Karisma J. Tobin interviews Texas Review Press author Jennifer Sperry Steinorth
Jennifer Sperry Steinorth is a poet, educator, interdisciplinary artist, and licensed builder. Her poetry has appeared in Alaska Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Colorado Review, The Journal, jubilat, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West and elsewhere. She has received grants from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Vermont Studio Center, Warren Wilson College where she received her MFA in poetry, and The Bear River Writers’ Conference. In 2016 she was the Writers@Work Poetry Fellow selected by Tarfia Faizullah and won the Connecticut River Review Poetry Prize judged by Penelope Pellizon. She is the author of A Wake with Nine Shades (Texas Review Press, 2019) and Her Read, a hybrid text of visual poetry/erasure (Texas Review Press, 2021).
How does your experience as a builder interact with your writing?
Funny, I’ve just been working on a project and thinking about that! My entry to construction and one of my primary roles (and passions) has been architectural design. And like writing, if I am designing a house or remodel for people, or even reorganizing spaces, I lose time—hours and hours—have to make myself stop. To sleep. To eat. Or because I’m starting to destroy the thing. There is a kind of addictive play to design work, of problem solving, that continues to fascinate me. It’s also an exercise in working with constraints: how much space is available, what kinds of activities must be housed, whence the light, the views, to what degrees must there be privacy, are there roaring lions nearby, what is the budget, how many must the dwelling hold, how will it converse with the land and its neighbors, foster communion, sleep, creation, how do we enter, what surfaces must be left bare for those that will inhabit it, those who will become co-creators of this dwelling?
What I mean is—one can build a house, as one can build a poem, without thinking of all these things—but the poems I love and the dwellings I love—they do think of these things—of the beings that will live inside and beside them and they want the dwellings to be good for all those beings.
And—all of this makes me think a good deal about empty space. When you design a dwelling you are giving shape to space so that a body, humans mostly, but not just—can inhabit the space. If one thinks of a poem as a dwelling—after all stanza is Italian for room—then it is interesting to think not only about what one is saying, but about the space one is shaping, through which someone else will move.
I’m not sure, but I think all of this makes me tend toward spare language and a heavier reliance on formal structure.
What piece of writing advice has really stuck with you? What piece of writing advice did you wish you had heard/encountered/understood sooner?
I have received spectacular advice on writing and living from other writers—but what springs to mind now is something I read when I was pregnant with my second child—and I wish I had read it before the birth of my first, though I might not have been able to apply it the first go round. It’s from Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom and the author is speaking about the discomfort of labor, of childbirth. To paraphrase—and I only read this once about 18 years ago—Dr. Christine Northrup writes that the labor of childbirth is like being a swimmer in rough seas. Our instinct is to try to remain on top of the water, to brace against the turbulence that is overtaking our body; the instinct to escape may cause us to stiffen, as if the more rigid we make ourselves, the more we can mitigate the thrashing. But the thing is, it’s the surface of the water that is most turbulent. The more we allow ourselves to drop down below the surface, into the belly of the sea and let go, the smoother the going. The more we stop resisting the experience, the easier for the poem to reveal what is required.
Another analogy is that scene from the movie Contact. Jody Foster is launched “into space” in a craft whose design comes from otherworldly intelligence, the technology of which the humans in the film don’t understand. In the craft, there is no place to “strap in”—not even a chair, but the human engineers decide that being strapped-in is a mandatory safety measure so they create a chair and harness to protect her. The safety device nearly kills her.
Trust your body. Trust the aliens. That’s good advice for most endeavors.
Do you have a writing routine or ritual? What does that look like?
Not really. I try to get to the page shortly after waking and before I interact with people. I usually make tea before going to the computer but sometimes I start writing straight away. Sometimes I read first, but not always. When I’m writing, I try to keep silence about me. I’ve been able to organize my days to do linguistic creative work in the early part of the day and reserve conversations, news intake, and so forth for later. Often, when I’m writing poetry, if I’m into a poem, the music is such that it’s easier for me to slip in and out of poet-mind at any hour of the day, but with prose, I’m best when I tackle it early.
