the universe). The idea that, if I work hard enough, I may be able to actually unify these diverse disciplines and create a single discourse motivates me to continue to explore poetry. I also try to bring rare or dead words back to the light. There are a few poems in this collection where I use these kinds of words for their musicality. In short, I hold words up to the light and rub them together to see if they can make new music.
That is very interesting, this goal or this idea of unifying language, music, and mathematics through poetry. We can very readily see the language and the music, but how exactly would you parse mathematics into the equation?
I actually do a lot of reading on mathematic principles; I’m deeply interested in higher concepts like quantum theory, string theory, calculus, and geometry so these principles sometimes make their way directly into the text. More subtly, I consider mathematics in terms of my use of white space and proportion as I’m writing. I also feel like my use of punctuation, line breaks, and pause are more directly tied to mathematics and balance (sort of like a mobile sculpture) than music which I evoke through the actual sonic relationships in my word choice. Math is the underpinning of all my text in this way.
What influences you as a poet? From where do you draw inspiration?
I try to be a poet who keeps her eyes open. Inspiration comes from everywhere. I keep a small notebook of things I overhear that intrigue me–whether in conversation, from advertising, or from music. I listen to, and play, a lot of music of all genres. Also, I love the environment of southwest Michigan and I draw a lot of energy and inspiration from the natural landscape available to me. Research has always been another important cornerstone of my writing. I enjoy investigating things I don’t know or don’t understand so at this point in my life I’ve accumulated a library that is slowly outgrowing my home.
What are you reading right now? Has this been instructive in any way?
I’m just coming off the semester at school so I’ve been reading new texts for next semester: Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, Ridley Walker by Russel Hoban, and Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. While none of these texts deal directly with poetry, they all address language, directly or indirectly. I’ve always been enthralled by the dialect created for Ridley Walker and Le Guin has created races of people with stringent laws governing the use of language. Vonnegut is a master of creating startling images and metaphors. As far as poets, I have a pile of collections I hope to get into once my fall syllabus is in place.
What is your creative process? Do you have any writing rituals or certain settings that help you stay productive? How much do you edit after the initial moment of inspiration?
I am probably the least disciplined writer I know. I have manic periods where I write non-stop and then I have periods where I simply cannot string words together. My (amazing) husband has been very supportive in making sure that as we renovate the house I have dedicated spaces that I need. I actually keep two desks–one for my typewriter and one for my computer which I use for storage. I have a very stringent process for writing and revision, just not a particularly disciplined schedule. Poems begin life handwritten and are roughly revised and annotated, then I type four revised drafts on color-coded paper so that I can archive the revisions I’ve made. Once I’m happy, I review my history of revisions and, if I’m satisfied, I digitize the piece; I find the computer to be a huge factory of distraction that I try to avoid at all costs. Some of the drafts, however, are relegated to a shoebox from which they’ll be extracted to be physically vivisected and reassembled and then go through the revision process again. One of my favorite tools, aside from my collection of typewriters, is actually a waterproof notepad that I keep suction-cupped in my shower so that I don’t forget anything I come up with.
There was something I wanted to tell you, something on
my tongue like ghost peppers and nutmeg; I wanted to ask you
where all the deer went in hunting season, whether they can
see all the safety orange and know to stay off the roads; I
wanted to ask you if you can feel how we’re all pierced by
starlight and how there are miles of asphalt run under
our palms as we grow older; there was something
important that I meant to write down, some perfect words
that were like an incantation for beauty, that I wanted to roll
around in my mouth for a while and share with you, I wanted
to make music with you but my fingers are blunt and stubborn
(I broke the middle one, you remember? It looks like a lightning
rod now, like the tip is on sideways, like oak trees look in winter
when they’re naked, remember?) I meant to write something
for you, a slip of paper with the password so I’d recognize you
when you come home and my mind is fuzzy from being
elsewhere (not that I stop know you when I go, I am just
less me every time I come back, you see) I meant to leave
this chair today, I meant to do something important but I forgot
what the word was; I wanted to tell you about how it’s only
wonderful when you drive me places, how I wouldn’t trust
anyone else quite as completely in my shitty car (even though
you talk with your hands when you’re excited and we stagger
between lanes and laugh when we’re silent, remember?);
I wanted to remember how the sky seems to pool in blue holes
over the flat places in Michigan like it remembers at night how
hay fields look stubbled in lopseed each summer.
(excerpt from a love letter)
Do you remember the first moment that made you think ‘I’m a poet’?
I don’t think I’ve really yet made that assertion. Poets, to me, are kind of like superheroes of the language or masters of craft. I actually think of myself as a linguist which is something that I’ve been since I was very young. My most vivid memories from childhood involve reading or writing in some way; practicing phonics with my mother on the balcony of our first apartment, reading under the covers late into the night, writing stories for my younger sister. My mother was always encouraging us to write and the one thing that was always in ready supply in our household were those pre-bound, blank journals. I was encourage to compile lists of interesting words and their definitions, to journal my experiences, and to engage in those habits daily.
Expanding from this idea of when you first realized you were a poet, who or what has helped you become the poet you are today? What poets, people, or art have been your biggest influences?
This is an exhaustive list. As I said, it began with my mother but I was privileged to have a series of amazing English teachers in grade school. I was equally lucky in college to study with some amazing poets and writers like Bich Minh Nguyen, Marianne Boruch, and Mary Leader. I had a similarly amazing experience in graduate school with amazing faculty and I was able to build a strong community of writers. In my collection, I draw a lot of inspiration from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Simone Weil, and Geoffrey Hill as well as the art of Chad Pollpeter and Zdzislaw Beksinski. I am also getting really interested in translation; specifically from Arabic, the first language that has a true poetic heritage.
We know we are straying into some big questions here, but we are curious as to your insight on the question of, why write poetry at all? Given the world’s current problems and the brevity of humanity on the cosmic timeline, what is the importance of poetry in the world? Tell us why you believe poetry is worth pursuing at all.
Personally, I write poetry because it is the only thing that I feel I have natural inclination for. As for the big-picture question, I think poetry is an avenue of criticism and expression that is accessible and irrepressible. Poets can get away with saying things that public figures or other artists may not be able to say because of the idea the public has been indoctrinated into that poetry is so open to interpretation and that it has no concrete meaning. As a poet, I take advantage of this vein of misinformation to comment on things in society, in the world, that I otherwise wouldn’t have the credentials or experience to speak on. Poetry is personal, easily consumable, and, in this social media climate, easily disseminated. Poetry is, at its heart, a very political and very subversive act. Moreover, writing in any form has the ability to be very personal and cathartic. I encourage my students, regardless of their major or medium, to simply keep writing something. Just to continue creating as though you’ll eventually find an audience.
Do you have plans for a second poetry collection? What is your next creative project?
I feel like I’m still recovering from this collection in a lot of ways. The impulse to start a sophomore release is definitely there, I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing entirely but I don’t know where to go next quite yet but a poet has to keep moving.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the continued support of the local writing community at large and of Twyckenham Notes as a publication.
I Still Live
For The World’s Most Unfamous Artist
with the sea
and all that
it reflects off of,
that were familiar
until the sunset, until
the broken glass
settled against our tongues
and the roofs of our mouths
prayer room silent.
There were ululations
over the desert
that settled into
the wombs of cactus blossoms,
small oases in the vast unforgiven.
Her name was something
like a stream that I
can’t remember and she
yelled back at our echoes:
“Do not fill us yet, we are still alive.”
We waited for the acerb air
to mummify us
somewhat and I remember
hearing about caves, the crystal
dormant in them
and dry, the water seeping
toward the chambers
for 10,000 years.