photo by edward brydon
leah umansky’s first book, Domestic Uncertainties, is available from BlazeVOX Books. she is currently working on her second collection of poems focusing our 21st century technological world, science fiction, social media, and amc’s mad men. she has been a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG, a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a live twit for The Best American Poetry Blog. she is also the host/curator of COUPLET. Read more at: http://iammyownheroine.com. Follow her on twitter at: @Lady_Bronte
Q & A with leah:
nook: can you tell us a bit about your experience working with BlazeVOX Books and the ways you were able to collaborate with this excellent small press on your first book?
leah: i’ve really enjoyed working with BlazeVOX. editor and publisher geoffrey gatza gave me an abundance of creative freedom. that was so important to me as a writer and as an artist, and i’m so grateful to him. i make collages and when we started discussing the cover, i asked geoffrey if i could have a go at making one for the book. i’d saved a few images in a folder for years and one day i played around with some ideas about emily bronte’s Wuthering Heights. the resulting piece is titled Behind the Curtain and it’s based on penistone crag—a favorite spot of cathy and heathcliff’s. geoffrey loved it and it became the cover! the book is a large square and the collage is also square and bold. the format was ideal because most of my poems use the whole page—both margins. when we started discussing the format of the book, the first thing geoffrey said was, “i see this book as a large square,” and i completely agreed. he read my mind. i couldn’t be happier with the end result. i didn’t appreciate how well the image and format suited the book until i received my copy in the mail.
nook: you are a very active, engaged member of the poetry community. you’ve worked with some of our most interesting poetry outlets; you’ve been involved in presenting events. how did you become invested in this community?
leah: i constantly work at it. it’s exhausting, but i enjoy it all. otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. live tweeting for The Best American Poetry, reviewing poetry for The Rumpus, writing interviews and reviews for BOMBlog, and writing for TheThePoetry all help connect me with the community. little by little, i am finding my way in the poetry world. i started my reading series, COUPLET, because i wanted an outlet for poets who weren’t “connected” and poets who didn’t have a first book yet.
i did my MFA in 2004 at sarah lawrence college and at that time it was easy to get readings, but after i graduated, i went right into a MA in english education at hunter college. i was working at the UJA and trying to send out poems to earn more substantial publication credits. it was nearly impossible. i’d try to arrange readings and the first question was always: “do you have a book?” years passed and i stopped caring about it. in time, i met my friend carlos, who became my DJ for COUPLET. we like a lot of the same music: britpop, new wave, indie, glam-rock… a few summers ago, i put together a reading with some friends and it was really successful. someone suggested i start my own reading series and i realized i should, but i knew it needed to be unique. i thought about a DJ afterparty and carlos agreed. soon, COUPLET was born.
nook: at this point, it’s almost a necessity for emerging poets to engage with social media in order to connect with readers. can you tell us a bit about your experience in this arena?
leah: if you asked me a few years ago, could I imagine running two blogs, three facebook pages and two twitter accounts, i’d have rolled my eyes and laughed. i still don’t know how i manage to juggle it all, and teach full-time, but i’m not complaining. i’m grateful because i’m happy. i enjoy it. it’s all about whether you enjoy the things you do. i love social media. i think i love it because i’m open to it and because i delight in new friendships. i’m social. i like people, and i’m interested in what they have to say.
nook: what’s next?
leah: i’m currently at work on my second book, which is deeply rooted in our 21st century and very much commenting on technology, science-fiction, dating, social media and nostalgia. it also addresses advertising and marketing—things i’ve always been fascinated by, but never thought i’d actually write about. this year, i finally gave in and started watching Mad Men. i became obsessed with it. i was worried that it would be really masochistic and i’d be disgusted with the gender stereotypes, but i actually think it has a lot of feministic qualities. i find it mesmerizing and it’s not just because don draper is so powerful, interesting and sexy, but because it’s a smart show. i love the ideas. i started ordering the DVDs on netflix and found myself watching in bed with a pencil and pad, because i was constantly struck with ideas.
nook: poetry, and art in general, is always susceptible to the accusation that it has become totally self-referential, that there are no new ideas, that there are no new movements, that there can never be another avant garde. i’m always devastated but this argument, and it’s my feeling that poetry and art, inasmuch as they are self-referential, are also the only real, real-time reflection of the world we have in our culture. as long as the world keeps moving forward, it seems there is endless potential for innovation. what are your thoughts?
leah: i love this question. on one hand, yes, all art is creating something new and allows for representation and reflection of our ever-changing world, but it is always simultaneously built on something that came before. i think it probably boils down to ego. i steal all the time. i admit it. everyone does. i don’t think there are that many original ideas out there. every story is a version of another story. the first epigraph in my book comes from one of my favorite writers, jeanette winterson. in her book of essays, Art Objects, she writes, “we mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” she’s right. we all learn through stories that are built upon each other. when you tell a story (or in my case write a poem) you’re somehow writing a version of another story. you may not know the story, but someone out there wrote a similar story. for example, Domestic Uncertainties, is a memoir of marriage and divorce told through poetry. it’s a classic story of love lost, but it’s my story and it’s filled with my references and my lived experiences. most writing is self-referential on some level but my form, tone, wordplay, and style makes my story unique.
i recently read sharon olds’ new book, Stag’s Leap, and i really enjoyed it. i don’t want to compare my book to hers, but they both tell stories of divorce. when reading her story, i recognized parts of my own: my divorce. i identified with her narrative not only as a woman, but as a poet. i felt our poems were connected. maybe this is because there is no original story. here is an example from my poem, How We Make Ourselves,
I want to ‘top’ this story. /
It always begins this way./
It’s in the beginnings of the new /
that we become who we want./
all stories begin the same way. you can try to “top” it or go at it from a different angle, but if you’re telling a story about love, you’re telling a story that’s been told since the beginning of time.