Friday, December 24, 2010

A Poet's Endurance: Faith, Poems, Love & Loss. A Conversation with Edward Steinhardt


Edward Steinhardt has a tall frame. He is imposing. His shock of blond hair is rather distinguished.  To close friends and family he is called Eddie. At least by friends. There aren't many relatives left. That's because family members have been dropping him off Facebook. All because of a book.

This requires explanation. Edward is a Pulitzer Prize nominated author. He has authored six books and edited two. Four books have come out in the last twelve months. One of them, Letters to Ryan, is about his relationship with a lover addicted to cocaine. It is a diary, really, in poem form. It is a love story. It is about co-dependence. The only problem is the book is not fiction...

Why should this matter? The book is about Edward's relationship with a man named Ryan from around 2000. And his relatives are distancing themselves from the book. They are not happy that Eddie is happy...or should we say gay? And since Letters to Ryan emerged in November, 2010, family members have dropped him off Facebook “like flies” he says. “I guess my family is worried about cross-contamination.”

Edward grew up in a conservative home, which was either Lutheran or Baptist, depending on his father's whim. His father was an itinerant carpenter and a one-time dairy farmer. Sometimes he drank a lot.  And he was emotionally abusive.

On a dairy farm near Bemidji, Minnesota Edward's father was so often drunk, the Lutheran pastor came to visit. Edward smiles as he remembers. “I met him at the gate to the yard. This guy looked just like George C. Scott. And just as gruff.” Edward gives a big hearty laugh. “He wanted to know where dad was. I said, 'Ah... he's sick...' And the minister asks, 'Well, where is he?' And I said, 'Well, he's in the hay-mow.' 
Edward says the pastor turned on his heels, went to the barn, slid the barn door back and climbed the stairs to the hay-mow to where Eddie's father was passed-out. “They were up there a long time,” said Edward.

His father's drinking was a great influence on Edward's life. And cigarettes. He knew at the age of 13 he wanted none of it. Instead, Edward did as he was told, read a lot, and was the model son. “I learned a lot from my dad. He was a hard-worker. He really encouraged my reading. And then when I began to write stories and poems, he was encouraging. But in a silent way.”

Edward interjects there is something to explain at this point. “You have to understand that in my family we did not touch one another. We did not say I love you. We did not hug one another. And there was never a 'good job, Eddie.'”

A lot of the dysfunction manifested itself from the beginning. By the time Edward was a year old, the marriage between his mother and father was finished. And his father was awarded custody of the boy. Until he was six years old, Eddie was raised by both his father and grandparents. But it was not without reward.

Life at his grandparents' house was that of magic, Edward says. It was a large house. It had a ten foot train set system in the basement, a chalkboard, a large mysterious attic, a barn converted to a garage and a two-tier treehouse. And a magical bedroom that had constellations of stars on the ceiling.  Edward wrote about that room in the poem, "The Blue-Papered Room" in his first book, The Painting Birds.

And lots of love. “My grandmother really loved me and I her,” he said. “We really did absolutely adore one another.”

When he was 13 his grandmother confided a secret to her eldest grandson. “She said she and grandpa had considered suing for custody of me. I'm not sure that's information you need to lay on a 13 year-old. It's kind of hard to process—if not impossible. In retrospect, I'm glad it didn't happen. God had other experiences, people and places to experience that would not have have fit into little Allenville, Wisconsin.”

By the time he was 16, Edward began to notice changes. He didn't know what it was then, but it was when depression had begun to assert itself. “I didn't know what was happening. But I definitely was not happy.” He would later learn his father had depression, which he had gotten from his mother.

It was at that time the family became Southern Baptist, Edward was cautious, but accepting. Soon he was out-distancing his family. He found his new-found faith refreshing. Fresh out of high school he also gave the monthly sermons at the two area nursing homes. He was a junior deacon. He was a church officer.  "Ah, those were the days!  You had Mike Warnke on one end and Keith Green on the other!"

But Edward's father was having none of it. “My father then did not wear his faith on his sleeve. He was a quiet man. Actually, at that time, he was in a good place to be. He was at a period of his life where he certainly did not act like many fundamentalists do today, parading their spirituality around. He would often remind me how one should not pray as the Pharisees do, but go into one's closet and pray in secret.” 

“But there was also,” said Edward, a “dichotomy”, an “irony.” “I became so evangelical it was pissing my father off.” Once or twice Edward was asked to leave the house for being so vocal with his Baptist convictions. “I remember when my friend Dave came to pick me up. I remember getting in the car and just silently crying.”

