Transcript - Episode 69: Leah Umansky
Mike Sakasegawa: Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 69. Today’s guest is Leah Umansky
Hey there, folks, so it’s the Fourth of July today, at least if you’re listening the day this comes out it’s the Fourth of July. In just a few minutes you’re going to hear a conversation in which Leah Umansky and I talk about, among other things, stories, and especially the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves. And that seems like a particularly fitting topic for today, because the Fourth of July is so much about story, you know? It’s about the story that Americans tell ourselves about who we are, about what America is and what it means.
Now, stories are powerful things. Stories can comfort, they can unsettle. They can excuse, or they can indict. And stories are seductive. They get inside you and tell you about yourself, about what you’re doing and why. Don’t underestimate the power of a story. Manifest destiny was a story, and it was a story that changed the face of this continent. And depending on how you understand that story now, it’s either a story of pioneers and growth, or it’s a story of the displacement of indigenous people and atrocities against them. Slavery was a story, too, or at least it was enabled by a story, you know, the story of racial supremacy. Which, that’s a story that a lot of people still want to believe is a thing of the past, and that belief has consequences. Stories have consequences.
The story of America is one that a lot of people, including me, have found inspiring and beautiful and deeply, deeply important. It’s a story that, for example, my grandfather, my father’s father, fought for and was wounded for in World War II, when he fought in a segregated infantry unit, and while his family was imprisoned in a camp in the Arizona desert just because they happened to look like the enemy. And, isn’t that just like another story that we’re hearing today?
So, this is the thing, right? The American story is one that’s great, but it’s not one that we as a people have ever collectively lived up to. You know, individually, sure, but as a whole, as a nation, we have always fallen short of the ideals in our story. So the question is, if that story is a worthwhile one, what can we—what can you and I and all of us do to make that story a true one? That’s the question, and that’s my challenge to you. You, the one listening to this right now. What are you going to do to make this a country that lives up to its own story?
Well, there are lots of ways to help, to get involved, lots of things big and small that you can do. What I want to ask you to do right now is, make sure you’re registered to vote. If you’ve never registered, or if you’ve moved, or maybe if you’ve changed your name, gotten married or whatever, register, or re-register to vote. You can go to vote.org right now, and they have resources to get you registered and check your registration status no matter which state you live in. I put a link in the show notes, so go ahead, pause the show and go do that, right now. I’ll wait. And then make sure you get out there and vote in November. It matters. Do it. Election Day is Tuesday, November 6th.
OK. Now, on to today’s show. Today’s guest is poet Leah Umansky. Leah is the author of two chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently the full-length collection The Barbarous Century, which was published by Eyewear Publishing in March of this year. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, The White Review, The Bennington Review, American Poetry Review, Thrush Literary Review, and The Brooklyn Rail, among others. And she describes herself as a Game of Thrones and Mad Men superfan, and some of her Game of Thrones poems have even been translated into Norwegian.
Now, I recently read Leah’s book The Barbarous Century, and I just loved it, I found it to be this joyful, exuberant experience, full of wonderfully playful language, and, you know, it just made me feel good. And, you know, there’s the kind of art that makes you feel good by hiding or disguising the bad things, by looking away. But then there’s the kind that makes you feel good in spite of the darkness in the world, that doesn’t shy away or fail to acknowledge it, but that refuses to succumb to it. And that’s what The Barbarous Century is, I think. So, you know, I was pleased to talk with her about it.
I’ve put a link in the show notes to Leah’s website, where you can buy a copy of The Barbarous Century directly from her. I highly recommend it.
Oh, and one more thing before we start, in the second segment we talk about the HBO series Westworld with a heavy emphasis on the second half of the second season. If you want to avoid spoilers, I recommend stopping after the first segment.
If you’d like to join the conversation, you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to livetweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Leah Umansky.
Mike Sakasegawa: So I was wondering if we could start with a poem?
Leah Umansky: Yeah. So I decided that I’m going to read the last poem in the book, in The Barbarous Century, actually.
LU: It feels very fitting for what’s going on in the world.
LU: The title is called “Survival.”
My whole life I’ve been the speaker of my poems, but that isn’t really true. My voice came late, sympathetic, like a witness, or a victim. It was a rescuing impulse: that art. We were already groping at each other through the flower-sprayed fields of self-discovery. All across this body, I felt I was winning. I felt the harshness of promise conspire with the transformation of story, my story. We all have stories, like the way all states have fear.
This is a feared state but we must open the doors of our hearts, and let the latches fall. All futures are uncertain. A brave new world is one where doom and sight are equivocal. Look again, this isn’t fiction; we are living this.
At times, the extraordinary overtakes me. A kiss, a new book, a moment of flattery, laughter or a happy mistake. The dream, the scene of the past, and the present are all encounters like train travel. The moment passes through us before we register the scene, but I want to register this.
I want to remember my hope and my heart. I want to remember the way time skips forward and away, like the stunning sight of bird-wings beating, that stirred fascination, that flutter and art. Yes, I said art, and it is, even in this pacing of life we propel ourselves through.
The wild joy is in the speaking. We must keep speaking. We are all in some way depressed, and the undepressed is in the imagining of desertion. The imagining of the next moment, the next day, the next year, like a rift opening. Keep looking. Manipulate that violating. Manipulate the whirl of your anger and meld it to what stirs you.
