Discover more from Poet to Poet
Maps of Home: On Poetry and our Environment
Poet Deborah Leipziger discusses her new collection, Story and Bone
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing poet Deborah Leipziger about her collection, Story and Bone, plus her experience working at the intersection of sustainability/environmental advocacy and poetry.
Deborah Leipziger is an author, poet, and advisor on sustainability. Born in Brazil, Leipziger is the author of several books on sustainability and human rights. Her poems have been published in eight countries, in such magazines and journals as Pangyrus, Salamander, Lily Poetry Review, and Revista Cardenal. She is the co-founder of Soul-Lit, an on-line poetry magazine. Her new collection of poems, Story & Bone, was published in early 2023 by Lily Poetry Review Books. Her chapbook, Flower Map, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her work appears in numerous anthologies, including Tree Lines: 21st Century American Poems.
Watch the video below, or keep scrolling to read the interview. To hear Deborah read poems from Story and Bone, check out the video (I highly recommend it).
Maps of Home: On Poetry and our Environment
Radha Marcum: I thought we could start by having you describe the main themes of this new book, Story and Bone, and how those themes emerged for you.
Deborah Leipziger: One of the main themes is finding home and creating home. And love poems—for my daughters, my partner, the environment, as well as my history. The poems describe a journey to understanding what I call my own maps.
I was born in Brazil. My parents are European, my father is German, and my mother comes from an Italian family. When I was little, we moved to the US, and then moved back to Brazil. And so I have lived in many countries. I spent nine years in Europe. And so the poems are very much a reflection on finding home.
Radha: It strikes me, listening to you talk about each of those geographies, that there is probably a multilingual aspect to that journey. Your poetry is about finding a home in language, as well.
Deborah: That's absolutely true. I think language is very much a home. The process of writing both Flower Map and Story and Bone has given me time and space to think about this journey and the journey that my grandparents made—and my parents—as survivors of the Holocaust, what that means, having left home and then recreating home. How do we recreate home?
I think languages are very much a vocabulary of painting—almost like colors to use to make a painting of what home is, and could be, and was. Through poems I communicate with my grandmother who passed away a long time now. I have a lot of dialogue with her, through stories from my parents, working out what is legend and what is true.
Radha: Beautiful. Different languages that we use might speak to the different roles that we play. I'm curious to hear a little bit about your work as a sustainability advisor and author, and how that informs or intersects, if at all, with the work that you do as a poet.
Deborah: I love this question. It's something I think about a lot. I have spent 30 years working in sustainability and human rights, advising companies and organizations on these topics. I've had to travel to many countries, looking at human rights issues, environmental issues, being part of conversations about codes and standards.
My love of language while working to formulate what companies and organizations should be aspiring to has been part of that journey. It's the same creative impulse, just expressed differently. A lot of the work that I'm doing now on sustainability and human rights is around language. How do we talk about these issues?
I use those experiences and that vocabulary as raw material in in my new collection. Language changes how we think and, therefore, what is possible. One of the words that struck me and haunts me is endling, the word for a species that that is ending. So the last, say, hummingbird of its kind is an endling. It changes how you relate to the topic of biodiversity when you think of an individual frog as the end of its kind. I’m inspired by language from science or from from other places. Some of terms have been around forever. Some of them are indigenous terms that we just don't know. Plus, building from the different languages that that I grew up with. Looking towards common understanding.
Radha: In the book, you express a deep love of people, but also deep love of the more-than-human world. And that's something that we maybe maybe we don't all overlook that possibility, but the possibility of bringing more people into that conversation through our love of place and the natural world. To me, these are complementary parts of a whole—the scientific, quantifiable aspects (the endling, the last one) and the qualitative or emotional quality of that word. How it feels, right? A poet can bring those two things together.
Deborah: It’s exciting. I find myself meeting so many people who are bridging these spaces, like Elizabeth Bradfield. She’s a naturalist and a poet and is documenting what's happening in Antarctica, studying and teaching about the way that animals communicate. That is also in her poetry. It's exciting to be in dialogue with people working in poetry and also in the environment.
Radha: I'm curious about your process of developing the poems for the book. Where did the poems start? Where do they start for you generally?
Deborah: I’m inspired by art and museums. I was part of a poetry workshop at the Institute of Contemporary Art. There was an exhibit called When Home Won't Let You Stay. The poet Martha Collins, who's a wonderful teacher, did a workshop there. A lot of poems were inspired by images from that exhibit.
