Saturday, November 21, 2009

You Said, Did You Say Something:
An Interview with Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein is the author of the chapbooks How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance (Dancing Girl Press) and Least Inhabited Island II (h-ngm-n Combatives). In 2008, she won an Amy Award from Poets & Writers, and was nominated for Best of the Web, Best of the Net, and a Puschart. She lives in Brooklyn, where she teaches drama to public schoolchildren.

GL: One of my favorite Leigh Stein poems is “You’re Mispronouncing My Name Again,” which appears in your chapbook How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance and was originally published here. The speaker begins the poem by recalling how she used to work as an astronaut in a department store window display—nice work if you can get it. She says, “I took that astronaut job so I / could miss you from the cosmos beyond the glass” though she’s ultimately subjected to more than just self-selected romantic torments. For example, no one can quite hear her or understand her through her helmet, which people recklessly ask her to take off several times by the end of the poem—doing so, it seems, would be symbolically but nonetheless mortally dangerous. In the end, the speaker is so trapped that the reader can scarcely tell whether she, her beloved, time, or the world is at the root of her captivity. Could you tell me a little bit about this impulse in your work, how your speakers, that is, often seem to court captivity and then later wonder if it’s possible to get out of such predicaments? And how do we (or your speakers, at least) derive meaning from captivity?

LS: I'm glad you like it. “Self-selected romantic torments” sums up most of my life.

The poem was inspired by the Macy's takeover of Marshall Fields, an iconic department store in Chicago that has the best window displays every holiday season. Maybe “courting captivity,” as you phrase it, is a writerly tendency—it's the desire to be left alone, but more than that, and especially in this poem, the desire to be left alone while also being admired as an object on display. I think my speakers are often trapped: by their names, their ages, their countries, their languages, time. The physical entrapment in this poem definitely mirrors an emotional predicament.

GL: The title of your wonderful chapbook, How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance, offers the thorny suggestion that this collection of poems functions as a process analysis for treating emotional wounds via, um, vengeance. But the opening poem, “Warning,” indicates that recovery—and even survival—is impossible, at least for reader, if not the speaker as well: “what I’m trying to do here is ruin any hope / you may have had of coming out of this alive.” Thus, therapy, sadism and philosophical pessimism are all thematically linked here. So, I wonder if these poems are having some fun with the tenets of Confessional poetry, which usually seeks to examine loss, heartbreak, neuroses, psychological trauma, et al, through personal disclosures for both aesthetic and therapeutic reasons. Is there a satirical dimension to these poems—or at least an ironization of Confessional poetics, a la Mark Halliday or Stephanie Brown? And could you tell me how the concepts of vengeance and healing interact in your work?

LS: That's interesting that you would read them as satirical. I think it would be fair to classify my poems as confessional, genuinely; I'm aiming for emotional honesty throughout, even in narratives that veer off into the absurd.

When I was about thirteen, three important things happened: my mom made me join the cross country team because she thought it would help my asthma and I came in dead last in every race, I had my first major depressive episode, and I started writing poems. Writing poetry is how I make sense of misfortune, and along the way I make up little jokes to temper the bleakness. Like here's a great Tennessee Williams joke: Nobody gets out of life alive. Haha! I'm getting tougher. I go to parties and flex my biceps. But vengeance for me comes down to the act of writing, keeping a record of he said, she said.

Many of these poems were written in the span of a few weeks, to win back the guy who dumped me for a Go-Go dancer.

GL: The poems in How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance enact a Chose Your Own Adventure motif that frequently gives the reader nothing but bad or impossible choices (For example, you sometimes refer readers to pages that don’t exist in this book), unlike the original CYOA books, which let readers rewind death and try again if they make a mistake. Could you tell me about working with this device/conceit and how it affected both your conception and composition of these poems?

