Interview with writer and educator Scott H. Urban, in which he discusses his work and aesthetic, establishing his small-press literary journal Frisson, and his involvement with the Wilmington Writers' Forum.
Malpass: Today is November 12, 2007. This is Chris Malpass with Jerry Parnell for the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History Project. Today we'll be talking with Scott Urban, a poet and author who has taught high school English and creative writing and is currently the vice principal of Myrtle Grove Middle School here in Wilmington. Thanks for talking with us today, Scott.
Urban: Thanks for having me here.
Malpass: Talk to us a little bit about the formative influences on you as a writer. Did you come from a creative family?
Urban: Okay. Well my family wasn't particularly creative in the way that you're probably asking it, however I was lucky that they never tried to hold me back nor did they try to censor anything. So pretty much anything was open and out there for me to get my grubby little hands on. And I enjoyed reading from I mean the time I can earliest remember. I mean I've always enjoyed picking up books and reading. I don't know what other folks in the series have been talking about or telling you about their influences, but I'll be here and I'll be the- probably the largest supporter of genre writing that you can find or that you'll have 'cause from the earliest- my earliest love is I mean comic books. I mean Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Incredible Hulk, all of that is what I quote cut my teeth on, so to speak, Amazing Spiderman, that's what I enjoyed reading from the very get go. And from there it wasn't terribly long until I found what was at the time for me, mid to late 60s, what would have been the pulp fiction for that time. And that would've been Hardy Boys, which you could still find in hardback in that time, Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators and Tom Swift. I mean those and comic books were my pulp fiction of the day. If I'd been back in the 30s and 40s I would've been reading the Pulp magazines. In the 60s and early 70s that's what young boys were reading and getting into. There's a couple of Nancy Drew's in there as well but I found out she never took her blouse off so it wasn't as exciting. But that's- and then from there it didn't take me very long to find the things that I've kind of enjoyed and have kept with. Before long it was only a short hop from that to Edgar Allen Poe who I always enjoyed, H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, the formative science fiction writers, and then on to the more contemporary writers of genre fiction. It was just something that I've always enjoyed.
Malpass: Can you remember anyone specifically, perhaps a teacher, that introduced you to more of the canon books that you eventually found?
Urban: Not anyone particular, per se, but there was a third grade language arts teacher that read us Poe's Masque of the Red Death. Third grade, you get that in third grade? Oh my gosh, I don't think that would happen nowadays, but back then, you know, you were a little bit more free in the classroom. So I read that and the poetry and the beauty and the horror all intermixed together just really made an impact on my incubating little imagination back in those days. And so I remember just thinking wow this is something, this is important, this is for me, this is where I want to go. And then I was fortunate enough to have teachers who were willing to let me build into that stuff. And so when you're doing outside projects and you're finding people that you want to go back and report to the class on, you know, I was able to talk about Edgar Allen Poe at an early age, Washington Irving, some of the English romantic poets, Byron, Shelley, Keats, all of them, who in some cases, had very macabre and gothic themes running through their work.
Malpass: We've interviewed several authors who talked about the importance of English teachers in their development as a writer, and I wonder if that had any influences on you as far as choosing to become an educator?
Urban: Well I can remember, in particular, there was at least one teacher in middle school and it wasn't for an exact in class assignment, but you could get extra credit by writing creative short stories on the side and then handing them in for extra credit. And so I'd be scribbling these things out at night just as fast as I could, you know, and they were retreads of old stories that I'd read out of comic books, you know, even years earlier on. And I was throwing these things at her and she would draw smiley faces with little fangs coming out of the smile for the vampire stories and so that always made me feel like I'd been accepted by someone for what I was trying to do. So that was a big return on my investment in writing.
Malpass: So it seems in some ways sort of, the English teacher is the writer's first audience because you are turning things into them and you maybe never shown your creative pieces to anyone before. As someone who's taught English and creative writing at the high school level, how influential is the teacher's response to the student's creative effort?
