On Poetry & Pop Culture: Lisa Marie Basile Interviews Leah Umansky
Interview by Lisa Marie Basile
Poets have always written about the world around them, so it’s no surprise that television has worked its way into poetry’s domain. I personally do not respond aesthetically or emotionally to pop-culture poetry. I might fall in love with the tone or mood of a film, but I’d never use lines or stories or characters for my own work. I am constantly engaged with the “esoteric,” which, for me, becomes sullied when the “realness” of culture filters into the work. For me, pop-culture gives too much away. It feels somewhat inorganic or borrowed, but then again, isn’t everything in some way? After reading Leah Umansky’s Game of Thrones poems in Poetry, I contemplated the intersection of poetry and pop culture and the nature of writing when the writer already “has” a built-in registry of character, emotion, tone, etc. I wanted to learn more from a poet who has done this quite a bit, so I expanded on this in our conversation, and I think the answers are interesting.
LMB: In your latest chapbook, Don Dreams & I Dream, you center the text on the illustrious Don Draper of Mad Men. His allure is that of a volatile, broken and dangerous, yet sympathetic, character, no? For starters, why did you choose to write a body of work using this specific muse?
LU: Don inspires me. He makes me remember that everyone has his or her own shit to deal with. He’s human. We’re all human. Sometimes people look so put together on the outside, but everyone struggles. Don is this sexy, sleek and successful businessman. The ideas just come to him and he lands accounts left and right. But behind all this success is strategy and beneath that strategy is intelligence, but it’s also fear. He’s afraid of failure.
Yes, he is my muse. (Have I mentioned how sexy he is?) In Don, I see a lot of truth and a lot of America. He brings me back to one of my favorite American novels, Willa Cather’s My Antonia. He’s had a rough life and very few people know about it on the show. He’s a country boy. Scratch that. He’s a poor country boy who never really had any love in his life. His mother died when he was young; his father was a real good-for-nothing, and so he seeks approval and love and nurturing. I’m grateful to have had a wonderful childhood, but I understand his need and his desire.
Yes, he’s broken and dangerous. He lies. He cheats. And he’s unfaithful to both of his wives. He wants to be a good father, but can’t. He wants to be good and it is a constant battle. He tries at work. He’s good to Peggy. He’s good to Joan. And at the end of the day, I feel I understand him. He wants love. I want to love Don. And I think that I have.
LMB: I’m fascinated with your sympathy for Don. Some people hate him: Womanizer! Liar! Glutton! I understand your compassion, though, because most of my work centers on the monsters living inside of us. I often make up characters in my work that take on these characteristics. I think we move through them. So, when people say the old adage, “write what you know,” do you think you’re achieving that on some level, albeit your many differences? Or do you think you’re exploring/fetishizing a world you perhaps don’t really understand?
LU: Actually, I am writing what I know. I’ve always been interested in advertising and sales. I never really thought about this until now, but my father has been a salesman my whole life. Actually, one of the first poems I wrote after finishing my first book, Domestic Uncertainties, is called, “Turning Over Phrases: An Ode To Joy,” which will be in my next full- length book and contains the line “I am a salesman. (my father’s daughter). / My words, a financial gesture between myself and my word-bank.”
I think that, as writers, or poets in our case, we are selling an experience. That’s what a poem is: an experience. We are making our words or ideas attractive. I mean, Don Draper is a poet. People meet him and hear his thoughts and pitches and their draws drop. He is a word-slinger.
But back to reality, even as a high school English teacher, this is the case. Obviously I don’t mean selling as in a financial transaction, but everyday I’m trying my best to attract my students’ attention and keep their interest. Every day is a performance of sorts. I want my students to love reading and writing, and I do what I can.
Additionally, my ex-husband worked in advertising. All I can say is this: it isn’t all free drinks and gallivanting around Manhattan. It’s long hours; it’s selling a product you may not believe in, and sometimes it’s getting inebriated with a client. I’ve seen all of that firsthand. Maybe that’s why I’m easy on Don.