LS: By “rewind death,” do you mean start the book from the beginning once you've met an untimely death or fallen into a trap? I can't remember how I came up with the idea originally, but I bought a couple CYOA books at Myopic, my favorite used bookstore in Chicago, and tried reading them at home and didn't have the attention span to actually finish an adventure. This sounds stupid. But they're like the US Weekly of YA books—there's nothing real to hold your attention, you just keep turning pages. It's so formulaic as to be distracting (at least to me, now at my age).

Anyway, I found a way to use this in poems because I find I'm always looking backwards or forwards, and rarely in the present moment. All those “turn to page such-and-such” cues interrupt the narrative to let you know there's a future, maybe a bad or impossible one, but a future nonetheless.

I also liked playing with the idea of infinite regressions in this book, mirrors facing mirrors, stories inside stories. I think once or twice I reference a page number as if my character is telling a poem from inside another book.

GL: Flip over the back of just about any first or second book of poetry these days and you’re bound to find out that the youngish author of said book more than likely lives in New York—and even more-than-likelier, lives in Brooklyn. Hyperbole aside, it seems like New York offers the best and perhaps the worst or environments for young writers. Regarding the former, there’s a wealth of poetic talent and events in the Apple that should make boredom/lack of inspiration impossible. Regarding the latter, Daniel Nester, for example, has written that the affectations and inhumanities of many New York poets present a savage distraction from the real business of writing. In New York, Nester warns, many poets become enchanted with cliques, trends, imitation and meaningless praise, which are dangerous impediments to art: “To be coddled in New York City as a poet is to be killed slowly.” And Joan Didion wrote about the kind of ennui that sets in for young New York writers who continuously, endlessly, fruitlessly “meet” new people without discovering anything new: “I had already met them, always.” So, what are the virtues and difficulties of being a poet in New York? And how does living in New York affect the way you see, and write about, the rest of the world? Have you stayed “too long at the Fair” or does New York continue to reward?

LS: I moved to New York on my nineteenth birthday to be an actress. Then I moved other places, and then I came back. My poems are usually set in the places I miss, so it's hard to write about New York (or Brooklyn) when I'm here, though this has been changing over the past year. Last year, most of what I wrote was about New Mexico, and when I lived in New Mexico, I was working on my novel, which is set outside Chicago.

If you're a poet, does it matter where you live? It's not like being a fisherman. I like living in New York but find I never have enough time to do ten percent of the things I'd like to do here. I do like having a community of friends who are writers, but I also like having friends who work in non-profit, who are choreographers, who teach. When I moved here the first time, to attend an acting conservatory, I found that spending four to eight hours a day with actors made me want to throw myself down a well, but I'm sure I'd feel the same way if I had to be around other writers so much. Luckily, as writers, we're able to do most of what we do at home in our pajamas, and only come out at night, like bats, to go to readings.

I've always been ambitious and competitive, so sometimes living in New York seems to me like an extreme sport, a contest to see who can “cut it.” I want to prove myself here, but I can't imagine staying here forever. I like open skies and crickets and stars and things like that, as much as I like the Brooklyn Bridge at night, roasted almond vendors, and bagels.

GL: What’s new with Leigh Stein these days? What are you reading, writing, thinking? What kind of poems are you working on at the moment? What kind of poet are you trying to become?

LS: I quit the New Yorker to teach drama to 120 K-5th graders in Sheepshead Bay, a predominantly Russian community in Brooklyn named after a fish that looks like a sheep's head. I just finished the sixth draft of my novel, What We Do when You're Not Here.

I've been reading a lot of poetry lately (this seems obvious, but I usually read more plays and novels than poetry collections) Some recent stand outs: Ohio Violence by Alison Stine, Oneiromance by Kathleen Rooney, AWE by Dorothea Lasky, This Clumsy Living by Bob Hicok, Tsim Tsum by Sabrina Orah Mark.

After finishing the novel that took over two years to write, I'm happy to have more time to write poems, and maybe a play. I've been getting into Russian folklore with, and for, my students, scaring them with Baba Yaga. Kids like to be scared. I read them a picture book and they hold their breath and then when I'm done they ask to see the book, so they can read it back to themselves, master their fear. It's really fascinating to watch.