M.G. Stephens @ ZiN
May's writers in residence at ZVONA i NARI in 2019 are writers from Chicago: M. G. Stephens and his partner, writer and editor, Susan Wolan.
M. G. Stephens (Michael Gregory Stephens) is the author of twenty-two books, including the critically acclaimed novels The Brooklyn Book of the Dead and Season at Coole; the memoirs Lost in Seoul (Random House, 1990) and Where the Sky Ends; and the essay collections The Dramaturgy of Style and Green Dreams, which won the Associated Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction and was picked by Joyce Carol Oates as one of the notable nonfiction works of the twentieth century in Best American Essays of the Century (2001). Stephens’ play Our Father ran on Theatre Row (42nd Street) in New York for over five years, and has been produced several times in London, Los Angeles, and Chicago. He often writes about large poor families facing existential crises as the result of drugs, alcohol, and poverty. His writings have been described as darkly humorous, and he considers himself to be writing out of a long Irish tradition.
Michael Gregory Stephens was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Brooklyn and further out on Long Island. His father was Irish and his mother an American from Bedford-Stuyvesant, whose family was one of the oldest in Brooklyn. He is the third of sixteen children, and has both Irish and US citizenships. He received his BA and MA degrees in English and writing from the City College of New York; his MFA in playwriting, theatre history, and dramatic literature from Yale University; and his doctorate in literature from the University of Essex in Colchester, England. He has taught at Princeton, Columbia, New York and London universities. Early in the new century, he lived for fifteen years in London; he currently lives just north of Chicago.
Later this year, he will publish History of Theatre or the Glass of Fashion, a collection of prose poems about an out-of-work actor who lands the part of Hamlet. A book of short short poems, Hobo Haiku, will also be published later this year. He currently is working on a nonfiction book about the origins of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery (downtown New York City) in 1966, and entitled When Poetry Was the World. Stephens wrote his doctoral work on this subject at the University of Essex in England (2006). He is still involved in theatre when he is not writing prose or poetry.
Here is the interview with Michael about his writing and his visit to Croatia.
What brings you to Croatia? What will you be working on at ZVONA i NARI?
Susan and I lived for many years in London, and we would often hear about friends going to Croatia and later telling of how wonderful their experiences were. I have wanted for a long time to visit, especially the Istrian peninsula which for me, being Irish, is a kind of Mecca because James Joyce started his long exile from Dublin in Pula, even writing some of Dubliners there. I grew up in a very large family—my parents had sixteen children—and so did James Joyce. He was poor, but well educated, and the same could be said about my own upbringing. In big Irish families people seem to fit into various stereotypes: fighters, drinkers, and writers, for instance. In my book of essays Green Dreams, I deal with those three Irish stereotypes. James Joyce was not a fighter, but he did fall into the web of the other two Irish types of writing and drinking. Growing up, I was the writer in my family, and one of my Irish great-grandfathers was also a writer, and I am distantly related to the writer James Stephens, or at least people in my family have made that claim. I was once in the Portrait Gallery in Ireland, standing in a room in which there was a grand portrait of James Stephens. There was no photographing allowed, but a guard came over and said, “I can see the resemblance between you and him, so if you want to take a photograph with him, I’ll look the other way.” That is such an Irish gesture, breaking the rules, no matter what they might be. Joyce used to say—whether tongue in cheek, I don’t know—that if he could not complete Finnegans Wake, he wanted James Stephens to finish the work. So you see my connection to Joyce runs deep in my ethnicity and family. Before coming to Croatia, I visited Trieste too, just to walk the songlines there that James Joyce carved out over the fifteen or so years he lived in exile there. When I come to Zvona i Nari, I will be working on finishing some stories about another Irish exile, Eileen Coole, who spent twenty years living in Northern Africa with her husband Santiago Santa, a renowned American jazz musician who was forced into exile because of his radical politics in the 1960s. This is a fictional work that I have been working on for some time. Many of my stories have been published in the US, three of them in the Missouri Review, a prominent literary magazine for fiction.
Are you familiar with Croatian literature?
I am not that familiar with Croatian literature, but that is the reason I wanted to come here, to learn more about the culture, both literary and otherwise. Meeting other writers, many of them from Croatia, will be one of the great moments of my visit here.
What are your main literary themes?
I often write about large families facing existential crises because of poverty, addictions, and madness. Having said that, I am quick to add that most of my writing is considered comic, at least Irish readers seem to find my writing funny. Other people may find it too dark. But that is in fact the nature of Irish writing, to be dark and humorous simultaneously, and that certainly describes such writers as James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann O’Brien. But even historically Irish writing has had those two strands in it; I am thinking about Maria Edgworth and Jonathan Swift. I have written in this vein about big families in two novels—Season at Coole and The Brooklyn Book of the Dead; in essay collections such as Green Dreams; and in my play Our Father, which ran on Theatre Row (42nd Street) in New York for over five years in the 1980s, and which has been produced internationally in London and elsewhere several times. Even in my travel memoir Lost in Seoul, I was writing about a large family, in this instance, a former royal family in whose homes I used to stay in Korea. I also am interested in sports, particularly boxing and basketball. In fact, until quite recently I was on a Senior Olympic basketball team, but had to withdraw from competition last year when my hip was injured and had to be replaced. Nowadays I like to root for Croatia in World Cup competitions. Go, Modrić!
I grew up in and around New York, and so I was greatly affected by the literature coming out of that place in the early 1960s downtown in the Village and the East Village. I attended the first workshops offered by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery in 1966, and that experience has affected much of my writing life. (The Poetry Project was a government funded arts agency whose mission was to work with at-risk youth on the Lower East Side; I was one of those at-risk youths.) I loved poets such as Frank O’Hara, especially his Lunch Poems, which I carried around like it was a Bible. I also was influenced by the Black Mountain poets, Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, and by Joel Oppenheimer, our poetry teacher. But it was the prose workshops offered by Seymour Krim which turned me into a prose writer. Very early in my career, I had a book contract from Grove Press, and luckily for me, even though I was paid for the manuscript, it was never published. It was my second novel Season at Coole which then became my first published novel. Besides my Irish influences, I was deeply influenced by these downtown poets and also by the prose writer Hubert Selby, author of Last Exit to Brooklyn, who was also a part of that literary circle. Selby was my literary and spiritual mentor.
Do you and your partner Susan collaborate?
My partner Susan and I have been together for over 22 years. During that time we have collaborated on countless projects too numerous to mention here. Twenty years ago, Susan acted as a developmental editor on my memoir Where the Sky Ends—another big family saga, only this time it was in the nonfiction genre. Susan’s specialty is in nonfiction, especially literary nonfiction. She tries to get me to sound more like myself, and to get my facts right. Of all my books, that memoir was the book that my mother most loved. She even said so in her last breaths on this earth, much to the consternation of my sisters, who were gathered by her bedside. My mother once told Susan that she loved that book because I finally got it right. I asked her what she meant by that remark and she said, “About the alcoholism in the family.” Susan is the best developmental editor I’ve ever worked with. She is also a daily writer, and someone who is obsessed with facts and getting it right, and my wild imagination frequently needs to be pulled back with a few facts to anchor it.