SUZE BIENAIMEE: Leah Umansky! We met at Poets’ Walk in Central Park, New York City and strolled under the lush green, majestic, extremely rare American elm trees arching overhead and I asked Leah my favorite StudioSeeds question: Leah, what inspires you?
LEAH UMANSKY: So many things inspire me like reading, movies, television, and pop culture, but ultimately it’s language and words. Even in regards to the TV Shows I love (Mad-Men, Westworld, Mr. Robot, The Crown, Game of Thrones), it’s really just the words and story of those characters. Their stories relate to our own stories. Also, being a middle and high school English teacher influences my writing, as well, but I rarely write poems about teaching. I’m not quite sure why! I also enjoy going to museums and readings, and when I do, I always take notes either by writing in a notebook or dictating into my smartphone (into a free app called WunderList that I love).
When I write, I almost always write on my laptop. I wish I was able to write poems in a notebook but it never works for me. I think I’m just faster at typing and it just comes easier to me at a computer. I often look at my notes for inspiration, on my phone or in one of my many notebooks and journals, to see where that takes me.
Inspiration can come from anything: a comment of a character on television, something I
Like I said, I’m a big annotator — a big dork in that way. So, when I was reading H is for Hawk, the phrase, “straight away the emptied world” jumped out at me. I wrote it down in my notebook. When writing my last book, I struggled with a title, until I came across that phrase in my notebook. I remember looking through my notes and said hmmm, “straight away the emptied world” is sounds just perfect for this book, and very dystopian.
Even with my Mad-Men inspired poems (Don Dreams and I Dream) and my Game of Thrones inspired poems (The Barbarous Century, forthcoming in 2018), those poems came from pausing the “HBO On-Demand” button. When I realized I was stopping and taking notes, I was sort of shocked. I had never written poems about television before. I thought to myself: wait, why am I taking notes?
When I sat down to write for the week, I looked at my notebook and saw this note: “in my next life, I want to be an ad man” and that was the title of the first poem I wrote for my Mad-Men chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream.
Inspiration struck in very much the same way with my Game of Thrones inspired poems (The Barbarous Century, 2018). The first note I made was because I was so impressed with Ned Stark. I felt he was such a good and strong man. I longed for that sort of decency. My note was, “I want to be Stark-like” and that inspired my first Game of Thrones poem.
The thing about inspiration is that it has to strike me. It’s not like I can say, okay, today I’m going to write a poem about this or that. I never really know what I’m going to write about.
I read a lot, too, and it often shakes up my language. When I read the weekend New York Times, I underline phrases and words, which often find their way into my writing. This helps me so I don’t use the same words I might gravitate to naturally.
In terms of my writing process, sometimes, I’ll sit down to write one poem which will lead to my being inspired and writing three or four poems. Often, if I’m lucky, one or two are strong. Sometimes, none at all are strong, but I might save a line…
In an odd way, I also find rejections inspiring. I’ve made one major goal for myself as a writer. I don’t beat myself up if I don’t write every week, or if I don’t submit every week, but I do send new poems out the same day I receive a rejection. I try to treat it like a game. Often, if the guidelines don’t state otherwise, I’ll send a new batch of poems to the same journal that rejected me and to a different journal. I think more writers need to do this, especially women. Why not? What is there to lose? I find that treating submissions like a game relieves some of the stress of being a writer. It’s a lot of hard work.
You know, what’s funny about pop culture and social media is that some of my Game of Thrones poems, for example, were really popular when they were first published in Poetry Magazine. There are people I’ve become friends with on social media who have tweeted to me: “watch this show, you will get really good poems out of it,” but that’s not the way it works for me. For example, I love the show, Mr. Robot, but I can’t manage a single decent poem from any of the notes I’ve taken. With HBO’s Westworld, on the otherhand, I’ve had the opposite experience. I’ve written around six Westworld inspired poems so far, and some of them will be published this summer (2017).
I had a poem, This is to Calm You When You Arrive, published in the September 2016 of Slice Literary Magazine. The poem was inspired by a couple of different things, one being the 30/30 writing prompt of National Poetry Month, and by my friend and poet, Kaveh Akbar who solicited submissions for an upcoming issue of Pleiades which will feature Franz Wright inspired poems. I wanted to submit a few, so I gave myself an assignment to read more of Wright’s work and see if inspiration would strike. I ended up writing three or four Wright inspired poems. I’m glad to say that some of those poems have been accepted for publication in journals and/or anthologies this year.
