Forge Interview with Jeanine Stevens

By Tim McLafferty

Welcome to the Forge Interview: our series of interviews with makers on making. Conceptually cast as craft interviews, we offer time and space to invited writers, the goal of which is manifold: to get to know the artist better by trying to understand how they make a thing, to better understand the thing itself, and hopefully, to provide a lasting utility.

Our guest is Jeanine Stevens, a clear and original poet based in Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Sincere thanks to Jeanine for her time and contributions to Forge.

Past Forge Interviews have featured Edward Butscher, Simon Perchik, Alison Stone, and Mark Belair.


TM: Do you write every day?


JS: I try to write every day. I have a journal and sometimes I write in that, but I also have a stack of revisions, and if I don’t get to writing something new, I’ll take a look at my revisions and do something with those. As far as starting a new poem every day, probably not, but I try to write every day, a part of revision, some notes, or if it’s a new idea, at least a little research.


TM: Do you pick the same time each day, or just any time you get?


JS: My favorite time used to be in the early mornings, but then when my husband retired it changed my schedule around a little bit, so now it’s anytime during the day, preferably in the morning, then I get to treat myself with a second pot of coffee.  Evenings I save for reading.


TM: Who do you like to read?


JS: When I first started writing poetry, it was Mary Oliver and John Haynes, Jane Hirschfield and Gary Snyder. Now I enjoy Denise Levertov and Louise Gluck, Charles Simic, Charles Wright. Those I go back to all the time. Recently I picked up an older volume of Margaret Atwood’s early poems, and I liked her other work, these are really interesting, and a book of Coleman Barks poems from early on. I’ve read quite a few of his Rumi translations, but I really hadn’t read any of his poems. I also enjoy David Young; I think he has a beautiful way of writing.


TM: How many revisions do you have laying around?


JS: Probably twenty-five right now.


TM: Do you carry a notebook? It seems like a lot of your poems come from your trips and travels.


JS: I will make notes when I travel, but I don’t usually write a poem. I write it when I get home. Sort of a memory recollection. Some poems take eight or ten years. Most poems, a few months. As far as a notebook, there’s a large spiral one that lies flat, and I make notes on one side, and on the other side I may sketch something, or look up some research about the poem, and I’ve filled around six or seven of those.

I enjoy writing ekphrastic poems and may begin by sketching out the paintings or the drawings, just to get a feel on how the artist might have positioned light and objects.

One of my favorite paintings, La Pie, which is The Magpie by Monet. I’d seen it in magazines and artbooks, but when I saw it in person in San Francisco, I was not prepared for the blast of color and great size of the painting. It was just overwhelming. I think I let out a holler because the paper copies do not do it justice, they look very wintery and very cold, but in person there’s all this yellow and gold and various shades of white. I think I had already started the poem, but then I was able to do so much more with the images after I had seen the painting in person. Yes, it was a remarkable experience and it brought everything together.


TM: How would you describe your writing?


JS: It’s mostly free-verse. I’ve written some things in rhyme. I more surprised, when I look back at a poem, when I finish it, there are quite a few rhyming lines in there, and they were really not intentional. From a young age, I was raised on many folk songs and a lot of rhyming poetry, and even though I don’t rhyme myself, I think it’s still in my mind and my brain, and whether I intend it or not, a lot of lines come out that way, but it’s still in free-verse.


TM: I’ve thought you consciously use alliteration and assonance, but very tastefully. Do you think about those things?


JS: No, but what was interesting about Simon Perchik’s interview, he talked about having an idea and then going to a science journal and looking for a metaphor, I’ve never done that, my metaphors seem to come as I’m writing, and I’m always surprised when I finish, that here’s a metaphor that I certainly didn’t intentionally intend, but there it is, and then I can go on from there. I just thought that was interesting, what he had to say.

There are so many ways to enter into a poem. Sometimes there’ll be an inspiration; sometimes it’ll be something I’ve had sitting around for a long time, an idea, maybe a diagram, and then I’ll get back to it. Sometimes it’s just sitting down and writing in the moment, without much of a prompt of any kind. I think that is a gift, when you get those kinds of poems, they just sort of appear right at your front door. When that happens, I find I have to do very little revision, maybe two or three and they’re done. I don’t know what that’s all about, but I think it’s interesting.  I have some poems that I’ve finished that were probably ten or twelve years in the writing.


TM: Do you start with notebooks and finish with a computer? How do you do it?


JS: First I write out longhand on a big legal pad. I really go through those and even if I’m out and about and write in a smaller notebook, when I get home I rewrite everything on the legal pads. I just want the physical experience of writing it out longhand. (I remember how thrilled I was learning longhand in school. It seemed magical and a doorway to the grown up world.) So, I just keep writing, and I’ll add more, I’ll write three of four pages, then I’ll take the best of what I’ve written and I’ll write it again by hand. About the third time I’ll put it on the computer, on the laptop.