Urban: It's incredibly influential because with a word, a phrase or a red pen you could easily crash that budding creative spirit, at least that's what I believe. And I think it's very important to both do some creative critiquing, but at the same time give a lot of support there and show that student, you know, the good things in the piece, where it could go. And more importantly, for someone who's in creative writing, who out there in the real world wants to see it, because I don't believe in writing in isolation. I believe that that's fine if you do it for yourself and you don't have any intention of ever showing it to anybody, I mean there's power and beauty in that, but for somebody that attempts to take up writing as a skill and a craft, it needs to be sent out to the world. And luckily nowadays there's all kinds of places that are open to that, to virtually anything.
Malpass: When did you first publish? How did you become published? Was there a time where you felt you were ready to send your work out into the world?
Urban: It wasn't- there was a small press even in the 70s when I was in high school, I just wasn't aware of it. I didn't have connections. Otherwise I would've been sending stuff out. It wasn't until the latter part of my college years and the early years when I was out on my own that I became aware of what was then the small press, in the mid to late 80s. And back then there were a lot of hard copy, small press magazines that it was fairly easy for an unknown name to get into back in those days. There aren't quite as many of those markets nowadays as there were back in those days, and of course the internet has just plain had a large impact on that. But I was able to find some of those small press zines and made a minor name for myself in there. And believe me, that's as far as I ever rose. But I enjoyed what I did back in that day, in those days.
Malpass: I know that you're featured in the Poet's Market under several listings for magazines, saying that they had published Scott Urban.
Urban: I didn't know that. Wow. I didn't know that.
Malpass: So you're not even aware of your own acclaim. Talk about teaching creative writing to high school students specifically, and the function of that class. It seems that the more formal elements of writing, terminology and things are covered by the English curriculum. It seems like the creative writing classroom would be primarily focused on generating material.
Urban: Well the creative process- writing class is to explore different genres, different types of writing, some of which I guarantee aren't being covered in a regular class, to familiarize yourself with at least the rudiments of the workshop format, which is sharing out, getting critiqued, not just from the teacher but from your peer group, and feeling what that's like, and then getting a sense of what it's like to submit things out into the real world, into a market and to an editor, and seeing what that feels like. I don't know that I got that- all of those things through equally well with all of the classes that I've taught, but I certainly tried.
Malpass: A lot of writers are torn on the effects of the workshop forum. Some people think it's wonderful way to exposure your work to an early audience and then some say it's disruptive to show your work to an audience too early. I personally am a proponent of the workshop format, but I wanted to get your feelings of the effectiveness of running a workshop in a high school setting based on pure critique.
Urban: Well again, going back to what I said, the teacher has a great deal of influence both in supporting the young writer's work and also giving some constructive critique where it's necessary. At the same time if you think you're going to go into the writing field there needs to be a little bit of both responsibility to stick up for what you have created and also the creation of at least a little bit of a thick skin, where even if you're not hearing the things that you like you're able to say inside yourself, well that's what I wanted there dammit and it's not gonna get changed and that's what I wanted. Now as you are well aware in that first go around of creative writing at Hoggard High School, nothing went as smoothly as I wanted it to. And you weren't around to be aware of that, but there was some changes that I put into the class after you left, with the next go around of that particular class, and things went more smoothly. As you know we had some personality conflicts that first time around. But that was the first time I taught it as well so some things got smoothed out along the way. Teaching creative writing in the pubic school at the high school level is kind of fraught with a lot of traps and pitfalls that are not incumbent on the university system, you know. Anything that's overly violent, anything that's overtly, graphically sexual, anything that's going to be making fun of school administration or school officials, all of that stuff is just right out, you just- in the 2000s you just plain can't tolerate that sort of thing in a post 2000 or 2001 world. You just can't do that. In the university, I'm sure you've experienced that there's a lot more freedom as to the themes and the ways in which you can explore those things you know. Any profanity in high school (whistling noise) right out, so you've got to find ways to get around that.
Malpass: Well, it seems like high school is a traumatic time for everyone. And um, I'm sure a lot of that comes out in student writing. I know, myself, teaching freshman workshop, um, I received a lot of pieces that were sort of about personal concerns that were, you know, personally affecting, things in their personal lives. Did you receive, I don't want you to name any names or anything but, any pieces from students that you found particularly difficult to read, in which they were discussing personal issues?
Urban: Oh a lot of good writing, both fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction, comes out of personal experience. I mean that's just where you go to for your inspiration. I can't remember ever reading anything where I felt concerned for the individual. I guess I should say luckily I didn't come across it. I'm sure there are many instances across the country where a teacher has been put in that position and then has had to search his or her conscience and decide what to do at that point. Luckily I didn't have to come across that.
