Editor's Note: Stephen's debut collection of poems, Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscape, won the 2015 Unicorn Press First Book Award and was a finalist for an Eric Hoffer Award and the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry. He has also been the recipient of a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Arts Council.
How would you describe your job to someone you just met?
I’m responsible for a lot of odds and ends here, but broadly I’m a knowledge resource for the store. I evaluate store processes for efficiency, consistency, and safety. I take care of the building and the people in it. I also oversee used book buying at this location.
Last book you loved:
by Chelsea Dingman and Silencer
by Marcus Wicker are the first two that come to mind, but there have been so many amazing poetry books released in the past year.
Where are you originally from?
National Poetry Month
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Poughkeepsie, New York.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
What did you do before you came to Powell’s?
I taught literature and creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. Just before I started working for Powell’s, I also began teaching online for Northeastern University. I stopped teaching in 2014.
What is the best part of your job?
I get called to solve problems of all kinds, from procedural to personal. I take a lot of satisfaction from untangling the knots and finding the solutions.
Share your favorite customer quote.
“Do you have facial recognition software?” We don’t.
When you’re not reading, what do you like to do in your free time?
I have two young daughters, and I spend every moment I can with them. I play with dolls a lot and eat imaginary food. When I’m up late, I play video games. When I’m up early, I write poetry. Anything else that wants to contend for my time has a steep mountain to climb. The dishes sometimes pile up.
What’s your favorite spot in Portland?
Belmont Station has the best beer selection, so…
Why do you think bookstores remain so popular in the digital age?
We remember our own lives moving around in the background of our reading.
When we read a book we love, we’re not solely interested in a plot and its characters. The physical book and its story both become focal points for the rest of our daily experience. I’ll never forget where I was when I read certain books: the city, the season, the smell of the air. Or the smell of the air at a certain time of year will remind me of a particular book. We remember our own lives moving around in the background of our reading. I can’t speak for everyone and I believe there are lots of answers to this question, but walking through a bookstore is like walking through a magic shop. You’re surrounded by potentiality, by future circumstances. Some items you need right now and some you might need down the road, but you get to select them… I don’t know anything that replicates that feeling.
Recommend a book you think everyone should read.
I don’t believe there’s a single book that everyone will like, but I constantly recommend Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
. It’s a book that’s never loosened its hold on me. Anyone passing through the store looking for poetry in the last several months has had some combination of Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied
, Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf
, and Maggie Smith’s Good Bones
placed into their hands by me.
Walk us through your favorite route when browsing books at Powell’s.
I start with a long walk around the Blue Room — Lit, Small Press, Lit mags, Poetry. I check Sci-fi/Fantasy recommendations in the Gold Room. I make a quick stop in the Red Room to see what we have in the Swedish language section. Then up to the Pearl Room, where I get overly ambitious in math, engineering, computers, and the history of science. After all that, I’m still going to stop in the Poetry section again on my way out.
Do you collect any particular types of books?
Not in the rare or valuable sense of book collecting, but all of my Haruki Murakami titles are the black-and-white UK Vintage editions, which is partly an aesthetic preference and partly a function of when and where I first read them. Aside from that, I have a lot of engineering and industrial design books published between 1900 and 1970. Watching the accepted science, methodology, and available materials change through the 20th century is fascinating. There’s sort of a grand story overarching those books on my shelves.
Do you have any odd reading habits or book rituals?
Nothing I’d call odd, but I carry a backpack with me pretty much everywhere I go. Its standard load is 3 books of poetry, a novel, and a nonfiction book, and I read whichever genre is called for by the weather, location, available time, and alignment of the planets. My current load is Trouble in Mind
by Lucie Brock-Broido, Transtrender
by Manuel Arturo Abreu, The Visible
by Bruce Bond, Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward, and It's Just Nerves
by Kelly Davio.
What’s your favorite book of all time?
This is impossible. But let’s say desert island book? Winter Stars
by Larry Levis.