The Butterfly Poet

Steph BurtSteph Burt, of the Harvard English Department, talks about poetry, transitions and a new collection. 

By Samantha Neville '19

Professor Steph Burt, who has been known both as Stephen and Stephanie, is someone I have seen around the English Department at the Barker Center. In fact, I almost took her course “Poets: Ode, Elegy, Epigram, Fragment, Song.” Burt is also teaching a science fiction course this semester, which surprised me. A Google search and a click on the Poetry Foundation website revealed that The New York Times calls Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics" of her generation. I made a mental note to Google all my professors.Advice from the Lights

Burt’s new poetry book Advice from the Lights comes out October 3. She’s giving a book talk on that same day and will be in conversation with Jorie Graham at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store.

I clicked on Butterfly with Parachute, one of Burt’s poems on the Poetry Foundation website, to get a sense of her work. It’s about a child, Nathan, who draws a butterfly with a parachute.

A real one wouldn't need one,
but the one Nathan draws surely does:
four oblongs the size and color of popsicles,
green apple, toasted coconut and grape,
flanked, two per side, by billowing valentine hearts,
in a frame of Scotch tape.

I was struck by the tenderness of these details. I assumed this is about Burt’s son. My assumption only grew stronger when I called Burt to interview her, and she was picking her kids up from the playground. There was laughter in the background.

Burt told me she has been writing poetry since elementary school.

“I wanted to be a science fiction writer,” Burt said, “which part of me still does, and I got more serious about poetry and stopped trying to write fiction during high school.”

Serious enough to have already published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and Popular Music (1999). Burt has also written many books of criticism, including The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016). The comment also sheds light on the science fiction course. 

The poems of Lights, however, cover new territory.

Steph Burt“It’s the most open book I’ve written. It’s the most ambitious,” Burt said. “It’s the last one that’s going to say ‘Stephen’ on the cover. It’s the book that I was waiting my whole life to write, and now I’ve written it and we’ll see what comes next.”

The new book of poetry has talking animals. There are autobiographical sequences. It’s also very much an exploration of gender and identity. There’s a sequence on the girlhood Burt would have had had she been born a girl. It sounded like the story of someone coming out of their cocoon.

“The earliest poems coincide with my finishing the previous book and they coincide with my starting to come out as a transgender person,” Burt said. “The latest poems, some of them, were written near the end of that process and in retrospect record me getting ready to make a full social and medical transition. Which I’ve now done.”

As someone who enjoys creative writing, both fiction and poetry, I asked what her advice is for aspiring poets.

“Read widely, read other languages or learn to read other languages, and try translating,” Burt said. “Read work from the past and make friends you can trust and try to keep them.”

Burt is not sure what’s next on the docket, but is currently writing a book of criticism and a fake translation of poems by an ancient Greek poet.

“After that, I don’t know. I’m sure I’ll keep writing poems,” Burt said.