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:  a
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  

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