“The Spark Became Flame”: Nettie Farris Interviews Wade Stevenson, Author of SONGS OF THE SUN AMOR

Wade Stevenson’s prior poetry collection, But Darling I Love You!, was published in bilingual edition by Trilce Editions, Barcelona, 1968. John Ashbery also accepted a folio of poems for publication in his review, Art and Literature. This lead to the publication of Ice Cream Parlors in Asia by Tibor de Nagy Editions in New York, 1969. This in turn lead to the publication of Beds by the McCall Publishing Company in New York, 1970. Beds was a poetry bestseller, selling more than 2,500 copies in hardcover. In 1972, at the request of the composer Eric Salzman, Stevenson wrote the opera The Nude Paper Sermon, which, with some poems by John Ashbery, was published as a record by Nonesuch Records. It was selected by Newsweek Magazine as one of the top ten records of that year. In the 1970s, Stevenson ran a cutting edge avant-garde art gallery in Paris and collaborated with the legendary art review XXeme Siecle. In the early 1980s, Fausta Squatriti Edizions in Milan, Italy, published in a bilingual edition his poetry book The Colors of Love. This was later followed by a number of books, including the well-received memoir One Time in Paris; a novel, The Electric Affinities; and several books of poetry. 

 

 

Nettie Farris: I believe you have published eight books with BlazeVOX. This sort of loyalty is rather rare. Can you talk about your relationship with BlazeVOX?

Wade Stevenson: Songs of the Sun Amor is my sixth poetry book published by BlazeVOX, in addition to the memoir One Time in Paris and my novel The Electric Affinities. This loyalty has especially to do with my relationship with Geoffrey Gatza, the amazing editor and publisher. Geoffrey has a unique gift of enthusiasm for poetry in all its forms. He is also a great editor, capable of inducing that search for the “unexpected opportunity.” Working with him and with his partner, Donna White, acted as a creative catalyst so that each poem, or text, could achieve its maximum potential. Without the early support of BlazeVOX I don’t know if I would have found the inner force necessary to complete my books. Thanks to Geoffrey Gatza, the spark became flame.

NF: There appears to be about a 35-year hiatus following your first two books. What is the reason for this hiatus?

WS: I had some modest literary success when I was in my early twenties. My poetry book Beds was a poetry bestseller at the time. I also had written the text for an opera that eventually became a record, The Nude Paper Sermon. I was living in Europe, mostly in Paris, but traveling around, doing a variety of jobs, and I frequented many artists and writers, for example, Man Ray and John Ashbery. I think I became disenchanted with the literary world and I wanted to have a contact with life that I felt was more “engaged.” I joined my family’s business, Eastman Machine Company, which my grandfather had started in 1882, and I went to China when it was just opening up and helped start a new business there. But the cycle turned again and I found that the life in business, which I thought was real, was not as real as I thought it was, and I returned to my first passion.

NF: You published your first book under the name Steven Wade. Why the different name?

WS: My first book, Ice Cream Parlors in Asia, was published by Tibor de Nagy Editions under the name Steven Wade. I didn’t use my real name because I needed to create a new identity and I didn’t want to be associated with my family. Later I realized that real freedom consisted in assuming who I was, and just having the courage to be me.

NF: Can you talk about your association with John Ashbery?

WS: There was a French painter, Jean Helion, who had written a book about his Nazi experience, They Shall Not Have Me, and he had studio overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens. Every Friday afternoon he had a kind of salon, a la Gertrude Stein—artists, poets, collectors from all over the world came—and through Helion I met John Ashbery, who was writing the art column for the International Herald Tribune. John liked my work, published some poems in a review Art and Literature, and made the connection to Tibor de Nagy, publisher of Frank O’Hara and the New York School poets. Later John wrote some poems which were included in my text The Nude Paper Sermon, published by Nonesuch Records and performed by the actor Stacy Keach.

NF: In a previous interview, you said that you regretted “not having the courage to continue what I believed in. Not having the courage to always be true to my inner voice.” Can you provide some specific concrete details in relation to that statement?

WS: I’ve always felt since I was around six or seven years old that I had an inner voice. It was a kind of deep echo in my head that was talking to me. It was part of me yet at the same time it wasn’t me. Strange, no? There was a time when that voice became silent because I had betrayed it by choosing another mode of life. It took me a long time to reconcile the two. Then my voice came back. It made itself felt, it was very strong. In fact, I had to yield to it. I was living in Buffalo and I heard about BlazeVOX, this publisher of “weird little books,” so I sent a manuscript to Geoffrey, and he liked it. And that confirmed what I had known and led me to my latest book, Songs of the Sun Amor.

NF: What are your favorite poets?

WS: I have always read hungrily, voraciously, and I wanted to read the poets I loved in their original language. So I learned German, Spanish, French, Italian, and read Goethe’s poems in the original, and Goethe’s novel The Elective Affinities was a model for my novel The Electric Affinities. I love Rilke for his spirituality and his solitude, Georg Trakl for his silences. The Spanish poet Antonio Machado for his lyricism, the Italian poet Ungaretti for his images. Thomas Transtromer for his connection with the everyday, the French poets Eluard and Reverdy and Francis Ponge. Wallace Stevens for his intelligence and the music of his language, Elizabeth Bishop for the way she transforms the personal into the universal and makes the universal personal.

NF: What do you read when you are not reading poetry?

WS: I’m an eclectic reader and I’m most happy when I have a book in my hands. I just read again The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Now I’m going to watch the movie with Debra Winger. I also love the novels and travel books by Lawrence Osborne. And I’m reading The Unexpected Universe by Loren Eiseley.

NF: Can you say anything specific about your revision process?

WS: It may seem odd but sometimes it takes me a while to understand the meaning of what I’ve written. I read my stuff over and over again until it bores the hell out of me. And then I read it one more time and there’s a flash, a click in the mind, and I know if I change a word or two it will add a meaning or a sound and it will be more than what it was. It’s always a hunt for the “unexpected opportunity.”

NF: How did you learn to write poetry? What advice can you give to young writers?

WS: I don’t think writing poetry can be learned. It’s an intuitive instinct that develops over time with exposure to life and literature. If you want to do it you have to love language, be comfortable with solitude, and know there’s not going to be any applause.

 

 

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Nettie Farris is the author of three chapbooks of poetry: Communion, Fat Crayons, and The Wendy Bird Poems. She is the former reviewer for Blue Lyra Review‘s Spotlight on a Press feature, and has published numerous reference articles for Salem Press, including micro-biographies of 100 world poets. Her essay on Lydia Davis appeared in the Journal of Kentucky Studies and her peer-reviewed article on William Faulkner’s Sanctuary appeared in the Kentucky Philological Review

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