In T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Merlin tells the young King Arthur, The Wart, that he will someday face all the evil in the world. He says, ‘Learning will never fail you,’ and I feel that’s good advice. We are all facing the darkness head-on.
Armor yourself in disruption and creation; that is the way this will end, in a forward slip into story, in taking the best parts of us into a future dawning with art and voice.
MS: Mm. Thank you. Yeah so, it’s funny, I was actually thinking a bunch about this poem—this exact poem—
MS: —leading up to talking to you. I always kind of like to—when I’m considering a collection of anything, whether it’s poems or photographs or whatever, one of the things that I like to do is look at the first one and then look at the last one.
MS: Sequencing is always a big thing for photographers. [laughs]
LU: For sure, yeah.
MS: And this poem, to me it was really interesting because in some ways it felt to me like a really good encapsulation of the collection as a whole.
MS: Sort of, philosophically, I guess. Whereas, sort of, linguistically it felt like more of a departure. And I thought it was just really interesting, having this poem be the thing that you leave us with.
MS: You know what I mean?
LU: Yeah. And I mean, that’s kind of what I like about this poem is that it ends the book, that it does sort of leave the reader, hopefully, with a sense of hope. Right? And a sense to sort of be optimistic and carry on and… I really like what you said about it sort of encapsulating the whole book because so much of the book has to do with story.
LU: And different stories we tell ourselves, stories that surround us in pop culture and in our families and in real life and in history and so forth. Ironically, it’s also one of the poems in the book that was never published anywhere else. And so that kind of makes it one of my favorites, too.
MS: Yeah, and there’s something… The line that has really popped out for me in this poem—for kind of obvious reasons—is “Look again, this isn’t fiction; we are living this.”
MS: And there’s something about that. When I’m thinking about what we are living—
LU: Mm-hm, yep.
MS: —and how it’s such a strange and disorienting thing to be looking at it and thinking about how this is so much weirder than anything I’ve ever read. You know?
LU: Right. Mm-hm, absolutely.
MS: And there’s a way in which you can—I can, certainly, feel myself tipping towards despair, but I feel like there’s something about both this poem and the collection as a whole that really acknowledges that. But also, this poem in particular almost reads like a manifesto about why you shouldn’t do that. You know?
LU: [laughs] Oh, I love that, yeah. Yeah, I mean, I feel like there’s always two ways you can go, right? You could either keep your head high and carry on, or you could fall back into despair. And, I mean in this state that we’re living in, all I’m doing now is really writing about my anger and my rage, and so this poem and a couple other poems in the book were sort of thrown in right before it went to print.
LU: So what you picked up on is the more political aspect of this poem.
LU: In a lot of ways I sort of see it as a sister poem to “Stranger Is: An American Life” because that’s also a pretty political poem. And they’re both sort of about surviving and keeping hope, and one way for me is through story, like I said before. Any medium—TV, music, right?
MS: There’s—let me see if I can find it… So there’s a line in the poem “For Reals” where you say “I want to do. I want to make and I want the making to do wondrous things.” And that, to me, there’s a way in which that, itself, is sort of the most powerful thing that we can do in order to fight that urge to despair.
LU: Exactly. Yeah, and again it goes back to creating and, you know, in a way I feel like us artists—in any medium—are lucky that we could… We have ways of expressing ourselves, right?
LU: As tons of people are dealing with their fears and rage and anger, and they can’t get it out. I mean, I have so many friends that are writers that just can’t write. For what they’re feeling right now with the current political world.
LU: It’s hard.
MS: It is, it is, and one of the things that I that about was, you know, my introduction to this book was actually—I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to say it, but sort of the first thing when I opened the book was the inscription you put in it.
MS: This little note that you put where you just said “Remember—the future doesn’t need to be bleak!” And, I don’t know, there’s something about these poems that do that.
LU: Thank you. That was sort of one of the missions of the book—whether I was conscious of it or not—was that there’s, again, a sense of hope and a sense of joy and a sense of wonder that we could hold onto even though we might not be so happy.
LU: [laughs] You know, the simplest way to say that.
MS: Yeah. I’ve read through the whole collection a few times now, and the first time I read through it, you know, I have to admit I actually found the poems a little bit difficult.
MS: And part of this is just, you know, me. That I sometimes have a little trouble with poetic language that is less straightforward.
MS: But I found myself looking for a key, if you will.
MS: And so, when I had that in mind, it was interesting to me that in a couple of places you almost put a tag on that.
MS: Like “Here’s a key for you.” You know what I mean?
MS: Like there’s—let me see, in “This Is a Love Poem” you write “Sound is at the bottom of everything.”
MS: At the end of “For Reals” you write “Poetry is lonely times, / but poetry is also language, / and also, social. / It is about personhood. / I choose sound. / It is a way to enter. / It is a way.”
MS: And there was something about that that really clicked for me. That really opened up a lot of other things, the idea of sound being a key—
MS: —to the poems. And I was wondering if we could talk about that a little bit.
LU: Yeah, that’s really interesting. And that kind of goes back to what you were saying about the first poem and the last poem. The last line of the first poem “I Heard the Sparrows Aging” is “I will sing of the heart.” And there’s so much of the heart in this book. I mean literally, the word heart.