Malpass: One more question about um, sort of education and then I'll move on to your writing life. It seems to me, at least when I was in high school, that the standard English curriculum doesn't do a great service to modern or contemporary poetry, in general teaching Chaucer and Dickinson, which seems to give the impression that poetry is sort of a dead art or something anachronistic. Do you think that that initial exposure to poetry is something that was done in the past but is not done currently? Do you think that has an influence on the readership of poetry?
Urban: I believe in public schools, nowadways at least in part, there's a need to get through a standard course of study, and in some cases there's a timeline where you're following a chronological order. Very often the modern or contemporary area gets a very short shrift, in other words it's a one lesson, almost a whole week is unheard of for anybody that's above 1950 on, at least in terms of contemporary poetry, which is, I believe, a shame. And I'm sure that there are teachers out there that have found a way to get around that, people who are really dedicated to the craft and the art. But people that are going to find, discover and learn a love of poetry, they'll find it probably despite the best efforts of an English teacher in high school.
Malpass: So to move on to your own personal aesthetic, what I've noticed in many of your poems, specifically the ones in Night's Voice, there's sort of a cathartic quality to them. They seem preoccupied with exploring, and sort of really inhabiting, the darker side of the human psyche. There are a lot of personas that occupy more traditional roles, the husband, the father, the office worker. A lot of the tension comes from their unexpected reactions within those roles. Is that something that you continue to be interested in or that influences a lot of your work, seeing the darker side or more primal side of those traditional...
Urban: Well again, the macabre and the gothic has always been a theme or a mood that's always interested me, and your conflict is inherent in that. In other words you don't have to spend a whole lot of time creating it piecemeal. I think there's both value and worth in exploring, what did I want to say, outsider emotions, and in some cases even violent reactions to everyday conflicts in the real world. And sure a lot of that is cathartic in the sense of the (laughs), you know, in a wild dream and a wild fantasy this is how it would've gone, this is what I would've done. And you can't really do that in real life so that is a way of getting it out, but at the same time I think that a lot of people, if they look deep inside themselves, a lot of people don't want to admit that darker, more primal side. And in something like some of the pieces in Nights Voice are gonna give voice to that and gonna make them realize oh yeah that's there inside me as well.
Malpass: I understand that you owned and operated a small press?
Urban: I haven't done a whole lot with it recently. In 1996 I started a small press and brought out a small press poetry magazine, Frisson. It was dedicated to poetry that had, as its' theme, you know, I'm going to say outsider emotions, death, horror, terror, macabre, all of those kinds of themes were what we explored in that. Also brought out a single author collection, it's called A Student of Hell, by Tom Bickerilly, [ph?] who's a noted horror author. That collection went on to win the Stoker award for best horror collection for the year that that came out. It was the first one to win a Stoker award for poetry, I might add, so I'm kind of proud of that. But I haven't really played around a whole lot with the press since maybe 2001 to be honest.
Malpass: Now what does getting a small press off the ground entail?
Urban: A lot of your own money, your savings account. I mean that's really what it amounts to. And that and sweat and dedication on the owner/editor's own part, because you're relying on yourself. You're really at the whims of no one else. You've got to pull it all together and make sure it happens the way you want, which is a boon in itself because you're only satisfying yourself. So it's as ornate as you want to make it or as bare bones as you want to make it, that's really- the only person you're beholden to is yourself, but at the same time you have to put all the work and the effort into it.
Malpass: Did Frisson have much of an internet presence?
Urban: I deliberately wanted Frisson at the time to be hard copy driven. It did not have an internet presence and I did that deliberately. I wanted it to be something that you would pick up and hold and have to interact with with your eyes and your hands and actually touching it. There's that element to reading that I find myself missing with internet publication ezines so to speak. I like to hold the medium, I like it there in my hands, and maybe that's a kind of lead eyed emotion in me, but that's just kind of the way I was raised, and I'm probably a dying breed but there you go.
Malpass: I know a lot of people that feel similarly. There's something about being able to hold a journal in your hand, especially one that you've contributed to.
