Friday, December 2, 2011

Faculty Profile: Professor Deborah Landau


Professor Deborah Landau is the Director of the Creative Writing Department at NYU Arts and Science. She is the author of Orchidelirium, which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry, and The Last Usable Hour, a Lannan Literary Selection published by Copper Canyon Press.

Last week, we had a chance to speak with Professor Landau about what inspires her poetry, her experiences at NYU, and how alumni can get involved with the Creative Writing Department!

Were you always interested in poetry? As a graduating high school senior about to embark on your undergraduate education, what path did you initially see yourself heading down?

I’ve loved poetry since childhood. My mother gave me a book of Anne Sexton’s Love Poems when I turned thirteen and I was hooked.

When I left Ann Arbor (to go to Stanford) at first I thought I’d major in Physics or Philosophy but I couldn’t stop signing up for English classes. I ended up being an English major, writing poetry, and eventually going on to graduate school in English Literature.

Could you provide a brief synopsis of your background, and what factors influenced you to become a writer and teacher of poetry?

After finishing my PhD I thought I’d be an English Professor somewhere, but found I was more interested in writing poetry than in writing about poetry. I was fortunate enough to land a job teaching poetry at The New School, where I spent many years as an Associate Professor and Asst. Chair of the Writing Program before coming to NYU to direct the Creative Writing Program here in 2007.


To quote Robert Frost, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.” Where do your poems come from? Is there a specific emotion, process or ritual that helps you get the words down on paper?

I love that quotation from Frost -- if we were content with the world the way it is why would we make anything? Writing poetry is a compulsion, and an extremely satisfying one. In my experience, poems often begin from a place of inner agitation. I work to suspend the inner critic for as long as I can to generate language, and then try to be as ruthless as possible in revision. I do need a routine--which is to try to write at least an hour every morning no matter what--because otherwise the demands of my job would take over entirely. Reading is crucial. Good music and lots of coffee are helpful, too.

In the art world, the question is often speculated, “What is art?” In your opinion, what is a poem? Are there rules one must follow to create a successful poem? Or can anyone simply declare their writing as a work of poetry?

I would say that a poem is any piece of language defined by its author as a poem. What is a good poem? That is a more difficult question to answer, and has a lot to do with personal taste. It’s hard to generalize, but the poems I love most tend to have a particular intensity and compression, and tend to be made of language that is lively, vivid, and strange, and driven by a strong interior music and currents of emotion.

You have a wide academic background that includes studying at Stanford, Columbia and Brown—all prestigious, world-class universities. How does your experience at NYU compare, and has your time teaching in the Creative Writing Department influenced your personal work in any way?

I adore my job at NYU – it’s an inspiring and sustaining pleasure to work with so many extraordinary poets (Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Anne Carson, Charles Simic, Matthew Rohrer, among many others). The students, too, are wonderfully energetic and smart and talented. I feel very fortunate to show up for work every day at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House where so many lively conversations about literature and writing occur daily.

What distinguishes NYU’s Creative Writing program?

Our world-class faculty. In addition to the poetry faculty (listed above) our fiction faculty this year include E.L Doctorow, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Safran Foer, Lydia Davis, Aleksandar Hemon, Chuck Wachtel, and Darin Strauss. The marvelous Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House on 10th street is a beautiful home for the program – classes are held there, faculty have offices there, on Thursday and Friday evenings we fill the place to the rafters and hold readings ( followed by booksignings and wine receptions. The students use the public areas of the house as lounges throughout the year, bringing books and laptops, ordering in food, meeting in small groups. And we have fantastic house parties whenever there is cause to celebrate.

What options are there for our alumni to become more involved in the Creative Writing program?

We love to see alums at our weekly readings ( and alumni are also welcome to drop by 58 West 10th Street anytime to see the house and say hello.


A Poem by Deborah Landau:

from Welcome to the Future

worry the river over its banks
the train into flames

worry the black rain into the city
the troops into times square

worry the windows cracked acidblack
and the children feverblistered

worry never another summer
never again to live here gentle
with the other inhabitants

then leave too quickly
leave the pills and band-aids
the bathroom scale the Christmas lights the dog

go walking on our legs
dense and bare and useless

worry our throats and lungs
into taking the air

leave books on the shelves
leave keys dustpan

telephones don't work where you were
in the chaos

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