LU: [laughs] I think sound in many ways is where I write from, a lot of times, in terms of wordplay and repetition and melody and rhythm. I mean, other than writing and reading, music’s a really big part of my life. So I think it’s kind of just always in my head. Not that I’m a musician; I’m not. [laughs] Yeah, and the idea that, I mean, at least for me, here in New York City, so much about being a writer for me is about community. Right? And about supporting writers in all different stages. And that’s a big part of why I started my reading series here, around seven years ago.
LU: So yeah, I mean because being a writer—being any kind of artist, I imagine—can be really lonely. And so that’s kind of where the end of that, what was it, “A Real Poem” that you mentioned, that’s where that comes from. Right, that poetry is lonely times, but it’s also social. And it’s also about each other.
MS: Yeah. There’s something about, you know, when you talk about having a reading series, that that certainly makes it more tangibly connecting people in a social way.
MS: But I think also even just hearing a poem out loud can really change the experience of the poem, itself. Right?
LU: Absolutely, yeah. Yeah, and in terms of song, there’s also the whole element of singing when you’re happy, right? Sort of in the sense that singing is almost like an ode. Right? You’re praising something most of the time. And so, in terms of language, which is where the sound is coming from obviously in this book, even in some of the pop culture poems, they’re still sort of an ode to something, right?
MS: Mm-hm. One of the things I also thought was interesting when I was thinking about sound is how some of these poems, there’s stuff in some of these poems that seems like it’s actually very, very visual. Like just what the poem looks like on the page.
MS: You know, like the way that you use spaces, and some of the ways that some of the poems kind of are all over the page, and some of them are very tight. Some of them, like in “Turning Over Phrases,” you have things that I’m not even sure how you would say them out loud, where you’re talking about things that you’re typing.
MS: Or there are little constructions here and there with double colons or things like that, that almost seem impossible to say out loud. And I thought that was really interesting, too.
LU: That is interesting, yeah. Colons a lot of time I use for emphasis or pause. And there’s definitely the visual element, you’re totally right about that. But in “Turning Over Phrases” you have the line “I touch-type” and then there’s four x’s in brackets, and I saw that as typing. As like your finger typing on a key. I’ve actually only read that poem, I think, once before. And when I read it, I think I was being interviewed and so it was sort of on-the-spot [laughs] and I just sort of put my finger in the air four times.
MS: Mm. [laughs]
LU: So, you know, sometimes you have to work on your feet. [laughs]
MS: Yeah, that poem, too, really highlighted something for me about… So there’s something, I think, very exuberant about the language, in that poem especially but in a lot of the poems. There’s something feels very… almost luxuriating in language. And in that poem, the way that you sort of mix different types of emphases, like all-caps at some times, italics at other times. And you do this throughout the thing where you sort of are flexing the language, where you’re turning a lot of verbs into nouns and nouns into verbs, and at times you’re just making words up. Which—
MS: —it struck me as almost kind of like… It reminded me of—like T. S. Eliot would do that, or even Dr. Seuss would do that.
MS: And when you read a Dr. Seuss book and he’s making up words, but they also feel so right. You know?
MS: And here, you have a line in “Turning Over Phrases”: “and a word is now forswunk and forswinkled.” Like that, it’s just so… happy, you know?
LU: Right, those aren’t real words. [laughs] Well, I mean, that’s also sort of the teacher in me. Because I teach middle-school/high-school English, and there’s so much that’s stigmatized in poetry. And so one of the things that I’m always telling students is that poetry could be fun and you could play with it, and that there really aren’t so many rules. And that’s, I think, what I’m drawn to in poetry, is things like that. Yeah, forswunk and forswinkled are not real words. [laughs]
LU: But it gives you a sort of essence in the poem, I think.
MS: Mm-hm. Yeah. And I think a lot of this comes—there’s this sense in many of the poems, whether it’s, like I said, in how the lines in some of the poems are sort of all over the page. Or the way that, like I say, you flex the language, where there this sort of sense of wildness or—I don’t quite want to say chaos, that’s not quite right. But do you know what I mean?
MS: Where it is really playful and sort of exuberant, and it just made me happy in a way that I couldn’t figure out why almost. You know?
LU: I love that so much. [laughs] That’s good. This is my second full-length collection and my fourth book in total, and my first book, Domestic Uncertainties—my first full-length book—has a lot more white space. I mean, I’m really all over the page in so much of that book. Where in this book, there’s a lot more prose poems. Which is interesting to me. It just sort of happened that way. But I love that that made you happy.
MS: Can you think of maybe why? Do you have a sense of why you were more attracted to prose poems at this point?
LU: I mean, I’ve always sort of been attracted to them. There’s quite a few prose poems in Domestic Uncertainties and in the chapbooks. I don’t know. I think it’s because there’s a lot of poems in here that are more narrative, that are more straightforward.
LU: Which, again, kind of aligns itself with story. I mean, for a lot of friends of mine, for example, who are not poets and not writers, have said that this book was a lot easier for them to understand, which kind of goes back to what you were saying earlier. But, I don’t know. It’s probably just also personal, that I’m at a different point in my life where I was writing Domestic Uncertainties. In terms of feeling confident as a writer and in terms of being confident as a woman. I mean, Domestic Uncertainties is all about my marriage and my divorce. I sort of say it’s a memoir of poetry, in a way. And so there was a lot that I was searching for and coming to terms with, where now in 2018 things are much different.
