Friday, April 26, 2013

Poet David Allen Sullivan: Compassion The Missing Piece

Chris Cooper – 1,894 Words

“David Allen Sullivan’s gaze is steeped in compassion for all connected to the combat zone; these finely crafted poems recognize that which is deeply human.  
During a recent trip to Baghdad I was asked by  an Iraqi poet, “When will the artists in America create work in conversation with us?” 
Every Seed of the Pomegranate is a part of this neglected and difficult conversation.”
Poet Brian Turner

“It’s easy to show off your intellect and your cleverness.  The risky most vital thing is to have compassion and empathy for others.  And that opens up your heart and your vulnerable place to be – our lovers, children, other cultures.  The soldiers who seemed best able to cope with the return to so-called normal civilian-life were those who learned from and talked to the Iraqi people.  Empathy is really crucial and the danger in our country is we are losing the capacity to look at the other side.. “
Poet David Allen Sullivan

            In 2007, Dr. David Allan Sullivan, who has taught literature, creative writing, and film at Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz, California since 1996, noticed a change in his student make up – now his classes consisted not only the traditional full time students, but also the Iraqi war veteran.  In fact, he learned that several of his students were Iraqis, Iraqi war veterans, and spouses of Iraqi war veterans.  His relationships with these students led him to learn more about the Iraq War.
            He had an Iraq veteran student enroll in his screenwriting class.  The veteran was struggling to write what he had experienced because he stayed in the green zone of Baghdad and never saw combat.
            He had friends who lost limbs and life during the war.  He felt guilty.  He was sheltered but he heard the bombs and the sirens, and he had friends who never came back.  The students wanted to know the gory details, but he didn’t have them.  He felt his experiences were not valid because he came back essentially whole.    Iraqi War Veterans often have trouble articulating what they have been through.  The other students want to say congratulations but they don’t want to hear their stories.”
            But Sullivan wanted to hear their stories and so he listened.  The stories came alive to him and he began to see the war through the eyes of the United States soldier, the Iraqi soldier, the United States citizen, and the Iraqi citizen.  

            That summer, he watched documentaries on Iraq, and one night, he woke up at 3 a.m., grabbed the journal he kept on his night stand at all times, and, without turning on the light (he didn’t want to wake up his wife), wrote the second poem of his now published book collection Every Seed of the Pomegranate.
            “It’s interesting because I don’t take credit for having written it.   I started writing down what I was hearing and pretty much the whole thing came out.”
            Angel Jibril (Gabriel), The Messenger” is the poem’s title.  And when Sullivan showed it to his poetry group they insisted that he had to pursue this powerful and compelling material.
            “And it was really that angel voice that said:  you don’t know what you are in for but you need to take this journey.    So I took on this project and then it got harder – I realized If I’m going to do this I have to look on both sides.”        
            Sullivan read all he could on the Iraq War from both points of view, watched documentaries about both sides of the conflict, and learned a few Arabic phrases.  He also looked up words in Ukrainian so he could use them in the poem “SASHA KSENYCH, DOMESTIC”, about a Ukrainian woman working in New York City.   In the process, he wrote six more poems.
On September 9, 2008, Sullivan attended a poet reading at the Bookshop of Santa Cruz.  The reading was by Iraq War veteran Brian Turner who read from his two books of poetry Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.   After the reading, Sullivan, Turner, and poet Ken Weisner went to Costa Brava on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.  The three poets talked poetry and had drinks, when Sullivan revealed to them what happened that 3 a.m. night and the six other poems he had written since.
            “I told them how uncertain I was.  I’d never been to Iraq, didn’t know Arabic, and had no experience in the military.  Brian said, “This war is being ignored by almost everyone.  And the repercussions will be dealt with for years.  If citizens don’t educate themselves and take an interest they do a great disservice to the vets.  Write what you’re called to write.“  Brain Turner is the one who got me to believe that I could do it.  He told me I should pursue this all the way through.” 
            Sullivan took Turner’s advice and continued to write more poems, often using words and images from his own students as the poem’s backdrop.
            “I was writing poems in the voices from the students I heard from.  The more I kept going the more I had to write it.  This project itself demanded that I take it seriously and do my homework and get the things written as accurately as possible.”
            Soon he had a collection of poems – enough for a book – and the first individuals he had read his poems were his own students; one of which was Corporal Angel Milan III, an Iraqi War veteran from New York. 
            “Angel pulled out this poem, and came to me and said, “This is my poem.”   He had tears in his eyes.  I asked him, “Can I give this character to your name?”  And he said, “Yes, I’d be honored.”  I began to remove the pseudonyms from people because I realized I needed to connect this to the individuals who inspired it. “
            The poem, “Corporal Angel Milan III” is in Part 3 of Every Seed of the Pomegranate.

