Hailey Leithauser

I.  Four poems from Swoop, winner of the Poetry Foundation's Emily Dickinson First Book Prize and forthcoming in October 2013:

Sex Fiasco


      No use sighing over slipped discs,

she says, and what better bitter could there be

        than she to be beyond and above,

    to suffer slightly, hover faintly, over this

grand thud, this fluttered pink and colored rosy

           dead weight of love.


    What greater nadir for a weighty hip's

mis-grip, what apter riff or eulogy for turgid knees

        and wilted, butter-fingered flips,                       

what wrier shove, less lilted quip. Says she:                                                 

    There's no use crying over spilt lips.



Sex Obstreperous


             O Naomi did I moan a moan

     too odious; did I rasp a ruined gasp too proud?               

            Was my sweetest lying unenticing

     and my crooning just palaver chattered to a drone,

              my pillow talk an awkward spout,

           my coos, a black crow crying?


     Did I couch a murmur overriding and untuned,

            growl an innuendo too aroused?

        Were my sighings those of mufflers dying;

 did I snore like a platoon? Did I pout or crowd or groan,

              O dear, revered Naomi, was I loud? 



Shoot Out at the So-So Corral


It is possible


is coming for you.


It is possible someone

is gunning for you.

There is a general


feeling that General

MacArthur, or

his partners in blue,


are coming for someone

who is now,

or is not now, you.


My God, says the firing squad,

how we all

have our ups and our downs.                         


My God, sings the swung

cattle prod,

how we all have our downs


and our ups.

The moral:                              

Aim your steps


to the left,

your sights to the right,


in other words:           


Keep your guns


at your thigh, your eyes


on the trophy

or tiger or skies,

your wit,


and your powder,


than dustbowls


of mountain ground,

shanty town

yellow corn flour.







stuff, akin

in compass

to an ocean's greatest

rise or


muffled dungeon,

or sometimes to a sweep

of summer's

sudden wind

with all the cupboard's

cups and bowls and loose

door chatter toyed

with, joining


but always like some broken,

glad, glad bells, or

famished ravage

of a burst

groundswell, it


its weeping joy,

its gallon-pounds of

blood and bust as if

into a tub

or drum, instead into a fleshy


jerky as a rum red

jig, and frangible

as violins or

fine bird rib.

II.  The Editor recently interviewed Hailey Leithauser:

G.M.  In college you studied poetry with John Frederick Nims.  Can you talk about that experience?


H.L.  John Frederick Nims was the first workshop teacher I had, and his class was an invaluable experience.  He was the Senior Editor at Poetry at the time, which meant he was used to setting the bar high, and he didn't pull any punches in his critiques. It's not that he was needlessly unkind in any way, but he didn't hesitate to tell you what was working and what was not in your poem. I realized later this was a sign of significant respect for the maturity of a young poet. He told me after the semester, "You know what's good in the poem, my job is to tell you what's not."


In later years I met workshop teachers who didn't want to talk about what was wrong, afraid of hurting their students' feelings, of scaring them away from writing, but I think that's shirking their job. It's an insult to the student to assume they can't handle a straightforward critique and a waste of their time and money. Any poet who is scared away by criticism is going to last about five minutes in this business.



G.M.  When did you leave poetry and when did you return and what lay behind each change of course?  Were you reading poetry during those years away?


H.L.  I can't tell you why I stopped writing except to say it that it takes such enormous reservoirs of mental energy for me, and demands such an erratic schedule, that when I was working full time I simply didn't have the juice to do it. I know almost every other poet manages to work and write, but I'm sorry to say, I never could, so I didn't come back to it until my 40s, when I was in a position that I could afford  to quit my job and arrange my entire life around it.


But I was reading over those years, everything I could get my hands on, and that helped incalculably when I came back to writing. There's simply no other way to develop your ear than to read and read and read, and, really, why on earth would anyone become a writer if she didn't love literature enough to stay up till dawn reading other writers?


G.M.  In your poems you address a wide range of subject matter, including the fantastical and whimsical, in a distinctive voice that plays with sound and rhythm, using rhyme and off rhyme and lineation and sometimes unfamiliar language.  With even the darkest material, your poems, for me, give off the scent of sheer joy in their making.   Would you talk about your process?  Where do you get your ideas?  What drives the nonce shapes of many of your poems?  Does your first draft resemble the final, i.e., abandoned, poem?


