Stephanie Burt on girlhood, Twitter, and the pleasure of proper nouns.
Image of the poet and critic Stephanie Burt in her office at Harvard.

Poet and critic Stephanie Burt (who finally chose the right name for herself just last year) has been called “poetry’s cross-dressing kingmaker” by the New York Times and is the author or coauthor of six books of criticism and three previous collections of poetry. Burt’s fourth collection, the nostalgic and searching Advice from the Lights, offers a funny-sad, seemingly confessional yet also speculative meditation on identity and fitting in, wondering how best to answer such questions as “What would it be like to belong / entirely in your own body, or in your own country, or at / your own address?” (from “Concord Grapes”) This past September, shortly before the publication of Advice from the Lights, Burt and I corresponded through email about the symbols of 1970s and ’80s girlhood, embedding Easter eggs and stealth cosplay in poems, and how to thread the needle between “professionalized” and “fannish” criticism. The following exchange was condensed and edited.

Your new book has a series of poems about your imagined girlhood. Because girls often have their own girlhoods imagined for them—in terms of the various cultural expectations for who and what a girl can and should be—how tricky was it to execute this series?

Tricky isn’t the word I would use, because the most difficult aspects of writing and revising those particular poems were technical—what sounded right, what to cut, where to rhyme, syntactic balance, things like that. Substantively, emotionally, they came very easily—in fact, I wrote more of them than I could put in the book; there’s a chapbook called All-Season Stephanie in which you can find the rest.

I grew up as a boy who wished he, or she, were a girl and didn’t think I’d ever get to be one, which meant I was less than consistent even in my own head about that wish and what it entailed. Some trans kids have very different, and clearer, ideas.

The disadvantages of that experience should be obvious. One advantage is this: when I wrote these poems of synthetic memory, I got to cherry-pick, from the many elements and symbols of late 1970s and 1980s girlhood, the ones I think I missed out on, the ones I would like to have had. I’m quite aware that as someone raised with male privilege, with the “freedom” (those are scare quotes) given to kids who are treated as boys, I also missed out on a lot of awful, scary, or frustrating stuff. For one thing, nobody expected me to date guys. For another, I was probably given more freedom of movement. Would my parents have let me attend science fiction conventions at 15 and 16 if I had been a girl? I don’t know. I hope so.

I’ve learned a lot from contemporary poets who have written about their own non-imaginary girlhoods. Laura Kasischke’s work is important here; so is Brenda Shaughnessy’s So Much Synth, which covers the restrictive (and racially charged!) aspects of 1980s girlhood as I never could.

Your book also includes a number of poems about animals—swans, mole rats, roly-polys, cicadas, and ferrets, to name a few. In the poem “Scarlet, a Betta” you write, “I’m really bright blue. I keep going back and forth / between trying to live up to my name / and following my reflection, or my nature.” How did you come to write these poems? And what opportunities do animals afford humans to explore who we are?

The second question sounds more like a book! As for the first, I found models (Elizabeth Bishop’s “Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics” is the most obvious; also cf. James Merrill’s “Mirror”). I also worked for a while (of course there are discards). Non-human actors let me say things I couldn’t quite say as a person, or as a persona, or as me.

Swans are ways to think about human unworthiness, environmental guilt, and what being a good parent means (as well as an excuse for a scheme in which the hidden rhymes, like self-sacrificing parents, “protect” the rest of the couplet). The moles are nerds. Most of the rest of the animals are ways to think about being trans, though none is only that: the water striders keep up a balancing act and limit their commitments to others (also a way to think about being an artist); the cicadas are (perhaps obviously) trans teens.

Last year, you published the anthology The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them, which takes its title from the late John Ashbery’s poem “Paradoxes and Oxymorons.” Why did you decided to call the book that?

“The Poem Is You” means that some poems seem to want to be close to you, to describe you, to read you as you read them. Other poems bring you alien experience, show you what you never saw.

On a related note, Matthew Zapruder’s New York Times article, “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think,” rubbed many people the wrong way, including Johannes Göransson, who wrote about his reaction on this site. Do you ever worry about how people will react to your literary advice?

I worry about bigfooting people, especially now that I have a prestigious institution behind me, although of course I do think I’m usually right. (W.V. Quine via Jordan Ellenberg: “I always think I’m right, but I don’t think I’m always right.”) I want to persuade readers that there’s some value in my way of seeing things, that their lives will be better, more fun, more satisfying, more honest, more insightful if they read George Herbert the way I do or if they read Allan Peterson.

I don’t think Matthew Zapruder ever set out to endorse anti-immigrant sentiment (which Johannes’s piece comes close to saying), but I agree 168 percent with Johannes that some great poems are and should be mysterious, complicated, even impenetrable. Others are pellucid. Read what you like.

