Two weeks to my book launch!

October 26th, 2016

You’re invited to help me celebrate the launching of my second book, Among the Lost!  Yay!  It’s on November 10, 2016, from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. at Bridgeside Books, 29 Stowe Street, Waterbury.  I’ll read from it, answer questions, sign copies.  There will be refreshments at the reading and next door at Stowe Street Café.  Please feel free to pass this invitation along to others!  Here’s an excerpt from the publisher’s description of the book:


Among the Lost: In Dante’s Wake Book 2

Among the Lost, set in the modern American rust belt, is a meditation drawn from Dante’s Purgatorio.  To Dante, Purgatory was the mountain where souls not damned went after death to cleanse themselves of sin in preparation for entering Paradise.  What, Steinzor asks, are we preparing ourselves for, having lost the fear of hell and the hope of heaven, in the course of our daily urban existence?  And whatever that is, how do we go about preparing for it?.






Praise for Among the Lost

What a magnificent ascension Seth Steinzor is achieving. Having embarked on a latter-day retelling of the Divine Comedy, he has already descended into the Inferno and has now risen to the peak of Mount Purgatory, regaling us along the way with apt parallels to Dante’s infernal and purgatorial people, places, and purposes. We are indeed fortunate to have Steinzor following Dante’s footsteps.

—Rennie McQuilkin, Connecticut Poet Laureate


Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

May 1st, 2016

I’m reading Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, a recent book of poetry by Joy Harjo. I think it may be a great book. It certainly inspires thought and feeling. One of the things I find myself thinking about is the dilemma confronting anyone who wants to write criticism of lyric poetry. If a volume of lyric poetry is working the way poetry can work, it is extremely difficult and maybe impossible to articulate an “argument” or even a “point of view” that the volume expresses, from which criticism can proceed. That is because what poetry points at is a preverbal or nonverbal set of truths. In this it shares something with the visual arts. Who was it who said, “If I could write about it I wouldn’t need to paint it?” Poets, and especially lyric poets, could make a similar statement, except of course they are writing about “it.” So that doesn’t leave the literary critic much to work with. The critic can do the Helen Vendler thing and focus on the technical means whereby the critic thinks the poet has achieved the poem’s effects. Or, as more often seems to happen, the critic can do the Dan Chiasson thing of throwing out a lot of fuzzy impressionistic verbiage in a hopeless attempt to communicate the poem’s effects – hopeless of course because that could be done only by reproducing the poem itself. As you may be able to tell, I don’t much care for either of these approaches. The Vendler approach leads to the response, “So what? Who cares?” If I’m a good poet, she’s not telling me anything I don’t already know, and if I’m not a good poet, knowing what she’s telling me will be useless. The Chiasson approach lands us square in the middle of “I don’t get it, and I don’t see why I should.” So I will content myself, for the present, by saying that Joy Harjo, line after line and page after page, evokes fundamental human realities. Her subject matter appears to be the product of a modern day Native American woman’s meditation on the past six hundred years of European and North American history.  If you’re interested in that, check out this book.

Some Thoughts on American Terror

December 4th, 2015

Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent anecdotal history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the things that is falling into place for me has to do with gun violence and gun control in America.  I want to avoid oversimplification and reductionism, but it seems to me that in order to understand the peculiar nature of gun violence in America you have to understand the history.  And I think there is more to understand than what the Second Amendment meant to the Founding Fathers, or the role of hunting and home defense in colonial and frontier society.

One huge thing gets overlooked when we talk about American gun culture. For about a hundred years after the Civil War, an entire section of our country was ruled by terrorism.  It was a peculiarly American form of public/private partnership. The entire American South was governed by private terrorism in league with government terrorism.  This is not hyperbole.  It is a plain statement of fact.  Black people were oppressed through a public-private collaboration in terrorism.  Whites were kept in line by the same means.  Until you absorb the meaning of that, you can’t begin to understand the meaning of guns in our culture.

Let me pause on this a moment. President Obama recently memorably observed, with regard to the seemingly endless series of almost daily mass murders by firearm that occur in the United States, it doesn’t happen in other places. Well, in fact it does, but not in very many places. Not very many places share a similar, recent history of such severe repression of such a large proportion of the population over such a large extent of the nation’s territory by such a seamless partnership of governmental and private terrorism. One thinks of South Africa during apartheid. Nicaragua, in the death squad era. Usually government reserves for itself a monopoly of violence. In the Jim Crow South, that was not the case.

