An Interview with Leanna Petronella
Zach Smith–a student in the creative writing program at the University of Central Missouri and an editorial intern for Pleiades: Literature in Context, and poetry editor for Arcade Magazine–interviews Leanna Petronella, whose just-released book of poetry The Imaginary Age, won the 2018 Pleiades Press Editors Prize.
Leanna Petronella’s debut collection, The Imaginary Age, won the 2018 Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Her poetry appears in Beloit Poetry Journal, Third Coast, Birmingham Poetry Review, CutBank, Quarterly West, ElevenEleven, and other publications. She holds a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri and an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas. She lives in Austin, Texas.
ZS: Your imagery throughout your upcoming book, The Imaginary Age, is intriguing, in particular the line from “June” in which you described wasps as “little half-birds, little alien-and-gem mutts,” was striking. How do you go about creating these sort of warped images?
LP: For me, it’s really fun to pore over an object and then slowly decide how to describe and/or metaphorize it. I have a lot of animal, insect, and “thing” poems (tampon, piggy bank) in my book, and I think it focuses me to have such a sturdy starting point. I have a pretty wild imagination, so it centers me to hone in on one image as an anchor, and whirl off from there. In terms of actual method, I often begin with a Google image search. Depending on the object at hand, this can be a gross journey to embark upon (for example, my poem about a cockroach). As I write and revise the poem, I constantly refer back to the object. The tension between the thing on the screen and the thing in my mind becomes productive.
ZS: Your poem “It’s Just Money in the Bank” features a few lines that directly speak to the reader. How do you balance directly speaking to the reader with the rest of the content in a piece like this one?
LP: As a younger poet, my favorite thing was to metaphorize, metaphorize, metaphorize. (It’s still kind of my favorite thing!) In “It’s Just Money in the Bank,” I have the lines, “I find it comforting / Anything can be anything.” For me, that was (is?) the power of metaphor — its ability to transform seemed so powerful and god-like to me, especially in the time I was writing the book, which was while I was grieving my mother’s death. This terrible thing had happened that I had no control over, and I discovered that metaphor could be this almost vicious thing where I could change the way things were. “It’s Just Money in the Bank” was my first poem where I started to reflect on my tendency to use metaphor in this way. I found that a talky, conversational tone that addressed the reader worked well for the poem’s reflective work.
ZS: “I Wonder What Happens Next” is the last poem in the section titled I. It is set up as a list and contains a great deal of information to unpack for the reader. The poem’s place in the book gives the reader more time to work through all the details. How did you go about determining the layout of your book?
LP: It went through a lot of iterations. Eventually, I decided that one of the book’s main themes is how imagination and grief can tangle. Imagination can be an escape method and also a way to process grief, as at least for me, the ability to make anything happen in my imagination helped me feel some control over my life again. However, while many poems in the book are devoted to imagination and play, the end-poems of the sections tend to be the most explicit grief poems. Grief is relentless and cyclical, and I wanted to make it clear that it comes back, again and again.
ZS: Two of the common themes throughout your book are intimacy and relationships. At what point did you begin to compile the content for The Imaginary Age?
LP: The oldest poem in there is from when I was 22, and the newest I wrote a month before I started submitting the book. I’m 36 now, so it’s been a long slog. At this point, it seems like a time capsule of my twenties and early thirties.
ZS: You hold a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English from the University of Missouri. What was the driving factor in you deciding to take your education to that level? Do you have any advice for students looking to take that educational path as well?
LP: I really wanted to get some teaching experience, as I didn’t teach during my MFA. As a graduate student at the University of Missouri, I taught creative writing, literature, and composition, and had a great time doing that, as the students were totally awesome. So, that was my main motivation in getting the PhD. For students thinking of getting a PhD, I would tell them to think long and hard about the possibility of having to take out student loans, the tenuous state of the job market, and their ability and desire to work independently and in some cases without a lot of oversight. Also, before you commit to any program, do your best to find out if the faculty that you’d be working with has a good reputation for being present and invested in their graduate students. Find mentors wherever you can; enjoy the heck out of your fellow grad students; and advocate for yourself, your own students, and your fellow students.
ZS: You also served as Poetry Editor for The Missouri Review. Did your time as an editor influence your writing?
LP: I strongly encourage anyone who wants to publish to be a reader for a literary magazine. You really get a feel for what catches the editorial eye, and you also learn to really trust your gut as a reader. If something blows you away, chances are it’s going to blow away someone else. Really, being Poetry Editor at TMR helped me in two somewhat opposing directions: I learned to really be intuitive as a reader and evaluator of poems, and I also learned to be savvy in the po-biz–best practices for cover letter, poem ordering, that kind of thing.
ZS: [You recently visited] the University of Central Missouri as part of the Visiting Writers Series, how do you prepare for a reading? Is that process any different for a university reading?
LP: I love reading! I’m my witchiest there. I rehearse in terms of time so that I make sure I don’t go over. But I don’t like to over-rehearse, because there can be wonderfully spontaneous moments when I’m up there reading. People laugh when you don’t expect them to laugh. They make the “oomph” grunt that every poet loves to hear about lines you are kind of “eh” about. And they also stay devastatingly silent during what you think are killer lines! I like to have fun with reading, wherever I go, so I don’t think my process changes depending on venue.
ZS: Who are you reading right now?
LP: I just picked up Traci Brimhall’s Saudade, which is so incredible. It’s the kind of poetry that seems otherworldly, it’s so powerful and dazzling and felt. I’m also reading Claire Sylvester Smith’s first book, Prospect, which has such an amazing voice. I don’t know anyone who sounds like her. For fiction, I just finished Mary Miller’s Biloxi, which is a really moving, funny book about a man and his dog. Each chapter feels like short story, with such delicate, poignant arcs. Lastly, I’ll mention a book I read last year that has stuck with me so much, and that’s Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, which is a gorgeous, heartbreaking memoir about weight, race, class, education, and a hell of a lot more. Read it. Read it!