Wonderful Interview with Leah Umansky and her new book, OF TYRANT

Interview with Leah UmanskyLooking for Moments of Goodness—Start Noticing

TSP:  Congratulations on your upcoming poetry collection, Of Tyrant, in which you have a skilled and beautiful way of playing with space, employing the use of repetition which sometimes resembles litanies, and mixing the political with the personal. 

As readers, at times we feel drawn into the rage and the darkness of the content, but then you gift us with so much beauty and hope as you write, "oyster our way out of hate." We are curious if you were working on writing these two threads simultaneously or if those moments of noticing "it's good to be alive" and that "every one of us is important" were revelations you found in your exploration of the tyrant/monster. Could you speak to that process, and also, what would you say to our readers who might want to write about current political issues or global crises? 

LU:   Thank you so much. I really enjoy juxtaposition, to be honest, and I really enjoy playing with language. It’s what makes writing fun for me—that idea that you can do anything, that you can make nouns, verbs, and verbs, nouns, etc.    

Finding hope is about looking and it’s about manifesting. It’s easy to wallow and easy to be depressed; it’s hard to hold on to things and be hopeful. That’s something I work at. I wouldn’t say I’m always good at it, but in the age of the tyrant, which sadly we’re still living through, the only way I was able to cope with his tyranny, his spread of hatred, his stupidity was in aligning myself with the good in the world and reaching for that silver lining. 

That line, “oyster our way out of hate,” made me think of the beautiful sheen of an oyster, and the darkness of hate—that contrast—but honestly, I loved the sound of “oyster” as a verb.  

Many of the poems in Of Tyrant  are written as a sort of a love poem to the world and a love poem to the self. How do we survive during hard times? We love ourselves and we love others. Again, we look for moments because there is goodness; it just isn’t always tangible. Sometimes, when things get us down, we have to turn to the light and remember we are lucky.  

When I was first writing these poems, I was single. Dating had been a nightmare and I had been trying unsuccessfully for over ten years. To make things worst, we basically had a dictator as a president and his hatred was everywhere. I had to stop watching the news, but then I’d go on social media and see his evil, I’d go to work and here people talking about him in the faculty room, and ultimately there was no escape. So, for the first time in my life, I had no choice but to write about it.  

It took me many years, probably into my 30’s to realize that all poetry is political. All art is political. My first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties (Blazevox, 2012), is a book about my marriage and divorce—at that time, I said oh, right, so feminism is political—but these poems in Of Tyrant, take that feminism and steep it in democracy. Obviously, the two are related. 

Every one of us is important and that’s what I used to steer me forward. I wrote that poem, in Chicago when I was on a book tour for my previous book of poems, The Barbarous Century. I was already putting together this new book, and was having a hard time dealing with the news, and with dating, and when I stopped and paid attention around me, I saw the beauty. That Lyft driver, Mario, made me have that realization. I wrote it down. It entered a poem. 

My advice would be—start noticing. It’s not anything earth-shattering, and I cringe at what I’m about to say here, but make a text thread to yourself. It’s sometimes a bit more immediate than writing in a notebook or on paper. When I have a moment of noticing, I text myself and when I sit down to write, that’s how poems come. My advice is—don’t question it.  

You know what they say, the only way out is through. Facing the worry, the angst, the despair not only helps you, but helps others. All art is for everyone. There’s a line in the book, “. . .the biggest iris is you.” The iris is what lets light into your eye. This book is very much about tyranny but also about letting the light in and holding it.

TSP: Part of what makes this collection so dynamic is the way you play with form, with some poems consisting of one or a few word lines, others in boxy prose containers, some with extra spacing between words or letters, and some individual poems that are a combination of these forms. We'd love to hear your thoughts and process on how these forms and the content shaped each other as you crafted this collection. 

LU:  I appreciate this. Honestly, I’m a fast writer. I tend to know relatively soon if something is working or not working and I’ve said this before in interviews, but I think my fingers move faster than my mind—I’m a fast typist.  

I try to follow my gut and follow my instincts with my poems. Some of the poems, like let’s say, “Burn,” just spewed out of me. There’s no other way to say it. I knew the lines would be short because I wanted that intensity. I wanted the dynamics of having one word lines, so your eye quickly moves down the page, and when the poem is read aloud, I desired urgency. Why? Because the tyrant desires urgency—all the tyrants, political, professional, or personal. That’s what makes them tyrannical, right? Their hunger. 

I also love playing with space and both margins. When I spread out letters in a word, again it’s instinctual, but it’s also my fingers moving fast on the space bar. It’s also a note for the reader to  s l o w  d o w n  and take a minute. 

I love what you said about the prose sections as containers. I love a prose poem. It’s probably my favorite poetic form for the magic within its constraints. For me, a prose poem is about the layering of images, and or language. Repetition is a powerful device and I love it. They say repetition can be a sign of being unhinged, but in writing, it’s that freedom, that throwing off of caution that I love and cling to.  

Also, the prose container of a prose poem can be a placeholder, it can be a scene or stage setting and I love that.  

I’m also an artist—I’ve designed all of the collages of my book covers, and so I think there is something very visually pleasing about a prose poem, as well as, the poems that use the whole margin.

Additionally, as a woman, why not un-marginalize our voice? Why not use up that whole page? 

Why not!


OF TYRANT is about living under the eye of the tyrant. The tyrant, in his many forms, devastates our democracy and our truths, and in doing so, he also infringes on what is precious in our humanity, the heart. Poems from the book have been published in such places as,  Poets.org “Poem-a-Day,” Minyan Magazine, The American Poetry Review, The Missouri Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Not only is it a book about democracy and tyranny but also about womanhood and hope.

What does it mean to live in a country at war with itself—historically, spiritually, politically? Where does this sickness originate? In poems both personal and sweeping in scope, Umansky opens the door to all the possible answers, pointing outward but also in, to the twists and turns of our collective psyche. Read this book if you are brave, if you plan to vote in 2024, if our future frightens you, if you love this world we live in.

Best link(s) to purchase Leah’s books: WordWork Books or Bookshop.org 

Links to connect with Leah: Leah’s WebsiteFacebookTwitterInstagram

BIO: Leah Umansky is an educator, curator, collagist and  writer in New York City. She is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, Of Tyrant, (Word Works Books) and two chapbooks, Straight Away the Emptied World and the Mad-Men inspired Don Dreams and I Dream. Umansky earned her MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and has curated and hosted The COUPLET Reading Series in NYC since 2011. Her creative work can be found in The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day, USA TodayPOETRY, and American Poetry Review. She has taught workshops to writers of all ages in such places as The Poetry School (UK), Hudson Valley Writers Center, and Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Visible Ink Program.  She can be found at http://www.leahumansky.com