Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Hugh Behm-Steinberg

In books, editors, literary journals, poetry, writing on April 4, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Hugh Behm-Steinberg

Hugh Behm-Steinberg. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2010).

An introduction to the author of the poetry book Shy Green Fields and faculty editor of the literary journal Eleven Eleven. Hugh Behm-Steinberg was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and recipient of an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship. He discusses writing, editing, and his current projects in this interview. 

Quick Facts on Hugh Behm-Steinberg

  • Eleven Eleven faculty editor
  • Home: Berkeley, CA
  • Comfort food: Indian food
  • Top reads: Eliot Weinberger—especially his essays in An Elemental Thing, WG Sebald, Chad Sweeney, Matt Hart, Jan Zwicky’s Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and Lyric Philosophy, Ish Klein’s Union!, Tim Lilburn’s Kill-site
  • Current reads: Canadian poetry, re-reading the Collected Poems of ee cummings

What are you working on?

I’ve been writing these morning poems. I wake up, roll over, put my glasses on, and reach for my pen. Later, I shape the poems, polish them. They tend to be either tight, short, weird splats, or more extended narratives and parables.

I finished an opera last year and I’m looking for the next one to write. In librettos you can do things you’re not supposed to do in poems. You can be really obvious, and you have to be, because it’s unlikely that people will hear everything the first time in an opera. You can be very sonically upfront. I’m looking to collaborate with musicians, work on theatrical pieces.

How would you describe the ideal reader of your work?

Someone willing to stay with it. I want my poems to be things you can dwell in, that you can take inside yourself.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

Morning, in bed, away from the computer. I’m doing more of my work through handwriting. With the computer, there’s all these distractions.

What do you listen to when you work?

Lots of rock. Music with words and a good beat. I use it as a metronome. When writing prose, usually jazz or classical music, opera. I like Philip Glass a lot.

I use music as a privacy device when I’m writing in public spaces. With headphones on, the world goes away, and I’m able to do my stuff.

Do you have a personal philosophy for how and why you write?

Poetry is an intimate form of correspondence. It’s a type of knowledge; a way of knowing your experiences or being in the world. You get inside a poem and you’re changed. That’s my ideal for what a poem should be: it makes you see the world or feel differently. You think differently, your relationship to what you know is different because the poem has changed you subtly.

It’s humbling to think I have readers out there, who know me in some way even though we’ve never met. It’s strange and wonderful.

What authors would you love to see your work shelved alongside?

I just want to be part of the conversation. As an editor, I get to juxtapose writers who might never otherwise be on the same shelf. I can make a playful combination, see ideas exchanged, collaborations initiated.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright, was a pivotal book for me about transitions as a writer. The sense of a writer reinventing himself is important to me. It’s a little scary, a little dull, when someone’s writing never changes.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Write as much as you can. Read as much as you can. Acquire bodies of knowledge. Engage as much as you can. Go to readings.

Develop good writing habits. Different training might be needed for different styles, for instance, poets are sprinters and novelists are marathon runners. Learn to edit and revise with the same energy with which you were writing. Be willing to let anything into the poem to see what happens. Be willing to write badly and see where that takes you. Collage, steal, imitate, try on masks.

Writing is an art form of communities, which means there’s a certain degree of citizenship required. If you’re serious about being a writer, try running a reading series, and being a publisher, too. Create spaces where you help to nurture and support people who are starting out as much as you were nurtured and supported starting out.

One of my teachers said when you feel resistance to something that means it’s calling to you. Be attuned to yourself. If there’s something you’re not dealing with, it will show up in your writing.

What’s best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Jane Miller taught me it was important to pay attention to my own life. It’s possible to trash your life and get ahead as a writer, but in the long run that strategy never works. What’s the point of writing great poems if you’re miserable? Live a good, balanced, whole life and you will produce interesting work.

I probably stole this, but this phrase is my mantra: Actual world, in it. That’s how I want my writing to be. I think it comes from how I’ve been trained.

When not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

Cooking. It’s predictable, has a specific outcome. I know when I sit down with a pile of ingredients what will come of it, whereas I have no idea when I sit down to write. I like how food brings people together. I love that sense of sharing. I wouldn’t want to be a chef—you never know who you’re cooking for, you make massive quantities of things, and I don’t have the knife skills.

I like to look at art. I like to make music. I’m in a band, The Crank Ensemble.

About Hugh Behm-Steinberg

Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s poems have appeared in Crowd, VeRT, Volt, Spork, Slope, Aught, Swerve, Fence, Cue, Zeek, and Beeswax Magazine. He teaches at California College of the Arts, and is the faculty editor of Eleven Eleven. His books include Shy Green Fields (No Tell Books) and Sorcery (Dusie Chapbook Kollektiv).

(Interview first published on in April 2010.)

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Hugh Behm-Steinberg.” Words With Writers (2010),]

  1. […] Sebastian (2011) Behm-Steinberg, Hugh (2010) Bell, Virginia (2013) Budbill, David (2012) Day, Lucille Lang (2014) Doyle, […]

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