Issue 8.4

Issue 8.4



Adam Cogbill: The Bet

Kori Frazier Morgan: The Girl from Chippewa Lake (1980)

Pete Able: Dinner Date

Allyson West Lewis: Slipping

Kathryn Brown Ramsperger: A Rug, a Piano, a Quilt, a Voice

Paul Handley: Straight Write

Michael Davis: The Forbidden City


Forge Interview with Jeanine Stevens


Jeanine Stevens: In Istanbul | A Soft Garden | In the Sierras with Rumi | Prayer Rug Ghazal | Frond Ghazal | Petition | Stars of the Summer Triangle | In the Cave of Ice | Brief Immensity | In Tarsus | Tree of Wooden Clogs | Raw Forms

Elizabeth Hoover: Club News | Tenth Avenue Art Club

Tyler Kline: Colt | Hometown

Anselm Parlatore: #16

Simon Perchik: 12 Poems—Spring 2015

Guy Thorvaldsen: How Hard

Alison Stone: Tether | Perimenopause


A Rug, a Piano, a Quilt, a Voice

By Kathryn Brown Ramsperger

Wwebhen life gets pulled out from under you, it takes a while to resettle. Today, I felt the final dust, lingering in the air since childhood, return to its rightful place.

I was twelve when my childhood magic carpet ride took a turn. One day I was playing with dolls, the next I was wearing a bra. One day I was the star in the school play, the next my mother had cancer. One day we were planning our Disney vacation, the next I was holding my mother’s head as she retched into the toilet. One day I was applying to colleges, the next we were bankrupt.

My mother was told she had six months to live, and she lived sixteen years longer. We woke wondering if today was The Day. Yet what happened in the middle, while the rug hovered in the air, searching for a place to land, created the map from where I was to who I am.

There’s my mother now, wringing her fragile bird fingers. “We have no insurance,” she is saying to my father, whose lip curls up in what he wants us to believe is disdain. Instead, he shared our fear. He didn’t know where the rug was going to land either.

“Jeannette,” he sneered, “you don’t even have a second opinion. You’re just like your mother: you’ve been dying all your life.”

My mother grasped those bird hands, and her eyes looked down, not up and angry, like usual. “Better my mother than yours,” she said. I didn’t know how to react. Normally, I was scared to touch her, for she sometimes lashed out with a slap or a “get-away-from-me-I-can’t-take-that.” Today she seemed to need me, but I stood there, mute and immobile. The sun shone through the four diagonal panes in our front door and hit the family portrait over the piano.

That piano was my salvation. My grandmother had convinced my father to buy it. She’d heard me composing a simple tune on her piano when I was three, but I’d waited until I was nine to start lessons. We’d had to save to afford such a luxury. Now our piano was halfway paid off. When I was tired or worried, afraid or frustrated, I went to the piano like most girls did their friends. Unless my mother told me she couldn’t take the noise. Then I’d put the sheet music back in the bench, careful its hinges didn’t squeak. After my mother’s second round of chemo, I’d let them squeak. She’d come along and bang the lid down on my fingers. We had no insurance for an x-ray.

Father had quit his government CPA job to go into business for himself. He was a self-starter, my mother told him. He should invest in himself instead of the local government, which she viewed as corrupt and lazy. She thought of the government like a person, and she probably believed Father to be just as lazy, if not as corrupt.

Without health insurance, we ended up paying for my mother’s medicine and chemo out of pocket. My pockets were pretty shallow. I had my $32 saved up from babysitting and my leftover lunch money. I loved counting it, along with my faded blue trading stamps I got every time I bought notebook paper or a pencil case that listed the world’s capitals or erasers that smelled like tree sap. My skinny brother’s pockets were fuller: he only spent his money on bubble gum and candy. His sugar consumption made me afraid he might end up getting cancer too. People with cancer were skinny. Even my mother got thin for a while, and when her hair grew back, it was as white as the feathers in her pillows.

She liked lots of pillows, arranged just so. She also liked chicken soup with the noodles picked out and bran cereal with the raisins separated into another bowl. That took time, which I had in quantity until I started high school. That’s when things in our house became like the inside of a matchbox—all lined up in rigid formation until friction is applied.

