Steven Leyva on Poetry, Teaching, and Comics

Poet Interview

Steven Leyva started in theater. Today, he’s a poet and a teacher. Leyva’s also our interview for this week.

Leyva teaches at the University of Baltimore. He’s published a book of poetry, which you can purchase on his website. As he mentions below, he’s a comics connoisseur. On top of everything else, Leyva’s editor of the Little Patuxent Review.

I hope you enjoy the interview below. At the bottom is a poem by Leyva. Once you finish reading both, maybe you’ll order a copy of Leyva’s book, Low Parish. Lastly, thanks in advance for sharing this interview with others.

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Q&A with Steven Leyva

Can you tell us about yourself?

I grew up in Houston, Texas, but was born in New Orleans. Those two cities and the larger Gulf Coast are nearly omnipresent in all that I do as a writer and a teacher. After years of studying and performing live theater, I learned to speak pretty quickly, and my accent became muted as a result, but my gait is particularly Southern. I saunter for sure, and whenever I am in a place like NYC, I am sure I frustrate other pedestrians with my lack of alacrity.

I’ve lived in Baltimore, Md., for over ten years now. I met my spouse, went to grad school, became a father, bought a first home, – all those signifiers of a certain kind of adulthood –  in Charm City. Baltimore is a place that easily adopts folks, and it has some parallels with the city of my birth.  

As far as hobbies, I am a big nerd and like most nerdy things: video games, comic books, anime, Sci-fi media, cartoons. I treat my local comic book shop like a version of Cheers. I’ll go in sometimes just to shoot the breeze a bit, or catch up with some of the staff. There is an irony there, I guess because I think most of my hobbies are actually attempts at solitude, rather than attempts at community building. 

What do you teach at the University of Baltimore?

I teach in the Creative Writing & Publishing Arts MFA program, which means I teach a variety of Graduate poetry workshops and literature courses. I also teach in the undergraduate English department, teaching film courses, Batman courses, Anime course, and traditional literature courses. 

Many of my hobbies, and my research interests, and my teaching, and my poetry all intersect. 

When and how did you discover poetry?

Definitely a later in my young life situation. I maybe wrote one poem about love and paper planes in middle school, but nothing much until college. 

During my third year in undergrad, when I still thought I was going to be the next Denzel Washington, a dear friend switched majors from theater to creative writing. Out of a desire to have someone to talk poems with, he encouraged me to try writing some myself and gave me a selected copy of Walt Whitman and a few poems by Mary Oliver.

I adored this friend and started writing as best I could, but was still more firmly interested in acting. Within a year, however, I knew that I was not going to move to LA or New York, and I continued to write poems on my own, which sustained a connection to the arts. I let go of one dream and I spent four years after undergrad working in mostly unfulfilling jobs: Blockbuster, Borders, IT helpdesk. 

In 2009 I applied and was accepted to an MFA program, and really never looked back.

Do you have a typical process for writing poetry?

Not sure if I have a process that I’d call typical, but it’s nothing extraordinary. I rarely begin with an idea for the situation of a poem or its narrative content. Rather, I usually begin with an interesting phrase, line, or sounds combination that has euphony. At least this is what I tell myself is happening, but I think that’s mostly out of a desire to have something to say in response to questions of process. 

It would be more accurate to say I don’t know. I have certain processes that I apply for revising poems, but for the drafting, the initiation of that spell work, I guess it’s closer to something like improv games. I do a lot of, “yes, and,” affirmation to my imagination. What if, What if, What if on repeat as it were. But again, these are mostly movements toward form and musicality rather than narrative. Narrative comes later in the process for me, if at all.

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From where do you get an idea or inspiration for a poem?

Many places. Primarily from engaging with other art forms, including dance, animation, plays, and, of course, reading as much literature as I can.

As I said before I am not sure I begin with ideas or inspiration. The word inspiration always feels euphemistic to me. Certainly, I understand the desire to create, and how experiences motivate that desire, but inspiration isn’t required if the muscle of the imagination is flexible, strong, and active.

You’ve been the editor of “Little Patuxent Review (LPR)” for four years. What do you look for in deciding what to publish?

I usually look for imaginative syntax at the level of the line or the sentence. I think even the seeming simplicity of clarity in language can be imaginative. I also look for the ways the work takes risks, whether in form, voice, or the choices it makes to engage the reader. I tend to be drawn to work that doesn’t have diminishing returns on multiple reads, which is a way of saying that the piece can sustain its own pleasures, can argue for itself.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for people considering submitting to LPR?

Shoot your shot. Don’t assume, even based on my answer above, that editors won’t understand your aesthetic. There are plenty of times where my fellow editors have clued me in to a submission that I would have initially overlooked, and my assessment of that work did a one-eighty.

We all have blind spots, and so I depend on my team to advocate for the work they love. You never know who in that digital editorial room is rooting for you, so you might as well try.

Who are some poets you admire?

My list of admiration would be overly long, but I am a fan of Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy and Fast Animal by Tim Seibles. Those two books were important to my development as a poet, particularly after grad school. I’ll read just about anything those two poets write. 

I often return to Derek Walcott, Robert Lowell, Ai, Gwendolyn Brooks, Octavio Paz, Osip Mandelstam, Wiswala Szymborksa, to name a few. I read Montale and Borges to access a different sense of time’s relationship to language. 

I make it a point to read and reread annually some of the poets who I met through Cave Canem, an organization dedicated to Black poetry. Folks like zakia henderson-brown, Alan King, and Charif Shanahan.  

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Have you read any good books lately?

I just recently began rereading Blackacre by Monica Youn. That book is marvelous, inventive, and endlessly engaging.

Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about you or your work?

I am deeply interested in what poets can learn by studying, watching, and thinking about animation. Much of that work is nascent, but you can read a few inklings at the Washington Independent Review of Books, under the heading “Nerd Volta”. 

http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/features/category/nerd-volta

Immemorial

by Steven Leyva

I can’t decide which is more
unforgiving: history or memory. Neither
is a quicksand, neither is a sea.
I’ve erased a line that begins
I can’t remember so often, it’s breathing
palimpsest. Being whispered awake
by whatever lashes of dawn refuse
to blink or self-flagellate: lovers’ names return
and fade like a cold sore. The Mid-Atlantic
coast curled into an abandoned smile. The seagulls
writing an epitaph in excrement above the coral 
headstones, bleached. New Orleans always a sentence
away, always cheating the cyclopes of  myth
each summer, the national weather service incessantly
renaming like some automaton Adam. Stay awake
is the hum of the mud. I can’t decide which catfish 
is frying, history or memory, in the skillet. 

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