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Interview with Poet Rachel Hunt Steenblik by Sandra Jergensen

By Sandra Clark

Rachel Hunt Steenblik photo by Keri Michelle Photography

 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am an on-pause PhD student and mostly a mother to two kids –2 and about to be 5. Right now I’m in Utah with my parents waiting to move to China with my husband. He’ll be teaching architecture. Right now I feel like I am in this precipice where I’m not actually sure where I am. Going feels really brave, but staying here waiting feels like a  middle place. My started PhD is in Philosophy of Religion. I study Søren Kierkegaard and theology related to Mormon women, including Mormon Feminism and Heavenly Mother, who may or may not be a Mormon woman. I like to think of her as one.

Your writing is so diverse, from academic publications to creative work in prose and poetry. How does each one speak to who you are and your aspirations as a writer?

Academic and creative work are both valuable to me because they reach different people. That spectrum is always useful for moving ideas forward and understanding. The articles I’ve written, presented in conferences, and published share this need I have for the Divine Feminine. In one of those papers I talked about how in some other faith traditions they speak of Heavenly Father when often they mean a more amorphous being. But in Mormonism, when we use male or female pronouns we mean them, like in the Family Proclamation, which suggests we have male and female heavenly parents, and that gender is eternal. It’s also one of the reasons why John 17:3 and it’s suggestion that eternal life is to know God feels so important for me. If Mormon women don’t know God the Mother, can we have eternal life?

My writing is often personal, and allows me to reach more people. It makes my writing more accessible. Both the more academic writing and poetry come from the same place in my heart and mind but reach different people and places. It’s the view of one mother, looking for a divine Mother. Offering up my writing also makes room for other voices. My exploration – and so much of my writing – happened by accident. I wish I were a better writer and a better poet. I’m not trained as poet but my tries are what I can offer right now.

The ability to write in large stretches is a gift and not available to most women, particularly those who are mothering small children. How do you coach yourself to write when your time is so fractured?

I don’t write in big chunks, which is something I’ve had to do in academic and creative writing. When my daughter was just born I wrote an academic conference paper on Kierkegaard in the middle of the night, and when she was four weeks old we flew to a conference to present it. Even now, I wonder, “How did I do that?” I used to try to read and study German in the night while nursing. I had to stop doing those things. I would read to my babies from my philosophy books in waking hours, but writing was harder because it takes more concentrated focus.

I’m inspired by Ashley Mae Hoiland, who wrote her beautiful One Hundred Birds Taught Me To Fly in so many little bits. She is at the same stage of life I am, and we try to fill those moments when we can. Her writing reminds me that those fractured pieces can add up to something really beautiful and whole. I think that’s why I wrote such short poems. I tap them on my phone while I’m walking, or sitting at church, or waking up in the middle of the night with a thought. Later I try to make something more of the first drafts. It’s very rare I can sit at my computer and say “I’m going to write a poem now.” For Mother’s Milk I did have more concentrated amounts of time at the end, where I could focus and go through the hundreds of poems I wrote and try to organize them and refine them.

I’m also inspired by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. She was guest lecturing a class at Claremont about early Mormon Feminism and talked about the women who launched Exponent II back when the Relief Society had to raise their own money. They were tired of making cookies and sewing, and made a beginner’s guide to Boston instead. It sold so well that it funded not only their Relief Society but their whole ward. They used their real skills and interests, and carved out tiny bits of time to add to a bigger project.

I try to remember that. There are still lots of times I only have two minutes and go to Facebook, but other times I try to use those two minutes to create something beautiful.

Tell me about your writing process.

With Mother’s Milk it’s been interesting because so many of the poems felt given, by the Spirit, or the universe, or my own heart. Many came very easily. I almost became a conduit, that they’d come and I’d write them down. Sometimes a whole poem, but it could be just a line or title that I’d have to wrestle to fill out.

Other times I would read or see something that would bring me questions about Heavenly Mother, and try to think carefully about the questions and to be curious and open to what the answers and additional questions might be. Sometimes it was simply looking for Heavenly Mother, and the purposeful looking that allowed me to see Her more easily. I’ve since tried to write poems about other, non-Heavenly Mother topics, and have struggled. I don’t know how yet, but I would like to.

