The Poetics of Techno-Existentialism

An Interview with Steven D. Schroeder

by Kenneth J. Pruitt

Steven D. Schroeder doesn’t like profiles. “From my end,” he said in our concluding in-person interview for this article, “the poems speak for themselves. If someone has questions for me, I’m perfectly happy to go along with those. I don’t think, ‘Oh, we need to talk about X more.’ Because if I wanted to talk about X more, I’m gonna throw it in the poem, and that’s how I talk about X more.”

The X of Schroeder’s new poetry collection, Wikipedia Apocalyptica (swallow::tale press, $16), is the complicated techno-existentialism of our contemporary Western life. Schroeder works as a Creative Content Manager for a financial marketing agency in the St. Louis area, a job that provides no shortage of opportunities to dwell on the shortcomings of late capitalism. He also edits the online literary journal $ (Poetry Is Currency), whose manifesto is explicitly anti-capitalist and radically inclusive.

Schroeder sees himself, though, “ultimately as a writer because that’s what I’m doing all the time. I stopped editing for quite a while, and obviously I missed it because I started again. I think the editing serves the literary community and my own writing. If you set aside the poetry aspect of it, I’m at least as much an editor as a writer.”

Despite how utterly contemporary the poems in his new collection feel, Schroeder says he’d begun drafting them in 2012, long before the idea of a Trump presidency or a global pandemic were a fathomable reality. The following exchange took place over a couple of weeks in a shared online document, perhaps a perfect space for writers to muse on poetics and their practical ramifications.

Kenneth J. Pruitt: I’d love to start with how the book’s poem titles are ordered: Many of them are roughly in reverse alphabetical order. Given the title of the book, how interested are you in playing with expectations of a “wiki” as an encyclopedia of information?

Steven D. Schroeder: There are multiple aspects of wikis in general, and Wikipedia in particular, that I find appropriate as a title and thematic organizer for this book. First, their frequently edited nature, which pairs well with how much I tinker with individual poems and the overall manuscript. Second, the potentially valuable information coming at you in a barrage that can easily get overwhelming. Third, the amusing but harrowing petty power struggles that go on over even trivial topics.

Wikipedia is, in many ways, a valuable resource and a mind-boggling accomplishment. In other ways, it’s a fascinating car wreck and/or trash fire, and it seems tied into a lot of the techno-dystopian elements we’re currently dealing with that I’m trying to evoke with these poems.

KJP: The car wreck/trash fire aspect is so ripe for exploration. In lots of popular dystopic visions, we often have lies being sold as truth. I remember as a teacher telling my students they weren’t even allowed to cite Wikipedia as a source. Granted, that was 15 years ago. The question remains: How reliable are the speakers of this wiki? Is authorial integrity being toyed with here, too?

SDS: There are certainly fights over “truth” or “facts” on Wikipedia pages, but also a legion of unintentional errors. Beyond that, the occasional completely unparseable sentences irk me but are nonetheless in the spirit of language mangling I perform. I very much hope readers will have at least a dash of skepticism reading my book, which may not be entirely trustworthy. Or maybe that’s just my excuse if any typos got past my proofreading.

KJP: So many of the poems throughout the book use a first-person plural pronoun. Often it feels like a moral indictment, albeit inclusive of the speaker, of the reader’s complicity in the decay that occurs in this apocalypse. What is the emotional response you hope for in your reader with this constant repetition of “we/us”?

SDS: One of my reasons for the first-person plural calls back to the internecine wiki editor battles I mentioned: the idea of a supposed collective that’s actually deeply divided and fights among itself (themselves?), as the “we” narrator does in multiple poems here. I think of it as a lie the group tells both internally and as a front for outsiders.

Another reason is, as you say, complicity. I want to remind the reader (not to mention myself) that we’re almost always at least a little implicated in those situations where the “we” is in the wrong. Self-examination can help prevent this kind of poetry from being overly self-righteous.

In poems where the “we” is the wronged or oppressed party, I’d like it to suggest standing together against whatever force. Third person in those situations can come across as voyeuristic, and an “I” narrator might seem appropriative of experiences that aren’t mine, even if the mode isn’t realist.

KJP: I’m inferring a lot of first-hand knowledge about being a wiki content generator. Is that a world that you’re familiar with? Can you say more about what that world is like? It’s so fascinating to me.

SDS: Though I’ve made a few Wikipedia edits through the years, most of my knowledge comes from observation, wanting to know how things work. The talk and history tabs of contentious Wikipedia pages can be amazing if you’re wonky like me. Kooks using sock-puppet accounts to maintain their own self-aggrandizing bios, rejection of factual edits with cited sources on the grounds that they’re “opinion,” etc. I’d never get deeply involved with that subculture.

KJP: Though it’s never heavy-handed, you do grapple with current systemic inequities like racism in the book. And you also name these systems in the “about” section of the literary magazine you help run, $ (Poetry is Currency). How do you toe the line between engaging with the issues of our day and finger-wagging at your reader? I’m thinking here of a poem like “Official Incident” and how it takes the structure of a prepared press statement, which brings to mind so many deaths of unarmed Black citizens at the hands of police.

SDS: It's a tough line to walk for sure. The ways I handle it are “very carefully” and perhaps “not all that well according to some people.” I try to use absurdist wit to finesse dark subject matter into the reader’s mind, and sonics and wordplay to make the poems more of a pleasure to recite and hear. On the other hand, I’m happy to buck the line of thinking that poetry should be timeless or apolitical, as if the issues I’m talking about aren’t age-old and woven into every aspect of our lives.

