Leah Umansky, poet, writer and curator / host of COUPLET: a poetry and music series (and regular in Patricia Carlin's poetry workshop in The New School's Continuing Education Program) shows us all there is in love and unlove, that Don Draper makes a compelling muse, that we are our own heroines (or heroes, as the case may be), and that we should really, really care about poetry.
Leslie Fierro: Author Matt Hart refers to your first book, Domestic Uncertainties, and the "unlove" letters contained therein, as being "in search of a wild 'new bravery,' renewing our vows to romance and commitment, while wondering aloud if romance and commitment are even still possible/desirable." Well…are they?
Leah Umansky: Yes, of course they still are. Romance and commitment are very possible and very desirable (at least, I believe they are). The best part of being a poet and getting divorced is that writing the book was part of my healing process. The worst part of being a poet and getting divorced is that writing the book was part of my healing process. There is a great irony there. I think we all need to renew our vows to romance and commitment, but also renew our vows to ourselves. I hope that's visible in my book.
LF: What is the "new bravery" your "unlove" letters are seeking?
LU: The "new bravery" is the life I was given as a result of the divorce, and thereby, as a result of writing the book. It was brave; it was haunting and it was painful to write this book. Yes, there is "unlove" and "unloving," but in that unloving is love. That love is what I carry forward with in my life and hope for. I'm grateful that I didn't lose either in the process of writing and in the process of my divorce. I am very much a romantic, like I always was, except I know more about myself now. Almost everything I do in my life is out of some extension of love—especially writing.
LF: Speaking of romantic oscillations on the subject of commitment, and domestic uncertainties in general, you've got a Mad Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream, due out in January/February 2014 from Kattywompus Press. How did Mad Men and Don, in particular, first inspire poetry?
LU: Oh, this is a good question and really the first time I'm discussing the chapbook. What I love about Don is that he's multifaceted. He's one thing on the outside and one thing on the inside. I was late to the Mad Men craze. It was funny, actually. I really love advertising. I've always been interested in advertising and when the show came out, I didn't have cable and a friend actually told me on Twitter, Leah, just watch it. You'll love it. So, I got season 1 on Netflix.
I was scared I'd hate the show. I thought Don seemed like a real misogynist. I thought I'd watch the show and hate it, but it was quite the opposite. He loves women, and I don't just mean in a sexual way. He sees himself in Peggy. I love their dynamic and there's a poem in the chapbook about that ("The Times"). As I started to watch the show, I fell in love with Don. I loved his intelligence and his power, but I also loved his past. I recognized his wounds. He's hurt. He's tarnished. We all are in some way. After the first episode I started jotting down notes. Then when I'd sit down at my laptop to write, I'd take out my notebook and let my notes inspire me. Little by little, I had one, two, three poems about advertising or society or gender, and before I knew it, those three poems turned into about fifteen poems.
LF: What do Don's dreams tell you about you?
LU: I think Don's dreams tell me a lot about myself. The title poem of the chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream, is a dream-dialogue between Don and the speaker. Don says:
"I dreamt I was an angel. When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with/him. I bring golden cornhusks, green apples and dung."
Don's a farm boy from the country. He had a bad family life. His mother was a prostitute, and his father was really rough. He doesn't talk about it much on the show, but you see it, behind his eyes. He wants to be loved. So you have this uber-successful ad man who walks into a room and knows he also brings the country of his past—the beauty, the harvest and the manure.
So, Don dreamt he was an angel. It's sweet. I've dreamt about motherhood. [So what?] Now, it feels all downtrodden. I wish I knew the crested. I wish I knew what made the light twitch; what brings the light to the moon so I can carry it inside, and know there is glory in the in-between.
The speaker is talking to Don but also talking to herself, in a way. She's trying to hold on to it all.
LF: The title poem touches on the subject of gender, what a man carries vs. what a woman carries (or in this case, does not). The speaker dreams of motherhood, but how does Don make you think about your own womanhood, or womanhood in general?
LU: When I think about Don, I remember that as a woman, I have to strive so hard to be successful, to be taken seriously and to be seen as more than just a woman. I realized that all women bring our past into our futures, whether we want to address it or not. I'm not saying it haunts our future by any means, I'm merely suggesting it's a layer of our complexity in the world. I hate that, but I also love that.
LF: Looking back to the first line you quoted from the poem, if you had to narrow your past down to three representative objects, what would you bring into a room with you?
LU: I should've seen this one coming. I bring The Beatles Rubber Soul LP, a London A-Z guide, and my copy of Wuthering Heights.
LF: Your blog is called "I Am My Own Heroine," and you host COUPLET: a poetry and music series at The Delancey (which just celebrated its 2nd anniversary! Congrats!). Is it weird (or totally obvious) for me to make the jump from your blog name to the concept of the heroic couplet? Is this actually an intended connection, and, regardless of that answer, what does each concept--"the heroine" and "the couplet" mean to you?
