Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Steven Knepper
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Miles to Go” is full of allusions and direct references to poems and writers, almost as if you are paying a sort of homage to them. How have some of these writers influenced your work? Any particular favorites here?
Steven Knepper: I’d like to first thank you for publishing my work and for asking these thoughtful questions. I am grateful that these two poems found a home at the Rappahannock Review. In “Miles to Go” I do pay homage to some poets that are important to me—Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop in particular. I am relatively new to writing poetry, but I have been teaching and writing about it for years now. I was spending a lot of time with Frost, Bishop, and Sterling Brown when I first started to try my hand at verse. The poem is also an homage to poetry readers. There may be fewer of them outside of the academy than there once were, in the days when poetry was a regular feature in newspapers and magazines, but you still never know where you might encounter them. The narrator of “Miles to Go” wants to hear some poetry to pass the time, but he’s also looking for kindred spirits—for hidden poetry lovers.
RR: Both “Miles to Go” and “Praying Drunk” push beyond the stereotypes we have of “drunks” and truck drivers. Can you tell us about how you developed the narratives and voices?
SK: To risk cliché, people are often complicated and peculiar. Even those we think we know well can still surprise us. We can surprise ourselves. Poetry writing can be a reminder of this. I am not always sure where the idea for a poem comes from. Likewise, the characters in my narrative poems can surprise me. I don’t know everything about them. In interviews Faulkner used to say he’d just follow his characters around and write down what they did. Before I started writing narratives, I thought that was a dodge. Maybe it was, but he was also on to something. The writer obviously shapes a character, but the character has an integrity that needs to be respected. Narrative poetry, in part through its concision, is well-suited to suggesting the depth of a character, to creating a sense of mystery.
RR: Since you’re writing in blank verse, can you discuss the challenges of balancing meter with other poetic elements and techniques?
SK: There are dangers that accompany writing in meter, but there are also affordances. The metrical line can be generative. In dramatic monologues, meter can accentuate the natural rhythms and even the musicality of speech. (I don’t buy Pound’s jab about meter and the metronome.) This is possible because spoken English often tends towards iambs. Meter can also accentuate certain tones, I think. I won’t claim great success on this front, but I try to use the meter to help create a whimsical tone in “The Praying Drunk” and a more pensive tone in “Miles to Go.” There is also considerable flexibility in the traditional metrical line because of accepted variations. Interesting line breaks are still possible, though one is undoubtedly more limited here.
RR: Do you usually write in meter, and are there other formal structures that you’re drawn to use in your work?
SK: I appreciate and try to learn from free verse poetry, but so far I have mostly written in meter. And while I write lyrics, I am particularly drawn to blank verse dramatic monologues and narratives. I like the possibilities for irony in monologues, for unreliability or subtler discordance. (Robert Browning is of course a master of this.) There are also ancient and I think perennial connections between poetry, song, and story that interest me. I would not overemphasize narrative poetry’s difference from lyric poetry, though. B.H. Fairchild has said that one cannot write a good purely narrative poem. Narrative poetry needs lyrical moments and passages. A narrative poet can also learn from prose narratives. I read a fair amount of fiction. My friend Liz Gordon, a fiction writer, has taught me a lot. She has especially helped me with plotting and with being more mindful of beginnings and endings. She also has a great ear for problem lines.
RR: We understand you have a background in American literature and social thought. How has your academic work, in particular your social thought background, influenced your poetry?
SK: I could say a number of things here, but I’ll focus on one particular way my academic work shaped “Miles to Go.” I recently co-wrote a piece for a collection on the road in American music. There is a powerful and complex mythology of the road. The dominant tendency, especially in the wake of the automobile, has been to associate the road with freedom, adventure, opportunity. But there is a more ambivalent side to the mythology as well—one can easily feel alienated or lonely on the road, trapped on the road. There is danger and risk as well as opportunity. I think “Miles to Go” draws on both sides of that mythology.
Steven Knepper’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.