Sullivan got the title for his book collection from a famous Arabic saying:  Every seed of the Pomegranate must be eaten, because you can’t tell which one comes from Paradise.  When Sullivan read the saying, it made him realize that in order for an individual to experience life fully he or she must take in all of life’s experiences:  sorrows and pains, as well as joys and pleasures.   The hardest part was yet to come – he had to find a publisher for his book collection.
“I knew it would take an unusual publisher to brave this manuscript.  I looked at books on my bookshelf that I liked and sent it to a number of them.  Mifanwy Kaiser of Tebot Bach Books texted me within twenty four hours and said, “I haven’t read it all but I want to publish this.’”
For the book cover – Sullivan went to the Internet to look at images by Iraqi artist and found the pomegranate photograph by Sama Raena Alshaibi, Assistant Photography Professor at University of Phoenix, Arizona.  He sent Alshaibi the manuscript and asked her if he could use her photograph as the book’s cover.  She said yes, and gave him permission to use any of her images for free.   Four of her photographs are featured in the book.
Every Seed of the Pomegranate is 116 pages with 63 poems divided into a preface poem, three parts, and an epilogue poem.   Parts 1 and 3 begin and end with an angel poem: “ANGEL JIBRIL (GABRIEL), THE MESSENGER”,  ANGEL ISRA’IL (RAPHAEL) THE BURNING ONE”,  ANGEL MIKAEL (MICHAEL), THE PROVIDER”, and “THE OBEDIENCE OF IBLIS, THE DEVIL.”  Part 2 consists entirely of the angel poem “THE BLACK CAMEL,” which features the angel of death, a United States soldier, and an Iraqi father.     
THE BLACK CAMEL” is the last poem I wrote in three voices.   It was time I felt I could pull these voices together into one poem.  THE BLACK CAMEL” performs the bridge that I hope the book interacts – getting Iraq and U.S Soldiers and Iraq and U.S. citizens to talk with one another.”
The entire book follows the haiku format in groups of three lines – the first line having 5 syllables; second line 7 syllables; and the third line 5 syllables.  Sullivan says the linked-haiku format forced him to focus on the images not the narrative threads.
“It’s my invention.  It also appears a few times in my first book, Strong-Armed Angels.   The haiku stanzas allow for some breathing room.  I convey the detail and hope that the rest of the stories are told in the reader’s brain.  Since I was dealing with an incredible diverse amount of material I wanted the reader to find some connective thread through it.  I realized this form works because it makes it feel like a book no matter how diverse or strange it gets.  Some of the haikus can stand on their own, while for others it’s necessary to see a few of them in a row to understand it fully.”

All the poems via the eyes of a United States citizen or veteran are on the left side; the Iraqi voices are on the right; the poems written in Sullivan’s voice or the third person are indented from the left; and the angel-voiced poems are centered.   There are also notes at the end of the book adding some sort of detail for each poem.
The book was finally published on July 7, 2012.  In the forward Sullivan writes, “I wrote these poems to help myself see beyond the simplistic labels of PTSD and jihadism, xenophobia and patriotism, and to imagine looking through others eyes.  I hope they become part of the ongoing dialogue that is the only way to begin healing the wounds – physical, psychological, social, and cultural – we suffer from in both countries.  Poetry can create opportunities for empathy and understanding; it is one way to re-see ourselves, and the ones we too often see as other.”
Sullivan had his first poet reading at the Horticulture Center at Cabrillo Community College on July 15, 2012.  It only seemed fitting that he invited his students, including Angel Milan III to participate in the reading.  Milan read his poem “CORPORAL ANGEL MILAN III” and then introduced Sullivan at the reading. 

            Sullivan was born in Illinois, and grew up in Vermont, with one year spent in Vienna where his teacher, the novelist Jonathan Carroll, inspired him to write poetry.  He received a B.A. from the University of Chicago, where he edited The Chicago Literary Review, and went to graduate school at the University of California, Irvine.  His dissertation was on the ethics of address in the poems of Emily Dickinson and Killarney Clary.  He teaches English, Film, and Screenwriting at Cabrillo Community College where he edits the Porter Gulch Review with his students and serves on the Veterans Task Force Committee.  Poems from his first book Strong-Armed Angels, were read on The Writer’s Almanac by Garrison Keillor.  Two recent poems were selected by Alberto Rios and recorded as part of the permanent public art and poetry project Passage, in Phoenix, Arizona.  He was awarded the Morton Marcus Poetry Prize, and won the Bloodroot poetry contest.  The manuscript for Every Seed of the Pomegranate was a finalist for the May Swenson and Sarabande book prizes.  He lives with his wife Cherie Barkey, a professor of history, and their children, Jules and Amina Barivan.