That’s funny. I too thought I’d hate Don, before I started watching the show. That’s in one of my poems. He’s really just searching. You know, I don’t think that he believes that he deserves to be loved. In the last season of Mad Men, this teenager, Wendy, listens to Don’s heart for fun in the office one night through a stethoscope. She places it on his chest and says to him, “It’s broken.” Don is so surprised, but what’s really compelling is that the viewer sees the relief pass over his face. It’s like magic. He says something like, “You can hear that?”
Right there – that’s the crux of Don. He wants an answer. I wish I could give it to him.
LMB: Do you think it’s important to marry pop-culture and art? I have a very specific—or romanticized—relationship with poetry, and I tend to find myself believing that it ought to be concerned with the intangible, the unspoken; sometimes, I find it hard to read or connect with poetry that centers on things that are not completely of-the-self. I have heard from others that some pop-culture poetry is lazy, that it lacks some element of originality. I’d love to understand your desire to write from that intersection of craft and TV, Mad Men or not.
LU: I wouldn’t say “important,” necessarily, but it’s something I’ve started to do. I never thought in a million years I’d be this pop-culture poet. People literally came up to me at AWP 2014 and were like, “Oh yea, you write about television.” It’s true, and I love it, but I never saw it coming.
Let’s get one thing straight: I’m a romantic to the core. So is Don. Sure, he’s brash and abrasive at times, but he is a charmer. He is alluring. He’s a wordsmith, too. Watch any of the episodes where he brilliantly comes up with a campaign idea; the way he conjures up a back-story to the selling point is pure poetry.
All my life, my poems were about what people would call “real” things, but the fact that my latest poems are centered on television shows like Mad Men and Game of Thrones doesn’t make them any less “real.” What is real about my poems is the emotion and the human experience. I’m a strong believer of admitting that I am inside every poem I write.
When I started watching Mad Men, I was drawn to Don, naturally, but I was really drawn to the language, the power dynamics and the role of gender. The women are the real guts of the show. They go after what they want. They do what they want, and they prove themselves. Madison Avenue is a Man’s Playground, but Peggy and Joan are real feminists. That drew me to them. Also, they’re really smart. So I found myself slowly taking notes in bed when I caught up on episodes on Netflix. Then, those notes entered poems. So, that intersection was sort of organic and innocent. Then, I found myself wanting more.
LMB: When you say “I never thought I’d be a pop culture poet,” I wonder what that means. It sounds like this puts you on the defense. I wonder if pop culture work makes literature and poetry more accessible, less stuffy. Is that good or bad? Where do you think poetry is headed right now, today, and how would you like people to see Leah Umansky in relation to this?
LU: I like this question. Yes, I think it absolutely makes poetry more accessible, and I don’t really believe in the whole poetry with a “P.” That’s sort of another stereotype that we need to break. If my “pop-culture poems” are getting people who don’t normally read poetry to read poetry, or if they are getting people to stop being afraid of poetry, then more power to them! I’m proud of that. That really inspires me.
Even in my “pop-culture” poems, I still maintain what I enjoy about my poems: my attention to wordplay, to language, to repetition and to form. The beauty of poetry is that there is room for everyone. Everyone has their own taste, but at some point, we all need to try new foods, too.
Where is poetry heading now? I’m not sure, but it’s a good time to be a poet. Social media has been a godsend, and I am enjoying every minute of it.
I just want people to appreciate different kinds of poetry. Not everyone will like my poems. I’m okay with that. I’m not for everyone. I just keep doing what I enjoy doing and that makes me feel good.
LMB: All good points. It’s crucial, for me, that the poem is a reflection of the poet and not simply a recapping of a television show. I’m curious, though: are you concerned that your poems may lose timelessness long after Mad Men and GoT are over? Or is your poetry just a diary of the times?
