“In my life, what is happening [always] includes reading,” says Lisa Steinman of her relationship with reading books, writing poetry, and going through the motions of daily life.
Over a Zoom interview on a cloudy afternoon, Steinman – poet, author, Reed College professor – wears black and sits at her desk, bordered on her left by a beautiful bouquet of red roses as a bookshelf full of colorful volumes creates a fitting backdrop behind her. Her quietly joyful personality shines through the virtual platform, meeting me with a vibrant smile.
Steinman grew up in rural Connecticut on her parents’ five-acre home, surrounded by agricultural fields, dairy cows, and an old-growth forest. She spent her childhood wandering the woods, getting lost among the trees, and enjoying the landscape that became a meaningful element in both her heart and her writing. Drawing from a landscape of streams, wild mushrooms, golden leaves, and her “father’s attempt at a garden,” she began at a young age to create stories about the wilderness around her.
After graduating from university, Steinman relocated to Portland from New York, driving cross country in an old Volkswagen Bug. She accepted a teaching position at Reed College shortly after, in 1976, and has been a beloved educator there ever since, teaching academic writing and watching old Portland change into new as the years passed.
“I didn’t have a television set when I first lived here,” she remembers. “So my aunt gave me a second-hand set that I hadn’t really wanted. I left it in my unlocked car night after night hoping somebody would steal it, [but] it took a year before someone eventually took the TV,” she laughs.
“I was drawn to the stimulating conversations I had with all kinds of people when I visited the [Reed] campus for my job interview,” says Steinman. “And— in short order after I arrived—among those who wrote poetry in the larger Portland community, which included poets ranging from Bill Stafford and Vern Rutsala to Barbara LaMorticella, Dan Raphael, and Walt Curtis. I still recall standing outside a local bar long after closing, arguing with friend Ken Gerner about whether one could use semicolons in poems.”
Before the pandemic shuttered many businesses and poetry readings, essentially putting the live poetry scene on hold, Steinman began to ask herself why Portland’s literary community has become so dispersed. “I wanted to know whether there was anything shared in what people like about poetry,” she said. “So I attended every reading in town with the intent to ask people why they were there.”
“There were precious few overlaps,” she realized, “but the takeaway is that people turn to poetry because it connected them with the world.”
When it comes to the greater Portland writing community today, Steinman argues that our great loss is the lack of a clear and singular community hub or center. The gain, however, is that this dispersal creates space for gain in the multiplicity of voices that exist here, and expands our community through pockets of writers who have grouped together. “It’s a much larger city than it used to be,” she muses.
Like many professional writers at the onset of their careers, Steinman began mailing her poems out to magazines and editors when mentor and writer William Matthews suggested turning toward the goal of being published. Nearly 40 years later, Steinman published her ninth book and sixth collection of poetry, Absence & Presence (University of Tampa Press), in 2013.
Continuously informed by the Eastern United States landscape of her upbringing, the collection includes On the Scent Of, a stirring poem inspired by the ample time Steinman spent outside, particularly when living on a 14-person commune after graduating from university in 1976. While residing on “a hill with no plumbing or electricity and a plow horse,” she learned how to build yurts, partake in making maple syrup, milk goats, and can preserves.
“It was more or less a working farm, and I would spend each early morning on the path taking in [my] surroundings,” says Steinman. “… At that time, many young people were feeling siloed in the close aftermath of the Vietnam War, which led to an increase of communal living in hopes of shaping American society into a more unified and self-sustaining system.”
Certainly it rained. It was dark, but only,
I swear, at night. This odor of rot,
of renewal, calls to something & is entirely
itself. It does not precisely smell of
happiness. Promise? Only in
its presence, in how utterly present it is. I am
taken — inhaling — swept with the leaves off,—Lisa M. Steinman, excerpt from “On the Scent Of“
or is it on into, the world, at loose ends.
A ghost without a room to haunt.
Before parting, we chatted brightly and nonchalantly about our most recently read books. I mentioned the deep admiration I have for the essay works of Joan Didion, and my recent completion of her newly released collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Knopf). “I read so many local poets, writers, and works of my students,” replied Steinman generously, “I couldn’t possibly list them all.”
On the preference between flipping through the pages of a book versus reading via Kindle or digital platform, Steinman (unknowingly) gave me some of the best unintentional advice I have received as a writer: “The page is embodied, not pixelated.”
The page is embodied, not pixelated. When many of us think of pixelation, we perhaps imagine the blurring of an image or the unsuccessful printing of a photograph that has been blown out due to improper formatting— a loss of clarity. “Embodiment,” on the other hand, brings to mind such concepts as manifestation, creation, wholeness, or a taking-up of space. Miriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “embodied,” or rather “embody,” as a transitive verb meaning “to give body to.” Alternatively, its definitions include “to make concrete and perceptible,” “to represent in human or animal form,” and “to cause to become a body or part of a body.”
