He knows it

Local poet Steve Gehrke ruminates on writing poetry in Northern Nevada

“I don’t have a reliable process which always leads to a poem,” says Gehrke, pictured here.

“I don’t have a reliable process which always leads to a poem,” says Gehrke, pictured here.

Photo By allison young

Steve Gehrke sat back in his chair eating a bagel and cream cheese, with the air of a man at ease—the personification of a sigh of relief. He’d just sent off a manuscript, which will soon be his fourth collection of poems, titled, The New Self.

Gehrke doesn’t see process as some sort of scripture. Many writers say that one must write a specific way (which tends to be their way). Write at night. Write in the morning. Drink a lot. Don’t drink at all. Have a significant other—it will take your mind off your writing. Don’t have a significant other—it takes time away from your writing.

“Every poem is different,” says Gehrke. “I don’t have a reliable process which always leads to a poem. There’s no formula.”

This provides potential to reinvent his process with each new creation or, at the very least, see each individual poem as a different beast.

Weave together

Take “Galena,” the most recent poem from Gehrke. He uses certain ingredients, such as the philosopher Liebniz, his own health issues, being away from his daughter, Chloe, and mining. He takes his notes in scattered places—a piece of scratch paper, or even in the pages of a book—as a way to organize his thoughts. Eventually, he finds a common thread to weave them all together. As a poet, he walks the tightrope between life, death, health, identity and fragmentation. He can, seemingly without effort, waltz from a poem about a bachelor party weekend with old friends, to verses from the point of view of Otto Dix as he sits behind a machine gun in the First World War. His expansive poems are exercises in complexity.

His work arises out of his life and also his career in academia. His poems speak of his separation from Chloe, spending around 60 percent of his time away as a result of Gehrke’s tenure track position at the University of Nevada, Reno. Chloe lives in Pennsylvania with her mother, Nadine Sabra Meyer, Gehrke’s ex-wife, who is also an accomplished poet with a career in academia. Other poems might speak of his health issues from kidney failure—he’s had three kidney transplants throughout the course of his life. Gehrke got a late start on academia, bedridden for a couple of years due to his illness. Gehrke holds that reading the entire time sufficiently prepared him for his studies, leading him to his doctorate from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Themes of irony and identity can be found throughout any one of Steve Gehrke’s three collections in print. The Resurrection Machine (2000), the first, was selected for the John Ciardi Prize. The Pyramids of Malpighi (2004), his sophomore collection, was selected for the Philip Levine Prize (by Levine himself), followed by Michelangelo’s Seizure (2007), which was selected for the National Poetry Series. Gehrke has also won a National Endowment of the Arts grant for his work.

A lot of Gehrke’s work digs deeply into periods of history as well as historical figures themselves, picking a specific person and couching the poem’s perspective within this person, steeped in the emotions and details. Gehrke also turns the poem back on himself, as a way to make this hard-to-access set of emotions and ideas more accessible, which is his ultimate goal: taking something internal, such as an idea or an emotion, and externalizing it, making it universal.

Live poets’ society

His impressive list of credentials, including his position as editor at the Missouri Review, led to UNR hiring him on in the middle of major budget and faculty cuts. At UNR, Gehrke specializes in Creative Writing (Poetry), 19th Century American Literature, and screenwriting. He attended the prestigious University of Texas, Austin’s MFA program, where he chose screenwriting as his secondary emphasis—the same school that movie director Richard Linklater attended. He has several awards for his screenplays as well. His experience in studying the works and biographies of playwrights such as Eugene O’Neil finds its way into his poetry as well, which makes him view poetry as monologue, or even a performance.

Even in the face of economic downturn, he received a $5,000 fellowship from UNR in order for him to conduct research for future projects. He mentions the successes of Christopher Coake and Susan Palwick—two distinguished members of the English program who have published much. Also, writers in UNR’s English program have had significant success, including—but not limited to—Claire Vaye Watkins, who explored the idiosyncratic nature of Nevada in Battleborn, her debut collection of stories. Watkins was recently named one of the National Book Foundation’s “Five Under 35.” Even beyond the university, Gehrke stresses, there’s a community of writers in both Reno and Tahoe to offer support.

“Sundance bookstore is great,” Gehrke adds, “They have poetry readings and are really supportive to poets, especially during national poetry month.”

There’s an idea among faculty to start an MFA program at UNR at some point, where students can pursue advanced degrees in poetry and fiction.

Gehrke notes the striking and beautiful landscape around Reno.

“Also, the openness of the West, the laidback attitude of being—the town is also fascinating, culturally speaking,” he says. “The variety of experiences one can have in Reno is very interesting. The strangeness of being in a casino, then on a university campus, and a half hour later at Lake Tahoe.”

Gehrke makes it almost sound like teleportation.

He describes writing as “Emotionally and intellectually clarifying, rather than therapeutic, because I don’t know that the emotional clarity lasts. I don’t know that it changes you on a day-to-day basis. But it is some sort of understanding before we’re thrown back into the chaos of daily existence, which is where we mostly live.”

For the aspiring poet living in these uncertain times, Gehrke is hopeful. He thinks the competition is good for the art and good for the artists, so long as they can stand to continue to pursue their craft without the promise of any monetary return. But Gehrke has the good fortune of getting paid to do something that he would normally do for free. He quotes one of Frost’s poems, which also might serve as a metaphor for the effect his poetry has had on his own life: “My object in living is to unite/My avocation and my vocation/As my two eyes make one in sight.”