Coleman Stevenson, 1001 Interviews No. 2

Photograph of Coleman Stevenson taken by Wayne Bund at Sou’Wester Lodge in Seaview, Washington.

Coleman Stevenson is the author of two collections of poems. Breakfast(Reprobate/GobQ Books, 2015) and The Accidental Rarefication of Pattern #5609 (bedouin books, 2012).

Coleman’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in a variety of publications such asPaper Darts, Seattle Review, Laurel Review, E-ratio, Osiris, Louisiana Literature, Mid-American Review, and the anthology Motionless from the Iron Bridge. She was a featured writer for the FA/WI 2014 Poetry Press Week.

She has taught poetry, design theory, and cultural studies at a number of different institutions in the Portland area including Portland State University, Mountain Writers Center, The Art Institute of Portland, Columbia River Correctional Institution, and now at the Independent Publishing Resource Center in Portland, OR.

Her current work focuses on the intersection of text, image, object, and ritual.

Follow Coleman Stevenson on Instagram.

Coleman and I met at Lost & Found for the interview. It was 90s night so there are a number of references to 90s hits throughout the interview.

 

INTERVIEWER

What is the Dark Exact?

COLEMAN

The Dark Exact is the company I started this past year… I focus on making products for people who are interested in enhancing their self-reflection through personal rituals. For example, I make ritual kits inside of matchboxes that have different concepts (love, funeral, mercury retrograde, etc.). I also just designed a tarot deck and make symbolic perfume oil blends and spell oils.

As a name/concept, It’s the imperfectible, the incompletable…a place of allowance, the opposite place of the one where we are paralyzed with the idea we’ll never be good enough.

INTERVIEWER

Say I’ve got no identity–I need to reflect my way into something, how can I use a ritual kit?

COLEMAN

Interesting…I’d probably prescribe the Confidence Ritual Kit to you. Oh! Or maybe the Dreaming one…or the Creativity one.

Or all of those, used in a certain order.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the process though?

COLEMAN

Well, I mention those three because they are particularly good for promoting awareness where an emptiness resides, helping someone to create identity, so to speak.   So… what you do…

is follow the instructions included in each box…

INTERVIEWER

thanx

COLEMAN

Duh

INTERVIEWER

👏

COLEMAN

🙂 Each one comes with a candle (symbolic color), a match, a candle holder, an amulet with gemstones (metaphysically corresponding to the issue at hand), and some symbols or a chart to reflect on. The instructions are step by step. They are more active and variable than other ritual activities tend to be. It’s not just a repeat after me scenario. For instance… The Creativity kit requires you to attend an art or cultural event and do a brainstorming exercise (provided) about your experience. But then at the end you have to create something. The other included items are to help you retain your focus during and after the ritual. It’s a reminder every time you see the amulet pinned to your bag or jacket. You don’t actually need to believe in any energy in the stones themselves.

INTERVIEWER

Big mean nothingness comes up in you life, your life, Coleman Stevenson. How you combat or cope? Sigil, tarot or poem, orrr?

COLEMAN

It gets me all the time. Always has.

I tried to embrace it and be a Buddhist.

That failed, so I tried to be an Existentialist.

Then I realized they were the same thing, so now I just watch tv.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever hear a line in TV and know like, ‘THIS IS A LINE FOR MY POEM’?

COLEMAN

Certainly! But really more what is happening is that it’s the only time I can stop thinking for a minute, and then my other brain can be actually solving the problems in the background.

INTERVIEWER

Like your unconscious or even preconscious mind intuits your answer?

Or in the little window of silence, you’re calm enough to find a clear answer?

COLEMAN

I think it’s a little of both. That is also one of the two main ways I compose poems (which is a very different process for me than the visual/physical design process.).

The poems are always cooking in there, no matter what I am doing, but I can’t look directly at them or they run away. They think I’m a bully.

