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Interview: Poet Stephen Sturgeon and book artist Candida Pagan’s unique approach to publishing


The Ship
Image courtesy of Candida Pagan

Local poet Stephen Sturgeon’s recent piece, The Ship, details the macabre account of the narrator’s travels down an unnamed river; with the narrative meandering and jouncing as it takes on the expanse and history of the river itself. Candida Pagan, a current candidate for an MFA in the Books Arts at the University of Iowa, worked with Sturgeon to print limited edition chapbooks of The Ship. I recently spoke with Sturgeon and Pagan about the process of working together; Sturgeon’s experience of composing The Ship, his literary influences or other inspirations behind the poem; and Pagan’s task of putting together an edition of 80 books. Copies of The Ship are available directly through Pagan at candida.pagan@gmail.com or through Prairie Lights bookstore.

Little Village: The Ship seems to be a metaphorical vessel, but I wonder if it is based on a specific ship. Does the act of sailing or the image of the river evoke a particular meaning for you—either a personal experience or literary connection?

Stephen Sturgeon: I wrote The Ship in a single sitting on a night in May 2010, with some editing, mostly excision, after that, and the flaws in The Ship point to those circumstances. There was no plan or intention or preparation, and I had no particular ship in mind. When I say to myself right now, “Think of a ship,” I think “Old Ironsides, the Pequod, the Argo, the Nautilus,” and my answer probably would not have been different four years ago. Since I was thinking of no particular ship, those may have been the ships I was thinking about.

I have no interest in sailing anywhere or anything. As for rivers, I’ve spent the most time with the Charles River in Boston, spent years looking at it. And I remember parts of Huckleberry Finn a lot, nearly always parts that have to do with the Mississippi at night. When I saw the Cedar River running through Cedar Rapids for the first time, I said that it looked very bright and strong and beautiful. Some Cedar Rapids natives then reminded me of the destruction and misery its flooding caused in 2008. I think the river in The Ship is like the Cedar River.

Opening your poem with an epigraph from Frederick Goddard Tuckerman struck me as interesting. Is Tuckerman an influence? Sections of The Ship seem to be channeling T. S. Eliot. Are there certain writers that kept popping into your head while writing The Ship?

At the time, an edition of Tuckerman’s selected poems had just been published by Harvard University Press, edited by my friend Ben Mazer. Ben had sent me a copy, and that’s how Tuckerman had got into me. I haven’t, I don’t think, read him since, and I nearly never think about him. He has good lines, as I remember them.

Other poems of mine come a good deal out of Eliot, but I don’t see anything about him in The Ship, other than two-and-a-half lines: And it has become difficult to understand / what of our thoughts has been provided / by the river’s stalking voice.

William Empson said something similar about Eliot: “I feel, like most other verse writers of my generation, that I do not know for certain how much of my own mind he invented, let alone how much of it is a reaction against him or indeed a consequence of misreading him. He has a very penetrating influence, perhaps not unlike an east wind.” I admit that is an odd single connection for a poem to have to an author the poem allegedly has nothing to do with.

In a very general way, I was thinking a bit about [Samuel] Beckett’s translation of “Le Bateau ivre” [by Arthur Rimbaud], and I remember thinking of [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge for a little while during the writing, and I see that superficial aspects were worked in clumsily.

Candida, Did Stephen approach you about publishing The Ship?

Candida Pagan: I actually approached him after the reading of a book of variations, a selection of bpNichol’s poems edited by Stephen Voyce. Sturgeon”s reading was rather captivating and before then I had not known that he was a writer himself. After the reading, I asked if he was still writing, and he said he might have some work. He got back to me with The Ship later, and I liked it very much. Letterpress printing and bookmaking are a large part of what I do. I needed a piece of writing that wanted to be published as a fine press edition, and The Ship was it for me.

So you had to typeset every page letter-by-letter, how did your relationship to The Ship changed over time. What jumped out at you the first time you read it and which lines grab you now? 

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Have you even married a mountain. / Have you even loved a river or lake / visited it / and married it.

That jumped out at me immediately. Perhaps it changed to me, that poem, over the course of making this book. I mentioned to someone once that I had married a mountain in deciding to make this book. I married a fucking mountain. Hand-setting takes a long time. Set-up for printing takes a long time. Printing takes a long time, especially an edition of 80. Edition binding takes a long time. But I loved it. And I love the thing, the book, the physical book and what it contains. I read the poems in my own voice while setting, while printing and while distributing. Do you know that you spell every word while setting, read every word while scanning the pages during printing and unspell every word when distributing type? It’s a very intimate experience.

Could you talk briefly about the beautiful monoprints? I recall you saying that you used one-of-a-kind prints for each copy of The Ship.

Thanks, I’m glad you like them! There are actually two monoprints per book—one on the cover and one on the title page. Prints were pulled, or printed, on a cylinder proofing press from a plate ‘painted’ with ink diluted with mineral spirits. Stephen and I took turns making, and sometimes made together, the prints for the cover while reading poems from the book aloud. It was pretty fun, he’d never done anything like it, and watching someone make monoprints for the first time was enjoyable for me. Plus, I love doing it. No two are the same, although some are similar and some images are progressive.

Lizzy Schule is pursuing an MFA in Painting at the University of Iowa. Before moving to Iowa City, she worked for several years as an English teacher in New York and Istanbul.


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