Featured Faces: JodiAnn Stevenson
Interview by Gina Myers
December 11, 2009
After graduating from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Arts degree, JodiAnn Stevenson joined the Peace Corps, lived in Poland for two years, and received a Master of Arts degree in fiction from New Mexico State University and a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Goddard. The Michigan native returned to the state to teach at Delta College. In addition to teaching, Stevenson is an active writer who has published one collection of poetry, The Procedure
(March Street, 2006), and she edits and publishes Binge Press. The Bay City resident recently took the time to discuss writing, teaching, social justice, and her ongoing projects.
Gina Myers: How did you first get into writing?
JodiAnn Steveson: I actually started writing poetry when I was about twelve years old and I was in seventh grade. I mean, I was little so it barely counts … I was writing about boys I liked, and stuff like that [laughs]. I remember writing a poem about how Ronald Reagan was going to destroy the world in a nuclear war—I was always pretty politically active. I had a great teacher when I was in the seventh grade who had been in the Peace Corps—he was one of the reasons I eventually went into the Peace Corps. His name was James Sutherland, and he was awesome. He had us do journaling in class and it just destroyed my concept of what the world was all about—it really did. It totally changed my life. I didn't realize you could do that, like you could write your own words down. I started journaling in his class, and he suggested some of the things I was writing in my journal looked and sounded like poetry. He gave me some poetry to read, and I started writing poetry for him. And he actually submitted that Ronald Reagan poem to the Detroit Free Press and they published it.
GM:Seventh grade seems young to decide what you really wanted to do—when did you know you wanted to pursue writing poetry?
JA:I continued to write steadily. I constantly wrote poetry until my first year of college. I was at Eastern Michigan and I thought I wanted to be a cultural anthropologist. I wanted to be an astronaut—seriously. I wanted to be a botanist. A marine biologist. All these different things I wanted to be. Finally I had this class, Poetry with Jessica Rinoud, and she was awesome--another time a teacher changed my life. She would hold office hours and told us if we wrote poetry she would be happy to look at it. So I brought some of my poetry into her on several occasions and she finally said, “So what are you majoring in?” And I said, I'm undecided. I have all these interests. She said, “If you want to really write poetry then you should be studying poetry,” and again it was like a lightbulb, and I was like, “Oh, you can do that. I didn't know people could do that.” So when I went to U of M, I went into all the writing class straight away.
GM: Yeah, I think there is something that happens where it's seen as a hobby or not a real pursuit, and then suddenly the realization occurs that it is something that you can go into.
JA: Yes, certainly. And my family is so blue collar. Me and my brothers and sister are the first generation of college graduates in the family, and still not all of us have gone to college. My dad didn't even think I should go to college at all, let alone be a writer. It seemed pretty ridiculous to him.
GM: So it seems like you had a couple of teachers who were really important in encouraging you, and now you yourself are a teacher. Do you think about those teachers often?
JA: Very often. I guess that first year of college, before I knew I wanted to pursue poetry, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. It just seemed to be absolutely the only thing. And I didn't know what I would be teaching. I thought maybe I would be teaching anthropology some day. Or maybe I'll teach biology or something. But I knew at 18 that I had to teach. I would practice being up in front of the class and pretend—like on my walks home from class I would think about what I would say on the first day of class.
GM: You did decide after undergrad to go into the Peace Corps. Can you tell me a little about that experience? What were you doing, and how has it impacted you?
JA: I had an English major, so what made sense to me was to teach English. I don't know if it is as much anymore, but when I went in it was probably the peak of the ESL [English as a Second Language] explosion, you could easily find people to teach overseas anywhere. You probably still can, but we were in huge demand then. So I taught English as a Second Language in a public high school, and I really enjoyed it. One of the major reasons I wanted to do it though was because I wanted to gain the experience of teaching, just being in front of the classroom and seeing what that was like. I knew teaching college would be a whole different thing, but there is a lot of crossover there. Teaching full time five days a week Monday - Friday really helped me learn how to teach. It gave me a really great experience. And the cross cultural experience was huge.
GM: And then when you came back you decided to get degrees in both fiction and poetry?
JA: No—I didn't decide to get a degree in fiction. I actually got into the program of my dreams from Peace Corps, the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the program I really wanted to be in since I was at Eastern when I first found out about the program. When I got into it, my first marriage was totally falling apart and I was in reverse culture shock coming back from to the United States after two years in Poland, and I felt really behind everybody because I wasn't just out of a B.A. program and a lot of the academic stuff felt really far behind me. I felt like everyone knew more than I did, so I dropped out and went to what was for me a really easy program to get into, New Mexico State.