INTERVIEWER

Two main ways you compose poems…

letting something in the back of your mind work its way out?

COLEMAN

Letting it form in there while pretending it doesn’t exist. And the other way is an intuitive process with scraps… I let the lines and images pile up and then I see which ones want to talk to each other more.

It’s NOT a collage technique.

”Heaven on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle – COLEMAN & INTERVIEWER briefly sing along.

INTERVIEWER

Ohhh, pretending it doesn’t exist… Is it heckling you? I mean, in the pretending it doesn’t exist? Is it also kind of a bully? You’re ignoring it so it will go away? Or so it will figure itself out, step up and apologize?

COLEMAN

It’s totally the opposite! It’s the little skittish animal you want to sneak up on to get a peek. If it sees you looking it jets into the bushes. I should definitely be the one apologising. Those poor words!

INTERVIEWER

What colour animal?

COLEMAN

Like the gasoline coloring of a really big luna moth?

INTERVIEWER

Like dinner plate size.

And wait a second. Not a collage. Maybe… multiple voices? Coleman Stevenson, are you an insane person?

COLEMAN

I was about to say YES but that was in answer to the moth size question.

But I DO write with a ton of different selves!

“You Give Love a Bad Name” by Bon Jovi

INTERVIEWER

💘

COLEMAN

(“You give love a bad name!”)

INTERVIEWER

Where are you from?

COLEMAN

Birmingham, AL.

INTERVIEWER

Where have you lived?

COLEMAN

B’ham till I was 17. Bloomington, IN, for undergrad. Louisville, KY, for a crash course in domesticity. And then here, but all over town.

INTERVIEWER

So what’s it like when you’re writing? Are you in a field with brush and hiding animals? Do you get into a ~zone~ ? Can you describe the ‘zone’ if it’s consistent? Are there different zones you get into? Is there an architecture to these zones, could they be called spaces? (describe them all!)

COLEMAN

It’s pretty consistent, actually!!

I prefer to write in the morning when possible. I need a certain clean slate feeling to do it well. And all the content has been working on itself while I’ve been sleeping.

Also coffee and good light.

Then the approach is like archaeology… I dig around and pull pieces out and set them on the sifting screen. (I used to date an archaeologist…but I was just too deep for him…) (Really tho, I did date an archaeologist for several years.)

INTERVIEWER

Did you see any dino bones or mummies?

COLEMAN

Yes! And I sifted, then reassembled the dinosaur.

INTERVIEWER

How ‘hollywood’ was this archaeologist?

COLEMAN

Well, we lived for a bit in Louisville, KY, because they were building a Caesar’s Palace Riverboat Casino and had to have a team do an excavation first. So a little Vegas maybe? No Hollywood. Just a lot of dirt.

I would know because I did all the laundry down the street from our apartment in this DIRTY laundromat where everyone smoked (???). I’d watch soap operas and try to write poems while the clothes churned in the machine.

INTERVIEWER

Archaeology. Even if there are disparate dinosaur elements in your poem? Is there something in each fragment that speaks to you? I am the tibia! I am the fibula! Or is there something in the… DNA, say if you found bones of a few different dinosaurs, a T Rex, a Raptor…

Would you ever put them together?

COLEMAN

That is the most perfect question! I would say that it is often a matter of the DNA, recognizing the belonging of the pieces together. In revision I’m more open to a chimera approach, but even then there is a reason, an affinity. Those parts WANT to be together.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see goals forming when you’re writing? Not to put a negative space on it, but can you see a light at the end of a tunnel? Some indication, whether it’s a motive, a goal, a hope, to work your way towards?

Is there a dinosaur that’s never existed before trying to form?

COLEMAN

I never begin that way. Part way through that starts to make itself known, and then I follow it.

The worst thing a writer can do, in my mind, is to have a subject to specifically in mind at the start of writing the poem. (I don’t even like to declare too definitively that what I’m doing is writing a poem.) As Richard Hugo talks about in one of my fav books, The Triggering Town, you’ll get trapped by the baggage of that subject. And also, you are wrong. Your poem is never about what you think it is, at least not only that.

