Dunes Review Interview Series: Stephanie Heit
Her poem “underwater plot to get the raft back” appears in the 2017 winter/spring edition of Dunes Review.
What first inspired you to write poetry?
Movement. This has always been my first language. From a young age, I took creative movement classes at my local community center in Midland, Michigan with an amazing teacher, Linda Z. Smith. I had no idea at the time that what I understood to be dance was really interdisciplinary arts. We moved, made up dances, wrote and drew, even wove scarves. These individual disciplines melded and played between edges. For me, moving and writing were not individually defined acts but rather the play between their porous seams. I made poems that came from dances and vice versa. Some of my earliest pieces of choreography included poems, not as accompaniment but as an intrinsic part of the work.
Can you describe for us the physical environment in which you write?
I need to make that plural as I definitely write from a multiplicity of locations and from shifting bodymind states. My debut poetry collection, The Color She Gave Gravity (The Operating System), which came out in March, is a great example of this. The opening section, “Penumbra” was written inside an improvisational dance piece. I worked on much of the poem while actually moving, incubating lines in my body while dancing often with notebook in hand. Another section, “Enter Amnesiac,” was written inside Richard Serra’s sculpture installation The Matter of Time in Bilbao, Spain. I always have a notebook with me, especially when travelling. Writing in new places provides me with an extra sense, another way to take in the experience. I was inside these massive steel spirals and torques and started writing. The next day I went back compelled to spend more time in each piece – sitting, standing, moving – while writing in this landscape, taking in the other museum goers, tuning my attention to the materials of the moment.
I also love water, and if I could write in it I would (in progress!). My partner, Petra Kuppers, (also in this upcoming Dunes Review) and I have a collaborative practice that involves place-based somatic explorations. Last summer we did five minute dances in Benzie County in Lake Michigan and Crystal Lake, then did freewrites on the dock or the beach. So I like to get sand, water, multiple elements mixed in with the ink and paper of my work. My poem in this Dunes Review issue is a result of these practices (though was written by a pond at the Playa Artist Residency in Oregon).
Lots of writers are particular about their notebooks and pens, or the computer they use to write. What does the actual writing process look like for you?
Writing is a physical act: I’m in love with the kinesthetic joy of pen on paper. To feel the curves and song of letters. Revision happens on the computer, usually at my purple desk. I have a wealth of journals whose material marinates until I’m ready to mine and hone as I transfer to screen. In the process, I’ll often print out versions. I like to hold the poem in my hands, to find its warm and cool spots, the places that need chisel, the spaces that need breath.
How do you know when a poem is finished?
When it breathes without me.
How do you feel about sharing your writing with readers? What kind of feedback do they give you?
Sharing my writing is a vital part of my creative process. The piece may be finished and breathing but then that outward gesture, an arc into the unknown, to have someone else feel the words inside their bodies…yes! Petra and I have had the privilege of doing a number of readings recently. It is so satisfying to witness where language resonates in the participants and even to discover new things in the work afforded to me by the presence of a community.
The work in The Color She Gave Gravity and much of my writing is informed by my lived experiences with bipolar disorder and as a psychiatric system survivor. I have a series, “Z Cycle,” which are sassy pieces about insomnia written while I was in a manic state (revised when sleep and I made peace). The poem, “Testament,” forthcoming in Disability Studies Quarterly, pushes against the language and labels I’ve encountered during multiple psychiatric hospitalizations and treatments. After a reading, when someone comes up and says, “you got it,” or “I’ve lived that piece,” it completes the circle or parabola or whatever shape a deep sigh of recognition takes. I had a person tell me she was going to ask a loved one more about her mental health experiences after hearing a certain piece. This is my mad activism, to openly share my experiences with mental health difference, to raise awareness and open spaces for dialogue.
How do you think your poetry should be best enjoyed? Read out loud or seen on the page?
Poetry has many lives and ways of being. My revision process includes reading out loud to taste the words in my mouth. Often I have someone else read a piece so I can listen differently. As a dancer, I enter the page as a choreographic space, invigorated by line break, form, placement. I welcome readers to enter the writing in whatever way they find enlivening. Also, something I think about when reading poetry is pace. Sometimes I like to read a single poem and let that poem live and echo throughout my day.