A Conversation with Poet and Pine Peak Press Founder, Steven Turrill by MK McWilliams

I was so excited to find out Rania was planning an interview with Poet and Publisher Steven Turrill. I thought it was a perfect match to a blog post I was writing about my journey to publishing my upcoming book, Stereospace (you will read why in a minute). She graciously handed the interview over to me to combine the two. As we got to talking, however, I realized I was much more interested in learning more about him and less enthused to write about my own book. He is by far the more fascinating subject.

I started writing and compiling pieces for Stereospace back in January 2019. I had a goal of self-publication by my birthday in May and was convinced I would meet that goal. Then May came and went without a release. I was dealing with some health issues and couldn't devote the time to it. But that was only part of the truth. The other part: the book was finished but it didn’t feel “finished.” Something about it was all wrong and I didn’t know what. 

I just knew that if I actually managed to stop procrastinating and print the thing, I would have been disappointed in the final project. So I slowly rewrote, deleted, added, shuffled around, and then shelved it. For months. And then a serendipitous thing happened in October. Just as I was convincing myself to start the process for publication, I was approached by my friend, Steven, who asked if I would consider printing through his new company, Pine Peak Press. I normally try to keep a level head about fate but this was too much. Within twenty minutes of me opening up the manuscript and talking to a cover artist, he had randomly messaged me. It was meant to be. I hadn't even known Steven was setting up as a publisher and was thrilled to find out the news, respective of my involvement. 


You see, anyone who knows Steven, who reads his work or watches his lives where he reads and analyzes poetry, knows that he is the real deal. He understands poetry. Not the specific meanings necessarily (which as you are about to read, he says do not matter as much as your high school teacher would have you believe). No, he understands the ins and outs of what it means to be a poet. What it means to sit down everyday, and write the words that flow from the mind. And that is a true gift.

Without further ado, let’s get to know Steven!

          

MK: When did you start writing? 

Steven: At an early age I started typing words into an old DOS PC—with the green screen and blinking cursor block (no mouse) and a dot-matrix printer with perforated margins you tore off—the keyboard was big and clunky and clickety-clackety, like a typewriter. The first thing I wrote was called “The Mystery Car.” I was five years old. I had to ask my mom how to spell mystery. The computer was in the basement so I had to yell up the stairs to her. She yelled back the spelling. I was floored that there was a y so close to the front of a word. I almost didn’t believe her. Then there was another y at the end. Two y’s. I was stunned, to be honest. It was so fun. Y was such an exotic letter, at the end of the alphabet. I couldn’t believe there were two in one word. The kind of thing that could only shock a child and only interest a poet. 

In college I read about how words were signifiers of real things, the signified. Words were signposts. But my first encounter with the word mystery was a genuine mystery. The word was the meaning of the word. “The Mystery Car” was about a car I saw earlier that day or the day before. I was at a park with my after-school daycare group. I saw a red car twice. That’s it. I was convinced it was the same car. It probably was. I remember young men sitting in the front seats. They were probably cruising, listening to music. Who knows. I thought there was something nefarious about it. I was five. What did I know? My imagination went wild. I couldn’t figure it out. Why would a red car pass by me twice at the park? I remember none of the other kids in the group thought it was as interesting as I thought it was. I couldn’t get it out of my head. What was the meaning of the red car? So I went home and tried to tell the story to the computer. 

It doesn’t escape me that my first time writing down my thoughts—the first time I remember writing something other than my name, especially something we would now call “creative writing”—happened to coincide with a new pattern I noticed in the world, because that’s what I use for fuel today. However, what did escape me about the whole experience—what did escape me, until now—was that in the telling of this story there is a doubling of a red car and a doubling of the letter y, and the repetition of these two things both times lit a fire in my imagination. I just connected the double car to the double y. You probably saw it immediately. Not me. My first stab at writing continues to be illuminating.

M: Your writer origin story is the kind of magic that happens with people who have a calling, I think. Not just an interest or a vocation, but a true calling toward something. I remember those dot-matrix printers, I remember ripping off the perforated edges and stapling my own stories together and as I hear you tell your story, I see young Steven sitting there, green glow upon his face, typing away. 

The red car incident is an interesting moment. How many people see the same things and never think twice about it? But then there is you, there is the creative, who sees something, could be innocuous, could be an aberration, but you see it and your mind doesn’t let it go. It simply must do something with it. Figure it out, solve the puzzle, write about it. 

M: Do you think that some people are just meant for certain things? A kind of fate? Or is it circumstance?  

S: I’m really not qualified to say. I did grow up thinking it was my destiny to be a writer, but I don’t know what that means, and investigating it usually ruins whatever minor truth propelled it to the forefront of my imagination. As a kid, that way of thinking was part of how I survived childhood. It’s the future I dreamed about. My childhood was very structured and sheltered. I didn’t dream of escape, travel, riches, or power. I dreamed of having the time and space to finally say and do what I wanted. Lucky for me, the saying was the doing. 

