Thursday, June 29, 2023

Meet Gary Stein, Poet Raconteur


Gary Stein has a new poetry collection in 2023 from Finishing Line Press entitled Getting to Heaven [And Other Miracles]. This chapbook presents beautifully with cover art by Susan Makov and contains many accomplished poems published in such prestigious journals as Commonweal, The Atlantic Review, and JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). The Dresser has been following his publishing accomplishments since 2003 when Cabin Fever, The Word Works anthology he co-edited with Jacklyn Potter and Duane Rieves was launched. The Dresser offers the following interview in attempt to expand Gary Stein’s audience.


1.     Your background: Tell us about your literary background and philosophy of writing.


 I was an avid reader as a child and got encouragement for my stories from a sixth-grade teacher.  In college I took elective courses in satire and playwriting.  A one-act play I wrote in the 60’s was performed and positively reviewed in The Washington Post (under the name “Gary Allen”). I was admitted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for fiction writing based on a trio of short stories I submitted.  While there I worked on a novel and lived with poets who became quite successful. We read and heard lots of poetry and hung out with poets including Galway Kinnell and Richard Hugo. Following Iowa, I managed to publish a couple of short stories, failed to publish my novel, but began writing poems. After a couple of years, journals began publishing some of my poems. 


2.      What does writing do for you? What motivates you to write? Why is poetry the genre of choice for you?


I’m embarrassed to say that I’m not aware I have a “philosophy of writing” other than writing to entertain and/or enlighten myself.  Perhaps I’ve chosen poetry as a genre because I enjoy creating condensed images. While practicing law for many years, it was easier to complete a poem than a lengthy work of fiction.


3.     Talk about your book and chapbook achievements and where your latest chapbook Getting to Heaven fits into your overall plan for yourself.


   Thanks to Poets and Writers and “Duotrope”  I’ve been fortunate in learning of and entering competitions permitting me to win first prize for Touring the Shadow Factory, a full-length collection (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2019), and be named a chapbook finalist for Between Worlds (Finishing Line Press, 2014). Earlier this year Finishing Line Press also published my second chapbook, Getting To Heaven (And Other Miracles) which contains some of my older but hopefully more amusing poems.  My “overall plan” is to keep writing poems as long as what I’m capable of producing does not embarrass me.


4.     If you could only pick one poem from Getting to Heaven to read, which would it be?


   Good question.  I might pick the opening poem, “A Bough Falls” because like so many of my poems it tells a story concisely, portrays my Catholic background, and uses imagery I like to think is successful.  If I had a second choice, it would be “Why My Wife Should Let Me Have A Dog” because I think it’s funny.


5.     In Getting to Heaven, who are your influences, and could you talk about your process, possibly in conjunction with the one poem you would favor in the case of being asked to pick only one poem from this collection.


    Although I’ve identified as a Quaker for over 35 years, based on the subject matter and book title, my Catholic childhood and education (from grammar school through college) are strong influences on my subject matter.  Also, having a sense of humor, even about important subjects like religion and spirituality, are reflected in many of these poems. Finally, my life-long love of narrative fiction is reflected in poems that frequently begin with a story. Good examples from the new chapbook include “Crossing El Rio San Pedro, Puebla, Mexico,” “A Bough Falls,” and “Note To My Father As I Near The Age Of His Death.”  My process often begins with a specific event or experience from which I keep writing until I discover its deeper meaning.

To complete the picture of Gary Stein, the Dresser ends with “A Bough Falls.”




Cut loose, betrayed by air it lands

like a lost gift on silent

indifferent earth until found


by a man of faith in an afterlife,

perhaps a priest in his black cassock

who later in a lonely rectory marries


imperfect oak to bundled kindling.

His match, a splinter of grace,

sparks petals of persistent light


into bloom and spreads healing

heat while wood whispers

like an angel in the quiet night.


Isn’t fire just another prayer offered

to cure the darkness in time? 

But every clock winds down


and wood turns to ash, and air

in the chimney chokes

on its smoke. The priest believes


that only when a soul is freed

from its body, like vapor

from the charred log, will it rise.


—Gary Stein

    (first published in Commonweal, May 2022)


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