“Either you dress for the music or the occasion”: The Complex and Challenging Poetry of Leah Umansky

I tend to gravitate towards people who can utter statements with passion and honesty sans irony to the effect of “The first chapter of Wuthering Heights changed my life.” I long ago dropped the pretension that a love of books in anyway, necessarily, speaks positively of a personality. Yet, Leah Umansky, makes me rethink my opinion. Umansky, a prolific and talented poet, a loving and devoted teacher, represents someone of the rarified kind who still believes, deeply, in the power of poetry to not only open people to new manners of vision and experience, but also to connect us, in a lonely world, to the complex beautiful minds of those around us.

Naturally, given her passion and love of poetry, Umansky gravitated towards teaching. On top of her innate talent in this field, Umansky, in a giving manner, seeks to recreate and reciprocate the positive life-altering experiences engendered by the slew of magnificent teachers throughout her life, teachers she keeps in touch with till this day. Not to say that Umansky is priggish in any sort of manner, far from it, but she cares, intensely, about her poems, the present and future of poetry, and of course, about her students, all a rarity in this cynicism infused world.

Born in Syosset NY, Umansky fell in love with literature in 10th grade under the influence of a beloved english teacher (Sometimes, the stereotypes work for our benefit.) Umansky then attended Suny Binghamton with a precocious knowledge of her path in life: poetry. From there, she received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence while she encountered mentors that would stay with her for life. At the same time, she honed her experimental style despite the fact that many of her teachers who might classify themselves as formalists, grew wary of Umansky’s desire to experiment with form and content.

While she began with writing more traditional narrative poetry, Umansky has largely moved into the realm of experimental poetry, a sticky label, but one that connotes a playful willingness to tackle not only unprecedented content, but new and amalgamated forms. Umansky’s recent poems: dense, intelligent, and allusive, require a sacrifice of time to wade through the ambiguities and secrets of her poems, but they always reward you for the required effort. In terms of form, Umansky, in the manner of the forerunner, E.E. Cummings, uses space, brilliantly. Many of her poems tackle the complex intersection between art, identity and technology, and in that vein, many of her poems mimic the total noise of contemporary life. Consequently, reading Umansky’s poems feel like a heady rush into a world of evocative words thrown at you, bombarded by the never ending choir of discordant voices, only to end with an ample gap between the words that most often provides a space to breathe, a meditative silence between the words that reclaims the world from the speed of information. (See her poem, Notice the Reference to Them Never Appears.)

Umansky also revels in the ambivalence of identity and technology. In her poem Turning Over Phrases, Umansky crafts an intelligent, humorous and withering critique of online dating where, “The heart is a loaded weapon. [Did I say weapon; I meant, investment.]” In Modern – Like she creates beauty out of the parlance of our Internet obsessed times in writing, “Children are learning how to talk electronically through trial and error or CTRL + V.  They cut and paste their ways into the world. They are making themselves modern with every clickity-click.”

This lack of fear to tackle the important, shifting topic of technology and art represents one of bravest aspects of her art. For many artists, using the language of the Internet, Facebook, or Twitter only panders to the devolving place of art in society. Moreover, many hesitate to comment on technology that changes at the speed of thought because writers, most often, aim for immortality, not insightful contemporary relevance. Consequently, Umansky’s exploration of the ambivalences of technology signifies a poet unafraid to steep herself in the realm of Now, disregarding that desire to attain poetic immortality. In some ways, Umansky’s efforts to depict the experience of technology on her artistic self feels similar to T.S. Eliot’s attempt in his The Wasteland to plunge into the sullied language of modern times to find art, beauty, and empathy even in the trash heap of jargon, slang, and a bastardized language.

The intersection of art and technology signifies Umansky’s most current themes, but before that, Umansky’s poetry, collected in an unpublished (Though given her talent, I want to use the description soon to be published) manuscript Domestic Uncertainties focuses on relationships, and the identity of women in this contemporary world. Drawing inspiration from Rich, Plath, Sexton, and other powerful women poets, Umansky writes provocative, challenging, insightful poems that portray the complexities of a woman’s identity. One of her more representative poems, Trois Petite Fours, soon to be published in a special edition of CATCH-UP, captures this sense of inherited feminism from the likes of Adrienne Rich. In this poem, Umansky begins with a hilarious conversation of sorts that guides woman by misogynistic cliches, “You’re either a Jackie or a Marilyn. Either you dress for the music or the occasion.” From there she ends up riffing, in a clever manner, on the themes and characters of Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book she frequently teaches to her students.

Besides her talent for complex, challenging poetry, Umansky also has a deep love and a discerning eye for the poets of today. Realizing that yes, poetry today lives in a more niche world, one that struggles not only to reach people, but plainly to get published, Umansky never feels discouraged by this situation as she rattles off name after name of contemporary poets who not only garner her respect, but her love. I try to keep up, but Umansky’s broad love of her peers forces her to move so fast from the wonders of Marie Howe and Maria Mazziotti Gillians, to the importance of Tom Sleigh’s, Stanley Kunitz’s, Mark Doty’s and Jason Schneiderman’s poetry. Umansky lacks any pretenses to need to like the “important poets.” What she values most are those, who, like her, write from a genuine place, looking to create an experience that connects with other human beings, regardless of the topic.

Even when not teaching, Umansky teaches. As a dilettante in the today’s poetry, I felt, gladly schooled in the different range of writers offering innovative, emotional and intelligent poetry today. Not content to simply teach and write, Umansky makes a concerted effort to create a community of rising poets through her quarterly reading series, COUPLET. The reading series, one that mixes the medium of poetry and music, offers a stage to established, but as importantly, rising poets looking for an audience. COUPLET, picking up steam, will be featured at the Second Annual New York Poetry Festival at Governors Island. Catch Umansky there, but before that, check out her beautiful website iammyownheroine.wordpress.com.

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