INTERVIEWER

How don’t you go nuts though? I mean, being jerked around by some link between DNA?

COLEMAN

I could see how you would wonder that. I LOVE it. I feel like it takes some of the responsibility off of me, at least at first (which is the worst time for second guessing). So I don’t feel jerked around, I feel led.

But I also write a lot of sequences. Rarely do I write solitary poems. The meandering path is part of the form.

I love structure, but I like it to be external more than internal. I’m looser with the internal path.

INTERVIEWER

Hmm, hmm. So kind of like divination or rituals, you help guide something internal out by using external devices, forms, rituals?

COLEMAN

That is a great way to put it. And actually, I think you just solved a major life problem I thought I had.

INTERVIEWER

What was that?

COLEMAN

It’s hard to reconcile sometimes that I have so many practices that seem disconnected. People will say, Why don’t you focus on your poetry ALL THE TIME? Or they might say, Why don’t you put poems in all the Ritual Kits? UGH. I feel guilty all the time for not being a purist. But as you noted, it’s all connected, and I prefer subtle connection and accumulation.

INTERVIEWER

and why not try a number of ways to communicate with yourself?

COLEMAN

Yes. It is all the same thing. Every act fuels every other. And with the different outputs, I get to connect with a wider variety of people.

“Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi

COLEMAN

(We are regressing in time musically. “I Love the 80’s.”)

INTERVIEWER

A wider variety? But the poetry community Owns u, dude.

COLEMAN

Shackles! Yeah, the audience for poetry and the audience for the other stuff has apparently little crossover. But I am working on that too.

INTERVIEWER

Bringing the camps together?

COLEMAN

Or at least letting them see that they should borrow each other’s tools, and maybe hang out for a bit.

INTERVIEWER

To like roast spirit marshmallows?

COLEMAN

No, real marshmallows!! We are literally going to build a fire in the middle of the room. But we will be careful of all the books…

INTERVIEWER

but we burn to DEATH

we can put on death robes

(it doesn’t matter if we make it or not)

COLEMAN

We will make sure the temp is Fahrenheit 450 at the most.

INTERVIEWER

oh, dope, I can handle 450

part magma man

How do you feel about lazing around? Vs. like beating your writing self into submission?

COLEMAN

I guess I am lucky in that I don’t need to force myself to keep a writing practice the same way I have to force myself to do something like exercise.

I have learned to trust that there is no such thing as a dry spell.

INTERVIEWER

damn!

😵

COLEMAN

But I also don’t laze around too much. I’m mostly always making something, though I do watch a ton of tv and movies, but all that is fuel for making more things.

INTERVIEWER

What’s your fav movie?

COLEMAN

Fav EVER??? Hardest question. Like some god says Pick which of your children to sacrifice to me!

INTERVIEWER

3 2 1

COLEMAN

#1: Blade Runner

INTERVIEWER

yesssssss

COLEMAN

Babette’s Feast, White Christmas, Lost in Translation, Night Watch, Spellbound, 2046…

INTERVIEWER

Writing. Do you feel like you’re killing, destroying, combatting something? Or loving, consoling something?

COLEMAN

I’d say thinking, for sure. But also a weird kind of gilding of experience maybe?

INTERVIEWER

Gilding? u a alchemist coleman stevenson?

COLEMAN

Ha. Have you seen my fingers?

(Coleman’s fingers have three fresh tattoos of symbols that together form a spell.)

INTERVIEWER

So gilding tho, you have these tattoos on your fingers, you mean Business. So you’re… gilding the ideas coming to you? Maybe going back to the little creatures analogy, are there any that need some cajoling, some forming? or ‘gilding’ ?

