Everyday Icons: The Poet

Read our interview with a poet (Hannah Stephenson) as she shares advice for budding writers everywhere.

Image Credit: John Cropper

The term "poet" often conjures up images of dark, brooding artists smoking a pipe in a library full of books, perhaps chatting about philosophy and metaphors and the meaning of life. Today, let our Everyday Icon paint a different portrait for you - one of a modern day poet chasing her dreams with a slice of cake and closet full of colorful ballet flats. Meet Hannah Stephenson, author of wildly acclaimed poetry collection In the Kettle, the Shriek.

OK, so you're a poet. With all of the different avenues of writing one can take, how did you choose poetry? And what myths would you love to dispel about tortured poets and artists?

It’s funny. Poetry is writing at its most condensed/distilled/fragmented. However, I am very chatty--I love talking to people. It’s odd to me that I would be so obsessed with a type of writing that tends toward fewer, more deliberate and well-chosen words (maybe I crave that certainty and quiet within myself). I like to think that my voice in poetry sounds something like me in conversation, but my word count in conversation is quite high, whereas my poems tend to be less than a page.

The misconception I’d like to dispel about artists (including writers) is that we should sequester ourselves away in some art-dungeon and labor over work that has nothing to do with the world around us. Maybe we do work in privacy, but we are not living in a vacuum. Making art and looking at art helps me (and all of us) to be more attentive and empathetic to the world, not more closed off.

Speaking of work, your first book of poems, In the Kettle, the Shriek, was just published (congratulations!). What are some of the themes included in this collection? And how scary is it to put something so near and dear to your heart out into the world?

When I was organizing the book, I was thinking about how I saw two main threads in the poems: stuff coming together (communities, connection, cohesion), and stuff falling apart (entropy, decay). This isn’t a positive/negative, value-driven split, though. For some reason, it’s very heartening to me that everything is bound to fall apart. It’s calming to know that it is built into us to thrive and to fail--that this is natural, and good, and that we are very small in our huge universe. The title poem falls in the center of the book. I think of it as a hinge. I love the idea that in something functional and domestic (a tea kettle), there is always the potential for a startling sound, scary even. Prettiness can be easily provoked into becoming powerful or frightening.

How do you balance a writing career with your personal life? Are the two symbiotic for you, or do you compartmentalize? And what are a few boundaries you keep when writing more personal themes?

This is an important topic, I think! In terms of career, the work that I do (as a poet, editor, writing teacher, and literary event organizer) feels very braided. In terms of how the personal enters my own writing (or vice versa)--my poems are very connected to my day-to-day life, but absolutely not literally. When I read creative nonfiction in which the author is talking about her own life, and naming names and sharing private/painful material, I think, Wow. That is brave and very exposed. Yes, poetry is emotional, but it is angled and knotted and looped through other material.

Plenty of conversations I have (or overhear) make it into poems. Sometimes, Marcus (my husband) will read a poem I’ve posted on my site, and will recognize bits of it from what we’ve been chatting about at home. He can also spot my “inspired face” from a mile away--if we’re out and about, and suddenly, I have an idea, he always calls me on it, saying, “Uh-oh--you’re getting an idea for a poem, aren’t you?” It’s very endearing that he recognizes this in me.

I have a poem called “Dance Stupider,” which was a piece of advice my sister yelled out to me once at a bar (pretty good advice, actually!). A friend of mine in med school (referencing how doctors become comfortable with all parts of the human body) said that “Everything becomes an elbow,” and that’s in a poem in my next manuscript.

Sometimes I write a poem for someone because I want to tell them something. I don’t always share who the poem is for (because I don’t like to announce who might be going through a rough time, right?). But I do have my boundaries. I will never say something hurtful to someone I know/love in a poem, and I won’t share what has been told to me in confidence.

One weird thing I’ve had to become more comfortable with is the idea of anyone I meet possibly reading my poems on my site. Sometimes my students will read my poems (which is OK with me!), or someone I have just met, or my friends or family. I realize that this is actually what I hope will happen.

What is your advice to other women seeking a career in poetry? What are some tangible steps they can take toward this goal?

Absolutely--there are very specific strategies. First, I recommend that poets write poetry often (not just when inspiration strikes). A blog is a great way to help honor our commitment to keeping poetry in daily life (art is slippery--it is often the first thing to fall away when we are overwhelmed or overworked). Making writing (even just a little bit---a poem a week, or writing for an hour) into a stabilizing force is so valuable. During times of stress, I need that writing time, regardless of what I produce.