MS: Mm. One of the things you just said about your friends saying that this book was easier to understand, what came to mind to me was: we actually had a very brief conversation on Twitter—
MS: —and you said this thing that I’ve been sort of turning over in my head a bunch since—
LU: Oh, God.
MS: —then. No, no, no, it’s good. Where you said, I think it was something like that as a teacher and as a poet, you like to say that poetry isn’t about understanding a poem, but about how it makes you feel.
LU: Yeah, 100%.
MS: Yeah, and I’ve been really turning that over in my mind a lot. I think it was a couple three weeks ago that—
MS: —that we had that conversation.
MS: Because it’s something that I personally kind of have a block about. I tend to approach things intellectually first. And I feel like one of the troubles that I had immersing myself in this collection, at first, was that I was having reactions emotionally to what I was reading, but I didn’t really understand why.
MS: What that was highlighting for me was that there are different ways of understanding things, and that, for me, I tend to be very analytical, and when I’m having a response to something, I really want to know and be able to articulate the reason.
MS: And I think I’ve gotten a little closer there, but I also kind of feel like there’s a way in which you can understand something in a way that doesn’t involve you being able to explain it.
MS: Does that make sense?
LU: 100%, yeah. I do stand by what I said and I say that quite often to people, especially to students. I think it could also be dependent on the kind of poem you’re talking about. If you’re reading something older, like William Blake, it’s a different sort of thing. There’s obviously scholars of Blake, so you know what you’re looking for in terms of what the poem’s about. I think in terms of contemporary poetry, for me it’s always been that a poem is successful if it makes you feel something.
LU: In terms of reading poetry, in terms of writing poetry. I know that a poem is strong or a poem is successful if it makes me feel something. There are certain poems in this poem that really killed me in writing. Like I was devastated. [laughs] Some were kind of heartbreaking.
LU: So, yeah, I get what you’re saying, that you’re making the point that there’s a little bit of a disconnect between understanding something analytically and understanding something emotionally.
LU: I think that’s OK.
MS: Yeah, I guess it kind of has to be. Sometimes it gets… I remember I was listening to another podcast a little while ago, and Kaveh Akbar was on it and he was talking about kind of the same thing, where if you listen to a piece of music you just have an immediate response to it, and you don’t necessarily… You might be able to take it apart and say “If I built another song out of parts that did this, it might do something similar,” but you still have this sort of instinctive reaction to it that goes beyond describing it.
LU: 100%. I mean, especially with music. Tori Amos is one of my favorite musicians ever, and there are tons of songs that I have no idea what the song’s actually about. But I know what it means to me and I know how it makes me feel.
MS: So I definitely didn’t want to talk about this book and not talk about the middle section of it, because I feel like it’s really important.
MS: Where you have the second section, the title of which is “People Want Their Legends.”
MS: And that’s also the title of the second-to-last poem in that section.
MS: And these are all poems that are inspired by or responding to a couple of different pop culture items.
MS: And I found these really fascinating.
LU: Thank you.
MS: And I think what it was was, so these poems, the ones that are about pop culture, you’re referencing Game of Thrones and Mad Men. And that in itself was interesting enough, just as responses to these things that we’ve all seen. Or, at least, most of us have seen. But the thing that really grabbed me was, there’s a line in “People Want Their Legends”—there’s a couple lines—where [in] one you say “I want something to rally about.” And then at the very end you say “This is more powerful than myth.” And what that got me to thinking about was how myth and legend and religion, maybe, how one thing that they do is connecting us to a tradition and connecting us to something bigger than ourselves. And it kind of feels like, the way you approach pop culture in this, it suggests that maybe these shows are our contemporary myths.
LU: 100%. I love that, yeah. For me, again, it goes back to the idea of story, right? It goes back to the idea of what inspires you, what motivates you, what gets you to move on despite sadness, despite rage, despite anger or anything you’re going through. And it’s such an amazing thing that now we’re living through this golden age of television, and it’s just like nothing has been before. The writing is so inspiring and so relatable, and you have these larger-than-life characters that I feel it’s easy to align yourself with.
LU: And so for me, in a lot of ways, these characters in these TV shows, for sure—I mean it sounds kind of lame to say it borders on religion, but there is that element of belief. That you’re rooting for characters, you believe in what they’re doing, you feel certain emotions that they feel. And so in a lot of these poems—the Mad Men poems and the Game of Thrones poems—even though I’m writing in response to a TV show, I’m in all those poems. I’m also writing about myself.
MS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It seems to me like religion and myth, one of the things that those things do is, in telling these stories that they give us a way of understanding ourselves.
MS: And that they give us a way of understanding our place in the grand scheme of things.
MS: And so it was really interesting to treat these things—I mean, a lot of people would treat pop culture as just sort of a trifling thing, right?
LU: And sometimes they do. [laughs]
MS: [laughs] You know, but to treat them in the way that you have here, as something worthy of poetic attention, there was something really kind of neat about that.
LU: Thank you.