COLEMAN

Yeah, I think of it as an enhancement of real experience. As poets, we often draw on actual experiences but a poem is NOT a journal entry. It’s an art piece. We have a responsibility to be sure it becomes something in its own right, apart from us.

INTERVIEWER

Do you keep a journal?

COLEMAN

Not exactly…

I keep notebooks for both poetry and for design work. The poem notebooks are a mess. Actually, they both are.

INTERVIEWER

I heard you keep your poem notebooks with you all the time, still in a binder?

[[i been stalkin]]

COLEMAN

I thought I heard a rustling in the bushes last night…

INTERVIEWER

👻

COLEMAN

I don’t, not anymore. Too afraid of losing it. I use my phone, and send myself text messages that I transcribe later into the notebook.

INTERVIEWER

What is image+text?

COLEMAN

That is another notebook.

It’s a lot of things…It is an exploration of any way that images and text can merge.

It can be images to accompany text (and steer the reader’s understanding)

or text to accompany/explain images

or text can become image

or they can merge into a unified field of interconnected elements.

In the class, we explore all these approaches. It’s all about communication…how we can try to convey what we want to say better. Image+text gives more opportunities, but it can also be more challenging for the viewer because there are additional symbols to contend with.

Ugh. I ended my sentence in a preposition.

Do you know that joke?

There are these northern women and these southern women having a tea party…

They wanted to try and improve relations, but all the northern ladies are sitting on one side of the room and all the southern ladies on the other.

So one of the southern ladies (of course) decides that she will break the ice…

She gets up and moves across the room to one of the northern women. She says to her, Hi! Where are yall from?

The northern woman replies, Well, where we’re from we don’t end a sentence in a preposition.

The southern woman replies, Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry! Where are yall from, bitch?

🙂

INTERVIEWER

So is image+text more like a triangle than simply writing or divining? A triangle as in, one point is the little animal, and the other two points are image and text?

COLEMAN

The animal would still be in the center of the thing.

The divination element varies based on the intention of the creator.

When I am working with design elements I am way more intentional and mathematical.

INTERVIEWER

Animal is in the center, there are two coaxers now? Mm, i think i’m leading us too far into analogy.

COLEMAN

It helps so much to have the crap I say be tested!

I think that I am right, though. The maker is still the coaxer, but either has two animals that might run away OR one animal (text) that needs food from the other element (image) or vice versa. Or it’s like one of those toys (am I thinking of Voltron?)  that you put the parts together and it makes the animal. The animal IS the merging, the result of the alchemical process.

INTERVIEWER

Some really scary taxidermy.

COLEMAN

Yep, that’s it! You must lure all the animals to their deaths in order to make something out of them better than anything they could have been on their own, alive.

I love taxidermy. I’m a vegetarian, btw… so I guess I also love contradiction.

INTERVIEWER

So the little animal we’re capturing or luring out, the intention or the muse eeking out, we snag it, subdue it, maybe we really do kill it too? Or snatch out its spirit and take its skin.

In making something that speaks to us into a poem, in order to share it, we have to kill it a little.

COLEMAN

Well, that’s an issue, right? Especially for people who write about real life, you are in trouble either way. People get upset when you tell the truth but they also get offended when you change the facts to suit the work.

INTERVIEWER

What feeds you more, events really from your life or… whatever that other stuff is?

Like even if you’re using image, are you using image to explain a certain feeling you’ve really had before?

COLEMAN

I think the stuff from life gets filtered through the other stuff (the research, the concepts, etc.) then becomes my true content. It’s usually more organic than that, though, unless I am working with pre-existing graphic symbols that have certain established meanings.

INTERVIEWER

Ooh, like the prompt you had us do with tarot cards?

COLEMAN

YES! You can use what is common knowledge/traditional meaning to inform the poem, or you can free-associate and arrive at something new. Or even in designing that deck, I knew I wanted to use existing alchemical symbols for their recognized meanings. But the hand drawn images arrived more intuitively. I surprised myself with what ordinary objects ended up representing the Major Arcana characters in the deck.