Urban: And I like seeing them lined up on the shelves, you know. There's a certain sense of-- and I'm a collector too, I'm a bibliophile, so there's a sense in me that I want them all lined up on the shelf, and you can't line up those good computer programs. It just doesn't look as good.
Malpass: Do you think that since the boom of internet publications it's been beneficial to writers looking to get published? Or do you feel it's flooding the market with things that are not...
Urban: In 2007, 2008, I think it's still shaking itself out. I think the internet has given a voice and a medium and a platform to a lot of people who otherwise would not be putting their feelings, emotions, feedbacks, reactions out there. It's almost- I mean keeping track of all the blogs out there and all of the different ezines, it's too much for any one person to try and keep track of. So if anything there's a glut. And I can't certainly speak to the quality of all if it. A lot of what I've read is very nicely written, very high quality, very enjoyable. I'm sure there's just as much out of there that's B.S., that I just haven't tripped across yet.
Malpass: And it does seem too, that sort of prestige market, like the Paris Review, those things, are primarily hard copy, even though they do have a web presence. It seems like having a physical journal has become a sign of prestige. I know people who have been published in internet ezines, sometimes they'll say, "That's wonderful but I just wish that I had been published somewhere in print, that's really where I want to be."
Urban: And there are some publications that, interestingly enough, they have a hard copy presence and then they have an online presence and it's different contents, which I find very interesting. For instance, you know, there's a zine I've been published in that has just an online part and then there's a hard copy offline.
Malpass: With different contributors?
Urban: Yeah with different contributors, and it's two separate things under the same banner which I find really interesting. That's an interesting way of doing- dealing with that.
Malpass: Did you notice that there was maybe a difference in sort of mood or atmosphere in terms of which pieces were published online versus which ones were published in the print journal?
Urban: I'm not sure. I've read the print journal itself. I'm sure there is but I can't really speak to that.
Malpass: Your work has been pretty widely anthologized. Are you solicited for those pieces or is it still a submission process?
Urban: There was a time in the mid 90s when I had some short fiction pieces and a lot of mass market horror paperbacks. For most of those I was asked to contribute a piece. And nowadways I'm finding myself- I have some pieces that are coming out in some anthologies that are dedicated to the work of a particular author. One of them is Clark Ashton Smith. Another of 'em is Robert W. Chambers. They're older, noted genre writers. And I was asked to contribute to those particular pieces. And that's very gratifying, but yeah.
Malpass: When you receive solicitations have you ever had to turn one down or decline?
Urban: There have been requests that I, for one particular reason or another, I haven't had time for because of work constraints, sure. But I've had to turn some things down and that wasn't because I didn't want to.
Malpass: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your writing process, specifically the fact that you write in several genres. Have you ever had the experience that something begins as a poem but maybe turns into a short story, or that you have an idea that sort of begins to express itself in poems and short stories?
Urban: Not really. When I have a- conceive of a germ of an idea I can pretty much tell when that notion comes to me we're heading in the direction of a poem here or we're heading in the direction of prose here. I don't have a whole lot of trouble separating out the two. Prose tends to happen and come out on the computer. Poetry for whatever reason tends to come out long hand on yellow pads and then I write them again and again and again. I rewrite them continually over and over, and it may take 10, 11, 12 drafts before I get all the lines and the word placements just the way I want it. I'm only starting to do some drafts of poetry on the computer and it's a different kind of process. I'm not sure how comfortable I am with it yet. Prose comes out through the computer and it just- it goes through a number of the drafts. There's, you know, draft after draft after draft until I'm happy with it. And that's kind of the nuts and bolts process of it.
Malpass: There's something strange about writing poetry on the computer and maybe because it's too easy to self-edit in the first draft. Now, in a lot of writer's lives, they have acclimated trusted readers that they can show their work to, sort of in early drafts and receive feedback. Do you have any friends or associates that look at and critique your work for you?
Urban: As a matter of fact, yes, I have a very good friend. He's currently in the doctoral program at UNCG, G. Warlock Vance. He and I have been friends ever since my Penn State University days. He too is a noted author and poet, had many things published in various small press pieces. And aside from being my collaborator he is also my first reader and I trust his feedback.
Malpass: And are you his first reader as well?
Malpass: I wanted to ask you about Wilmington's literary culture because I know that you've been active in the community. I believe you are a member of Cape Fear Poetry Society or were at one time. How do you see Wilmington's literary scene? Is it thriving?
