Poet Spotlight: Steven Withrow on formal and speculative verse

Steven Withrow

Steven Withrow is a journalist, poet, storyteller, and teacher from Falmouth, Massachusetts. His poetry books for children are It’s Not My Fault (Bloomsbury, 2016) and A Poem Is a Chameleon (self-published, 2019). His first speculative/weird poetry chapbook, The Sun Ships & Other Poems (self-published, 2019), includes poems appearing in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Star*Line, Dreams & Nightmares, Spectral Realms, Eye to the Telescope, and Epitaphs: The Journal of the New England Horror Writers. The title poem was a 2016 Rhysling Award nominee from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association.

How did you get started as a writer? What keeps you writing?

I started writing stories, poems, and plays in elementary school and have never stopped. My first “professional” work was a stage adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time in sixth grade in 1986. The more I read and the more I learn about literature, the more I want to write. It’s a mixture of envy of good writing by others and a desire to make something that holds together even for a short time. I love the sculptural aspects of verse as much as the communicative aspects of poetry.

The Sun Ships and Other PoemsYour new collection of poetry is The Sun Ships & Other Poems. Tell us about the project and how it came into being.

The Sun Ships & Other Poems was more than a decade in the making, and the finished book is 44 hard-won pages and has a spectacular cover by Dan Sauer. It collects the very best of my poems that play with the tropes and narrative strategies of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories. Some of the poems are what-if-style thought experiments; others are capsule narratives or songs. Most of the poems are in rhyming and metrical verse — even my prose poems have a strong structural foundation. Two of my obsessions that come out in various ways in the poems are the folly of human hubris and the need for, in Robert Frost’s words, “a momentary stay against confusion.”

The poems in The Sun Ships draw on science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes. Why are you attracted to speculative writing in particular?

These are the genres that I’ve read most often and most passionately throughout my life, so it is an inevitable choice to write in them when I’m inspired to do so. Science fiction speaks equally to my optimistic, speculative side and to my cautionary, misanthropic side. I have a fascination with biological science and world history, so much of my work is grounded in one or both. I have experimented with fantasy and horror, but at center I write Bradbury-esque science fiction.

In addition to The Sun Ships, you have self-published several books of poetry. Why was self-publishing the best option for you? What advice would you offer to poets looking to self-publish their work?

While I think traditional publishing is generally the best way to go for most any good book, the options are limited to a handful of small publishers in speculative and weird poetry. I realized that I could sell at least as many print-on-demand and ebooks as a small press could, so I’ve printed five books with Lulu.com and have had a good experience in each instance. I’d suggest that poets looking to self-publish, if they are not skilled in layout, collaborate with or hire a talented page and cover designer. I would also suggest working with an experienced copy editor. Overall, I think most self-published poetry books are much too long, and I’m tough on myself and aim to select only my very best work.

You publish children’s poetry as well as adult poetry. Can you talk about some of the children’s work you’ve done? How do you approach writing children’s poetry compared to adult poetry?

I’m a huge proponent of poetry for young readers, and I’ve published poems for children in two collections — It’s Not My Fault (Bloomsbury, 2016) and A Poem Is a Chameleon (self-published, 2019) — and numerous anthologies and textbooks from publishers such as National Geographic and Houghton Mifflin. When I write poems I tend to think I’m writing in a tradition: the tradition of the literary lyric, the tradition of the speculative and weird, or the tradition of children’s poetry. It’s a matter of looking to certain precursors and touchstones over others, or combining influences in unexpected ways. When I’m writing a children’s poem, I’m working in the tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, David McCord, and Valerie Worth, so I’m conscious of what has come before and that helps guide where I might go next.

What are you currently reading?

I’m reading The Best of Michael Swanwick (a story collection), Like by A.E. Stallings (a poetry collection), the recent run of Batman comics by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, and a literary biography of the English war poet Wilfred Owen. My daughter and I are also reading Watership Down by Richard Adams. For me it’s always a miscellany.

Do you feel community is important as a writer? How do you stay connected?

Community is important at times, especially when a collection is about to be published and soon after. However, much of writing is solitary, and a writer should carefully select his or her society. In my 20s and 30s I joined many writing communities, but in my 40s I’m more focused on writing as an end in itself and I have fewer “first readers” — two or three trusted friends — than I once did. I’m a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association, and the Weird Poets Society Facebook group. I plan to join the Horror Writers Association.

Name a poet you would like more readers know about.

From the speculative field, I’ll name two: Frank Coffman and Frederick Turner — both excellent formalists and verse storytellers. From the wider poetry field, I’ll name three living writers: A.E. Stallings, Paul Muldoon, and Marilyn Nelson. Google each one; it will be well worth your while. I often seek out writers who are doing interesting work in verse mode (meter and rhyme), but I also read and enjoy many poets who work in prose mode. But I’m more of a formalist at heart.

What can the world expect from you in the future?

I’m now working on my second collection of speculative and weird poems, which has the working title Great Uncle Horace Had the Head of a Hawk. I expect to work on this collection for several years — again, I work very slowly — so I don’t expect to have a book in print before 2024 or so. I’ll try to publish individual poems in journals as I go.