Websites: Leah Umansky
How does propaganda both solidify and sterilize the emotional virility of language? How does the domestic sphere inflect the body onto the page? In this interview, poet and teacher Leah Umansky in her book Domestic Uncertainties out from BlazeVOX Books presents, “I think writing by women continues to be as intriguing and as honest as it ever was.” She shares, “there is fear in emotionalizing language, but I think it’s intrinsic to who we are and how we were raised.” For Umansky, every inflection, verbal cue, sensitivity to the “whole package” allows the speaker to find her own “glory” through a sense of self.
Upon reflection we are able to see how this affects the propaganda we share and retain in social media. Umansky states, “I think the body is important to think of in terms of language because they are connected. Sometimes it freaks people out and writing something down, especially online, makes it permanent. One has to choose their words carefully.” But the open process of sharing self in community can become a “recognition of one’s own strength. We are manipulators of language, we are reinventors. We are able to find our own.” As inventors it is important to acknowledge not depletion of intimacy as propaganda models, but faith in self voice. She continues, “The heart is something I believe in. The heart “uproots” and “replants” because it rebuilds.” The heart needs intimacy; honoring close connection, voice, and the ability to be alone.
Leah Umansky is currently working on her second collection of poems focusing on being a woman in the 21st century, social media, nostalgia and Don Draper. She is a contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and Tin House; a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus, and a Live Twit for the Best American Poetry Blog. [Read more at: http://iammyownheroine.com%5D She received her BA in English/Creative Writing from SUNY Binghamton and her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the host/curator of COUPLET: a poetry and music series on the Lower East Side. Flavorwire called her #7 of “23 People Who Make You Care About Poetry” in 2013.
note: this poem is a “mash-up’ of phrases from Teddy Wayne’s 2013 NYT article ” Youth’s New Wilderness”
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
My first inspirations were probably the Bronte Sisters. I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights in 10th grade English class and they changed my life. I remember reading Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and was just blown away. How had I never read these books today? In terms of poetry, I was always drawn to writing poems. I can still remember when my first poem, “fireflies” got published in my high school literary magazine, KEN. It was a poem about catching fireflies but also about the my first childhood crush. As a teenager, I was always drawn to the confessional poets. To this day, Sharon Olds still just dazzles me.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
I always feel inspired by someone or something. Maria Mazziotti Gillian was and still is a huge influence on my writing. She took over the English department at SUNY BINGHAMTON my senior year. Once I heard her read her own work, poetry was never really the same for me. She’s someone who gives 110% to her students and her fellow poets. She’s someone I really strive to be more like as a teacher and poet myself. Her readings are powerful, stunning but also intimate. When I saw Sharon Olds and students lined up to have their books signed, I stood frozen. I couldn’t believe I was going to look her in the eye and have her sign my books.
In graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, I really learned a lot from Marie Howe, Victoria Redel, Kate Knapp Johnson and Paul Lisicky. I’m grateful that I’m someone that has stayed in touch with her teachers. One of the biggest mentors in my writing life is Patricia Carlin, whose workshop at the New School I’ve been in for the last six years or so. I think in life, if you’re lucky to meet someone who really “gets” your work, you need to do what you can to savor that relationship. So many of my friends are writers and we all sort of motivate each other; I think social media helps a lot, too, and for that I’m thankful.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
My first book, Domestic Uncertainties, is out now from BlazeVOX Books. Though I’ve published poems in literary journals that I worked on in both undergrad and graduate school, none of those poems are in this collection. I think I grew up writing more narrative poems because most of the poets I admired wrote in more a narrative style, like Marie Howe, for example. I remember reading my first snippets of flash fiction in Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, Carole Maso’s Aureole, and being like, “oh, I can use fragments when I write?” and “fiction can be lyrical? Fiction can be poetic?” It sort of shocked me and thrilled me. I think I was afraid to venture into that field of writing, but eventually, when I was ready, I did.