As an adult I struggled with the pressure to be a successful so-and-so. I’m glad that’s over. It’s much harder to be a successful writer. It’s much easier—and better for your health, I think—to just be a writer. Just someone who writes everyday and says what’s on their mind and in their heart in a particularly artful or clever way. 

M: Did you study poetry in school?

S: In elementary school we read one Robert Frost poem. That was a big deal for me. But it wasn’t taught, thank god. In middle school we read two more Robert Frost poems. In high school we were taught, unfortunately, some Whitman, Dickinson, and Shakespeare; some of the Romantics (“Ozymandias,” some Browning); and I’m sure another Frost poem. My interest in poetry didn’t survive the teaching of poetry. I decided to write screenplays. Then in college when I was interested again in poetry they wouldn’t let me into the poetry classes. 

M: American school kids are not exposed to very much poetry, if any. But the teaching of poetry does seem to have a negative effect on the ones who do learn it. The over-reading, over-analyzing, rhyme scheme and meter and finding the literary devices in the haystack-- it’s cumbersome. I love poetry but learning about it was a whole mess. 

M: How can we expose children and young adults to poetry without shoving it down their throats? #MAKEPOETRYCOOLAGAIN?

S: God, I would have loved to learn meter and rhyming. The way I learned poetry all my life was to ask the poem one question and one question only, and to ask it repeatedly and without stopping, and to torture the text until it gave up its secrets and confessed to the crime of having a Meaning. What Does the Poem Mean? Write it on my tombstone. What absolute nonsense. And on top of that, to spend hours and hours trying to figure out What a Poem Means and not even uncover or be told the fact the male poet was an inveterate racist or womanizer or that he killed himself, all the really important information that would have really told us something about the world. 

I mean California’s public school system in the 90s and 00s was a total and unredeemable pile of shit when it came to letters. I didn’t even learn English grammar until I took French in high school and reverse-engineered the English rules from the French. I had to do something similar with poetry. I taught myself versification, mainly by following my nose to what smelled like poetry to me. Lots of trial and error and the soufflĂ© collapsing. 

M: How would you describe poetry? What makes a poem a poem?

S: Those questions are better left to the critics and philosophers. Poets don’t need those questions. Poets know what they’re doing. You can either ask those questions or write poetry. You can’t do both. Your time is limited.

M: What is your favorite piece you’ve ever written?

S: Whatever I’m working on currently.

M: What themes are recurrent in your work? In work you prefer to read?

S: Love, death, nature, time, loss, memory, perception, fear, grief, change, obsession.

M: How important is theme in writing, compared to telling a story, or the “entertainment” factor?

S: Even grocery lists have themes, so I think this division in categories is inaccurate. But I realize I have misunderstood the question. Just don’t waste the reader’s time. 

M: How did you first come to publish your debut book?

S: I had to get over myself. 

M: Do you think that’s the biggest challenge for the modern writer?

S: I think it’s a challenge for any artist.

M: What challenges have you faced with self-publishing?

S: The biggest challenge is selling books. And I seem to remain steadfastly naive about what that means: about what, exactly, sales is. It’s getting people—convincing them—to buy your books. Personally, I have always bought books based on whether I have been told they are “good” or not. But that’s because I’m a thief and I want to know where the jewels are. But on the other side of the line, as a bookseller, I think I sell most of my books when people want to support me as a person and a poet, not because they are looking for a “good” book. And that’s totally fair. I support this way of spending money and it has taught me a new way to spend my money on artists. So my best sales pitch is just to make people believe in me and what I’m doing. That’s as much as I’ve figured out. 

M: That makes a lot of sense. Poetry is not a popular genre, though we may wish it were. So you think a more grass-roots, word of mouth approach may be the way forward?

S: If by grass-roots you mean canvassing a neighborhood and knocking on doors, yes. 

M: What led you to establish Pine Peak Press? 

S: The tax incentives. 

M: What are your goals for it, and what sets you apart from other small publishers?

S: Mostly the rituals and secrets. 

M: What are your ultimate goals for Pine Peak Press?

S: To sell out. 

M: ARE YOU SERIOUS HERE, STEVEN?

S: Yes, but bankruptcy is far more likely. 

M: What advice do you have for writers in terms of their craft? And any advice in terms of publishing and marketing?

S: It’s said too often but not understood well enough: just write. There’s no way to get to the top of the mountain but to climb it. There are no shortcuts. I looked everywhere. 

M: Thank you so much for your candor in sharing your thoughts with us!

Comments

  1. This is such a great interview! Mk, I love your introduction. You did a great job shaping the interview and making it more personal!

    Steven... You're amazing and I can't wait to see all of the incredible things that you do in the future. This interview is interesting, funny, and I really enjoyed reading it!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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