The day I ran away was like that. I’d neglected to extract all the noodles. When I served my mother, she took one glance and sent the bowl flying. The noodles stuck there on the opposite wall, deciding whether to hang or drop. As I heard the key grind in the back door lock, I prayed Father would be in a better mood than she was. When he saw the shattered bowl, his wrinkles formed wrinkles, and I knew I was in trouble. What kind of man yells at his dying wife? I was fair game in her stead, like when the herd hears a branch snap and leaves Bambi standing dazed and still, a little twig hanging from beneath that little black velvet nose. Father’s eyes caught mine, and something wild and kindred leaped across the room between us. Then, just as suddenly, the light in his eyes went dull.

“Dori,” he said, clenching and unclenching his massive fists, “clean up this mess.” His voice was so soft I could barely distinguish his words. I did as I was told, keeping my eyes on those fists. After mopping, I sat on the piano bench. I was worried about a stain I’d left on the Oriental rug in her bedroom. I caressed the keyboard lid, imagining the thirty-six blacks, fifty-two whites underneath, just out of reach. There was almost nothing I didn’t enjoy playing. I could sit for hours doing my scales. My best piece (what my piano teacher called my “popcorn piece,” meaning it could be played on command from memory) was Schumann’s “First Loss,” from Album for the Young, and I was beginning to peck out Rhapsody in Blue. The notes seemed strung together solely for my hands, although when I stopped, I communed with all the others who had played them. The notes transported me out of the house, like I had turned to vapor and could shape-shift through the chimney, connecting me with all those hands before me, and hands yet to come.

I became one with sound. Back before the chemo, I would finish with fingers aching, hours spinning out like golden thread from an ever-replenished spindle. How I longed to open the lid to play again. I didn’t dare. I’d need to stay under the radar for a while. I wished it were already tomorrow morning at the school bus stop, even if it was freezing outside.

When Father walked in, I could tell he wasn’t angry anymore, because his fists had turned back into hands. He had talked to Mother. He sat down beside me on my bench. I could smell the nicotine-tobacco that stained his nails. He scratched his head where the hair was beginning to disappear.

“Dori,” he said, his tone measured, “we’ve run out of money for the month. We’re going to have to let the shop repossess the piano.”

The room was still. I looked down again at the piano lid, where dust floated above the wax I’d put on yesterday. I tried to hear my heart. The dust hovered there, silent, with no answers.

“Dori?” he prodded.

I knew it was hopeless. My mother had demanded he punish me. Why else would he be getting rid of the piano today? She hated when I played it—said it made her anxious. Jealous was more like it.

“No,” I said, then louder: “No!” I ran to the closet, grabbed my coat and gloves, a hat for good measure. I ran to my room and grabbed the babysitting stash I kept in my doll’s wedding dress, making sure I put a few changes of my clothes in a plastic garbage bag, then robbed my brother’s piggy bank.

I walked out of the house with $57 and change, and what I believed to be a new lease on my life. I strode down the wooded street still covered with a spotted carpet of ice from the season’s last storm. I didn’t stop until I’d reached the bus station, although I did look over my shoulder a few times. Father hadn’t tried to stop me.

I boarded the bus that led to Grandmother’s front porch, two states south. When she saw me standing in front of her, she rubbed her eyes, as though I were a mirage. “Dori,” she said as she adjusted her cat-eyed glasses on her long nose, “where did you come from?” My grandmother, with the light behind her, looked just like a fairy.

“You said I could always call you if I was in trouble,” I said.

Her eyes grew wider. “Did they hit you?”

“No,” I said, half ashamed, and fell weeping into the soft folds of her sweater. “Worse.”

She held me, extracting reasons for my grief like they were impacted wisdom teeth. I was afraid if I told her about the piano, she would convince me I had to let it go. I could not bear those words from her.

“Go play the piano,” she finally sighed, swabbing my chapped cheeks and combing through my damp hair, “while I call your father.”

