Deborah Landau, Writing Poems For
an Unsafe World

In Conversation with the Author of Soft Targets

On July 14, 2016, Deborah Landau, the poet and director of NYU’s Creative Writing Program, was on a boat in the middle of the Seine, celebrating NYU’s Writers in Paris program with a hundred students and a cluster of writers, including Zadie Smith, Geoff Dyer, and Robin Coste Lewis. Landau had made it a tradition to celebrate this annual gathering by renting a bateau-mouche, that classic Parisian tourist boat, every July 14th—Bastille Day—so students and faculty could enjoy river views of the fireworks. That particular night, the weather was clear, and the Eiffel Tower was lit up in turquoise and purple. Everyone was drinking champagne, the real kind.

Then, people’s phones started to buzz with news of an incident in Nice. Little was known, at first—someone had fired a gun into a crowd of people gathered to watch the fireworks, and then the gunman got into a truck and drove into the crowd. It seemed to be, Twitter and texts and Facebook all started to say, a terrorist attack. Looking up, Landau and her faculty and students could see a fire right behind the Eiffel Tower. Maybe, they started to think, whatever was happening in Nice was also happening in Paris. Conflicting reports poured in over social media.

Landau and the faculty tried to act reassuring among the students but gathered out-of-sight in tight, panicked knots to talk about what to do. One writer, who shall remain nameless, jumped off the boat as it sailed along near the landing. Landau was ultimately given a choice by the boat’s captain: did she want to stay out on the river, or bring everyone back to land? How was she supposed to know where they would be safest? “It was one of the scariest times of my life,” Landau tells me, and she has spent a lifetime imagining scary things. “I think about it all the time… When the mushroom cloud rises over Midtown, what are we going to do? We’re going to be walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, with our skin falling off, and where do you go and how do you keep your kids safe? You know, or on the subway and a dirty bomb goes off…”

Writers by the Seine.

Over the past 15 years, Deborah Landau has become one of America’s most compelling poets on the body, capturing its pleasures and its vulnerabilities—and their uncomfortable coexistence—in long, linked lyric sequences. Although her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times, and she won a Guggenheim Fellowship to finish Soft Targets, Landau, no fan of the limelight, may be less well-known as a poet than as the director of one of the country’s most successful creative writing programs. Since she arrived at NYU in 2007, Landau has turned a narrow, cozy townhouse on West 10th Street, the program’s home base, into a hothouse of literary talent. It’s known as the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House after the entrepreneur, née Lilli Menasche, who came to the US in 1937 as a German-Jewish refugee and founded a purse empire with the money she received for her wedding; her financial support enabled the program to move into this building around the same time Landau started as director.

Students have classes in the house and hang out in the lounge, where there are frequent readings. Two dogs, Oscar the dachshund and Nico the Pomeranian, scurry underfoot. NYU’s program is inclusive and intimate and community-oriented, with just 24 students in each year of both the Fiction MFA and Poetry MFA classes. They take just two classes at a time: workshops and craft class. Many are taught in the evenings so those who work full-time can attend. This fall, NYU will launch a Creative Nonfiction MFA for the first time, with 12 students.

Landau has drawn together an enormously talented cadre of writers to teach in the program, including Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Anne Carson, Joyce Carol Oates, Nathan Englander, Terrance Hayes, Meghan O’Rourke, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Some, like Smith and Foer, find the house so cozy that they have written some of their books there. The program has produced, in recent years, prize-winning writers like Robin Coste Lewis, Ocean Vuong, Ada Limón, Solmaz Sharif, Javier Zamora, Morgan Parker, and Aracelis Girmay—and that’s just in poetry. NYU, Lewis told me, is a “poetry Hogwarts.” Recent and forthcoming fiction debuts from alums include Isabella Hammad’s just-published The Parisian, a saga of 20th-century Palestine; Ocean Vuong’s June novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a Vietnamese-American family story, and Parker’s YA novel Who Put This Song On?, coming out in September, about a black teenage girl making her way in a mostly-white suburb.

Writing about the female body, as Landau has been doing, often gets shorter shrift than it warrants.

And as she has spent years nurturing the talent of others, Landau’s own work has been opened up by these encounters. She summarizes her life to me as: “Waking up, writing poems, reading poems, talking to people about poems, and then also taking care of all the students and the faculty—it’s all of a piece.” During her time as director, she has published two books of poetry: The Last Usable Hour (2011) and The Uses of the Body (2015). Her debut collection, Orchidelirium, came out in 2004. Her new collection, Soft Targets, is coming out on April 30. Each new book has garnered more praise than the last—The Uses of the Body was named one of “12 Favorite Poetry Books of 2015” by The New Yorker and one of the “16 Best Poetry Books of 2015” by BuzzFeed.