With Mother’s Milk, I also used the academic research I’d done while working with David Paulsen and Martin Pultido for what ultimately became the BYU Studies article, “A Mother There: A Historical Survey of Mother in Heaven.” It helped me know where others had found her, including early church leaders, biblical scholars like Margaret Barker, and contemporary Mormon thinkers like Fiona Givens. I learned that some of the Divine Feminine’s symbols are mountains, trees, birds and doves, and olive oil. I asked what each one could teach me about the Mother. When I look at them, how can I see Her? So some of the writing process was asking questions, being mindful and curious, and trying to explore, to reveal different sides of it. There’s a lot of repetition in my book, but it’s almost a spiral, building on what’s come before but adding tiny variations and insights. At no time in the process did I think that my writing or mothering is a 1:1 correspondence of truth, like how I mother my daughter is exactly how Heavenly Mother mothers, but that it can give us tiny sparks of truth and light and give us something. In my introduction, I wrote that my poems were the ones I could write from my questions, and my hurt, and hope, and that I hoped others would write from theirs because we need them all. We still do. They have revelation, and insight, and tiny sparks of truth and light I don’t.

At the 2018 Segullah Staff Retreat, Darlene Young was relating a profound experience, and I said, “Darlene, please tell me you’ll write a poem about this.” She said, “I can’t write a poem when I already have an answer; I write a poem when I have a question.”

Wow. I love Darlene’s work. That’s really insightful. I do feel like poems are often a question. It’s one reason why the topic of Heavenly Mother lends itself so well to poetry. We don’t have very many clear answers, but we do have a lot of hope and wondering. We also have a rich hymn history and poem history of Heavenly Mother, starting at some of the earliest days of the church with W.W. Phelps’ “A Song of Zion” and “A Voice from the Prophet: Come to Me,” as well as Eliza R. Snow’s “Invocation, Or the Eternal Father and Mother,” that we know as “O, My Father.” Poetry is a good way to explore, especially when you have the question and only the question. It’s very much what my experience has been.

Rachel Steenblik photo by Keri Michelle Photography

I wasn’t trained as a poet but in 2014 there was a contest co-founded by Martin Pulido and Caroline Kline in 2014, called a “A Mother Here: Art and Poetry Contest.” Even though I wasn’t a visual artist or poet, I was so grateful and excited that they thought of something to fill the absence with presence. I wrote all of the Mormon poets I knew with a link to the call for entries and asked them to submit something. One friend, a Segullah staff member, Elizabeth Pinborough wrote me back that she was excited to see what I’d submit. I thought, “No, no! I’m not submitting anything. I’m just a Socrates midwife trying to help others give birth to poems and light.” But I couldn’t forget her words. I started thinking, “I’m a writer, and poetry is a kind of writing.” Then I wrote Elizabeth a lot of questions like “What’s a prose poem?” and “What makes a poem a poem?” and “How do you do line breaks?” She very patiently answered all my questions. I decided I would write and submit one poem. That was the beginning.

There is nothing better than a mentor willing to be kind and patient and hold your hand because they see something in you even if you don’t yet.

Yes! She was so patient. The very first poem was just a paragraph and then I sent it to the women at Exponent and asked, “Is this a poem? Could it be a poem?” They helped me put in line breaks and worked with me. Melody Newey in particular was a big help, then and along my way.

I felt particularly sensitive to my lack of training because I have one brother with an MFA in poetry and another who was accepted to a program but needed to postpone. I felt hesitant about declaring myself something I wasn’t formally educated in.

What is the easiest thing to write?

I’m obviously not alone in writing from my experiences, but it is something that I strive to do accessibly, openly, and truthfully. Being vulnerable isn’t very scary for me anymore, because I got to a place where it became necessary for my survival. This was particularly true with my hospitalization for postpartum anxiety and depression a few years ago. I shared on Facebook because I needed people to know that I needed gentleness and connection. Some thanked me for being brave. I thought, “This isn’t brave. I just did it to survive.” It’s not quite that level for other things, but with writing, I feel better when I tell my story, and when I allow it to show a more truthful and complete range of experiences, as a mother, as a student, as etc.

I used to write more personal essays and prose at Exponent, but since my son was born, I’ve only posted a few times. My academic writing is softer and more personal than the majority of academic work, but that’s my style – researched based with personal tones. People have met that work with kindness.

Lately the thing I write the most are poems. I’m not sure what I’ll write next.

I don’t think there’s one way to write correctly in prose or poetry. Some people can be slow to accept something totally new.  I’ve heard of some critics linking your work in Mother’s Milk to the rising genre of instagram and twitter poetry in social media. What would you say to that?

