Mark Leidner’s first full-length collection of poems, Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me, was released ten years ago by Factory Hollow Press. Leidner has been busy since then: among other projects, he’s published a collection of short stories, Under the Sea (Tyrant Books, 2018), and written the feature films Jammed (2014) and Empathy, Inc. (2019). Across these projects, fans of Leidner’s poetry will recognize his singular ability to combine humor, insight, and earnest attention to the paradoxes of love and suffering—and his dexterity with intricate concepts, sincere pratfalls, and scenarios taken to extreme conclusions.
This February, his new collection of poetry Returning the Sword to the Stone was released by the innovative and thrillingly eclectic Fonograf Editions. This should be hailed as a major event, at least among those, like me, who’ve cherished Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me since its release. (Friends will verify: I’ve often pulled the book from the shelf and insisted we read “Things to Call Water” or marvel over the rhetorical maneuvers of “Yellow Rose.”) The new collection includes pieces that pick-up techniques from the earlier book, along with new explorations based in narrative, rhyme, one-liners, and the poet’s thinking about mortality and the possibilities of the “awesome.” We corresponded about whether a writer should “like” their work, writing for different genres, and what irreverence can turn into over the long haul.
Zach Savich: Years ago, when we first met, I remember talking about the “anti-poetic”: how irreverence, clownishness, bad jokes, and seemingly “non-poetic” language could refresh poetry. In Returning the Sword to the Stone, you write that “the ironies of literature are a dam” against despair. That’s different from seeing irony as a way of breaking through dams of convention. How are you thinking about irreverence and irony these days?
Mark Leidner: Maybe I have learned that irony serves whatever purpose you need it to. When you’re young and no one is interested in what you write, ironic irreverence can be a way to stand out while connecting you to the community of literature that exists. It was that for me, and it let me enter that community. Now I’m less anxious about attention and more anxious about despair, so irony has become a dam against despair, a way of reframing the universe so that it isn’t so heartbreakingly cold and empty, but buzzing with transcendent significance. I think if you’re a hateful person, irony can be a powerful weapon to hurt others. And if you’re enlightened, it can be a way of sitting comfortably in being and nothingness. But ironic irreverence remains and probably will remain one of many ways for unknown poets to prod or join a literary community that is initially indifferent to them.
ZS: Do you think it matters if writers “like” what they make? Should a writer expect their work to align with the views they’d be proud to publicly state, the ideas they hold dear, the morals or politics they’d profess? Writing over many years, in many forms, the answer might sometimes be “not exactly.” The finished work might not give the writer pleasure. It might reveal ideas or perspectives that you wouldn’t put on a bumper sticker or wish to live by. And yet, you might enjoy and stand by the process of writing, or be able to recognize that a piece is worthwhile, or meaningful, even if you don’t “like” it.
ML: I think this is accurate. Whether one likes all of one’s writing is similar to whether one likes all of oneself. Some things about us we do not like and long to grow out of, some things we try to grow out of and can’t and must come to accept if we’re ever to have a modicum of peace, and some things we love about ourselves and never want to leave behind yet must leave behind in order to meet our new circumstances, and even some things that we like like about ourselves will remain something we like about ourselves until we die. One’s writing is made up of all of these, and we can sort them systematically in therapy or through self-reflection, or we can sort them unconsciously by writing for a long time and periodically say ah, I hate that old poem, that old book, that old posture. I would never repeat that again. Or we can say, I wouldn’t write that again, but I still love it because I remember the me that I was then, and I have empathy for them. There’s no wrong way in all of this, in my opinion—except to refuse to change when life, ethics, or destiny demands it. In the early days of the pandemic, one day it seemed safe to hang out, the next day it didn’t, then travel was okay, then it wasn’t, and all of this was changing constantly. Every day you’d remember things you did and said the day before that, in light of new information, were reckless, irresponsible, or simply wrong. And every day you’d wake wondering if tomorrow everything you knew now might become wrong again. This is life. The only thing you can do is, every day, be the best you can be according to the information you have, and if it means you learn that you were wrong, accept it, forgive yourself if you’re genuinely sorry, and change. But never refuse to change merely because you can’t bear the pain of having been wrong in the past. The thing that we must avoid at all costs is refusing to update our perspective on writing or life out of embarrassment at yesterday’s errors. Over a lifetime—the process of writing, as you say, whether that is a body of work or the self—I suspect you start to see more complex categories than like/dislike, shame/pride. With the benefit of time, I want to believe we begin to see these apparent oppositions are fragments of a single soul that is who you and only you are. Viewed this way, a person or their writing can be consistent inside its contradictions. There’s some peace in that that goes beyond disliking one’s early work. And as those who make it to middle age know, some of the finest things about our present selves grow out of some of the most embarrassing things about our old selves. One’s least liked poems, then, could be the poems one is ultimately most proud of, if they helped one grow into someone better.
ZS: The book’s title poem includes the line, “It’s like removing royalty from your bloodline by returning the sword to the stone.” Themes of humility—and acceptance—are present throughout the collection. Magic fails, our fate is ordinary. Yet there’s also real happiness and excitement, despite anticlimax. “But it’s okay— / it feels awesome,” the final poem reassures us. How do you hear the tone of this “it’s okay”? Is it hopeful? Resigned? Exhilarated?