It is, after all, a seemingly collective goal for writers that our words leap from the page and into the psyches of our audience, affecting our readers with the infliction of sensory, emotional, or even spiritual impact that allows the written word to become a “part” of that reader. We must therefore take into consideration Steinman’s musings and strive for the “embodied”; the honest, the communicative, and the clear— both in literature and in life.
When did you begin writing? How did you start writing poetry?
I began writing even before grammar school (although admittedly not well) and first showed my poems to people outside of my immediate family when I was in high school. I think I began writing both because it helped me make sense of the world as well as of what I was feeling and thinking, and because various members of my family gave me books to read (from The Golden Treasury of Poetry, to a translation of the poems of Gabriela Mistral, to the work of Marianne Moore) so poetry seemed like a natural language to me.
When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?
It took a while. I come from a family with many high school and university teachers, which at first meant I wanted to rebel by doing something different. Then, thanks to what we’d now call the “mentorship” of one of my college professors, I was hired to teach a class when I was a senior in college, after which I received a Danforth fellowship designed to fund graduate school for those who thought they wanted to teach. The Danforth Foundation held yearly gatherings for its fellows where people talked about teaching, among other things, which made me realize why I loved teaching: it keeps my mind alive and constantly challenges me. I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have been able to earn my living talking with interesting (and interested) people about poetry.
How has your poetry career and publishing experience affected the way you teach?
In ways, it’s the other way around … or at least my teaching affects my poetry as much as my writing and publishing affect my teaching. For one thing, I teach numbers of books and poems I might not otherwise have read or thought about as carefully on my own. For another thing — although I teach academic writing — I often have idiosyncratic responses that fuel poems, and that I write poems may mean that I read poetry, as a colleague once told me, “from the inside.”
Do you read a lot of poetry? Who are some of your favorite go-to poets?
I do read a fair amount of poetry, from older poets to whose work I keep returning (like Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Josephine Miles, even at times John Milton) to more contemporary poets (including Kay Ryan, Maxine Scates — whose new collection, My Wilderness, just arrived in my mailbox — C.S. Giscombe, Mary Szybist, Carl Phillips, and James Longenbach). There are too many to mention. And there are younger poets, some of whom I had the honor of working with when they were students, whose work moves me. Poets like Shadab Zeest Hashmi, Endi Bogue Hartigan, Cate Peebles, Elyse Fenton, and Cathy Che, among others.
How does what you read inform your work?
What I read probably informs my work in some ways that I don’t even notice, although I can say there are times when I try to learn from what other poets can do with language (their use of syntax, for example). I also sometimes start writing when I’m taken with a phrase or idea I have read, not just in poems but also in prose or articles; even typographical errors I notice in newspapers or street signs can start a train of thought. Before cell phones and, more recently, the pandemic, changed public gathering places, overheard conversations also were a rich source of inspiration for me, which led to my thinking (in several of the books I wrote before Absence & Presence) about the public and private languages we use to explain the world and our selves to ourselves and to others.
What inspires you to use colloquial speech as an important part of your work?
Well, colloquial speech fills the world we live in (as in those overheard conversations), as well as being how I, at least, talk to myself. Maybe it’s a way of connecting inner and outer worlds as one writes, though it also (I hope) gives a sense of having an intimate conversation with one’s readers.
In On the Scent Of from your Absence & Presence collection, you meld internal conditions/feelings with descriptions of nature so seamlessly, drawing the reader in. Does your writing usually reflect on the natural world? Do you often incorporate both past and present into your poems?
Thank you! In Absence & Presence I was trying to write shorter poems than I had previously been writing, and to give voice (as it were) to little-recognized states of mind or feelings, those for which we have no names and no settled narrative (for example, the way we do when we name what we’re feeling “anger,” and then move our sense of what we feel into being “righteous anger” or a feeling requiring “anger management”). At the same time, I realized as I was putting the manuscript together that there are at least three obsessions to which I keep returning: landscapes, families, and loss. As early as 1989 I tried to figure out how these were related to one another, in a poem called “Landscapes, Families, and Loss,” though the landscapes, communities, and (alas) losses keep shifting (as does, I think, the way they are related). I’d add that I had not previously considered how I incorporate past and present into my poems, but I suppose memories and current experiences seem like natural parts of my — and perhaps of many people’s — perspective on the world.
What urges you to continue to write? How can other writers encourage themselves to create more often?
I have always felt the need to write, probably as a way of putting the world together, or of feeling at home dwelling in the world, at least temporarily, and doing so — as much one can — in a different economy than the one that usually governs the modern world. I’ve no words of wisdom for others, or at least no general guidelines that I think would speak to everyone. Moreover, I think there are forms of creation — other arts, cooking, sewing, making friends — that can set the imagination in motion as much as writing.
Look forward to more interviews with the poets of Portland in Amy Leona Havin’s continuing Poet’s Q&A Series.