Poetry Centre

Episode 22: Leah Umansky talks to Niall Munro

  • Leah Umansky and The Barbarous Century

    Leah Umansky is the author of two book-length collections,  The Barbarous Century (2018), Domestic Uncertainties (Blazevox, 2012), and two chapbooks, Straight Away the Emptied World (Kattywompus Press, 2016), and the Mad Men-inspired  Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press, 2014).

    Her writing has been widely published in places like The New York Times The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A Day, USA Today , POETRY, Guernica, and American Poetry Review. She has been the host and curator of the New York City-based poetry series  COUPLET since 2011, and is a graduate of the MFA Program in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.

    Leah has become well known for her poetry inspired by TV series, such as Mad Men, Westworld, and Mr. Robot. Many of her Game of Thrones-inspired poems have been translated into  Norwegian and Bengali. In 2013, Flavorwire named her #7 of 23  People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry, and her chapbook Don Dreams and I Dream was voted one of  The Top 10 Chapbooks To Read Now in 2014 by Time Out New York.

    Leah has been a middle and high school English teacher for fifteen years and has also taught workshops at The Poetry School, Hudson Valley Writers Center, and Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Visible Ink Program. She is also a  collage-artist who has designed all of her book covers.

    In ‘Where are the Stars?’, one of the poems in her collection The Barbarous Century, Leah writes: ‘The self is mapped in certainties. I am certain that I can measure this in words.’ Those kind of certainties are consistent preoccupations of Leah’s work: hers is a poetry that frequently asserts ‘I am…’, ‘I will…’, ‘This is what I mean…’, and there is a self-confidence and ambition in her writing, especially in a poem like the first we look at together, ‘Unleashed’, that makes an interrogation of the self possible, especially the female self. In that poem and elsewhere, Leah explores the way that people change and suggests that such change can be immensely rewarding if we risk embracing it.

    This is sometimes an idealistic poetry that seeks to celebrate what is good in the world (at one point in our conversation, Leah says that ‘there’s always room for celebration’), but it is also a realistic one. With its desire to show what it’s like to be alive, Leah’s poetry is also happy - and sometimes seems compelled - to call out those things and those people who live meanly and selfishly, such as the ‘tyrant’ in her recent work - a thinly-disguised version of Donald Trump sometimes, but often a much broader figure of someone, usually a man, who has no sense of decency. And often that examination of goodness is bound up with questions of gender and in particular - as is evident in a poem we discuss, ‘[Of Men]’ - in the relationship between men and women. Just as these poems challenge traditional and obsolete notions of gender roles in their subject matter, so too their form bends and sometimes dismantles poetic conventions.

    'Unleashed' was originally published in Poetry (November 2020), and you can read it on the Poetry Foundation website. '[OF MEN]' first appeared in Epiphany: A Literary Journal (Fall/Winter 2019), and was also published on the Epiphany website on 17 March 2019. Many thanks to Leah and the editors of these publications for allowing us to share these poems again.

    You can find out more about Leah and her work on her website, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

    And do tell us what you think of the podcast by e-mailing us via the website or by getting in touch via social media - we’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Thank you for listening!

    Copyright information: please note that the copyrights of all the poems displayed on the website and sent out on the mailing list are held by the respective authors, translators or estates, and no work should be reproduced without first gaining permission from the individual publishers.