MS: I mean that’s not really a great word, neat, but—
LU: No, but I get what you mean. Yeah. Well, to be honest—and I know I’ve said this many other times—but I really had no choice. When I started watching Game of Thrones, for example, I think Season 1 was almost done. And I started watching it on HBO On Demand and found myself for the first time ever pausing and writing notes. And I had never done that in my life for any kind of TV show or movie. And so it was crazy when I sat down to write that week, and the first poem I wrote was “I Want to Be Stark[like]” because that title, that sentence, was a note on my phone. And I all of a sudden started writing Game of Thrones poems. So I really had no choice. But I saw something in Ned Stark that inspired me.
MS: Yeah. It’s such an interesting thing, you know, these shows—especially these two shows, the HBO shows, in general—are such a big part of… Like, both of us spend a ton of time on Twitter, I know.
LU: I love Twitter!
MS: Yeah, I do, too. Except for when it terrifies me, but…
MS: But, just culturally, we spend so much time talking about these exact shows, and everybody’s got their take. You know?
LU: For sure.
MS: One of the lines that really jumped out at me in this section of poems was, the poem is “The Times,” where you say “I thought I’d hate Don, like everyone else, but I don’t.”
LU: It’s true.
LU: [laughing] True story. Well, you know, same thing. So when Mad Men started, I didn’t start watching Mad Men until Season 5 was already on TV. And for years people had been saying, “Oh, you need to watch Mad Men.” I was like “Yeah, no, Don Draper, he doesn’t look like someone I’m going to like.” And I wasn’t really that interested. And that was back when Netflix was only DVDs. Back in the good old days. [laughs] I started watching Season 1 when, I think, Season 5 had just ended on TV, and I just instantly fell in love with it. That sentence is just true life. I really thought I was going to hate him and I ended up connecting to him and, yes, pitying him because he’s definitely flawed, but also falling in love with him, in a way.
MS: It’s such a weird thing. I feel like there’s something in this about how we talk about things. You know? And how… Sometimes I’m not entirely sure how I feel about things, because I don’t know whether to trust my own instincts. Even if it’s something as simple as just a television show, where you definitely have a lot of people saying… There are a lot of people who say “Well, Don is trash and—”
MS: “—if you like Don, you’re trash.”
LU: [laughs] I get it.
MS: Which I can certainly see the point, but also sometimes it doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of room for people to form their own opinions.
MS: Which is also one of the things that I like these poems, that that’s what you’re doing here, is you’re taking your very personal responses to these things, and then using them as a way of exploring yourself. And, I don’t know, there’s just something about that that feels sort of—
LU: No, I get what you’re saying. “The Times” is a long poem, it goes on for a couple pages. And it’s very much about Don, but it’s also about Peggy. The scene that I’m talking about, I think, is in Season 5—it could be Season 4, but I think it’s Season 5—where they have this moment in his office where he falls asleep on her lap, and it’s this beautifully tender scene. And for a split second you see this other side of Don. And then you find out that Peggy’s going to leave, and the whole idea that she’s trying to make something more for herself, and what’s he going to do without her?
But, I mean, same with the Cersei poem. I remember writing the Cersei poem and I couldn’t believe I was writing a poem for Cersei because most people hate her guts, right? But when she does that walk of shame, it was one of the most amazing things in the whole series. At least for me, my heart really ached for her. Here she was, naked, walking this walk of shame, with that bell being rung above her, and I saw her as a woman, and as a mother in that one episode. And then, of course, after that I hated her guts again.
MS: Yeah. [laughs]
LU: [laughs] But, yeah, in that one episode I really saw her as every woman. And that’s kind of where that poem came out of.
MS: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. That was hard to watch.
LU: Yeah, I mean it was intense.
MS: Yeah. So I didn’t want to leave this—we’re probably going to move to the next segment soon, but I didn’t want to leave this segment until we talked a little bit about the cover.
MS: So I know you did the cover image yourself, that you also do collage?
LU: Yeah, I made the collage. I didn’t do the font.
MS: Right, right.
LU: Thank you.
MS: Well, yeah, I think it’s interesting, it’s very visually interesting, but also, what strikes me as really interesting about it is the idea of thinking about whether or not, or how, something like collage and something like poetry can come together, or how the processes of those might inform one another.
MS: Do you think that making collages and making poems, that there’s any similarity for you in how those things come about?
LU: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of overlay, I just don’t know how conscious it is, again. I think it goes back to what you were saying about some of the poems and the white space, right? Because those are the more visual poems. And obviously collage is all visual. There’s definitely connections in the way that you’re spacing things and you’re laying things out. When I made this cover—I knew the title of the book long before I made the cover, and so I knew The Barbarous Century was going to be both a book that was about despair, but also a book that was about hope, and about the heart. And so I knew I wanted something that was kind of bleak, but also something that was sort of hopeful. So I made the majority of it that sort of blackish-gray background, and I wanted to have something kind of bursting out that couldn’t be controlled. And that’s sort of where those roses come from. And these are just all things that I had cut out and stuck in a folder for years. I’ve always been that person that cuts things out. Lots of people are, I guess. And lots of times it just sits in a folder and nothing happens. Each time I’ve had a book come out, I’ve been lucky enough to make the cover. And so when I was putting this one together, originally it didn’t have the three women on the front. It was the roses and the black and the gray. And then I decided to put the women on it, because I felt like it added a whole other layer of feminism to it.
LU: Though, all three of those images came from magazines from the fifties. Which I also think is interesting in terms of something like Mad Men.