Somewhere along my graduate school years and my years as a married woman, the narrative in my poem split and re-grouped. Ironically, it was when my marriage first fell apart and I was having discussions about separating that I found this new voice with which to write. With the voice came a new way of seeing my writing as my form changed. I started writing prose poems, and I started playing with the page, the margins and with fragments. I used all of it and climbed out of the chaos that was unfolding around me. My first poem that I wrote at this time was a prose poem and it was based on my favorite book, Wuthering Heights. Is there a correlation between the new way of writing and the new marital status? I’m not sure, but it makes sense to me. I think I stopped being scared of my voice, and started tapping into my own agency as a woman. Soon after, I felt more confident.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
Absolutely and it’s something I love. I remember when I first started to read Virginia Woolf I fell in love with all of her long sprawling sentences. I like experimental novels because to me, they read like poetry. Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion is probably my favorite for many reasons. I love her use of repetition and I love how the way her book is divided into sections with repeating narrators. I’ve also dappled in historical fiction; I love Kevin Baker’s Paradise Alley and Dreamland, but as a whole I’m the most influenced by experimental novels, memoirs, or the diaries and journals of writers. The journals of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf are always a key source of information for me.
I steal a lot in my writing. I take phrases from newspaper articles; I jot down notes at readings, or at museums when I’m reading the curator notes to exhibits. Lately, I’ve been writing poems that are inspired by TV shows like AMC’s “Mad Men,” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and that’s another genre in itself. It’s also a rewriting of society.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
Presently, I’ve just returned from small book-tour that I put together in the Pacific NW. I’m a teacher, so I’m off for the summer. This month consists of weeding out the poems that don’t work in my second collection, and putting them into some sort of order. September will mark the two year anniversary of my reading series, COUPLET, and I’m glad to see it is still being received so well. I have a new chapbook of Mad Men inspired poems coming out in the winter of 2014, so the annual AWP conference in Seattle is something I’m looking forward to.
As a teacher, I love introducing my students to new works of literature. I taught a “confessional poetry unit” this year, for the first time, and I was so envious of the students who read Anne Sexton for the first time. (Discovering her was such a treat.) I look forward to continuing to find ways to inspire my students. I just want to keep writing and reading, to be honest. I’d also say that I pride myself on supporting my fellow writers, and poets. As a woman and a writer, I think it is important to feel as if you are part of a community and part of starting my own reading series was to help get my footing in the literary community here in NYC.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
I think writing by women continues to be as intriguing and as honest as it ever was. Obviously barriers are broken down each day, and each year. I’ll say that I think that our digital presence now in the 21st century, is something we need to use to our advantage. It’s never been so easy to reach people and not just people in your neighborhood, but people across the country and people across the world. It’s thrilling and our voices need to be heard. I think more people should embrace creating blog, tumblrs, twitter, and using online writing workshops, because we can now. It’s important to have a community of writers who can support you and encourage you, whether it’s online or in real life. Having a support system gives you confidence. I’ve been trying to get one of my best friends to write for years and she finally has written her first personal essay for an online journal. It was wonderful and I’m proud of her.
7.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Some of my favorite people are writers that are either publishing their first books this year, or next, or are still at work on their first books. My friend, Julia Fierro, who runs the Sackett Street Writers, in Brooklyn, has a first novel coming out in the next year which I’ve heard her read excerpts of. Another friend, Mira Ptacin, founder of Freerange, who just welcomed her first baby into the world, has a memoir in the works, which I can’t wait to read. In terms of women’s poetry, I really admire the work of Rachel McKibbens, Lisa Marie Basile, Mary Flanagan, Rosebud Ben Oni, Laura Cronk, Kristina Marie Darling, Kiely Sweatt, Jackie Clark, J Hope Stein, Jillian Brall, Dena Rash Guzman, and Cassandra Dallett.
8.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
I always say I’m an experimental poet because if you don’t label yourself, someone else will. I’d rather take ownership of that labeling. I’m a feminist, and I’m Jewish, even though my poems don’t typically deal with Judaism. (some do). I actually didn’t think too much about the “labeling” until I started building my listing in the “Directory of Writers” at the Poets and Writers website and realized I needed to label myself. I don’t see the harm in it.
9.) Let us begin with your poem, “I. AND THEN IT CAME UPON HIM THAT HE WOULD MARRY HER AND SHE WOULD BE HIS LIFE.” Sitting on what I can only imagine as a white starched couch: “The woman occupies the supreme position: a songstress; a slave; a harbinger.” This egalitarian position, “was drowned … It was meant to be murdered … The larger vessel was love … I was the larger vessel.” We witness metamorphosis between “she,” “the women,” and ultimately “I”. A typical under the radar subjectivity removes the feminine from the female. As writer then, quill possesses subject. How does female possess her feminine without painting the domestic space in charcoal binaries? Where does this color balance the masculine?
