The PEN Ten with Leah Umansky
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Leah Umansky, a poet and teacher in Manhattan who is the author of the Mad Men-inspired Don Dreams and I Dream, and Domestic Uncertainties.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I’d like to think it was when I had my first poem published in my high school literary magazine, but it didn’t really inform my identity until long after I completed my MFA and found myself not really writing for many years. When I started to take myself seriously as a poet, I made a distinct effort to be a part of the literary community; to attend readings; to send my work out to journals and to actually make being a poet part of my waking life. Identifying as a poet gave me a new and better version of myself.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I steal all the time, most poets do, but I always give credit. I wouldn’t want to steal without attribution or consequence. Some writers I’ve stolen from are: Jeanette Winterson, Carole Maso, the Brontës, Andrew Sean Greer, T.S. Eliot, John Berryman, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I enjoy writing in my apartment surrounded by the things I love, but one of my favorite places to write, other than Poets House, here in NYC, is probably Provincetown. It’s a jewel of a place, and I’ve been lucky to take workshops there, and to have had a scholarship at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony there, where many poems in my first book were written.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
No, I’ve never been arrested.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Books, music, movies, concerts, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, annotating, and letter-writing.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
My first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties was the most daring as it is a memoir of my marriage and divorce. It was a challenge to say the least.
Some could argue that writing poems about television was daring of me. Honestly, there was no other option. I was slayed by the writing of both Game of Thrones and Mad Men, and by the connections I felt to the emotional journeys of their characters. When inspiration strikes, you don’t question it. Besides, at the end of the day, art is for the people, isn’t it?
With that said, I hope my writing continues to be daring and that writing it always challenges me.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I think the responsibility of the writer is to write their truth. I also think there is a responsibility to be a part of the literary community in any way that feels right to you.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Yes, and especially writers, because language is so powerful. As a feminist, and a poet, I think it’s incredibly important to have your voice heard, and having a voice is a platform. In terms of writing, women need to take the same kinds of actions as men in terms of their writing process. If you get rejected, send more work out that day! That’s what I do.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
This is a hard question. I’d suggest two: Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and Carolyn Forche’s poetry anthology, Against Forgetting. Both are books I use in the classroom as an English teacher, and both are so important.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Surveillance is frightening, especially now in 2014. Observation connotes something temporary, or fleeting, to me. Surveillance is invasive. Immediately, my mind goes to George Orwell’s 1984, another book I love to teach because of this exact sentiment.