Writing about the female body, though, as Landau has been doing, often gets shorter shrift than it warrants. “It’s way easier to get up and read about the attacks on Paris or climate change than to read poems about nursing or pregnancy or sex,” Landau told me. Now that she is taking on “big” contemporary topics like terrorism and climate change in Soft Targets, is Landau finally about to get the attention she deserves? She is steeped in the subtle politics of desire and domesticity and gender; can she retain that level of nuance when she takes on issues that are often flattened out into black and white, us and them?

The book’s opening lines suggest yes:

When it comes to this fleshed neck
even a finger could do it

even a sharp stick,
a blunt blow, a fall—

my jugular
there’s a soft target

and night is a soft target
all of us within it

Osama shot dead
in his pajamas

Landau started writing poems about terrorism after the spate of attacks in Paris starting in January 2015: first after the attack on the magazine Charlie Hebdo and the murder of Jews at a supermarket, then, that November, suicide bombs at a soccer match and the point-blank shooting of people at the Bataclan theatre and nearby cafés.

These are poems for a world in which there is no safety.

Landau finished these poems, which make up Soft Targets, after the attack on Bastille Day 2016, in an intense 12-day burst—not her usual working method. These are poems for a world in which there is no safety. It opens with Landau’s fears for herself, familiar fears. But then the poem rushes outward—we, the innocent, are soft targets, but even bin Laden was a soft target to his attackers. The poems in Soft Targets keep sweeping outward, dizzyingly, from the intimacy of Landau and her “you” to the entire city to the entire world. Another of the book’s early poems follows this same trajectory:

I’m a soft target, you’re a soft target
and the city has a hundred hundred thousand softs;

the pervious skin, the softness of the face
the wrist inners, the hips, the lips, the tongue,

the global body,
its infinite permutable softnesses—

*

Landau has always written about the vulnerabilities of the body, often with an erotic charge. In Orchidelirium, she writes of her early days with the man who is now her husband: “Your legs unfold around me—right thigh where the skin ripped once, / that jagged scar a seam.” The Last Usable Hour continues to mix darkness and desire, and The Uses of the Body wins readers with its frankness about the experience of living in a female body. At a recent event at the Bowery Poetry Club, before reading from her new book, Landau gave a sense of her past work by reading a bit of a poem from The Uses of the Body:

One summer there was no girl left in me.
It gradually became clear.
It suddenly became.
In the pool, I was more heavy than light.
Pockmarked and flabby in a floppy hat.
What will my body be
when parked all night in the earth?

What is new, though, in Soft Targets is that sudden opening-out, not only of the scope of the poems, from I to you to a city to the world, but also of theme. Her previous work was about private vulnerabilities; Soft Targets is about the fragility of every body in a world of terrorism and climate change and simple, slow human mortality. It’s true that there has already been some opening-out in Landau’s work. For most of Orchidelirium, she told me, she was depicting her experiences, telling the reader, “here, watch the movie of my life” in short, stand-alone poems. Toward the end of that first book, though, she found her real form: the linked lyric sequence. The forms and the concerns of her poems grew in complexity at the same time. Maybe, she tells me, “depicting became harder to do as the story became bigger,” in particular after 9/11. The first long linked poem in her first book, the poem “Manhattan Fragments, 2001-2002,” which ends the book, talks about that day elliptically: the closest it comes in a poem of 184 lines is the two lines “the eye looks southward / expecting something solid in the sky.”

Landau reading at Shakespeare and Co.

That Tuesday morning, September 11, Landau told me, she was pregnant with her second child and dropping her three-year-old son off at nursery school downtown; they were on a bus and people started screaming, and they saw a plane hit the tower. Scenes of disaster, both remembered and imagined, run through her head, but she isn’t a narrative poet who retells a story. “I am not a depicter, not any more. I’m never writing about something,” she tells me, “I’m always writing out of something—or into something.”

That “something” has often been the frailties of the body, but in Landau’s past work that frailty has registered as a personal experience. 9/11, for example, brings back Landau’s grief over her mother’s early death from cancer at the age of 54, when Landau was not yet 30, and how in its aftermath sex felt different. But in Soft Targets, the grief, mortality, fear, and desire that thread through Landau’s work play out on a much larger scale. When talking about this new outward turn, Landau quotes poet Wallace Stevens’s idea of poetry as “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” She never thought she would write such overtly political poems, she says, but the pressure of reality is just too much.

This pressure causes us to retreat into simplistic framings of “us versus them.” Landau, though, refuses to train her fear on any particular target. When she writes, at the beginning of the book, “and night is a soft target / all of us within it / Osama shot dead / in his pajamas,” the “us” here could mean total innocents, the intended victims of these savage attacks. But it could also mean “us” in a much wider sense, an “us” connected by a shared vulnerability.

