Interview with Stephanie Levin

13 weeks remain till. . .

The 2nd Annual Pamlico Writers Conference and Competition

Saturday, March 8, 2014 – – 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Washington Civic Center, Washington, NC

Now, let’s begin this week’s interview.

Stephanie Levin (2)Stephanie Levin, poet and teacher won the Jacar Press Full Length Book Contest with her highly praised book, Smoke of Her Body.

Levin grew up in and around Baltimore, Maryland, graduated from Hollins University with an MA in Literature and Writing, and earned her MFA from the University of Virginia, where she studied with Rita Dove, Charles Wright, and Gregory Orr. She has won awards and grants and had her poetry published in numerous journals and literary magazines.

Her presentation for the 2014 Pamlico Writers Conference is titled “License to Spill: Form and Freedom in Verse.

Interviewer:    When did you decide and what lead you to become a writer?

     Stephanie:   As a child, I didn’t feel comfortable expressing myself through speaking. Maybe being the middle child had something to do with it; I was usually the silent observer. I had a creative and unique older sister and a rambunctious, trouble-maker-of-a-younger brother. I was never sure of my place, so I kept mostly to myself. At least that’s how I remember it. In middle school, I began putting words on paper with intent. But in ninth grade is when I had an amazing creative writing teacher, Mr. Bill Jones, who introduced me to poetry (and in particular to Sharon Olds), and that was it for me.

Interviewer:     Did your writing begin as poetry, short story, non-fiction, etc?

    Stephanie:      My serious writing has always been poetry and it remains my passion; however, as in any long-term relationship, there are ebbs and flows in my fervor.  I look for ways to spice things up and keep it new for me. Form is one great way I’ve found to keep it spicy.

Interviewer:     If you also teach, does your writing interface with your teaching?

    Stephanie:      Because I make sense of the world through metaphor, my writing interfaces with everything I do; I can’t help it. So yes, as a Reading Specialist, I’ve used poetry writing to help connect my students with the written word. Struggling readers seem to forget that the words on a page were put there by a living, breathing person; having them write their own poems — where they may feel less pressure to conform to the rules of grammar and can afford to play with sound and sense more than they can in, say, an essay—gives them a chance to connect the idea of voice and text because it’s their own voice.

Interviewer:     Is some, most, or all of your writing conceived through personal experience?

     Stephanie:     Any impulse I have to write always stems from some question I have, or fear I have, or some idea I think is too weird to speak about. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve personally experienced everything I describe in my writing.  It’s tricky, I realize, with the first person point of view. I’ve had teachers who insisted that when a poet writes from the first person, it’s her responsibility to be true to what she herself has lived through; that to deviate from her own actual experience is to lie to the reader. I don’t agree with that. I believe that there’s truth in fiction and fiction in truth.

Interviewer:     Do you consider commercial value when choosing subjects and characters for your stories or poems?

    Stephanie:      Because I’m human, I’ll admit that I do think about whether or not there might be readers for anything I’m working on. But I really try to reign in thoughts of publication and write for writing’s sake; to hone my craft.  But of course, sadly, there’s no ‘commercial value’ in poetry, right? Maybe that’s fortunate. I don’t know.

Interviewer:     Do you self-publish or work with a publisher?

    Stephanie:      My publications have been in journals and with one publisher – Jacar Press, run by Richard Krawiec, of Durham, NC. I’ve been happily surprised by how much support I was—and still am—given from Jacar. I’ve heard stories of publishers launching a book and then all but dropping the poet, or else expecting the poet to do one hundred percent of the the selling and promoting without much support at all. A few years since the publication of my book and Mr. Krawiec still includes me in readings and offers me opportunities to participate in other literary events. I’ve been told by poet-friends who’ve been published by other presses that I’m unusually fortunate for that.

Interviewer:     What is your favorite of all your works? Why?

    Stephanie:      The last poem in my book, “The Plan,” is the poem that is perhaps most important to me because it gets at a raw truth that I didn’t know I could utter – either aloud or on the page.

Interviewer:     If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

    Stephanie:      If by “it” you mean my career so far, I’d say that I’d like to go back and  retrieve some of those hefty submission fees for first book contests that I paid to enter for so many years. I also wish I could go back to my MFA program and gather my courage to seek out my teachers’ guidance more. I was so intimidated by them, and by the poets they brought to campus. I shudder to think of the missed opportunities to approach so many wonderful writers I was too scared to talk to then. When I was at UVa, my cohort was invited to brunch at a little café with Yusef Komunyakaa, and I made sure I was several seats away from where he sat because I admired his work so much and was terrified that I wouldn’t know what to say!

Interviewer:     What or who has been the greatest influence in your writing?

    Stephanie:      I can’t pinpoint just one thing or one person—but I think there are key moments that steered me in a good direction. At a young age, I had a conference with Molly Peacock in which I told her that I was worried about the fact that I continued to be drawn to the same subject matter over and over. She told me that poems choose us, and that there’s an obligation to write what comes for as long as it comes. Later on, at Hollins, John Engels was a huge help; he’d take my drafts and react in real time as he read each one aloud. I could see and hear his reactions (or lack thereof) as he read each line. The thing I dreaded was when he’d stop and say “You didn’t really want to say that, did you?” That always stung. And it was so helpful. The year after, at UVa, I found encouragement from Rita Dove; she talked about letting words do what they needed to do without trying to force them into a shape too early on. Since then, even when I’m writing in form, I try to adopt a more relaxed attitude toward an early draft and let it be what it wants to be rather than trying to force it.

Interviewer:     I think every writer can relate to the temptation to ‘force’ our words into a shape we anticipate rather than letting the work lead us. I look forward to reading your book.

Doris Schneider

For more information on all the conference presenters, workshops, panels, etc., take a moment and go to our website While you’re there sign up for the conference and workshops you plan to attend.  

Sponsored by The Beaufort County Arts Council & Pamlico Writers Group


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