LU: You know, I never even put the two together. That's genius. No, it is not an intended connection. My blog, I Am My Own Heroine, started as a blog about advertising, ironically. My ex-husband worked in advertising, and every so often I'd just be in awe of some of those commercials and ad campaigns. We were really into the NBC show, Heroes, and they literally had ads in the show for this "new car," the Nissan Versa. My ex said I should start a blog because I had a lot to say about advertising. The idea had never occurred to me. I made a WordPress blog and wrote one or two posts. I didn't tell anyone and sort of forgot about it. Once we separated, I really threw myself into my writing and figured out how to rename the blog and make it a poetry site. As I moved forward from the divorce and was sort of grasping at straws to keep my head up, I realized I could be my own heroine. I could be the one who makes it out on top. The title comes from literature, and really, the Bronte sisters (my favorites).
COUPLET, which I curate and host, alongside Carlos Rey Sebastian (DJ Ceremony) was about coupling my two passions: poetry and music. I'm a big concert-junkie and, well, you know New York City. Reading series are a dime a dozen. I wanted ours to be different. Carlos does these wonderful little DJ sets between readers, at break, and for the after-party.
LF: When do you first remember responding to poetry, emotionally or intellectually?
LU: Poetry is one of the few things I remember my parents reading to me as a child, and it wasn't until I was a sophomore in high school that I started really enjoying poetry. It started with Canterbury Tales, and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, and then I was all about the Confessional Poets. In college, at SUNY Binghamton, I was introduced to Marie Howe's What the Living Do, and I knew I had to study with her at Sarah Lawrence College (where I did my MFA). Marie said once "All the poetry in the world is for you," and I loved that. She's right. Poetry is a gift. When Maria Mazziotti Gillan took over the Writing Department, I was blown away by her generosity as a professor, but also by the immediacy of her poems. When you read a Maria poem, you get it. She showed me how accessible poetry can be, and is someone who will always be a mentor to me. When something in a poem resonates with you it is a beautiful thing.
LF: What made you come to The New School to develop your poetry further?
LU: Over the last six or seven years, poetry saved me. It kept me from falling apart when my marriage failed. Writing it, reading it and listening to it really gave me a sense of self again.
In time, I forced myself out of my apartment. I started going to a lot more readings, and discovered a lot of new poets and, as a result, a lot of new journals and websites. I started identifying myself as a poet, as a feminist and as someone with a purpose. Then I realized how much I missed being in a workshop, so I emailed Robert Polito at The New School. He suggested I apply for Patricia Carlin's class, and the rest is history.
I've taken her class for the last five years or so. I workshopped almost every one of the poems in Domestic Uncertainties in that class. She helped me believe in poetry again and helped me believe in my own talents. Her class has become a sort of second-family for me. A lot of the students and alums that I've met over the years at The New School have become true friends in my life. It's something I never had in my early twenties, as an MFA student, because I didn't hang around on campus. I was living with my parents on Long Island and working three days a week in Manhattan in publishing. I barely made friends, but I was happy to study with poets I admired.
With Patricia's workshop came my introduction to The Best American Poetry blog, The Best American Poetry anthologies (which I love), and soon, I found myself live-tweeting for their twitter handle. My love for poetry slowly but steadily grew to encompass social media (something I never thought I'd do) and I'm thankful because I love it. I love the spreading of ideas and thoughts across the big wide Internet. It's fun. It's exciting and it makes me feel good. So does poetry.
LH: Flavorwire named you #7 of 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013. Can you guess my question? So, uh...why should I care about poetry in 2013?
LU: Because you should! Poetry is important because it is a universal language and it is easy to digest. One poem can open so many doors into other poetry. Everything is some version of life, and some version of story, and with poetry you can take it in bit by bit. You should care about poetry because it breaks barriers. Because there are so many great poets who are writing now; who are inventing new dialogues in poetry and who are working with language and image in such unique ways. Part of my creating my blog and creating my reading series was about bridging the gap between writers and non-writers. It was also about bridging the gap between emerging writers, newbie writers and established writers. I wanted to make a level playing field. We all have to start somewhere and I'm proud that COUPLET doesn't discriminate.
One of my greatest pleasures is when people read my book and say, "you know, I don't really like poetry, but I really liked this."
You should care about poetry because there's more to it than what meets the eye. Lay down your guard and see.
Leah Umansky's first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties, is out now by BlazeVOX. Her chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream, is forthcoming from Kattywompus Press in 2014. 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. She also hosts and curates the COUPLET Reading Series. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Thrush Poetry Journal and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. Read more at: http://iammyownheroine.com
Guest post by Leslie Fierro, who writing has appeared in Volume, Performer, Tom Tom Magazine, Under The Radar, The Brooklyn Rail and SF Book Review. She is currently working on her zine-to-novel novel at The New School.