I Write a Novel and Poems Come Out
A Conversation with Deborah Landau
Deborah Landau’s third collection of poetry, The Uses of the Body, is out now from Copper Canyon Press.
Adam Fitzgerald: Reading through your new book of poems The Uses of the Body, there’s a kind of narcotic glamor I find not only in your handling of certain subject matter but also through your intensely terse phrasing, one where images and lines stack together crisply. It has the effect, on at least this reader, of creating the persona or drama of a certain American middle-class inner life we’re constantly inundated with but usually only for its commercialized allures: body image, marriage, travel, various ceremonies, etc. Yet what seems so appealing and miraculous is your book’s concentrated effort, with quite delicate lightness of focusing on what the brilliant critic Sianne Ngai calls “ugly feelings.” The work ranges across tones including depression, deflation, a tinge of nihilistic desire and our constant anticlimaxes, even a sense of revulsion that grounds the work with a sober undertow. As a poet and reader I too find myself riveted to poems that alienate, and formalize, a kind of American bourgeois life, our daily decadences and tidied despairs. Is this something you’re at all conscious of or interested in playing with as a poet?
Deborah Landau: Thanks for mirroring the book back to me in such a smart way. De-mythologizing American bourgeois life, its rituals and ceremonies, to get at a certain underlying vacancy or despair or tension that feels more truthful/closer to lived experience does interest me. One summer I rented an apartment across the street from a little synagogue in Paris, and every day at noon there was a wedding. For the first few days this seemed charming and quaint, but as the month wore on it came to feel like a parodic chain of performances featuring identical costumes, props, script, setting, and almost imperceptibly different casting. The seed of the book is there, I think, in the opening image of a red-faced bride smothered in taffeta, huffing her way to the loo. The same de-romanticizing impulse is at work throughout the book, which takes aim at the uninflected-yet-comfortable tedium of monogamy and domestic life, the sexual energy irrepressibly present at a funeral, the anomie of post-partum motherhood, the disquieting experience of inhabiting a female body, etc.
Adam Fitzgerald: Could you tell me how your process for assembling a book begins? This collection feels especially unified to me, in its tone, and subject matter. I return again and again to, as you phrase it, “the disquieting experience of inhabiting a female body,” and I wonder at what point your poems inform you, or you inform them, in shaping the book as a book. I also wonder what experiences, by which I happily include reading (poets, non-poetry related materials), might have inspired the clarifying sense of your poems’ speaker, her persona.
Deborah Landau: A few years ago, a friend and I decided we were going to try to write “slim lyrical novels.” Of course when I tried to write a novel only more poems came out—but maybe that accounts for the more cohesive voice, tone, subject matter and structure of this collection. It was pretty much written all of a piece, or all in pieces—which were then shaped and ordered into lyric sequences after the messy generating was over. I’m always reading a lot, but with this book I remember looking at Jean Rhys and Renata Adler for a sense of how to lay down a narrative, and Joyce and Berryman to help temper or disrupt that telling with linguistic wildness. In terms of lived experience, two events, a young friend’s death and my daughter’s birth—both of which were unanticipated—are crucial to the book and contributed to the state of agitation that got me writing.
Adam Fitzgerald: The Uses of the Body features seven poems, six of them are rather long sequences strung together of entirely lyrical poems. What draws you to the idea of lyric sequences, the novelistic through verse? In one sense, the lyric is all about boiling things down, condensation, compression. But against or as counterpoint to that economy, is the expansiveness of sequences that open, build, reframe, narrate. I wonder how you keep those two in balance.
Deborah Landau: You describe exactly what I love about the lyric sequence—the sequence allows a writer to consider the same obsessive subject from multiple angles for a prismatic effect. The sequence allows an elliptical kind of narrative to unfold over time, in fragments. The sequence contains the compressed heat of each lyric, and weaves it into a more expansive fabric. If a lyric cuts the quick, the sequence frames and contextualizes. (And from a practical standpoint, the writing of lyric sequences can be done bit by bit in the interstices, which suits the multitasking, manic pace of my life).
As for balance—one tricky thing is to measure and control the release of information so that the sequence is neither too told nor too elusive. That remains a challenge for me; my inclination runs toward the spare lyric, but a poem that withholds too much will frustrate a reader.
