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Silverfisted: An Interview with Deborah Landau

“I love to be frenetically busy,” says Deborah Landau, author of The Uses of the Body. In her third collection, out since April, she explores the complexities of living in a female body. In an honest discussion, Landau pondered how a woman can be defined by her biological usefulness.

Published by Copper Canyon Press, an independent, non-profit founded in 1972, which is currently based in Port Townsend, Washington. The press believes that poetry is vital to language and living and they have produced over 400 titles, including translation, anthologies, prose books about poetry, reissues of out-of-print classics and works from emerging and revered American poets.

Landau draws from her own experience and brings the reader on a journey that is sometimes dark, haunting, sensual and funny; the collection deals with traumatic subjects: aging, illness, the death of a close friend. Though the tome contains suffering, ultimately it ends on a note of hope with her daughter’s birth. Landau is the Director of NYU’s Creative Writing program. She seems too glamorous to live in Park Slope, with her husband, three kids and a dog.

Linda Kleinbub: Your poems seem very personal. How do they reflect on your own life?

Deborah Landau: My poems are distilled. They come from life, but they are not my life. It’s important that the poems to work as art, on the level of language. So the book isn’t straightforwardly autobiographical–though a lot of these things did happen.

UsesBodyCover-1Kleinbub:  I love the line in the first poem, “I don’t have a pill for that, / the doctor said.” You reference that death is inescapable. Are you focused on the negative side of aging?

Landau: There are troubling things that aren’t going to go away. Our bodies are going to wear out, we’re going to get old and die. There is nothing anyone can do to change that. My psychologist sister-in-law says I lack the ability to be in denial. But how can one integrate the simultaneity of pleasure and suffering in the world? Eventually something horrible will happen to all of us, and there’s no escaping it. I wish there were a pill for that.

Kleinbub: The book begins with a celebration. “Well look, the wedding guests are here again.”

Landau: I work in Paris each summer (directing writing programs for NYU) and one summer I lived across the street from a little synagogue.  Every day at noon there was a wedding. At first it was so charming.

Kleinbub: It is an important rite of passage, but you seem to have an irreverent attitude towards it. Your dark wit has been compared to Dorothy Parker, “Now scurry ho, before someone else / goes down on the bride,” “We’re going to swallow vodka / and slap down money.” Where did this perspective come from?

Landau: As the days wore on the weddings appeared more and more formulaic—each a kind of production featuring the same set, plot, the costumes, and characters, with virtually no variation. I was troubled by how systematic and regulated they were, the same ritual every day. The long poem that opens the book came out of the experience of watching those weddings from my window every day for a month.

Kleinbub: “Mr. & Mrs. Suffering” is filled with beautiful, lines like “He knows every road of me. / Can find the turnoff without a map.” Yet the same time there is caution, “One should make full use as possible / before times up. In Paradise / You should appreciate. Don’t squander.”

Landau: The sequence considers the pleasures and complexities of marriage and domestic life–the experience of being in a long-term monogamous relationship, the comforts of commitment, what happens to desire.

Unknown-3Kleinbub: When did you realize that you wanted to be a poet?

Landau: When I was thirteen my mother gave me Anne Sexton’s Love Poems as a gift. I was hooked, that book was so intense. I hadn’t seen poetry like that before.

Kleinbub: I know your mother died when you were in your late 20’s, my mother passed away when I was in my early 30’s.

Landau: It never gets any easier! We still need these people. I still miss her terribly.

Kleinbub: What are the advantages working with a small press?

Landau: I feel very fortunate to be a Copper Canyon author. They have an amazing list, make beautiful books, and excel at getting the books out to readers. The staff there is amazing, they take a great deal of care with the books they do, and it’s a pleasure to work with them.

Kleinbub: Can you describe your experience working with Copper Canyon Press versus working with other publishing houses?

Landau: My first book (Orchidelirium) was selected by Naomi Shihab Nye as winner of the Robert Dana Anhinga Prize for poetry and published by Anhinga press. Most first books of poetry find their way into the world through a contest — it’s exciting to win, but after that you’re sort of on your own. I was grateful when my second book (The Last Usable Hour) was accepted by Michael Wiegers. It’s been nice to feel part of a publishing house in a more ongoing way.

