The Cortland Review


Stellasue Lee
An interview and poetry. J.M. Spalding talks with the poet and editor.

Bruce Canwell
Writers on Writing 1: Four Authors You Should be Reading

Stellasue Lee

Interview | Poetry


Stellasue LeeI decided on Stellasue Lee as the Featured artist for several reasons. She edit's Rattle, a magazine which has come a far way in a short period of time. As well, her work is birthed out of experience, reason and that all consuming hunger which inhabits every true poet.

In conversation, she is intriguing and insightful. I find her friendship and her work to be a great pleasure. The main reason for her inclusion, however, is her passion for words. Passion, for most poets, is a given; but few exhibit passion in quite the way Stellasue Lee does. She writes from the heart with a slant that is not only refreshing, but at times, sobering.

J.M. Spalding


Interview with Stellasue Lee


J.M. Spalding
: Tell me a little bit about your early years and your first experience with language of poetry.

Stellasue Lee: I had a creative writing class in high school. I remember writing a short story that I enjoyed very much. That's it. I didn't write another word until I was 48.

Could you talk a little about your influences?

Stellasue Lee: I've been studying with Jack Grapes for the past 8 years. He teaches process rather than product. One of the things Jack is very big on is reading, and so I've read until I had to move to a larger place just to hold my books. Now I only have poetry books in my house, my office, my bedroom, my kitchen, my living roomyou get the idea. I noticed a real shift in my work after reading Raymond Carver. I was lucky, I just happened to purchase his books in the same order they were published, and so I felt I experienced the process of a fine writer in this way. Now I do this same thing with all the other writers; I get their early work and read forward. It helps me understand where the author is coming from and I almost feel I've made a personal friend.

What kind of poet are you?

The kind that reads more than I write. If you mean style, I hate Sylvia Plath's phase "Confessional Poetry," so my early work I've called "Co-dependent Poetry." I was in a marriage that was troubled and I really wrote my way through it. In the last couple of years I've been writing what I call incantations—love poems maybe, but very different from anything I've read. And the moon shows up a lot in my work. I'm not sure why this is—Maybe because my birthday is late June, and I'm a moonchild.

Do you ever try to create a stir with your poetry?

Do you mean at a reading? My incantations have been known to get a good rise out of an audience. A month ago I was in New Hampshire giving a reading to a non-poetry crowd. There were many that connected with me later saying that the way I read was very moving, haunting in fact. I've had people wait for me after I've done a reading and say they knew of what I had read, daughter poems, father/mother poems, husband poems. Of course there is always a lot of the author in their poetry, but not every word needs be truth. My ex-husband attended a reading just prior to our divorce and heard me read something he thought I shouldn't have shared with an audience. He said that I needed to write more about the flowers, and trees or something like that. I told him that if he didn't like what I had written, knowing it was the truth and finding it uncomfortable, he was always free to change my experience.

Now that you are widely published, how has your view of your earliest poems changed?

Well, one or two of my earlier poems still look pretty good to me. Most of what I wrote back then doesn't hold up with me today.

Moving on to Rattle. What shape was Rattle in when you arrived and where would you say it is now?

Issue #1 of Rattle originally came out as a chapbook of Alan Fox's poetry class. He just kept doing them for a couple of years, producing about 300 and just selling them mostly to the poets published in them. Alan hired me to take over on issue #6. He gave me permission to do what I wanted with it. Issue #9 will be out mid-June. 4000 copies strong, and we are being sold in Barnes & Noble, and will be in Borders as well as most good bookstores across America. I've also developed a very good subscription base. I'm looking to take Rattle right to the top of the literary magazines and I think we are well on the way.

What is the benefit of having Rattle in both print and web form?

I'm not sure, however, I've received a few really terrific submissions from all over the world. The web does bring the poetry community together and that's very important.

Since the World Wide Web is a relatively new venue for poetry, do you think that poetry can be strengthened by the Internet? What do you think are some of the drawbacks?

Yes, as I said, it's the community of poets that encourage us as individuals. I don't know that there are any drawbacks. I'd much rather think of someone looking through a poetry web page at 3 a.m. then porno.

What would your guess be as to the overall status of Web poetry magazines?

More and more people seem to be starting Web poetry pages. I think it's wonderful. I wish I had more time to just sit and look each and every one of the web poetry magazines up.

What about poetry, in general. The aesthetics as well as the popularity aspect?

