Deborah Landau is the author of four collections of poetry. Her work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2016 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches in and directs the creative writing program at New York University and lives in Brooklyn with her family.
Heidi Seaborn, Poetry Editor for The Adroit Journal, had the opportunity to sit down with Deborah Landau this winter in Paris, where Heidi was in residency as a student in the NYU MFA program, which Deborah runs as part of her overall role as Director of its Creative Writing Program. Their conversation centered around Deborah’s fourth collection of poetry, Soft Targets (Copper Canyon Press).
Heidi Seaborn: I have now read your new collection Soft Targets six or seven times. It is so beautiful. What’s interesting to me is the efficiency of the language and yet somehow it feels luxurious.
Deborah Landau: Luxurious? That’s such an interesting adjective.
HS: It feels unhurried. However, when I’ve gone back and looked at it, I can see that each line has been very efficient. It’s doing its job and yet it doesn’t come off that way. The pacing feels very relaxed as if we’re living with this for a while.
DL: The situation? Yeah, it does feel like that, doesn’t it?
HS: It does. I think there’s so many things for us to talk about, but I’d love to start with hearing what inspired these poems, your writing process for this book, and some of the decisions you made along the way.
DL: It was January 2015. We were here in Paris with NYU’s low-residency MFA program. Two days into the residency, the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened. We were trying to carry on with classes and readings while the city was in a state of total chaos. Sirens were blaring, the streets were deserted, there was a kidnapping situation, and a subsequent manhunt. So, that was all rather alarming. Then when we returned to Paris for the next residency, the Bataclan attacks had just happened. Our welcome dinner was at a restaurant near one of the cafés where the gunmen had opened fire, and the city was very raw. The following summer we were watching the Bastille Day fireworks over the Seine when our phones lit up with the news about the terrorist attack in Nice. There was a fire behind the Eiffel Tower, and some people thought Paris was under attack too. The police stalled all the boats on the river, and we were stuck there for hours. It was scary. I started writing these poems amidst all of that. The opening section of the book takes place in Paris and arises out of that state of fear and anxiety—a sense of a world unhinged and how vulnerable we all are.
HS: You wrote these long lyrical poems that eventually became Soft Targets through all that chaos.
DL: I try to show up every day and generate language; I keep working until that generative energy has run its course. Then I look for the poems. I revise obsessively, and next figure out how to sequence the poems. My recent books comprise linked lyric sequences. The hope is to link the poems so there is a narrative arc of some kind—while maintaining plenty of lyric singing.
HS: You have made linked lyrical sequences into a high art form. The poems in Soft Targets deal with how vulnerable we are as humans. The term that you have co-opted for that is ‘soft,’ which is just such a powerful word—ironically powerful, right? I’m curious about that word choice and its relationship to fragility and vulnerability.
DL: I was in New York on 9/11, living downtown; we watched it happen and lived in that aftermath. We witnessed the string of attacks in Paris. I remember just walking down the street in New York thinking, I’m a soft target, you’re a soft target, and you are. What’s going to happen next? We’re so fragile and vulnerable—who knows what is coming? I had that phrase—“I’m a soft target,” “you’re a soft target”—repeating in my head and wrote into that space (which seems to be how I work). “The Uses of the Body” was the phrase that precipitated the previous book.
HS: Are we vulnerable? I get that we’re vulnerable because we’re soft targets, but does it also imply a complete lack of control? As in the line, “if we’re in the right or wrong or the right / school, office, market, concert, café.” Is it that indiscriminate?
DL: It feels that way, right? When we came to Paris right after the attacks, everyone sitting in a café was thinking, Is someone going to come by and shoot us today? All those people just happened to be sitting in those cafés that night when people drove by and shot them, and then they were dead. If they hadn’t sat in that chair or gone to that concert or so on—it’s all so random. If you or I had been at work in the World Trade Center that morning…. We’re moving our soft bodies through the cities on this earth while so much violence is happening.
HS: Is it fate?
DL: I don’t believe in fate. It’s just randomness, chaos. In my opinion.
HS: Beyond the randomness and chaos, your poems also speak to impending doom. Are we doomed as a people, as a planet, as you and me—are we doomed?