TM: Do you find that your final poem is much smaller than your original version?


JS: In some cases yes. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote pretty long poems; didn’t want to throw anything out, right? Now I’m better at scaling down, but I also don’t want to leave out something that the reader might need. I’m aware of that all the time. I don’t really have any poems that are longer than a page and a half except for a few sequence poems.


TM: But they start out longer…


JS: Yes, they start out longer and may end up a couple of pages. A lot of my poems seem to be twenty-four or twenty-six lines; there are quite a few of those.


TM: When you write a poem, like The Mosaic, which is an environmental poem, how do you keep it balanced as a work of art without a very obvious personal opinion?


JS: I try to keep some objectivity in there, maybe cultural relativity if I’m writing about other cultures, trying to be aware of my own biases. The Mosaic was inspired by a photograph in the Sierra Club magazine and I think it was successful because it was fairly short. I mean, what else on earth can you really say about all that, that toxic, plastic hunk of junk.


TM: But that’s what I want to talk about: that when you’re working on a poem, you have to make these decisions about how to present your case without seeming like you’re lecturing.


JS: I think that maybe I have some of that in there, but I usually get rid of it, take it out, because otherwise it’s sort of like a soap-box, you’re doing a book report, or you’re writing something else that’s not poetry. I try to go line by line and see if it’s interesting and to see how the poem moves along. Sometimes an image can really speak for itself; you don’t need to pontificate about it.

There’s a poem that I love called Books of the Bible; it came out of a childhood experience about disappointment with a trip to the circus. It wasn’t incredibly long to begin with and it got shorter and shorter, and every line was exactly what I wanted it to be, it had the metaphor which I didn’t realize until the poem was already published, and a year later I looked at it and thought, oh my gosh, here’s this image of a stain, more than just a stain on a pinafore. I think the poem benefited from being brief. I could have gone on and on about the circus and all those associated images. And the guilt concerning the pinafore came from the fact that my mother made a trip downtown on the streetcar to purchase special material. Her friend was making the dress and I walked around a mile or for a fitting. Effort went into that as much as my learning about the Bible. There was more disappointment than my own.


Books of the Bible


We memorized the sequence: Genesis,

Leviticus, Romans, Acts—each section

awarded a satin ribbon: peach, lemon, spring

green, and last—royal purple for Revelations.

We didn’t know what the prize would be.

Our Sunday School teacher was well meaning.

I trusted her. When I got teased about

the black stain on my pink pinafore

(from plums I wasn’t supposed to eat)

she took me to the drugstore for a chocolate soda.

Two of us won! We rode the bus to the circus,

the other girl anticipating the chameleon

she would pin on her jacket.  But the clowns

were threadbare, a pale, gaunt looking

“Mr. Sensation,” swung on the high bars,

and the over salted popcorn, in a red cellophane cone

—full of kernels. Later, all I remembered—

dust, famine, locusts, and a small lizard hanging

limp.  I lived with the stain all summer.

(Stockton Arts Commission Poetry Award)


TM: How long do you think of an idea before you start to write it out?


JS: Something will be needling me, and I will think I really want to write about this, but it’s not formed, it’s a feeling, a little inspiration, but there’s no meat to it, so I might just wait, and I might just make a note of that, and then I might come back and add more to that later, I might write it down in a notebook, I have a list of sentences and ideas I keep on the computer, I might stick it in there.


TM: Tell me about that.


JS: It’s just basically sentences and ideas, I just keep a running total on that. If an idea interests me but I don’t have anywhere to put it, it’s not enough to go in my notebook, if I put it on a piece of paper it may get lost, so I put it in there. I call it my Seedlings File. It might be a quote. It’s helpful because sometimes it doesn’t warrant a poem right then and there; I can always go back and sometimes I don’t realize that it’s in there.


TM: I’ve got lots of notebooks, but I’m terrible at going back and looking at them. How are you with that?


JS: I have loads of notebooks and a couple of years ago I did go through everything, and pulled out what I thought might still be valuable.

I spent four years at Cache Creek Nature Preserve with poets Andrea Ross and Rae Gouirand. I have a whole bunch of notebooks from there, wrote a lot of poems about nature, string theory, The Kalevala, the elements, Native California myth, Japanese poetry.

There are all kinds of things in my Seedlings File, here’s one: I want caution tape around my life; dream canals that freeze in winter; platform/cuneiform; factual/actual/cattle/chattel; and not all orbits are round. I even have some rhyme/off rhyme phrases in there that just come with playing with words and saying them out loud.

