Leah Umansky is the author of The Barbarous Century (Eyewear 2018), among others. She earned her MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and is the curator and host of The COUPLET Reading Series in NYC. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such places as POETRY, Guernica, The Bennington Review,The New York Times, Pleiades, Glass: a journal of poetry, and the anthologies, The Eloquent Poem (Persea Books) and Misrepresented Peoples (NYQ Books). She is #teamkhaleesi & #teambernard.
Kristina Marie Darling: The poems in The Barbarous Century invoke a wide range of hybrid forms, including prose poetry, flash fiction, and experiments with the poetic line embedded in prose, to name just a few. Why did the book’s subject, particularly its smart consideration traditional femininity in a postmodern cultural landscape, seem to warrant to these experiments with form?
Leah Umansky: These poems invoked hybrid forms because, in many ways, the speaker is aligning herself with societal icons, whether they be literary, historical, or fictional. The poems are melding a sort of “postmodern cultural landscape,” as you say, but also, they are forging a new kind of womanhood, and a sort of vulnerability. In many of these poems, especially the prose poems, there is a dialogue spanning the page that I felt needed the space and freedom of that form. Some of the shorter-lined poems are intense in their emotion and sometimes the shorter line there, reinforces the repetition and the severity of the speaker. I think in all of the varied forms, even some of the more traditional ones like “Sonnet” and “Sestina,” there is also a lyrical component which I wanted to carry both the vulnerability and the strength of the feminist arc.
KMD: As a reader, I appreciated the way these hybrid forms give rise to wild associative leaps. They also allow multiple voices to inhabit the same rhetorical space in a way that’s quite thought-provoking. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how form shapes content, or even determines what is possible in a literary text. What did you find was sayable in a hybrid form that could not be so easily conveyed in a more traditional one?
LU: Thank you! I think what I love about literature is that anything is possible. When I sit down to write, unless I give myself a specific assignment ( which is rare), I don’t know where the poem will take me or what form it will take. For me, honestly, a lot of it is driven by emotion. Your question is interesting because I always sort of feel that a poem says the unsayable, and that a poem is about feeling, or stepping back with some sort of emotion in your body. I think that what’s present in a hybrid form that maybe isn’t so easily conveyed in a more traditional one, is the element of the unsayable – the sort of pausing – the sort of taking a moment to consider an element of wordplay, or association. I love playing in poetry.What I enjoy about a hybrid text is that again it’s sort of breaking barriers, but it’s also leaving room for the reader to sort of live within the poem. I also think, in term of form shaping content, that sometimes the tone is really the key element. Some of the prosier poems in The Barbarous Century, needed to be in prose sections because they are more conversational in nature, more journalistic or diary-like tone, and for me, that content called for that sort of form.
KMD: Your first book, Domestic Uncertainties, was published by BlazeVOX Books in 2012. What did you learn from the process of crafting your first book, and how did that knowledge and experience manifest in The Barbarous Century?
LU: You know, I think I learned a lot in the last six years since my first book came out. I learned where I write from and what I need to write. I also learned a lot about myself as a woman, and a writer, and so all of that knowledge and experience helped inform this book. You know, I can see threads between the two books, but I think just giving myself the permission to write has helped a lot. Writing two chapbooks between these full-length books also gave me a stronger sense of self, and that helped inform many new writing projects and taught me to take more risks.The outcome of that is The Barbarous Century. I think when I started writing poems inspired by television, I feared they wouldn’t be taken seriously; I feared I wouldn’t be taken seriously and you know what, some people scoff at those poems, but for me, so much of them hold The Barbarous Century together. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories that we rely on for support, for joy, for a good cry, for escape, whether they be versed in television, movies or novels, those stories create our world and our society. I mean our world is built on popular culture. What isn’t a part of that? I’d say that my first book is about a speaker finding herself after a fallen marriage. The latter is about a speaker trying to navigate the 21st century, despite our chaotic political climate, and the paradoxical hell that is being a single woman.
KMD: You are a talented writer, but also a wonderful advocate for poetry on social media. What advice do you have for emerging poets who are crafting their social media personae, and who might be thinking through the form their online presence in the literary community will take?
LU: Kristina, that means so much to me. I appreciate that! Thank you. I love social media, but trust me I know it has its evils. I’d say to those poets that they need to give it a chance. They need to find their people and connect with them. If it’s not for them, they’ll know. If they enjoy it, they will thrive. For me, social media has been a huge source of influence, inspiration and friendship. I think it’s wildly important, especially for poets who may not be a part of a literary community, or poets who feel they don’t have access to one. I would say that they should follow journals and editors they admire, poets and writers they admire, and start there. I would say that one’s social media presence is different for everyone. For me, I’m basically myself on social media. Sure, I’m more open on certain platforms, than others, but for the most part, I’m maskless. I’m passionate about what I love and show it. Social media is a wonderful place to discover new writers and journals; it’s a great place to brag about poets you’ve heard read live, or poets you’ve discovered in a journal or a bookstore. It’s a great way to support others and be the sort of poet, writer and reader, you want to see in the world. With that said, I know tons of writer who barely use social media. I feel that social media has been so instrumental to me and my life as a writer, but maybe that’s just because I’m a social person. I mean I’m the one who talks to people in the street, and on the subway!
