Okay to Be Different: An Interview with Jan Steckel


The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker contributor Jan Steckel chats with Jane Ormerod. 

Jan Steckel's poetry collection The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) was a winner of a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. Her fiction and poetry chapbooks, Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press) and The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press), have also won awards. Jan's creative writing has appeared in publications including Scholastic Magazine, Yale Medicine, and Bellevue Literary Review. She lives in Oakland, California. jansteckel.com

The last of my eggs are trying to jump ship. My left ovary wants to chew its way out. A hot water bottle pressed to my belly, I moan, beached on my Sleep Number® bed.
— - Jan Steckel, extract from "Laudanum for Jack-A-Roe"

JO:  Congratulations, Jan, on your publication in our anthology, The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker. How did your poem "Laudanum for Jack-A-Roe" come about?

JS:  "Jack-a-roe" is the title of an old ballad Joan Baez sings about a woman who cross-dresses as a sailor to find her man, and of course the "roe" part for me is a pun on eggs. Since I have gender identity issues, I always identified with the woman in the song. "Laudanum" is an old name for opium; I used opioids for the pain of an ovarian cyst that troubled me in the few years before menopause.

The middle stanza is about the time a boyfriend dumped me over a pay phone in Mama Bear's, a lesbian bookstore in Berkeley, right before a job interview. I hung up the phone and looked around at all these women shopping for queer books. I realized I was now free to take the job, move to the Bay Area, and date girls, and instead of feeling devastated, I felt really happy. After the interview, I called up my best friend, a lesbian obstetrician-gynecologist, and asked her to drive me onto the Golden Gate. I threw my birth control pills off the bridge, and she made a crack about estrogenized fish.

JO:  What is your background? Why and when did you start to write?

JS:  As the second stanza of my poem says, I was making up elaborate stories when I was three. I wrote down my first short story when I was five. I won a Scholastic Magazine creative writing contest, for which the prize was publication, when I was twelve. I majored in writing fiction in college because the head of the poetry department said I could be accepted into the writing program on the condition that I desisted from writing poetry. He only liked poetry that rhymed.

JO:  Your poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction are widely published. What have you learnt about the submission process? Any tips for new writers?

JS:  Just keep submitting. I literally papered my wall with rejection slips. I decided they were badges of honor. I submitted what might be my best short story seventeen times before it got accepted. Submission statistics for a writer are like appendectomies for a surgeon: you know, if you don't take out a certain percentage of healthy appendices, you're going to miss the infected ones. If you don't get at least eight rejections for every acceptance, you just aren't aiming high enough.

JO:  What is your writing routine? Early or late? With or without music? Coffee or tea? Cake or kale?

JS:  The best poetry gets written late at night (and, in the past, a bit stoned on pain meds), or in my poetry mentor's apartment in the afternoon, when the sun comes in through all the stained glass she hangs in her windows. The best prose gets written in the mornings after iced green tea, then a cup of hot coffee. Why settle for only one caffeine source?

JO:  You are well-known for your activism in bisexual and disability rights. Tell us about your passions. What does the world need to know and need to change?

JS:  I like to think I can be a voice for people who often don't get heard: bisexual people, disabled people, immigrants, the poor. Bisexual representation in literature is particularly important to me. When I was in college, before the Internet, I only knew one other bisexual person. Even now, bi youth are at much higher risk even than lesbian and gay youth for depression, mental illness, poverty, discrimination and suicide. We didn't get to see enough positive role models growing up; we had a deep conviction that something was very wrong with us. I want to change that with my writing. I want to be a role model for bi kids, and give them imaginary models in literature as well. We need to make it okay to be different.

JO:  Finally, what’s next on the horizon for Jan Steckel?

JS:  I've completed another collection of poetry, called Like Flesh Covers Bone, and a collection of short stories, called Ghosts and Oceans. They're each looking for a publisher with national distribution who does both dead-tree books and e-books. I'm currently collaborating with a physicist friend on a science fiction novel with a bisexual main character. He said, "I have these scientific ideas I want to get out there, but you're in charge of the writing. You can make the protagonist a queer Mexican woman in a wheelchair if you want to." Bi Crip Multiethnic Chicklit Sci Fi! My next frontier.


Submissions for great weather for MEDIA’s anthologies are open October 15  to January 15.

The Careless Embrace of the Boneshaker is a fearless and dynamic collection of contemporary poetry and short fiction by established and emerging writers. This is essential reading for everyone looking for the innovative, the reflective, and the fearless.  The anthology also contains an interview with musician Thurston Moore.