But despite his father's push and pull between a staid Lutheranism and outgoing Southern Baptists, one thing that did not change was his father's maintenance of the family unit. “I don't know how he fed a family of seven. I really don't. We always had food and clothes.” And his stepmother, who had married his father when Eddie was six, he says was a trooper. “What a worker she was. That's why at the end of her life when she was wheelchair and bed-bound due to diabetes, my father cared for her at home. He felt it was his turn to take care of her.”

And his father's work ethic didn't slow. Later, in addition to doing carpenter work, his father also dug graves. “I think when he stopped he had dug some 300 graves—all by hand. And in only the space of time as you can count years on one hand.”

About that time, Edward was a librarian. And he took his youngest brother into his home. And his youngest sister moved in too. “That's what we worked out. Isn't that what family does? Or supposed to do?”

It was about that time things were spiraling out of control for his youngest brother. He was heavy into drugs. On a visit home Edward and his father took his sister's car out for a spin. She'd been having trouble with it. “And the subject of my brother came up. Dad lamented about what was going on. I remember saying, 'Well, geeze, if I'd done that, you would have murdered me for it!' We were driving back to the house and my dad turned to me and said, 'Eddie, there isn't a day that goes by that I don't regret how hard I was on you.'”

Edward gets quiet on this part. “I was stunned. I really was. I didn't think he had any feelings, really, at least towards me. And it was the first time he had apologized. He had a temper you never wanted to experience.”

When Edward reached his early 30s he met a girl where he worked. Soon they were dating, and then engaged. Edward proposed at the conclusion of a program he hosted in the Rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol building.

But the relationship wasn't meant to be. “I was pretty much expected to give up my writing. And I wasn't going to do that. A mate should add to one's life, not take anything away.”

And a couple years later, with the pressure of all his public writing obligations off the table, the poet began what he calls his second “incarnation.” His first book had come out, a hardcover. And he was beginning to meet resistance in the Fundamentalist Christian community. “Honestly,” he says, “a church member actually came up to me and said 'If you're going to write poetry, it must be 'Christian' poetry.'”
“Oh, really,” I said.
“Oh, yes. It must either mention Jesus or God.”
“Hmmm. You mean I can't write about the tree out in the church parking lot?”
“Oh, no.”
“And why not?”
Because it's of this world.”
“Oh, so if the tree falls, either God or Satan has pushed it down? It just isn't God creating the tree and it ages and decays and falls over?”
“Oh, no. Satan is the God of this world.”
“Okay... And I crept away from this woman as fast as I could. But she had touched upon an undercurrent, a belief system that is really out there. And it is wrong. It is narrow-minded.  It is a judgmentalism.  And it is not of God.” 

That's when Edward began to disengage from formal religion. “Sadly, there is no place in Christian Fundamentalism for those in the Arts. I needed to exercise and perfect my gift of writing. And I wasn't about to be confined to someone's particular dogma.”

The second incarnation or stage of Edward's life then began. He resolved to dispense with the public displays of religiosity his father had warned of. Instead Edward became “spiritual.” This, says Edward, is when “you cut off all the fat and you are left with what you really believe, what is really important between you and your Maker.”

Edward was also beginning to concentrate on his personal life. He had been constantly at the service of others, a part-time preacher, arts council president, president of a major writing organization, working on three writing projects for five-time Grammy winner B.J. Thomas, and hob-knobbing with celebrities. Now he was at a place in his life where he could begin to concentrate on himself.

That's when he met Ryan. “Or when Ryan and I met,” corrects Edward. “It was love at first sight. It's not anything that you can explain.”  Edward is quiet for a moment.  "I have never loved someone so much.  I still love Ryan as much as I always did.  He knows it even now."

But one thing is certain, Edward finally had a sense of belonging.  And being where he was supposed to be.  "It was the missing piece of the puzzle.  It really was.  I'd always had feelings for guys.  I just didn't know what they were."  Edward says he finally understood he had those feelings back to when he was at least six years old.  "I remember sitting on the living room floor watching Batman on Grandma and Grandpa's television.  I was so drawn even then to Robin (Burt Ward).  I thought he was so handsome."  Edward laughs at this.  "When I write my autobiography, it's going to be called Robin Made Me Gay & Other Adventures.  It would be so fitting."

But Ryan had a chemical dependency problem. He was on cocaine.  And things became difficult.  "You have to remember I was the so-called model son.  I had never done drugs.  I had no idea of what was involved." And soon Edward says he became the classic co-dependent, one who loves someone on drugs. And all the hop-scotch reactions a sober mate has in counterpoint.

