MY E-CONVERSATION WITH STEPHEN VINCENT
By Nnorom Azuonye
Stephen Vincent, currently working on a book about the special collections at the Bancroft Library, University of California is the director of Book Studio. He has previously served as Director of Bedford Arts--an art books house (1986--1991) and as Publisher, Momo's press (1974--1985). A former Poetry Review Editor, San Francisco review of Books (1976--1982), Director of Poetry in the schools, California (1970--1972) and Lecturer in Creative Writing, San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University (1968--1970), Vincent has also worked as Lecturer in English and Creative Writing, the United States Peace Corps, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
The following is Part I of "My e-Conversation With Stephen Vincent"--an interview conducted by e-mail by Nnorom Azuonye.
Nnorom Azuonye (NA): Reading your poems, I find several shifts in the treatment of your work. For instance, the poems in African Cycle which you wrote, I presume, during your Peace Corps days in Africa are quite prosaic, straightforward storytelling, but as you move away from the African environment, your poems lose their narrative feel and become more allusive. What determines the style you employ in your work for the best realisation of your poetic pursuits?
Stephen Vincent (SV): I wrote these poems in the early nineteen-eighties! Long after I had left Nsukka in 1967. When I was in Nsukka my poems were coming out of the world I had left in San Francisco. It took along time for these poems to boil to the surface. Mostly, as you suggest, they are narratives and ones that I carried inside for years. In the context of changes in American poetry that began to happen with the interest of the materiality of language, the work was considered to some of my San Francisco avant garde peers as conservative ("The narrative is dead" crowd). As my work evolved in the "Walking" poem of the book of that title, the language does begin to carry the direction of the poem in ways that are quite different than writing with a prior sense of story and intention to make the poem resemble that story. I guess my work has always been split between wanting a writing that will tell a story and, on the other, a surrender to a writing that is improvisatory and takes off on its own bent gathering its materials as it goes. It's why in the last 15 recent years I like the container of taking walks. It helps put a frame on things. I imagine I also have a faith that if one is writing well no matter what the content, a non or narrative approach what needs to be said will inevitably come out in the wash. I can usually sense a great deal about a person by the way he or she is tapping a pencil without getting into his or her whole story.
NA: The reason I asked you the question is that in Projective Verse featured in your book Poetry Reading co-edited with Ellen Zweig, Olson quotes Creely in saying that "Form is little more than an extension of content." You do not appear to agree completely with this view, do you?
SV: In brief I would say that Creeley (Black Mountain) influence did put me at odds with the British-American models of training formal verse that were still quite influential in the making of poetry in Nigeria in the early sixties. And, though I can say this much less authoritatively, but I believe that within traditional say Igbo culture there is a related sense of formalism in the manner of "high speech" - my awareness of that probably coming more from awareness of political speech and rhetoric. Authority and a
strict attention to form was (is?) implicit to sustaining the traditional culture.