For the past year and a half I’ve been cataloging interesting celestial details in the local newspaper from the Morris Planetarium. I have a file called Cosmos, and I’ll put intriguing items there. (An idea from poet Alexa Mergen). A couple of days ago I logged in an item about how the Egyptians knew when a special star was in a certain spot in the heavens, I think it’s Sirius, because then they knew when to flood the Nile and plant their crops. My poem, Stars of the Summer Triangle, came out of these notations.

Cultural and prehistoric anthropology is my background. My M.A. thesis was on “Ritual Pollution in the Solomon Islands. I’m drawn to Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred, all kinds of poems and songs from other cultures.


TM: Do you work that into your poetry?


JS: There was this one film we used to show when I was teaching, Bitter Melons, about women among the Bushmen of the Kalahari, which I love, one of my favorite films full of singing and digging tubers from the ground, and then I went to Rothenberg and looked up some of his sources and I built that into a poem.

But getting back a little bit to this poem of the moment, I really enjoy those kinds of poems, the ones that just sort of here they are: boom! I’m a big admirer of Frank O’Hara’s lunchtime poems; they’re just so in the moment, you know. I have ambitions to write like that.


TM: How would you resist the urge to revise? Do you feel like if you saw something you could improve, you would improve it?


JS: Yes, I would improve it. I would not submit it anywhere. I have a big file of poems that are sort of waiting to hatch, incubating, percolating; I would never send them out yet.


TM: Do you make yourself wait?


JS: Yes, although it can be a temptation to get them out there.


TM: Do you do you think of lines when you’re driving?


JS: I do keep a notebook in my car. If I do get an interesting line, it’s usually in the middle of the night; I don’t keep a notebook by my bed, so I have to get up to write it down. Especially if it’s something that I’m working on I’ll wake up and I’ll have this idea that I gotta get that down, or that’s what that means, or, I don’t want to put that in there, so I will get up and make some notes. I know I won’t remember it the next day. It could even be part of a dream, or the end of a dream.


TM: Do you finish all your poems?


JS: I have some that I guess I’ve given up on. I think when I started the poem, whether it was 2006 or 2001, or in the late 90s, whatever the inspiration was at that time, it’s not there, and I may not remember why I was excited about writing it; so, I will just let those go. In fact, when I look back to, the lists of poems from those years, there’s probably a fourth left unfinished.


TM: At what point do you start vocalizing your poems?


JS: When I’m revising I read them out loud. Also, when I’m revising, I read another poet’s work out loud, then I’ll read my poem again, and sometimes I get ideas from that, maybe rhythm, or maybe brevity. I think it’s really helpful.


TM: Do you find that you read in your speaking voice?


JS: Pretty much my speaking voice. I tend to read fairly fast, one thing I could do is slow down a little bit.


TM: Do you test your poems on any reader friends?


JS: I don’t, and I don’t go to many workshops. I’m in a couple of groups, but we don’t critique. We read and maybe comment on what’s working, and that’s it. I just wait until I think a poem is pretty much done.


TM: Do you work with some reference books?


JS: Not when I first start the poem. When I’m into the poem, I may do some research, and I have scads of books. I have the Rothenberg book, The Poetry Dictionary, The Dictionary of Anthropology, Methodist Hymnals, science and technical books, and I have a whole bookcase of my favorite poets. I have another full of anthologies and translations.

I use a dictionary when I’m revising. I’ve got a couple of thesaurus, and visual dictionaries but I don’t use them that much. I thought I would. After a few drafts I may go to these for some clarifications, maybe to use a technological term correctly. I like having them here sitting on my desk.

I do have a copy of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, it’s just this great mythology stuff in there. I’m really interested in that.


TM: I ask everyone this question because I find the answers to be so fascinating; it’s not to put you on the spot, but if you had to define what a poem is, what would you say it is?


JS: I would say a poem is fairly brief, condensed, layered, emotional, image driven; it has a question to ask or to answer, not that all my poems answer a question—some are open ended. I do think that the poem wants something, the poem has a purpose.


TM: Do you ever look at a poem you had published a while ago and want to revise it, or do you leave them alone?


JS: I leave them alone. Sometime if I’m putting together a chapbook and I have some older poems in there, I might change punctuation, or take some prepositions out, but I tend not to fool with it too much.


TM: Do prepositions bug you?


JS: A little bit. I try to do a sweep when I’m revising, see if they’re overloaded.


TM: Do you have any rules for yourself for writing? Things that you won’t write about, or things that you think are not poetic? Do you feel that you have your own manifesto?


JS: I don’t write about family members unless it is to honor them in some way. I used to write more narrative poems. Now, I’m trying to make them more lyrical. I watch poems that I’m currently writing, that they are more than a little story or history lesson.


TM: So you’re trying to be less narrative.


JS: Yes, and I think I have been.


TM: Why do think that is?


