Interview with Leigh Stein
May 20, 2009
*This interview was conducted by Jeremy Spencer through email. No content has been changed.
1. When did you start writing and why?
LS: I’ve been making little books since I could read and write, around age four or five. My dad used to work for McDonald’s corporate offices, and I remember going into the office with him on a Saturday once, and using the computer to make a zine about Saddam Hussein. I would have been six or seven during the Gulf War. In elementary school, I ran an environmental activism club out of my parents’ dining room, and photocopied a newsletter, which I mailed to pen pals across the country. By middle school, I was trying to find Jesus, and writing a lot of rhymed poetry. I made zines in high school, chapbooks in my early twenties. I really love the satisfaction that comes from making things by hand.
It wasn’t until I was nineteen and living in New York, going to acting school, that I realized writing was actually a career someone could pursue. I was cast in all these exhausting scenes in which I had to cry, and kiss my husband’s brother, and pretend to have bleeding ulcers, and then I would come home to my dorm room at the New Yorker Hotel and write. And it seemed like such a revelation, that this was what I’d rather be doing, what I could be doing.
2. Who are some of your favorite artists and writers? Who has influenced your work?
LS: Margaret Atwood, Miranda July, Bob Hicok, Jason Bredle, Dorothea Lasky, C.D. Wright, Will Eno. I think these are all writers who can be charming or irreverent one moment, and devastating and awe-stricken in the next.
I love the surreal divinity of Chagall, Klimt’s women, Sally Mann. I love the work of Henri Rousseau for its narrative quality, and the lurking danger. O’Keeffe’s painting isn’t narrative, but she combines beauty and desolation in a way that appeals to me. I’m also obsessed with her life. I’ve found that visiting museums is a good way to feed my poetry.
3. There is a line in your poem “The Reckoning,” that stands out and seems to hold the poem together. That line is “For the first time in history, an entire generation was completely unprepared for absolutely anything.” Do you feel that line has any truth regarding the younger generation living right now (say people 25 and below)?
LS: I feel pretty useless as far as survival skills go. I can barely cook, unless it’s something that comes in a box with directions printed on the back. I freak out when I see dead squirrels. I would probably die in the wild. These were the things I was thinking about in August and September and October of 2008, when it seemed like the world might actually end. If we run out of gasoline, if everyone loses their homes, if we have to make food come out of the earth with our hands, who will survive? Imagining disaster scenarios is creepy fun.
4. What does poetry mean to you and what has it meant?
LS: It’s a language I think in, and the way I organize ideas and feelings that can’t be organized otherwise. Freyda Libman, the only poetry teacher I’ve ever had (and who I adore) told our class that poets think in metaphors, and I’m terrible with metaphor, so when she said that I died a little bit. I don’t look at flowers and think of them as children’s faces (see, terrible). But I do think in images, in rhythmic or otherwise nice-sounding phrases. When you’re feeling especially heartbroken or confused or vengeful, poetry gives you something to do besides jumping into a river and hoping whoever hurt you finds your body.
5. Tell us a little about the experience of getting your chapbook How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance published by Dancing Girl Press?
LS: The chapbook is loosely structured around a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. I submitted it to the Diagram chapbook contest because I thought, ‘Well, they must like choosing and adventures,’ and it was a finalist, but didn’t win. Mathias Svalina beat me with Creation Myths and I’m glad he did because that is one amazing little book. Then I decided to send it to Kristy Bowen, who edits Dancing Girl Press, because she supports women poets from Chicago and, believe it or not, that’s exactly what I am. I was very lucky that she liked it.
6. What projects are you working on currently?
LS: My novel What We Do when You’re Not Here is finished and being shopped around. I’m kinda working on a series of poems about a girl who goes on an epic journey a la the Odyssey by building a boat in the copy room of her office. I want to write a YA novel about aphasia, but I wouldn’t say I’m working on it unless thinking counts as working.
7. Give us your top 3 favorite places to see/hear poetry events in New York?
LS: Amy King and Ana Božičević run a lovely series at Stain Bar in Brooklyn. I wish I had more opportunities to go. I like Space Space because they have sleeping bags, and I think if you’re going to host a poetry reading, it’s a good idea to let your audience lie on the floor and cuddle with each other (if you’re into that sort of thing). Both Pete’s Candy Store and Rose Live Music in Williamsburg are cool, but not too cool, which I appreciate.
8. Anything else you want to say?
LS: Thank you for interviewing me! Please cut out all the boring parts. It’s hard to know what’s boring when you’re talking about yourself.