By Ronald Hanaki
The acclaimed author and poet Deborah Landau was invited to ESU to read selections of her poetry last Thursday in Stroud Hall room 113.
Landau directs New York University’s creative writing program. She is also a past recipient of the Jacob K. Javits Fellowship and the Guggenheim Fellowship.
The poetry reading was sponsored by the Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of English, the Women’s Center and Calliope, ESU’s student-edited literary magazine.
Landau said, “I’ll start with a poem that is not in any book. This poem is called ‘You’ve Got to Start Somewhere.'”
She said, “I had the idea of sitting still while others rushed by.”
“I had the idea–the hope of friending you without electricity. Of what could be made among the lampposts with only our voices and hands,” said Landau.
“I was just thinking as I read that…you’re near nature here,” said Landau.
Landau noted our persistent use of social media.
“It’s very distracting. Then you try to read a book, right? And it’s hard to still your mind because we all get so restless. I fail at it most of the time; I’m trying,” said Landau.
“The Last Usable Hour” was next.
Landau said, “Many of the poems from this book–it’s called ‘The Last Usable Hour’–are middle-of-the-night, mid-winter, insomniac poems.”
“A lot of these poems are also epistolary love poems, which means letter love poems. These epistolary love poems are to an unnamed person called ‘Someone,’ said Landau.
“This next poem is called Solitaire,” said Landau. “There’s a line in here–‘I don’t have a pill for that’–which is a favorite saying from a favorite doctor of mine.”
Then Landau read selections from her latest book, “The Uses of the Body.”
“This book considers the pleasures and complexities of marriage and domestic life–and of living in the female body as time passes,” said Landau.
“One of the programs that we have is in Paris,” said Landau. “I get to spend six weeks a year in Paris.”
Landau read a poem called “The City of Paris Has You in Mind Tonight.” This poem was written for her friend who lost her husband.
Like many people, Landau is struggling to process what is going on in the world now.
“I never in my life thought that I would write political poems, but I am,” said Landau.
“My next book is going to be called Soft Targets,” revealed Landau.
“I’m going to read two sections of this sequence,” said Landau. “It’s new.”
Landau read from her unpublished poem called “Soft Targets.”
For the rest of the time, Landau took a series of questions from an inquisitive audience.
One student asked Landau about her writing process.
“For me, the most important thing is discipline and habit and just making time for you to write. A novelist friend of mine–his motto is ‘ass in the chair.'”
Another student asked, “Why was a lot of it [the poetry] sad?”
Landau said, “It’s a troubling time to be alive right now. Maybe next year, I’ll write some happy poems.”
Landau was asked, “What inspires you to write your poems in little segments?”
“Maybe it’s more how novelists work. It’s all connected,” said Landau. “I like white space around the language.”
A creative writing student asked, “I noticed that you have gin twice. Do you drink that when you write?”
“Jorie Graham once said to me, ‘I can only drink when I have the tiniest sip of gin,’” said Landua.
Landau tried drinking gin in the morning, but she said that it didn’t work for her at all.
Another student asked, “Do you plan before you write, or do you just go for it?”
“Everyone is different,” said Landau.
“Like Amy Hempel, the short story writer–she always knows the last line of the story before she starts, and she writes toward it,” said Landau.
“But I have no idea what I’m going to write, and I love that,” said Landau. “You can make a big mess and fix it later.”
“[E.L.] Doctorow, the novelist who used to be on our faculty, said, ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car in the fog at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ So that works for me,” said Landau.
Landau was asked, “Do you ever think that sex inspires you to write?”
There was some awkward laughter, but Landau said, “I guess whatever you’re doing in life that is intense…is going to make interesting writing. You want to go where the heat is in your work, right? You don’t want to write a dull poem about a flower, probably.”
Someone from the audience said, “Most flower poems are also about sex.”
“Well, that’s true,” said Landau with a laugh. “So I guess, yeah. Why not?”
Landau was asked about Copper Canyon Press.
“They are a great poetry press. They publish the best writers around,” said Landau.
“There’s not–like a huge amount of money in poetry,” said Landua. “Big surprise–I hate to break it to you.”
“The way most people publish books is through contests. That’s how I published my first book, and that was through a different press,” said Landau.
One student-writer asked, “Do you recommend trying to get something published during your undergraduate?”
“I don’t think you need to be thinking about publishing when you are an undergraduate–or even a graduate student,” said Landau.
“I direct an MFA program for writers, and we always say, just keep your head down and do your work,” said Landau. “Write some good poems, and the rest will follow.”
“Because the act of writing is satisfying, and the connection you have to people through writing is really satisfying,” added Landau.
“We’re so isolated from each other,” said Landau. “But if I can put the language that is in here [pointing to her head] and give it to you and make you feel it, then you know that you’re not alone anymore. And that’s the best part.”
Dr. Peter Hawkes, Dean of the College of the Arts and Sciences, asked, “Would you talk about revision.
What are your habits?”
“I revise a lot a lot a lot,” said Landau. “I like revising.”
Hawkes said, “I wondered if you ever revised and regretted because you’ve lost something?”
“I know that happens, but I have such a big mess to start with that it tends not to happen to me,” said Landau.
A student asked, “When you are writing your poems, do you hear yourself speaking it?”
“I don’t, but then there is concern with how–the music of the language is important to me–how the poem sounds,” said Landau. “So I will read it aloud to see if there are dead spots or flat spots.”
“It’s nice that you guys have so many questions. They’re not boring questions,” said Landau.
A visual artist asked, “What do you do if you are stuck?”
Landau said that she has a trick for that.
“I would get 100 different books and open them and randomly harvest words and make a list. Then I will look at those words and start improvising, and you enlarge your vocabulary that way. Like aqueduct,” said Landau.
Landau said that she started writing when she was very little and kept writing as she grew into adulthood.
Hawkes said, “So Rick Madigan, our poet who brought you here, gave me this book ‘The Uses of the Body.’ So these are the only poems that I’ve read of yours. And what I noticed about it is the nouns.”
“It’s just full of concrete nouns,” said Hawkes. “Very few adjectives, and the verbs are really simple. There’s a thing-iness in your writing.”
“We say that in writer’s workshop: get rid of extraneous adjectives,” stated Landau.
“T.S. Eliot talked about the objective correlative,” said Landau. “You need to find in your writing that thing, that image–that will produce that same feeling in the reader.”
“It’s easy to do that with nouns–they’re specific and concrete,” said Landau.
“You need to make the reader feel what you’re feeling,” said Landau. “And it’s easy to do that with the things that we have in common, which are nouns mostly.”
“Part of putting you there is using specific, concrete images,” stated Landau.
At the end, Landau said, “You guys were really a great audience. Thank you so much.”
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