An interview with Ryann Stevenson from The Write Stuff series:
Ryann Stevenson’s first book, Human Resources, is the winner of the 2021 Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, selected by Henri Cole and just out from Milkweed Editions. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Bennington Review, Columbia Poetry Review, The Cortland Review, Denver Quarterly, and Kenyon Review, among others. She lives in Oakland, California.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I work in AI design.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Being present. I’m prone to getting lost in thoughts, memories, other astral planes, which can be fun, but not always helpful.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Stop caring about fitting in.
What’s been most important to your writing: education, or the real world? Why?
My education gave me craft tools, and the real world gave me subject matter. My instinct allowed me to figure out how to give those things purpose together.
If you could give advice to your 15 year old self, what would it be?
Listen to yourself. And stop plucking your eyebrows.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Professionally, so far I think I’ve made a lot from little, against a lot of odds, and with integrity. I would call that success. Personally, I think I’m just starting to define what success looks like.
Why do you get up every morning?
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her/their story?
My grandma, Sylvia. She was an artist (painter and jewelry designer/metalsmith), mystic, and the best cook around. For the first few years of my life, I spent every day with her. After that, we saw each other weekly for Sunday night dinner, where she would cook our family a beautiful Julia Child-level meal. In the 1970s she was put on a depression medication that later caused degenerative blindness, a transition she was going through as I was growing up beside her. Through the horror of that, she continued to find a way to pursue her curiosities, like cooking, reading, and reiki. Sometimes she would heal me from miles away. She always wore a red lip and one of her handmade brooches on any shirt. She taught me about perseverance, art, wonder, and darkness. She always understood me.
What’s wrong with society today?
Too many hearts are closed. Hearts close for good reason, but over time it causes us to be defensive, fearful, and destructive.
Where do you go to find sanctuary?
My bed, and my inner world.
What is your fondest memory?
I’m about two or three, standing barefoot in the grass in my front yard, painting at a little easel. It’s just before twilight in the summer. There’s a breeze. I felt very connected to myself in that moment.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The tides turn.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
I’m not interested in definitions. Is it necessary? Who knows, but for some reason we’ve been doing it for a long time.
What is the relationship between your identity and your desires? Perhaps related, perhaps not: why is sex (un)important to you?
To me, identity is artifice, which is in conflict with the true energy of desire. I care less about identity and more about spirit, which harnesses that energy.
What’s your relationship to clothes? Or: describe the shoes you’re currently wearing.
Less is more.
What are you working on right now? Or: what kind of work would you like to do?
I’m not sure yet; I’m just starting to explore my headspace, post-first book.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The housing crisis.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
Going to a great restaurant with friends, then drinks at a lively bar full of hot people.
Have you ever seen a ghost? Or: what’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I’ve seen a lot of things. One of the strangest is, ever since moving to our apartment in Oakland, I wake up in the middle of the night and see rainbow patterns, like netting. It’s very real and it’s persisted over years. It doesn’t show up anywhere else. I think our bedroom might be some kind of portal.
What’s the most important life lesson you’ve learned? Or: what was your last moment of awe?
If I told you, you wouldn’t believe me.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
50 dollars could get me a magnum of good Beaujolais to take to a party.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Roses, lemon, Agua de Florida, my husband’s hair, the sea, a chicken roasting on Sunday.
What are you unable to live without?
If you got an all-expenses-paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
The most outrageous spa week you could think of, in the most beautiful place on earth. I’m talking skin-shedding, levitation, caves, communing with the divine, etc.
If you could live in your ideal society, what would your average day be like?
It would be very simple. Everyone would do what they wanted each day. We would have everything we needed to survive, so we could focus on being the best versions of ourselves. You’d get rewarded to relax. There would be no expectations. Nobody would inflict harm. We’d lend a hand. Expand ourselves. Talk about our feelings. Eat for pleasure. Spend most of our time outdoors.