H.L.  More often than not these poems started with a musical phrase floating through my head, often in the dark trying to fall asleep, or when I first wake up, that I will play with until I have perhaps five or six lines, and then I will go to my computer and start writing it up. The Extreme Season poems each began that way; I remember distinctly working out the first lines in my head while I was in the shower.


A lot of the poems in this book were originally set off by the palindromes, for example, "Sex Alfresco" ("Never one-volt love, nor even"). When I wrote that palindrome I had no idea what the poem was going to be about or what form it would take but I laid the phrase down on the page and the form and subject matter grew around it. So in answer to your question, where do I get my ideas, it is usually the sounds that give me the language and the language then suggests the subject matter.


As to form, whether or not it's a free verse or formalist poem, sometimes the originating phrase fits a particular form such as a sonnet or a villanelle, the right length, or has a rhyme that I want to repeat. Sometimes before I get started there is a form I want to experiment with, a triolet, a syllabic, and that directs me towards a certain type of sound, a certain meter.


Other times the originating phrase is too short or erratic for form and fits better into an irregular line length for free verse. And of course a lot of the poems in the book are from a series, such as the four free verse poems—Guillotine, Crowbar, Scythe, Brass Knuckles—which have similar subject matter and all begin with the same conceit, or the six curtal sonnets, "Sex Alfresco," "Sex Fiasco," "Sex Rubenesque," etc.



G.M.  Looking back on the tradition of English poetry, what poets do you most admire, and why?


H.L.  If had to narrow it down to the top two, I would say Marianne Moore and the Beowulf poet.


Moore for the intelligence and beauty of her language, how she used very complex techniques in ways that were so subtle and natural as to become invisible, her metaphoric perception of the material world, what shimmers under the surface; her ability to show the thing itself while simultaneously showing her perception of the thing in language that is both personal and interpretive, but without becoming self-indulgent or self-involved.


The Beowulf poet, or most likely poets, are the only poets I studied in school in any depth, and the only verse—I'm ashamed to say—that I attempted to translate. I believe Beowulf is one of greatest books of all time, not just one of the greatest poems. All that gorgeous, gorgeous language, its structure and sounds and the layers of meaning inherent in it, the tension and complexity and the psychology of the writing, you could spend a lifetime reading it.


As for living poets, there are dozens and dozens I admire in some way or the other. Again, to pick just my personal top two, I would probably say Frederick Seidel and Mary Ruefle. They are two whose books I buy sight unseen as soon as they come out.


G.M.  Are your poems ever frankly autobiographical?


H.L.  Heavens no. I'm much too boring.



G.M.  But your imagination is fed by the life you've led, as well as the things you've read, and your poems flow therefrom.  I'm thinking there must be a reticence born of something in your history or psychology or a distaste for brooding inwardness and/or the splashiness of trying to make art from the facts of one's history.  Have you, for example, written poems arising from life in your birth family?  


H.L.  When I read the poems they seem to me to be very autobiographical, but metaphorically so. An experience with a person may translate into a poem about a crow or a cricket, an experience with death in a poem about Eurydice. I'm not purposely trying to disguise the experience; it just translates that way.


If I wrote a detailed description of being in a supermarket one day and having an agoraphobic panic attack, it would be an extremely small poem, self-indulgent and boring as hell, but if I write about Pip bobbing around the ocean, there's a feeling a lot of people can identify with.


Why should anybody who doesn't know me personally care about my grandmother's death? They care about their grandmother's death, and, in my writing at least, the echo of that grief comes more honestly in a crow flying across a rainy field than it does in my flying down to Florida.


The emotions are the same, but they ring truer, more honestly, and one whole hell of a lot less tritely, when I move away from the petty details of my life onto a larger canvas. Believe me, if I could write a poem with the universality of "Among School Children" or "Daddy," I would, but since I can't I'll stick to crows and crickets.

Hailey Leithauser was born in Baltimore and raised in Maryland and Central Florida.  Over the years she has worked as a salad chef, real estate office manager, gourmet food salesperson, freelance copy editor, phone surveyor, bookstore clerk, fact checker, and, most recently, senior reference librarian at the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C.

Returning to writing after a break of several decades, her work has appeared widely, in publications such as Poetry, Agni Online, Crazyhorse, the Gettysburg Review, the Iowa Review, Meridian, Pleiades, and Best American Poetry.

She is a recipient of the Discovery/The Nation Prize and an Individual Artist's Grant from the Maryland State Arts Council. In 2012, Leithauser's book, Swoop, won the Poetry Foundation's Emily Dickinson First Book Award and is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in October 2013. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.



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