Michael (Gregory) Stephens Biography
Michael Stephens comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Washington, D.C., 1946. Education: City College of New York, B.A. and M.A. 1976; Yale University, M.F.A. in drama 1979. Career: Assistant professor of communications, Fordham University, 1979-85; lecturer, Columbia University, 1977-91; lecturer, Princeton University, 1987-91; lecturer, New York University, 1989-91, 1994-95; Gertz Professor of Writing, Alfred University, 1991. Public relations specialist, The Asia Society, 1992-93; Comptroller's Office, Audit Bureau of the City of New York, 1992. Since 1994 editor, Flatiron News. Awards: Fletcher Pratt Prose fellowship, Breadloaf Writers Conference, 1971; New York State Arts award, 1976; Associated Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction, 1993, for Green Dreams.
Season at Coole. New York, Dutton, 1972.
Still Life (novella) . New York, Kroesen, 1978.
Shipping Out (novella) . Cambridge, Massachusetts, Apple Wood, 1979.
The Brooklyn Book of the Dead. Normal, Illinois, Dalkey Archive, 1994.
Paragraphs. New York, Mulch Press, 1974.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Red Black and Whitey Greene," in Provincetown Review, 1968.
"The Hare Apparent," in Evergreen Review, February 1971.
"Prospecting," in Evergreen Review, May 1971.
"The Last Poetry Reading," in Tri-Quarterly, (26), 1973.
"Meat Lust," in Broadway Boogie, (2), 1974.
"Two Stories: 'Hemingway in Paris' and 'Mooney's Bartleby,"' inMulch, (5), 1974.
"In Praise of Earwigs," in The Falcon, (13) Fall 1983.
"The Thug," in North American Review, 268(1), March 1983.
"In Memory," in Kairos, 1(3), 1984.
"MASH Bureau," in Exquisite Corpse, 3(9-10), September-October1985.
Walking Papers," in Other Voices, 1(1), 1985.
"Eight Ruins," in Exquisite Corpse, 4(5-8), May-August 1986.
"The Fights," in Ontario Review, (25), Fall-Winter 1986-87.
"Bronx Fighter," in Ontario Review, (28), Spring-Summer 1988.
"Everlast," in The Equator Hot Type Anthology. New York, Scribner, 1988.
"Travels in Mexico," in Hanging Loose, (55), Fall 1989.
"The Sixth Man," in Witness, Spring 1989.
"Still Life with Anjou Pears," in Fiction International, 1990.
"Scrambled," in Writ (Toronto), Spring 1990.
"Tomato Cans," in Writ (Toronto), Summer 1991.
"Revenge," in Manoa, 3(2), Fall 1991.
"Five Jack Cool," in The Black Pig, Imagining America, edited byWesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York, Persea, 1991.
Off-Season Rates (produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1978).
Cloud-Dream (produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1979).
Our Father (produced New York, 1984; London, 1985). In Our Father and Other Plays, 1995; published as Our Father: A Play, New York, Spuyten Duyvil, 1997.
Circles End (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985).
R & R (produced New York, 1985).
Horse (produced New York, 1986) . In Kairos Magazine (New York), 2(2), 1988.
Adam's Curse (produced New York, 1987).
Walking Papers (produced New York, 1987).
Cracow (produced New York, 1988).
Our Father and Other Plays. New York, Spuyten Duyvil, 1995.
Alcohol Poems. Binghamton, Loose Change Press, 1973.
Tangun Legend. Iowa City, Iowa, Seamark Press, 1978.
Circles End (includes prose) . New York, Spuyten Duyvil, 1982.
Translations. New York, Red Hanrahan, 1984.
Jigs and Reels. New York, Hanging Loose Press, 1992.
After Asia. New York, Spuyten Duyvil, 1993.
The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.
Lost in Seoul and Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula. NewYork, Random House, 1990.
Green Dreams: Essays Under the Influence of the Irish. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994.
"Interview with Michael Stephens" by Jerome Klinkowitz, in Tri-Quarterly, 1975; "Michael Stephens," by Klinkowitz, in his The Life of Fiction, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1977; by John O'Brien, in Adrift, Winter 1983-84.
I am a writer comfortable with writing in many different genres of writing, but I always perceive of poetry being the essence of all my work. By that I don't mean a vague impressionism informing, say, my prose, but rather the rigorous linguistic pursuit of le mot juste, as Flaubert called it; and also being concise, emotionally charged in the language, seeing that every experience has its own unique rhythms, that there are no ideas but in things, as Dr. Williams wrote, and like Olson, that writing is about breath and syllable, even prose and playwriting. What else? Writing is a love affair, sometimes amorously beautiful, though often a dogged curse, just the way love is, its face always changing. As Yeats wrote, I see writing being cold and passionate, at once, and forever.
