Steve Scafidi’s nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry did not surprise Purcellville business owner Nick Greer the least bit.
“I told him years ago that his poetry is so good, he would be nominated for the Pulitzer,” said Greer, owner of Nick Greer’s Antique Conservation and Restoration Shop, a Loudoun business since 1974.
Greer knows what he's talking about, having worked with Scafidi these past 14 years. Scafidi’s first published book, a collection of 50 poems called “Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer,” is in the running for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize a year after it was published.
Scafidi grew up in Lovettsville, attended Loudoun Valley High School in Purcellville and took a job as a restorer at the furniture conservation shop, winner of the 2001 Small Business of the Year Award presented annually by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. Greer’s staff of 15 includes other writers, artists, musicians and the Purcellville fire chief.
“I am truly fortunate, I have such a wonderful crew,” Scafidi said. “We create an artistic and open climate to work in. People work at their own pace and on their own time schedule.”
Greer took a liking to Scafidi, calling him a friend and claiming “he’s like family.”
“Steve is an extremely decent, talented, sensitive person with a certain intensity that allows him to sit down for hours at a time to write very detailed and interesting work,” Greer said. “He’s easy to be around. He’s funny. He’s smart. He’s well read. Plus, we agree on a lot of things.”
SCAFIDI STARTED WRITING 12 years ago and published his first three poems shortly thereafter when he was 22 years old. Now 34, he lives in Summit Point, W.Va. with his wife of four years, Kathleen Kelly, and their new baby daughter.
Writing poetry was something Scafidi admits slipping into through his love of reading.
“I wanted to get closer, so I started writing, not knowing what I was doing,” said Scafidi, his hands placed neatly atop a worn copy of his book, the one he uses for poetry readings. He was sitting by the window at the Leesburg Starbucks. He says that he feels uncomfortable, since this is not a place for talking about poetry. Still, he finds the words.
Scafidi started as a reader of poetry, studying the traditions and forms from thousands of years ago to today. He read poems closely, taking them in slowly and recognizing the patterns and rhythms. The patterns and rhythms began to play on him, like music does.
“The style of a poem is endlessly fascinating if it’s a great poem,” Scafidi said.
Scafidi prefers writing in free verse, a style closer to conversation, and writes a few poems in more traditional forms. The content of his poems is “what most poetry is about,” — love, death, sex and America and includes references to Loudoun County and Virginia, he said. "My poetry has the sense of the land of Virginia, which is the land of my childhood," he said. "There's a good feeling for rivers, woods and fields, and that's reflected in the book."
Scafidi said he does not hold anything back and writes with candor.
“I write a lot to find something that lasts or I really like,” Scafidi said. “I write a lot, but you work at it. If you work hard, then you have a poem that feels like the whole things.”
The poems become as close to music the poet can get with words, Scafidi said.
“I love a sense of play in language where there can be a sense of nonsense and of sense,” Scafidi said. A new sense results so commonsense is not needed. Scafidi gets lost and confused in his writing, not knowing what’s up in the middle. At the end, he finds where he is.
“It’s a kind of revelation,” Scafidi said. “There’s a craft to what all artists do.”
Scafidi’s craft involves studying.
WITH A BACHELOR’S degree already, Scafidi decided to go back to school. American poet and college professor Norman Dubie is the reason Scafidi attended Arizona State University.
“From him, I learned how to trust my imagination,” Scafidi said. “It’s OK to write poorly in order to write well.”
Scafidi said he learned how to take risks and wrote about things he never before wrote about. The imagination, Scafidi said, helps make sense of the world, working through association to put together a context. “We make stories out of our own lives,” he said.
After graduating from Loudoun Valley in 1985, Scafidi earned his bachelor’s in 1991 from the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. He received his master’s of fine arts in 1994 from Arizona State University.
His first book he named after one of the poems, “The Sublime.” The last line alludes to love being like a hammer. Love has violence to it and can be shocking like a hammer blow. Yet, a hammer is an ordinary thing, the same with poetry.
“But it’s something that has power, a powerful tool,” Scafidi said.
The Louisiana State University Press, the publisher of Scafidi’s book, nominated the poetry collection for the Pulitzer Prize. The Pulitzer Prize committee will announce three finalists and a winner in the spring.
Scafidi said the award is usually given for a lifetime of achievement.
“Usually, it’s given to older poets. Still, young poets like me get nominated,” Scafidi said. “It’s an honor, but you don’t write poetry for prizes, awards or prestige. The literary life in America is capricious. You write because you love it.”
Scafidi’s book is available at bookstores nationwide.