This means that such technical gun control measures as limits on magazine capacity, banning of private ownership of military style weaponry, and universal background checks – all of which seem like commonsensical, good ideas to me – are somewhat beside the point. It is a form of swimming against the current.  The NRA, I am sad to say, is partly right.  Guns only kill people when people use them for that.  But the NRA’s take on this is a lie, because the NRA wants you to think that people act as isolated individuals.  The lone crazed gunman or the vicious outlaw, what can you do about that?  But that’s not the whole story.  People are social beings.  We live in a society in which, for broad swathes of its members, guns are an ancient and accepted tool of social control.  There’s a reason many Americans tend to think you can solve a political or social problem by shooting at it.  They’re not crazy.  It’s a strategy that worked for them for a hundred years or more.  And of course the poison spreads.  You don’t have to be a lineal descendant of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest to be infected.  I am fairly sure that the first-generation son of Pakistani immigrants who perpetrated today’s San Bernardino mass murders will be found to have well acculturated himself to this. The Southern model of terrorism will have found many students, even unwitting ones.

The Jim Crow terroristic state arose after the South was rid of Reconstruction and Southern whites once again seized exclusive control of the apparatus of government.  The nongovernmental terrorists, such as the KKK, were ready and waiting for this.  Since federal power had destroyed the ability of southern government to re-enslave blacks, and private actors did not have the power to accomplish re-enslavement without at least the acquiescence of the state, it was necessary to form a private/public partnership to exert totalitarian control over blacks and to suppress white dissent.  For the period of Jim Crow, government terrorism and terrorism by private groups were mutually permeable phenomena, linked and in service to the same cause. This worked at least until the 1960s, when the machinery of government began to be pried loose once again from the hands of the white supremacists, and the private arm of the Southern terrorist machine was driven underground.  But cultures do not change as quickly as laws.

The private actors in the public/private terrorist state had lost their investment in government.  The government was no longer theirs. Through the experience of their own collaborative efforts, they knew what government can be turned to, and they had reason to fear that it would be turned on them. Since the line between official and non-official terrorism had been, in their experience, so indistinct, they had little or no conception of government as an entity apart and separate from the classes that controlled it. That is the root of the otherwise difficult to explain meme that “gun control means the feds are going to take our guns away; we are the bulwark against tyrrany.”  It seems laughable when the gun interest claims that private gun ownership is a counterweight to overwheening government power.  We rightly scoff and say tell that to the marines.  No sane person thinks that an unorganized mob of gun owners is going to be able to combat the U.S. armed forces.  It wasn’t even true in the age of Jefferson and Madison, as Daniel Shays learned to his chagrin, let alone today. But that is not the point.  The point is that the terrorist state’s private partners, having lost control of the state, are thrown back upon their own devices.  Their society, evolved in a pervasively terrorist regime, had little experience of a government of laws, a government relatively free of corruption, a government grounded in civil liberties.  These are all meaningless abstractions to them.  What has meaning to them is the knock on the door in the middle of the night, because that was their society’s reality for so long. Now the government is no longer theirs, who knows when that knock might come. All that remains to them is their guns; and if their government could be taken away, why not this other source of power? What will they be left with, then?

In sum, in order to reduce gun violence in America we must first directly confront and somehow heal the effects of our nation’s history of massive terrorist totalitarian control over large sections of its people and territory.  We must rid our culture of the complex of notions that legitimate the use of firearms in private hands as a means of social control.  Such an understanding in itself won’t do the trick, because American gun violence has many causes.  It is necessary, but not sufficient. But it will go far.  Unfortunately, this complex of notions is deeply ingrained, having ruled so large a part of our country for so long and having been renounced by the organs of power only fifty years or so ago, and that renunciation having been rather less than thorough and sincere, as so many police shootings of black men demonstrate.  It’s a long road to go.

It occurs to me that one way to get at this would be to take seriously the call for reparations to black Americans for the oppression they suffered under slavery and continue to suffer in its aftermath. The point would not be to “make them whole” in the sense of legal damages – what could? – but to engage the entire society in an open and concrete debate about how we got to where we are. It would be a much more concrete, down to earth matter than a mere airy “discussion about race.” Even relatively token compensation is, after all, compensation. Such a discussion, aimed at the intersection of justice and history, would serve a function equivalent to that of the “truth and reconciliation” initiatives that often follow a transition out of dictatorship. We have had our unacknowledged transition out of a terrorist totalitarianism. I am afraid that until we make some real effort to acknowledge what that meant and what it now means, we will continue to murder each other because among its legacies is this: that murder is the way that much of our society learned to govern itself.


