Photo: Poet Deborah Landau, Upper School English teacher Mia Manzulli and students continue their conversation after class when Landau recently spent an afternoon at PDS.
It's not every day that aspiring Princeton Day School student poets and lovers of language get to share perspectives with a successful poet. So when word went out that acclaimed poet Deborah Landau would host the combined Upper School Poetry and Gender and Lit English classes, then lead a second session with the student NOW group, interested students and the English faculty, everyone involved prepared well for her visit.
Landau, who directs the Creative Writing Program at NYU, has authored four collections of poetry and has been awarded the Robert Dana Anhinga Prize for Poetry as well as a Javits Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work has appeared in multiple publications from The New Yorker to The Paris Review and has been included in several anthologies.
What was Landau like in person? She presents as the human embodiment of her work, summarized aptly in the Publishers Weekly quote that precedes her official biography from Blue Flower Arts: "Powerful and vulnerable, spare in form and ardent in tone, her lyric sequences broach existential questions as sweeping and timeless as her language is particular and contemporary."
Funny, engaging, candid and thoughtful, Landau read from her work and shed fascinating light on her subject areas and process, but was most interested in hearing from the students and encouraging them to "write every day. Even if only for 20-30 minutes. Know that you are going to write day after day and the poems will be terrible for 30 days but on the 31st day, you will write a good one. You have to keep at it."
She defined her writing as lyric sequences, explaining, "It just means it's a group of shorter poems connected in some way – by theme, associatively, or by style – and when read collectively the whole is greater than the parts."
When asked about what inspires her, Landau recommended that students "pursue a topic that really catches you up. Go into that language and dwell on it. Keep exploring the theme day after day after day and then look at that language and shape it into a series of poems."
"How does it work for you when you are writing poetry?" she asked the students.
Answers ranged from "I need clean, empty space. I need to be alone, it needs to be dark, and all my homework needs to be done," to "I like being in a coffee shop with a cold brew. I feel a sense of belonging. Everyone is doing something different. We're all in the same space drinking coffee and I feel like I'm doing something special there writing poetry."
Of her own process, Landau offered this insight: "Don't get in the way of it. Just let it happen. You have to trick your mind to not try to control it and disassociate yourself from it."
Reflecting on Landau's admittedly existential themes, one student asked, "How do you keep your feelings from overwhelming you since you are often writing from a dark place?"
She answered with her characteristic candor: "At least we have somewhere -- poems -- to put all of the things we are feeling. At the same time, it becomes a matter of knowing when you are becoming too melodramatic."
And she turned the question back to the student, asking, "What do you think?"
His thoughtful response: "I sometimes put some of the thoughts and language on the bookshelf and revisit it later."
After a lively discussion of everything from the role of editors to students' favorite authors, Landau shared her assessment that "it's a great time to be a young writer in this country" and discussed some of her students at NYU whose work has recently been published. "Whatever your background is, whatever your story is, you can write it and people will hear it," she advised.
"How do you know when a poem is finished?" came a final question from a student.
"It's never finished," Landau fittingly replied. "It's more like it's abandoned. For me, there is this feeling that 'this is the best I can do.' You take it as far as you can go. You know what the problems may be with the poem but you feel you can't or are not interested fixing them them anymore."
Up next: In only a little more than a month, PDS will host another exceptional poet, Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, Pulitzer Prize winner and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University. Ms. Smith will come to the School on January 4 as the first of the visiting artists in the 2019 Imagine the Possibilities program, an incredible experience for students to learn from and work with renowned artists. Now entering its 24th year, the Imagine the Possibilities program is made possible thanks to the John D. Wallace, Jr. '78 Memorial Guest Artist Series Fund.
Here are more photos of Deborah Landau's visit. -Melanie Shaw