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interview with the poet, leah umansky

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© Leah Umansky

Each year at the Artist Round Table, we invite others to join us for a conversation about art and photography. Last October in New York we were delighted to have poet, Leah Umansky, spend time with us. Leah’s enthusiasm is infectious and her intense commitment to her work, and in fact to anything she tackles, is an inspiration to keep going no matter what. Recently Leah published another chapbook of poems, the dystopian-themed Straight Away the Emptied World which is available through her website here. I hope you enjoy this interview with Leah.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a poet, a writer, a middle-school/high-school English teacher, the curator of the COUPLET Reading Series and an artist in  New York City. I’m a writing mentor for the Visible Ink program at Memorial Sloan Kettering. I’m a New Yorker. I’m an anglophile. I’m obsessed with Game of Thrones.

What books did you have in your home growing up? How did they influence your writing and poetry?
I wouldn’t really say I grew up around books. It’s truly one of the great ironies of my life. I used to buy books and have my mom buy me books, but I never really read any of them. Poetry I always liked. I had a big anthology of nursery rhyme-type poems that I used to love as a small child.

The first books that really got me reading were mystery novels by R.L Stine and Christopher Pike, then I got into V.C Andrews, and then eventually, Anne Rice. I LOVED the vampire series. The first books that truly got me thinking of writing were Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Once and Future King. I read all of those at 16. My 10th grade teacher changed my life. Other than my obsession with The Beatles, his 10th grade British Lit curriculum made me an anglophile. I fell in love with Beowulf, the Canterbury Tales, and Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Is Leah the poet, the same person as Leah the teacher?
Honestly, yes. I’ve had this discussion with other teachers. This isn’t true for everyone. Some people are completely different when they are teaching. I’m not. I’m myself in the classroom. I think it’s part of why I’m a good teacher. I don’t put on a front. I don’t lie. I laugh when something is funny. I’ve cried when we’ve read something sad. Who I am in the classroom is the same, down to earth, creative, and kind person I am as Leah the poet. I probably have more patience as Leah the teacher, but that’s about it. Patience is important.

What is your process of writing?
This is always a hard question to answer. I need some sort of inspiration. Usually, it’s a book, a movie, a tv show, an article or a note I’ve made on my phone. I want to say I always write with language in mind, but that’s not always true. When I sit down to write, I usually just write. I don’t edit. I write a few poems in one sitting. Then I go back and edit, or I’ll edit a few days later. I’m not one of those people who spends months editing a poem. If it’s not working, I rarely go back to it.

I’ve heard you describe yourself as an experimental poet. How does this fit with the notion that you write what you know?
Yes, I do believe I’m mostly an experimental poet. I just think I’d rather label myself as a writer than have someone else label me. To me, being an experimental poet means what it sounds like: I experiment with space, with word-play and with sound. I don’t know that it really ties into writing about “what you know,” but I think I usually do write from that angle. Language moves me into different poetic spaces.

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© Leah Umansky

I’ve also heard you described as a pop-culture poet although I think of you as a bit of an autobiographical poet. Can you tell us about your journey as a poet from your first book Domestic Uncertainties to Don Dreams And I Dream and now your latest book Straight Away The Emptied World?
I would say autobiographical as well, Sabrina. I always say that I’m inside all of my poems, even my pop-culture poems. I’m sure there’s a short answer to this question, but I’d say that as with any art form, there always has to be a journey, right? We should always be growing and moving within our art. Domestic Uncertainties is my first full-length manuscript. It’s a memoir of sorts about my marriage and my divorce told through poetry. I was writing my way through that chaos. I really believe that that book made me both the poet and the woman I am today. I wrote my way through a very difficult time in my life. I also feel that I found my voice and with that came a sense of confidence and trust in myself as a Poet. Again, this goes back to labeling. I needed to believe in myself in terms of identifying as a Poet, and the writing of that first book helped me to solidify that.

With the Mad Men inspired Don Dreams and I Dreams I found myself writing poems inspired by T.V. Writing poems inspired by television wasn’t new to me, as I had already written some poems inspired by Game of Thrones, but writing about something that wasn’t just about me, was new. When I finished my first book, I remember thinking well, that’s done. What the hell am I going to write about now? And then I started writing poems about the 21st century, poems about the internet, about social media, and soon after that I became engrossed in Mad Men. Again, this chapbook of poems has the backdrop of the television show, the advertising world, and the phenomenal characters of Don, Peggy, Roger and Joan, but at the center of these poems is gender, struggle and heart. We all feel for these characters. We can relate to their difficulties. Sometimes it’s hard to be good; sometimes it’s hard to be a good person.

Now, with the new chap, Straight Away the Emptied World, I entered the dystopian realm. This book is a hybrid of feminism and fantasy. It’s a book that imagines a better future for all of us, but especially for women. It has a lot of hope, but also a lot of despair. Again, these poems were heavily inspired by the 3 dystopian books I teach in middle and high school English, and by a current dystopian novel, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That novel is a book of hope and wonder at the end of the world. My book is a bit of that search for wonder, the hope that it is possible, and the hunt for love and romance.

