CommitmentNow.com: Many of the poems in your book of poetry Unraveling the Bed have a sensual quality. Images such as “Fleshy hands, moonlight of teeth. Your middle name beating between my ribs” from “Oceano” and “She picks up scorched leaves and holds them in her mouth. They are extinguished. They are quenched,” from “The Repeating Garden” come to mind. Is there a theme of physical passion that runs through Unraveling the Bed?
Mia Leonin: Yes, the poems I’m compelled to read and write have a sensual quality, but in my mind this is not limited to the realm of the sexual. “Sensual” in its original Latin simply means to pertain to the senses. The sexual sometimes appears in my work, but the sensual is always present. A leaf, the palm of a hand, a crust of bread. I understand emotions and ideas through images and this is a fundamental element in my poetry: the image.
CommitmentNow.com: What inspires your poetry?
Mia: Many of my poems begin as hypothetical propositions. My first book Braid has many persona poems which sprang from “what if” type questions. I wondered what it would be like to embody the character of someone who is cruel and from that, I wrote a poem in the voice of a privileged girl in the segregated South who makes a disastrous choice. Braid is populated with voices clamoring to be heard: blind women, biblical women, and children. Fidel Castro’s mother (as I imagine her) even makes an appearance.
These “what if” propositions inspired many poems in my second book Unraveling the Bed as well. “What the Body Told,” reveals a woman’s thoughts as she looks at the ceiling while she’s undergoing a gynecological exam. I wanted to locate a poem in a completely unexpected place and of course, I wanted to explore how women experience being “explored” or examined internally.
In “Magdalena” I wanted explore the biblical version of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. I set out to explore her sensual side, but by the end of the poem, I discovered immense solitude. In Unraveling the Bed I also propose experiments with form. In “A Miami Story” I challenged to write a poem that included different modes of expression – a letter, a dialogue, a narrative, and a tall tale.
CommitmentNow.com: Have other poets influenced your work?
Mia: Reading has profoundly affected my work. I have my “Desert Island List” of writers I can’t bear to live without – Federico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Frank Stanford, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath. I return obsessively to the poets who inspire and sustain me, but I am also always searching for something new to read and share with my students. I recently have discovered the poetry of Lynda Hull, which I’m enjoying tremendously. Since poetry exists outside the margins of popular fiction, film, etc., finding a new poet, even someone who is well known in the poetry world, still feels like treasure hunting. I am as tethered to e-mail, cell phones, Facebook as the next person. Those modes of communication feel important and sometimes surprisingly exhilarating (I recently reconnected with friends from grade school on Facebook), but in general they tend to drain my energy; whereas, sitting somewhere and reading sustains me on so many levels.
CommitmentNow.com: Unraveling the Bed is accompanied by a CD of music composed and produced by Carlos Ochoa. What does this music add to your poetry?
Mia: Carlos is a musician of amazing range. He has played folk, rock, jazz, and much more. His eclectic sensibility comes across in the CD, which contains everything from salsa rhythms to electronic trance beats. Although my voice is part of the music (there are six tracks based on six poems from the book) the CD is an original composition. Carlos is my husband, so he knows my work intimately. He says he listened to me reading the poems aloud (which I do obsessively when I’m revising) and he used the sounds of the poem as a guide toward the musical instrumentation of each track. Each song is a different musical experiment. I’m amazed how the poems and the music work well together, but can also exist independently. I think this gives potential readers another point of entry to the poems.
CommitmentNow.com: Your book Havana and Other Missing Fathers is a memoir of your journey to discover who your father really was learning that, contrary to the belief you had held for the first sixteen years of your life, he was not a deceased doctor, but he was in fact a Cuban exile living in Florida. It is also the story of the unearthing of your own cultural identity, which takes you to Miami, Columbia and Cuba. At what point in your journey did you decide to turn these experiences into a book?
Mia: I wrote very little while I was living in Colombia and traveling to Cuba. In my last few days in Bogota, as I was packing and getting ready to return to Miami, I left my laptop on a table by my front door. As I was hurrying in and out of the apartment, I would stop and hammer out notes, observation, and thoughts that I’d been storing all along. Images and ideas came pouring out and because I wrote them down in a hurry, they were uncensored. It was still a couple of years after I returned to Miami that I realized there was an autobiographical aspect to what I was writing. I set out to write a long poem and eventually it became the story of my trip to Havana and the alienation from my father.
CommitmentNow.com: Havana and Other Missing Fathers is a very personal book. Was it difficult to tell this story?
Mia: By the time I sat down to really tell the story a good number of years existed between me, the writer, and the small town girl who got on a plane at age twenty to meet her father for the first time. That distance allowed me clarity of vision, but it can also be deceptive because one still has to go to the emotionally difficult places. One of my biggest challenges was to resist the temptation to write from a place of confidence and knowledge. It was uncomfortable, for example, to return to the stigma of not having a father. The secrecy and embarrassment of that stigma marked my childhood and youth deeply, but now I’m a parent, a writer, and a teacher. I’m “respectable,” so to speak, so it would have been easy to write from that more comfortable place, but I really pushed myself to go deeper.
Another challenge was the fact that I had to return to that state of vulnerability many times over the course of writing and revising the book. Because writing is a recursive act, I had to keep returning to these key moments in order to revise. I have watched and written about theater for almost ten years, but the experience of writing this book gave me a new appreciation for the work of an actor playing a difficult role. A good actor must access a very real place of emotional vulnerability for each performance. It’s extraordinary. I don’t purport to have the skills and resources of a performer, but I think I got a taste of that experience – with the exception that the difficult role I was playing was my own past.
CommitmentNow.com: You teach writing at the University of Miami. What advice do you have for new writers?
Mia: Read voraciously. Read until you find someone who really blows you away and then read everything you can find by that person. Read some more and allow yourself the time and privacy to write unhindered without thinking about publication, what others will think, etc.
MIA LEONIN is the author of two books of poetry Braid (Anhinga Press) and Unraveling the Bed (forthcoming from Anhinga Press). She has been awarded an Academy of American Poets Prize and her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Leonin’s poetry has been published in New Letters, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, Chelsea and Witness.
She’s received Money for Women Grant by the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and a 2005 Florida Individual Artist Fellowship. Excerpts from her memoir Father Hunger have been published in New Letters and the North American Review and were nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Leonin has been writing about theater, dance and performance in Miami since 2000. She was the theater critic for the Miami New Times for two years and is the recipient of a Green Eyeshade Award for theater criticism. She frequently writes about dance, performance and Spanish-language theater for the Miami Herald. In 2007, she was selected to be a fellow in the National Endowment for the Arts/Annenberg Institute on Theater and Musical Theater. Leonin is a full-time creative writing instructor at the University of Miami.
To purchase Havana and Other Missing Fathers, click here.
To purchase Unraveling the Bed, click here.