Interview with Steven Leyva
Poetry Lives Here (PLH) is the tenure project of inaugural Fairfax Poet Laureate Nicole Tong. Its aim is to amplify the voices of living poets. Follow the project on Twitter @PoetryLivesHere.
Steven Leyva (SL) is the winner of the 2020 Jean Feldman Poetry Award for his collection, The Understudy’s Handbook. Leyva was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and raised in Houston, Texas. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 2 Bridges Review, Scalawag, Nashville Review, jubilat, Vinyl, Prairie Schooner, and Best American Poetry 2020. He is a Cave Canem fellow and the author of the chapbook Low Parish. Steven holds an MFA from the University of Baltimore, where he is an assistant professor in the Klein Family School of Communications Design. Find him @sdleyva on Twitter or at https://stevenleyva.wordpress.com.
PLH: How did you become a writer and a poet in particular?
SL: I thought I was going to be an actor—the next Denzel Washington or a future Sydney Poitier—but that didn’t work out, which is self-apparent as none of you have seen me on TV. But during my undergraduate study, a dear friend switched majors from Theater to English and Creative Writing, and he encouraged me to write poems with him. I took a chance on it. I was used to a certain amount of improvising from theater and this didn’t seem wholly different. So, we wrote poems inspired by Whitman and Mary Oliver and whatever we came across. We talked about our dreams of being artists and of being famous, and even though my dreams shifted, I continued to write. But, I’d say that going to grad school is what solidified my commitment to poetry.
PLH: Does your former or younger self have a starring role in The Understudy’s Handbook? If so, what words of advice might you offer that person you once were?
SL: I’d tell that young man, the young man I was, to R-E-L-A-X. I was probably overly anxious and concerned deeply with the narratives of “wasted potential.” One of the last roles I played in theater was Biff from Death of a Salesman, and the irony isn’t lost on me. Maybe something of that character’s fears lingered in my subconscious. Then again, how can that former self even be known or seen, except through the funhouse mirrors of memory? Any advice given would be an act of “sowing wheat in the ether” as Osip Mandlestam suggests. The great Russian poet was offering a metaphor for the work of poets. I see the process of pulling up memory and writing verse as similar, both being acts of transformation more than they are acts of representation.
PLH: Can you tell us a bit about how your poems most frequently find their final form? I’m thinking of “Sonnet for the Side Eye” and wondering if you execute the title as a kind of assignment or if the title comes after wrestling with the situation or music of the poem first.
SL: I often begin with a kind of attention to the sounds of words rather than the realm of ideas. I am probably searching sonically for a kind of tone (the multiple uses of that word) before I figure out what I am writing about. So sound precedes content most of the time.
But for that particular poem, I was trying to riff around “Katrina” as both the name of the most famous storm in recent American history, and a name similar too or derivative from a character in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (and its various adaptations). So, the eye of the hurricane became Katherina’s metaphorical “side-eye” and since I was already swimming in those Elizabethan waters, the sonnet as form was readily at hand.
Ultimately the poem became an exploration of how some folks envy, simultaneously, both Nature’s indifference and Nature’s propensity for wanton destruction. And how though we obsess about names, a hurricane couldn’t care less. Human side-eyes are rife with desire. Nature’s side-eyes are rife with indifference.
PLH: Which poem had the most revision before finding its final form? The least?
SL: I am not entirely sure which went through the most revisions. I know “Ode to Lando Calrissian” went through significant changes. That question at the end of the poem “Where are all the Black people in the galaxy?” was a suggestion from the poet Tim Seibles, and it sort of unlocked something in the poem.
But for the least amount of revisions I’d say “Supremacy,” which remains largely unchanged from its first draft, and represents one of the few times in my life that a poem came to me almost fully formed. I was taking a midday nap, and when I woke up (I am just now seeing the joke there), the metaphor was sort of sitting in my lap. I wrote the poem immediately.
PLH: Your titles each give a nod to performance—the understudy, the trumpet, cornrows under a wig, the panopticon. Tell me about the role of play or the performative in this collection.
SL: I think poems are themselves small productions of language. The blank page is a kind of proscenium, the draft process is a kind of rehearsal, so on and so forth. I wanted the title to engage and highlight that idea. Additionally I was interested in the function of an understudy, someone who has to work and prepare and then mostly wait, wait for a chance to perform. My experiences as a Black American have often felt similar, and I was curious about what I would learn if I explored that idea more fully. At times I may have stretched the idea like saltwater taffy, but I am proud of the poems that arose because of that curiosity.
PLH: Are you willing to share with us a secret of the book—a former title, a last-minute placement change, a poem you brought (back) to life in the final hour?
SL: So many alternative titles! At one point it was called Trade, which has various meanings depending on the cultural context. In New Orleans slang, it sort of means someone you are sleeping with, but have no intention of dating. A friend at one point advocated for The Pauses Between Parades as a title. Others wanted Cicada or Creole in the title, but none of these sparked the intrigue and interest for me that The Understudy’s Handbook did. It was for better or worse, the title that insisted the most in my imagination.
PLH: How old were you when you first read a living poet? Who was that poet? What poem or book was it? How did that experience shape you?
SL: That is an interesting question. I am tempted to say that I was twenty, in undergrad, and the book was American Primitive by Mary Oliver. The experience was formative. Her capacity for authentic epiphany, for wonder, for curiosity about the natural world seemed so expansive and inviting.
PLH: What advice can you offer new students of writing or new readers of poetry?
SL: Read and write with an open curiosity, remembering all the time that a poem is an experience to have, not a riddle to solve.
PLH: What is something you recently read or listened to that has offered you joy, hope, or a temporary ledge to find your footing during this difficult year?
SL: Evie Shockley’s Semiautomatic. Whew! I don’t know why I am so late to the party, but that book is fantastic. The inventiveness is flat out inspiring.
PLH: Can you tell us more about “When I Feel a Whoop Comin’ On”? How did the poem come to be from a craft or situational perspective?
“When I Feel a Whoop Comin’ On” tries to capture the awkwardness, riskiness, and fun of middle school dances. In form I tried to capture the push and pull, the oscillations, the exchange between dance partners, or among the music and the crowd. But the poem was also trying to live in the tension of how dancing is one of many cultural signifiers of Blackness, and what that makes of anyone who’s ever been told you’re not Black enough.
Writing Prompt in response to Steven Leyva’s “When I Feel a Whoop Comin’ On”