Adam Fitzgerald: Switching gears, you recently published a beautiful essay “When I Got Pregnant at 40, Time Slowed Down.” You write: “Nothing is new anymore, my grandmother complained at 90. I felt that way at 40… Still, there’s a luxuriousness to being at the midpoint… But this sense of being in the middle, it’s tentative, provisional. If I’m my grandmother, who died in her nineties, I’m in the middle of my life; if I’m my mother, who died at 54, I’m closer to the end.” I’m wondering how these aspects of autobiographical “middleness,” of age, of motherhood, of career and the aging body set against the very real realities of maternal grief, affected this collection. There seems like there’s a world of deep lineage in the crisscrossing between you, your mother and your grandmother. What did they think of poetry? Of your poetry?
Deborah Landau: My grandmother fled Germany in 1938 and never had the opportunity to get an education (she and my grandfather worked in a grocery store in Detroit, then later opened a meatpacking business in the Eastern Market). My mother was the first in her family to go to college, and went on to study philosophy at a time when very few women were doing that. She loved books, and poetry, and gave me Anne Sexton’s Love Poems when I turned 13—which pretty much hooked me on poetry—so in a sense was responsible for my coming to poetry in the first place. (Elizabeth Bishop was her favorite poet but she intuited what might appeal to 13-year-old me, to her credit.) She died before I’d published anything but was always encouraging and supportive of my love of reading and writing. My mother’s poetry books, with her notes in them, are a treasured part of my library.
Her early illness and death had a big impact on me, and I’ve never felt invulnerable at any stage of life (in youth, or in “middleness”). That awareness of being “fastened to a dying animal” has always been acute, and all three of my books were written in the shadow of that, to some extent.
Adam Fitzgerald: I’m wondering if you had any thoughts on poetry’s historic relationship to grief, in general. I don’t want to sentimentalize loss, and your poetry certainly seems infused with awareness without succumbing to “answers” whether proscriptive or corrective, but the sense of the elegiac is crucial to your lyric timing. Your new poems often evince this most often through an abrupt declarative insistence, as in “I Don’t Have a Pill For That,” when your speaker, staccato-like, reports:
The wedding is over.
Summer is over.
Life please explain.
And of course, the poem’s title and close, grim in their sardonic wits, seem to signal humor is a powerful tool for articulating the world.
Deborah Landau: I like what you say about humor and wit, which temper the elegiac strain and inhibit a (my) tendency to veer toward the sentimental and melodramatic. “I don’t have a pill for that,” is a refrain of a favorite doctor, who always recuses himself that way in response to my expansive catalogue of anxieties and fears.
As for the elegiac, poetry is a way to (try to) hold what can’t be held, right? Because of that the elegiac is one of my preferred modes—I’m at home there—and my reading predilections have always reflected that. My dissertation considered contemporary American poetry of the body, and in particular poetry of the AIDS epidemic (this was the 1990s). I became interested in all that the elegy could do (lament, commemorate, praise, console, transform). My mother was dying around the same time, so the elegiac was a crucial strain in the poems I was writing, too (the first section of my first book is an elegy for her) and still is to some extent. My second book was written in post-9/11 New York City, and The Uses of the Body has a long sequence about the tragically early death of a friend, and is generally elegiac in tone—though I like to think/hope there’s also plenty of playfulness and Eros to offset and counteract all that gloomy Thanatos.
Adam Fitzgerald: To return to Sexton, how does her work persist in your imagination, then vs. now. You both seem writers drawn to the adult glamorization of negative emotions. Had you had much interest in poetry before then? Who were the other poets you read that shaped your vocation going forward?