Urban: Oh I'm very excited to be in Wilmington at this time in its literary, you know I don't know whether literary era, literary formation. I'm a member of (cough) excuse me, one of the officers of the Wilmington Writer's Forum. And the Wilmington Writer's Forum meets every 2nd Thursday at Botega's Art and Wine Gallery downtown on Front Street. We have just people from all kinds of backgrounds, all kinds of tastes, all kinds of mixes, all kinds of backgrounds and we do a reading roundtable in short outside of the university system. By the way come down some time you'd have a blast. And we've been doing that since the beginning of this year and it's just been really positive. On top of that there are some establishments downtown, Botegas as well as some others, that have dedicated themselves to providing a forum for live reading, poetry readings, slam poetry readings, poetry readoffs, and opening themselves up for readings, as well as local independent bookstores, Two Sisters, Pomegranate books, that invite in local authors as well as authors coming through marketing their stuff.
Malpass: Can you talk about the writers' group and how that got off the ground and how you became involved in that, initially?
Urban: The Wilmington Writer's Forum is an offshoot of an earlier group that was forming in the beginning of '06. And because of some things that happened internally the Wilmington Writer's Forum kind of broke off from that original group, found a place to meet, started meeting and workshopping at Botega's downtown. And it's just been a really positive experience. I serve as the secretary. I send out a semi regular update about things that I know about that are happening here in Wilmington, in relation to poetry and literary goings on, so I don't know how we're gonna get it out there but somewhere on your transcript I'll put in some contact information for getting up with me.
Malpass: That'd be fantastic. Is there anything else that you would like to talk about before we finish up?
Urban: I just want to say that, first of all, thank you for the interview. And I certainly hope that anybody out there that's listening or reading this, either online or on the DVD, I hope you take it to heart. Pick up that pen, crank up the computer, throw some ideas out there, throw them into the ether and see what happens. I mean it's a lot of fun. Being published is the best high you'll ever find.
Malpass: Do you have a solid piece of advice for young writers?
Urban: Sure, don't be afraid to go ahead and go out there and don't be afraid to go against what some of the teachers say, and copy the style of your favorite authors. A lot of people say don't do that, try and go for your own voice and whatever. You gotta cut your teeth on something that you like. If you're a fan of Cormac McCarthy, go ahead and write something in his style. If you're a fan of Julio Cortazar, go ahead and do something in his vein. Go ahead and try it. That's how you come across your voices, by going ahead and copying and trying to mimic the style of the authors you like. There's nothing wrong with that in the beginning. That's how you grow and learn.
Parnell: You say you do poetry by hand and prose by computer. When you get an idea, what's your process for getting it out? Do you have a certain chair you sit in? What do you do when you come up with an idea?
Urban: Poetry is when everybody in the house is asleep and I've got some time I can spend with the yellow sheets, 'cause I know I'm gonna be going through several drafts in a short period of time, so I need uninterrupted time. Prose comes out whenever you can get a free moment and no one else is nudging me out of the computer seat, so that's a completely different thing.
Parnell: You don't have any certain time of day you write or anything like that, it just happens?
Malpass: Oh, that makes me think. What is it like to be a writer with young children in the house, with the responsibilities of a family? Do you find... because one of our previous interviewees said it was actually beneficial to not have too much free time, because then the time you do get, you devote more passionately to writing. Is that something you have found...?
Urban: There are pluses and minuses to a family independent. The plus is that simply by virtue of being in a family there are story ideas that are coming at you all the time because families inherently have conflicts and drama attached to them. So there's always ideas that come out of simply the fact of interacting with other people. The limitations it imposes in terms of time constraints and not being able to sit down at the computer 'cause you've got to do other things is the drawback to that. So it's all a balancing act. You just have to prioritize and decide what's important for you as a writer.
Malpass: Now, do you find that your family enters into your work, that you find yourself inspired a lot by the sort of what's going on in your family or do you try and keep the two separate?
Urban: Well absolutely, a lot of the things that happen in my family become germs of stories, poems, essays, what have you. Do they know that? Are they aware of it? Do they read it? No, usually not.
Malpass: Well, thank you so much for coming out and speaking to us today.
Urban: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.