So, the following poem, This is to Calm You When You Arrive, in Slice Literary Magazine came out of that assignment I mentioned, but it was also inspired by a tarot card reading. One of the things the reader said to me in the reading is in the poem.
SUZE BIENAIMEE: Thank you Leah! Words! Yes, they are powerful! I also love that you treat publication rejections in a positive way. Thank you for sharing your inspiration with StudioSeeds readers!
Please connect with Leah Umansky in the COMMENTS section of this post.
The Barbarous Century is forthcoming in 2018 from Eyewear Publishing, UK, a new full-length poetry collection
Straight Away the Emptied World (Kattywompus Press, 2016), a dystopian-themed poetry collection
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), a Mad-Men inspired chapbook
Domestic Uncertainties, (BlazeVOX, 2012), full-length poetry collection
Leah Umansky is a graduate of the MFA Program in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and a graduate of the MA in English Education – Secondary Education from CUNY- Hunter College. Leah earned her undergraduate degree from SUNY Binghamton in English/Creative Writing, where she graduated with honors.
Translations: Game of Thrones (#GoT) poems have been translated into Norwegian by Beijing Trodheim
Collage-artist: Designed her book covers for Domestic Uncertainties, Don Dreams and I Dream, Straight Away the Emptied World
Anthologies: Read Woman: An Anthology (Locked Horn Press, 2014), The American Voice in Poetry (Poetry Center Passaic County Community College, 2010), Golden Shovel Anthology, (Amazon, 2017)
Journals: Barrow Street, Coconut Magazine, Cream City Review, Forklift, Ohio, Harpur Palate, Lips, Magma Poetry, Paterson Literary Review, Ping Pong, Poetry Magazine, Posit, PSA Poetry Review, Slice Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, THRUSH Poetry Journal, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Poetry Review, Pleiades, Coconut Magazine, Cream City , Harpur Palate and LIPs, The Journal, Queen Mob’s Teahouse
Time Out New York: Don Dreams and I Dream, voted one of The Top 10 Chapbooks To Read Now, in 2014 by Time Out New York
The New York Times Poetry Pairing | ‘Khaleesi Says’ Poem by Leah Umansky, article by Shannon Doyne
USA Today’s Pop Candy, Countdown to ‘Mad-Men’. Read a Don Draper-inspired Poem, The Times, by Leah Umansky. Article by Whitney Matheson
The PEN Ten with Leah Umansky is PEN America’s weekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand
Flavorwire named Leah Umansky one of the People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry by Jason Diamond
Coldfront Magazine On Poetry & Pop Culture: Lisa Marie Basile Interviews Leah Umansky
Huffington Post Deconstructing the Poetry Goddess by Jill Di Donato. Leah Umansky writes:
My favorite women writers are confessional poets. Of course, there are other kinds. I know tons of poets who do not write about themselves in any shape or form. My first book, Domestic Uncertainties, is a memoir of my marriage and divorce told through poetry. In my Mad-Men and Game of Thrones poems, I’m writing about gender and power through the lens of pop culture. Khaleesi and Peggy or Ned Stark and Don Draper take over. But I’m still in there. The poet’s always there.
— Leah Umansky
PRIZES & SCHOLARSHIPS
Honorable Mention for the 2012 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize sponsored by the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College
Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown, Massachusetts studying with Christopher Ricks. She was the recipient of a week-long scholarship, 2010.
Books: Wuthering Heights; The Passion; Mysteries of Pittsburgh; Written on the Body; Station Eleven; The Woman Upstairs; English Patient; Tiny Beautiful Things; All the Light We Cannot See; A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Authors: Emily Bronte; Jeanette Winterson; Carole Maso; Anne Carson, Marie Howe, Andrew Sean Greer, Eimear McBride
Website: LeahUmansky.com for more poems and information
Twitter: @BestAmPo Best American Poetry Blog – live tweets a few times a year
. . .Leah Umansky: Poet, Creator of COUPLET_Series, SuperFan Game of Thrones StudioSeeds Inspire By Suze Bienaimee