GM: But then you did wind up doing fiction there?
JA: Yes. When I was there I had a really horrible experience with my poetry teacher, and it pushed me into working with Kevin McIlvoy, who was probably the third great teacher who really changed my life. He was the fiction guy, and I had been working on this project of vignettes, of flash fiction, and I had 365 pages of it and I took it to him, and he said I should be in the fiction program and he could be my mentor. But I had never intended on getting a degree in fiction, and I am not a fiction writer. I do write it sometimes, but not really…
GM: I did notice in The Procedure that there was a lot of prose--prose poems. So maybe there is some crossover?
JA: When I started studying with Julianna Spahr at Goddard, she kind of turned me on to prose poems, and having come from the flash fiction/vignette kind of writing I did at New Mexico it did feel right to me to go into those. But I am pretty far away from those now, which is one reason why I would like The Procedure not to be the last book I have written.
GM: What year did The Procedure come out and how did that come about?
JA: 2006. I had been sending that manuscript out to a lot of places and Jeff Vande Zande asked if I had sent it to March Street Press.
GM: Were those poems you had written during school?
JA: At Goddard, yes. Mostly they are things taken from my manuscript, my final project.
GM: Now that you teach full time, do you find it easy to balance teaching and writing?
JA: I find that I write much more when I am busy teaching, instead of the opposite. You'd think I wouldn't have much time for it…I guess my writing comes in nooks and crannies. It cracks me up when I hear writers talk about how they are going to take the year of to write—I would never get anything done. I would clean my house and go shopping, because I'd have all the time in the world. It's when I don't have time that I fit it in: I write a poem on a way to class, and sometimes I write on my phone now while I'm walking.
GM: And you do a lot of visual work too. How long have you been doing that?
JA: Probably forever. I mean since seventh grade. In my writing journal I would mix pictures—actually, I would copy pictures off Duran Duran albums [laughs]. But not intentionally, probably not intentionally until I was in college, and I would make what me and my ex-husband would refer to as disposable art for our house. I would make these huge collages and put them all over the walls to make it look like we bought art, and then when we'd move, we'd just throw them away. That's why we called it disposable art. Now, I kind of regret that.
But I did the same thing at New Mexico State, I made a lot of the same kind of pieces, but they became a lot more deliberate…intentional. And when I went to Goddard, I had another light bulb moment when Julianna Spahr said, “You know, you should put these on the internet.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, people do that!” and she showed me different visual works out there. This is part of the reason that I had wanted to go to the Art Institute, I thought I would be getting that education there, but luckily I got it later from Julianna.
The first piece I put online was "The Traveling Circus of Miraculous Life" which is a 24 page collage. It is still up at Bowl of Milk, which I haven't updated in awhile, but I have three pieces I plan on putting up there this winter, and I want to update the overall look of the site too. It gets old so quickly—the internet fashion changes so fast.
GM: When did you start doing Binge Press?
JA: I started it right after I returned from a conference in Nottingham, England called Incubation. It was writing on the web, and I actually got to go there because of Bowl of Milk—I submitted it and they asked me to come and present it, which was so much fun. That was in 2004. It was a week long conference that was really amazing, and it made me want to take over the world—thinking about all the possibilities for the democratization of text and the democratization of poetry. And I thought, I can start a press. So I came back and I got some of my friends interested in it and we formed a loose board. And at the same time, someone I went to school with, Nicole Gervace, had sent me her manuscript and asked me just to take a look at it and let her know what I thought. She was planning on just publishing it herself because it was about domestic violence and she didn't think any publisher would be interested in it, and I thought this would be great for my first book for Binge. It was called Bite Marks Visible and I still absolutely adore that book, I think it's just an amazing book.
GM: And now you have a whole Bite Marks Series?
JA: The Bite Marks Series is really the only thing we have done so far, and we've only done two books, but it is something that I am definitely going to have more time for once my children get a little older. I've got one more Bite Marks book right now, ready to go, and I have two more manuscripts that are not part of the Bite Marks Series, that we are going to publish very soon—hopefully, by next summer.
GM: Who do you see as your influences for poetry and visual poetry?
