Interview: Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein PoetLeigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan (2012) and the poetry collection Dispatch from the Future (2012). Her poems submerge stark emotional reflection within landscapes influenced by reality television, museum exhibits, and folk tales. Publishers Weekly described Stein’s debut collection as “a mix both giddy and anguished that incorporates elements from fairy tale, pop-culture, ancient myth, and choose-your-own-adventure books. These poems swing between the dull throb of disappointment and what she calls ‘hope’s stubborn blindness.” Stein’s honors include an Amy Award from Poets & Writers and a Pushcart Prize nomination. She has worked on the New Yorker staff and taught drama to children. She lives in Brooklyn. (Bio adapted from The Poetry Foundation). 

Interview by Lexi Cary

TCJWW: You have written a novel, The Fallback Plan, a collection of poems, Dispatch From the Future, and are now working on two very tender non-fiction projects for Toast and Gawker. Do you feel you retain a continuity of voice across mediums or does your approach change?

Stein: I’ve always liked the challenge of learning new forms or modes, which may be why I seem to switch genre every few years. I definitely started life as a poet (my first poem was published in Lip Smackers magazine when I was 13; it had end rhyme and rainbows), and switched to prose when I felt I needed to write a “real” book (a novel) in order to be a “real” writer. It’s hard to know what one’s own voice sounds like (even IRL, our voices sound so different in our heads vs. on audio recordings [because our ears are too close to our mouths]) that I have to rely on feedback from friends or reviewers, as to whether my voice is consistent across mediums. But some descriptors come up again and again in reference to my work: there’s my irreverent sense of humor, my self-deprecation, and allusions to pop culture, myth, and YA lit everywhere. A poetry student at the New School told me my poems were like Wikipedia pages, with hyperlinks from one allusion to the next. I thought that was a nice analogy.

TCJWW: Dispatch From the Future seems deeply concerned with the process of reading and actually holding a book in your hands, such as when the reader is prescribed pages to turn to. Do you consider the reader heavily when writing your poetry or does it just come out that way?

Stein: At least half of the poems in that collection were written for, or about, my ex-boyfriend Jason. He’s the “you.” He was the first reader. He’s the one who dumped me for a pretty model, and I won him back by emailing him “How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance” in the middle of the night. Our relationship was probably the most significant and also horrible romantic relationship of my life. We lived together while I wrote my novel, and he died in a motorcycle accident a few months before the novel was published. I’m writing a memoir now about all this. After he died, I mostly stopped writing poems. I lost my “you.” When I write poems now, they almost always have to be explicitly addressed to a friend.

TCJWW: Your poetry is startlingly perceptive, especially in regards to pop culture. You weave classic or modern references in and through each of your pieces. If anything, readers can learn more about culture in your collection than they do in life. How did you develop your voice and focus to take on these allusions and references? Do you feel your poetry may serve as a time capsule for readers in the future?

Stein: To be honest, I didn’t finish my B.A. until I was 28, which I was simultaneously proud of, and self-conscious of. The poems in this collection were written from the time I was 19 until about 25, and during that time I felt both smart and uneducated. I wanted to write the kind of poems that I wanted to read, like pop songs, but that also included the breadth and depth of whatever I was reading: Grimm brothers, The New Yorker, Wikipedia. I don’t know if I’m creating a time capsule as much as I’m replicating, through poetry, the way our minds are constantly absorbing trivia.

TCJWW: What other artists do you look up to and how does that show up in your work?

Stein: I have a lot to learn from poet/memoirists such as Nick Flynn, Sarah Manguso, and Maggie Nelson. The way they connect the dots is brilliant. I’m working on a chapter in my memoir right now about spending my adolescence online, and I’m inspired by the work of Leslie Jamison (on pain and empathy) and Kate Zambreno (on female diary-keepers). I love finding books that change or challenge convention, like I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. (“Why would anyone name a book that?” my boyfriend asked, when I pulled it out to read at the park.)

TCJWW: When did you begin to explore writing? Has the craft always drawn you in or has it been a more recent endeavor?

Stein: I started writing poetry at 13 out of need. When I was 19, I started reading books as a writer would, and teaching myself about craft.

TCJWW: How do you keep inspiring yourself to write, especially in different genres? Is the inspiration different depending on the medium?

Stein: I write what I feel like I have to write. The rest falls away. “But isn’t it therapeutic?” people ask, about my grief memoir. Well, no. Going to therapy is therapeutic. Writing is punishing and tedious, especially writing about myself. But I know how good it feels to read my work in front of people who get it, and I know when I finally finish the manuscript, I’ll have shaped what happened to me into something other people can hold in their hands.

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