LU: I’m not concerned with people losing interest in my Mad Men poems, or my Game of Thrones poems for that matter. I don’t think it matters if you know the show or the characters, because it’s really an emotional connection I’m after. Sure, they aren’t “real people,” but they represent real parts of what it means to be human. Also, they’re all-American. They make me nostalgic for a time I didn’t live through. They make me question the kind of woman I would’ve been in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The show itself has become a part of our culture because it is about our culture. America is the New World. We are the Selling. And, it’s a part of our lives in the 21st century, whether we want to admit it or not: advertising works. We are a mercantile society. I’m not saying it is a bad thing, but everyone loves a new shiny thing. “Don Discovered America. That’s not true: America made Don.”
LMB: Your last book, Domestic Uncertainties, showcased shape and structure in a way that mimicked your relationship and your self-growth. How did you set out to write this new chapbook? What is your process like?
LU: I think about shape and structure, but I don’t really think about it as I’m writing a poem. I think it’s an act of my subconscious, actually. In my first book, my form really mirrored how fractured and divided I felt. It was more about the self after my divorce. I was trying to pick up the pieces and assert myself with language.
In Don Dreams and I Dream, the voice isn’t all mine. I’ve imagined Don, and the advertising world. Maybe that’s why some of the poems have short lines. There’s a lot of authority and confidence there. Don doesn’t need to say much.
I didn’t go through a lot of revisions with these poems. I rarely do in general. I think a lot about white space when I write, but I sort of inherently know if a poem is going to be a prose poem or not. If I’m conscious of anything connected to form, it is how much space I want around a line. I go for the jugular a lot, and I like dramatics. My favorite key is probably the tab key. I move lines over a lot in my work, but ultimately I sort of just get into a groove and go with it.
That hardest part of putting together this chapbook was negotiating the size restraints of the page, as it’s physically much smaller than my first book. Because I often use both sides of the left and right margins, some of the poems took Sammy Greenspan (of Kattywompus Press) and I a long time to rearrange on the page. We worked really hard on that. Domestic Uncertainties is a large square book, and it really needed that shape to feature the poems. Don Dreams and I Dream is a little different. There are prose poems, but not nearly as many.
LMB: You talked a little bit about the women of Mad Men. Who were you in the past, in the 1950’s? How does gender impact your writing?
LU: Good question! I have an old soul, way older than the 1950’s. On Mad Men, the women are absolutely fascinating. They are pioneers. They are vixens. Moreover, they are smart as hell. They have the power.
In terms of the show, I’d say I’m more like Joan. I’m confident, I’m smart, and I’m a romantic, but I also have a real sense of who I am. So does Joan. But I also really admire Peggy, too. Peggy is such a go-getter, and she and Don have a special connection. I always want more of that. In a lot of ways, the show really focuses on feminism; I think I’ve tried to portray that in my book, too.
In relation to gender, I think gender impacts all of my writing: my interviews, my reviews, and of course, my poetry. It’s implicit in my voice.
I am a female, Jewish poet, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. Gender is always there inside my language, and I let it empower me. That’s a choice. Nothing good will come out of having it drag me down. My words are my weapons against gender. Hence, my love for Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons (Game of Thrones).
Leah Umansky is the author of the Mad Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press, 2014) and a full-length collection, Domestic Uncertainties (BlazeVOX 2013). She is the curator of the COUPLET Reading Series in NYC and writes for Tin House and Luna Luna Magazine, among others. Her poems can be seen in such places as Poetry, The Poetry Review, Barrow Street and The Brooklyn Rail. Flavorwire named her #7 of 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013.
Lisa Marie Basile edits a micropress, Patasola Press, an online magazine, Luna Luna Mag, and helps curate DIORAMA (which launches in May). She is the NY Editor for The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, an online and print literary and arts journal housed at The Johns Hopkins University, M. A. in Writing Program. Her work, interviews and features can be seen in Best American Poetry, PANK, the the poetry, The Nervous Breakdown, decomP, Thrush Poetry Journal, Poetry Crush, La Fovea, Prick of the Spindle and others. She is the author of a few chapbooks, Andalucia, triste and war/lock (forthcoming). Noctuary Press, run from University of Buffalo, will publish her full-length poetry collection, APOCRYPHAL, in the summer of 2014. She’s a communications manager for the Annual NYC Poetry Festival. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA program for creative writing. She tweets at @lisamariebasile