Grandmother’s piano wasn’t like mine. It was all Victorian carved wood with real ivories that resembled coffee-stained teeth, and two notes that clunked. The middle sostenuto pedal stuck. It wasn’t a practical instrument; in fact, it was more one-person art show than orchestral showpiece. Annual tunings had ceased to be effective. Still, it offered a sort of aged solace. It dominated the living room. The carver had decorated the entire piano case with blossoms and birds on the wing, like a tapestry. Instead of a bench, a rotund stool could be cranked up or down to suit the pianist’s height. Its sheet music was eclectic—fraying at the edges, like old wrinkled velvet, soft to the touch, smelling of must. I began to play “Moon River” and was humming along to the theme from Love Story when Grandmother reappeared.

“You play beautifully.” Her voice was soft and a bit sorrowful as she touched the crown of my head. “And the notes you were humming were straight and true.”

My eyes welled up again. “You’re going to tell me I have to go back, aren’t you?”

She walked to the fireplace, picked two peppermints out of the candy dish on the mantle, popped one in her mouth and the other in mine. “Each piano has its own distinct voice, just like we do,” she said. “They’re individuals. Time wears them down. My old piano sounds dull and lifeless now compared to when I used to play every Sunday at church.”

I felt my brow wrinkle. I loved her old piano almost as much as I loved my own.

“Remember your voice, Eudora,” she said, and then: “We always have to go back, child. One way or the other, we must always deal with what life gives us. Just try not to let it wear you down too soon.”

My sobs came quick now, like birthing spasms. “Won’t—you—come—back—with—me?”

“She doesn’t want me there, sweetheart,” she said. She took my hands in hers. “Stay the course. My old piano will always be here for you. You can stay here until tomorrow, until you get your bearings.”

She led me into the room I called mine, though it once belonged to my father. Painted Wedgewood blue, it had a Dutch-blue quilt, ragged at the edges, which had always covered the maple bed. I smiled at the squares, which I knew by heart. That one there was my father’s first shirt. That one, over there, was from the dress my grandmother wore to his college graduation. There was one with dogwood petals, and one with plaid, and even one with treble and bass clefs. I threw off my Keds and lay down. Sometime that afternoon Grandmother left a PB&J on the nightstand, built by my long-dead carpenter grandfather. Travel weary, I never woke to eat it.

The next morning dawned sharp and shrill, the twittering cadence of early-morning birdcall almost drowned by the syncopated staccato of a woodpecker. Yet over it all, a distant partridge cooed his resonant “bobwhite,” calming me for my return trip. I boarded the bus with extra pocket money from Grandmother, along with a pail of fried chicken and biscuits and a thermos of cold lemonade. Best of all, wrapped in burlap and tied with an old rope from the shed, was the quilt. The bus ride was just as long going as coming, but I wanted it to last forever. I put my hand inside the rough burlap and felt the quilt’s warm bumps with each mile closer to my destiny, whistling “Moon River.”

My piano was gone when I got back; Grandmother’s piano remained there for me. I played it on rare visits, and I grew to cope with—if not understand—my mother’s wrath and my father’s feigned stolid passivity. Then came the day that my grandmother passed and my father left to sell what she owned, just as he had done with our belongings.
We lived in a small apartment now, and I was doing secretarial work for a medical office, putting stamps on pieces of paper to make them official. Those stamps and my father’s three jobs paid the rent. What time I had left, I spent on music. Music gave me what people did not. Instead of movie dates or tense setups from well-meaning friends, I listened to my stereo, then my Walkman, then my iPod at night. Madonna turned into Hootie & the Blowfish turned into the Black Eyed Peas. A woman I worked with, a former opera singer past her prime, was teaching me bel canto, and I had fallen in love with opera—Carmen and Mimì, especially. My parents couldn’t censor them as they could potential friends. I sang every chance I got, which was every time I was able to leave the house, and now I had earphones, so I could listen without reprisal. I was saving for my own place—and my own piano.

When Father knocked on my door with the bad news, I jerked my earbuds out, thinking Mother needed me again. I’d bathed her and wiped her face twice already. I’d readjusted her pillows and pulled her up to meet them. Perhaps she wanted some warm milk. On top of the cancer that would not leave, she now had a rare arthritis. The doctor told us she would not live more than a year without better nutrition. He’d given us some calcium shakes, but she would have none of it. She wanted real milk shakes, so I went to the ice cream parlor and asked a boy there to show me how to make them. He had gone to my high school, and now was working his way through graduate school. He flirted with me, his eyes lighting on the top of my sundress, but I told him I was engaged. I was, in a way, to my mother’s needs. He left me alone after that, but I went home with a cream soda as well as a real shake, helping my mother and me live another day.

