Fortney, Steven D. 1937-
FORTNEY, Steven D. 1937-
PERSONAL: Born January 2, 1937, in Minneapolis, MN; son of Albin (an army chaplain and Lutheran pastor) and Anita (a nurse; maiden name, Sodergren) Fortney; married Ruth Geyer (a teacher), February 19, 1960; children: Melissa, Minda, Alex, Sigrid. Ethnicity: "Norwegian-Swedish-American." Education: University of Wisconsin at Madison, B.S. (classics and philosophy), 1959, teacher certification, 1960-64, attended Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, MN, 1960-61. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Buddhist. Hobbies and other interests: Fishing, gardening, reading, family.
ADDRESSES: Home and office—501 West South St., Stoughton, WI 53589. E-mail—[email protected] edu.
CAREER: Writer and teacher. Stoughton Schools, Stoughton, WI, teacher, department chairman, language arts, 1964-95. Labor negotiator and president of teachers' union; alderman, Third District, Stoughton, WI, 1977-98; management negotiator. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1953-55, became fireman apprentice.
MEMBER: Torske Klubben (Norwegian men's luncheon group).
Heg (novel), illustrated by Richard Fendrick, Badger Books (Oregon, WI), 1998.
The Thomas Jesus (novel), illustrated by Richard Fendrick, Badger Books (Oregon, WI), 2000.
Greatest Hits (chapbook), Puddinghouse Press (Johns-town, OH), 2001.
The Gazebo (novel), Badger Books (Oregon, WI), 2001.
Contributor to This Sporting Life, Milkweed Press, 1987, and Poems That Thump in the Night, New Spirit Press, 1993; also contributor to various periodicals, including Milk Weed Chronicle, Yet Another Literary Magazine, Seems, Waterways: Poetry in the Mainstream, Pulpsmith, Cutting Edge Quarterly, Heaven Bone, Embers, Visions International, East West, Cape Cod Writers, Yahara Prairie Review, and North Coast Review.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The Maitreya Novel: The Party.
SIDELIGHTS: Poet and novelist Steven D. Fortney told CA: "I was raised in the Lutheran Church by a chaplain and later pastor father, in a military family that traveled extensively all over the United States in army posts, including childhood residences in Germany and Austria." After completing his education, Fortney worked for a small newspaper for four years, doing everything from reporting to selling ads. Certified as a secondary teacher in 1964, he went on to teach high school for thirty-one years. He was active in the teachers' union during most of that time and also served as an alderman on the Stoughton City Council for twenty-one years.
Fortney explained to CA that he took early retirement in 1995 to devote himself full-time to writing. "I fish and hunt and garden and read like mad. As you see, I started my serious poetry career late. With four books published, three novels, and a book of poetry, I guess I can call myself—as the people of West Texas generally, and Lubbock specifically, called Molly Ivins after she published her first book—an 'arthur'"
Well aware that he is a late bloomer as a writer, Fortney feels that "I have cheated the American literary tradition by not being precocious, that is, having a spurt of high creativity when very young and then fading forever from the book-lists thereafter: American Literature, it is said, has no second acts. European literature and world art, however, are full of five-act lives. I firmly believe that I was spared precocity because probably I didn't have the strength of character to handle it well in any case. Therefore, it has been my delightful lot to have developed what talent I have carefully and slowly, so that at the age of sixty-four I feel close to the height of my powers and feel quite confident, health and vigor permitting, that I can finish the half a dozen or so unfinished and barely-begun books stored in my computer and the unwritten poems in my soul well into my seventh and eighth and even ninth decades."
Fortney's writing process is based on what he calls "Rereading and Dreams." "I've had several experiences with dreams," he told CA, "in both stories and poems, that have helped to continue or to finish the composition. For example, in one poem titled 'Pondering,' one of my final lines gave me trouble. The poem is about a fish, in this case a white koi, which was my metaphor for a mystic. The last lines of the first draft read as follows: 'I believe in / the wind because I've / felt it. I know wind / I feel it. I climb slopes / of water before the / What I leap into. God's / language is silence.' I was not satisfied with this version but didn't know what to do about it. It so happened I was in northern Wisconsin with my friends at our cabin in the deep woods there and was distracted for a couple of days with pleasurable hiking, fishing, and canoeing adventures. One night after a wonderfully relaxed night's sleep, I lapsed into my usual morning dream state. Then suddenly I dreamed the right word. I made a note in my dream not to forget the word and upon waking wrote out the new version, the lines of which went as follows: 'I believe in / the wind because I've / felt it. I know wind / I feel it. I scale slopes / of water before the / What I leap into. God's / language is silence.' This involved only one word-change but immeasurably improved the poem."
Both his awareness of his dream life and the rereading process he applies to his writing are informed by his Buddhist beliefs, which Fortney has practiced for more than twenty-five years. He explained to CA how this practice enters into the writing process: "The beginning is difficult. So I start anywhere. As I work, I begin the process of rereading. That is, I read the text I have written over and over again until it is firmly fixed at all levels of my mind. And then I reread some more to achieve surfeit. When I get stuck, I do one of two things. Simply wait until the deeper intentionalities of my nether consciousness indicate the next step. The second is more formal. I will sit at my puja table, which is also my working desk (it is meet, right, and salutary that no distinction between work and worship be made) and do my freelance Buddhist ritual there and sit until I hear the next voice, see the next action of the characters and narrative I am working with. Sometimes this happens almost instantaneously. Sometimes it takes days or weeks. I literally hear voices. I see actual visions. It's all mental and internal. Given my positivist bias, the process is wholly natural but is so powerful that it feels like magic. The trick is to never lose faith that it will happen and the writing will proceed. So far this process has never failed.
"Using autogenic devices—principally, for me, the discipline of meditation—has done wonderful things in carving out the underbrush around the opening of consciousness at all levels to permit the right kind of synthesis in thinking, the wondrous fountains of narrative, character, and image to appear and flow. I see no reason that I can't continue until the day I drop, with the last poem or story (Copernicus and his treatise come to mind here) grasped in my chilling fingers on my deathbed just written for the teaching and delight of my family."
"Once the basic work has been composed," he continued, "rewriting happens. I love rewriting. It is a delightful combination of interweaving intuitive and rational processes in which, with my daylight consciousness, I can see where revision consistent with the original intention of the work can be made. That is pure thinking, but intuitively arrived at. Given the ease of using a computer word-processing program, I even look forward to it. Here one can layer both narrative and poem easily enough to achieve the density and resonance both works of art demand to be worthy of rereading on the part of the auditors of the work."
Fortnoy's first novel was Heg, about the real-life Hans Christian Heg, who emigrated from Norway to Wisconsin and became an antislavery activist and Civil War hero. His second novel, The Thomas Jesus, is a fictional account of the life of "Doubting" Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ. Based on the research of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars devoted to determining the historical accuracy of stories about Jesus, Fortney's Jesus, who "sounds more like a Buddhist than a savior," according to a Wisconsin State Journal writer, might have been hard for Fortney's Lutheran forebears to accept.
Also a prolific poet, Fortney was profiled in the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times. His friend, neighbor, and illustrator, Richard Fendrick, quipped that if there is an afterlife, Fortney will spend it writing. As the author himself declared, "It's just so much fun for me."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Capital Times (Madison, WI), May 1, 2000, "Book Sold, Life Is Good for Author," p. 2A.
Library Journal, April 1, 2000, Melanie C. Duncan, review of The Thomas Jesus, p. 82.
Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), April 16, 2000, "Stoughton Author Takes Novel Approach to Christ," p. 3F.