LU: But, again, it’s also about feeling. I knew that I wanted this sort of warmth to be busting out of it, and that’s where the roses came from. And then when I saw the font that the art director did, Edwin Smet at Eyewear, I was just absolutely head-over-heels in love with it.
MS: One of the things that I think about with collage is how with collage it’s different from some other visual art forms because you are taking things that are more or less found and making something new out of it.
MS: And there’s something—I felt like there was a connection there between that idea of finding and repurposing, to what you’re doing in some of these poems. Especially the television ones.
LU: Yeah. Again, it goes back to story. I always sort of joke about this, but it’s sort of true. And it’s something that Jeanette Winterson says a lot, that every story is another story. That there’s this idea that there is no original text because we’re always telling the same story in different ways. And in a way that does kind of relate to collage and to art, like you were just saying. Even that last poem, “Survival,” that T. H. White book, The Once and Future King, is one of my favorite books in the whole world. I never thought he would enter a poem, but he did, because it… When he says that to The Wart in that book, it’s all about how The Wart is this young kid that’s going to become king, and he’s like “I’m going to kill everything! It’s going to be fantastic! Everything’s going to be great! I’m going to capture all the evil in the world and defeat it!” And Merlin is thinking “Well, you are going to try to do that, and you’re going to get killed.” But he can’t say that to him, because he knows that he can see the future. So that idea that we’re all facing the darkness, we’re all facing the evil, and what do we do to prepare ourselves? Well, one thing to do is to look to story.
MS: Hm. Yeah. Yeah.
LU: If that makes sense.
MS: It does. Story has been on my mind a lot the last couple of days. [laughs]
LU: [laughs] Yeah. On the cover with the three women, there’s one that’s dressed up in a cocktail dress, and there’s one that you only have half her face, in the leopard. And then the one next to her looks like she could be in some kind of a wedding dress. I’m not really sure. But what I loved about the first women, in the wedding dress, is that it sort of reminded me of Wuthering Heights, the movie. And, I mean, that book is my entire heart. I kind of like that element of juxtaposition in it.
MS: Yeah, I think there’s a lot in this collage. [laughs]
LU: Thank you. I appreciate that. And I love that Eyewear reprints the cover on the inside, in black-and-white. That’s kind of cool.
MS: Yeah. So why don’t we take a quick little break and then we’ll come back and do the second segment?
[Spoiler warning: This segment contains major spoilers for the second season of Westworld.]
Mike Sakasegawa: So for the second segment I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, and it can be whatever you’d like to talk about, whatever’s on your mind, so what would you like to talk about today?
Leah Umansky: I think I want to talk about Westworld.
MS: All right. I caught up the day before yesterday. [Note: this was recorded the week after the 9th episode of the 2nd season aired.]
LU: Good, I was going to ask you.
MS: Yeah, no, I’m all caught up. Should we put spoiler warnings on this?
LU: Spoiler alert!
MS: [laughing] OK. Alright, so where are you going?
LU: [sigh] I liked what you said earlier about the idea that especially in these HBO television shows that they’re sort of larger than life, and people are really connecting to things in a way that maybe they hadn’t before. And what’s interesting about Westworld—Season 2’s coming to an end on Sunday—is that, for me at least, it represents to me so much of the current state we’re living in.
LU: In the sense of, what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be humane? What’s the difference between good and evil? So those elements are always sort of floating through my mind while I’m watching it. And also, again, what draws me, I think, to a lot of the TV shows that I’m interested in are these strong female characters. There was an article—I think it was on Vice—it was back in maybe April? That was talking about how Dolores is the new Khaleesi
LU: [laughs] Which I found entertaining, but I don’t think that they’re that similar, other than the long, blonde hair.
LU: But, again, you have these two strong female characters that are sort of on a quest.
LU: They’re on a search for something larger than themselves.
MS: Yeah. For me, the character that I tend to find the most interesting is actually Maeve.
LU: Oh yeah, I’m obsessed with Maeve.
MS: Yeah. And she has that same strong female character, sort of on a quest kind of thing. One of the things that I can never quite—and obviously this is just how the show is set up, is that they want you to keep guessing—is to figure out how much of what Dolores or Maeve or any of them, how much of what they’re doing is their own—
MS: —free will, and how much is just some thing that Ford wants them to do. It’s such a weird question.
LU: It’s so genius. It’s amazing. I gave a reading on Monday, at a reading series called Halfway There in Montclair, which was a lot of fun. And in my bio, I said—I usually say “Team Khaleesi, Team Maeve.” And when I was introduced, one of the curators said, “Oh, are you still Team Mave? Do we even know what’s happening with Maeve? Isn’t she dying?” And I said, “Well I don’t know, I mean she’s not dead yet. It looks like she’s dying but we don’t know what’s going to happen.” And so I’m sort of always Team Maeve, but recently I’ve really become Team Bernard. And he’s really struggling, right, with so much internal conflict, but like literal internal conflict. Ford is in his code.
MS: [laughs] Yeah.
LU: It’s just unreal. Especially in this last episode, last week, where he tells Ford to get out of his head, and he knows that he really can’t escape him.
MS: Yeah. This last episode was rough.
LU: Oh my god, I just… I can’t. I don’t know. And the episode before that with Ghost Nation, I found to be one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television.
MS: Yeah, that was really something. And also it’s something that, this show, the way that it portrays Native Americans—
MS: —it’s very much drawn from old westerns and stuff like that.
