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Jan Steckel: California Poets Part 6, Five Poems

Jan Steckel

October 18th, 2023

California Poets: Part VI

Jan Steckel

Five Poems

Sparrow Bones

In shadow, asked for a light. I carried matches.

Phosphorous bloomed, cupped hand sheltered.

I was lit but steady. She shadowed me.

I opened both locks, switched on the lamp.

Shadow of myself, but enough left

to light her fire. Poured her a Scotch.

Kept conversation light, didn’t want to shadow

what might happen. Trended toward the bed.

Held her sparrow bones in my strong hand.

Bronze-gold hair tangled with my dark mane.

My brown hand against her pale decolletage

rumbled hunger up against the wall.

Black negligee for me, white one for her.

Yinned and yanged the diminishing night.

doublecheck that the body you’re stepping over on the street isn’t someone you know

after James Cagney

I don’t walk alone at night on my street,

though I know who lives behind every door.

Whose abusive boyfriend shot up the cars

lined up like dominoes outside her house.

Which siblings were born here,

which in Guatemala. Who fucks

his wife so hard I can hear them

across the street through double-panes.

Which balcony the 105-year-old woman

smiled and waved down to me from.

Who feeds the twenty-three feral cats do-gooders sterilized when the white ladies called the city.

I know who has the sugar, whose arm went numb

from a blood clot on the front lawn in high pandemic,

which little girl grew breasts bigger than mine at eleven,

refused to come out her door for a year.

Who is raising the daughter with damaged chromosomes.

Who planted aloes in an old toilet, right next to the Virgin

rising on the half-shell. I know whose daughter is really

their granddaughter, whose brother is really their uncle.

Which house the mom on crack got evicted from,

left her seventeen-year-old son with a five-year-old’s mind

knocking on doors saying “Mom left me,”

begging for Cheetohs, sleeping in abandoned garages.

Where the dog-bodies are buried.

Who runs toward the freeway when it catches fire.

Who knows how to grow food after the apocalypse,

who will just starve when the cans run out.

Who’s hoping I’ll sponsor them for citizenship,

who’d like to burn me with a look for calling the cops

when his frantic wife pounded the door begging me to.

I know who bought the illegal fireworks,

who would climb up on their roof to watch them.

Who ran out of the liquor store, shot somebody

in front of the taco truck, then fled to the airport

and out of the Town before the cops even got there.

Who belongs six feet under. Who’s got my back.

Who was always trouble. Who won’t ever

amount to anything. Who I want

in my lifeboat when the waters rise.

The Singing Tree

Where the blade twists

in the friable trunk,

cat scampers, springs

from mother-of-pearl.

Claws sink in bark

halfway up, squirrel

spirals the other side.

Knife’s a handhold.

Lever up. Damascus

was never so far

as watered steel.

Lord of the morning.

Holy metal, tapping sap.

Lift your open mouth.

Let it in like molasses,

like manna, opened vein.

Then out again, wider

than the Bay, louder

than helicopters, one

pregnant note sustained.

Shroud Pockets

Men are like floor tiles, cackles 80-year-old Ginny

Mariposa Dale. Lay them right the first time,

and you can walk all over them. What are you

saving it for? No pockets in a shroud.

I’m texting my myrmidons an ode to her soup:

chayote, chicken that sloughs off the bone,

monstrous zucchini, gargantuan carrot.

Tectonic fissures run through pumpernickel.

Then there’s the undergold of ornamental

pear leaves viewed from lying in the grass.

Oakland’s replete with sidewalk altars,

roadside crosses. My nails are broken

as though I clawed my way out of my own

sarcophagus. David Erdreich

says a creak runs through him.

Activists burn out, go off, raise llamas

and take unreservedly to the bottle.

Entropy’s a bitch. I’m grinding poverty

into an axe. Like John Rowe says,

it’s just new turns of the old knob.

Spent the morning deleting dead people

from my email list and unfriending

stiffs on Facebook. Dad calls the cottontail

behind the condo Tularemia Ted,

that’s what’s left of his MD:

an encyclopedia of zoonoses.

The radio switches from 80s to country

over the San Marcos Pass. All the way up

the Salinas Valley it’s nothing but

bible-thumping and mariachi,

past the topless water towers of Gonzalez,

pick fresh artichokes in Castroville,

slurp garlic ice cream in Gilroy.