The second poem in Soft Targets contains lines that are echoed on its last page: “O you who want to slaughter us, / we’ll be dead soon enough, what’s the rush— / and this our only world.” The tension in this “we”—we, the victims, or we, all of humanity?—animates the whole book. When I asked Landau about this line, she mockingly imitated herself trying to reason with a terrorist. “I promise you,” she said, “you don’t need to shoot me now, I’m going to be dead whether or not you shoot me in a café or not, so why don’t we make a better world while we’re here?” This hopefulness could seem facile in the work of a different poet—I am a skeptic about hopefulness—but here, here it feels earned because Landau is unflinching, not self-protective. In my twenties, I wasn’t sure how one could be hopeful while still being intelligent. In Landau’s poems, I think I begin to see the possibility of a way.

The early poems in Soft Targets are full of people fractured from each other by both fear and indifference. “The streets filled with refugees,” Landau writes, “and the French stepped over them / en route to patisseries, cafés.” One of her biggest problems, she tells me, is grappling with how one can feel happy when horrible things are happening to other people—and when they are going to happen to you, too. The end of the book is an appeal to recognized human frailty: it moves beyond terrorism to take in Landau’s mammogram, her mother’s illness, and the universality of death, no longer strictly afflicted by the terrorists on the terrorized, but on all of us by time: “Mama was a target in her transplant bed.”

*

In many stories of illness, the sufferer falls sick all of a sudden, and illness is experienced as a radical break with their previous life. Recently, there have been stories, like Porochista Khakpour’s 2018 memoir Sick, in which the writer, who found life as an Iranian immigrant in America difficult, never felt safe or invulnerable, never even felt not-sick. Landau, too, seems to have never felt a feeling of safety into which danger breaks. She grew up knowing that most of the people in her family photos had been killed in the Holocaust. Her mother’s mother, only 19, had seen where things are going and she insisted that her family leave, and they did, settling in Michigan, where Landau grew up as a third-generation survivor of the Holocaust.

Landau writes about this family history for the first time in Soft Targets, starting a section about her grandmother with the lines:

Frankfurt, 1938, Oma was a soft target
got her soft the fuck out of there

smuggled out her egg purse to become us
and so it ended and so it didn’t end

Adding to this sense of threat, when Landau was only six, her mother—a University of Michigan philosophy professor with whom Landau was very close—was diagnosed with the lymphoma that would kill her more than 20 years later. When her mother gave her a copy of Anne Sexton’s 1969 collection Love Poems—“a totally inappropriate gift for a 13-year-old,” Landau laughs—she realized she loved writing poetry. But she did not see how it could be a career. Her professor mother and nephrologist father pushed her to achieve; as a child, she had to practice the violin for an hour every day, which she hated. But Landau also pushed herself; she started dance before she was even in kindergarten, and she was in a professional modern dance company before she even graduated high school.

In college, at Stanford, Landau felt she should study physics or chemistry or computer science, or, at the softest, philosophy—being an English major, she worried, wouldn’t impress her parents. But English drew her in anyway, and after college, she moved to New York City to do a Masters in English at Columbia—and to dance. She then did a PhD in English at Brown—her focus, even then, was the frailty of the human body, and she wrote her thesis about AIDS in contemporary American poetry. Even during her PhD, she continued to perform with dance companies in New York. Becoming an English professor seemed a practical goal, one of which her parents could even approve, but Landau still hoped for a future in dance. Then one day, when she was 26, Landau fell and injured herself, and that was the end of her career in dance.

By that point, Landau had gotten married to an entertainment lawyer and was adjuncting at various NYC universities but growing tired of academic jargon. She started sitting in on poetry workshops and writing more of her own work, including “an embarrassing and graphic” poem entitled “Oral Sex,” the first she ever sent out and the first to be accepted—but which, luckily for her now, she says, never got published. But that acceptance gave her confidence, and her intense need to express herself, which had once found an outlet in dance, started to emerge in her poetry.

As Landau’s work opened out, so did her own life, as her circle of responsibility widened. In Orchidelirium, she is a young woman in the city, teaching poetry, falling in love, and then a newlywed in love who still, sometimes, desires other men. Then she has children, two sons close together, and, six years ago, an unexpected third child, a daughter (“Such a reckless act, to pop out a human / with the jaws of the world set to kill”). In 2007, she applied for a job as director of the NYU Creative Writing program. Imagine going for an interview and meeting, for the first time, a writer you’ve loved since childhood. That happened to Landau: the poet Sharon Olds, one of the program’s co-founders, was one of her interviewers. And Landau got the job.

