The future is notoriously hard to predict, but it’s a safe bet that it holds big things for Leigh Stein. The 27-year-old poet and novelist has published two witty, wonderful books in the last year alone. Her first, The Fallback Plan, is a coming-of-age novel about a college graduate spending a confused summer at home in the suburbs. In her new book of poems, Dispatch from the Future, Stein plays fast and loose with the rules of time and space, not to mention poetic conventions — all to dazzling effect.
Beneath Dispatch‘s irreverent wisecracks and pop culture references are big concerns: love, loneliness, revenge, freedom, endless choice. Stein has a knack for asking real humdingers of questions. “What’s the future/of your emergency?” is a funny way for an operator to answer the phone, but it’s also a puzzle anyone who’s ever gotten themselves out of a bad situation has had to solve.
Girls Like Giants’ questions aren’t nearly as mull-worthy; luckily, Stein agreed to an email interview anyway. Read on for her thoughts on The Bachelorette as poetic muse, why writing a novel is like working in the mines, and how to win back your ex-boyfriend after he leaves you for a Lithuanian model.
The opening poem in Dispatch from the Future warns, “If you read this book sequentially, / bad things may happen to you, but only as bad / as the things that would have happened to you anyway.” But it also warns that not reading sequentially will feel like being on a sunken pirate ship. For me, this was kind of like watching the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz point both ways, which was an awesome and trippy way to enter into your book. How did you want your readers to go about reading your poems?
What a great question! The first section of Dispatch is very inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and instead of preparing people for what they typically would expect from a book of poetry, I wanted to prepare people for a dangerous adventure. Of course you can read the book sequentially (and I ordered the poems intentionally) but the pleasure of reading a poetry collection is getting to jump around, just as you would in a CYOA book, where finishing the book means risking death.
Options are a running theme throughout Dispatch—there are choose your own adventure references, alternate versions of the future, and a lot of poems that seem to turn on a moment of choice, like “Eurydice.” In The Fallback Plan, Esther is also at a crossroads. What interests you about these kinds of turning points? And do you think it has anything to do with what it’s like to be in your twenties, trying to figure out who you’re going to be?
I think it absolutely has to do with the kind of choices you’re presented with as a young adult. Before you have a family of your own, you get to think about yourself incessantly. Who do I want to be? What do I want to do? Where do I want to go? How will I get there? Everything’s a crossroads. Every day we have to choose whether we’re going to go in the bathroom at work and have a panic attack, or take a deep breath.
I love that your poems talk about online dating, because composing your profile—and messages—seems like this totally unique, weird form of writing. Have you ever made an online dating profile?
Actually, I live with someone I met on OkCupid. I’m a success story! I’ve also been on approximately nine million bad blind dates thanks to online dating. One of the best/worst was when I was 21, and I went on a date with someone I met on Craigslist (!) and on the date, he confessed he’d read all my poems, and thought I was so funny, and knew everything about me, etc. When I got home that night, there was an email from him that said, basically, that I should go back to college, but he hoped he’d see my name in The New Yorker some day and be able to say to himself, “I bought that girl a vegetarian platter.” How patronizing can you get? And then two years later, I got a job at The New Yorker, sans college degree. There’s another success story for you.
Your poems also incorporate a fair amount of popular culture. In one poem the narrator is watching the Miss Universe pageant with her boyfriend; in another she says that she feels an affinity with Lindsay Lohan because of their mutual obsessions with fame and weight loss; another poem draws on imagery from The Notebook movie. I was really happy about this, because I feel like sometimes contemporary poets are the last people on earth who don’t watch TV (or pretend that they don’t). What’s the place of pop culture within your writing?
At first, I started putting pop culture in poems to make people laugh. Humor that comes from a dark place has always interested me, and I like the tension that comes between telling a joke in a poem, and then telling something deadly serious, and letting the reader/listener figure it out. I’m glad you got The Notebook reference. I do a lot of fairy tale mash-ups in this book (like Risky Business + “The Robber Bridegroom”), or movie plot summaries, because I also want to provide an entry for people who hate poetry, and think it’s boring/pretentious. The poems I’ve written based on reality TV shows like The Bachelorette (I use only dialogue said on the show) have been very well-received.