I think poetry has come into its own once again. With more and more people living alone, not wanting to meet in bars and such, a poetry reading is just a wonderful place to go by yourself, and for the price of a cup of coffee, you can have a wonderful entertaining couple of hours in good company. As well, I think the general public sees poets as writers living in poverty or something, but truth is the level of education and income is very high among the poets I know. I recently met someone at a reading and wow, I think this guy is a keeper so I'm not just plugging readings.

What is your opinion of Poetry Slams?

I really admire the poets who slam. Just an awful lot of work goes into slamming. There is another factor as well and that is reading off page takes the barrier away between the poet and the audience. The audience by the sheer nature of the slam is more involved with the piece. I've even developed a couple of slam pieces. They are nice when you need something and didn't come with a sampling of your work. Once a month they have slam night at the Cafe Luna on Melrose in LA. These are always very exciting evenings. And another thing, it gets the audience involved with the voting. They have to pay attention.

What is your opinion of Magnetic poetry?

I've seen them sold, but have never worked with a set. Sounds like a good idea.

What do you think of our Poet Laureate (Robert Pinsky)?

Pinsky and I were both born in 1940—a good year for poets I'd say. I've long admired his clarity, wit, and yet there is most definitely a seriousness to his work. I think one of his major influences was Yvor Winters, the poet and teacher Pinsky mentions in his work "Peroration, Concerning Genius." His work shows the exploration of his own feelings about other people and people as a group, yet his work seems to take him on a journey of surprise of his own intense emotions. As many doctors are writing here in California, I think he has been a real inspiration.

If you were to be stranded on a desert island and could have three books and three music recordings, which would you choose?

My music is immature compared to my knowledge of poetry so I'd have to say Neil Diamond and Paul Simon are two that I love to listen to in the car. I like a little of everything, but in the house I don't even have a radio. No T.V., no radio, just my books and my own thoughts. Someone once told me that it is a well adjusted person that can live without distracting sounds. If this is so, then I guess one would say I'm well adjusted. As to books, Carver's All Of Us, only sold in England at the present time is his collected works. So Carver for sure. Then Hart Crane for imagination and Stephen Dobyns to make me look at life from a different viewpoint.

What would you do if you were stuck on a desert island with Rod McKuen?

I don't know Mr. McKuen. Is he handy in building shelter, making fire, hunting? Who knows, maybe just hang out and play kissy face lickie lips. Best guess this question is all anyone can do.

What do you think of Wallace Steven's Blackbird poem? And how about the lines "Man and woman are one/ Man and woman and blackbird are one"?

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" I think that I recall this was meant to be pure sensations and not part of the collection of epigrams or ideas. I'm very literal, so I see it just as it's written, man and woman become one and so it is in the eye of a blackbird.

Why do people marvel over William's "red wheelbarrow"?

It's the way each line pulls you into the next line. Again, the simplicity, yet it takes the reader on a journey.

Stellasue, tell me something. Are we insane, us poets?

No, creative people often need to find their own difficult place between this world of reality and the world of creativity. I've made peace with my world by no T.V. & no radio where I live, however I still venture out into the world. Most often, I can't wait to rush back into my own world again. We live in our heads maybe more than some do. I think Raymond Carver said it best in his poem "NyQuil" when he was recalling a man whose drink of choice was Listerine. He says:

He was coming down off Scotch.
He bought Listerine by the case,
and drank it by the case. The back seat
of his car was piled high with dead soldiers.
Those empty bottles of Listerine
gleaming in his scalding back seat!
sight of it sent me home soul-searching.
I did that once or twice. Everybody does.
Go way down inside and look around.
I spent hours there, but
didn't meet anyone, or see anything
of interest...

And I think that as writers, we are more inclined to do that, go down deep inside and look at what we are about.

Why did John Berryman jump?

There is a wonderful book by Berryman's first wife, Eileen Simpson called Poets in Their Youth that explores the relationship between Berryman, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, Delmore Schwartz and others. I know from my own experience as well as hearing it from others that we always think the last book, the last poem we wrote was the best thing we've done and always, always wonder if we have another in us as good. I also think that when you mix alcohol or any kind of drugs with emotional turmoil, one is only asking for the worst. Life is painful. Here in America we think just as soon as we get through one mess, that's going to do it for us and life will be a rose garden. In Europe they think that life is full of hardships and that each day that comes and goes without having to meet life head on, is a day of blessings, where as we take all [our] blessings for granted. Well, life is hard. We need to get over ourselves and put a shoulder to the grind stone and get on with it. If you want to write, you have to set aside time to write and just do it. Also, most writers need a day job so that we can live in some comfort. It's the way it is, we are not victims just because we have to go out into the world and work—hard.

Interview with Stellasue Lee
TCR June Feature 1998



� 2002 The Cortland Review