All the while, Edward kept a diary in poem form, most of them love poems. He would read the poems to Ryan.Then because of the circuitous route drug-affected relationships take—whether they be drugs or alcohol—the relationship disintegrated. “It was a tough time,” he says. “I called my dad. I told him what was going on. I said, “You know about Ryan...”
“Yes,” came his response.
“Well, there's something I need to tell you.”
And my dad was quiet.
“Ryan and I are—closer than is socially acceptable.”
At that, my dad immediately says “Don't feel guilty about it.” And he proceeded to tell me how he he had had a gay affair in the Navy.
I could only think, hmmm.

That's when things began to change with his family. And his best friend. When Edward reached out to his best friend, a former presidential marine guard, the friendship abruptly ended when Edward spoke of the relationship with Ryan. “Actually, he said God would kill either Ryan or me or both. I was pretty shocked.”

There wouldn't be any contact between Edward and his best friend for ten years. This year, Edward resolved to get back in touch with his best friend. “I needed to forgive him for what he had done. So I took the first step.” Today, Edward and the man who used to be his best friend keep in contact by email. “It's not the same. But it's something,” says Edward. “One thing I've learned is to practice Jesus' new commandment, “that we love one another.”

It was then that Edward finally began to accept who he was.  "God created me the way I am, as He does everyone.  Nobody wants to be gay.  It's just the way it is.  I mean, how ludicrous would it be to say to your best friend who is straight, 'Okay, Joe, now you have to be gay!  You have to push away those feelings that direct you to be heterosexual.'  That's the point!  It's all about how we are wired.  To pick one obscure verse out of the Old Testament, a book written to the Israelites, then we are also prohibited from eating lobster, from wearing clothing of mixed textiles; we need to stone our rebellious children.  It's also an "abomination" to have a tattoo."  Edward is forceful on this point.  "Christians try to hi-jack the Old Testament, the Torah.  Ask any rabbi.  The Old Testament is viewed as an ever-changing document, much like our U.S. Constitution.  To pick and choose verses to condemn others is nothing short of what Al-Queda does."  Edward's eyes are hard at this point.  And his face has a determined look.  "If Christians want to be literal, then you can have more than one wife, a widow must become married to her husband's brother and you can take another wife from captured enemy combatants."  Edward just shakes his head.  "People who read the Bible can be so uneducated."

For several years, Edward stayed in St. Louis.  "I waited for Ryan a long time."  Then Edward moved to Key West.   There he wrote yet another book, a book of poems, short stories and a play. It was also where Edward encountered a new challenge, when he was suddenly hit by an SUV while driving a scooter. He had to be flown by helicopter to Ft. Lauderdale, a distance of some 150 miles. There doctors began to repair his broken bones. He also had encountered head trauma, with bleeding in the brain. 

That's when Edward first encountered his first instance of being ostracized by family. “My next-oldest sister wouldn't come down from Jacksonville to visit me in the hospital. She gave some lame excuse that the crime was bad.”

Only then did Edward realize he was now regarded as the heathen in the family. After he was released from the hospital, he was bedridden for two months. His sister gave no offer of assistance. And when Edward needed to borrow money to pay his rent while he was confined to bed, he reached out to his sister. “I asked her for a $200 loan,” he said. “There was no response. Nada. I even emailed her a second time.”

This change of events did not sit well with Edward's spiritual sensibilities. “Geeze, what is it about Matthew 25:35-40 that Christians do not get?” (“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Then the good people will ask him, "Lord when did we see you hungry and give you food? When did we see you thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in? When did we see you needing clothes and give you clothes? When did we see you sick or in prison and come to see you?" The King will answer them, "I tell you the truth. What you did for even the smallest of these people you did for me. They are my brothers.").  "I mean, Jesus was strictly for the underdog," says Edward.  "If your brother is in prison, then he has done something wrong, right?  And is less than perfect?"

If that wasn't enough Edward returned to Missouri two and a half years later. He was welcome in his father's home until his father's new wife of three years began to drive a wedge between father and son. “It was horrible,” said Edward. “I may not have much to show for my life in material things, but I think I do have a pretty good body of work in as far as literature. And this woman comes out of nowhere to make problems between my father and I. She said I could go live in the homeless shelter in Camdenton. She said she'd bring my mail to me. She even typed up this long letter asking 'what had I done with my life?' I should 'be married and have children. And a house.' Holy cow.”

Letters to Ryan has been nominated for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. And Edward's other new books have been favorably received. They include Papa's Big Fish: Stories of Youthful Adventure at the Hemingway's in Key West, Standing Pelican: Key West Poems & Stories and Sleeping with Rilke: Poems & Prayers. A big review on Standing Pelican appeared in all the major cities in November.

