Interview with award-winning activist poet, Jan Steckel (meet her Sunday!)
Our guest for Sunday’s meeting will be poet and activist Jan Steckel. Her latest book Like Flesh Covers Bone (Zeitgeist Press, December 2018) won two Rainbow Awards (for LGBT Poetry and Best Bisexual Book) and was a finalist for the poetry category of the Bi Book Awards. Her poetry book The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. Her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) and poetry chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) also won awards. Her writing has appeared in Scholastic Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Rise Up Review, Poetry Reading the News, The New Verse News, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, California and works as a medical editor.
Five Questions for Award-winning Poet Jan Steckel
Questions by Cristina Deptula of Authors Large and Small
You were a pediatrician before you pursued writing full-time. Do you feel that the ways of thinking you used to practice medicine informs how you think about creative writing?
The experiences I had as a pediatrician gave me a lot of material, some of which I’m still working through. Medical training also gave me some vocabulary that I use in writing, and habits of observation of people’s physical appearance, gait, movement, posture, etc. I think I also went into taking care of low-income Spanish-speaking families for some of the same reasons that I write: outrage at injustice, and a desire to change things for the better.
You’re going to talk about poetry and activism. What sorts of responsibility do you feel that you, or any artist, has to the larger world above and beyond creating well-crafted pieces?
I remember that my college biology professor E.O. Wilson, the father of sociobiology, had to defend himself from accusations that his work could be used to justify racism, misogyny and eugenicist viewpoints. Even though those were misuses of his work, because it was his work he had a responsibility to come out and explain why his theories did not support those points of view. So first of all, and this is a concept lifted from my medical training, you have to try to do no harm. If your writing is being misused, you have to come out and say so and say why.
I remember someone I knew being excited by the fact that he had some marginalia in an old book he owned handwritten by a famous poet, but not concerned about the fact that the quatrain written there was kind of antisemitic. I am not really keen on separating the life of the artist completely from his work and valuing beauty and skill without considering the moral context.
So I would say that not everyone has a responsibility to be activist in their work, but you do have to consider the moral context of your work and take some responsibility for what it is going to do or what it could be used for once it’s out in the world.
Do you carry out your activist work primarily through your writing, or through other means?
No, I think I’ve been activist in a lot of ways, as a foot-soldier in protests and politics, as a doctor taking care of and advocating for marginalized people, as a voter and someone who has registered people to vote, as a writer of letters (to my representatives, to newspapers, and to corporations), as someone who is out as a sexual minority and who marches in Pride each year, and as a neighbor who tries to help out the people on my block and the people in my city. As I get older, though, and my platform as a writer and poet grows, I’m becoming less enthusiastic about marching and about pouring my energy into these other avenues and more interested in using my written voice to change the world through my creative writing.
Do you have advice for other writers who care strongly about different issues and want to write about them?
Your words matter! People are moved to action by stories and poems that activate their empathy. Keep your eye out on various lists (which I will tell you about in my talk on February 16) for calls for submissions for anthologies with political or social-justice themes that interest you. Familiarize yourself with the journals that publish this kind of poetry and fiction and submit to them (I’ll give you a handout with a list of a couple dozen such journals at my talk). Look on your social media, if you participate in that, for themed readings or writing groups on the issues you care about (I’ll talk about some local ones, including CWC’s Wolf Pack on climate change.) If you don’t see the readings and groups you’re looking for, consider starting one yourself.
What projects are you working on currently and where can we find you?
I am working on a poetry manuscript called Stripper Style full of poems about stripping and strippers (which is also about stripping as a metaphor). I am also collaborating with a physicist friend on a science fiction novel-in-stories featuring a main character who is a female bisexual disabled mixed-race scientist. I’m going to need a couple of different sensitivity readers for that one! I have a finished book-length manuscript collection of short humorous creative-nonfiction pieces called I Just Do This to Seduce Gay Men, as well as a book-length manuscript collection of short stories called Ghosts and Oceans, both of which I need to send out more to publishers.
I give a lot of readings in the Bay Area (I think I did 30 in 2019). You can find an events calendar and some writing excerpts at my website at http://jansteckel.com. My books are available on Amazon, in local independent bookstores, and at the Zeitgeist Press website at http://www.zeitgeist-press.com
Meet Jan Steckel Sunday February 16th at our Meeting
This Sunday Jan Steckel will speak on how poets and writers can affect change through their writing. She will speak on advocacy, representation, and documenting social conditions. Steckel has experience to share on using your writing to inspire empathy and using your notoriety to draw attention to injustice. She will share the ways poets and writers can participate in acts of resistance and move others to action.
There will also be group discussions craft and marketing as well as a reading by featured member, novelist Henry Hits.