After watching the book trailer for Nicole Steinberg's Getting Lucky (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2013) and clicking through her Tumblr, I knew her latest collection of sonnets would mean something to me as a reader, as well as a writer. We chatted on the phone about inspiration, millennials, pop culture in poetry, and the internet ...
Dianca London Potts: What was the genesis or initial inspiration for this collection of sonnets?
Nicole Steinberg: I used to work in magazine publishing, so I'm very familiar with that environment and its language. I never worked for a fashion magazine but I did edit at a couple of entertainment magazines, so that was one part of the initial inspiration. The other source was another poet, Bruce Covey, who runs Coconut Books. I heard him read two poems a few years ago that had been inspired by People magazine’s ‘Most Beautiful People’ issue. He took the editorial copy related to all of the male celebrities and wrote one poem, then another one using editorial copy related to female celebrities. It was astounding to hear the differences in the tone and the language we use to describe the two genders. That really struck me. Lucky magazine is one of my guilty pleasures. It’s about shopping and style and it's one of the only magazines that I consistently subscribe to. I’ve always been enamored with the way Lucky writers use language in such bizarre, fascinating, and ingenious ways, to describe and sell things like hats and handbags. So I had the idea to do something similar to what Bruce did, which was to use the editorial copy of that magazine to write poems. I decided to go with the sonnet form. I started doing them and I found that I couldn’t stop. I noticed that something was happening in the poems—that I was discovering a subtext to the language that I hadn’t even really noticed when I first started. The poems revealed something powerful about the way we write for women, the way we sell to women, how we see women as consumers, and what we do to attract their collective interest.
DLP: Could you describe the process or approach you took when you began writing the poems that appear in Getting Lucky? How did you go about crafting each sonnet?
NS: I was very methodical about it. I saw it as an exercise and I approached every single poem the same way. I would take an issue of the magazine and go through it page-by-page, cover-to-cover. Then I would make a Word document that listed all of the phrases and sentences that I found most interesting in the issue. Sometimes it was just a word, maybe two or three words. Sometimes there were full sentences. I would end up with a document for each issue that was three or four pages long. Then I would print that document and try to find words or images that jumped out at me as a starting point. It's one of the things that I look back on now with amazement—like, I wonder how I managed to make it work. The only things I would insert were conjunctions or pronouns, if I was writing in first person. Sometimes I would change the tense of a verb if I had to. Otherwise, every word that I used was strictly from that document. If I wrote one sonnet, I would take what was left over from the document and work on the next sonnet. Sometimes I was able to create four poems out of a single issue. I was digging enough into the text that I ended up with four May poems or three September poems. After a while it became difficult to know which poem was which, so I decided to name them after the women who appeared in the magazine. I went through each issue again and wrote down the first names of the women who were mentioned, and then picked from that list to match the sonnets I had already written. That made me think about how we characterize certain names, either because of pop culture icons or the history of the name, or people who we know with those names in real life. So that was interesting, too, to think about first names as labels and how much they can shape our opinions.
DLP: A lot of poets and prose writers are concerned with alienating future audiences or limiting the timelessness of their work by including contemporary references or contemporary situations in their work. How did you find a balance between being timelessly universal and also being contemporary? How do you approach the use of pop culture and zeitgeist motifs in your poetry?
NS: Pop culture is such a prevalent part of our lives that not only do I not see a problem with using it in poetry, but also I feel like it almost has to happen because its something we deal with everyday. I know many poets feel that references to pop and the cultural zeitgeist are fleeting and ephemeral, and that they won’t work after a certain amount of time. I did get some feedback from writers I really respect that was along those lines. For me, pop culture is like icing. If I make a reference in one of these poems, I meant to say something else; the reference is meant to point to a bigger issue. The book is really about women and culture and how that culture treats women—the give and take between those two entities. So if there’s a reference to Angelina Jolie and people don’t remember her in 50 years, that’s okay because the larger point of the poem still stands. I’m a proponent of pop culture in writing. For one thing, it helps people connect, especially those folks who aren’t writers. Sometimes I get my biggest response at readings when I talk about celebrities or make a reference to QVC. It might seem throw away to some but for others, it’s something to latch onto.