A room that was part of the exhibit had books—each was wrapped in a kind of African cloth—including books by people who were refugees to the U.S. that we don't necessarily think of as beautiful. Other poems I wrote at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston at a different poetry workshop. Art museums are departure points for me with a lot of poems.
In the new collection I'm working, I focus on women artists. I didn’t plan it; it’s interesting how that happens. I also walk every day. It becomes a meditation where I am flooded with ideas and words and images. I will often start lines of poems as I walk. I do love prompts, especially prompts based on on other poems, and I take a lot of classes. I love classes and learning.
Radha: I appreciate that. It's not just inspiration that an art museum can give us; it’s access. Witnessing art can shine a light on our blind spots. It’s as if that contact is needed in order for the material to emerge. A prompt can also be an external catalyst.
Those of us who have been writing for a while might think, “At some point, I won't need the encouragement of prompts or experiences.” But it is vital to our growth as writers all along the way. Where we come into contact with new ideas and art is where our own vital material is likely to come forward.
Deborah: I also love reading newspapers. I often get ideas from the New York Times, like the poem in the book about the Brazilian rainforest. I read about that in the New York Times. I just read, and then discover that I want to explore it in a poem.
I also love the process of translating my work into other languages. Some of my poems are translated into Spanish, which I speak, but not as fluently as I speak Portuguese. Hearing my poems in a different language is interesting, right? The rhymes are more beautiful in Portuguese and Spanish, because those languages are melodic. Rhymes that you don't intend are possible in other languages. That's been a fun part of the process, too.
Radha: In a book of poetry—we talk a lot about this in the manuscript classes that I teach—there are often different tones that enhance the experience of the book for the reader. It’s remarkable how the poems in you book vary in tone, and yet they absolutely belong to the same book.
I'm curious about your journey to finding a publisher. It can take many years and a lot of work. What was it like for you? How did you find the press that that published this book? And did you send the manuscript to a ton of contests
Deborah: I did send the manuscript out to a ton of contests. I was a little bit spoiled because Flower Map was picked up quickly. This book took a long time. I probably had three different iterations of the manuscript. The book is very much an outgrowth of Flower Map. I kept writing more and more map poems and just kept going. I probably spent five years writing poems and then a good four years searching for a publisher.
I was consulting and a single mom. It requires you to be relentless. It takes relentlessly sending out your work to magazines and putting your work out there. It's hard. I was fortunate to find Lily Poetry Review Books, an incredible home for poets. l wrote to the editor and she wrote back to me and said, “This is very good, but I want you to revise and resubmit.” I was like, “Okay, somebody read it, somebody liked it, and somebody sees what it could be.”
I spent another year creating a final version to submit. And then we still worked for another year, every couple of months, going through the poems. I was fortunate to work with Eileen Cleary [the editor]. She has poetry clinics—also part of getting to know her, her style, the press. It was transformational to work with her and the other poets. I took a lot of classes during the pandemic. I joke that it was my do-it-yourself MFA. I picked all of the poets that I wanted to work with and signed up for classes with them—amazing poets.
Lily Poetry Review Books is unusual in that it feels like a community. Eileen does a lot to build the network. I had experience in nonfiction publishing so that knowledge helped me in promoting my book.
Radha: What a lot of poets (and writers of other genres) don’t realize is that, typically, marketing and promotion falls to the author. I appreciate when authors are honest about that. It's a lot of work.
Deborah: Yes, and on the subject of publishing, I can't say enough good things about Duotrope. I Through it I found book publishers that also publish a journal. It’s a great way to build a connection with editors and publishers. Through their journals, you can get to know what they're looking for.
I recommend checking out the Lily Poetry Review Books website. They're publishing a lot of wonderful, innovative, very compelling work.
Learn more about Deborah’s work at deborahleipziger.com/poetry
Upcoming Events / Poet to Poet Community
Fall 2023 Poets Retreat in Taos—only 6 spots left
This fall, join practicing poets for creative renewal in Taos, New Mexico. Enjoy three full days of guided writing, art tours, daily workshops, and guest author talks by nationally recognized poets. Space is limited. Learn more and reserve your spot at the link below.
The Poets Circle: Drop-in Conversations
JULY: Iteration—Toward Completion
July 5, 6-7pm MT & July 19, 12-1pm MT
How do you know when a poem or a book is done? What does "complete" mean?
AUGUST: What About Audience?
Aug 2, 6-7pm MT & Aug 16, 12-1pm MT
How much do we consider audience while we're writing? How much should we consider it? Should we consider it at all?