Contact Sullivan at or for more information.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


Chris Cooper – 2,055 Words

            Steckel: The Chronology of An Imagination   

Poet Activist Jan Steckel can be described as a jack-of-all-trades:  pediatrician doctor; an individual with a disability; a fiction writer;  a nonfiction writer; and poet. More importantly she’s an activist:  for immigration; women; LGBT; and individuals with disabilities.  The one constant in her life has been her imagination, which she considers her savior and her first priority in life.
         “In residency we were asked to make a list of the ten important things in our lives. We were asked to eliminate the list until each of us was left with one.  All the other residents said “my family,” “my significant other,” or “God.” I said “my imagination.” Writing is how I express where my imagination goes. I love my husband, my family and my friends dearly, but writing is what keeps me sane. It’s my first and last refuge.”

         Steckel credits her parents for nurturing her imagination and also passing on their love for others in the form of activism.   
“I think all my activism stems from my mother, who was a substitute teacher at the time, taking me to picket with her in support of the teacher’s union during a strike when I was about six. My parents just lived their activism, which was for social justice, and I inhaled it as a child. So it was natural to protest for minority rights, women’s rights, and later LGBT rights.  It was natural to want to be a doctor, to take care of immigrants and the poor, to come home to California to stand for the rights of immigrants and undocumented workers, and to defend the rights of disabled people, too. It’s all about enfranchising the disenfranchised, about including the excluded.”
Along with her great imagination and her nurturing parents, she had a gift for dreaming and to make those dreams come true.  The first thing she wanted to be was another Jacque Cousteau –scuba-driving archeologist – and a professional singer all at the same time. 
By the age of fifteen, her dreams had turned into goals – goals to help her fellow human beings.  At that age, she learned that her best friend was a lesbian; her friend and her friend’s partner went to the high school prom only to be turned away because of their sexual orientation.  Without hesitation, she boycotted the high school dances. 
In less than two years, at the age of seventeen, she realized she was bisexual.  She started writing sonnets and short stories and was one of six students admitted into Harvard’s undergraduate creative writing program.  Despite her acceptance her creative writing professor discouraged her when telling her that she was accepted into the program despite her poetry and only because of her fiction.  As a result she ceased writing poetry for a few years and focused only on fiction; and graduated in June of 1983 B.A. summa cum laude in English with an emphasis on creative writing.
While attending Harvard University she joined the Harvard Gay Student’s Association, participated in the Radcliffe Lesbians Society, and started going to demonstrations for gay rights.  She found that there was one group of individuals that seemed to be excluded:  that of the bisexual, which she identifies herself as.
“When I say “bi” I mean attracted sexually to both genders. I do not mean having relationships with both genders at the same time.  Ethical polyamory, which means having more than one relationship at a time, is a perfectly reasonable approach, and certainly some bi people are also polyamorous. However, quite a few of us are monogamous, like me. Having a husband, though, doesn’t make me straight any more than living with my girlfriend during residency made me a lesbian. I’m still that same person who is capable of having a sexual relationship either with a man or a woman, and that’s what “bisexual” means.  Now I refuse to join organizations with only “gay and lesbian” in the title.”
After seventeen years of living in places where she was treated as if she were “the lunatic fringe”, she made a decision to move to San Francisco where she found and joined the bisexual community there.
“The bi community as a whole tends to get disappeared by the culture at large, not intentionally, I think. It’s just something most people aren’t that familiar with or comfortable with; which is sad because there are more bi people out there than gay and lesbian put together.”
By the time she turned 29, she had already attended Oxford University in England on a Henry Fellowship; entered medical school at Yale; got married; and herniated a disc for the first time.
She had back surgery halfway through medical school; and even though the surgery was not entirely successful  – she was able to function twelve years.

In 1985 she entered the Peace Corps as a Health Education Volunteer in Villa Clara, a small village located outside Samaná, Dominican Republic.  There she taught the local women about nutrition and first aid.  These local women, known as curanderas, local healers, or midwives represented each of the villages. 
“They saved lives with oral rehydration solutions, World Health Organization vaccines, and other measures we learned about from an excellent book called "Where There Is No Doctor," or in the Spanish version we used, "Donde No Hay Doctor."  
Steckel assignment was to last two years.  But after twenty months, she had to be medically discharged, despite her protests, due to severe asthma attacks. 
“I had mild asthma when I went in, but it got a lot worse down there.  Something in the jungle or the rice marshes or some kind of mold really set me off.”
It took her years before she could write about her own experiences as a Peace Corp volunteer.
         “It was just too painful to approach certain things I had seen and felt as a physician in straight-ahead prose.  I could only get at those things through poetry, which was more oblique.”
In 1993, Steckel’s first collection of short stories won the Marguerite Rush Lerner Prize for writing by a Yale Medical Student. A story from the collection, “Chemé,” was published in the alumni magazine Yale Medicine. Another story from the collection, “The Wild Boar Baby,” later appeared in the feminist literary journal So to Speak and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. In 2009, Gertrude Press published her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks. 

