Jeanine Stevens Q & A

Saturday, January 11, 2014

For those who missed today's Meet and Greet and even for the ones who had the chance to enjoy Jeanine's presentation, here are the questions I sent her and her answers.  It was really a great experience having her in the store today.

Q: How did you come to convey your creative mind in poetry over other forms of expression?

Jeanine: Long interested in many art forms, I tried batik, painting, drawing and collage. These required specialized materials and equipment. I like the simple requirements of poetry: paper, pencil or pen. My grammar school in Indianapolis was named after the Indiana state poet so I had an early introduction to rhyme. I’ve also done various kinds of writing from diaries at an early age, to M.A. and ED.D theses. Also, I was responsible for numerous reports, evaluations, curriculum development, affirmative action directories (working at the California Post-Secondary Education Commission and teaching at American River College) which required many, many pages. I like the brevity of poetry and the idea that one can pack layers of meaning into a few lines. 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 my home had encyclopedias and news magazines. Also an avid movie goer, I had an active imagination. I tend to be a visual person and can still recall many dramatic scenes from Saturday matinees, some of which have ended up in my poems.

Why did I start to write poetry? I think the inclination was there all along, and about 20 years ago I was in a bookstore and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, was on an end-cap. That was my jumpstart into poetry. Much of my inspiration for my work comes from travel, life events and reading other poets. I continue with collage, some of which has illustrated my poems and book covers.

Q: How does your degree in anthropology guide or influence your poetry?

Jeanine: I’ve always been interested in other cultures and prehistory, so anthropology was a natural field of study for me. I was fortunate to have excellent professors in the Anthropology Department at California State University Sacramento, as well as those instructors in the English Department. At American River College I taught anthropology for many years: Cultural, Physical, and Prehistory, so anthropology has been a constant in my life. I think the influence on my poetry is immense. I’ve written poems about cave paintings in southern France (Combarelles Cave), Native Californian legends (Pogonip), Scottish mysticism (Bean Nighe), and archeological excavations (Sifting). I try to remember cultural relativity when I explore and write about situations different from my own. A recent trip to Turkey opened up more ideas for new work,“House of Candlelight,” based on a fresco found in a hidden cave in southern Turkey, and “A Dish of Figs in Thrace.” A chapbook, The Meaning of Monoliths, contains poems related to other cultures and their “monoliths.”

Q: In what way did the Creative Writing Program at Davis help grow your craft?

Jeanine: 1. A course on writing from photographs was instrumental in a number of poems
written over the past few years. All kinds of photos from National Geographic, newspapers,
Sierra Club Magazine, Archeology Magazine and others captured my imagination. Many of the
poems were written from photos of women from young Frida Kahlo to a girl escaping gunfire
in Liberia to others living on the streets.

2. The course, “Poetry and Translation” gave me inspiration for my second collection, Loving
Assemblage, which deals with French themes, French writers and artists. I used the model
of “variations” or “variations on a theme by” French authors I’ve long admired such as Paul
Verlaine, Apollinaire, and Simone de Bouvier. We also analyzed poems in depth, line by line
which is useful for revision.

3. In other courses I learned how to sequence a collection, create a broadside. Another challenged me to write in the style of Gertrude Stein.

Q: You celebrate art in your poetry, so I take it that the greats in all forms (literature to sculpture)
are muse for your poetry. Could you describe your process here? Is it a sudden jolt of inspiration
faced with great beauty? Or is a more obsessive niggling that make the art stick in your mind long after you’re in front of it?

Jeanine: The process I use for ekphrastic poems will vary depending on the piece of artwork. One of my favorite paintings is Le Pie (The Magpie), by Monet. Reprinted, you see a lot of blue and white but when I saw this in person I was astounded by brighter shades of yellow and also how large the painting was, almost life size. I could have stepped right over the rickety farm fence. I may also focus on single item such as the top hat worn by a Native American in a sketch from the 1800’s. The poems I’ve written from Chagall’s work (so full of life and energy) have more to do with action and activity, such as “Blue Circus” and “Joseph’s Dream.” Or I may try to visualize what just happened prior to the scene, or what may happen after.

In “Haida Moon Mask” I imagined what the intent of the wood carver might have been so
described the piece as a carving for his young son who was “startled by stars.”
My poem, “The Blue Nun” was written in response to a small wooden carving, also painted,
which I purchased at a roadside restaurant in Bakersfield. “Made in Russia” was stamped on the
bottom, so I imagined her apparel and her travels from there to here. “Sunday on the Banks of
the Marne” is from a black and white photo and the date, 1938, led me to construct a scenario
prior to World War 11. The time element was important here.

On occasion, I will sit down and begin to write immediately after being inspired by a work
of art. Often though, it will be an image I keep in mind and keep coming back to. Recently I
wrote a poem called “Breast Reliefs.” I’ve had this photograph of broken pieces of sculpture
for some years. I researched the site where these artifacts were found (Lake Constance), and
also the surrounding environment at the time and was able to write the poem from the sculptor’s

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