An Interview with Stephanie Burt

Interview by Sophia Mautz
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Sophia: You’ve had poems that use inanimate objects as a place from which to speak. Speaking as quotation marks in this poem seems to have a double tongue-in-cheek meaning – speaking from the thing that allows/signifies speech. Can you speak to that timeless human desire to speak, and how that has manifested in your life/work?

Stephanie: Thanks for asking-- that's more a valid and welcome interpretation than it is a question, perhaps! I would like to be able to speak alongside and with (rather than simply to, and certainly not for) others, including other people who are in some unusual sense like me. Reading, quoting, sharing work by others is one way to speak with and alongside them. Quotation marks stand for that way to proceed.

Sophia: Not only the desire to speak, but also the desire to speak in community. How do you see this concept mapping out into today’s politics? Is it a fraught state to be in?

Stephanie: All the states are fraught! Most of us want and many of us need or crave a sense of community; we want to know and meet and befriend and work alongside people who get us, who know what we're about, and vice versa. That sense of community has additional power and additional necessity when whatever brings you together can make you a target. In my own case: trans people have special need for commnunity at a time when some factions on the right and (sadly) on the left want to ban us, or to deny that we exist. But even if that hostility went away, most of us would want some sense of community.

Sophia: Quotation marks are a signifier of language. Can you talk about how you approach language and its limitations in regards to your poetry?

Stephanie: That's such a general question that an adequate answer would be treatise on my work! I can give an inadequate one though: I think about how words sound as well as about what they mean, and when I use them I think about how they have been used and what they have meant for others. My favorite poems (whoever write them) allow their language to do something emotionally significant, and something that language has never quite done before.

Sophia: This could almost be an ekphrastic poem; an admiration of the visual qualities of quotation marks. How does giving life to things that are visual objects manifest in your poems? Do you find it easier to speak from things that never had a voice, and give voice to them, rather than to occupy spaces that already have a voice?

Stephanie: I love writing poems whose personae could not be real people (staplers, maps, fruits and vegetables, punctuation, also sometimes superheroes) because these personae are not going to speak for themselves; staplers, semicolons, Brussels sprouts and so on have only the life you give them, and do not require a plot, nor do you have to worry about whether you are committing cultural appropriation when you write in their voice. (The same is true for many-- not all-- superheroes and other figures from nonrealist stories in folklore and in popular culture; you don't have to tell their story, because they are not real and will not tell their story themselves.)

Sophia: There seem to be some inside jokes in this poem – some tongue and cheek references to gender and sexuality (“never completely straight,” “leave our single sisters alone,” etc). How do you think these topics manifest in poems that seem to have no relation to it - that objects are removed from narrative and biography - yet the narrative inevitably surfaces?

Stephanie: I love Easter eggs, puns and inside jokes. I hope my poems can provide pleasure and wisdom and satisfaction to people who don't get the jokes, though. And no one gets all the jokes. Not even me.

"Quotation Marks" really is about (inter alia) how trans people of all kinds (though the quote marks in particular are binary trans girls like me) require solidarity and community. If you're coming out as trans one of the first things you need to do is meet other trans people, ideally in nonmedicalized contexts, and in ways or spaces (sometimes virtual spaces) where you might have something in common with them, above and apart from just being trans. Very few of us want to feel alone.

Jokes and Easter eggs in poems, at their best, and they are not always at their best, work as signals of solidarity. Somebody else gets this too. You're not alone. (James Merrill does this a lot. So, I think, does Terrance Hayes.)

Sophia: Doubleness seems to be of interest here; the multiple things people can be. How do you think poetry, as a medium, meets the challenge of conveying multiplicity? (since words are single entities)

Stephanie: May I recommend William Empson's classic lit-crit book Seven Types of Ambiguity? Some of the most important words in some of my favorite poems are deeply double or multiple!

Every poem for which I care deeply has an element of multiplicity: it can do several things for several kinds of readers, or for the same reader on several occasions. Sometimes (not all the time!) the words in the poem, or the images of the poem, combine to stand for several things.

Sophia: How do you reconcile being in an institution like Harvard and writing - and living a life - that is radically separate from its historical roots? What function does being able to speak with visibility have for you?

Stephanie: I am extraordinarily lucky-- for a trans girl, and for anyone really. Lucky emotionally and interpersonally, and also lucky (or privileged) financially. I'd like to use that privilege to help others. I like being visible, or being seen. At our particular historical moment, so I'm told, being visible, out and trans as Harvard faculty might be useful to others, especially trans young people-- and their parents and guardians! (waves to trans young people)

I don't see my life or my work at Harvard as radically separate from its historical roots: "roots" is the right word there, too-- I'm a few generations up the tree from the stock of the Puritans, but so are we all. In politics, I'm afraid I am temperamentally deeply incrementalist, committed to being part of an inside game, ambivalent about the (inspiring and sometimes required) rhetoric of revolution: I'm also very aware that no inside game, no progressive agenda, has ever succeeded without a strong, and risky, outside game.

Sophia: Do you think it’s possible for poetry to be the place of community for people to speak from? Or are there inevitable barriers to this medium too?

Stephanie: It's happening. It has happened. All media have barriers to entry, but the barrier to entry for poetry, compared to other forms and other media, is quite low. I'm glad that's how it works.

Sophia: What does poetry, or speaking, owe the reader, if anything? What does being a teacher of poetry entail and how does it inform your own work? Stephanie: The contract between the poem and the reader is real, but it gets renegotiated every time you sit down to read a poem; and you can always walk away and read another one, if you don't care about what this one can offer. Difficult, recherche, bizarre or insider-ish poems have their own pleasures, often pleasures that transparent, populist or very broadly accessible poems cannot provide; and the reverse is also true.

I try to keep my identities as teacher and critic separate from my identity as a poet, to the extent that you shouldn't have to care about my own poems, or know that I write them, to benefit from what I do in the classroom, or as a writer of critical prose. I hope it works.

I like to think that I am writing various kinds of poems for various audiences. The truth is that I'm happy whenever anyone reads and says that they like what I write.

Sophia: And in speaking, do you feel that you have a role to educate, or as a role model, does that affect what you write about in your poems? Should it?

Stephanie: Everything I do affects everything else I do, probably, in ways of which I am not entirely aware! I definitely write poems about teaching, about being a (very minor, small-scale) public figure, about holding a position of authority. But I also write poems about being, or feeling, fourteen.