A Conversation with Dreamer-Teacher-Poet Leah Umansky
Sarah Marcus: While you were on your book tour for Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press, 2014), I had the pleasure of reading with you in Atlanta, GA where you began telling me about the COUPLET Reading Series in NYC that you host and curate. Please tell us how and why this series came to be and how you view its role and importance within the NYC (and greater) literary community.
Leah Umansky: Yes, and we had such a good time together! Thanks for asking about COUPLET. I’m really proud of it. It’s one of those things that I never saw myself doing. I’m not truly an extrovert. I can be shy and quiet, but this was something that I became passionate about. Poets in NYC are a dime a dozen. I hate to say that, but it’s true. Well, the same goes for reading series – there are a ton. We’re entering our 4th year in September, and I’m pretty excited about that, but it started because way back in probably 2008 or 2009, I had a really difficult time joining a reading of any kind. I thought my MFA in poetry, from Sarah Lawrence College, would’ve helped, but it didn’t. It did nothing. I had some journal publications under my belt, but not yet a full-length collection. I literally had curators of other series tell me that without a book, they couldn’t let me read. I was sort of humiliated and disgusted at the same time. I thought, well how can an emerging writer, without a book get him or herself out there if they aren’t given a place to start? That’s how COUPLET started – originally, as a reading series for both new poets, emerging poets, and established poets. We’ve had some really great readers over the years, (a wide spectrum), and I actually keep a spreadsheet with an active list of poets in waiting who have inquired about reading for COUPLET.
With that said, I knew it needed an edge, and around the same time, I befriended a Carlos Rey Sebastian on Facebook (DJ Ceremony) who specializes in some of my favorite music (britpop, new wave, glam rock), and we started to collaborate. We feature 4-5 readers and between readers and after our reading, DJ Ceremony plays a set. It’s a coupling of two of my passions: poetry and music.
SM: Your new Men Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream, has received a lot of awesome press recently. You also write about the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, and you are finishing up your third book this summer. How do you think your writing has evolved or changed over the course of these projects? What messages do you hope your reader walks away with?
LU: I am my own publicist, so thanks for saying that! I’m really proud of how well Don Dreams and I Dream has been received, as well as those Game of Thrones that were published in Poetry Magazine. It’s been surprising, to say the least, especially with the way social media has played a part.
Yes, I’m currently putting together my third book, which will be a full-length collection of poetry. Some of the Mad Men poems and GoT poems will be in there, but moreover, it’s a collection that focuses on gender, society, storytelling and power.
I think we are always evolving as writers, especially as poets. I remember when I finished writing my first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties, and wrote my way through my divorce, it felt like I was done. What else would I write about? I felt like that was it for me. Then, little by little, as I started to play around with social media and found myself writing about society, online dating, really just our life in the 21st century. Then, Game of Thrones came into my life.
I resisted at first. I thought it was too violent for me, but I was drawn to Ned Stark and, in time, Khaleesi. Ned embodied the ideals of manhood to me – of what a good man is. I started writing about gender, and while I caught up with GoT on HBO, I found myself pausing and taking notes. Language is a big part of my writing, and as a poet, I’m sort of obsessed with wordplay, with making up words and with the way words make up images.
Over the years, I’ve become more focused on honing in on my language. I’m a big annotator of books I teach, and books I read for fun. Gorgeous sentences always grab me. I’ve taken notice of some of the greats, like poets T.S Eliot and John Berryman, poets that I never really studied in school because I was so drawn to the confessional poets I fell in love with. What they do with compound words, and strong verbs is really something. I think that’s what is so compelling about television in 2014 – there are a lot of writers behind the scenes. I remember when I read in The Paris Review that Matthew Weiner was a poet in high school and college, it just made sense to me. It’s why Don Draper is so compelling to me. He’s got such great language, and like my obsession with the Starks in Game of Thrones, I see the good inside him. He’s trying. He has a lot to give.
SM: You are a staff writer for Luna Luna Magazine, and you also write for Tin House. As a feminist, what role do you see these publications having on the current literary landscape? How do you think inclusivity factors into (or doesn't factor into) this equation?
LU: I think we talked about being Feminists in Atlanta, didn’t we? As a feminist, a label I’m happy to have, I think both of these publications are doing great things in the lit world, especially with poetry.
As a writer for Luna Luna, I’m happy to say that I write mostly about “the writing life.” It’s been a rewarding experience, thanks to social media, to receive feedback from other poets and writers in response to essays I’ve written about rejection, about submitting poems and manuscripts, and about being your own advocate. I think it’s important as a female poet to create community. Too often, in the past year or so, have I read that Editors of certain journals say that “they want to publish more women, but women don’t submit to their journals,” or that they’ve noticed that, “men are more likely to re-submit after a rejection, but women are not.” I find that just appalling. I’m not afraid. Re-submit! Just do it.
In terms of Tin House, I’ve been very lucky to have a great editor (Lance Cleland) who supports my writing and the choices I’ve made. I typically focus on the new work of female poets I admire and am grateful that Tin House has given me a platform where I can expose new poetry to the masses. I’m presently working on an interview with Matthea Harvey in support of her upcoming book, out this year by Graywolf Press: If The Tabloids Are True What Are You?
SM: How does being a middle school/high school teacher and being a poet inform your writing life?
LU: I love that I have both of these dynamic roles in my life. I love being a teacher. It’s one of the hardest jobs in the world, but also a very rewarding one. I’m lucky that my passion relates to my career. I had a 10th grade student once joke around that my “real life” was being a poet, and I laughed and said that he wasn’t really right. I sort of just balance it out.
I’ve had parts of class discussion enter my mind when I sit down to write a poem. I’ve had poems that are influenced by texts like Animal Farm and A Doll’s House.
Being a poet informs my job as an English teacher, and as a faculty adviser for the school literary magazine. It also gives me access to such wonderful material that I use to supplement novels and memoirs that I teach. Being both a poet and teacher in Manhattan gives me access to one of my favorite field trips, The Dodge Poetry Festival.
The hardest part of being a poet in 2014, and a teacher, is the internet, but I also think it’s a beautiful thing – that accessibility. I’m proud of my work.
Leah Umansky is a poet, collagist and teacher in New York City. She is the author of the Mad-Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press, 2014) and the full-length collection Domestic Uncertainties (BlazeVOX, 2013). She is the curator and host of the COUPLET Reading Series in NYC and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in such places as Poetry Magazine, Thrush Poetry Journal, Coconut Poetry, and The Brooklyn Rail. Her #GoT themed poems have been translated into Norwegian by Beijing Trondheim. More at: http://leahumansky.com.