Writer in the Spotlight
Steve Meador is a journalist graduate of Bowling Green State University, whose work has appeared in Wind, The Yearbook of Modern Poetry, Flutter, and Autumn Sky Poetry. Additional work is forthcoming in Umbrella, Word Riot, Unfettered Verse, and Thick With Conviction.
Welcome to Part Two of our spotlight on Steve Meador, whose brand new chapbook, Pack Your Bags has just been published by Pudding House.
Steve, the way I describe your work is "Poetry done right." I love the way you take us back to your boyhood, I love the images you conjure up, and I especially love your endings. You really know how to surprise a reader!
You make my writing sound like something I throw on the grill on a Saturday afternoon and flip it at just the right moment! I have puttered with all kinds of style over the years, but I feel most comfortable with an ending that has a kicker of some sort. Sometimes it will reinforce the mood of the piece, sometimes I send it 180 degrees. Many pieces have several endings and I pick the final from the one I like best.
You also chose Pudding House to handle your first chapbook, A Good Sharp Knife. Can you tell us a little about the process of publishing a chapbook?
I was fortunate to have Pudding House choose me. I submitted both manuscripts at the same time, hoping that one or the other would be selected, or that they could cobble together one chap from the two. I was shocked when they responded with an acceptance of both. They are very selective and have published many popular poets. I was just in Ohio in June and had a dinner with Jen, the publisher, and when I extended my hand for a shake she told me handshaking was not accepted, that only hugs were allowed! She is an incredible person to be associated with in this business, plus she knows the best little hole-in-the wall eateries in Columbus. I submitted to Pudding because I wanted the work to be published on its own merit, by a house that is well known and respected because of the quality of its authors. I can still hardly believe that I was able to place both books there.
Both books totally nail that nostalgic tone, but where A Good Sharp Knife was playful, Pack Your Bags seems more somber, for example, "Socks," and "Whipping Butter." Were the poems written at different times, or did you deliberately set a different tone for each book?
Knife is newer material and covers different time frames. Pack Your Bags contains poems that are deeper, emotionally, and were assembled for a somber feel. Most of those pieces cover a 5 or 6-year span from my youth. I worried about the overall tone, whether it was too heavy, too depressing, so some of the work has the "happy" kicker and I think that helped balance the book's mood. The last thing I wanted was for someone to read it and then jump off a building!
Of course your playful side makes itself known early on too, in "The Eye." I had to read the ending twice, I couldn't believe how that one turned out! I really let out a laugh!
Ah, yes, good old Edgar. When I showed this one to my wife she howled like a beagle! Anyone who can't laugh at that one has serious problems. It is EXACTLY what I thought at the time. Now that you are making me talk about this, I am wondering if I was a really bad kid.
You have said much of your work is autobiographical... I have to ask, as I'm sure everyone does, did you have a brother who met with the unhappy fate of "On the Bright Side?"
Absolutely. I can still hear the whole thing in my mind. By the way, he also skipped school in the fourth grade and hid behind the dryers at the Laundromat in our neighborhood. He took me there after school and showed me where he took a dump in the corner, because he was afraid to come out and use the restroom.
Talk to us about your writing process... do you write every day, where do you get inspiration, and how long does a poem take to write, on average? Do you sweat over some, while others come out perfect the first time?
I would love to say I write everyday, but the salary is too low. Generally I write in the midnight to 2 AM time. That is when things come to me. Maybe I have trained myself to do that, or maybe my mind is loopy and things sneak in. I do get lots of ideas during the day while I drive around and I record them on a voice recorder. Later I type that stuff as a rough draft and wait for the really late hours to do the magic. I would say that 60-70 percent of what I write is as-is, no rewrites or only a few words changed. When I get an idea, it just busts into my mind and I write it in a couple of minutes. It is kind of like a trance, there is nothing around me but those words. I don't really know how to explain it, but other writers will understand.
Ever had a great idea for a poem, then had to abandon it for some reason? Writer's block or anything like that?
At some point I will have to buy a new computer with a super-gigabyte memory to hold all the ideas. It is funny that you ask this. I have a piece that was written years ago that I worked on today, and I feel good about it. I will give you the original and the revision that I finished earlier this afternoon. I think it shows the thought process that goes into the trimming and pruning of a piece. Hopefully you have enough computer memory!