Yet my grandmother was dead. Father told me Grandmother had passed alone in her sleep the night before. I felt a hard sadness in my chest, the kind that won’t let you cry. The next morning, as he was leaving for the funeral, giving me instructions how to reach him should my mother have an emergency, I asked about her piano.

“I figured it was my inheritance,” I said.

“That old thing?” he guffawed. “What would you do with it? It hasn’t been tuned in a decade. Where would you put it?” He put his hands behind his back and turned to leave.

I knew better than protest. I wasn’t helping him enough. He needed me more each year, and his mother had just died. I let it be.

“Will you just take a photograph of it?” I called after him, and when he turned and nodded, I could tell he would humor me. He did bring a photo back, a yellow-toned Instamatic shot, which eventually faded and peeled. I kept the photo close—in my wallet, suitcase, or jewelry box—sometimes under the quilt, which frayed more each day. I looked at the photo the day my brother left for the war in Iraq. I was looking at the photo as they put me under for surgical removal of a fibroid. I reached for the photo the day I got the call my mother had died.

It’s funny how the memory of my mother walking in and telling us she had cancer is so piercing, while the months after her death are frayed like that quilt and fuzzy like my favorite photo. I worked, practiced singing, and worked some more. I slept more than I wanted to.

When I ran into Danny, I didn’t even know he was there at first. He’d been working the next block down and had noticed me long before, remembered me from the soda shop, but I’d never known. I was exiting the restroom after washing red ink off my hands—an everyday occupational nuisance. I was looking down, examining them, my earbuds on full blast. “Hey, watch it!” he yelled. I swerved. Our bodies didn’t collide, but my heart leaped.

You don’t get over all that spilled chicken soup as quickly as all that. Your heart might not open at all, or it might unfold like time-lapsed film, one petal at a time. Yet it’s not all about opening your heart. It’s about letting someone in. Then, after all that’s done, it’s about believing they want to be there. He was trying to make my life easier, but I was still trying to make it the hard way. It took time.

It’s the same with singing. You let out a note, and someone says you hit it right. Then you sing a measure, and someone pats you on the back. Then someone asks you to sing in front of a group, then a wider audience. They all clap. At first, you think they’re just being nice. Then you think, this is all too easy. Sometimes you think, I can’t do this…I don’t have any formal training; I don’t read music well. Mostly, you think, I don’t have a piano. I mean, isn’t life supposed to be like that chicken soup on the wall, with the noodles deciding whether to fall or stay put? Isn’t life supposed to be about losing pianos, and hopes, and people—mopping up the mess?

Then, in one exact instant, someone you barely noticed before bumps into you, and you begin to reexamine things. You finally realize that it doesn’t have to be that way. It took Danny half a decade to convince me that life may not be a magic carpet ride but it can be magic. People can love you. People can stay. You will die one day, but until then, you can sing. People will listen. You don’t need a piano. You had your instrument within. All this time, it wasn’t about the piano, the quilt, or old photographs. It was about you, but you had the rug pulled out from under you, so you couldn’t see what was right in front of you. You were the instrument all along.

That’s Danny, down there in the third row, second seat in, next to his sister. They have the same curly hair, give me the same sideways smile as they await my first note. I’m still pinching myself that I’m part of their world. Yet Danny’s incisive eyes send me his secret “I know what you got in there” glint, which travels through the air, dispelling the dust that the spotlight has found. I watch the dust particles—human skin cells, animal dander, plant pollen, all the molecules, dead and alive, that make up our world—float down, down, down, coming to rest on the stage in front of me.

You may think I got to this point because my grandmother believed in me, or because I almost collided with a man in a hallway who coached me into believing in myself. Maybe even because people applaud my efforts. But you’d be wrong. Danny, and several others, hoisted me back up, but I had to find my way myself. We all do. Through the dusty, musty, soiled corners of our lives.