JS: Because my favorite poets are more lyrical poets. I will probably never write like Louise Gluck, but I love to read her writing. One of my favorite poems is a David Young poem, it’s very mystical, and puzzling, and it really gives me chills every time I read it, it’s called A Poem Against the Horizon. It’s about an angel who’s very tired, very weary, he’s taking off his wings, he’s in a lonely room above a stockyard. I love that poem. It is a brief narrative, little story, yet full of lyrical images and distance (Seattle and back).

Yet, I do enjoy reading narrative poems on occasion.


TM: How do you approach ekphrasis?


JS: Maybe I will sketch out the art piece, even write on my sketch, doodle around with shape and color. There’s a painting, White Iris, by Van Gogh where I did this, then added watercolor and I wrote all over the sketch, that’s helps, too. I can put words right on that flower or that bridge or whatever it is and ask the images questions. That ekphrastic poem is about a near drowning incident on White River Canal in Indiana.

In the visual sense, I’m a film nut, and when I was a kid we saw movies, I would go every Saturday and Sunday and the movies changed on Sunday, so over a weekend, I probably saw four films. Then, movies weren’t rated, many of the films inappropriate; at any rate, I saw them, and it wasn’t a big deal, but some of those old films, I’ve incorporated those ideas and images in my poems. I’ve written quite a few poems based on film.


TM: How about voice? How do you think you developed your voice, did you just start writing as yourself?


JS: I think so. I’ve never used a persona. The first poem I wrote was from a Chagall painting, the next two or three were from childhood, or travel, so I think it’s just basically my voice.


TM: And your speaking voice?


JS: Yes. I think I’m comfortable with voice I use in my poetry. I would like to write something in a persona or another voice, but I don’t have the urge now, maybe in the future.


TM: Do you like to study meter and form? Shakespeare? Greek and Latin classics?


JS: I like to read the classics, but I don’t necessarily study them. I’m a big Shakespeare fan, have been to the Globe in London, Stratford, and also the Ashland Shakespeare Festival many times.  Last year I was mesmerized by Ovid, The Amores. One lifetime is not enough to read all the great works out there. I saved all my literature texts from college and will take them down, usually in summer, dust them off and enjoy.

I fell in love with the English poets, and I go back to William Wordsworth again and again.


TM: I admire the clarity in your writing. I’m curious what informs your aesthetic.


JS: I had a fairly permissive childhood with many opportunities to explore the inner city as well as woodlands and nature areas. Good libraries were close by and our home had books, encyclopedias and news magazines. Being inquisitive and fairly independent, I was allowed a good deal of freedom. I enjoyed meeting people and knew most of the shop owners in my neighborhood. I enjoyed wandering around dime stores, junk shops, and import shops. Early on, I visited art and history museums and monuments. Coming from a large extended family with all sorts of personalities and dilemmas, there was much conversation around the dinner table and at family picnics. I think all of this goes into the mix that directs how a person finds creative expression.  For me, poetry allows for a new adventure with each poem and also provides the required solitude to write. I’ve tried other artistic endeavors, art (batik too messy and dripped) and dance. Recently, I’ve created a number of collages and find many similarities with poetry, (shape, white space, where does the eye/ear rest?).  I, along with a group of local writers, who are also visual artists, have exhibited our work and had a number of readings.


TM: Is there something you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?


JS: I think the main thing is to have pure joy when you’re writing a poem. If I feel like I have to sit down and write, or feel I have to revise something, I don’t do it. I want the excitement, I want to be into it.

There has to be some kind of enthusiasm. On revision, I believe a draft isn’t a poem until it’s finished. Real work comes with revision, and I’ve come to the point where I’m more willing to spend time on revision, and to find out what I can do with the poem. There’s a really noisy café where I go to revise poems. Somehow that works for me.


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, has a M.A. in Anthropology and a graduate degree in Education. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt, she was also awarded the Ekphrasis Prize, the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference Award, the Bay Area Poet’s Coalition Award, was one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize, and is a Pushcart Nominee. She is the author of Sailing on Milkweed (Cherry Grove Collections), and has nine chapbooks, the latest, Needle in the Sea (Tiger’s Eye Press). Poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Evansville Review, South Dakota Review, Pearl, Rosebud, Edge, Forge, Camas, Quercus Review, West Wind, Valparaiso Poetry Review, PMS-Poem Memoir, Story, Poesy and Perfume River. Her photographs, artwork and essays have appeared in other publications. She is a member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. In 2003, Jeanine retired from American River College after 32 years teaching behavioral sciences. Besides writing, she enjoys Tai Chi, collage, Romanian folk dance and travel. Raised in Indiana, she now lives in Sacramento and Lake Tahoe with her husband, photographer Gregory Czalpinski.

Comments are closed.