A Bucking Good Time (original title and piece)
When two men meet at a fence
and down enough beer
innocence becomes as hard to hold
as a bumblebee tied to a string.
as much as their lips would allow,
the farmer offered my father
some free goat's milk, "for the boys there,"
tipping the bill of his John Deere cap our way.
With the sun drained and the beer settled
my father passed my brother and me
over the strands of barbed wire to the other man.
I don't remember which one had the idea,
but the farmer took off the cap, draped it
over my brother's head, then hoisted him
to the back of a bull. There was no bucking
or kicking, just a stroll around the mud and muck.
I was plopped onto a goat,
which immediately bolted
for the open gate. I grabbed for the horns
and my chin cracked on the goat's head
as I flew off. The men cackled, strutted to the barn
for the milk. My brother, two years younger,
at three, proudly echoed my father's comments
about him being born in Texas and a natural
steer rider. I nursed a sore chin.
The cream on the thick milk coated our lips,
lasted one sip.
Two big jugs of it
remained in the refrigerator for days,
stinking everything up, until my mother
poured them over the back fence
onto the empty beer bottles.
The Power of Pabst (revision)
When two men meet up at a fence and throw down
enough beer, innocence becomes as hard to hold
as a bumblebee tied to a string.
The farmer massaged his words as rough as his lips
allowed, then offered my father free goat's milk,
"for the boys there," tipping the bill of his cap our way.
With the sun and beer settled, my father passed my brother
and me over the strands of barbed wire and into the hands
of the other man. They burped out ideas. The farmer draped
his cap over my brother's head, hoisted him onto a bull's back.
There was no bucking, just a stroll around the mud and muck.
I was plopped onto a goat, which bolted for the open gate.
As I grabbed for the horns my chin cracked on its head
and I flew off. The men cackled, strutted to the barn for the milk.
My brother, two years younger, at three, proudly echoed my father's
comments about being born in Texas and being a natural steer rider.
The cream on the milk coated our lips with a thick paste as our tongues
pushed down a single sip. Two full jugs festered in the refrigerator for days,
stinking everything up, until my mother emptied them over the fence.
The white goo dripped from the thistle like snot and buried
the Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles in an avalanche.
Yes, I see... a subtle difference that preserves your humor but reflects a bit more finesse. To be honest, I would have snapped up the poem even in the original version!
How is the young adult novel coming out?
The volcano is getting ready to blow. I have been piling up ideas and revisions and it is soon going to be time to type. I believe it may be moving to the adult arena, not in content, but in sentence structure and language. And not in vulgar or unacceptable language, but in descriptive and lyrical language. The sentences at times are long and flowing, and that is perhaps a problem in the young adult market. I guess I will know when I get the revision out and get some feedback. It is definitely starting to pre-occupy my thoughts several hours a day, so the caldera is rising.
Thanks again for spending some time with us, Steve.
Editor's note: I receive up to 40 poems a day, (90% of which I turn down) and "Little Dreamers" arrived a few days after we put out our Winter 06 issue. I couldn't bear not to include it, and convinced my webmistress to slip it in! I was so impressed with the material in A Good Sharp Knife that I suggested we feature it somehow, and the Writer in the Spotlight series was born.
You have a degree in journalism. How does that help your fiction writing?
Actually it has been more of a detriment at times, more so in the poetry than the fiction. I tend to fall back on the reportorial style. I have to remember that I am not writing a news release or other story with just facts, figures and events. It can be easy to take the quick route, leave out all the beautiful language and description. The other side is that sometimes I overcompensate and get too frilly with the words. Though I am not perfect, it has helped with punctuation and spelling.
What advice would you give someone who is just starting to write?
The same advice you hear from everyone: read, read, read. But donít read something that isnít enjoyable. If you have to force your way though it, then it wonít settle in, you wonít learn anything.
What do you look for in fiction, poetry? What are some trends you see that you don't like?