DLP: I found your modernized use of the sonnet really exciting. You turn a classic poetic form into a hyper-contemporary narrative. Why do you think sonnets worked best for this?
NS: I started using the sonnet because I liked having a controlled form to employ—a standard for me to follow. I knew that the poem always had to be 14 lines and I couldn’t stop until I was up to 14 lines. In a way, the sonnet, the built-in rhythm of the sonnet, matched well with the source material because there's something so musical to the language we see in fashion magazines. The people who write that stuff work really hard at it. It may not seem that way sometimes but every word is carefully chosen and crafted. I felt that using the sonnet form would pay homage to that and, in a way, elevate the language. That being said, I also enjoy writing short poems, so the sonnet's line count and inherent flow works for me. I really love hearing them read out loud.
DLP: Some of the poems throughout the stanzas there is a lot of reference to mirrors, eyes, gazes, and other optically based language. You deal a lot with identity, image, and embodiment in an innovatively sincere but cognitive way, which is refreshing because a lot of times when people talk about the body and the female body it’s either totally sentimental or way too philosophical but your work manages to find harmony between the two extremes. Are those themes of the body, identity, and image specific to certain sonnets individually or is it an overall focus throughout Getting Lucky?
NS: Thank you! The book is essentially about different views of women in contemporary culture: how we tend to view them, how the media views them, how they wish to be viewed, and how they view each other. So in that sense, yes, identity and image are overarching themes of the book. On the other hand, every word from the book is from the magazine, so it would have emerged even if I hadn't been thinking about it. This is something we push on women via consumer culture: intense self-reflection and the gaze, whether it’s the industry's gaze or the male gaze, or the female gaze with regards to other females. It's always there and extremely apparent in fashion editorial so it was organic, in a way.
DLP: In the sonnets like ‘Jamie’ and ‘Alexis,’ some of the stanzas touch on how individuals are touched by their pasts. They reference the adolescent self in a way. As writers, readers, and humans in general we are shaped by our adolescence. How do you feel the experience of adolescence shapes a writer’s form, more specifically your poetics?
NS: I can't speak for other writers; adolescence comes up for some more so than others. I tend to write a lot about girlhood and womanhood. I have a new chapbook coming out in a few months called Undressing, which includes a lot of poems that I wrote in my 20s. It’s about the armor that women have to wear when they're out in the world, especially young women, and what happens when that armor comes off. A lot of the poems are shaped by experiences that I had in adolescence and young adulthood. For example, I was an obese teenager, so that is a big subject in my writing now. I’m trying to find ways to write about weight, the issues around the obese body and the human body in general, but it's difficult because its very close to me, so that’s something I’m grappling with right now. In terms of form, I write a lot of short poems. I don’t know if my adolescence has anything to do with that. I think that’s more my short attention span and my interest in pared-down, economized language. This isn't to say that long poems aren't worth writing; it’s just something that doesn’t come naturally for me.
DLP: On any given day I’m reminded of Lena Dunham and her monolithic series Girls thanks to ads everywhere and my Facebook feed. Her show and your poetics chart some of the same territory yet your poems capture an essence of what Lena’s show attempts to embody in a much more artful and meaningful way. What are your thoughts about the female millennial narrative, its evolution, and the response narratives depicting that experience have gotten from the masses, from women? What excites you about the way the women of our generation are making meaning out of the world through the lens of the 20 something / 30 something female millennial occupying a cultural space defined hyperrealism, hipsterdom, and the internet plus everything women have always had to deal with?
