Rusty Morrison interviews Laura Neuman

Laura Neuman is a poet and performing artist who has lived in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and (soon) Seattle. From 2007-2011, she/xe performed in and sometimes co-created dances with The Workshop for Potential Movement. Some of her poems have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and Tinge. Laura holds an M.F.A. in Writing from Bard College Milton Avery School of the Arts, and an M.A. in Poetry from Temple University. She has taught Creative Writing, Poetry, and Composition to undergraduates at Temple.

Rusty Morrison is the co-publisher of Omnidawn.

A new poem by Laura Neuman follows the interview.

Rusty Morrison: As a recent grad from an MFA Program in Creative Writing, you’ve had several opportunities to present your work. I understand that you recently organized an event about Dance/Writing. And that you recently gave a reading with Ron Silliman. Can you speak to each of these? How did they come about?

Laura Neuman: When he heard I was moving to Seattle, the poet CA Conrad very kindly invited me to read at the Milano’s Poetry Series. Ron Silliman gave this incredible and exhilarating reading, on the top floor of this pizza shop in Center City Philadelphia. I was amazed to get to read there. I continue to be amazed at the lengths poets go to support and make possible one another’s work. Poetry happens in so many ways (readings, journals, presses, academic institutions and programs) only because of the incredible generosity and hard work of so many poets—in this case, Ron, and Conrad.

Material Construction, the dance/writing event I helped to organize at the Kelly Writers House, came about because I had applied for a different opportunity there, and in my application I had proposed bringing dancers and choreographers to the Writers House to discuss how language worked in their medium. Erin Gautsche, Program Coordinator at the Kelly Writers House, was interested in this idea and invited me do it as part of Creative Ventures, a series that supports interdisciplinary collaborations. The program consisted of performances and audience-participatory presentations by various artists (Megan Bridge and Peter Price of , Meg Foley, Bonnie Jones) working in text, dance and sound. The evening was especially rewarding for me in that I got to see some of the ways these artists, as well as the audience members, were thinking through some questions with which I’ve been a little obsessed. It was also fun to see a mixed audience of dancers, performers and poets talk with each other about how these materials work differently in the different arts.

RM: What led you to decide to commit to an MFA Program in Creative Writing, what background in the arts did you have? How did it lead you to the idea of the MFA? Say a bit about the programs you graduated from, and their impact on you as a writer.

LN: After finishing my undergraduate degree, I spent six years living as a working artist before I applied to an MFA program. I made a living through a series of odd jobs, while collaborating with performing artists, developing a writing practice, and finding other writers with whom to exchange work. I moved to Philadelphia and stumbled upon a tremendous community of dancers and performing artists. I mean, this happened immediately; I spent my first summer in Philadelphia participating in Headlong’s Dance Theater Camp, a series of experimental performing workshops. I learned my way around town during a site-specific performance workshop, where we were assigned tasks like walking around the same block at various speeds for an hour, or entering a deli and then standing motionless for at least three minutes. In “33 Hours,” I spent a hot July weekend crammed with fifty other people (none of whom I’d yet met) in The Parlor, a converted funeral home turned dance studio, trying to make “something” from “nothing.” This was an exciting way to arrive in a new city! Eventually, I met artists from another company and began a more regular collaboration. These experiences were important for my developing practice as a writer. I can’t imagine having decided to pursue an MFA without first having spent several years seriously engaged in making work, nor without the support of other artists (collaborators and friends).

I decided to enter an MFA program for what I think are the usual reasons—a desire to exchange work with a community of writers, in hope of finding mentorship from poets I admired and respected, and to learn more ways to read my own work and work by other poets.

Bard’s program is unique in that it’s interdisciplinary, and Writing is studied alongside several other media in the visual and time-based arts. This made immediate (also historical) sense to me, as someone who was already straddling disciplines. So, from the very beginning, I had to find ways to actually and productively communicate about my work with artists, peer and faculty, who weren’t writers. This was great, in that the way I began to write poems, to imagine what poems could be, was marked by all of these weird, kind of profane readings of my work I was getting from people who paid a lot of attention to what was on the page, and who often had decidedly non-literary ways of making sense of it.

Meanwhile, “crits,” the public conversations that happen daily as students and faculty come together to discuss each student’s work, forced me to jump in and try to articulate my responses publicly, even when I was totally unfamiliar with the history of a medium, a particular work’s style or field of reference. This was terrifying and embarrassing and I felt vulnerable in the process and it felt important.

