Leigh Stein writes recaps of The Bachelorette (Team Arie!) in the forms of poems. What began as an ironic way to attenuate the guilt and shame in obsessing over a vapid quest for a partner morphed into a clever running commentary on a beloved show that reinforces a classic Romantic conception of Love at the same time that it makes a highly profitable commodity. Somehow, the show tricks us every times into watching two hour episodes, eliciting tears and joy, from “reality TV” full of formulaic set pieces, insipid writing and absurd situations in which real human beings say things like, “I like to kiss Arie. I feel like I let him know that by kissing him a lot.” Criticizing the show takes as much intelligence as needed to troll around Youtube leaving hateful comments in your wake, but embracing the show with love and satire requires actual intelligence, something which Stein displays throughout all her work. In line with her clever method of snatching pop-culture markers and icons from their context, Stein takes pieces of the Bachelorette dialogue, jumbles them up, and lays them out in poetic form to create a pastiche of conversations that indeed read and sound like love poems from one child to another. Part of the magic of Stein’s overall talent lies in the fact that read out of context, these poems read like brilliant excursions on modern love.
As far as profiles goes this fun tidbit should suffice to convey everything I want to say about the general awesomeness of Stein as a funny, sensitive and playful poet and writer. However, if this doesn’t endear you to Stein, let me continue.
Stein started her artistic career with realistic dreams of acting. So many of us harbor delusions of grandeur as an actor (think of Tobias Funke), but only few of us can successfully move to New York from Illinois, attend a prestigious acting conservatory and then get invited to come back a second year only to then reject that offer to write poetry and stories. At the conservatory, Stein played role after role of dramatic despair which all but sucked the vitality out of her soul. As an antidote to her more dreary days, Stein came home to write short stories, of which, the first to get published, “Gold Baby,” tells the tale of a young woman who gives herself an abortion only to fall in love with the pet store clerk that sells her a terrarium for the aborted fetus. During this time, Stein fell in love with Canadian legend Margaret Atwood, which allowed her to realize that writing, something Stein had done since the tender age of 13, offered a life and a job as opposed to just a cathartic hobby. Stein started to posting her writing to that blog precursor, Livejournal, under the name of Wist (for wistful), garnering her both a fan base and fellows writers that would help her launch her career.
After her attempt at acting, Stein moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she wrote her debut novel, The Fallback Plan, which chronicles that post-college emerging adulthood part of life. From there, in an odd life imitating art sort of thing, Stein moved back home until she landed a staff job in the art department at The New Yorker where she wrote posts for the Book Bench. Though she ultimately chose the world of writing over the world of acting, Stein still teaches drama to young children as a part time job. An avowed showtunes fan, an unabashed consumer of all thing reality tv (though she, bafflingly so, prefers Housewives over Kardashians) Stein emerges in her writing as an ultimate connoisseur of culture; both pop and not, both low and high.
This shows most in her phenomenal debut book of poetry, Dispatches From the Future, much of which she wrote from the age of 21-25, which makes the effort all the more impressive. A book as deeply sad as it is perceptively playful, Stein recreates her life, one full of unbounded wisdom and imagination weaving a tapestry of myths, memory, history, and pop culture, that new sort of collective memory we all share. Never content in mere mimicry, Stein recreates many of the myths and allusions she uses to create a more deeply felt world full of insight. In her post-modern confessional tone, Stein creates a style of poetry that even those who simply despise poetry, or who do not get poetry would love. Everything in her world from the frustrations of dating site profiles to memories of Nicholas Spark’s The Notebook act as prods to poetry. In that way, Stein not only creates a kind of poetry that shakes off the stuffiness of the history of poetry, but models an inspiring style for young poets.
In that way of the poets of yore receiving their art from muses, gods, or inspiration, Stein sees her poetry writing more as a conduit for her verses as opposed to prose in which she acts a true creator, a conjurer. Despite this difference, I can see these two aspects in both of her works. Sadly though, as she puts it, the poems ceased flowing through her and now all she can write is prose, which really should worry no one, but given the excellence of her poems worries this one fan. Asked what caused this drying up of the poetic well, Stein only makes a guess at the causes: Not wanting to perpetuate that somewhat nefarious myth of a correlation between depression and creativity. Stein does note that the poems dried up as she learned to live a happier life. On the whole, writers tend to feel ambivalent about sadness, neuroses, anxiety and their connection to their work, but after spending the afternoon with Stein, taking part in her infectious laugh, her obvious excitement for her projects and hobbies, after reading her wise words, after experiencing her complete lack of pretentious despite her impressive accomplishments, I can’t help but not worry about her future.
She now splits her time between finishing a B.A. in comparative literature (long story) and writing a memoir on grief and its manifestations in our new age of a digital community. For any who ever curiously looked, even obsessed over the facebook page of a deceased friend or acquaintance and wondered if people posted on it thinking that Facebook serves as a connection to the immortal soul of the deceased you will know the complexities this topic presents. If anyone can tackle this important topic with the appropriate tone, aplomb, nuance and wisdom, it is Leigh Stein.