We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Leah Falk

“Here, in the squint/ of my uterus, I see double: the body’s / will to live and before the brain / is big enough to want / And its twin: / the code to flush this new light/ into the chill of the space” (17-18). Within Falk’s Other Customs and Practices, readers discover how doubling can seep into a body, how both pregnancy and dwindle, faith, and inquiry can coexist. The result is astounding.

It is a special, yet peculiar task to compose an interview about a collection that thrills readers with the infinance of questions and the faultiness of answers. I have not been disheartened by it. Often, when authors find they cannot answer one of my questions, I find more delight in their responses, the nebulosity of them. It’s like I can feel them thinking. They don’t have a solution, but they still offer something—a luminous unanswer.

Other Customs and Practices exposes pregnancy as a kind of luminous unanswer. I hope that this interview depicts how the art of writing can be similar—mortal hands tinkering with disproportionate light.

Marah Hoffman: The collection’s organization into three sections—Inside, Outside, and a second Inside—is masterful. How did you decide on it?

Leah Falk: Three is a perennially satisfying number, I think: it offers stability and shape, the start of a narrative. I actually find three sections in collections of poetry to be so common that it can feel like a cliche, and at first I tried to pull away from it with this book, but it won out in the end. With the section titles, I was thinking of the shifting perspectives of both the pandemic and pregnancy: a child’s development within the parent’s body, then outside; our collective consciousness forced indoors, within a crisis, and then emerging from it. And then I guess to come out of one place is always to find yourself within another.

MH: Your poems’ many forms—tkhine, test, instruction, questionnaire—propel your themes. What advice would you give to poets seeking to find new vessels for their themes?

LF: I’m strongly influenced by history, biography, and forms I stumble upon in non-poetic genres. I think especially for writers who have many competing roles and responsibilities in their lives, poems tend to take the shape of their containers. For poets looking for new forms, I would suggest looking at the genres in their lives that seem completely unrelated to poetry and trying to define or describe those forms: a letter from the parking department, a notification from an app on your phone. What rhetorical purpose does each serve? What else might those containers hold? I also love to turn to the visual/physical: taking existing texts that are significant to me, such as song lyrics, and writing them out by hand, cutting out each word, and scrambling to produce new lines. Or using drawing, painting, or singing to generate a refreshed engagement with language, to disrupt habit.

MH: One of my favorite phrases from the collection is, “Finally, a rehearsal / for a past that appeared without warning” (15). Did you have any specific goals for characterizing time in your collection?

LF: Ah, I’m glad you asked this question. Beginning as I did with An-sky’s questionnaire, I felt strongly that I didn’t want to write a “history in poems,” or just enliven the world of the questionnaire with poetic language. Instead, I wanted to create a sense of being in conversation with these questions, especially those concerning pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, across both time and geography. I felt quite compelled by the idea that I, as a contemporary American Jew, could be responding to questions that could have been posed to people like my ancestors more than a century ago. That difference in space and time meant to me that the answers couldn’t quite meet the questions head-on; they had to be refracted, so to speak.

MH: The collection’s structure lends itself well to commentary on the idea of units as well as answers. For example, some of your titles comprise part of your poems’ first lines, communicating that they are not supplemental; they are essential. How was the process of playing with your poems’ structures? Do you have a philosophy on line breaks?

LF: As I mentioned above, in the poems whose titles are drawn from An-sky’s questionnaire, I wanted to be in a kind of oblique conversation with the original questions. Usually, that meant picking up on an idea within the question that was wholly separate from the actual request for information (you’ll notice that some of those questions are yes or no questions). In terms of structure, I’m a poet who tends to be extremely driven by rhythm—I have a very easy time composing an iambic line, for example—and I wanted to create forms that resisted that aesthetically pleasing habit in the service of something else. I often think of something I read about Charles Wright years ago, that he tried to give each of his lines an odd number of syllables(again to resist the heartbeat-like tendencies of poetic English, to make his lines a little strange). I don’t think I have a ‘philosophy’ on line breaks, but I do often live in this tension between the drive to make beautifully rhythmic lines and the desire to interrupt that.

MH: One question from the collection that seems to consider craft is, “Who am I to translate light / into color, un-fluent now / in both languages?” (16). As all writers know, translating experience onto the page is a compelling and near-impossible task. Do you have any desire to elaborate on this question—what it says about ethos and resilience?

LF: With this line, I was thinking less about craft—though you’re right that it expresses something about the doubt artists can have about enacting a vision—and more about how much of the history of my family and ancestors I feel I’ve lost, and how inadequate I feel engaging with materials from a past that is both my birthright and simultaneously completely disconnected from the way I live. I both feel that I don’t have the right to engage with this history and that it’s impossible not to.

MH: What are some lessons you are taking away from this collection? They could be personal or more related to the writing process.

LF: It is always gratifying, as an artist, to have one’s experiments and obsessions received well. I began this book as a way of experimenting, of engaging differently with material that I was curious about, but I often wondered whether it wandered too far from certain rules I internalized long ago about how to make poems, or whether my engagement felt contrived or forced. I think that where I’ve settled is that when I’m not sure I recognize what I’m making, or what rules it is following, that is a sign that my work is driven by my own curiosity rather than a desire to please. The result is usually much more interesting to me in the long term than anything I could have made that fit into a more recognizable container.

Other Customs and Practices is available from Glass Lyre Press

Leah Falk (she/her) is the author of Other Customs and Practices(Glass Lyre Press) and To Look After and Use (Finishing Line Press). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon ReviewFIELDGulf CoastBest New PoetsVerse Daily, and elsewhere. She has received support for her writing from the Sundress Academy for the Arts, the Yiddish Book Center, Asylum Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Philadelphia, where she is Director of Education and Engagement at Penn Live Arts, the performing arts center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Marah Hoffman grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania. Since graduating with her bachelors in English and creative writing in 2022, she has lived in Tennessee, Michigan, and now North Carolina. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the Creative Director of Sundress Academy for the Arts. She enjoys genre fluidity, whimsicality, cats, coffee, distance running, travel, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her list of favorite words grows every week.

Latest posts by sundresspublications (see all)

Leave a Reply