I love this question and love that poem. Yes, I guess the feminine is removed from the female because she sort of crosses into what is typically deemed as, “masculine.” She realizes that she was never free and is now free even though she didn’t necessarily want that freedom. The question is, what is she free from? Marriage? Gender roles? I think maybe both. The binaries ARE charcoaled because the domestic realm here is not so “black and white”—it’s grayed. I have trouble with binaries because I never thought much about them, and then, over time, I realized that life isn’t that cut and dry, and either are relationships. They’re complicated. When my marriage failed, I learned that I could possess the feminine in the domestic space, and also be and do whatever I wanted. I also recognized that it had to be with a sense of self and a sense of what being female means to me. I don’t think I ever gave that that much thought in my twenties.
In the poem, the speaker is putting herself first and she is surviving the wreckage of the marriage. She may be marooned but she knows it’s not forever. The marooning is a shock, but she accepts the binary and moves past it. I’m not sure where this colors the masculine, other than to say that the masculine is triumphed by the feminine. I see this poem as a sort-of reckoning. The speaker is trying to figure things out; she’s beginning to realize her truths. She says to herself, “I am still a romantic. I am still a romantic” because she is not let the devastation ruin her belief in love or change the way she sees herself. She’s putting herself before the husband, which is a first for her.
This poem has a lot to do with the expectations of marriage, and actually relates to the first poem in the collection, “What Literature Teaches Us About Love.” I think most women go into marriage with a vision of how it will be, and this poem talks to that vision. It sees it shatter. Not only did the marriage fail, but “[It] was drowned. No flotsam or jetsam.” The marriage doesn’t even exist in fragments. It dies. The speaker controls what happens next, “I was the larger vessel/ I controlled the wondering.” She thought she’d be the husband’s whole life – that she’d be enough. She felt that love would be enough to keep the marriage afloat, but it isn’t. She controls “the wondering” because she is the stronger of the two. She carries the love regardless of its failure. She survives the drowning, and the husband doesn’t. He falls away. This is relevant in Section III of the poem, “The Men Will Do No More. They Have Lost the Capacity For Doing.” The husband is renamed the “left-husband” because there is nothing left to do. There is no name for what is left after the drowning. So, I think the binaries shift because of the agency that the female speaker gains in the poem.
10.) “The Art of Unloving,” is accompanied with a clothes iron in hand. The unending giving and reputed receiving is folded and unfolded. To spill is to “soot” is to “unlove”. Elucidate this then, “We humans, love other humans and sure, pets too, places even, but that emotion has a name and its name is love. … It’s the same with indentation. We can unindent a word, so why not unemotionalize the word, or the whole story?” Is this not what takes place in the language of law? In your opinion does emotionalizing language absorb idiocracy in its inability to present unemotionalizing positive or negative opinions? What is the fear of emotionalizing or placing the body back into the language of the laws that govern our linguistic structure? Movements of oppression use emotive linguistics to shift energy and emotion as you delineate in “appositives”. To change the energy of the linguistics is to shift the energy. But is bland not the same toke as apathy? Where is the body? How is this translated to the letter?
This is a complicated question. I’m not necessarily concerned with the language of the law in this poem; it’s more about what is implied by language, or what is hidden in language. This poem is built around suffixes and prefixes. Look at how two little letters, “un” can do so very much. Inflections matter and, even, non-verbal cues matter. There’s a whole package. It’s the same with Love. Yes, it’s a feeling and an emotion, but there’s more there. It’s involved.
I absolutely think there is fear in emotionalizing language but I think it’s intrinsic in who we are and how we were raised.
In terms of placing the body back into the language of the laws that govern our linguistic structure, I think the body is important to think of in terms of language because they are connected. Sometimes it freaks people out and writing something down, especially online, makes it permanent. One has to choose their words carefully. I actually think this is one of the dark dangers of our digital age: when something is out there on the internet, it’s OUT there!
