Jack’s guest is poet/activist Jan Steckel. Jan has published poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. She is also known as an activist in the bisexual community and an advocate on behalf of the disabled and the underprivileged. Along with Nicki Hastie, Julie R. Enszer, and Merry Gangemi, she is a founding member of Woman-Stirred, a queer women’s writing collective.
Jan Steckel’s undergraduate work was at Harvard–Radcliffe University, where she earned her B.A. in English literature with an emphasis on creative writing in 1983. Later, she studied Golden Age Spanish Literature at Oxford University on a Henry Fellowship through 1984. In 1989 she took a few premedical courses while conducting research in the neuroscience laboratory. Steckel attended Yale University School of Medicine, where she picked up her M.D. in May 1994. Steckel’s speciality was in pediatrics, in which she completed her residency at Children’s Hospital Boston in July 1997.
Among her many awards are the 2011 Lambda Literary Award for Bisexual Nonfiction and The 2007 Jewel Prize by the Bay poetry competition, sponsored by the Frank Bette Center for the Arts. Her books include The Underwater Hospital and The Horizontal Poet.
Jan’s appearance on today’s show is not to discuss her own work but to discuss the work of her close friend and mentor, Julia Vinograd. Her insights into her friend’s work are informed, warm and intelligent. Here is one of Jan’s poems that is directly about Julia:
The Spell I Want to Cast
I want Julia’s new boot and brace for her bum leg
to galumph up the three flights of stairs
like a one-legged prince to rescue her from her tower,
with its stained glass windows, ancient paperbacks,
unwashed cutlery, portraits of old crushes
or of her as a winsome girl, long hair, wide mouth,
and no idea at all that she was beautiful.
It would sweep her leg into its embrace
without any buckling or tightening.
Off she would stride in her seven-league boot,
carrying a leather sack that never grew empty
of rotisserie chicken, Coca Cola and See’s Chocolates.
She’d scatter magic bat poems flapping off
high-frequency squeaking to pirate caves.
She’d march all the way to Oakland, home
of dangerous Raiders and ninja anarchists.
There we’d pile her into our ancient Lexus
and take her to crow at emerald and ruby Christmas lights.
By morning they’d pass through her enchanted mirror
into a poem, fixed like lightning bugs on pins,
forever winking, silent fireworks come to roost.
And here is one which is indirectly about Julia; this second poem emphasizes Julia’s father, the physicist Jerome Vinograd, and his famous friend, Richard Feynman:
God’s Little Practical Joke
The physicist Dick Feynman did his best work in strip clubs.
Helped invent the atom bomb at the Institute of Oral Love,
quantum computed while a dancer shimmied.
Jerome Vinograd, husband of the poet Sherna Shalett,
father of painter Deborah and poet Julia,
used to meet him there for a drink. Feynman wore
his shark’s tooth necklace. Vinograd always wore a suit.
He didn’t read his wife’s or daughter’s poems. Too busy
laying the foundations of modern molecular biology.
Lions of science, the Caltech titans, dazzled by truth,
only had eyes and ears for particles doing the wave,
the tarantella of molecules separated when spun.
And boobies. The orbit of gyrating hips.
The surface of a nude girl in partial light.
It helped them think. Clarified things, as it were.
Vinograd won the Nobel Prize, dropped dead
before he could fly to Stockholm to accept it.
Had the airplane tickets in his pocket.
He slid down the supercoils of his own DNA, swearing
at a god he didn’t believe in. His ghost turned up
at the Institute of Oral Love, but Dick couldn’t hear him.
When Feynman got the news, he figured life was short.
Strippers’ legs were long. Whiskey made subatomic particles
easier to spot. Here’s to Jerome, he said. Bottom’s up.