BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
Leah Umansky is a force of nature--and she's not about to be stopped either. She's the author of three collections: her full length book "Domestic Uncertainties," (Blazevox, 2013), a Mad Men inspired chapbook "Don Dreams and I Dream," (Kattywompus Press, 2015) and now her dystopian-themed chapbook "Straight Away the Emptied World," out by Kattywompus Press this month.
Her work in this chapbook is challenging and powerful--often emotionally arresting and bleak--which is definitely a clear departure from her Mad Men chapbook. In some ways, it's similar to her first book, which explores the speaker's dissolved marriage (which is largely autobiographical for Umansky). In an age where social media and technology have more of a 1984-esque presence in our lives, this chapbook feels very real, and very possible.
I was thrilled to be able to speak with Leah about the work:
Why did you choose to set the narrative in a dystopian environment? How do you think this reflects the current political state, and perhaps, your personal life?
While writing these poems, I was in the middle of teaching three dystopian novels at work and i the middle of reading one for fun: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Dystopia was on the brain and over the last year or two, I found myself feeling dissatisfied with being a single woman in the 21st century. Suddenly, one or two dystopian poems found their way into a chapbook of dystopian-themed poems.
This narrative takes place in this sort of environment because I started writing poems that took place in an imagined future as a way to just explore the mechanism of hope. Sometimes, with all of the advances we’ve made in the 21st century, life still feels pretty awful, especially in ways of love and romance. Sometimes, people disappoint us. Sometimes life is disappointing.
Yes, it definitely reflects the current political state. I don’t really enjoy politics. That’s an odd thing to say, but it sort of drives me mad. I’ve also resisted calling myself a political poet for many years, until I realized that being a feminist is political. So, yes these poems are political; They derive from feminism. I often turn to writing. Reading inspired me, reading the newspaper, memoirs like Helen Macdonald’s "H is for Hawk" (where the title of the book comes from), reading poetry and of course, fiction. TV is also one of my passions. I always turn to TV, all the strong female voices in these poems that resonate with the female TV characters I love.
Who is the speaker actually speaking to? While much of the chapbook is focused within a specific environment, it does tend to also focus on love, or rather, the lack and loss of it, particularly, in the poem "Once."
The speaker is talking to anyone who will listen. She wants more. She wants change. She wants a return to goodness and truth. So much of that is often missing in today’s world. Yes, “Once,” and it’s sister poem, “Once (reprise)” do focus on the lack and loss of it. They are sad poems and I wrote them in the vein of an Ode. (I love Odes, especially all the new ones Sharon Olds has been writing recently.)
They are an Ode to an imagined past, or an imagined impression of the past. We all look back in life…. we all imagine brighter days or easier times. Fantasy helps fuel that drive to put ourselves elsewhere. “Once” is a poem fueled in magic and fantasy but also in a desire for something real, something pure, something charismatic.
What were you listening to and reading and watching while writing this?
I’m working on a Book Notes piece at the moment for Largehearted Boy on this. I am almost always listening to music when writing. Lately, I’ve been listening to the new Adele album. 25, a lot.
Punctuation & structure are clearly crucial parts of your poems — the visual aesthetic creates so much silence--you tend to simultaneously use a fair amount of periods and indentations. How do you know when to break a line, and/or how to organize lineation?
Yes, they are crucial parts of my poems. In some way, I think that the pauses and breaks infuse the poem with both a sense of urgency and a sense of wanting. Like you mentioned earlier, so many of these poems are love poems. I think every poem I write is a love poem, even if it doesn't take place in this world. Call that a cliche, but it’s true. I feel like I’m always writing the same poem just with a different story, a different narrative, or a different way.
In terms of breaking a line or indenting a line, I sort of just go with feeling. I like having space in my poems, I like having punctuated and unpunctuated silences because they add or detract from the feeling of the poem. This sort of just happens in my poems. I act on feeling. I act on emphasis. I act on how I want a poem to look. I want the poem to be alive on the page. It’s really about voice and function for me. I wish I had a better answer here, but I’m a fast typist. If Honestly, when I write, it’s almost always on the computer and it’s always instinctual. Each poem is different.
What part of you writes your poems? What are your obsessions?
This is an easy one. My heart. It’s always my heart. (What else is there?)
My obsessions: love, books, Game of Thrones, music, movies. I’ve been called a pop-culture poet before, but it’s really not about pop culture. It’s about language and it’s about the emotion. I feel for these characters and their stories. I guess my obsession is really story.
Leah Umanksy is the author of the forthcoming dystopian-themed Straight Away the Emptied World, out by Kattywompus Press in 2016, the Mad-Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream , voted one of The Top 10 Chapbooks To Read Now in 2014 by Time Out New York. (Kattywompus Press, 2014) and the full length collection, Domestic Uncertainties, (BlazeVOX, 2013).
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015), Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications) & Xenos (forthcoming 2017, Agape Editions). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her writing has appeared in Prelude, The Atlas Review, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. She has lead workshops at Brooklyn Poets.