LU: Exactly, yeah.
MS: Which is more as a force of nature than as people. And then to have this, and especially to be juxtaposing their search and quest and agency as compared to Maeve or Dolores or anybody else, that was really fascinating.
LU: Yeah. I just wrote a poem about that whole scene where Ford, all of a sudden you see him working with, I think it was buffalo or horses. The lights are on, and Akecheta—I think that’s how you say his name—he all of a sudden came upon Ford and then Ford put him into analysis. That whole scene was just so compelling, to see the way Ford has controlled basically everything.
LU: And I wrote Ford his first poem the other day. I was shocked.
MS: Huh. Wow.
LU: [laughs] Based on that episode. And then I wrote William a poem the other day, based on last week’s episode. Because, again, like Cersei, that was… I mean older William, Ed Harris William, you sort of love to hate him because he’s a bad guy. But then, as the last couple of episodes have shown you, how flawed he is again. It’s similar to Cersei and it’s also a bit similar to Don Draper, except I don’t really see him as a villain in any way. But the fact that he looked as his wife and he said to her that she was right, that all this time he hasn’t belonged to her world.
LU: With this beautiful, scary moment where he hasn’t even been present in the real world, he’s been in love with Dolores for, what, thirty years?
MS: Yeah. There’s something about that, especially where that ends up with him, where he’s so lost in the narrative of it that—
LU: Mm-hm, for sure.
MS: —So I’m—this is going to get a little, uh, let’s see where it goes.
MS: [laughs] So one of the things that I was thinking about recently is, so this year I’m on track to read more books than any year since I’ve been keeping track.
LU: That’s great.
MS: I started keeping a reading journal in 2003.
MS: I think I’m on my 49th book of the year right now.
LU: I’m so jealous.
MS: It almost feels a little pathological sometimes, but anyway…
MS: One of the things that I’ve been noticing is that I’ve been reading more back-to-back, with no break in between stories lately than I ever have before in my life. And it does this thing where, when you’re reading a story, especially when you’re reading, I feel, a narrative—not necessarily fiction, but a narrative, right?
MS: That when you’re reading something like that, the emotions of it and the experience of it is so heightened. And then when you’re done with it, there’s this sort of almost weird, jarring sense of coming back to reality. Have you ever felt that before?
LU: For sure, yeah. Because you’re leaving the story.
MS: Yeah. There’s something about that where, since I’ve done that so many more times this year so far than I have in any other previous year, where I’ve been having that jolt more often. Where there’s something very seductive, especially about fiction. There’s something kind of uncomfortable about that. And then when I was thinking about that with respect to this last episode, where now you’ve got William, who can’t even tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not.
LU: I know, my God!
MS: It just, there’s something—
LU: It’s a good point. I mean, it also goes back to obsession, right? And it goes back to what motivates you, and it goes back to the stories that you tell yourself.
LU: And that could go for anybody. The Barbarous Century is so much a book about being a single woman in the 21st Century, and the stories that I tell myself to keep myself afloat, right? And so that kind of idea lends itself also to Westworld, in the sense that we don’t really know what William’s looking for. And he doesn’t even know very much anymore what he’s looking for, but he’s not going to let go of it.
LU: You saw several times, especially in this season, where he could have killed himself, and he didn’t.
LU: I mean, when he kills his daughter—major spoiler alert—that was crazy!
LU: And that’s when you really saw how much Ford is also in his head.
LU: And the truth of the matter is he’s most likely not going to ever be able to live happily ever after with Dolores. That ship has sailed.
LU: So what’s his endgame? What’s he looking for?
MS: Yeah. That thing you just said about the stories you tell yourself, that seems really relevant, too. Like there was that scene in this last episode where he’s talking to his wife, who he thinks is asleep.
LU: Oh, it’s amazing. Yeah.
MS: There was a line—he said something like, “I tried to do good things in this world, to be generous, and that has to count for something.”
LU: Yeah. Yeah, I wrote that down. That’s sort of in the new poem I wrote.
MS: I feel like there’s this way—you know, because there’s so much truly horrific things going on in the world right now, every day.
MS: And there’s this sense, I feel like, where people tell themselves stories about themselves in order to make themselves more comfortable.
MS: And those stories can be so seductive, they make you feel good in such a way that they can allow you to do truly horrific things.
LU: God forbid, but yeah. [laughs] I mean, that’s what’s scary about him, right? I mean, now his whole family’s gone.
LU: Even Dolores. That death at the end of last week’s [episode] was completely shocking. This whole time she’s thinking that her and Teddy are going to enter into the real world, and they’re going to make it out. And it’s interesting that she got so carried up in her own story that she changes Teddy to be the man she needs him to be.
LU: Which is interesting because Teddy’s not even a real man to begin with, right? She sort of slips into the role of Ford in a way, and kind of demonizes Teddy, for lack of a better phrase. At the end of that episode when he realizes it, you just don’t see that coming.
LU: It doesn’t seem like she saw that coming either and it’s just the same thing. She’s been telling herself the same story and it doesn’t go the way she planned.
MS: Yeah. That scene was one of the ones that, to me, was really… Because so much of the show is this question about whether the hosts have agency or not. And I feel like there’s an extension there to asking really whether any of us have agency or not.