Edward is circumspect. “We can talk here all day about going back for the lost sheep, not judging others, reconciling with your brother, or loving one another. But some who profess to be Christian are conditional in their love, completely at odds with Christ's precepts. We can sit here and quote, 'let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Edward is quiet a moment. “There are a lot of glass houses.”

Any relatives buy any books? “Nope,” said the noted author. “I guess they are worried people will find out that their brother, their cousin, or their nephew is gay. That's rural Missouri for ya.”

But there is sometimes a silver lining. Or the making of lemonade out of lemons. “My family will achieve their own revivals on their own. And on the precepts that Jesus spoke. Imagine having family members compose your father's obituary and intentionally leave out his first marriage, his marriage to my mother? My mother would find that very interesting.  Talk about revisionist history."

Edward recently learned his natural mother is still alive. And they are back in contact through letters.  She lives in Indiana. He has only met her once. “I aim to visit her in the spring. Anyway, isn't spring for renewal?”

This month Edward will finish a contemporary thriller, which right now numbers 500 pages. “Not to quote Tennessee Williams, 'writing is what keeps me alive.' The writing."  Edward says writing to him is like the winding of a watch.   "Two dear friends, a couple in their 90s have just been absolutely lovely to me. Eugenia said to me recently, “Ed, did I tell you about my dream? There was Jesus and God. And they said to me, 'We have given your friend Ed the gift of writing.'” Isn't that classy? It's awesome. It's a lot bigger than the review that said I 'read better than Faulkner.'”

Edward says he realizes change is sometimes slow in coming. “You can't force someone to love you. You can only lead them to the Lord who is love.  Because Christ is a lord of love, not hate.  You take the sum balance of what Jesus said, where does he advocate hatred or judgment of another?" And ostracizing a family member?  "Well, that their spirit and conscience might be pricked for doing such a thing. For truly, what is it that we do not do for others that we should? That we are caught in a net of our comfortableness? Of complacency? Of judging how one may love another? And who is a brother? Jesus stated his case. He would have been a good lawyer. He said, 'I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'”

“Do you think they know?” I ask Edward. 

“No. Because they don't bother to ask.”

For the last year Edward has lived largely out of his car. He lost his job in 2008 after a work-related back injury, and his unemployment ran out this month. He's one of the so-called '99-ers,' who are not part of Obama's unemployment insurance extension.

He shrugs. “Family, what is that? I don't know.” He said when he asked his siblings where his father's Bible was after the funeral, there was no response. Then the woman who had recently married his father said, “It's being kept in the family.” “What do you mean it's being 'kept in the family.?' Then I knew. I was no longer part of it.”

Edward says he and his father reconciled by phone four days before his father died.  He asked Edward to forgive him for what had happened at the house.  And of the woman who drove the wedge between father and son?  "He said he had scolded her royally for what she had done," Edward says.   "He said he was home alone.  He said, 'I was sitting on the porch here and feeling kinda down.  And I thought I would try you one more time.  I'm glad you answered,' he said.  I said, 'I am, too.'  He wanted me to come to see him.  'You comin' out tomorrow?'"   Edward was supposed to do a book signing at the Lake of the Ozarks.  "But my brakes had gone out.  And I couldn't go."  His father died four days later.  But not before dipping into the Bible.  "I told him on the phone that I was probably going through my Job period.  And he said 'Who?'  And I said, 'You know, Job of the Old Testament.'"  Later, Edward learned that his father's Bible was open to the Book of Job when he died.

Asked what he will be doing this holiday season, Edward says the St. Louis YMCA will be closed on Christmas Day. He says he will have to find another place to work on his novel. He passed the 500 page mark today. 

And he has bought a sleeping bag. “I didn't know they were rated. 50-degrees, 30-degrees, etc. The temperature drops below 30, I guess rigor mortis sets in. At least in St. Louis."  Edward recently returned to his hometown of St. Louis.

Life is a challenge. And he looks for the book he is finishing to be 'the book.' But one thing is certain, he says. “I never changed. I am the same Eddie I always was. Someone else moved the door so I am on the outside looking in.”

He says he prays for the hard hearts of his relatives. “Everybody wants things to be easy. When my brothers and sisters come to me in the next few years and want advice on the depression that they are are already experiencing and ask, “How did you do it, Eddie? How did you get through it? I guess it would be 'family,' those who stepped forward and were there for me. We're not talking about money. We're talking about someone who is there and who is closer than a brother. When love is unconditional.”

