Dancer. Builder. Architect. Poet.
Meet Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, Jane of all trades
By Anna Faller | Nov. 13, 2021
For Jennifer Sperry Steinorth (pictured below), art is as much instinct as skill. “Emily Dickinson talks about how she knows a poem when the ‘top of her head comes off,’” says Steinorth, “and I also feel art’s physical effects in my body.”
Art, of course, can take many forms — and Steinorth’s diverse career is no exception. From her early endeavors in dance and design to her more recent ventures in visual poetry, Steinorth’s own story is a tapestry of expertise. But, she insists, none come out ahead; instead, the multiple disciplines form a woven fabric. “They all feel integral to my person."
Steinorth’s passion for the arts began with ballet — one live performance in particular. “My mother took me to see Sleeping Beauty when I was a little girl,” says Steinorth, “and I fell wholly in love.” But it wasn’t the flouncy costumes or satiny slippers that ensnared her; it was the movement. “I think that my cognitive process is very spatial and kinetic,” she says. “Even in poetry, I often feel that I’m translating things from spatial relationships. That’s just the way my mind works.”
It wasn’t until a serious injury forced her off the stage that she began to consider a more slow-motion pursuit. Writing was an easy sell. “I had always loved language and literature,” she says. “But there is a creative writing program at Interlochen, and that’s where I first realized that writers and poets aren’t just the dead guys; that [language] is a living thing.”
While attending Michigan State University, Steinorth studied closely with the illustrious Diane Wakowski, earning an English degree before deciding to dive headlong into arts education. “I taught visual art at [what was then] East Junior High School,” she says, “and I also had a long-term substitute position.”
BUILDING THE ARTIST
Teaching others art was gratifying, but Steinorth couldn’t resist her own pull to create. “I married into a family construction business, and I always had ideas about the houses my husband and his father were building.” So, when a client couldn’t find plans that they liked, Steinorth offered to draw something up. Spoiler alert: They loved her vision. From there, she began a deeper foray into home design and eventually became a licensed builder.
“I was president of the [construction] company for over a decade,” she says. “It completely consumed my life.”
Her initial love of playing with language, however, never waned. Steinorth continued to write on the side for years,but it wasn't until the 2018 Sewanee Writer’s Conference that she entertained thoughts of publishing her poetry. “My first book, [“A Wake with Nine Shades”], hadn’t come out yet, and I didn’t have a publisher,” she says. That is, until she sent the manuscript to J. Bruce Fuller, a fellow conference attendee and recently appointed acquisitions editor at the Texas Review Press. “He loved the book,” says Sperry-Steinorth. Even better, he signed her on for a second book, too.
ERASURE & TRANSFORMATION
As a poet, Steinorth still thinks in architectural terms. The difference is in materials used; in place of wood planks and concrete block, she thinks in terms of lines, stanzas, and blank space. Her most recent release, however, might feel like the opposite. Published in April, “Her Read: A Graphic Poem,” is built on a foundation of an existing text, parts of which she strategically erases to become something altogether new.
“I take a physical copy of a book,” Steinorth says — in this case, “The Meaning of Art” by Herbert Read — “and I cover all but a few words with white out to create a new text.”
The result is a first-person, female voice excavated from that of a male art critic. “The source text,” says Steinorth, “is a survey of visual art from pre-history to the modern era.” The kicker? The original author includes zero women artists. “The only women in the book are the ones who appear in the paintings,” she says. “So, I was working through my own frustrations as a female artist, trying to free my voice from many efforts to silence, and the way I was able to do that was to physically muffle the voice of the male art critic.”
For Steinorth, freeing one’s own voice is where writing falls away from other fields. “For dance, you’re studying your material in order to manifest it,” she says, “and in architecture, very often you’re working with a client; so, it’s a matter of looking at the intersection of their needs and preferences.” But poetry isn’t quite so clear-cut. “Very often there’s a sublime moment,” says Steinorth. “It feels like something is shimmering somewhere — something is stirred, or there’s a problem to be solved.”
In the case of “Her Read,” that “something” was the 2016 presidential election. “What was happening in the sociopolitical sphere was resonating in deeply personal ways with things I was experiencing at that time and had experienced over course of my life as an artist,” says Steinorth, “I was so enraged — for a time, poetic erasure was the only way I was able to "write.”
Instead of trying to forge the right language, Steinorth simply got to work finding it. “[I had this] idea of voices scrambling through the rubble, trying to reclaim an art that had been denied,” she says. “I felt like as I was learninghow to work with the text, the speaker was learning to find her voice. “By the last page of the poem, she’s broken every ‘rule’ in the book; but her speaker has emerged, uncut. “The book is also talking about a human erasure,” says Steinorth. “The erasure happens when women are not permitted to be artists, or when [their] story is being told, but not by [them]. I hope that [the poem] creates space for more [of that] conversation.”
As for the art of introspection? Sometimes all you need is a quiet space, Steinorth says: “It’s really hard to listen to the quiet voices that are telling you that you have any business doing this. And by ‘this,’ I mean art. Make a poem, call yourself a poet, or a filmmaker, or whatever. Really listen to the quietest voices in yourself and work to amplify what that voice is.