I look for books with similarities to what I enjoyed in school. Those are quickly becoming the ďgood olí days.Ē Itís getting hard to find books like Catcher In The Rye; The Thread That Runs So True; Cold Sassy Tree; Black Boy, to name a few. Today I really like the styles of Wendell Berry and Kent Haruf. I suppose they write about things I remember from growing up. I recently read Jim The Boy, by Tony Earley, and found it to be an excellent write.
I donít read lots of poetry. There will be plenty of folks who say, ďand it sure shows,Ē but I want my ideas and work to be my own. I donít want to be influenced by something I read. Words have a way of hiding in the mind and showing up later, pretending to be original.
The only trend I see that, in my opinion, is bad for the literary business is that more and more ďauthorsĒ have to be celebrities or sports stars to get anything in print. But the public is just as much at fault. People wait in line to buy the books of the famous. Plus, most big publishers are now only accepting work through agents. The system is stifling. There is incredibly good work that doesnít get a chance because the authors simply give up trying.
A good trend is the proliferation of excellent online journals and ezines.
Tell us a little bit about the young adult books you're writing.
Did you ever ask a climber about his or her trek to the Mt. Everest summit? First I submitted a book in verse, basically a short novel written in poetry. They liked it, but told me that the form is hard to sell (think money issues) and to write it in traditional novel form. I did and they liked it, but told me that there is so much great language and work crammed into a short manuscript that I should take the chapters and write a book based on any or each (think money issues). So, I figure if I get one chapter stretched into a novel, then I will be a celebrity and can tell them what I want to do next (think out of touch with reality). The characters are 12 to 16 years old living in a small town in Georgia. It has a contemporary setting with small-town atmosphere. Thereís excitement, first love, death, theft, troubled youth things, etc. I think Iíll stop here; itís beginning to sound like every other book.
Your poems sound so autobiographical, and you did a great job of nailing that nostalgic tone; that's why we jumped on "Little Dreamers" right away. Do you write mostly from experience?
Doesnít everyone? I have been blessed with one of those memories that can recall events 40 or 45 years ago almost exactly as they happened, often nearly verbatim. It is my gift. I can take those memories and either relay them as-is or adapt to something more contemporary. I am part of a large boomer group who can enjoy what I write, because they had similar experiences. My poetry is somewhat simple, hopefully to evoke an instant emotion, add a little something to the moment. If during the day it creeps back and induces another smile, or brings a few seconds of reflection, thatís as good as it gets for a writer. I am not looking for reading groups to spend hours or days trying to interpret an underlying meaning. Read it, enjoy it and move on.
What do you feel are your best poems, and why?
I am a writer who cherishes every piece. Imagine such a person! Two come to mind for opposite reasons. The first, Pack Your Bags, is what got me started on the personal trip. It just came to me one day and then I wrote for several days, one piece churning up the memory for another. All the work in the first lot were sad, to me anyway. Then the humorous thoughts dominated and "Percy" was the first of that trend. Both are in another chapbook, Pack Your Bags, which will be released by Pudding House Publications later this year.
Pack Your Bags
He always placed it near the front door,
the dark blue Samsonite with cream
colored trim, luggage that was popular
in the fifties and sixties. It was the smallest
piece in the set and he packed it
with a couple pair of underwear,
a pair of socks and whatever pants
and shirts he could stuff in.
Then he waited patiently on the couch,
hair combed, wearing the Jewel T suit
that had receded from finger tips
to two inches above the wrist
in the last year and a half.
The day would end the same
for him as it always did.
The man from the Childrenís Home
would fail to show up, as my mother had threatened,
and my brother would fall asleep on dirty cushions.
I would wake him the next morning
for the walk to school,
and tell him that the orphanage
only took kids whose parents had died.
I didnít tell him that ours were probably
A cat always lands on its feet.
after I cradled his upside down body
two feet off the floor
and sprung my arms wide
for his grand release.
Nearly quicker than the eye,
his roll to stability,
but his weaknesses were cheese
and faulty judgment
He landed perfectly on all paws
after watching six feet
of step ladder float by,
and again after clawing the air
as he was being swallowed
by twelve feet of cherry tree trunk.
I straddled the limb
and ate cherries
of who might have a ladder
tall enough to reach our roof.
A Good Sharp Knife and Pack Your Bags, published by Pudding House Chapbook Series can be purchased for $10 by contacting Steve at Steve@homesonly.com.