Language Play by Leah Umansky

Language Play by Leah Umansky


leah-umansky-featuredI’d have to say that some of my favorite things are poetry and music, though it wasn’t until the last few years that I recognized the roles they play in my life. I’ve been seeing concerts my whole life, and music is a big part of my bond with my parents, but let it be known that I’m NOT a musician. I was horrible at the recorder in elementary school. I dropped out of orchestra in middle school because I hated the conductor. I quit playing piano in the 6th grade because I couldn’t practice both piano and practice for my bat mitzvah.  What I was good at, was being able to hear a note and know what pitch it was. On the flip side, I have no rhythm whatsoever, but who’s really watching? Where I do have rhythm, is in my writing - a great irony.

When my first collection of poems came out this past winter (Domestic Uncertainties, BlazeVOX Books), I realized how much my poems depended on musicality and on wordplay.  I’ve always been drawn to language that has deep roots in its sounds, and that often lends itself to the genre of experimental fiction. As a high school/middle school English teacher, I’m used to labeling things for students, but am also aware of the fact that not everything fits neatly into a little box. I prefer it that way – not everything needs a label; I often say my book is a memoir told through poetry.

When I first started reading Jeanette Winterson and Carole Maso, back in my college days,  I took notes on everything.  There is so much beauty in their work that I wanted to scrape off the fiction label on the back of the book and write POETRY. What’s interesting is that Jeanette Winterson actually says in her latest book, a memoir entitled Why be Happy When you Can be Normal?, is that her first love was poetry.

I’d say fiction that’s very sound oriented, is akin to poetry;  it uses musicality, it plays with line length, it often carries itself along like a wave. It does this through the usage of repetition and wordplay, and it resonates with its reader much the way a song resonate with its listener:


(Aurole, The Passion, Adventures of Max Tivoli, Andrew Sean Greer)

What I’m drawn to in each of the above excerpts, is not only the beauty of their rhythmic language, but the pacing itself. In my own work, I’m always stealing from the work of other writers, from their diaries, from newspapers, and from bits of conversation that I overhear. Most of what I’m stealing relates to sound: rhythm, rhyme, tone and word choice. Sometimes, I’ll write a line that mimics the rhythm of another line. Sometimes I’ll take words from another writer’s work and mix them around, or substitute other words in their place. All of this makes my own language more strange.

My poem, Messing with the Ashed, steals from T.S Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, and was originally published in Lyre-Lyre.  What I’m drawn to in Eliot is his language and his rhythm, which is something that I don’t think too much about when I’m writing. I don’t sit down and purposely think about the sound I want to achieve; It’s really about what happens.

Here’s an example of where my musicality comes from:


What I call “fun” about being a poet is that I can reinvent words, and by doing so I’m reinventing sounds and creating new reading experiences for the reader and for myself.

I’m interested in reading; in re-reading and in re-understanding what you read. I think part of what I annotate for when I’m reading literature is focused on truth and beauty. What is true, that resonates with me, is what applies to real life  - meaning that there’s a connection there that I want to take hold of.  What is beautiful, is the sound and style of the language. Often, I want to digest and merge the language. I underline lines, I rewrite them in journals, I tweet them and post them on Facebook. (I even have a tattoo of a certain favorite quote because I wanted it with me.)

What’s great about music is what’s great about poetry: it is a mutualistic, symbiotic relationship, meaning that both give and take from the other.

I never really thought of myself as a “musico-poet”, but if I had to describe my poetry I’d say it has more to do with sound then I let on….

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Leah Umansky’s first book of poems, Domestic Uncertainties, is out now by BlazeVOX [Books.] She is contributing writer for BOMB Magazine’s BOMBLOG and Tin House,  a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and a live twit for the Best American Poetry Blog. She also hosts and curates the COUPLET Reading Series in NYC. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Thrush Poetry Journal, The Brooklyn Rail, Barrow Street and The Paterson Literary Review.  She is in love with Don Draper and now calls herself a musico-poet. Read more at:

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