Kleinbub: Does teaching summers in Paris affect your writing?

Landau: I’m in Paris twice a year (a month in the summer, 10 days in January) to direct two programs for NYU: an undergraduate intensive and a low-residency MFA. It’s inspiring to be in that beautiful city, surrounded by writers, and the change of scenery and shift in routine is revitalizing. It’s great to get away, and I have more time to write while I’m there–I’m working, but don’t also have to take care of three kids, make everyone’s breakfast, and walk the dog.

Kleinbub:  Your book begins focused on fears about aging and death, “It scares me to watch / a woman hobble along / the sidewalk, hunched adagio,” yet “Late Summer” is about the miracle of birth.

Landau: That sequence came in a headlong rush. I was on a train (coming home from AWP Boston) and had an incredibly vivid sense memory of the totally unexpected conception and birth of my daughter. Then when I got home someone had sent me the video of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. The visual imagery and mood is nostalgic old Hollywood, and for some reason it triggered something for me.  I wrote that last long sequence. While most of the book was written while I was in Paris, that section was written in Brooklyn.

Kleinbub: Can you describe the memories that emerged?

Landau: I’d returned home from Paris, and hadn’t seen my husband for a month. Our boys were away at camp, we had a few days to relax by ourselves, and inadvertently created our daughter. The whole thing felt so strange, I mean, you expect terrible surprises in life, like a cancer diagnosis, and then this beautiful thing happens. It was a marvelous surprise, this unexpected surging up of life force.

Kleinbub: In your poems about your daughter you make her into a foreign object, “stain purpling the white field,” and “bald and silverfisted.” Were you trying to emulate Sylvia Plath?

Landau: I’ve read a lot of Plath and the influence is there, of course–though I didn’t set out to “emulate” her. I hope it’s more subtle than that! Pregnancy is surreal – in some ways it does feel like a kind of alien invasion. It’s all very science fiction to have something growing inside you, and then to have a person emerge fully formed from your body.

Kleinbub: I loved this passage from “Late Summer:”   

What climate then immodest

fully boarded was I and set off with her—

 

Xanax Vermox rivulets radiation—ferried her flighting

to California to grow rioting drunk and dance at M’s wedding

 

she just a pale and puny welled inside me

 

without visa without a pretty box

dollface-down I could have scorched

 

her could have drown her could have crushed her

not knowing veined was she

and my blood rich and alcohol.

 

She flipped around in there.

I slept off the buzz in my hotel.

 

Landau:  Thank you. I’d been to a wedding in California, and gotten quite drunk. I didn’t know I was pregnant. If I’d known, I’d have skipped the Xanax and cocktails.

Kleinbub: So the last line “I slept off the buzz in my hotel” is literal?

Landau: Yes. But my daughter turned out fine, thank goodness.

Kleinbub: I know you still miss your mom, but how do you feel the new mother/ daughter relationship in your life?

Landau: It’s wonderful. I lost my mother, I had two sons. I’d always wanted a daughter and then she showed up.  She’s just turned three. She is lovely and affectionate. My sons adore her, we all do. She’s been the sweetest addition to our family.


 

Unknown-1Deborah Landau is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Uses of the Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2015) and The Last Usable Hour,a Lannan Literary Selection published by Copper Canyon in 2011. Her first book, Orchidelirium, was selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the Robert Dana Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Her work has appeared in The Paris ReviewTin HousePoetry, The New YorkerBoston ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and elsewhere. Her poems have been widely anthologized in places such as The Best American Erotic PoemsPlease Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking 2015), Not for Mothers Only, (Fence Books), Women’s Work: Modern Poets Writing in English, and translated into Mongolian, Romanian, Russian, and Greek.
She was educated at Stanford, Columbia, and Brown, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and received a Ph.D. in English and American Literature. For many years she co-directed the KGB Bar Monday Night Poetry Series and co-hosted the video interview.
Linda Kleinbub is a mentor at Girls Write Now, an organization that works with at-risk high school girls who have a passion for writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer, Our Town – Downtown, Statement of Record, Short, Fast and Deadly and The Best American Poetry Blog.  Her poem “Like that of the Purple Orchid in My Garden” will appear in the forthcoming book Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of New York Women Poets. She is also a painter and photographer.
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