NS: I do watch that show. I enjoy it. I don’t see it as super high culture, which isn’t to say I don’t think that it’s good. It paints a very specific picture of what it's like to be a member of a very narrow segment of the millennial generation. In that sense, I would hope that the poems in my book try to paint a broader picture of what that generation is like. At the same time, I don’t think that the book is completely millennial driven or millennial focused. I would hope that it speaks to other generations as well but I understand that millennials would identify with it because a) it’s written by one (I made it just barely, I was born in 1982) and b) it deals with a publication that partly caters to millennials. In terms of what excites me about what's going on with female millennial culture and how it’s represented, I really appreciate hearing that younger voice and the fact that there are more opportunities for young women and those who identify as women to share their experiences—and the female millennial narrative does feel intensely personal and confessional, which is probably thanks to the Internet, yeah. But, as I said before, I don’t think that Girls is necessarily the defining product of this generation, even if critics say it is. It's just one cultural artifact and it happens to be everywhere because it's on HBO and it's about a place where everyone wants to be: a street in Bushwick where a lot of privileged people live. My book is also essentially about privilege because its source material screams of privilege, being a magazine about beauty, fashion, and shopping. I would posit that the female millennial narrative is, in a way, all about privilege—either an abundance or complete lack of it, depending on point of view, and how each scenario resonates. Lena Dunham is privileged and her show is both a product and an investigation of that privilege, so I think it has merit.
DLP: As you answered that, I am shivering in my windowless, four roommate apartment in Bushwick. Very relevant.
NS: ‘Shivering in Bushwick.’ That could be the name of your book.
DLP: ‘Shivering in Bushwick: Stories’ by Dianca London Potts. It’d be perfect.
NS: It’s a good title. I like it.
DLP: Let’s talk about the internet. You’ve been featured on online outlets like McSweeney’s and HTML Giant. How do you feel the digitized space of the internet is impacting the literary scene, specifically within your genre?
NS: It's major. I wouldn’t say that print publications are dead, because that’s definitely not true, but I tend to submit to and read web publications more often. It's easy to send them work, the turnaround is quick, and you can link others to your work. I feel like everyday I see a new online literary publication. It has a huge influence on poetry; it kind of opens doors that were previously closed, mainly due to lack of money or influence. People who are younger and younger are putting out lit magazines—like, the editors are 21 or 22 sometimes—and that’s a whole group of voices that wouldn't receive exposure if everyone were limited to print publications. And some digitized spaces have grown to become insanely popular, like McSweeney’s. I was thrilled to appear in McSweeney’s. It was one of my first major publications and it was huge for me. So, these digital literary spaces are a changing of the guard and I think that's cool.
DLP: So, how do you picture your reader? How do you imagine that person? Do you think that reader’s experience would be different if they read the sonnets in Getting Lucky silently or aloud?
NS: I wouldn’t say I have an ideal reader. I think that young women are the "target audience" because they are the ones who are exposed to this language in everyday life and I think it would be useful for them to see that language shaped and manipulated in a different way. A colleague asked me a few months ago if the book would be a good gift for her friend's teenage daughter and I said absolutely, that’s who should be reading it. It’d be nice if a younger audience found it. I would hope that men would read and enjoy the book, too. In terms of reading the poems aloud instead of silently… There is something to that. I know I definitely get a reaction when I read them aloud at events. I did a book trailer where I had my friends read various lines from the book aloud and we spliced them together into a collage, which sounded like a whole new poem. Hearing all of their voices patched together gave the language an interesting texture.
DLP: I really enjoyed the trailer a different way of thinking about not only how to promote a chapbook or even a prose story but it’s so cool because to its so relevant to the way that we consume things now, and like you said it’s another poetic piece of its own of all the voices of the people who participated.
NS: It was really fun to do that book trailer. We did it to raise money for the book and to get people excited about it. It ended up being such a cool thing on its own, even beyond the fundraising. I’m still really happy with it.
DLP: You mentioned your forthcoming chapbook, Undressing. What other projects are you’re working on right now?