Back in the Bay, I tour

memory units for my parents,

fully cognizant I’m likely to need one myself.

Pick your own nursing home,

choose your own adventure. Lately,

my creative life and Jack Shit ain’t met.

I’m just a coffin-dodging oxygen thief.

All you need is one good poem

to make your life worth having lived.

Consider doing the dishes, I tell my beloved.

I am considering the hell out of those dishes,

he replies. Reader, he did not do them.

What Kind of Dog Am I?

I am a dachshund home security system

who will maul your ankles

while barking in the cops.

I am the American Husky hurtling

out the foster-mom’s car window

to race back to her wild pack.

I’m the Baskerville Hound, Rin Tin Tin,

Victrola Nipper, Anubis, Sirius,

Canary of the Islands.

I’m Canis Major, Minor, and Hunting,

Coyote, Lupus, the Big Bad,

Toto, Lassie, Argos and Cujo.

I am the dog who will not follow.

Faithless canine, gnawer of bones.

Devourer of Worlds, Beagle of Doom.

Pooch of Power, Man’s Worst Enemy.

I am not a Good Boy. I am always

a Bad Girl, The bitch who bedevils.

Keep your biscuits. I’ll take your fingers.

I don’t want a bath. I want your femur

to crunch and crack in Hell’s front yard.


December 2nd, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

Jan Steckel, Poet, Editor, Activist

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Parallel to your long career as a poet, you’ve also championed the rights of minorities and the underprivileged. How has this influenced your creative trajectory?

JS: I had a hard time deciding whether to become a doctor or, say, a literature professor and writer. I started out premed in college, fled screaming into a creative writing major when I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life around people who used to be premeds, did a postgraduate year of comparative literature at Oxford (Spanish and French), worked in labs, and did Health Education in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic. That was where I decided to become a physician, specifically a pediatrician, and to take care of Spanish-speaking patients. Working with low-income Spanish speaking families gave me a lot of material for writing, as is evident in my new short story collection Ghosts and Oceans (Zeitgeist Press, 2023).

I’m also interested in writing as a form of activism and have taught workshops on how to change the world with poetry. I have a poet friend who is very skeptical about topical or political poetry, believing it will all become dated very quickly, but I disagree. Art is ephemeral anyway, but some classics, like “Easter, 1916” by Yeats, were originally topical, weren’t they? Nor do I mind if my work is ephemeral; as long as it moves someone to action in the moment, it’s worthwhile.

DG: Drawing on a long tradition of the doctor-writer, you became a board-certified pediatrician in 1997, and even served in the Peace Corps for a time. You ultimately chose to leave medicine in 2001. Can you talk a bit about these experiences?

JS: By the time I finished a stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching health to women and children in the Dominican Republic, I knew I wanted to take care of kids as a pediatrician, write books and have babies. I managed the first two but not the third, as my back went out on me in medical school and I’ve been limited by chronic pain ever since. I limped through twelve years of medical training and practice with the chronic pain, but by 2001 I simply couldn’t stand or sit long enough to do my job as a doctor. I left medicine and worked for a year as an epidemiology interviewer, but that turned out to be too physically challenging, too. I switched to freelance writing and editing because I could do them lying down, at home. I didn’t really admit to myself that I was disabled until after my second or third back operation, at which point I applied for and received Social Security Disability Insurance. That modest income, plus the support of my husband, allowed me to edit and write full time.

DG: In what way are medicine and poetry really more similar than they are different?

JS: For me, they’re both about stories. I’m more of a narrative poet than a lyric poet, so I’m telling stories in many of my poems. A lot of medicine is narratives: listening to the patient’s narrative about their symptoms, and forming your own narrative about what’s going on and transmitting that narrative to the next person to care for the patient. Some of the situations in my poems and plots for my short stories have come from medical experiences, though one has to change enough of the details that a patient and their family wouldn’t recognize themselves.

DG: Good health is about sporadic denial of guilty pleasures—it’s also about the occasional indulgence of them. Writing is periodical ostracism—it’s also about the occasional acceptance. How do you deal with rejection, and do you have any advice for younger writers trying to break through?