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An Irish lyricism contesting with the harsher features of lower-middle-class American life has distinguished Michael Stephens's work from inception through maturity. As the child and grandchild of immigrants from Counties Clare and Mayo and raised in a large family where Irish-Americanism was both cultural treasure and battle flag, Stephens crafts a verbal song that contends with and eventually transforms the sordid details of dysfunctional social life into a magic realism that is ultimately redeeming of the creative self.
Season at Coole details just such a family. Gathering together for Christmas eve, its forces are at once centrifugal and centripetal, and from these contrary energies Stephens derives a structure that allows both descriptive coverage and exuberance of language. The circumstance at hand is so volatile that similes mix and collide in attempts to express it, particularly the enmity between the alcoholic father and his schizophrenic eldest son, "for this Christmas he and the old man had decided to go off the edge of the planet like a brace of ducks in orange sauce together, a duet for father and son." Following an initial chapter that introduces the family and details the father's boozy, inept, and disconcerting violence, the novel continues with a chapter for each of the grown siblings, followed by briefer looks at the mother and the three youngest children off in their own world in attic rooms above. Each family member is seeking escape, pursuing it in such ways as madness, drugs, alcohol, crime, sex, art, alcohol-induced religious visions, physical training, prepubescent love, and sports. Matters are resolved when the mother and her children stand up to the father's attempt to functionalize them in their roles, divesting him of "his excuses"—a technique with validity in therapy as well as in art.
Stephens followed this compactly written but large-scale first novel with an exercise in exquisite miniaturization, the novella Still Life. Beckettian in concept and slapstick in execution, it focuses its 90 spare pages on the attempt of a Buster Keaton-like protagonist, Buster Shigh ("pronounced 'Shee,' like the good people"), to shimmy up the drainpipe when drunk and locked out of his room. Rendered like a painted still life, there is little action other than this self-contained flurry that gets absolutely nowhere. Yet in the process Stephens's comic protagonist is all liveliness, proving that "still, life goes on," an echo of Samuel Beckett's epigraph cited in Season at Coole that "all is not then yet quite irrevocably lost." A second novella, Shipping Out, extends this Irish lyricism by mixing it with another element, the Hispanic, which the author had absorbed in his adopted upper West side Manhattan neighborhood. Here he creates a character named Rico O'Reilly, who, in working as a dishwasher on a trans-Atlantic liner, experiences the exotic life among ship hands beneath decks.
Even shorter prose works offer clues to Stephens's method, such as the physical sensuosity of language in Paragraphs and competing definitions of time in Circles End. Language as a body and one's body itself as a grammar of experience motivate the vignettes of Jigs and Reels. These concerns are studied in The Dramaturgy of Style: Voice in Short Fiction, a critical meditation on the role of voice in fiction. Autobiographically, Lost in Seoul and Other Discoveries on the Korean Peninsula characterizes the author's marriage into a happy Korean family as Season at Coole virtually inside out and upside down, whereas Green Dreams: Essays Under the Influence of the Irish reclaims his parents' heritage as well as his own, particularly its artistically linguistic features. "I found the song of the savage and the antisocial, of the outlaw and even the misfit as tuneful as anything from the world of reason and responsibility and intelligence," Stephens writes.
Even if my father did not write and could not sing and had not been in a battle for many years, I think perhaps there was more than a touch of that ancient, maniac Celt in him, and when he drank I knew he discovered that the sound of English was ridiculous and barbarian, that the only way to quell the thirst for the ancient words he no longer remembered—was to drink.
In The Brooklyn Book of the Dead, Michael Stephens draws on over two decades of work to produce what critics consider his masterpiece. In subject matter it is a sequel to Season at Coole, for 25 years afterwards the family is being once more reunited, this time for the father's wake and burial. This time chapters focus on the children's responses to the father's influence on what has become their lives; to some extent each can now appreciate how his crazed tyranny has forced them into a style of art in order to survive. Yet it is the innocent, hopeful second-youngest brother of the first novel, Terry, who is seen as the most desolate at the end of this narrative. Almost literally stripped naked and propelled not to an intended future but confusedly into the past, he is left crying piteously for the mother circumstances have denied him.
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