One of my brothers (not the one who finished an MFA in poetry, but the one who was accepted and could not go) wrote me a less than generous message about my “so-called poetry.” I also had one review in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought conclude “This is not a great book of poetry” the same week that I won the Mormon Association of Letters 2017 Award for Poetry. [Shrugs.] It was sort of funny to hold both and recognize that there are some people who see the work I’m trying to do and appreciate the simplicity of it and others who don’t. The Dialogue reviewer is certainly welcome to have her own opinion. Sometime later I learned that her own poetry is extremely technical. I think someone with that background, coming to mine would have a hard time appreciating it. I don’t do meters, I don’t do rhymes, and I don’t know how to do those types of styles. I write haiku-length pieces that are not haikus, in free verse.

Somehow I’ve been lucky that many, many, many people have responded to my work with generosity. Just this week a friend described me on her facebook page as the Mormon Rupi Kaur, the author of Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers. It was everything I’ve ever dreamed of, because I was so, so inspired by Rupi Kaur’s own format. Both of her poetry books include simple line drawings that she did herself. I had already written many of my own poems before I came to her first book, and seeing hers is what made me believe my poems could make a book. Hers are also tiny, but mean something big to people. I loved the way she paired clean, simple images with them. I reached out to Ashley Mae Hoiland to see if she would be willing to illustrate my words. We were friends at BYU and had talked for years about doing a project together. I was still so nervous to read her answer and was ecstatic when she said yes.

Another Instagram/Twitter poet I love is Nayyirah Waheed, who wrote Salt. She has one poem called “lands” that is so good and so appropriate to Mother’s Milk, that I wish I wrote it:

my

mother

was

my first country.

the first place I ever lived.

–lands

by Nayyirah Waheed

I was also reading books by Warsan Shire, Maggie Smith, Sarah Kay, and Mary Oliver when I was writing my own. I’m sure they influenced my writing. Still, it was the Instagram poets who made me think I could really do it. I can feel measures of imposter syndrome, but more often, and on my better days, remember that I write the way I can write, and it is enough.

How do you think the popularity of Instagram poetry has affected the great success of your book?

Two things. I’ve had emails from friends and strangers who said they didn’t know that they liked poetry until they read my book, in part because it had never felt accessible to them. The simplicity and brevity of my poems opened them up to nascent poetry readers. I’ve similarly had parents tell me that they’ve shared them and read them with their teenagers and young children, because they are accessible. I’ve also had a few Primary teachers and Activity Day leaders tell me they’ve incorporated mine and Ashley Mae’s work. That it is shared with children is the best thing I never dreamed of.

Another group of readers that I shouldn’t have been so surprised by are the large numbers of women who have written me and told me that they read my book while pregnant or nursing (including in the middle of the night while their babies drink), and how meaningful that has made it for them. Just knowing that it happens is meaningful for me, especially as so many of the poems were written in the middle of the night while nursing. I also suspect that the fact it was written in little bursts makes it so susceptible to being read in little bursts. You can read the whole book in approximately one hour. Others still have told me that they give my book at every baby shower they’re invited to. (I want to start doing the same.)

I’m so delighted and grateful that the style has lent itself to being shared with wide audiences.

What do you say to the people who find your style too new and different?

I would tell them that it’s OK if they don’t like it. They have the right to their own tastes. Depending on how serious of poetry readers they are, I might invite them to look at why it has worked for so many people, to try to find something redeemable in it, or to give it a second chance. Most of all, I would thank them for reading. If they are writers, I would encourage them to write their own.

It’s mostly when someone doesn’t like my book because they want it to be different or a different project that I feel frustrated. I sincerely hope they make the project they want and need, because chances are, it will connect with other people in a way that mine can’t. It’s understandable that different styles and perspectives won’t resonate with everyone.

You focus on a tricky or sensitive topic with Heavenly Mother. Is there anything you won’t write about?

[Nods.] I initially wrote over 300 poems, but only 242 made it in the book. Many of the ones that didn’t make it were not as good, but there was a set of five that were edited out because of a difference in tone. They were much funnier and much less serious than those that made it in. I still really like them and would like to publish them in the future. There was only one that wasn’t published because of content, called “Out of the Mouth of Babes, II.”

