Jan Steckel's The Horizontal Poet
The Horizontal Poet (copyright 2011 Zeitgeist Press), a wonderful new collection of poems by Jan Steckel, provides readers with what I consider to be the best qualities of post-modern poetry: a commitment to unvarnished truth, lyrical craftsmanship, and humor.
In Horizontal, Steckel boldly invites the reader to actively take part her colorful, multifaceted life: her years as a doctor with the patients under her care (“Dios de bendiga”); her complex and deeply loving relationships with both women and men (“Metamorphosis,” “Fourteen Crossings”); her struggles with her own physical limitations (“The Lake Bed”), hence, the title, “The Horizontal Poet,” along with a beautiful portrait of the author on the front cover, painted by Deborah Vinograd.
As with her previous offerings, The Underwater Hospital (copyright 2006 Zeitgeist Press), and Mixing Tracks (copyright 2008 Zeitgeist Press), Steckel holds nothing back; she IS the lens through which the reader is able view an ungainly and uniquely beautiful world. Steckel successfully invokes empathy for the pain all of us feel - the pain, that to an artist like Steckel, becomes both healer and muse, as in the poem, “Water and Salt”:
All the water and salt I wasted
bawling in bed could make a sea
and raise the bed-frame like a ship.
The wind I squandered in argument
would fill its sails, keep it skating
over whales and under terns.
In Antarctica I'd find a land
frigid as the heart I couldn't move.
In the Sahara I'd feel a desert
more desolate than I was left.
I'd harness dolphins to pull my sea-car,
write my plaint in giant squid's ink.
I'd send it by seahorse to my agent,
become a famous maritime author
who noted the tide, caught the wave.
Then you'd be sorry.
To understand the impact Steckel's words hold over an audience, I took her book with me to a local poetry open mic. I read the title poem, “The Horizontal Poet,” a brilliantly funny narrative of how Steckel (an activist for bisexual and disability rights) was admonished by a prudish woman for needing to perform her poetry feature on her back, on a mat, which the woman felt would interfere with the filming of the poetry reading about to take place. As I read the lines out loud, I found myself cheering Steckel's bravery in confronting the moral censures inflicted upon artists, especially those who fight to transcend their limited mobility. The further I got into reading of the poem, the more smiles I saw appear around me – everyone GOT it:
The way she said it, you'd think
I'd asked to have sex in the front of the theater,
all through the reading, my legs in the air
(my favorite position),
the persistent thump, thump, thump
of my pumping and humping
rattling the floorboard and shaking the camera
my caterwauling cries obliterating
the other poets' readings,
my juices a river flooding the floor
and soaking the shoes of the audience.
I'll lay down on my job, nice lady
I'll do it on the hand-hooked Turkish rug
at the by-invitation-only living-room poetry salon.
I'll do it on the independent bookstore's hard wood.
I'll get Berber carpet burns in the library lecture room,
I'll make listeners hear the person next to them breathe.
I'll make your husband unbutton his top button
and loosen his tie. I'll make you,
sitting properly in your chair,
begin to squirm, then writhe and gasp.
I'll wave my round heels
right in front of the camera,
and I'll always be in the picture.
I'm happy to report that Steckel's poem was awarded with a resounding round of applause. I wish my own poem afterward had been met with equal enthusiasm, but that is a valuable lesson to me, to keep pushing the envelope, and proof, again, that Steckel is well on her way to becoming a master poet.
The Horizontal Poet has been nominated as a finalist for the LAMBDA Literary Awards. I hope it wins. You can vote for her book at the LAMBDA website. In this age of censure, it's essential, now more than ever, to listen to voices like Steckel's, to keep the truth in the spotlight, and to support the right for artistic freedom on all levels.
The Horizontal Poet, copyright 2011 Jan Steckel, Zeitgeist Press (www.zeitgeistpress.com), 87 pgs, ISBN 978-0-929730-943, $14.