There are a couple crossover references in Dispatch and The Fallback Plan: pandas, the romance self-help book Calling In the One: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life, and the Alice Munro story “Away from Her” all get dual shout-outs. Can you tell us, in one sentence per item, what each of these things means to you?
Pandas are cute and I challenge you to find someone who disagrees.
Calling in The One: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life is a real book my mom bought me after the guy I was in love with dumped me for a Lithuanian model, but then I won him back by sending him angry poems I wrote about them (such as “How to Mend a Broken Heart with Vengeance”), and we moved to New Mexico together.
“Away from Her” is a beautiful, sad short story, and my obsession with it clearly shows that I am interested in what amnesia means to love.
What was the process of writing Dispatch from the Future and The Fallback Plan like—were the books written in a particular period of your life, or more spread out over time?
The book is basically a sequential chronology of my life from ages 21 to 25. I finished the first three sections of the book when I was 22, before I started The Fallback Plan, and at the time that manuscript was called “Cautionary Tales.” It won a poetry contest, and was supposed to be published in 2007 or 2008, but I had a dispute with the editor, and withdrew. Writing poems in general has always felt like a mystical, emotional, received experience: I hear them in my head, and write them down. Writing a novel, on the other hand, is like working diligently in a mine. I have to show up every day and put in the time and work through every instinct that says to quit.
You are 27! Which is amazing. Not that you’re 27—although that is also a very cool age—but that you’re 27 and already have two excellent books to your name. What other young writers do you like to read?
Thank you! Another good question. I love Mary Miller’s book Big World. It’s tiny and expansive and will rip your heart out. I love the poet Melissa Broder (she has a new book out, Meat Heart, that is excellent). Sasha Fletcher, another poet, is my friend and comrade, and does things with poems you didn’t know could be done, and he is even younger than me, which is disgusting. Catherine Lacey and Kendra Grant Malone are my girls; I love everything they write.
A particular section of Dispatch mentions enemies a lot. What do you think is interesting about enemies? And stealing one of New York’s 21 questions, who is your mortal enemy?
I am great at holding grudges, which is not a winning quality. I think when someone behaves like your enemy, they become one. I will also assign enemy status to someone to prevent myself from contacting them further. My mortal enemy is my ex-boyfriend who runs a semi-famous indie literature empire. He took me to my favorite bar the night before Thanksgiving (when I was to meet his family) to tell me he was gay. Then he re-activated his OKCupid profile to prowl for chicks, added two inches to his height, and changed his profile pic to one I took of him at a party. I think I probably have a capacity for physical violence that I channel instead into poetry.
You wrote The Fallback Plan before the economic crisis, but a lot of critics have taken Esther as a representative of what’s being called the boomerang generation—kids moving back home after college because there aren’t enough jobs and they can’t afford to do anything else. And for me, Esther also resonates with the characters in Girls. What are your thoughts on the response to the novel within this particular cultural zeitgeist?
Private aside to Lena Dunham: Call me. You’re right, I didn’t have the zeitgeist in mind when I started TFB—I wanted to write about the suburbs, and a babysitter. Lena’s character Hannah trying to navigate what it means to be an adult, just the way Esther is, and I think that’s a common theme through coming-of-age lit, except it seems like the “cultural zeitgeist” because these two characters are surrounded by all the set pieces of our era—Twitter and Modest Mouse and Cinnamon Toast Crunch and publishing internships.
Dispatch quotes a line from Horace that the internet tells me translates roughly into: “Change the name and the story is told about you.” What are some stories where you see yourself, or parts of yourself? And what parts of themselves do you think, or hope, readers might recognize in your poems?
Have you ever been in love? Have you ever dreamed of revenge? Have you ever felt like no one knows who or where you are, and so your body may never be discovered? Have you ever wanted for a night to never end? Have you ever wanted to run away? Have you ever gone outside and seen the sky?