Her Read, the book you’re working on right now, is a book of erasure poetry. What were some of the challenges you encountered in erasure that are different from those in A Wake with Nine Shades? How did that change the way you interact with poetry as a whole? What was a challenge or a delight you were surprised to find manifest the same way in both erasure and non-erasure projects?
Hmm. Well, the demons were different with the erasure, Her Read. I was breaking through a more paralyzing silence. And providing back-up to the silence surrounding what I needed to express were other demons saying—this erasure business is cheating, it’s just an arts and craft project, how will you publish it, who are you to complain? Recently I wrote in the Preface to this forthcoming book that it was born out of the trauma and grief of gaslighting.
I also described it as a violence like falling in love. The process was a dance between me and the source text—we took turns leading. As with theatrical improv, I had to surrender myself to not knowing what would happen next. But as the book progressed and an arc began to manifest, it became increasingly clear that the speaker needed to gain agency over the text; I had to discover ways for her to bend the rules around what became necessary to say.
People have called erasure a process of bringing to light something that already exists, latent in the text. For me, that does not ring true. Rather, it was a discovery of what I could make with a text that had left me and so many other womxn out. Does the sculpture exist in the marble before the sculptor sees it? I think no. I am reminded of the ways womxn who sought and achieved power were often deft at the covert manipulation of men, planting ideas that men took to be their own. I’ve never been good at that myself—I’m often awkwardly direct. And I find something horrific in that kind of agency.
On the other hand, most poetic devices used in other poetry can be deployed in erasure: rhetorical turns, repetition, all kinds of sonic and rhythmic music, image, metaphor, syntactic play, shifts in tone and diction, attention to artifice—all of these things can be examined in erasure to mine a poem’s depths.
Do you have days where you feel like a failure as writer—like your work isn’t worthwhile, or the poems you want to write are only every tarnished by you as a conduit? What do you say to yourself on those days? How do you keep going?
Omg. Are you kidding? Yes. All the time. The more aware one becomes of injustice and other evils, the greater the fear of doing harm, the greater the question of how my small contribution can contribute to the good. But also, that’s totally lame. Call it by its name, that’s LAME demon, get away!
Before touring with A Wake with Nine Shades I was afraid that there was too much darkness, too much bitterness in the book—why does the world need these dirt cakes I’ve made. But then I reread an essay by Jane Hirshfield I read probably 7 or 8 years ago and realized it was pretty much affirmation of all I’d grappled with in writing A Wake with Nine Shades. When I read it recently, I was utterly overwhelmed. I thought, wow, when I first read this essay it was showing me the journey I was about to take and now it’s showing me where I’ve been.
That essay “Facing the Lion: The Way of Shadow and Light in Some Twentieth-Century Poems” is from Hirshfield’s Nine Gates. I highly recommend.
On the days the demons are winning, I try to remember moments when something in my work has been responsible for lighting someone else up—moving them in some real, meaningful way. Because I know what it is to be moved—it’s to be connected—and that’s why I make art. So I want to go on the record as saying that if you are moved by something and have the opportunity to share that even in a tiny way with the person who moved you—do it. It matters.
And before I had experiences where I knew my work had done something good, I would recall words from teachers or peers I respected, or the “this one came close” rejection letters—they also helped.
But ultimately those are all external affirmations and they don’t mean squat if they don’t align with something internal. Really, you have to trust what you KNOW to be true—that there was a calling—you heard it—it’s yours.
What lead you to Robert Frost? Of all the poets in all of time, why choose him for your tryst-mate?
Oh, boy. I hope you’ll forgive a longer answer to this one! Hopefully it will be of interest.