JA: I hate that question because it changes all the time! I always say e.e. cummings and Anne Sexton are the first people I ever read, but I don't write very much like them anymore—I used to sort of imitate them a lot. But I think you can still see cummings in my love of language and language play. Julianna Spahr turned me into Johanna Drucker and she is a huge huge influence on me. Kevin McIlvoy recommended I read Clarice Lispector and she totally changed the way that I see—especially fiction, but also poetry. I absolutely love her. And then there's a lot of theory that informs me, Roland Barthes, Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva. A lot of the contemporary poetry I read in single bits, from journals or online. Larrisa Szporluk is a contemporary poet I like a lot. As soon as you leave, I am going to think about five others….
GM: That's always how it works. So, what do you see as your goals as a writer? Do you have specific goals or do you just take it one day at a time?
JA: I tend to think of my work in projects, so I feel like Ms. Fish, the blog, is one of my projects, and Bowl of Milk is one of my projects, and the poetry—the poetry poetry—is sort of another project, and I think with all three of those projects what my goal probably should be is getting better at getting them out there. So for the poetry poetry, I need to be submitting more. I have the second manuscript in several contests right now. I think with Ms. Fish and Bowl of Milk especially is just to get them out there more.
I think our goal as writers is always to be better, but that is so nebulous. What does that mean to get better? I want to write stuff that moves people, you know? I don't know how that gets better, but I guess you get more intuitive, or more able to capture the things that others can't capture. I don't know…
GM: Do you have a sense of your own poetics or do you think that is something that sort of changes based on the project?
JA: Anytime I have ever tried to say something about my own poetics, it just turns out to sound so pompous that I can't stand myself. So I think I am going to make an effort to be one of those writers who will not comment on their own poetics. That's for other people to talk about, eventually—if anyone ever talks about my work!
GM: What kind of advice do you give your students who are thinking about pursuing writing?
JA: I don't know that I give them advice, but I tell them that if they want to write, they shouldn't let anything stop them. And I don't mean that in a really Pollyanna-ish do-what-makes-you-happy way, because I do tell them that it is really hard to publish, and I do tell them that it can even be very cut-throat and mean, and it can depend on who you know and that sort of thing. But I guess what I mean is, if they love to write, they are not going to stop writing for anything or anybody. It's not something you can decide. Some days when I get really frustrated I'll say, 'I'm just not going to write anymore,' and that's just a lie. I'm not not going to write. Even if nobody ever read another word that I wrote, I would continue to write. So I tell them that. And I have practical advice about the publishing world and stuff like that. And if anyone is serious about writing anything, they need to read that thing, and not just that thing 100 years ago, but that thing right now. I think I read a lot of contemporary poetry, but I still need to read more too.
GM: As a teacher, you are also involved with a lot of on campus student organizations, especially ones dealing with diversity and social activism. Can you tell me a little about that?
JA: Women's issues, especially. Women and children. I don't know if I can really comment on it. I'm a political person, but I am not very smart about politics, like I don't really know a lot about what is going on. My ex-husband used to be really into it and he would watch it like a game, like sports, and he could do the play-by-play, really break it down. I can't do that. I don't like to debate people, but ever since I was a really little kid I felt really convicted about social justice, that people who have should help people who don't have, and that people in power should not be abusing that power, but they should be using that power to help people who don't have power. To me, it is just a natural extension of being a human being, not teaching or writing, but just being alive in the world. I mean, what do people do that don't do stuff like that? I don't know. I mean, I honestly don't. I wish I could do a lot more. Sometimes I wish my job didn't keep me from doing much more in the community. But again, hopefully as my children get older they will feel the same way, and we can do a lot of things together as a family.
GM: Have you had a role model in that aspect, someone from within your own family?
JA: I'm kind of one of the black sheep in my family, but I probably owe my interest in social justice to my mother to some extent, for taking me to church on Sunday mornings. This is going to sound weird because I really am not a practicing Christian anymore, but when I learned about Jesus when I was a little kid, I learned we were supposed to help people, and we're supposed to be nice to people, and if people are poor then we're supposed to give them things. That was the basic lesson I got from that, so I guess I owe those basic ideas to her, but I wouldn't say anyone else in my family is an activist. So I think in that way they think that I am a little weird.
To check out JodiAnn Stevenson's work online, visit Bowl of Milk, Binge Press, 27 rue de flueres, and Ms. Fish. Her first book, The Procedure, can be purchased here.