Look, as a teacher, I‘m really fascinated by the topic of propaganda. I teach two Orwell novels in the classroom. Just last month, in summer school, I was having a casual conversation with a student about something as we walked to get some ice cream and I said something like, “Oh, well that’s just them using propaganda,” and she said, “You even teach when you aren’t teaching!” It was funny, but really, I’m just aware of language. It can be so easily oppressed, and twisted. Your thoughts can be so easily manipulated, so it’s important that one has a sense of self. If you do, then you can hold onto what you value. In Domestic Uncertainties, I am manipulating language, and I am also reinventing language. It all relates to the new found glory of the speaker.
“The Art of Unloving,” came out of a New York Times article that I read about language, and, ironically, from teaching a lesson on “appositives” to my 10th graders. I started thinking of relationships, specifically marriage, and the use of appositives in the everyday conversations of couples. I thought about pet names, about email salutations, etc. In using an appositive, you can also cover up the truth; you can reinvent the truth; but you can also negate it. So suddenly, grammar took on a more important role in my writing.
11.) In “The Mischiefs and Mistakes or (Mis)takes are Real,” there is a passage that reads, “Give me a real time. / Give me real. / Give! // I am barely the wounded one. / I am the / blooming.” So we experience a transition from the beginning of the piece focused on recapturing self in language to the nutrients of soot where self is not through an excavation of pain, but of growth after the fire. In the preceding poem, “A Very Small Life,” we read, “no one saves the diminishing … There are so many great words that come out of partners; / So many words that come out of please, / and patronize. / :: yes, patronize::.” “Partners” is rounded to “patronize” as suggested in patriarchy. The punctuation becomes as saturated and “tangled” to a stanza in the poem “How We Make Ourselves.” “This sense of nothing is inconceivable. / History always repeats itself, but the heart, / the heart uplifts and uproots. The heart / replants. / I have done my gardening.” There is beauty in this space of self, and also loneliness; one that is able to understand self. But where does this mend the domestic? In the last poem, “Domestic Uncertainties” you write: “I will not define Love for you … though my hand is cleaner in the end.” How do you see this message transposed in our present sociopolitical climate surrounding sexuality, equality, and partnership?
Yes, the “self” does experience growth after the fire. There’s a sense of realizing what exactly that devastation is, or what exactly brought about the fire, and then there is the sense of rising up from it. The rising-up relates back to your earlier question. The speaker is not making apologies, or feeling sorry for herself. She’s using what she knows and what she’s learned and bettering herself. In these poems, she’s really just doing her best to persevere. The self at any given point could just crumble. It’s easy; humans are fragile at times, but I knew I was stronger than that. I knew I wouldn’t crumble. It wasn’t an option for me and certainly wasn’t an option for the speaker, here.
In terms of the poem “A Very Small Life,” I used a lot of wordplay. I’m talking more about being patronizing. “Partners” turns into “patronize” through the lens of a marriage. A partner in a marriage is more than a companion; they should be part of a partnership: something fair, honest and equal. Partners and patronize share some of the same letters. Here, the wordplay insinuates that one partner patronized the other. In “How We Make Ourselves,” I think the “domestic” is healed through realizing one’s sense of self; through community and the recognition of one’s own strength.
The heart is something I believe in. The heart “uproots” and “replants” because it rebuilds. What I feel is in my heart and in my body and I made a decision to keep that sacred when my marriage failed. I could’ve just fallen apart, but the heart doesn’t just deflate. I think that love is defined differently for different people by different people. I’m not exactly sure how the message connects with society, but what I do know is that the speaker of that poem is satisfied with what has happened. She’s okay with the divorce. In my experience, it seemed that divorce was a taboo topic among women my age and I really felt I was alone, and ashamed. All I had was my writing. Don’t get me wrong I have the most amazing friends and family, but no one else I knew my age was divorced. At times I felt like an outcast. I wrote my way through it and I hope my book opens a door of conversation among women because divorce is not a dirty word, and I’m certainly not ashamed.
Recently, on my book tour, a woman in her early 30’s approached me and said she was going through a horrible divorce. She said that my poems really resonated with her and asked if I thought my book would help her get through it. I said that it isn’t a self-help book by any means, but all books help us. I said that writing it helped me find myself and uncover my own truths. It also gave me a sense of purpose. I think it is important for women to recognize that other women are going through similar experiences all of the time.