ML: I’m glad that it feels reassuring in general. Sorting out the other nuances of the tone are up to the reader. I think I wanted that line to be as bland or atonal or “unpoetic” as possible so that readers could project whatever tone they felt was appropriate into the voice. Which may include everything from incredulity at the stupidity of what is being said, to agreement with the importance of what is being said, to something in between, or beyond either.
ZS: That poem is in the second person. What do you like about direct address?
ML: I like the illusion of directness that second person confers … while remaining ambiguously indirect. Opening in the posture of authority, of speaking directly to the reader, telling them what to do and how to think and such, I think raises the reader’s guard and puts their critical mind on high alert for BS; but once that critical mind is awakened, having the direct address slip away so that it becomes clear the speaker is actually advising or berating themselves, or narrating an experience that is not universal at all, but something only they have gone through, can unexpectedly activate readerly sympathy or even a “transference.” I.e., you switch back and forth between addressing the readerly “you” and the writerly “you” until the reader becomes the speaker both speaking and being spoken to … at least in theory.
ZS: The title poem recalls “Blackouts,” from Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me (Factory Hollow), published ten years ago. Both poems are made of statements that start, for the most part, “It’s like …” They don’t define what “it” is. On the other hand, all they do is define “it.” In an interview with Jack Christian, you said that “Blackouts” came from your interest in “image as a machine that delivers spectacle” and then “serves to speed us on to the next image.” How were you thinking about images while writing the newer poem?
ML: The same way, really, but hopefully with more mature themes. I tried to curb overly juvenile or facile images and tried to include more mythological resonances or philosophical tension. But the premise is the same: find a way to string together images, like beads on a necklace, so they become something more than the sum of the parts. In earlier versions, the lines didn’t begin with “It’s like …” because I desperately didn’t want to repeat the same form. In the end, though, I found no better way to make their meaning open up than the “It’s like …” refrain. Accepting this was disappointing for me, but it was a breakthrough for the poem.
ZS: There are also new techniques and forms, including rhyme, in some poems. What led you to that?
ML: Rhymes were generative, for one. I’d find one image I liked, then use the last syllable like an anchor in a matching game, searching through all the other words that could rhyme with it. The resulting couplet would often include a new image that I wouldn’t have found without the rhyme as a guide. Of course, a lot of times I’d end up cutting an image I loved because I could find no suitable rhyme, and that was sad, and I’d end up including two images I only sort of liked, but whose rhyme created a unique or interesting tension. It was kind of like learning how teamwork trumps individual stars in a sports story. In this way, the rhymes were also cohesive. What I like about list poems is the thematic commentary that emerges from the flow of miscellanea once you have created a sense of “interdependence” among items in that flow. What the “It’s like …” refrain did for “Returning the Sword to the Stone,” rhyme did for the images in other poems.
ZS: You’ve written two feature films that have been released in recent years, Jammed and Empathy, Inc. How has working closely with film changed how you write poetry?
ML: I honestly tried to make movies as a break from poetry. I think the best thing that doing those films did for my poetry was to free me from it for long enough to want to return to it. Even when poetry is being good to you, it is sometimes very hard to take seriously. I’m using the “you” here for myself. Not because it isn’t important but because it makes you feel like an outcast or a self-indulgent impostor, perhaps because much of the world seems to reject poetry. So taking it seriously makes you feel like an idiot, a blubbering wreck, a madman in the woods whom everyone at best pities. Even if no one ever actually thinks this about you, for me, being a poet has meant worrying about it. So I needed a break, and rushing into screenwriting and film was like rediscovering what I loved about poetry at the beginning: the freedom of being naïve, of having high hopes and no chance of “success,” of learning atom-level elements of form rather than obsessing over the curation of one’s encrusted expertise. Of course, the second you actually finish a movie, you realize it’s the most grueling, time-consuming, soul-destroying thing you’ve ever done, and you swear that you’ll never do it again, and suddenly poetry isn’t the weird place you were trying to escape but the home to which you long to return.
ZS: Speaking of longing, some of your books have real doozies: Returning the Sword to the Stone, Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me, The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover. Yet the titles of poems in this book are often plain, indexical: “Volunteering,” “Church,” “Humility.” What’s up with that?
ML: For individual poems, I like short, boring titles because they ground you in a general topic (or word) while implying a rhetorical question: What will the poem’s take on that topic or word be? How will that word be defined in this poetic experience? I don’t think this is quite the same for more varnished “poetic” poem titles, which more often announce a poetic stance or emotional state rather than an interrogation of a definition. Maybe boring poem titles also leave more to surprise you. It’s like a movie where you know the genre but haven’t seen the previews, so anything that happens comes out of nowhere. For book titles, however, I like a more consciously “poetic” frame. For many books of poetry, the title is the one “poem” that everyone who hears about the book will “read,” even if they never open the book. So book titles are an opportunity to alert readers who might not know any better that perhaps this book will speak to them. But book titles must also not over-determine the meaning of the book, so they are harder to come up with. They must be as specific as a poem and yet as open-ended as a “plain, indexical” title, if that makes any sense. If I could think of a way to thread that needle while being more concise, I would. Maybe it’s the narrative impulse in me that wants a longer runway; more words being roughly more room for a narrative voice to take flight.
Zach Savich is the author of eight books, including Daybed (Black Ocean, 2018). He is an associate professor of Creative Writing at the Cleveland Institute of Art.