I’d say the initial draw to Robert Frost was my own resistance to him combined with other people’s enthusiasm. Specifically, my father-in-law was a fan of Frost, as well as Jim Harrison, Hemingway—these American man’s men. And Frost is one of the few American poets that Americans of a certain age who are not poets can name. The “homespun wisdom” that is associated with Frost—inaccurate as that association may be—also smacks of a world in which womxn were seldom story tellers, let alone free agents. As a young woman discovering contemporary poetry in the woods of northern Michigan, the first living poets and writers I was exposed to—my first realization that poetry was not relegated to the past—was through male writers who were also fisherman and hunters, who wrote of this often, who adored Jim Harrison, Robert Bly, etc. The work of those men—both the men I knew and the men those men raised up—so much of it was antithetical to my experience as a woman. The work may not necessarily have directly perpetuated negative views of womxn but it was also at times unhelpful. For as we know, to view womxn solely through a male’s eyes is not good for womxn. It took a long time for me to find female voices that would help me untangle my own tongue. Okay—so there’s that.
And then there’s the fact that the Frost poems were written in the wake of my father-in-law’s suicide. There is a poem early in the book, “Dear Robber,” which precedes the epistolary sequence. It begins:
Robert Frost is hard for me to get
excited about. Sacrilege you say?
But I need him now. In order to write—
Don’t know what— not sure how. He loved him.
My father-in-law. Robert Frost.
Now I’ve already told you of my father-in-law’s death but in the poem that information doesn’t come until the end. In the beginning there is simply a woman needing a man to speak about a man who loves another man. There’s a lot of ambiguity. It’s not for another 25 lines that we get:
I take a lover. Rob Frost. Sacrilege
you say? He took his own life. My husband’s
father. My husband’s wife is afraid of—
what? The drill bit? A robber? The frost?
What we winter over all summer.
The hammer and ten penny nails. What is
written. What it costs.
Among other things the poem is a meditation on the fear of inheritance and silence and the cost of breaking silence. In “Dear Robber” the fear is personal and familial and generational. In the Frost epistolary sequence—where a female speaker, who is also a poet and wife and mother, has an affair with the dead Robert Frost—that is also a meditation on the fear of inheritance, but in this case it has more to do with the role of womxn in the arts historically. I cannot count the number of times it has been made clear to me that relationship with a male artist needed to be predicated on sex, nor the number of times that fear of impropriety has been a hinderance to a friendship with a male artist. If you asked me about this 20 years ago, I would have been more optimistic about this, but the truth is for all of history rooms have been locked to womxn, unless they enter as a lover. This is a theme that also gets played with in my forthcoming erasure, Her Read.
If you went to dinner with Robert Frost now, what would he say?
Ha! Alright, so . . . assuming he exists—that he’s not just a figment of Genevieve’s imagination—and assuming that I’m Genevieve and assuming it’s been a while since we talked—though what is time to the dead? Is it like Covid time? But assuming all that, what would he say?—I think, sadly, not too much. I’m sure he cares what is written about him, and cares abstractly about the living, but in the parallel universe where my poem is reality, the affair wasn’t about him, but about the living poet, the woman. Genevieve is a ghost to him, as he is to her (and to me). Probably he’d talk about himself, surface-y stuff that emphasizes the gravity of being dead, maybe he’d relay some conversations he’d had with famed deceased, perhaps C. D. Wright who much to my sorrow, I never met. Frost would know that kills me. I’d have to remind myself how fragile he is—try not to take it personally. In a generous moment I might remind him of a greater abiding love and laugh at the ways he was a terrific ass.
Your poems do really interesting things with form: what does your process of writing and structuring look like? Do you write the words first and add shape after? Are words and form intertwined from the beginning?
Yes, the poems do interesting things with form, I am constantly surprised by them.
Yes, the process looks like YES.
Yes, sometimes words come first and shape can come even years after.
Yes, often words and form intertwine from the start, especially as I’ve become more sensitive to the flicker of form pacing the perimeter.
My advice: try everything that flickers.
Her Read is an entire book of erasure; A Wake with Nine Shades contains a long sequence of letters from the tryst with Robert Frost—what draws you to these sorts of set structures? There is a deliberate limitation to these sorts of forms; what about these constraints appeals to you? What avenues do they open in your writing that would be otherwise inaccessible?