DL: I hope not, but ultimately, we all are, right? That’s the truth. In my previous books I was preoccupied with my own mortality. That’s changed. Now it feels like that fear of annihilation has gone beyond the self and extends to an imperiled planet on which we’re all soft targets and there are so many threats; the threats of climate change, the threat of global terror, of gun violence, the threats to our democracy. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? So it feels like an unsettled time. Maybe it always feels that way, but I’m writing out of a heightened sense of it at the moment.
HS: Do you think this is the new normal? In the second poem in the book, “there were real officers in the street,” there is a sense of our lives unraveling, we laugh too loud, we lose things.
DL: I left my Paris apartment yesterday, and there were these men with these enormous guns, and I thought, I’ll just cross the street. And then there were more men with more enormous guns. This is the city now. It didn’t used to be like that. This has happened over the last few years. When I first started coming here, there was a wedding every single day at the synagogue across the street from my apartment in the Marais. And now in front of that same synagogue there are soldiers. It’s such a contrast.
HS: Yes, and that’s curious because in your poems, that protection fails. Instead we are all exposed. The speaker’s exposed and the characters, whether it’s the grandmother, the mother or the daughter, are exposed. But the reader too is standing by, exposed and vulnerable. Which is, of course, different than being a victim. I feel like you’re exploring that space between vulnerability and victim.
DL: Victims of what? It’s tricky because feel like in a lot of ways we’re really fortunate, right? We haven’t been victims, but we could be.
HS: We’re victims of fear and of fears. I feel like you’re pressing on this idea and writing into the human responses to fear. One response is ‘let’s dance as fast as we can.’ Right? I love the lines, “let’s be giddy maybe. Nights we play the game of going to sleep, expecting to wake up.”
DL: In a poem, I would never set out to offer a solution. I’m just tracking the way my mind is moving—what I’m feeling and what I’m seeing, hearing. I don’t have a plan. I’m only writing from my own subject position, and these are the things that I’ve witnessed. At times I’m aware of how privileged it is. There’s a lot to be grateful for.
HS: But I think you play into privilege in this collection. Because of privilege, there’s so much at risk, right? It can disappear in an instant.
DL: There’s a lot that we love in this world; a lot that could be lost.
HS: You seem to offer up these different alternatives for how to respond to fear and vulnerability. There’s fight or flight, keep the doors locked. As you say, “windows closed, coast clear, don’t be soft.”
DL: That’s my response. I think maybe it is in part because of my family history. My grandmother was a young woman living in Nazi Germany in 1938. It’s hard to leave your home, but she saw what was happening. She was so young, yet she rode all over Frankfurt to get the papers to get her family out. I have a picture of like 30 people in my family back then. My grandmother and her mother and her sisters and brother got out, but everyone else in the picture was killed. Sometimes I feel like I am looking around thinking, Is it time to leave New York? Or, Should we go back to Paris this year? When do you know that the place you’re living in is not stable enough to stay? The rise of global terror. The recurrence of antisemitism in Paris. It’s crazy. I’m a little jumpier and more nervous than some people who maybe don’t have that in their DNA.
HS: In your poem, “those Nazis, they knew what to do with a soft,” you tell your grandmother’s story. There is a line in that poem, “ought to get going now,” that speaks so directly to this sense of urgency coupled with complacency.
DL: That was exactly what had happened. Nazis were marching by my great grandfather’s store saying the exact same thing that we heard recently in Charlottesville. “Jews will not replace us.” The same thing. And it’s repeating. I’m not hysterical, but it does get to me. It doesn’t seem like the greatest of times.
HS: Death is threaded throughout your book. In the long lyrical poem, “the silence will be sudden then last,” which follows the sequence about your mother’s death, the speaker describes the finality of death, the wish to avoid it but the inevitability and finality of it. I’m curious about your view on the afterlife, because the speaker in this poem isn’t buying it.
DL: The idea of an afterlife is not something that comforts me at all. I don’t know if I know. The poem concludes “then nothing left of you.” That’s it. There’s doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to, ultimately, but that’s just my view.
HS: Interestingly, as that poem argues for the inevitability of death with no afterlife, there is a tone shift. The tone shifts to less personal and more communal, to be about our species. You’re talking about how vulnerable we are, how we’ve trashed the planet.
DL: This book is a lot less personal than anything I’ve ever done before, and it’s a huge relief to be looking out for once, instead of in. This book sounds really depressing, now that we’re talking about it!