When I read your poems, I get a real sense of your love of words. Not just because of their significance in meaning but also in the way they are laid out on the page. It’s as if their visual form is just as important as their auditory elements and their language value. Is this intentional on your part and is it something that comes very naturally to you?
Thanks Sabrina. I do love words. I think this comes to me naturally. When I lay words out a certain way, I’m not really that conscious of it. My fingers move much faster on a keyboard than my brain does.  Again, I rarely fuss with spacing after a poem. I love playing with words and phrases. It takes me somewhere I might not normally go to in a poem.

I am a strong advocate of having a mentor and being a part of a community. Have you had mentors and what influence have they had on your career? Where do you find community?
I am, too!  I think having a mentor is incredibly important and I think having a community is just as important. For me, community is something I truly value. It’s part of why I started my reading series in NYC. I didn’t want emerging poets to be left in the dark, which is how I felt, trying to arrange readings without a first book of poems. It’s important to meet other writers, to share your work with a reader or two., and to go to readings or panels. All of those things truly inspire me. I’m a big note-taker at events, it’s the dork in me, and often those notes find their way into poems.

I was very fortunate to join a workshop at the New School with Poet Patricia Carlin, back at the edge of my divorce. That workshop has become like a family to me. That sense of community is important to me. I love my workshop. I love the feedback and the trust involved there.

I’m also lucky because I have a lot of mentors in my life and they are from different stages in my career as a poet. I have writers/professors from my undergraduate days at SUNY Binghamton, and writers/professors from my MFA at Sarah Lawrence College and then I have writers I have befriended over the years, whose advice is truly precious to me. They have helped me edit poems, find journals to submit to, apply to residencies and fellowships, and more than anything have supported me.

When we met you at the Artist Round Table (ART) at SPACE on Ryder Farm, we sat around the bonfire while you did a poetry reading from Don Dreams and I Dream. It is one of my best memories from our time there. How important is it to a poet—to you—to connect directly with their audience in this way?
I wish we could go back in time! Wasn’t it just magical? I very much enjoyed being there. I love connecting to the audience. I think it’s why I love reading so much. The audience is always different, right, so your reading is always a bit different. Again, I’m very much myself when I read, so I love engaging with others. It motivates me and inspires me.

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© Leah Umansky

You also shared your collages with us at ART and your book covers use your collage art. Is there any relationship between these two forms of expression for you?
I really love collages and I’ve greatly enjoyed making all of my book covers. I’m very fortunate to have been able to do so. There’s definitely a connection in terms of spacing and alignment. I really only collage once a year around the holidays, when I send holiday cards or when I’m working on a new manuscript. For me, it’s all about the fragment.

My favourite poem in your new book Straight Away The Emptied World is “Once”. I would love to hear what inspired it.
Thanks Sabrina. Once was inspired by the notion of “once upon a time,” but also it’s inspired by folklore and fantasy. It’s also GoT inspired in the sense that we all romanticize the past, right? To me, GoT is sometimes a glorified fantasy version of what the past might’ve been like, but it’s also some sort of fantastic version of the future, where we may revisit life in the past. I’m always pining and am always nostalgic for lives I’ve never lived. It’s the romantic in me. I’ve been that way ever since I was a teenager.

Do you have a favourite poem?
My favorite poem in the new book is  “The Love Orphans.” I love that poem. It was probably the hardest one to write. I got very emotional. That’s usually how I know a poem is working.

At ART you spoke about how you handle rejection. How each time a submission you’ve made is rejected, you send out a poem to another publication. What advice would you give photographers on being persistent as an own advocate for their work?
Yes. I’m a pro at rejection now. I’d say stay organized – create a spreadsheet. I have a giant one that I’ve used for years. I keep adding to it. I see it as a sort of game. It’s exciting when I send a submission to a journal and realize just how many times I’ve sent them work because you just NEVER KNOW when someone will say YES! I think you should always be a persistent advocate of your own work, you should take risks and you should try new things, but most importantly is trust. You need to trust yourself and trust in yourself and know your art is good enough. I know I’m not inventing the wheel here with this advice, but I believe it.

What’s next for Leah Umansky?
I wish I knew, but that’s the fun in life right, the not-knowing. Right now, I’ve been revising my 3rd book, my second full-length mms, currently titled, The Barbarous Century, which is currently looking for a home. I’ve been writing some new poems, too, but not really sure what lies ahead. I’m trying to enjoy that mystery. Now that it is summer break from teaching, I just want to write and read and sunbathe. Hopefully, that will bring me on a new journey…….

It hasn’t been officially announced yet but Leah will be doing a mini book tour in New Mexico in July. Please check out her Events Page for more details. You can also find Leah on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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