If you throw a small rubber ball into a smallish glass box, you will have something fabulous to watch! But if you throw that same rubber ball into field of tall grass you have only the first flight and the ball is gone. For centuries we’ve been recycling units of containment, sonnets, ghazals, haiku—these forms contain what Tony Hoagland calls the combustible energy of the poem. But you can’t exhaust an idea in just one sonnet or one haiku. The beauty of the container is you can use it to hold many things. And when you put them besides one another they begin to tell a story. A jar of sugar, a jar of flour and a jar of chocolate chips on shelf tell one story. A jar of jelly beans, a jar of ants and a jar with an empty bird’s nest tells another.
I might be especially interested in formal constraints because although I am interested in story, the language I generate leans more toward lyric than narrative. Of A Wake with Nine Shades, Maurice Manning wrote that it favored impressionism over expressionism—I think that’s true. The formal containers you mention each create dramatic tension—a kind of narrative framework that helps both to contain and to contextualize the lyric. In the case of the Frost sequence there is immediate drama in an epistolary sequence between the dead and the living, then there’s the fact that one is a canonical poet and the other an aspiring poet, and for salt, add the fact that they’re married and having an affair.
In the case of erasure, the poem is not simply what remains after the act of erasure, it is also the tension between the new made thing and the old—between the poet and the source text, or what that source text represents. The space between these is rife with dramatic tension, it is from this hollow that the poem sings.
Adrienne Rich has said, every poem is a silence that had to be broken. But what spills from broken silence is seldom narrative cohesion. I think, like many of us, I am attracted to narratives that resist being told, as well as those that resist small containers. I’m thinking of poems like C. D. Wright’s One With Others, Alice Notley’s Descent of Alette and Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. Each of these book-length poems are fueled by the twin cylinders of a powerful lyric and a subverted narrative. I think our tolerance for narrative non-cohesion is increased when the poem’s container provides narrative context.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I read. I try working on other artistic projects. I write letters to other writers and artists. I do work on projects that feel done but don’t yet exist out in the world. Exercise. Cook. Organize and rearrange my dwelling. Sew. If travel is an option—often it’s not—but if it is—then that. I might try waking myself in the middle of the night to write for 20 minutes in a half-awake haze. Or wake early and make myself write before I’ve wiped the sleep from my eyes. Automatic writing in timed intervals can be great. There are many ways to trick the mind, to stop the loops of cancellation thoughts, but it takes practice. The more you stop such pointless talk and work, the more you realize the lie of such talk. But sometimes—even with tricks—getting out of our own way seems impossible. In that case, I recommend a book recommended to me by Tarfia Faizzulah—which someone else marvelous recommended to her—it’s The War of Art,by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield compassionately calls bullshit on the vampires we allow to siphon off our juice. It’s a good one.
Did you like to read as a child? Were there any childhood books and authors that were your favorites?
Absolutely, I loved to read as a child. Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice in Wonderland, Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables—oh, Anne!—and Diana of the Lake of Shining Waters—I devoured that whole series so many times. Judy Bloom and Beverly Cleary in elementary school. The Wind In the Willows, Winnie the Pooh and The House on Pooh Corner I read and adored in high school. I had some great English teachers—on the one hand I was reading Clockwork Orange and Dante and Toni Morrison’s Beloved and then on the other A. A. Milne. I’d read him aloud to my tween sisters and we’d fall off the bed laughing. One of my all-time favorites is “In Which Piglet Invents a New Game and Eeyore Joins In”. Just try to read it aloud without laughing. I bet its really good quarantine medicine.
Karisma J. Tobin grew up in the mountains of New Mexico and Alaska. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from Interim and Plainsongs, among others. She is currently Assistant to the Managing Editor at Texas Review Press. She is a Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing MFA candidate and an English Language and Literature MA candidate at Sam Houston State University.