That’s all I can say for now. They’re waiting for me to begin. I take a deep breath. There’s not that much to prepare, no backup band that needs to tune its instruments, just me, a capella. I open my mouth and sing.

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.

Raw Forms

By Jeanine Stevens

Everything is transformation.

Friends agree. We talk about faded

manuscripts we cannot finish,

decide wicker baskets filled

with prompts don’t work either.

Now we say mutabilus instead of rose,

grunion rather than fish, bottledge for flask.

Perhaps we love someone else.

One grows a beard, another shaves.

Others trade tight-fitting Levis for belts,

suspenders and Haines Beefy Tees.

These are the sage years.

We should be wise, yet still wince

at the abandoned line, still write joyful

poems in this offensive season.

Stones in raw forms

aren’t worth much. Even the reddish

gem must be polished

when chipped out from Garnet Hill.

How many drafts lie crumpled?

At Aspendos, I look for classic dramas

in the oldest living theater, decide I have no

choice, must carry my own tiger

down the mountain, drooling and hungry.


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, and has an M.A. in Anthropology. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt and one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize. Author of Sailing on Milkweed, her latest chapbook is “Needle in the Sea,” from Tiger’s Eye Press. Poems have appeared in Poet LoreEvansville ReviewPearlNorth Dakota ReviewPerfume RiverAlehouse and Quercus Review.

Tree of Wooden Clogs

By Jeanine Stevens

~Film, Ermanno Olmi, Italy, 1978

The tenant farmer amid

rain, mud and chicken droppings,

sacrifices, buys school books

for his son, the brightest.

who lights up every detail.

The walk long, the boy

arrives home late,

winter harsh and wet

cracks and splits the thin shoe.

A graceful row of trees.

One is chopped,

carved into a pair of small clogs.

Driving in a new roadster,

the landowner stops by the downed pine,

demands the culprit, chases

the father, expels the family

from the compound.

So much cut down

along this country road.

Viewing the film again in 2012,

I notice another peasant family,

a widow with many children,

their livelihood, a cow

hobbled in the fast-running stream.

All she knows is magic

and incantations. The repetitions

work, the cow stands. I hear

the beautiful Bergamasque dialect.

I now recognize Bach’s fugue,

a soundtrack so necessary for flight.


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, and has an M.A. in Anthropology. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt and one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize. Author of Sailing on Milkweed, her latest chapbook is “Needle in the Sea,” from Tiger’s Eye Press. Poems have appeared in Poet LoreEvansville ReviewPearlNorth Dakota ReviewPerfume RiverAlehouse and Quercus Review.

In Tarsus

By Jeanine Stevens

Strong colors, backdrop of cream and orange buildings in the sun.

Tourists come to see a rubbled Roman road. In my digital camera,


a woman crouches behind the chain link fence, watching.

Almost hidden in large shrubs heavy with summer’s dust,


she looks intently, peacock bright scarf, long sleeved black dress.

The childlike face seems smooth but brows cut by a deep crease


between gray eyes, lids tired as a tulip’s fallen petals. Hands grasp

the fence, hands asking for nothing. Rutted palms almost obscure


her lifelines. Nails short and scraggly, thumbs enveloped in soft

wrinkles, she could be an echo of ancient tribes, inheritor


of the bargain table. Perhaps a meek survivor who has been here

for centuries gathering impressions of her own. I do not know


who will inherit this earth or who remembers the original trade routes.

I do notice the machine stitching on her cuff is expertly done.


~After a photograph


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, and has an M.A. in Anthropology. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt and one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize. Author of Sailing on Milkweed, her latest chapbook is “Needle in the Sea,” from Tiger’s Eye Press. Poems have appeared in Poet LoreEvansville ReviewPearlNorth Dakota ReviewPerfume RiverAlehouse and Quercus Review.

Brief Immensity

By Jeanine Stevens

In late May, we don’t expect

such sweet moisture, insistent droplets

streaking the skylight.

On the freshly tilled hillock,

new bedding plants drench in green rain.

We are grateful for this respite

before summer heat brings

its blooming immensity, the towering

hollyhocks and heirloom zinnias.