KMD: You recently completed a multi-city U.K. book tour for The Barbarous Century. What can American writers, and their communities, learn from literary culture in London, Dublin, and the many other cities you visited?
LU: Yes! I had such a great time in Ireland, Northern Ireland and England. Thank you! You know, it’s such a strange thing being a New Yorker sometimes. We’re so spoiled having so much at our fingertips, but at the same time it’s all I’ve known, so, so be it. I love that there are a ton of literary events nearly every night in NYC. There isn’t just one poetry community, but many. I think every city has a different sort of energy. London is my heart of hearts, and this was now my second time reading in London and it was just fantastic. The people at The Poetry Society do such a terrific job of hosting events and promoting them. I am so grateful to the sort of community and camaraderie they bring to London. Julia Bird and Judith Palmer do such a great job at Poetry Society. I also read for Richard Skinner and the Vanguard Reading Series in Peckham and thoroughly enjoyed their blending of genres. Richard is so generous and kind and the crowd was so responsive, despite the unbearable heat.
Ireland was a totally different experience and one I couldn’t be more proud of. The literary worlds of Bantry, Cork, Dublin and Belfast were so receptive, responsive and inviting. I was just so proud, so touched and so moved. It was such an experience to be immersed in poetry and meet so many other poets and fans. I’m so grateful to Paul Casey at O’Bheal, Eimear O’Herlihy at the West Cork Literary Festival, poets Colin Dardis, Sarah Byrne, Doireann Ni Ghirofa, and of course Book Upstairs in Dublin, where I read.
I think what I learned, and probably why I love putting together book tours so much, is that poetry unites people. Also, I’ve had to create my own book tours myself, so I’ve grown quite adept at it. At the end of the day, poetry, and being introduced to new poetry, is a way into each other and a bridge over troubled times. The written word is so important, and what’s always so fascinating to me are the connections and friendships created. I am eternally grateful for my poetry community and the way it shifts and grows.
In Bantry, I read poems about HBO’s Westworld which really resonated with people. I had no idea if Westworld would even be popular in Ireland, but season 2 had just ended. In Belfast, more people spoke to me about Trump than here, in NYC and it was so alive with resistance. I loved that! I read a lot of my political poems, including new poems in my current manuscript. The response was really telling and inspiring and again; I felt such a strong vibrancy in the way we are all fighting together. We all want a better world. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Poems do something other art does not. I guess what I learn time and time again is how poetry is carried across all sorts of barriers. My proudest moments when reading outside of NYC are always when someone says they don’t really read or go to hear poetry often, but found themselves enjoying my poetry. What more could you want?
KMD: What are you working on? What can readers look forward to?
LU: Well, what I’m working on now is currently titled, Of Tyrant. It’s a response to Trump and our current political climate. Ever since those horrific presidential debates between Trump and Hilary, where he creeped up and towered over her, I saw Trump as a tyrant, and furthermore, a monster. Sadly, and I say sadly because for the first time I feel as if i’m not operating from a place of love like I usually, do, but sadly, I couldn’t stop writing poems about “the Tyrant” and his many forms. Many of these poems are coming out in journals later this fall, and of course in early 2019 and I’m very proud of them.
These poems are very different for me. Many of them are longer, with shorter lines, and are angry. It is comforting to be in touch with my rage, which feels like an odd thing to say, but I’m glad I have an outlet. Forget about glad, I’m grateful because despair is heavy. Right now, the second part of the book is focusing on “monsters,” in every shape of the word. I will say, beneath these poems is a sense of urgency, still a sense of hope, and a sense of rallying. Perhaps it will be us female poets that turn this day around.
A Folio of Poems by Leah Umansky
Kristina Marie Darling is the author of thirty books, including Look to Your Left: The Poetics of Spectacle (Akron Poetry Series, forthcoming in 2020) and DARK HORSE: Poems (C&R Press, 2018). Her work has been recognized with awards from Yaddo, the American Academy in Rome, the Whiting Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets. Kristina currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Tupelo Press and Tupelo Quarterly, an opinion columnist at The Los Angeles Review of Books, a contributing writer at Publishers Weekly, and a freelance book critic at The New York Times Book Review.