October 18th, 2015

My dear friend Susan Weiss died this summer after fending off breast cancer for several decades.  Susan was a difficult, courageous, charming, immensely talented and creative, warm, caring, smart, wacky, alert, profound, perceptive, sensitive, funny, principled person.  She and I got together regularly for years to talk about writing and about our families.  Susan wrote novels, one of which, My God What Have We Done, was published and is highly worth your while to seek out.  The publisher is Fomite Press of Burlington, Vermont.  One feature of Susan’s writing was her penchant for meaningfully juxtaposing pairs of subjects that one would think had little if anything to do with each other.  The effect was kind of like if you tinkled one of those little tibetan meditation bowls that you see in gift shops, and out of it came the clangorous reverberations of a great church bell.  In My God What Have we Done a failing marriage is juxtaposed with the Manhattan Project.   In the last book she completed before she died, Susan wrote about a mother seeking relationship with her children, and a murder of crows.  Here is a poem I wrote after visiting Susan in the respite house where she spent her last month or so (with insincere apologies to Dylan Thomas):

I know you’re tired,

too tired to sleep well.

You could rage against the

dying of the light, but the

night doesn’t care.

I can imagine you

wasting breath on that, but

not too much.

Or you could go gently.

Whatever.  Really, I see you

stroking the tiny throat

feathers of that crow

sitting on your shoulder, its

strong beak poised at your

ear, asking it to

let you tell its story.

The Law of Conservation of Reality

June 7th, 2015

This came to me in a dream.  When an event – call it a miracle – occurs in a manner incompatible with the established dynamics of the universe, the universe instantly adjusts so as to conserve reality by reconfiguring the past so that the miracle is not incompatible with physical dynamics but is compatible with them; and it does so in the most economical and efficient manner.  A giant stone appears out of nowhere in the middle of Times Square: instantly, it always was there, or its arrival has a history.  Miracles may happen all the time, but they are undetectable as such, due to this reconfiguration.  Not only that, but the efficiency principle governing the reconfiguration also implies that no traces remain in conscious memory of the antecedent conditions, the ones according to which the miracle was miraculous, since those conditions (now) never existed.  Only in imagination, which is the faculty of perceiving the unreal, is the miracle dimly perceived.


May 26th, 2015

I just listened to Bernie Sanders formally announcing his candidacy for president. It was a moving experience. I cannot remember the last time I heard so much truth from a politician, except perhaps the last time I heard a speech by Bernie, or maybe it was Obama’s great “race” speech in his first campaign. I don’t know whether it is possible for Bernie to win, and I don’t really care. Now is not the time to sigh deeply and choose the lesser of two evils. That may come in November, but this is May. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Anyway… I honestly don’t know whether I just heard the standard gospel according to Bernie, ho hum, or the beginning rumblings of a political earthquake. I hope it’s the latter, but the former is good enough for me!

Memorial Day 2015

May 25th, 2015

“It’s Memorial Day. What’s on your mind?” Thus asks Facebook.  Okay: I am sad to think of all the young men and women who have been sacrificed to their leaders’ avarice, stupidity, anger and pride. On Memorial Day I remember all those young lives thrown away for nothing. I am saddened by the so-called patriotic urge to pretend that all those sacrifices had “meaning.” Their meaning is that they were meaningless. I am angry at the manipulation, deceit and coercion used by those gangs of well-dressed thugs who run the world to get our young people to make these sacrifices again and again.


May 23rd, 2015

I am reading Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, second volume in a trilogy of historical novels about the Opium War. One of the characters is a Zoroastrian. In that religion, Ahriman is the chief spirit of darkness and evil. The book uses a lot of language borrowed from hindi and other Indian languages, including the word “tamasha,” meaning a great show or performance or celebration. Towards the end of the book, the character muses that Ahriman’s kingdom (which we would call hell) is “An unending tamasha in a desert of forgetting and emptiness.” And reading that, I thought, America.


May 29th, 2014

fireworksI was going to title this post “Yahoo!” but that might have been misinterpreted.  So much of our language has been commercially appropriated.  Eat more kale, says I.  Anyhow… I am pleased and proud and tickled and relieved to announce that the second volume of my poetic trilogy, which revisits Dante’s Il Purgatorio in much the same way that To Join the Lost revisited L’Inferno, has been accepted for publication by Fomite Press, a publishing house after my own heart.  Visit their site and you’ll see what I mean.  The “relieved” is because I took some risks with this one, and they seem to have paid off.  Both of the editors who have read it so far have liked it enough to want to print it.  Projected publication date is some time in the first half of 2015.  So… if you haven’t bought a copy of To Join the Lost yet, now would be a good time to do so, so that you can be all read up and prepared when Goldfish Rising (or whatever we decide to call it) hits the streets!  You can get your very own copy of TJTL here; if you ask, I’ll autograph it for you.