By July, insistent delta breezes

bring relief; we open windows, crisp white

sheets tucked so tight you can bounce

a coin on the surface.

We want to be the first man

and woman who stood and scanned

the next berm, the lunar sky.

Staying up late, we gaze at the mystical

reconnaissance much as the lone rabbit rises

in a fern meadow and pauses,

nose to the horizon, wet,

vegetative eyes glossed at the kind

of light that halts and waits for other things

to begin, something beyond,

before returning to her burrow,

hibernation never far away,

immense distance here and now,

animal peace.


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, and has an M.A. in Anthropology. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt and one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize. Author of Sailing on Milkweed, her latest chapbook is “Needle in the Sea,” from Tiger’s Eye Press. Poems have appeared in Poet LoreEvansville ReviewPearlNorth Dakota ReviewPerfume RiverAlehouse and Quercus Review.

In the Cave of Ice

By Jeanine Stevens

Beneath the soft landscape of Alsace

we live these long winter days

where the grotto lays frozen

and light is wanting.


Such is the image,

the thing we search

for hunkered down in the cold

beneath unuttered words.


We speak to an ancient puppet

whose strings once

bright and taut, now tangle

under a faded face.


Those marbled eyes, once clear

gazed at us freely on another night.


We take the crimson shreds

we came for.

It was good to enter here.


A Variation After Eugène Guillevic


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, and has an M.A. in Anthropology. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt and one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize. Author of Sailing on Milkweed, her latest chapbook is “Needle in the Sea,” from Tiger’s Eye Press. Poems have appeared in Poet LoreEvansville ReviewPearlNorth Dakota ReviewPerfume RiverAlehouse and Quercus Review.

Stars of the Summer Triangle

By Jeanine Stevens

Writing on the patio

of a small café,

crushed cumin from the kitchen


makes my mind wander

to thoughts of you: you, finely tuned,


muscular, deep brown

eyes under graying brows.


(Has it been long? A month? A year?)


The iron chair I sit on is raspy

with rust. Sharp edges dig


against my leg, slightly painful

but necessary to aging.


I’m thinking this was good,

this transitory infatuation.


Samosas arrive: steaming

with another sauce, darker,

tangy, Tangiers.


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, and has an M.A. in Anthropology. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt and one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize. Author of Sailing on Milkweed, her latest chapbook is “Needle in the Sea,” from Tiger’s Eye Press. Poems have appeared in Poet LoreEvansville ReviewPearlNorth Dakota ReviewPerfume RiverAlehouse and Quercus Review.


By Jeanine Stevens

For Lent, a healing tree stood

in the sanctuary. We wrote a name

or condition that needed attention

on a colored ribbon: green, pink, lavender

and placed the silky strands in high branches.

I remember cathedrals in Mexico

where peasant women sold rosaries and replicas.

Some candles were bent, but I found

a few new and unlit.

In Ohio, at the small Methodist Church

built with bricks donated

by my great-great grandfather,

I sat in quiet contemplation thinking

of other petitions: a note hastily written

and cast off in a small stream,

or folded in the chink of a wall,

or tucked in rocks at Monterrey Bay,

or torn and tossed into the air, carried

off by gulls mistaking the bits for wafers.

It took a long time to compose

the message I secured in the netting

at Mary’s House in Ephesus.

“Peace in the family,” a good place to start.

Those were not big wars, but minor

skirmishes, little disruptions, but enough

to make me wonder about love and devotion.

What if I hadn’t pressed for these things?

I will never know what works.

In the Mosque I remove my shoes,

tuck curls under a scarf blooming

with crimson tulips. I’m astounded

at the brilliance of the blue cerulean tiles.


Jeanine Stevens studied poetry at U.C. Davis, and has an M.A. in Anthropology. Winner of the MacGuffin Poet Hunt and one of two finalists for the William Stafford Prize. Author of Sailing on Milkweed, her latest chapbook is “Needle in the Sea,” from Tiger’s Eye Press. Poems have appeared in Poet LoreEvansville ReviewPearlNorth Dakota ReviewPerfume RiverAlehouse and Quercus Review.