Next, I’d encourage poets to support other artists and writers. This is important! We have to read and buy one another’s books, attend readings, review work that we find interesting, subscribe to and enjoy literary publications. Reading publications (online or print) is crucial. It can be intimidating to know you want to be a writer, but not feel that you know enough about contemporary writers. The good news is that we can learn so much for free (the internet and libraries are our friends!). Before joining a conversation, we always have to listen to who is talking and what they are talking about. Whether contributing conversation or art, we need to be attentive and curious. And there is no shame in admitting we don’t know--it’s a position that allows us to learn and grow.

I also think calling yourself a poet (or artist) is useful, funny as it sounds. “Poet” is listed on my business card, and when people ask what I do, I tell them that I write poetry (teaching and editing follows my explanation closely, too). Creative folks sometimes make the mistake of sounding apologetic when we tell others what we do--I want to encourage others not to sound apologetic or to feel awkward when naming yourself as an artist (oddly enough, it takes practice!).

Have you experienced any personal or career challenges you've had to overcome to arrive where you are? Can you share how these challenges have shaped you as a poet?

My biggest career challenge has been figuring out how to create full-time work from part-time opportunities (that I really enjoy). Most of us in academic or creative fields deal with this. As as adjunct instructor, I teach many classes each semester (6-7, usually), at various universities. However, this isn’t necessarily a negative. It is a lot of grading, definitely, but I love working with students and supporting their writing/critical thinking. The benefit is an environment that is always shifting and changing--the same class changes dramatically based on the students in the class, the time of day that it’s taught, even the room in which we meet.

The challenge for me is always using my time well, and not spreading myself too thin (I always want to say YES to creative projects, too--but we can’t say YES to everything). I am absolutely a procrastinator, but I pride myself on procrastinating effectively--I know how much time projects take me to complete, I just need that approaching deadline to give me some urgency.

Keeping my writing as a priority is absolutely a challenge, especially when I’m in the thick of grading essays. It has forced me to work on my organization. For the first time in my life, last year, I got a big dry erase calendar, so I can envision what’s happening when.

Since we're chatting about challenges, Clementine Daily is a space for women who believe in embracing simple pleasures, setting realistic expectations and bettering their lives to better the lives around them. In your eyes, how do you fit in with that mission?

I once heard a teacher say that she always reminds herself to teach to the real students in front of her. That’s a great lesson, not just for teachers, but for living, I think. Bringing my self, as I am, to the experiences around me, as they are---it’s a relaxing idea. There is a lot of pressure on us (humans, yes, but especially women) to be exhaustingly perfect.

I always think that there should be Adult Merit Badges that we earn when we do annoying/ hard tasks (“Giving the Cat a Pill for Two Weeks” or “Choosing Not to Write An Inflammatory Facebook Comment,” for example). The one I just earned is “Cleaning Out the Pantry, Even Though We’re Not Moving Tomorrow.” (There are way harder life challenges, of course--maybe these would be another series, Human Growth Badges?) We can’t live with perfect intentionality all day, every day, you know? And being an adult means that sometimes we get to have a Dairy Queen blizzard for dinner.

I think many artists, especially female artists, might feel that we are being selfish when we give so much of our time and energy to our creative work (or to our own happiness). In order to better my own life, I actively give myself permission to do creative work that brings me pleasure and helps me grow. This is a continuing struggle for me.

I had a friend who once told me that in our jobs, we tell others what we need to learn. I found this intriguing. I am always telling my students, “Your voice matters,” and “I want to help you find the strongest, most confident, most compelling version of your natural voice.” This is definitely something I am trying to learn, and trying to help others learn.

And now we all need Merit badges, right? And a blizzard, please. So you're in a mid-afternoon funk. How do you pull through?

I switch activities (and usually, need to get away from the computer). I go for a walk, to Pistacia Vera (or another little cafe down the street here). I meet up with a friend. Or I listen to some great song (like this one) that brings me energy.

Hannah, do you have a personal motto or mantra?

I often return to this poem, “blessing the boats,” by Lucille Clifton. I love this line: “may you in your innocence/ sail through this to that.” In times of stress or great change, this is the poem for you!

So beautiful! Finally, what are five everyday items you can't bear to live without?

Coffee (dark roast, cream and sugar), my MacBook, some kind of dessert (cookies and cake are especially multipurpose, as they can be sort of breakfast-y with coffee. Right?), colorful ballet flats (I wear heels rarely, usually only for teaching or reading), and Carmex.

Thank you, sweet Hannah! You deserve all the merit badges in the world, and congratulations again on a fantastic new collection!

p.s. Care to meet another writer? Let us introduce you to the inspired Alexandra Franzen.