Out of the Mouth of Babes, II

Mara told me about

a girl who is ten and has

no veil. Once, she came

home from church and

told her mother things

were not quite right. Her

mother asked what

was quite wrong. Heavenly

Mother is the Holy Ghost. And

my head begins to spin.

Other of my poems circle around the idea of Heavenly Mother as sharing in the attributes of the Holy Ghost, but this is the only one that addresses it more directly, and felt a little too bold and ecclesiastically dangerous.

How do you balance writing so much about your personal life and still safeguard it at the same time?

That’s a great question, and I may be doing it poorly. I don’t know. I do know I want to share things. Right now my young kids say and do lovely things that I want to share with the world. My daughter tells me it’s fine, and sometimes asks if I’m writing her funny phrases down to share and gets upset if I’m not. I don’t know what she and my son will say later on. I try not to share negative things about them and almost never (if ever) put their names and pictures together. I generally just use their first initials for internet search reasons.

Rachel Steenblik with her son – photo by Keri Michelle Photography

At the same time, the things I experience with them are part of my story, too.  I want to tell my story. So I’m not sure how to balance that. I just try to share my own perspective. I shy away from sharing too many thing about my husband or our relationship, but anything involving just myself or health feels fine.

I feel a mix about all of these things, but believe that telling the truth to each other is how we can help each other. That was confirmed for me by the recent #MeToo movement. Being able to say, or have others say, “Me too,” is useful for so many topics. It’s empathy. It’s the atonement. I personally experienced it after sharing that I was hospitalized for postpartum things. Others, who I would never have expected, said, “Me too.” On another note, just a few days ago, my two-year-old borrowed one of our neighbor’s motorized kid cars and drove all of the way down the street and crossed the street connecting to Provo’s new high school, and didn’t stop until a few moments after that when someone saw him and waited with him until I found them. I was terrified and grateful that he could be found, and shared it. Doing it meant that many others shared their children did similar things, or themselves, when they were children. “Me too.” “Me too.” “Me too.” It opened up so much compassion and experience, and let us learn with each other.

Still, there are some things I only feel comfortable sharing in person. I’m sure that sometimes I do a good job balancing, and sometimes I don’t.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel safer when I have the privilege to share something in writing where I can share something banked in carefully chosen words before I put it out there.

Being the one to chose the words and craft the story the way you want is so important. A French philosopher I love named Paul Ricœur has written a lot about memory and history and has a phrase that feels endlessly powerful to me, that is simply “Tell it otherwise.” It’s an acknowledgement that some tellings of history are more faithful and complete than others, and that there is meaning in retelling our stories and histories and framing them in a way that feels right to us. It can free us.

Writing is such a slow process, at least for me, and that slowness can be soothing and sometimes healing. I love editing. I love going back and making something I wrote better. There’s time to reflect and rethink. I agree that writing is a good form for sharing personal things.

As a kid, I liked to draw and write, but if any of my brothers, or sisters, or classmates peeked over my shoulder, I’d feel mortified. Even when I thought my work was good. Probably especially when I thought my work was good. I never wanted anyone to see it until it was finished, and even when finished it was easier for me to show to my parents or teachers. Their opinions somehow felt less personal than people closer to my own age. Sometimes I marvel that that same little girl grew up, able to show her writing to the whole world via the worldwide web. Blogging might have eased me into it, or that things were only published when I was ready, and I could always go back and rewrite. It also helps that the writing itself is still in private, in one’s own space and time. I don’t get interrupted by others’ reactions, and may not even see them.

Even with larger publishing moments, like my poem book, I can forget that other people have read it. I had my first moment of being recognized in public on this Utah trip. I was sitting on the grass outside temple square before a family member’s wedding and a woman walked up to me and asked if I was the author of Mother’s Milk. I was.

Last week there was also a significant sale for Mother’s Milk on Amazon, and for reasons I still don’t quite understand and despite previous sales and efforts, more copies were sold that week than any other. Whenever I see something like that, I get nervous remembering that in the 2-4 days my book takes to ship, strangers will be holding my words in their hand. Thankfully, most of the time I can forget about it.

So often with writing, you hear the advice: “Write for yourself.” I did. I felt better when the poems were on paper, so I wrote them. They started so private, just for me.

Writing didn’t necessarily make everything better, but did make them clearer.

What advice can you offer others for marketing themselves and their writing in response to what you’ve learned from the success of Mother’s Milk and Mormon Feminism?

After Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings came out, Joanna Brooks said that people will buy these books, by Mormon women and about Mormon women, because they connect with them. We are not alone in our questions and search. There was someone before, and how that someone before responded could be really helpful.

There are so many meaningful projects either happening right now or recently published, from essay collections like your beautiful book, Seasons of Change to Tracy McKay’s memoir, The Burning Point. I know we all have stories inside of us, waiting to come out, though I also know helping them come out takes so much time, and work, and luck.

I would never have succeeded without a community of Mormon women and men supporting me, from Joanna Brooks who first trusted me to help make a book, to Elizabeth Pinborough who first trusted me to make a poem, to Ashley Mae Hoiland who trusted me with her illustrations, to Melody Newey and Kristine Haglund who trusted me with their time, and read and edited and read and edited, to Mike Austin and Steve Evans who trusted me enough to publish me.

As far as marketing goes, involve your community in your process. What is normal everyday work to you is not normal to them. I promise many will be interested. Whenever there is a milestone, share it. Did you finish your first draft? Share. Did you muster your courage to send to a publisher? Or many publishers? Share. Did a publisher say yes? Share. Did you, many weeks, or months, or years down the road send it to your publisher? Share it. What were you thinking about then? How did you feel? Share. Did you then stay up late for weeks to finish your index? Share. Did you have any other successes or failures along the way? Share. Etc. Etc. As long as you are sincere and sharing your feelings and stories along with your posts, it won’t feel annoying. I promise. My Facebook friends and Twitter followers have rejoiced (and sometimes mourned) with me, and I am immensely grateful.

The next best marketing tip might be obvious, in that even after all of the good, thoughtful sharing you do, a lot of the most effective marketing can’t come from you. It has to come from people who have read your work and connect with it enough to tell their communities in a post or review, even one as tiny as an Amazon or Goodreads review. And one more thing that may be super obvious: those tiny reviews matter. Especially on Amazon. They up the algorithms and help more browsers and buyers see your book.

Even with the reach and luck I have had with my book, I don’t know how to find all of the people who might need it. This is one more reason why others’ sharing is so valuable. My reach is only so far. Any of our reaches are only so far. If there is a work that we love or value, we need to hold it up to help others find it. I try really hard to do this myself.

Find your communities. Build your communities. Find the work, or story, or poem burning in your heart and build it. We need your voice, we need your style, and your format. No matter what happens with finishing, or publishing, I trust the effort will still be worth it. Godspeed.

Looking forward, what would you like to do creatively that you haven’t yet?

Every book project I’ve done or am working on now, I started while I was pregnant with my daughter, when I thought I could do anything. Sometimes it still feels true, but that anything is just a lot slower than I imagined.

Right now I have two. The first is a project somewhere in between Mormon Feminism and Mother’s Milk. It’s a return to researching and editing, but staying with the Heavenly Mother theme. It will essentially be a quote book on Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Parents, focusing on words from general church leaders, past and present, as well as other things published in some degree by the Church. I want to make talking about Heavenly Mother in lessons, and talks, and families, and friendships more accessible. I’m also very lucky to be working on the project with a phenomenal editor friend, named Ashley Dickson.

The second project is a straight continuation of Mother’s Milk. Tiny Heavenly Mother poems have continued to come to me, and I’ve continued to write them down. At my last count, I have over 202, though they aren’t all finished. Some are in the very beginning draft stages while others are just titles.  I am 99% sure that By Common Consent Press would be willing to work with me again, when I’m ready. I also recently got to sit in a real studio and do a full out loud reading of Mother’s Milk for what I hope will turn into an audiobook.

The last thing that I would like to work on, but haven’t yet is a hymn. I met a remarkable LDS composer at the first New York Mormon Arts festival and we plan to collaborate for an attempt at the new church hymn book, that announced it was accepting submissions. Our families recently got together, and he talked about how rhyming and meter are good, so that’s my new challenge. 🙂 I would love there to be more Heavenly Mother hymns, as well as other meaningful and inclusive topics. Mine are not the only good ideas or perspectives, but I would like to try to make something that could be preserved and seen by many church members. I don’t even know how to do that – everything I’ve written is so short! Still, I plan to try, and hope you’ll try, too.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our audience of writers and readers?

If you happened to read Mother’s Milk, thank you. If you are writing a book (or a story, or poem, or…), I believe in you. Please keep writing.

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

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