Meet Steven Hollies: Q&A with the 2021 winner of the Enoch Pratt Free Library Poetry Contest

The Enoch Pratt Free Library represents the free public library system of Baltimore. To learn more about the annual poetry contest, and to read Steven Hollies winning Poem, “Body/Language”, click here. I caught up with Steven recently, who was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work. Our conversation follows.

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Q. Talk to me about the white space used in your poem. I very much admire the way in which it can be read as two separate poems, the left column or right column, and then as a single piece. This spacing, at least to me, speaks to the social distancing that you describe in the poem. Did you go about this poem with such formatting already in mind or did it evolve organically?

A. Before I started this poem, I was working on a number of other ‘pandemic poems,’ and experimenting with space, including a similar two-column format. I didn’t originally plan this poem in two columns, but as I started to find some of the right words and phrases, I realized how much the poem would benefit from the added complexity, and ambiguity, of the split columns. The even white space—wide enough that the halves are distinct, but narrow enough to be easily crossed—is symbolic of the ways we find ourselves interacting with each other during the pandemic: through screens, through glass, across the prescribed six feet of air. The added distance may seem like almost nothing, but when it comes to our need for human interaction and intimacy, it is everything. And when the gap closes, strange and wonderful things can happen. Or so I hope.

Q. I’m quite taken with the following lines: “we wanted to wake up new”, and “still we wanted the old sleep.” To me, this is a lovely way of speaking to that longing, that desire to erase the last year and simply wake up unscathed. There’s such universality in this poem; I sense you were very much thinking of the colossal aftermath of such social distancing after so much loss. Can you speak to this?

A. Unscathed is a great word. At this point we’re all traumatized, in an astounding variety of ways. Healthcare workers have been immersed in death. Other essential workers have been asked to put their own lives at risk to continue serving others, with little tangible benefit for themselves. Families and communities have been gutted by the virus. People have lost friends, jobs, livelihoods, and opportunities. And on top of that, for over a year everyone has been asked to deny their own social, emotional, and spiritual needs for the sake of physical safety. What an awful compromise to have to make, particularly when, regardless of intention, transgressing that maxim has led to such horrific consequences. So we’ve all been conditioned by our suffering, living in this surreal existence, and there is a massive level of relearning—individually and collectively—that needs to take place. We may never get back “the old sleep.” We can figure out how to “wake up new,” but it will require showing our scars, because none of us is unscathed.

“One of the most significant cumulative lessons of my reading life is that, if nothing else, writing should push humanity towards compassion, understanding, and inclusion.”

Q. Are you an avid reader? What writers have influenced you and how?

A. I have a hard time describing myself, so I actually looked up the exact definition of ‘avid’ to see if it applies to me as a reader. It does. The writers that have influenced me are too many to mention, but I am especially fond of poets who help me feel at home in the universe, most notably Pablo Neruda. I am inspired by writers who aren’t afraid of addressing things directly. Recently, that has included Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, who says his mentor Arthur Flowers asked him “If you had to write a story to save the world, what would you write?” Also poets such as Amanda Gorman and Imani Cezanne. Beyond their courage and brilliance, they remind me how much words matter, and that if I have any gift with language, then I should be commenting on important topics, not sticking to the fringes. One of the most significant cumulative lessons of my reading life is that, if nothing else, writing should push humanity towards compassion, understanding, and inclusion. 

Q. How has this year of isolation influenced your writing and what you want to do as a writer or otherwise?

A. Isolation is a mixed bag. It can give you time and space to write that you may not have had before, but if you’re disconnected and struggling emotionally, it can be hard to get much done. That’s a generalization, but I would say I’ve personally ended up more often in the latter category. One positive shift is that I’m writing less from my own experiences, and more from the input I’m getting from other places. I guess the short version is I’m doing a lot more research. Mainstream news and social media are rich with meaningful, contemporary stories, and I’m also finding a lot of inspiration in primary sources, whether that’s communicating with someone directly or finding a video or transcript posted online. I’m trying to foster an inquisitive, curious mindset, and that is helping me connect with the wealth of human stories already out there, even if it does feel more in vitro than in vivo. 

As far as what I want to do as a writer or otherwise, I’ve been pondering that for a couple decades (a pittance), and every year I feel further away from a clear answer, or at least any answer that conforms to reality as it presents itself to me. But the little voice inside me—which might be big if I let it—is at this moment repeating make it right.

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