Friday, August 16, 2013

On Creativity: Leah Umansky

Some artists weave wool blankets, and others make patchwork quilts. The first type of artist unifies and stirs. The second kind wants us to see the fragments and pieces of the puzzles they sit before.

Leah Umansky is the second kind of artist. In her book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties (published by BlazeVOX [books]), she shows us the world in pieces (as it is, maybe): lines from Virginia Woolf, text broken into columns and boxes. This is a book about reading books, but also about reading relationships, love, gender, break-ups, and choices. “Pull back at the auto-correct,” she entreats us in one poem, “Repeated for Emphasis, “Take back the margin, and the typographical errors are fab./[aren’t they?]”

Speaking of the margin, her poems are so visually engaging--more traditional-looking, left-aligned poems strain against their leashes into the right side of the page; some are thick paragraphs of prose that extend across the whole page; others are reminiscent of exams, with multiple choice options, fill-in-the-blanks, and text in boxes. The book itself is a square--an unusual and smart choice that works so well in housing these poems.

I admire how natural the design of this book feels. It is never heavy-handed. This might come from the fact that Leah is also a talented collage artist (this striking cover, shown above, is one of her creations). Her work feels alive and spontaneous and surprising on the page.

NOTE: After the interview, read a preview of the book. Order your copy of the book here, where you can also view the book preview.

Q: As a collage artist and poet, what is your relationship to fragments and pieces? When you make collages, does it feel the same as making poems? Why or why not?

I feel like I’ve always made collages. Like every teenager, my bedroom walls were covered in snippets of magazines and so were my dorm rooms in college. When I became an adult and lived on my own, I turned to the refrigerator. (How domestic!!) All the fridges, in every apartment I’ve ever had, have always been a medium for collage, but so has every pegboard above my desk. I like surrounding myself with things I love, desire and enjoy.

I always rip things out of newspapers and magazines and put them into a folder, and for years they sort of just sat there in my drawer. Thinking about it now, it wasn’t until I got separated and then divorced that I actually started making collage holiday cards for my friends. This is all in my book – I had to make a new version of myself, was forced to, and it had to be one that didn’t fully align with the old version of myself. As in my poem “In Dreams Bare,” “all day versions of us align.”

In creating this new version, I created a new self and pasted on parts of my previous life into it.  What I mean to say is, my life was fragmented. Everything I knew was wrong. I was now this new thing, a divorcee. I was now this new woman trying to write her way through something devastating. I did it, I wrote the poems, but they are fragmented. They remained disjointed and I think that’s where my collages exist, too. Perhaps, I picked up the pieces my self and made them pretty-like.

Before my first book, Domestic Uncertainties, came out earlier this year, it was really hard for me to book readings in NYC, especially because I didn’t have a book. (This is partly why I created my own reading series, COUPLET.)  I had this idea to make collage postcards, where one side would be a collage, and the other would be a poem or excerpt of a poem of mine.  My reasoning was that now, I’d have something to represent myself on the merch table. I made five variations, which you can see on my collage blog, In Good Paste and I later made a few more which were published by Kattywompus Press.

When my book was accepted for publication by BlazeVOX, I was happy to hear that Geoffrey Gatza said I could have a go at the cover. Eventually, my cover was born: “Behind the Curtain.”
The cover is based on the first poem in the collection, “What Literature Teaches Us About Love,” which refers to the book that is my heart, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.      

Domestic Uncertainties is a memoir of my marriage and divorce told through poetry, and  the cover features a husband and wife (an image I tore out of the newspaper years ago and kept, patiently waiting to use), standing on a rock or cliff. This rock is reminiscent of Penistone Crag, which is a haven for Heathcliff and Cathy in the novel. It is a happy place from back in their childhood, but it later becomes a place that Cathy longs for in her final days of her unhappy marriage to Edgar Linton, and her last days of living.  

The red curtain dramatically frames the “happy marriage;” however, it is not a drawn curtain, and it displays a stormy sky behind the couple. The curtain is jagged; the view of the sky is jagged, and what I enjoy about the collage is the idea of what happens when the curtain closes.   What goes on that we don’t see in the marriage? I like the dramatic, and I like the dramatic in poetry. Art should make you feel; it should strike you. I knew this red velvet curtain would be jarring and I enjoyed that.

In my poetry, again, there is this same connection. I did my MFA back at Sarah Lawrence College, back in 2004, and I had just begun to dabble with prose poems, but wrote in a more narrative style. The speaker in this book wouldn’t recognize that speaker. She’s a different thing all-together. Sure, they use the same language, but one is more fluid and the other makes her own way with words. 

When I started taking classes at the New School, just to stay engaged and motivated in my writing, the first poem I wrote was the Wuthering Heights poem and suddenly, I was writing in blocks of prose. Soon, the prose got broken up and jagged, much like what I felt was happening to my life. Suddenly, white space, playing with both margins, and wordplay were all new writing tools for me (or maybe just mechanisms to cope with something that was difficult to write). I took apart words; I mashed together words, and I invented words, all to tell a story.

It’s interesting. What I will say is I’m not a big editor of my work. I hate editing. I don’t write multiple drafts. I usually know if something is working, and the edits I end up making are small ones. Will it always be that way – who knows? Much is the same for my collages. I plan it out and then sometimes I do something different. There is a definite correlation between my collages and my poetry but I think it’s more a part of this self that exists between these two versions of myself.

Thanks, Hannah, for featuring me on The Storialist and stay tuned for my poems and more collages – next up is my Mad Men chapbook.


Read a preview of Domestic Uncertainties (courtesy of BlazeVOX):


  1. Thank you for sharing the preview and the background to the collection. The visual arrangements of the words inform the subject is so creative a way.

    1. I completely agree, Maureen....I especially like the shape of the book! My poems tend to be so left's nice to be reminded of the whole page.

  2. Oh, this looks so good. I love the blend (marriage?) of art form with non-traditional poetic form. At first glance of this book, I am reminded of Anne Carson, a wonderful model of artful experimentation. I'm buying the book now. Thanks Hannah!

    1. I think you'll love the book, Drew! Oh, Anne Carson...I love her, too. I have her "Short Talks" sitting right here on my desk :).

    2. Oh, and yes, Anne Carson is a favorite. I quote her in the book, too. I gave her a copy when she read at the New York Public Library. Wonder if she's read it.. hmmm

  3. I just bought Short Talks last year ! Loved it. Thank you, Drew, I hope you enjoy it. Thank you, Maureen, I appreciate that!

  4. A wonderful background to the poems and the art of writing! I find it refreshing to see such intuitive certainty in the placement of lines and verses on the page, using the entire sheet as a canvas - as it were - for the word collage. A visual as well as a linguistic feast.

  5. Thanks so much and hannah, such a lovely introduction. Thank you


The Storialist. All rights reserved. © Maira Gall.