NS: I have two finished chapbooks that are coming out in the next couple months. One is Undressing, to be published by dancing girl press, which I described earlier. It deals with the vulnerabilities of young women and how we treat them, so it shares some themes with Getting Lucky. I have another chapbook coming out from Furniture Press, Clever Little Gang, which I refer to in my head as my "sarcastic chapbook." Most of the poems in that collection came from my NaPoWriMo attempt last year. Some of those poems are based on questions from OKCupid profiles, so the poems have titles like "What I'm Doing With My Life" or "My Self-Summary." I’m still working in those realms of gender, culture, and interpersonal relationships but also veering off in different directions. Right now I’m writing a lot about body image and trying to incorporate it into my poems, in ways that aren’t trite or obtuse. My mother passed away about five years ago and she's been finding her way into my poems, too. I didn’t mention this earlier but part of the impetus for writing Getting Lucky was her death. I needed something to do after it happened; something to focus on that was unrelated, because the grief was too much to write through at the time. The exercise element of it gave me a way to concentrate on something that was simplistic in nature and had both flexibility and strict parameters. I wouldn’t say I’m working on any particular project right now, just writing poems with the intention of developing another full-length manuscript.
DLP: Ok, super generic: Are there any poets or prose writers that you’re really into right now or really excited about?
NS: One of my all-time favorites is Denise Duhamel and I believe this book is a direct result of her influence. I offered to send her a copy and she sent back this really complimentary note about it. I was so happy that I printed it out and put it up on the wall next to my desk at work. A prose writer I love right now is Jami Attenberg. I read and loved and anguished over The Middlesteins, because I see my own family in that book. It felt like she plucked it out of my head. Just today, I got new books in the mail from Coconut Books: Dork Swagger by Steven Karl and Hold It Down by Gina Myers, both poets who went to The New School. I’m excited to read those. Two other great books that I read in 2013 were also by New School alums: Christie Ann Reynolds, who wrote Revenge Poems (Supermachine, 2010) and Amy Lawless, who did My Dead (Octopus Books, 2013). I’m ultra-aware of New School writers because those are the people I know well. In fall 2013, I went on tour with two poets who I really admire. One was JD Scott, who put out a complex and ambitious chapbook in 2013 with Birds of Lace, called Funerals and Thrones. We called the book tour the "Lucky Funeral Tour." The other poet who joined us was Niina Pollari, who is a fantastic, funny, and cerebral writer. All of our styles felt oddly complementary. Other writers I'm excited about: Laura Cronk, Ryan Eckes, Rebecca Lindenberg, Marisa Crawford, Mark Cugini, Caroline Crew, Amy McDaniel… (laughs) I’ll stop there.
DLP: I’ve saved the cheesiest question for last. Do you have any advice for future New School MFA Alums?
NS: I would say, enjoy New York. Go out with the other writers. While I enjoyed my classes and got a lot out of the program, I would say the relationships I developed with other writers is what has had the most lasting impact on my life. Like I said, I know so many of them still. They’re part of my community. I follow them on social media, I know what they’re up to, we read each other’s work. And part of that is because every week, after class, we went to the same bar and drank for hours and ate greasy potato wedges, and that’s where those relationships took root. I would say, talk to your fellow writers and get to know them. Also, don’t be afraid to start something. New School people are so good at creating things, and by that I mean small presses, reading series, literary magazines. People there are inspired and eager to help their fellow writers, which I think is the overall influence of The New School. So I would say to forge those alliances, make those big ideas happen, and stay out late once in a while.
Nicole Steinberg is the author of Getting Lucky (Spooky Girlfriend Press, 2013) and two chapbooks forthcoming in 2014:Undressing from dancing girl press and Clever Little Gang, winner of the Furniture Press 4X4 Chapbook Award. Her other publications include Forgotten Borough: Writers Come to Terms with Queens (SUNY Press, 2011) and Birds of Tokyo (dancing girl press, 2011). She is the founder of Earshot, a New York reading series, and she lives in Philadelphia.
Dianca London Potts is a first year Fiction student in the M.F.A. program and is currently working on a collection of short stories and first person plural vignettes. Her work has appeared in APIARY Magazine and New Wave Vomit.