And Ryan?  "Love is noble. And I'd do it over ten times again. If Letters to Ryan can help just one person who has a loved one on drugs, then the book will have done it's job."  The book about Ryan has an Introduction by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (Gary Hirshberg)  and an Afterword by a Ph.D (Dr. Jane Anton) on things to look for in selecting a good therapist. 

Edward says that with appearance of Letters to Ryan, the book has taken on a life of its own.  "It has grown beyond Ryan and I."  He says readers enjoy it for the love story.  For the poetry. For the tales and lessons of co-dependency.  Or the ostracization.  "What family and friends wind up doing is an old-fashioned Amish shunning.  It is a Matthew Shepard death in slow motion," says Edward.  He points to the book and film Prayers for Bobby, about a young man named Bobby Griffith who jumped off an overpass to escape his family's condemnation of his sexual orientation.  "It's about being caught in the space between the windows, really.  Between Bobby and Matthew."  Edward is silent for a moment.  "If I subscribed to reincarnation, then the persecutor would later become the persecuted, wouldn't they?  Wouldn't that be the perfect judgment?  But that wouldn't be practicing the Golden Rule.  ("And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." Luke 6:31)

Edward says he tries to dwell on the positive.  He writes every day.  And he says he is very blessed to be able to write.  And to make a difference.  "Sometimes things become bigger than we are.  That's why God put us here.  To make a difference.  And if what I have written helps just one person who has a loved one on drugs, just one young person who has been ostracized from his family, or just one person who suffers from a family wall of silence, then I have done my job.  As for everything else, I am a richer and better person for it.”

What is Edward's favorite quote?  "I have two.  Corrie ten Boom used to say, 'KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid!'  My other favorite is Lincoln.  'I will study and get ready and someday my chance will come.'"  Edward says that is what his writing career is all about.  He says there is a certain inertia in knowledge.  "I hate to say it, but there is power in knowledge.  And also that history always repeats itself."

Does the St. Louis author have any New Year's resolutions?  "Yes," he says.  "Beginning in 2011 I want to write at least two books a year.  That's my goal."  Edward says his fiction writing comes fast.  He said the Hemingway historical novel, Papa's Big Fish: Stories of Youthful Adventure at the Hemingway's in Key West was written in ten consecutive days.  "I tried to do it in seven, but I couldn't!"  he says laughing.  "It took longer to type up the book than to write it."

"Our past is our beginning," says the writer.  He says his grandfather recycled to him all his Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen magazines.  And his dad used to buy him five or six books once a quarter from Scholastic through school.  "Oh, my!," he says.  "I read any book that had the word 'mystery' or 'secret' in the title."  Later, when he tried to get Phyllis A. Whitney to do an endorsement for his second book of poetry (Dandelion Dreams and Other Poems), she demurred, saying poetry wasn't her thing and her eyesight was bad.  "But she said, 'But I do like your title!"

Edward has gotten many accolades for his writing.  Richard Wilbur, in a long endorsement, said (in part) that Edward's work was "precisely evocative."   Robert Creeley said Steinhardt's work demonstrated "values and feelings still possible in our world."   And the November review of his Key West book said his short story "Johnny Bible" was "a brilliant effort by a writer to show how obsession begets regret, how solitariness becomes loneliness and the how the spirit can be lifted and dropped in an instant."  Edward gets quiet at this point.  "That kinda reminds me of my family." 

And what is most important to the poet?  "Honesty.  True love.  The love of Jonathan and David.  When you have taken the log that is in your eye and thrown it into the fireplace where it belongs.  And emptied the stones from your pockets.  And a world where there are no longer any lost sheep.  Most of all, it's being true to your self.  And whoever's arms you happen to fall asleep in."

"And understanding," Edward adds.  "It's a big bad world sometimes.  The difference is whether you find yourself in the darkness of hate or the light of love.  And to see things from outside the box; outside ourselves." 

In his new book, Sleeping with Rilke: Poems & Prayers, Edward has a poem written to his sister Sarah called “Summer and Smoke.”

(in excerpt)

Sarah, my dear,
This all reminds me
Of fall, cold evenings
And burning leaves.
It's that memory,
Caught in a nose,
But remembered nonetheless.
Remember how we stood there
Above the smoking leaves,
Silently seeing
Our prophecy apart;
You later taking
On the Holy Ghost?
I can even hear you say—
In your disdain—
Praying for my mortal soul,
“Well, you know,
Eddie's gone—Whitman.”
And I think
Back to those days,
Heaping on the fire
The leaves and grass;
You falling down,
And laughing
Through your tears.
For before you
Ever thought I was
Spiritually broke,
I was the big brother
You always adored.
I guess things
Are never what they appear—
Just a lot of sleight of hand
(Or sleight of heart)—
And summer and smoke.