All of that said, the “talking” that happened at Bard and that was most important wasn’t so institutionalized. What are the ways that one artist can give mentorship to another, what are the conversations between artists that come to matter to the work, in what configurations do these encounters happen? These are important questions for an MFA program, and I think part of the wonder of Bard’s structure is that it provides both opportunities for formal dialogue between and among faculty and students, and also for more open, spontaneous exchange.

The workshops I took in Temple’s program sharply focused on encouraging students to develop rich, historically informed, exciting and socially engaged reading practices. When I was there, the program was small—a few students in each year—which meant that we got to work intimately with one another and with the faculty. The workshops in this program consistently demanded that we (faculty and students) practice a high degree of precision—precision in our listening, reading, speaking, writing, in giving feedback, in our thinking. This was challenging and delightful!

In academic institutions as much as elsewhere, poetry exists because of the support, generosity and hard work of other poets. Both of the programs I attended offered support where they could in the form of various kinds of aid, which helped make the M.F.A. possible for me. I also felt very fortunate, as a graduate student at Temple, to teach a creative writing class there. Teaching as a graduate student was a terrific opportunity to try out, with my students, some of the ideas about poetry that I was thinking through.

RM: Do you see yourself as primarily a poet, or do you attempt to engage with other fields of creative endeavor, other genres? Why?

LN: I don’t know about “primarily,” but I do think of myself as a poet and a writer, and also as a performing artist.

Right now I’m working on a series of poems that deals with dance development language. Obviously, this comes directly out of my experiences collaborating with dancers. I began to get curious about certain ways language was being posited and exchanged in the studio, and this led me to want to write about it.

In collaborating with the Workshop for Potential Movement, I got to work with other artists in the studio to form a conceptual dance language of “micro-movements.” Over a period of a few years, we honed our collective understanding of various agreed-upon verbal parameters for manipulating gesture. We developed formulas that, when executed, produced movement sequences. I loved the fact that the language we used with each other in the studio was both incredibly precise and also, by definition, approximate—since, at the end of the day, it was the dance that mattered, and not the words that got you there. Working intensively with language this way, collaboratively and as a process-based medium, also had a great effect on the way I wrote poems.

RM: Where do you see your future as a creative person?

LN: Immediately, my future involves moving to Seattle from Philadelphia, where I’ve lived for seven years, met my partner, went to graduate school, met friends and collaborators with whom I trade work, etc. I expect that something as big as moving to a new city will show up in my poems, one way or another!


Insect (Object) Photography 2.

When which conceals when
every individual instance muted.

When Smerinthus Ocellata, which
like all hawk moths, is in danger, thus
exposes its two blue “eyes” on a red background.

This a taxonomy of doing by being
thus – an indexical destiny
we need no longer say why, how or if
these activities make us groups
creatures classifiable in what we do
such as breath, turn, setting out.
So we read in danger the index
many others of us are busy making even
now, the murmuring, but how did we ever
cede the telling, the instance for such listings?
Since, writing it, timing is
the force that drives the green-y red or blue
a temporal field charged, no longer
background since, reading it, we can come each
time anew to say, WE LOVE THE AGGRESSOR
and do, since we are ready for charge
now, your face readied your
face turned away from their faces.
So a field will fold to prepare for that shock
being read, eventually recognized,
being in relation. And if we were to choose
another method, to read it differently this
time, so assured another we
will take the line of looking up.

To prepare is thus predated:
Smerinthus Ocellata thus
becomes the huge head heaving
the object not the image
“and we are ready for charge now”
a whetting of the neurological
appetites become territories
rife for layers of the self-same invasion.
And imagine looking, tell me
without such categorical prenuptials
since we come ready with selves to the field
in folds to the guide
like all pre-included in such listings.


“Insect (Object) Photography 2” is excerpted from a longer project that
deals with dance development language and dance notational systems. Over a
period of several months, I visited the studios of four choreographers, sitting
in on rehearsals and recording the language these artists and their dancers
used in developing their work. The companies I visited include The
Workshop for Potential Movement (Kathryn TeBordo) and Moving Parts (Meg
Foley), as well as projects choreographed by Sara Yasky and Gregory Holt.