In fairness, I’m wary of the tendency to write and publish topical reaction poetry much too quickly—Knopf released an anthology of pandemic poetry in November 2020, which comes across like media outlets that have pre-written obituaries ready to rush out in case of celebrity deaths. However, I also regularly see statements like the one that sparked a recent Twitter ruckus by suggesting you should never use pop culture references for fear of dating your work. As with so much of writing, it all comes down not to whether you include contemporary specifics, but how well.

KJP: Overall, most of the poems in the book are not only acutely aware of themselves as poems, but as vessels of some attempt at a capital-t-Truth. Yet, they’re overwhelmingly, winkingly sarcastic in tone. How do you see the role of humor in these poems as a means to get to the more serious themes they point toward?

SDS: A long time ago, one of my poetry friends told me that my poems start by making people want to laugh, but then punch them in the gut instead—the funny is the foot in the door. It wasn’t a conscious choice at first. I have an instinct to be funny, but also a learned tendency to go dark. At this point, it seems like I’ve developed that combination into a 90% of a poetic voice.

KJP: I don’t disagree. I’m also thinking of a poem you read at a St. Louis Poetry Center reading late last year that was an absurdist take on end notes. Though the poem was really dark, the audience was absolutely cracking up. Is there a point where the humor detracts from the seriousness of the themes of the poems?

SDS: Probably so. On one hand, I don’t necessarily mind if one of my poems goes a little too heavy on the ridiculous humor and becomes more of a grotesque litany of jokes. On the other hand, I think my instinct turns toward serious relevance quickly enough that it doesn’t happen to me too often. There’s always a point in my writing where I read a line and think “Am I still just being funny here, or am I starting to bring the weight?”

KJP: I initially always think of you as a writer of ideas, meaning that you’re typically creating narrative poems that rather concisely posit a way to view the world. However, there are some gorgeous lines in these poems (“The fastest route out retreats // faster than that. Whatever the threat…” from “Officer Lost in a Logistics Office”). Does this attention to the sonic, more lyrical aspects of the poem happen while drafting the story of the poem, or does that occur elsewhere in the process?

SDS: You don’t have to attend many readings before you realize sound isn’t a priority for a lot of contemporary poets. I’m always thinking about the sound of poems, even in the little phrases I write in notebooks, from internal rhyme and assonance to anaphora and the beat of a line. However, those earliest stages are almost always silent, until a certain point in drafting when I read the poem out loud to myself for the first time. That’s a critical step, mandatory for all my poems.

I always try to balance the sonics with the more communicative aspects. There are poems I adore that lean far more heavily on the pure sound than my brain will let me. (Donna Masini’s “Mindscreen” is an example.) I’d like to break through to that sort of subconscious or irrational space more, but it’s a rarity.

KJP: I also want to discuss the difference between injecting surrealism into one’s poems and doing intentional world-building that has surreal aspects to its reality. Can you explain that difference and which side of that spectrum you find yourself most drawn to as a poet?

SDS: I want things to be systematic, to know the “why” of them. That probably comes in part from my childhood love of fantasy and science fiction novels. My poems aren’t telling a single interwoven story in a single world by any means—I lack the attention span. My absurdism simply has a framework by which it can be understood as one aspect of a whole, rather than the strange juxtapositions being the point.

I don’t demand the same thing in my reading. Even poems with similar forms and themes can be quite surrealistic with great results. For example, Matthea Harvey’s delightful “Future of Terror” and “Terror of the Future” post-apocalyptic poem series, a big influence on my book, tend more in that direction.

KJP: Sometimes I wonder if I leaned toward poetry because it absolved me of the duties of worldbuilding over the course of a novel or a screenplay or some kind of longer work. That being said, I also know you’re into fantasy and sci-fi. Who are some writers in those genres whom you admire who do that better than poets do?

SDS: The Lord of the Rings, which I’ve read at least a dozen times, is a formative influence for me (though I don’t think you need to create your own languages and thousands of years of lineages to be a successful poet). Another fantastic worldbuilder who creates vivid speculative milieus that tie into important contemporary issues is Octavia Butler. I particularly recommend the Patternist series (start with Wild Seed). Plenty of others spring to mind: Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, George R. R. Martin, N. K. Jemisin, Ann Leckie.

KJP: It’s hard not to read your 9-to-5 professional life into “Words Revised by the Client.” As a poet with a full-time job that doesn’t involve poetry, how does the moneymaking aspect of your life as an American with a job inform your artistic life? What’s the symbiosis?

SDS: It’s not just a moneymaking job, it’s a moneymaking job focused on money! I work for a marketing agency whose main clients are banks, insurance companies, investment firms, etc. The consuming nature of capitalism and the Kafkaesque uncaring inefficiency of business feature heavily in this book, explicitly and spiritually. That said, my job also provides a solid separation between employment and personal life, so I’m not completely burned out when I write creatively.

KJP: You’re a really good performer of your own poems. Do you imagine your ideal reader reading them aloud? Do you think of your poems living primarily visually on the page or in the mouth of the reader—or both?

SDS: My imagined audience for a poem is usually myself if I were coming to it without any prior knowledge. (I know that’s solipsistic, but I’m realistic about the average size of the poetry audience.) In my poems, one thing that approach means is that I want a poem that’s engaging both on the page and aurally.

I’ve learned through long experience which of my poems perform better aloud. Despite how this answer began, I love my work making a live connection with an appreciative audience, and it’s something I’m pretty good at. Zoom readings, on the other hand, are a weird form of solitary-confinement torture for me as a reader.

Thank you for these thoughtful, detailed questions. My reflexive response in these sorts of situations is glib jokes, and this interview demanded more of me.

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