Deborah Landau: I loved Sexton madly as a teenager and then the crush pretty much burned off. There are poems of hers I return to, though—the lush, sensual “December 11th” from the “Eighteen Days Without You” sequence (“then I think of you in bed,/your tongue half chocolate, half ocean”), the bravado of “Her Kind” (which she’d introduce by saying “I’m going to read you a poem about what kind of poet I am, what kind of woman I am—and if you don’t like it you can leave”), “The Truth the Dead Know” (why do people always have sex after funerals?!). Transformations is a good book to teach, and a lot of fun, especially for undergraduates, and helpful too as an illustration of poetic revision. I also return to “Little Girl, My Stringbean, My Lovely Woman,” which Sexton read at a Vietnam protest rally—her tender version of an anti-war poem. My undergraduate honors thesis concerned Sexton’s unpublished play, ”Mercy Street”—I worked with her biographer Diane Middlebrook at Stanford, which was a thrill at the time.
From there my reading ranged widely. Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds and Lucille Clifton. Dickinson and Whitman. Then Wallace Stevens—that love lasted a long while, and still persists, and then I had the opportunity to study with Jonathan Wordsworth at Oxford and fell for Phillip Larkin, and the Romantics, especially Coleridge, especially Keats. Then later Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, Berryman, Berrigan, Brooks, Louise Gluck, Pessoa, Anne Carson, Komunyakaa, Ashbery, and a long list of younger contemporary poets—there are way too many to name.
Adam Fitzgerald: You mention Transformations as a good book to teach. How does teaching shape or relate to your writing life? I know for many poets, they could not be more compartmentalized, distinct. Yet I know for Fred Moten (who doesn’t even teach creative writing), his entire writing life, whether as poet or theorist, he claims as preparation for his mission of teaching. Our good friend the poet Dorothea Lasky feels the same way. I feel like, as poets, increasingly in the role of professors and/or administrators, we tend to have few discussions about the intersection or non-intersection of teaching and writing.
Deborah Landau: My work life is all of a piece—reading poems, writing poems, talking with students and colleagues and friends about poems, hosting readings at NYU. It all feels very organic. Our graduate students are so smart and gifted and always teaching me things—I learn from what they’re reading, from what they’re working out in their poems, the questions they ask. I try to teach different books each year to keep expanding my understanding of what a poem can do. And I love how being in the classroom requires total concentration and immersion—for those few hours everyone is just focused on the poems at hand.
Adam Fitzgerald: One of the central things your poems seem to teach is how to balance the tension between specificity, a phrase, an image, a knowing tone or cadence in the speaker’s voice, and this overwhelming sense of the lyric as an anonymous, impersonal agent. Your characters: “Mr and Mrs End of Suffering”; “Two people jumping out of a building holding hands, R said”; “I am twenty. / I am thirty. / I am forty years old”). It’s something about your work that reminds me of the late Mark Strand. Is lyric intimacy constructed for you in terms of autobiographical or non-autobiographical means? What do you think your stylistic fascination with obscuring the personal, or alluding to it only to abbreviate, truncate or anonymize it?
Deborah Landau: First of all, thank you for the generous comparison to the brilliant Mark Strand, whose work I adore.
In answer to your question about autobiography, I’d say that poems come out of my life to some extent but aren’t really about my life—at least not in any linear, straight-ahead, representational way. I’m not interested in poems that simply narrate or enact a performance of a life while the reader watches. It’s important that the work feel distilled and transformed. Poems that are elliptical or take a sidelong approach are more compelling, and feel more accurately aligned with lived experience, too (the truth told “slant” feels more true). “Mr and Mrs End of Suffering” aren’t by any stretch my husband and me—though of course my feelings about marriage derive in part from personal experience. Archetypes and characters wander in and out of this book (which contains cameos from real people, too, though I’m careful never to use full names).
Adam Fitzgerald: Finally, I wanted to ask you, who do you imagine as the ideal audience for your poems? Is that something that has changed over time, between collections even?
Deborah Landau: I don’t tend to think much about audience when writing, but it’s been a nice surprise to find that The Uses of the Body seems to have reached a wider than typical (for poetry) audience of readers (the book has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NPR’s All Things Considered, etc., but also in O Magazine, Buzzfeed, and Vogue). It’s also been nice to hear that readers who have lived very different lives from my own seem to be responding to the book. That has surprised me, too. The challenge (as I see it) is to try to find a language that is adequate to experience (whatever “experience” is) so that someone else, through reading, experiences it, too. That kind of connection through language is so deeply satisfying and becomes a way to break out of the isolation of the mind; this is perhaps central to the (my) drive to write.