HS: It’s not depressing. However, it’s this scary vision that you’re chronicling through these poems. There are moments of extraordinary beauty and life and hope, such as in the poem, “the snow goes to the gallows of a warm grass and survives.” To me, that poem is a beautiful interlude.
DL: Yeah, the snow section is meant to be a sort of palate cleanser. I’m a huge fan of snow. In snow there’s childlike joy—a sense of freedom, the world being clean and magical still. It’s a protective soft for everything around us.
HS: I also found that there is a subtle call to action throughout the book, not strident, but present throughout. We’re living in a time of political poets and political poetry, and I think there’s a lot of ‘pick up your arms, pick up your voices’ call to action.
DL: Right. That’s right. Keep your passport on you, keep cash, and have your prescriptions, and store water. You don’t know what you’re going to need to do when you take a hard look at our country and the democracy, the so-called democracy, that we’re living in.
HS: Let’s talk about that. “America wants it soft” is a poem that’s very of-the-moment. It is political, although it seems to me, within this book, it’s more than that. It’s asking the bigger questions, such as “what now of dreaming”?
DL: After the election, I went upstairs, and my two-year-old daughter was asleep in her crib. I just couldn’t believe that he was going to be her president. That this person would be the president of my daughter.
HS: The reality of it all. “America wants it soft” concludes with lines that form a recipe for survival: family and cocktails. Which, to me, sounds perfect because that is what we do in my family in times of grief and stress. The fact that you wrote this poem is in itself a political act. It’s like the essay that Tracy K. Smith had in the New York Times Book Review recently about the political body and that writing itself is a political act.
DL: Right. It’s a way to press back. What else can we do? I tend to over-quote Wallace Stevens, but I love this idea of the poetic imagination “as a violence from within that protects us from a violence without…the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.” So, what can we do? One thing we can do is write poems.
HS: That quote takes on another dynamic within your work because you address the violence that’s in the body and in childbirth. Women are these soft targets. We are soft and yet childbirth itself is such a violent act. We’re carrying violence and life within us.
DL: Right. “In the birth room were are in agony / but also had wings like never before.” That’s power and violence. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of that.
HS: But you do address the ambiguity around bringing a child into this world in these lines, “Such a reckless act with the jaws of the world’s set to kill” and “gleaming, they come to us from nothing. What now?” This indulgence! Yet, hope that we feel as parents.
DL: Yeah. Love. Love opposes violence.
HS: “All afternoon she lies on her back / staring at the void / but to her it’s just the sky.” That line is hope. As are the flowers scattered throughout the book: the lilies, potted orchids, violets, wisteria. And then the last line, “something tender, something that might bloom.”
DL: That’s funny. I didn’t notice that. It’s not conscious, right? Is writing like that for you, that you’re not planning something, but it happens?
HS: Right. And then you workshop it, and suddenly there’s a recognition of this deeper layer of meaning that is the poem tapping into the poet’s unconsciousness.
HS: I have one more question. Soft Targets opens with flesh. You went right for the jugular, literally. It makes for a powerful first poem. But flesh takes on different forms in the book. In some cases, it’s that vulnerable flesh, and in other cases it’s the cruel flesh of Dahmer and Nazis.
DL: Because they’re flesh too, right? And that flesh is as vulnerable as ours. Like that photograph of bin Laden in his pajamas—that really haunted me. To think he was asleep in his pajamas like any other human, and then gunned down in the middle of the night. Or those images of Saddam getting hanged. I can’t help but see that it’s a human being being murdered. Even when it’s someone who murdered lots of other human beings.
HS: So what does that say about humanity?
DL: I’m just completely bewildered by it. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. Szymborska has that poem, “Hitler’s First Photograph,” about the baby Hitler, that begins, “And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe? / That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!” It’s a powerful, haunting poem. Most of us were conjured here in love or at least in pleasure. How do some of us born out of joy end up intent on hurting others so badly? But that’s also a political question. I don’t pretend to have answers to anything. Terrence Hayes has said, “I wrote the poems so I wouldn’t have to talk about it.” I don’t have the answers. I’m not proposing action. I’m just living, feeling, and making poems. That’s all I know.
HS: That’s our good fortune as your readers. You’ve created these beautiful poems. Thank you.
DL: Thank you.