Deborah Landau is the author of four books of poetry. She was educated at Stanford, Columbia and Brown, where she earned her PhD. She is a professor and director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University, and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, sons, and daughter.
In anticipation of her reading at the Katonah Public Library on November 17, 2019, Ann Koshel van Buren exchanged this Q&A with the poet.
Ann van Buren: First, congratulations on your recent book, Soft Targets, published by Copper Canyon press. A Goodreads reviewer has written jauntily of the collection, “You know how book blurbs often call books ‘vital and necessary?’ The description actually fits for this one.” Jauntiness aside, what moved you to write Soft Targets—what is the source of the book’s vitality?
Deborah Landau: Thank you. I began writing these poems while living in Paris (directing NYU’s writing programs there) during the string of terror attacks that happened in France in 2015 and 2016. The program was in session there when the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, then again just after the attacks in the cafés and Bataclan, and then again during the attack in Nice. It was quite a frightening and chaotic time, and if the poems have an urgency perhaps it’s because they were written in response to that intense, lived experience of violence.
AvB: An article from poets.org says, “Poems about the body are also poems about history.” Soft Targets puts the body in the midst of the Paris terrorist attacks. Your previous book, Uses of the Body, grapples with birth and death. As a poet, is it your intention to write history?
DL: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I’m ever really aware of having an “intention” when I write. The poems arrive out of what feels like a deep inner agitation—whatever I’m thinking and feeling and living over a period of time—the poems come from that place.
AvB: Do you think of yourself as part of a lineage or a cohort of contemporary poets who use poetry in this way?
DL: I grew up reading poets like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and never expected to write an overtly political book—but the pressure of the news during the past few years has often felt overwhelming, and I’ve felt the need to press back with poems.
And so many contemporary poets are responding to the time we’re living in—it’s such a vibrant, vital moment for American poetry. I’m thinking of books like Terrance Haye’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, along with many other recent collections. But of course this is nothing new, poets and artists have always written in response to the times in which they lived.
AvB: The formatting of the poems in this book is unusual. The poems tend to be long and the titles appear in italics on a separate page that precedes the poem. Where do these titles come from and what made you organize the book in this way?
DL: Soft Targets is a linked lyric sequence, which has become my favorite form; my second and third books (The Last Usable Hour and The Uses of the Body) also comprise linked lyric sequences. I tend to think of my books as one long poem, in a sense, and love the lyric sequence because it allows a writer to look to the same subject matter from multiple perspectives so the resulting work is prismatic, ideally—greater than the sum of its parts. I also appreciate how the lyric sequence allows a writer to work elliptically and musically—proceeding associatively and by ear.
AvB: “Oh beautiful habits of living, /let me dwell on you awhile.” This line from the section of Soft Targets titled “there were real officers in the streets” is an example of the lyrical, almost prayerful nature of your writing. Beauty is juxtaposed with more shocking and disconcerting lines, as in the line from a later poem (p. 38), “One person is mauled, / another eats a sandwich.” Can you talk about poetry and resilience? In what way is poetry a reliable vehicle for navigating these times?
DL: How to make sense of the simultaneity of pain and pleasure, suffering and joy is one of my deepest and most perplexing questions. I can’t integrate it. So the juxtaposition of beauty and terror in the book is a transcription of (my experience of) the beauty and terror of the world. I don’t know how “reliable” poetry is, but it’s what I have!
AvB: Thank you! We look forward to seeing you at the Katonah Village Library on November 17th.
DL: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m very much looking forward as well.