LU: 100%, yeah. Which is another layer of brilliance in the show, that so often it makes you think about yourself.
MS: Yeah. That move that he makes at the end there, the only choice that he can make, you’ve got to kind of feel like that is a real feeling of agency there.
MS: That that’s a choice that he actually made.
MS: That was—
MS: —heartbreaking, but it—
LU: Oh my God, yeah. Well, same with the Ghost Nation episode. When Akecheta realizes that the only way he could find his love is to kill himself, so that he’s taken out of the world and they repair him.
LU: And then he gets taken out and then he goes into, I don’t know what it is, that basement or whatever where all the other robots are, and he sees her. It was just absolutely heartbreaking.
MS: Mm. Yeah.
LU: And he realizes that she’s not alive.
LU: So it’s interesting. I mean in many ways I feel like it’s such a show about the heart, and about love.
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
LU: Even in last week’s episode, when Ford is talking to Maeve and he says to her that she was always like a child to him, because he didn’t have any children.
LU: That was such a touching moment, too, because you still sort of don’t know how—at least, I don’t know how I feel about Ford. I just still don’t know if I think he’s a good guy or a bad guy.
LU: But in that moment I felt sort of tender towards him.
MS: Yeah, that episode—the last two episodes have really been swinging you back and forth on Ford. [laughs]
LU: Well yeah, and that’s kind of where I thought you were going before, when you were talking about all these back-to-back books you’re reading. Season 2 especially has been so… You know, the way they jump around in time, and the way that each narrative, because it’s jumping through time, is one after the other after the other, and you really need to have full brain capacity to understand what’s going on and what time frame you’re in.
LU: It kind of relates to what you were saying.
MS: Yeah, that’s true. I think so much of it with Anthony Hopkins, too, is, one, he’s such a great actor.
MS: And they have just an embarrassment of riches in terms of acting talent on that show.
MS: But with him… I sort of accidentally saw, when was a kid, a few scenes from Silence of the Lambs.
LU: [laughing] Yeah.
MS: Of him. And it wasn’t even anything gory or anything. It was just one of the scenes where it’s a close-up on his face.
MS: And he’s just talking. And that was legitimately one of the scariest things that I’d ever seen. You know?
LU: Yeah. It’s scary!
MS: Yeah. But then he also has had so many roles, too, where he just has this real profundity and wisdom and decency about him. The fact that he can do all of those things, that really does help with the ambiguity of this show.
LU: Yeah. And it’s funny because I remember seeing the posters for Westworld all over the city, like on the buses and in the subway stations . And it was just that opening image of the circle and the human form. The mold or whatever of the human. And it looked so sci-fi. And I was like, “Oh, I don’t even know if I’m going to watch that show.” Because I’m not… I like sci-fi but I’m not a die-hard sci-fi fan. Or a fantasy fan, for that matter. Then I read some article about Anthony Hopkins saying that it was one of the first times HBO proposed a character to him for a show, and it was the only time he’s ever said yes.
LU: I was like “Wow. So that means it must be really good.” And then when I started watching it, I just thought he was absolutely magnificent.
LU: And… yeah.
LU: I don’t even know. And it’s funny, because all of Season 2—at the beginning of Season 2 you don’t know what the deal is with Ford, if he’s alive or if he’s dead. And you don’t know how much of Season 2 he’s even going to be in. I remember feeling so sad after Season 1, like “Is that it? He only signed on for one season? That’s unbelievable!”
LU: And obviously that’s not the case. He’s been in the last three. The scenes with him and Bernard. Jeffrey Wright is just so amazing.
LU: I’m so excited for the finale. I don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s going to be intense.
MS: Yeah. Well, so there’s one last question that I always ask everyone.
MS: We’ve actually kind of been talking about it this whole segment, but I’ll ask it anyway.
MS: So the question I always ask is if there is a piece of art or literature or just general creativity that you’ve experienced recently that meant something to you. Obviously Westworld is one of those things, but maybe we could pick something else, too. [laughs]
LU: I’ve had a much different experience than you have with reading. This has been a really hard year for me in terms of reading. I haven’t had a book I’ve really loved in a long time.
LU: I just finished Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, which is the first novel I think I’ve finished since, I don’t know, maybe in a year.
LU: I just haven’t had a book to love in a really long time. And it’s a book that’s about a love story between a woman and a merman, so it definitely has that sort of fantasy element to it. I didn’t really know how much I was going to like it, and it really resonated with me in terms of just the whole notion of being on a quest for love.
LU: And finding out more about yourself. It’s interesting that it has this merman fantasy element to it, but it’s something that’s really inspired me lately. It’s been surprising. I didn’t know if I was going to love that book and I actually really, really enjoyed it.
MS: Great! Well, thank you so much for talking with me, I really appreciate it.
LU: Thank you!
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, so, as I mentioned at the top of the show, you can purchase a copy of Leah’s book The Barbarous Century directly from her via her website, and there’s a link in the show notes for that. And if you’re listening from Ireland or England, Leah has some readings coming up this month in Bantry, Cork, Belfast, Dublin, and London, and you can find all of the details on the events page on her website, and there’s a link in the show notes for that as well.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find all of the show’s contact and social media info in the show notes. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, you can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on July 18 with a conversation with photographer and publisher Blue Mitchell, so be sure to come back for that, and until then remember: keep the channel open.