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Leah Stevens on creativity & the role of art

Leah Stevens is a flute teacher, freelance musician, amateur writer, & organizer with Socialist Alternative. She holds degrees in flute from the Cleveland Institute of Music and Carnegie Mellon University.

Leah and I met in the flute studio at Carnegie Mellon in 2018. Since then, we've performed together multiple times and become close friends.

Leah and I can go on and on about anything from classical music to body image, faith, and more. Here are some thoughts on creativity, the role of art, and being a musician & writer.

TA: How has your relationship to creativity evolved?

LS: Engaging with the physical world around me, playing with my own curiosity, has always felt innate – rather than creativity being something outside of myself that I engage with, it has always felt like an extension of myself.

As a child, grappling with the ways in which I interact with the world around me always felt like a method of survival. That’s how writing started for me, and that’s how my relationship to playing an instrument developed.

However, as a child and teen, I felt my creativity was on the side of escapism. Now, I push against that – I want my creativity to be a point of connection, something that grounds me firmly in my day-to-day life, with the people around me, the socio-political climate, and the physical world around me.

As a teen and early adult, my creativity got pushed towards the need to produce a product, the need to have something finished to show, which made what I was producing feel more distant from who I am, and made me feel more fearful about what I share.

Now, I am revisiting getting into a creative practice, as in writing daily even if it’s just half-assed thoughts. I take more time to mull over the process itself without any end points. It has brought me closer to myself again, and made me far less fearful about what I share or how it is received. I share when I feel like it, it connects me to the small circle of people I care about the most, and that is a far greater gift than it ever was before.

Leah and I playing Stravinsky's Petrushka in the CMU School of Music in 2019.

TA: Both of us spent most of our lives studying classical music, but didn't end up staying there. Why do you still make music?

LS: For me, music gives an immediacy and tangible connection, a play between self and listener. A special temporality – once it’s over, it’s over. Music for me is a slow build to a visceral performance, while writing is a visceral reaction to an experience, followed by a slow unpacking and piecing together how words work together.

However, I want my writing to evoke that ephemerality of performance. I want to bring the magic of performance into poetry, where the poem can just be read once, but the feeling it leaves lingers for a while. This is why I like writing poems that are very simple, digestible, and experiential.

I will say though – I am finding again the sheer fun in playing music with a couple of gigs I’ve recently had. It’s so much easier to approach now that I don’t see music as a bigger deal than it is, and instead just enjoy the chance to connect with those around me.

TA: Both of us have also wanted to become writers. Two music degrees later, what keeps you writing?

LS: Words open me up to an earnestness and freeness I can’t fully access with music – years of perfectionism and restriction through music has set some limits for me. I’ve never had any formal training in writing.

Writing sobers me, and allows me to engage with the world around me in a much more critical and present way. I write what I think and I don’t lie. I kinda just… don’t give a fuck. Even as I type this I write with little regard of how it will be received. I am giving you myself in this moment.

Also, over the last month I’ve started colliding all of my writing in one notebook – poetry, notes on the latest political theory book I’m reading, musings, Marx, notes on union organizing meetings, observations, reminders – it is kind of a beautiful chaos. I’ve been experimenting with what would happen if poetry fragments pop up amidst all these other things, colliding the personal and the collective – and I like where it is going.

photo by Leah Stevens

TA: What themes are you most drawn to and why?

LS: My writing collides my experience as a caregiver, a teacher, a worker, a dreamer, a lover, a loner – what is extremely intimate, with what is universal, collective, and with some socialist musings along the way.

I am interested in the simple day-to-day things, the mundane, and the connections that bring those things to life and show us beauty in the midst of the capitalist hellscape we live in.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how capitalism alienates us from each other, and the multitudes within ourselves. But, it is also capitalism that creates a contradiction of alienation and collectivity – as in, although capitalism aims to divide us, it also creates the conditions that give us so much in common as a class (a class that produces profits for a boss).

So, I like delving into the moments we share on a human level – the beautiful ones, the ugly ones, the messy ones. I push back against a system that tries to tell us we are no more than the relation to our labor, and no more than how well we perform in a hyper-productive, ultra-exploitative society.

TA: People are more and more concerned about making art that has a "real," tangible impact on society. As an activist and artist, what roles would you say artists have?

LS: I don’t think that all art has to “save the world,” but simply give us pause to think about how we interpret it, especially in a society that increasingly demands our attention be pulled in many directions.

I think it is dangerous to think art in and of itself can save the world, and is a substitute for political organizing and deep community engagement. There are many historical and modern-day examples where art is one of many tools in the toolbox for revolution and change. But, this art comes alongside mostly ordinary, forgotten people (revolutionaries) organizing their spaces to fight back. I see a lot of artists today co-opt the language of grassroots movements to use in their insular, institutionalized spaces, with no connection at all to the movements.

I think good art is raw, connects us on a personal and collective level, and makes us slow down to engage with something fully. I think just about anything that makes us take pause and connect for a moment can be considered art, and if you are able to do that on any scale, in any medium, then you are an artist. To even share in a moment with one other person, and to see it as only that, and nothing more than that, is incredibly special and important.

To read more of Leah's poetry, subscribe to her Patreon!

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