I was lucky enough to sit down with Kelleigh Stevenson, a freshman Creative Writing student here at Penn State Harrisburg. Her poem entitled “Cherry Blossom” was accepted and published in our 2019 edition. We talked about poetry, getting published, and more!

How long have you been writing creatively?

Creatively I’d say I started writing seriously in sixth grade. Almost eight years now.

How did it begin?

What really inspired me to write was in second grade– we’re going all the way back. I wrote a short story about a bear fishing in a stream, and my second grade teacher loved it and ended up giving me a blank book, and a pack of pencils, and wrote a note that said, “Never stop putting pencil to paper.” She’s been such an inspiration for me, and I always say when I get published I’m going to dedicate it to her. Also, my older sister is a writer, and she’s always encouraged me.

What started poetry for you?

Poetry has always been a struggle for me. I would toy with it for classes, but then my sister is part of an organization called “Writers For A Purpose,” it’s a non-profit and each month they’d give writing prompts. The one prompt was about writing a poem about the seven deadly sins, or the seven heavenly virtues. And I thought, “I like that. I want to do that.” So I wrote seven poems about a girl losing her religion, and then coming back to it. With, like, the inspiration of the seven deadly sins. I loved it. From then, I found that I could channel all of my emotions into poetry. And poetry is my “what if?” I take things that I hear, and things that people have said to me, or feelings I can’t say out loud, and put it into the poem. It’s like a little diary.

You’ve been published before, correct?

I’ve been published through the Paragon Journal, and through Fission.

I was going to say– I’ve read your work in Fission. How do you react when you get accepted?

The first time I was published in something, I entered the authorship contest through Shippensburg, my senior year, and I won for short story. I was shocked. Mostly because I had written the story last minute. But when I get accepted to Fission, or the Paragon Journal, I’m always surprised. The surprise never goes away, because I think as a writer you’re always prepared for rejection. Because it’s so subjective. And there’s also some pride. Like, it’s fun. It’s not pride because: “Oh, that’s my work out there,” it’s that other people get to read it and someone did read it and was impacted by it and thought it should be published.

Likewise. I never expect to get published, right? It’s just a perk– like, someone else found meaning in my work. Yeah. I think that’s the right attitude to have. I know a lot of writers will, you know, print out their acceptance and rejection emails and put them on their walls. Almost as a way to personally have a visual.

So much is online now, and most of what I’ve done is on Submittable, so you can see your rejections and acceptances, and you get see the green compared to red.

So with “Cherry Blossom,” how did you begin to craft that poem?

“Cherry Blossom” was a time. I wrote that one for my English 50 course with Professor Humphrey last semester. I wrote a poetry set called “Willow Tree, Cherry Blossom, and White Oleander.” And his first reaction was: “Why are you writing about trees?” And I said, “‘Cause I want to.” So when “Cherry Blossom” was first conceived, I had written “Willow Tree,” which was about a boy, but I wanted to make a sister piece about a girl. And when I first wrote it, he said “I can’t tell what this is about. I don’t like it.” And so it went through a complete personality change. Full revision! The first “Cherry Blossom” was very ambiguous, very much about a tree and not a girl. So I thought, “How do I make this about a girl? … Stripper!”

Work!

Right? So I really liked the contrast between a cherry blossom being really pretty, dainty, and that people go to and look at it when it blossoms, and oh, females are also seen as dainty creatures when in reality their strong.

That’s so interesting. I love it! I’m not trying to push a label onto you, but I felt very much like, with the Me Too movement right now, right? And such a charged political climate, that “Cherry Blossom” gives off such feminist vibes. Was that intentional?

I wouldn’t say it was intentional, as I wrote it, like, consciously, but I am a feminist. And I do feel strongly about that, so I’m not surprised that leaked into it.

That’s how I am with my own poetry. I have such strong ideals, and I’m sometimes surprised that they kind of leak into my work.

Yeah, they just do.

With revising, and especially having “Cherry Blossom” as part of a trio, did the other two influence your revision?

I’d like to say yes, but I think no. The other two poems affected it when it was first written, because when it was first written it was very mirrored after “Willow Tree,” with similar analogies and metaphors, because I wanted them to be sister pieces. But once the revision process came, I ignored the other two and focused on why my professor didn’t like “Cherry Blossom.” And with that drive I made it better, and into something I really liked. That’s the complete opposite of what the other two are. They’re simpler topics.

Last question, do you have any poets you could recommend to our readers?

Right now I have quite the affection towards Amanda Lovelace. I’ve read all of her work. As soon as “The Mermaid’s Voice Returns In This One” came out, it’s the newest one she released, I got it as soon as it came out at Target. It’s so good. I’d also recommend “The Princess Saves Herself In This One,” they’re both so personal, and I love everything about her stuff. Amanda Lovelace is my favorite. She also wrote “To Make Monsters Out of Girls,” which made me cry. That’s how I know they’re good– because her chapbooks make me cry and laugh. I’d also like to pitch an old English teacher from my high school. Her name is Lynne Reeder. She’s a published poet and her work is beautiful. I’d recommend everyone to read her. She’s local, she’s a working mom, and she loves spreading the arts into the small town. People should buy her book and read her poetry. It’s very well done. So yes! Amanda Lovelace and Lynne Reeder. I don’t read too many big-named poets. It’s mostly smaller stuff I find in lit mags.

That’s the way to do it, though! Alright, well thank you for your time!

Of course! This was a lot of fun!

(Photo credit to our own Rachel Lenich!)