Poetry criticism goes back a long way, arguably to Aristotle’s Poetics in the fourth century BCE and maybe even before. What are the challenges and rewards of doing it in the 21st century? For instance, you’re a live wire on Twitter. You tweet on an array of subjects—politics, religion, gender—not just literature. What is the role of the critic in an age when the critic is expected to be constantly engaged on social media?

“What is the role of the critic?” is like “What is the purpose of poetry?” If you think there’s just one answer, you’re doing it wrong!

I like Twitter because I’m extroverted, chatty, and twitchy and have a short attention span. I also like it because it has made the set of people I hear or read more international, less class bound, and less white.

Critics who want to sell books and get more attention, like novelists, actors, and comic book creators who want to sell books and get more attention, benefit from visibility on social media. That doesn’t make social media obligatory! Authors of all kinds (critics included) benefited from “visibility” in the pre–social media age as well, but often it was “visibility” to gatekeepers at trade publishers’ cocktail parties. That kind of visibility still matters but less than it once did—and I benefit from that too.

In 1998, you coined the phrase “elliptical poet” in a review of Smokes, by Susan Wheeler, and in 2009, you came up with the label “The New Thing” in a piece for the Boston Review. Contemporary poetry seems so vast and amorphous—do you ever struggle with your ability to have a full view of it? What are some of the most interesting things happening in poetry, and where do you think the genre is going?

I do struggle! There’s more poetry I enjoy reading than ever (partly because I haven’t stopped enjoying old stuff), and it is harder for me to “get a handle” on it because I’m older than I used to be and because it’s become clearer to me (partly because I’m more aware of my whiteness) that there are major poets, terrific poets, for whom I’m just not the right critic, and in those cases I need to get out of the way.

That said, there’s lot of wonderful work out there. Some of it fits putative schools—the post-Gurlesque (Hera Lindsay Bird, Patricia Lockwood), the nearly baroque. Some of it doesn’t, though innovators attract imitators—Frank Bidart, Terrance Hayes, Kasischke, Armantrout, Powell, Glück, Herrera come immediately to mind.

How do your goals as both a prominent poet and a prominent critic overlap and compete? Is it difficult to get people to tell you what they really think of your work—formally or informally—because they’re concerned that you might review them some day?

It may be, in principle, impossible. The few poet friends I trust most with my own work in progress are people I decline to review on the grounds that I know them too closely. That said, there are other poet friends I trust who I do review, but I do not show those other friends my drafts, just my published work.

All poets want, as Wordsworth almost said, to write for readers who will get us. I’d like to help readers get not just my poetry but also the poets I like who aren’t me: that includes long-dead poets such as Herbert and Pope, poets with whom I think I share some aesthetic goals and worldviews (Robyn Schiff and Angie Estes come to mind), and terrific poets my own age with whom I share almost nothing stylistically (Rosa Alcalá, say, or Cody-Rose Clevidence).

I’ve been struggling lately with the divide between A, a classic, traditional, critical, professionalized approach to the arts by which it’s our job, my job, to make distinctions, to give putatively or supposedly universal rationales for aesthetic judgments, including negative judgments, and to seek in some sense (however qualified) “the best that has been said and thought,” and B, a fannish, amateurish approach whose slogan is “don’t like? don’t read,” an approach that understands how we are all entitled to our own reactions; how what we want grows out of who we are; how taste interacts with solidarity, mutual support, and group membership; and how nobody likes to be told what to do.

If you pursue only A, all the time, unreflectively, in 2017, it makes you at best apolitical, at worst a dick. If you pursue only B, your own art may not get better, you’re missing a lot of chances to help other people expand their horizons, and you’re de facto denying Keats and Bishop and Brooks the attention their work deserves—as well as de facto telling me to get another job. I really think that neither view of criticism suffices by itself. But the two sometimes seem hard to reconcile. I’m working right now on an essay about how to reconcile them; I’m not sure what the results will be.

This question might sound frivolous, but I ask it in the belief that style contains a great deal of substance. Throughout the book, you make many mentions of items of clothing, brands, beauty products and accessories—Mary Janes, Chuck Taylors, jelly shoes, Esprit, cucumber lip gloss from CVS, Liquid Paper as toenail polish, riding boots, and so on. How do you see these references as working in the poems?

No, that’s a very good question! I like details; I like proper nouns and Easter eggs and stealth cosplay, in poems and outside them. I like anything that creates an extra dimension and lets particular groups of readers feel addressed (ideally without excluding others)! And of course in some sense it’s not up to me what gets into my poems; the part of me that’s least under my own control gets to decide, and that part of me really wanted to create a set of poems filled with the ephemera of girl culture. “Allow not nature more than nature needs / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” I am obviously making up in adult life and in imagination for what I wanted but didn’t get at 12.

Originally Published: January 15th, 2018

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...