During those 12 years she graduated from Yale University School of Medicine in May 1994; and graduated from residency in General Pediatrics in July of 1997 from Harvard.  For the next few years she worked as a pediatrician.
“Seven years: three years in residency and four in practice. Sometimes I throw in med school and say that I was in medicine for twelve years, because medical students in the U.S. do a lot of unpaid work in hospitals.” 
In 2001, her career was cut short due to two more herniated discs, the pain so severe she could no longer do her job as a doctor.  She was forced to leave the practice of medicine and had two more back operations.  The end result is that she has severe scarring, instability in her spine, damaged nerves in her back and left leg; constant pain; and spends most of her time lying down; her most vital outlet that of writing prose and poetry.

“As the result of lots of physical therapy plus what doctors like to call "tincture of time," I'm now able to enjoy dinner at a friend's house on a good day, or a movie, but not both on the same day. I work lying down, and I save my back for meals, exercise, doctor's appointments, and the occasional social occasion or poetry reading.”
         The hardest part about being an individual with a disability is that the only way to control the pain is to take medications; but sometimes these medications are debilitating; and result in memory loss and lack of concentration.  Another difficult component of being an individual with a disability is having to admit it to yourself.
         “After I became disabled myself, it took me years even to admit that I was actually disabled, and years after that to get assertive about my own rights as a disabled person. I’m there now, though!”

         Her outlet was to write poetry about her experiences as a pediatrician, caring for the mothers and their children.
         “I could only get at those things through poetry, which was more oblique. Around that time I met Julia Vinograd, my poetry mentor, and I’ve been taking my poetry seriously ever since.”
      One of the poems she wrote was Dios le bediga, about a mother of one of her pediatric patients.
      “I woke up in the middle of the night and just wrote it down whole, with very little revision. I’m no Romantic or Beat poet, in the sense that I believe in the hard work of revision over mere inspiration, but I still think some of our best poems come to us whole like this.”       
Steckel submitted the poem Dios le bendiga to the now-retired Lit Pot where it was accepted for publication by then editor Beverly Jackson.
“I was grateful to Beverly.  It was one of my first publications after leaving the practice of medicine, and it helped me think of myself for the first time as an actual poet.”
Dios le bendiga is also published in her short chapbook collection The Underwater Hospital published in 2006 by Zeitgeist Press.  And is now published in her new book of poetry The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist in 2011) which won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award.

Dios le bendiga

Dios le bendiga, Doctora,
God bless you, Doctor,
for curing my baby of syphilis.
Can you cure me, too?
I am broken and need to be fixed.
When I was twelve I pretended to be sick
and stayed home from church.
In my vanity I plaited my hair like shiny black snakes
and put on my sister’s hibiscus-flowered dress.
My uncle came by drunk from a lost cockfight.
He raped me in the kitchen
where I had made cactus candy with my mother and sisters.
Blood ran down my leg like prickly pear juice.
Because of that, I do not enjoy the act of sex.
I lie like a stone beneath my husband,
so that he had to go to prostitutes,
which is how my baby got this disease from me.
So you see that it is all my fault.
I want to be cured of my coldness,
to be a good wife to my husband,
and not cause all this misery.
Thank you for the telephone number, Doctora,
Dios le bendiga.

Steckel became a part of the poetry-reading world.  Unfortunately she discovered that there were the minority few who were not understanding of her and her disability.  As a result, she reads at least one poem describing her life as being disabled.   

         “I read about why I’m lying down, what it feels like to have to lie down, how it feels to be told you can’t come to an event because people aren’t willing to make the slightest accommodation. Most people are so nice about finding ways for me and for others with disabilities to participate.”
Steckel is presently working on the promotion of The Horizontal Poet; writing new poetry; and working on her next book, a collection of short stories.   

         Steckel prefers to write poetry late at night and fiction and nonfiction in the morning.   Her place of writing is not much of an option to her since she has to lie flat on her back.
         “My husband made a rack out of wire shelving, twisty-ties, cut wire hangers and painter’s tape that suspends my laptop over me. I can just rest my elbows on some folded towels and type on the vertical keyboard while looking up at the screen.”
         Regardless if she’s writing during the night or day her drug choice is caffeine, especially if it’s freshly brewed.
         “It helps me focus on writing even as it loosens up my associations. Though I think I wrote some of my best poems when I was taking morphine (prescribed by my physician) briefly between my last two back surgeries. Morphine is only good for poetry, though, not for nonfiction. Coffee works for all genres.”

         Log in for more information.  Steckel is also the author of The Underwater Hospital.  For signed copies of The Horizontal Poet send $16 (includes shipping and handling) by check to Jan Steckel at PO Box 18797/Oakland, CA 94619, or via Paypal at