I often do not know what I’m making/writing means until after it is finished. The tarot was tough because it had to make faster sense for the user. I guess that is one difference between art and design.

INTERVIEWER

Design–conveying more immediately than art?

COLEMAN

If use is an intended feature of a thing it has to make quicker initial sense, at least in how it communicates its function/method of operation.

You could argue that we “use” a painting too, emotionally, intellectually, etc. In a way, the wall or the frame instructs us on how we are to “use” the piece. When we take the piece home and hang it in the scheme of the room, the use factor increases because we are decorating.You can also argue that design also has latent functions, of course, in terms of emotions and such. It all depends on context. Anthropologically speaking, decorating is competing for survival. I guess that’s pretty useful… But to me the primary distinction is the element of a specific intention in how a thing is to function on the surface.

INTERVIEWER

Does curation then flatten the work of art? Or does it just attribute a use-value to it, or a context, a work to be consumed, communicates a little voice into the viewer’s head, ‘Oh, OK, I get it–”art”. ‘ …thoughts?

COLEMAN

I think it wants to clarify that the experience we are meant to have IS an emotional or an intellectual one. Galleries and museums are so interesting, though, because they mean to isolate the work for viewing. They give us the blank wall with the idea that nothing will be interfering with our viewing. But the larger context cannot be removed ever. The eye and the cultural brain that did the curation, the idea of the museum itself as a certain part of society and culture, etc… all these impact how we make meaning of the pieces we encounter on the supposedly white wall.

INTERVIEWER

You’re trapped in a diamond mine with a few others. What image of the outside world do you picture first?

COLEMAN

None. I’m looking at the diamonds. And worrying about who I’ve got to talk to until we get rescued.

INTERVIEWER

Quicksand is up to your neck. Whom do you curse?

COLEMAN

The flats I wore instead of the high heels.

INTERVIEWER

You’re a Hugo fan. Are there contemporary writers you follow with great pleasure?

COLEMAN

Define contemporary… Alive?

INTERVIEWER

Alive.

COLEMAN

Marvin Bell for sure.

It’s interesting though…I can think of a number of writers who have been very influential to my own work, but I don’t necessarily still actively read their new work. There are certain individual books that I return to over and over instead of reading new things. I’m that way with music too.

And many of my go-tos are dead.

INTERVIEWER

Who are they?

COLEMAN

Jack Gilbert, Philip Larkin, Raymond Carver. Larry Levis. Plath, Dickinson (though I’m no scholar), Whitman (of course). And then the lovely Frank O’Hara.

As for younger, now writers, Sampson Starkweather and Melissa Broder are really fascinating.

And then, of course, I love the writers who are working alongside me. For example, Sarah Bartlett, who lives here in town, is a total badass. But just one example of so many…we are currently surrounded by a lot of genius in this town.

INTERVIEWER

Where are some of the places you have found most advantageous to work? What about first drafts, or like ‘initial outpourings,’ vs editing?

COLEMAN

I struggle with that. I’ve yet to find a regular place that is always good. I think that the quality of light is the most important element. For revision, I need physical space, as in room. I need a big floor or a big blank wall and some tape.

INTERVIEWER

You tape up fragments?

COLEMAN

I do. Or all the parts of a sequence and then I move them around to establish the right order, then keep writing, filling in the gaps. It’s impossible to revise a sequence on a computer or in a stack of pages. It makes me feel like I’m going to lose my mind. Like all the ideas will evaporate. They have to have a physical placement for me to grasp the whole.

INTERVIEWER

How did you start doing what you are doing? Did you force yourself into your focus or did you stumble into it? A goal or necessity?

COLEMAN

I was originally an image + text artist in my youth, as are most 4 year olds. But I remember an early elementary lesson on haiku. It was one of the first times someone said I was good at writing specifically, because I’d always been praised for drawing. Don’t you think that we often attach to the things people tell us we are good at?