Down the Tube

March 31st, 2014

Queets_River_Douglas-FirSo… a little less than a week ago I finished my revisions to Goldfish Rising and sent the mansucript off to the publisher of the first volume of the series, To Join the Lost.  (Which, if you haven’t bought it, you should, in preparation for Goldfish Rising.  Not from Amazon.  From this site, or from this one.)  I am old enough to remember when that would have meant packing a neat stack of pages into a special box, wrapping it with bubble wrap and butcher’s paper, addressing it in permanent marker, and taking it to the post office for the ceremony of buying stamps and handing it over to the clerk and watching it disappear into the mysterious rooms in the back of the building or (with some detriment to the sense of occasion) get tossed into a big bin.  Now it was just a matter of clicking on a “send” button.  I am no luddite, but that is definitely less satisfying.  I clicked the button, stared at the screen, and let the inevitable feelings of emptiness and “what do I do now?” sink in.

What I do now, in the evenings at least, is not what I intend to be doing for much longer.  Someday in the not too distant future, the publisher I like to think of as “my” publisher will respond to my manuscript, I hope and expect with acceptance and, if so, also with a list of possibly as many as several hundred comments, questions, and recommendations for change, which will keep my evenings happily occupied for weeks or even months.  Right now, however, I’m at loose ends.  Used to be, for the past several years, most evenings after work would consist of making dinner, eating dinner, washing up after dinner, an hour or so of brisk walking, and then working on the book. Take the book out of the equation, add in weather that is not very conducive to walking outdoors, and you get some long hours to fill between dinner and bedtime.  So, being a good American, I watch TV.

I want to tell you about two shows I saw last night.  Channel surfing, I happened across the series Nature, and enjoyed an hour-long episode about recent research into the social life and behavioral characteristics of plants.  Anybody remember that movie Steve Wonder did the film score for back in 1979, The Secret Life of Plants?  It was about plants’ responsiveness to stimuli and was generally regarded at the time as highly woo-woo and far out there.  Well, apparently not so much.  Plants engage in highly specific forms of communication among themselves and with other classes of being, engage in foraging and aggressive behavior, exhibit aspects of self awareness, create social networks for mutual defense and assistance, and even, it appears, nurture their young in some cases.  What I particularly liked about the show was the careful description of the experimental and observational bases for the scientsts’ conclusions.  We got images of scientists washing the dirt off seedlings’ roots and looking at pictures of rootlets in action and holding geiger counters to baby douglas firs.  Not only did we get to hear what the scientists thought they were learning, but what led them to think so.

After that I watched Cosmos, the remake of an old Carl Sagan miniseries.  Very flashy visuals, lots of special effects, and constant reminders to the audience of how “incredible!” it all is.  It was very unsatisfying.  I am sure that Neil deGrasse Tyson, the genial and soft-spoken physicist who hosts the extravaganza, did not intend it this way, but the only real compelling element of the series is his evocation of his own personal relationship with Sagan, who was something of a mentor to Tyson and started him on his scientific career.  Oh, and Tyson’s occasional slaps at fundamentalist religious dogma, such as that the universe is 7000 years old, are amusing if disheartening when one realizes that in America in 2014 this is rather daring.  Other than that, it is all “gee whiz! look at this!” and incoherence.

The real difference between Cosmos and the Nature program, I decided, is that Nature told us as much about the process of arriving at a new perception, as it did about the new perception itself.  Cosmos presents us with a jumbled bunch of Revealed Truths.  At the end, I found myself thinking about what I had seen on Nature, and finding my worldview subverted and transformed by it.  Plants and the forest are not what I had thought they were, but they are much more like what I had dreamed and suspected.  I have not thought much about what Cosmos presented to me, at least not substantively, because Cosmos did not give me much substance to work with.  Again, I am sure Tyson did not intend it this way, but it is the difference between science reporting and scientism; between new perceptions of the world, on the one hand, and something that can take the place formerly occupied by Holy Writ, on the other.

Unsurpisingly, Nature is brought to you by PBS, and Cosmos by Fox and the Koch brothers.  The one show teaches us something about science, how it works and what it’s like to do it and what kind of humble but startling understandings it leads us to.  The other teaches us a new wowie zowie mythology suitable for use by workers and consumers in a technologically sophisticated oligarchy.