JS: When I started submitting, I put every rejection notice up on my wall until I had this wall of rejections, and I also put up acceptances. Honestly I was proud of both, because I was proud that I was submitting. When an editor rejects my piece, I just think, okay, they can’t use this, maybe somebody else can, and I send it out again as soon as I can. One short story got 17 rejections before it finally got accepted, yet people often say it’s their favorite story in my book. So I just try to realize how subjective taste is, and that just because my piece didn’t meet one editor’s taste, that doesn’t mean it won’t delight someone else. One piece of advice I would give emerging writers, though, is to see if you can limit the pool of competition a little bit by submitting to niche markets. I submit to women’s journals, LGBTQ journals, journals of disability, and medical/nursing journals, and also to contests that are limited in that way.

DG: You work across genres—poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. How much overlap is there between each, and does, perhaps, the influence of one cut through the mix a little stronger than the others?

JS: Some people have always complained about my poetry being too much like prose and vice versa. I find genre limits arbitrary and inconstant. I don’t think they’re real. I feel the same way about writing that I feel about sex: why choose? That said, I appreciate that internal rhyme and alliteration might get distracting in prose and that poetry needs to be more concentrated, more distilled than prose. I’ve experimented with prose that’s like a 20-page poem, very dense and linguistic, and also with poetry that has no meter, rhyme or even line breaks. There are a lot of journals now that find hybrid work more interesting.

DG: Though you studied medicine on the East Coast, you’re firmly based in the Bay Area. How does the environment influence the work you produce and, likewise, what are some of the challenges of working in this particular space and place?

JS: I almost stayed in Boston after I finished my medical training. I was offered a position at a Spanish-speaking clinic in Jamaica Plain that would have suited me very well. I was living in a building that was about a hundred years old, and I had been imagining a detailed story involving previous denizens of the building from the 1920s. I wanted to work on that story, and I knew if I left my apartment in Longwood Towers I’d never finish it. It was the influence of the place, the ghosts in the woodwork, maybe, of that gorgeous old hotel-turned-apartment-complex in Brookline, that was giving me that story. I decided instead to take a job at Natividad Hospital, the county hospital in Salinas, CA, taking care of the kids of migrant fieldworkers, and that gave me other stories.

DG: Poets don’t often collaborate, but it does happen. Do you have any projects you’d like to mention in this respect, and if not, is there perhaps anyone you would love to collaborate with?

JS: I collaborated on a science fiction short story with a physicist friend. He provided the scientific ideas for the story, while I had control of the characters and plot. That worked okay, but even that one collaboration was difficult, and I wasn’t inclined to repeat it. I like to do poetry free-writes once in a while with small groups of three or four friends. If they’re good poets, that calls out the best in everyone because they’re trying to live up to each other’s work. But on the whole, I think I prefer working alone.

DG: Apart from writing, you also do freelance editing and medical editing. Do you see this work as inherently separate from your creative projects, or is there some overlap here?

JS: I used to edit poetry and fiction, and then there was some overlap, as I might advise someone where to submit their work based on my own submissions to various journals. About a decade ago I specialized in medical editing, though, and I had to keep that pretty separate. I felt like I had to present myself as a serious professional, so while I might mention my medical background, I tend not to talk about my creative writing with my medical editing clients.

DG: What are you reading and/or working on at the moment?

JS: I’ve been into reading BIPOC science fiction and historical fiction lately, Afrofuturism, indigenous fantasy, that kind of thing. I’m mostly working now on promoting my debut short fiction collection Ghosts and Oceans, and I want to give myself a good year to do that while just writing short pieces. After that, I’ll either bring out a creative nonfiction collection or another poetry collection. I have enough work for another poetry book and just need to structure and organize it. The creative nonfiction collection needs a few more pieces that I’ll be working on in 2024.

Author Bio:

Jan Steckel’s debut fiction collection Ghosts and Oceans comes out soon from Zeitgeist Press. Her poetry book The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. Her poetry book Like Flesh Covers Bone (Zeitgeist Press, 2018) won two Rainbow Awards. Her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) and poetry chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) also won awards. Her creative prose and poetry have appeared in Scholastic Magazine, Yale Medicine, Bellevue Literary Review, Canary, Assaracus and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, California.


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