I kept at the visual art and continued to dabble with the writing all through high school and college. But then I had some serious crits to face for the first time ever. I found I was more dedicated to the writing and received the better feedback there. At that point in my life I was studying printmaking but I was not developed enough or self-motivated enough to understand how to have a proper studio practice. I switched my major to folklore and took poetry writing electives. Eventually, and for many years, the writing took over. I studied further and started teaching.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think much about what you learned studying folklore when you’re working on your own projects?

COLEMAN

It came in most handy for teaching cultural studies and design studies at various colleges, but now with the Dark Exact I use it a lot to decide how what I make will be perceived and used by others. Everything I have learned about belief and ritual, both academically and practically (growing up in the South helps), factors in. It is not about appropriating from other cultures, though what I practice is a blend of various traditions. I hope people can see it’s about humanness and finding the commonalities across many different systems.

INTERVIEWER

Favorite flower?

COLEMAN

Peonies!

But also foxglove.

And Icelandic poppies.

INTERVIEWER

So hold up hold up hold up, something you said earlier just caught up with me…. no such thing as a dry spell…

but…

How

?

COLEMAN

Because I have learned that even the times of little output are in preparation for the next outpouring. BUT I also got smart and now never bring a project to conclusion without first starting a new one. Overlap is incredible because you are so excited about the new work you don’t have to experience that letdown that comes when the thing that preoccupied you for so long is no longer there.

It’s the same way many people approach relationships. Not me though.

INTERVIEWER

No overlap? But for art though, the overlap doesn’t get you distracted?

COLEMAN

You could argue that much like a relationship you need time to take stock and figure out what you’ve learned. But with art I am able to still be doing that while sketching out possibilities for the new work. Often they speak directly to each other anyway. I have to notice when there is reasonable continuity and when there are redundancies. Those I seek to eradicate.

INTERVIEWER

Interesting–feels different from relationships then maybe… like maybe the way we feel in relationships, we are a little snow blind, either from being in the shock of the break up, or just not reset to our independent selves, so we jump into a repeat relationship?

COLEMAN

Whatever patterns are there are evidence of unresolved issues. Many writers deal with this, too. They write the same poem over and over. That is my biggest fear.

I’ve heard of writers scanning their own books, looking for tropes, themes and motifs and even words they favored, then making sure that they avoid all of those in the next collection.

I strive for that, but I am also interested in crafting, over time, my own mythology. So I  have certain images that recur intentionally. And always will.

INTERVIEWER

And you search and destroy the ones you’re done with?

COLEMAN

That’s the goal at least. I’m sure some slip through. We are all blind to ourselves on some level, even if we self-study.

INTERVIEWER

We went on a writing retreat with the IPRC at Sou’Wester. Did you get anything out of it?

COLEMAN

Nah. Pretty much sucked. Didn’t all my tears at the ending ceremony communicate anything to you?

J/K! It was profound. I learned some really critical things about myself, got a ton of (stuck) work finished, and came away with a new community I felt very very close with. The timing was just exactly perfect. I felt closer to myself than I had in months and left feeling empowered.

INTERVIEWER

How did you learn about yourself? Sudden epiphanies or through using certain mediums?

COLEMAN

I think it was the particular structure. I felt really good about working independently but knowing that I’d see everyone again in a few hours. It was community but aloneness, the perfect balance of the two. I have a weird relation to people. I need them, but I also need to be alone to do a lot of my processing/initial writing. I’m often a hermit when people don’t prompt contact.

INTERVIEWER

So being forced to show your work and work with others through group prompts, writing simultaneously in a big room? Or having more of a support system, like a cozy community outside your door if you needed it?

COLEMAN

The latter, I think, because I’m good at giving myself prompts, but the best encouragement can really only come from trusted others who understand the creative process.

Follow Coleman Stevenson on Instagram.

 

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