NEA Big Read Author Stephanie Burt on Writing Travel Guides, Playing the Melodica, and Finding a Community
You can find NEA Big Read author Stephanie Burt among the obscure fandoms of comic books, indie rock bands, women’s basketball, science fiction, and, above all, poetry. She’s written several books on how to read poetry, given a TED talk called “Why People Need Poetry” that’s been viewed over a million times, and has written four books of her own poetry. Her collection Advice from the Lights, which is part of the NEA Big Read library, looks back on her childhood grappling with an assigned gender identity through the lens of talking objects and suburban fauna (betta fish, roly polies, and ferrets, for example), and through imagining what her youth would have looked like if she had been raised as a girl. For National Poetry Month, we asked Burt to reflect on art and writing, and what it means to be part of the NEA Big Read.
NEA: Are there themes that you keep returning to in your writing? Why do you think you keep returning to them?
BURT: I write about childhood, imaginary girlhoods, adolescence, close friendships, symbols of queer and trans identity, models of beauty, classical antiquity, teaching, trying to get along with everyone, the need for public integrity, political participation and public investment in infrastructure, geography and the built environment, X-Men comics, and lip gloss. Among other things. Start me on themes and you’ll end up with a stack of symbols!
I write about what matters most to me, and what matters most to my friends: when I find myself drawn to an unfamiliar subject (talking insects, for example) I usually figure out that this subject connects up to one of my obsessions: how, whether and why we need to grow up, for example, and how the cultural imperative to grow up or get past a certain stage of life mixes up good things (becoming responsible for others!) with truly terrible kinds of oppression (as when adults tell teens that our great loves, or our true selves, are just a phase).
NEA: What are some other artistic endeavors that you enjoy doing and/or experiencing?
BURT: I play the piano, and the melodica, badly. Someday you might see my name on a work of fiction, though it won’t be my name alone. Almost all the kinds of art I enjoy but don’t make have found some way into my poems: obscure rock and pop music, famous rock and pop music, composed music, modern art, comic books, even a few realist novelists (Willa Cather, for example).
NEA: Is there anything you’d like to share about yourself that’s not reflected on the NEA Big Read website?
BURT: I had a job, in college, writing and editing travel guides. I loved it. I met lots of people I would never have met; it took me out of myself, made me much less uncomfortable with new people (though probably just as awkward around them), and my interest in place and in poems about place likely started there. I’m still proud of what we did with our guide to Washington, DC, which (in the early 1990s) included information on special access to tourist sites for people with disabilities.
NEA: As a new NEA Big Read author, which aspect(s) of the program are you most excited about?
BURT: I want to meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet, especially but not only people who might see themselves, or their friends, in my work.
I enjoy speaking to large audiences when I get the chance—that may be a character flaw—but I’ve also had truly lovely experiences conducing writing workshops in small groups, for community members, for college students, for teens.
NEA: What would be fun for you to see in terms of creative responses to your book?
BURT: Utopian aspirations? I want people to draw comics based on my writing. I want people to turn my words into catchy songs.
NEA: Are there any books on the NEA Big Read list that you’ve read and would recommend?
BURT: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren! It’s a beautifully constructed and beautifully carefully written book about how to do science (and not a subfield of science that most of us think about), and about how to fight sexism in science (the aspect that got it initial attention), and it turns out to be about mental health, and family, and even romance, and there’s a very strong friendship that gives the memoir a through-line. I’ve seen that kind of friendship in real life but have very rarely seen it in literary writing.
A Wizard of Earthsea, of course. I like all the Kelly Link that I’ve read, too. And I’m always happy to read David Tomas Martinez.
NEA: Are there any that you’ve heard about and are excited to read?
BURT: Celeste Ng. Emily St. John Mandel. Tayari Jones.
NEA: Are there readings—by someone else or your own—that have been particularly meaningful or significant to you?
BURT: I’ve given a lot of readings that I enjoyed very much, and attended even more—I hope I’m a good respectful listener! I have particularly sharp memories of several readings by C. D. Wright, whose work gradually became more and more important to me—and to most of my poetry-reading friends—from the mid-1990s on. You could see how she channeled, without taking over, the voices of the other people who inhabited her long-form work; you could also see how she could reach out to, how she could connect with, her audiences, how she made even her reticence, her introversion, charismatic.
In terms of my own events, I did a four-queer-poets reading at the Miami Book Festival in 2017 and it was stunning, life-changing. I read with Chen Chen, Danez Smith, and T’ai Freedom Ford, all compelling and nothing like one another (I will admit I felt mousy in comparison), and the audience had a very wide age range, from retirement-age men to teens in groups with bright blue undercuts.
In that space I felt like part of a community that understood what I was trying to do, and that wasn’t treating me as a teacher, nor as a student, but just as somebody who belonged in this queer (and not majority-white) space. There was one listener in an Avengers T-shirt who asked, in the group Q&A, “How do you deal with the fear of existing?” Later I made that line the end of a poem, and have been looking online for that listener, in order to credit them, if anybody wants to publish that poem.