“She has the tone of an outlaw, which is thrilling, a woman outlaw drinking gin and talking about sexuality.”

Landau inherited a thriving program, but it has gotten much bigger and better-funded under her watch, with more events and international programs. For one, Landau respects people’s time: for one, there are no meetings. Teachers just teach. “You put Zadie Smith on a million committees, that’s just a waste of her talents, right?” Landau tells me. Her willingness to consider other perspectives and ability to withhold judgment enable her to head up a democratic, creative writing center where different teaching methods and writing styles and genres coexist. “I want it to be like a dinner table,” Landau told me, “with raucous energy, everyone interrupting—everyone on each other’s side even though everyone’s so different.”

I sit in on a workshop of Jonathan Safran Foer’s in which we discuss one woman’s novel about an addict and swing into the ethics of representing addiction. “If you’re saying that almost everybody relapses,” Foer asks, “is it a disservice to highlight the exception?” Other discussions are more on-the-ground: in Meghan O’Rourke’s poetry class, we discuss how a student’s use of gerunds introduces a slipperiness of language that works well for the poem thematically. Olds does not offer criticism for the first month of the workshop, opting for description instead. In her class, “Art of the Book,” Landau has students read new and early work to expand their ideas of what poems can do, talk to the poets who visit, and write works in response.

Just as there is no one way of teaching, there is no “house style.” Instead, everyone talks about helping everyone else sound more like themselves. Landau tells me that when the admitted students visited in mid-March, one asked, “‘Do we accommodate different aesthetics?’ And I said, pointing around the room, well look, there’s Sharon and there’s Eileen Myles and also Anne Carson teaches here and also Terrance Hayes.”

With Landau at its center, the program seems to be able to do the hard work of holding together heart and head. “She’s just so smart about poetry,” Olds muses, “and it’s never a cold intelligence, always warm and alive… she is never a sentimentalizer, and her wit and irony doesn’t ever diminish anyone… She has the tone of an outlaw, which is thrilling, a woman outlaw drinking gin and talking about sexuality.”

Lewis tells me, it’s as if “the heart had a brain.” “Her intelligence is exacting,” she says, “and yet she offers it so tenderly. As women, we’re so conditioned to police our own thoughts… She was like, it’s okay to be intelligent in your poems.” Lewis adds, “I always think of Deb as like a spy or a traitor in her poems, because it’s so easy to project onto women writers and especially white blonde women writers who are nice and generous and kind like Deb. My own projections and my own racism and internalized sexism mean you don’t expect for her work to be so incredibly truth-telling about all the neurotic ways in which we fuck each other over.”

Olds describes Landau as a chronicler of now: “With Deborah, I’m right in the present moment. I’m not being pushed towards the future any faster than I naturally move, nor am I being held in the past.”

This mix of wit and sensuality pushes Landau’s work forward on the page. When Landau told me that she walks around New York reading her poetry out loud to herself to see how it sounds while pretending to be speaking into her phone so passers-by don’t think she’s babbling, I was not surprised. When she told me that she streamlines her work by imagining “the most critical, scariest person I can think of reading my poems”—a real person, but she would not tell me who—I was not surprised.

*

To celebrate the publication of Soft Targets, Jonathan Safran Foer held a party at his elegant but comfortable house. The taps in his downstairs bathroom were shaped like small birds. It was a clear night at the beginning of spring. We drank Negroni and Aperol Spritz and talked about hydrangeas and Japan and dance and astrology and psychoanalysis. We talked about the recording of books for the blind. Sharon Olds told me she once recorded audiobooks for blind Catholic girls and, concerned they would never learn about sex otherwise, slipped in a few Philip Roths. It was a delightful party, and now Landau was being asked to read poems about terrorism and climate change and death. “It’ll be such a buzzkill,” she protests.

Her reading from Soft Targets is about terror attacks and illness and environmental doom and the end of America and the end of the world. Ever mindful of the feelings of others, though, Landau ends her reading on a note of hope, the same way she ends her book. She reads us its closing lines:

O you who want to slaughter us, we’ll be dead soon enough what’s the rush
and this our only world.
Now bring me a souvenir from the desecrated city,
something tender, something that might bloom.

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Fran Bigman
Fran Bigman
Fran Bigman is a freelance writer living in New York City who writes most often about books, art, and reproductive politics. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and her work has appeared in the New York Review Daily, Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, Words Without Borders, and Granta.com. You can find her on Twitter @franbig.





More Story
James Baldwin in Paris: On the Virtuosic Shame of Giovanni's Room Early in Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s seminal novelistic exploration of queerness, the narrator, David, remembers...