Friday, August 31, 2018

Book Bites: Leah Umansky, author of The Barbarous Century

I'm always excited to showcase poets, and today you're in for a real treat. Leah Umansky, author of this year's standout The Barbarous Century is here to talk about breaking down barriers with poetry, how television can be inspiring and keeping the strange in writing. Enjoy!


https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781912477050
 
"And in this book Umansky has made something wondrous indeed—something fierce, formally inventive, and unapologetic."
-Maggie Smith
 


What drew you to the genre you write in?

I’ve always loved poetry, but what draws me into poetry is the freedom. There are no rules. You can do what you want with poetry, unless you’re writing in form, but even when I write in form (which is rare) I always shake it up a bit and strange it out. The poems I love are the ones that make you feel, the ones that make you think about them, days, months later, and the ones that make you cry or laugh. What draws me into poetry is how tangible the emotions are on the page. I love that a poem can be about anything. I also love that a poem can be short or long. I also love that a poem written hundreds of years ago can still strike a chord today with readers. That’s something I really enjoy seeing, in my role as a teacher, too.


Are there any writers you’re jealous of?

Oh, there are so many writers I’m jealous of. I think it’s good to be jealous of other writers – to some degree that is – because it keeps you motivated, it keeps you engaged with your craft and of course it keeps you curious. I’m always jealous of writers that can recite their poems by heart at readings, or can recite other famous poems by memory. I’ll never be that person, though I wish I could be. I’ve only ever memorized a poem twice in my life and it was just torture. I’m also jealous of writers that write freehand. I have such a hard time with that. I need to type my poems, my fingers just type faster than my brain sometime.


Were they any parts of your collection that were edited out, but which you miss terribly?

I’m going to answer this question a bit differently. I wouldn’t say anything was edited out, but I will say that originally, the book was not in three titled sections with the middle section focusing on story and pop-culture. I think these sections shape the book nicely, and maybe that's why the book got rejected years before, because it needed that structure.
Also, there’s a long poem in the middle, “Holding,” which is a real emotional poem for me, and I almost cut that one out. It was a really hard decision. I’m glad I trusted my gut and kept it in. I’m glad I didn’t make those cuts.


In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

I think what makes a writer “successful” is subjective. For some people it could be, publishing in a certain journal, or reading for a certain organization, or teaching at a certain college. For others, it could be being in a workshop, having a book or chapbook published, or knowing other writers. For me, being a “successful” writer is being proud of the writing I do and identifying as a writer. That took a long time for me. Sure, you can look at your achievements as milestones, but I don’t think that’s really very helpful or important. I think setting goals is important and I think being inspired is important. I feel the most successful when I am happy and inspired by an idea or concept. I feel the most successful when I meet people at readings and events who have enjoyed my work, or my reading, who are not a part of the literary community. That’s when I feel proud – when a poem reaches someone who didn’t think they would enjoy poetry – whether it’s someone at a reading or even a student in one of my 8th or 10th grade classes. When a kid enjoys a poem for the first time, it is really an amazing accomplishment. It’s like when a student realizes they LIKE Shakespeare! (He isn’t so bad, right? )
I guess the short answer here, is I think a poet is successful when we break the stigma we are always fighting against.


If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing with all of your free time?

As I said earlier, I’m a teacher, so I’m always grading or planning or trying to think of new ways to teach something. If I wasn’t writing, if I wasn’t teaching, or grading, I’d probably be checking out a lot more live music. I love concerts. I’d probably going to even more readings, watching more television, traveling more, and going to more museums because those are the things that inspire me. I try to carve out free time for myself to just enjoy all that the city has to offer but sometimes, I set too many goals for myself. Sometimes, I need to sit down and binge TV because inspiration strikes when you least expect it. I say this all the time, but it’s true: never did I ever think television would inspire me to write poetry and now, I just never know when something will get me to pause and take some notes.


To learn more about Leah Umansky, visit her website and be sure to check her out on Twitter: @lady_bronte

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