Heaven on Earth: A Conversation with Mark LeidnerBy Michael Mungiello
July 13, 2021
Mark Leidner weaponizes the deadpan tone of a defeated world to reclaim that classically Romantic thing: the Sublime. Weaponizes like the weapon is a water gun; reclaims like he’s won a water gun contest and the reward is the end of global warming. In Returning the Sword to the Stone, Mark isolates the scenes of absurdity that string our inner lives together while gesturing toward the authenticities still available to us at this late date, this deeply stupid, cynical, and sentimental moment in history. Reading this collection was re-invigorating and a reminder that the opposite of stupidity is not intelligence but love.
Mark is a generous, wise, and witty writer. This interview was conducted by email.
While reading these poems, I was reminded of the D W Winnicott line where he says flippancy is a reaction to despair. What do you think is the relationship between that attitude and that feeling in your work? Does playfulness exist in concert with futility/frustration, or is it something purer and more simply fun?
I try to pair flippancy with something else — some other kind of seriousness, a lyricism, a formal constraint — to create tension. My favorite poetry is flippant yet not, playful yet ferocious, silly but provocative. Such conflicts are also the way I feel most of the time: despairing yet ready to laugh, contemptful yet looking to show mercy, skeptical but hoping to be naïve, etc.
Following on that, what or who is the contempt directed toward? The idealism here seems to be connected to love – the marveling at your subject who recites “Having a Coke with You” is one of the most moving invocations of love I’ve read in a long time. I love how that poem lifts off. Do you feel idealistic about love and love for writing? Or, why was it important to you to write a love poem where what you love is how much someone loves something else and loves sharing that something else with someone else?
I try to reserve the majority of my contempt for my own greed, vanity, and pettiness, but it often sprawls into contempt for the same qualities in others or the culture generally. While I’m idealistic about love and writing most of the time, that idealism is freighted with contempt for the deluding character of love and poetry. I usually feel satisfied with a poem’s honesty about poetry if it has at least little of both of these impulses in it.
In “Having a Coke with You,” I was recording a real-life event that spontaneously happened, so I didn’t think too much about underlying whys. In retrospect, it makes sense that I’d want to write this poem and put it in the book because it does present an ideal of love I believe in. Loving someone or something outside yourself is one way to escape the claustrophobia of exclusive self-regard. Loving someone outside yourself who in turn loves something outside themselves — poetry in this case, or a way of relating to it — seems like a more liberating extension of that transcendent space.
Transcendence calls to mind the moments of almost gleeful resignation in the collection: in the title poem, returning the sword to the stone (in all its forms) seems to indicate some abdication of expectation that sets you free. Is this act of playfully loving your limits (Sisyphus licking the stone) the same as humility?
We all face limitations we have no control over, mortality being the main one. I think learning to accept limitations, and possibly even to love them, is one pinnacle of wisdom. There is that Eliot line from the Four Quartets: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” Someone quoted it to me once, and I often return to it. In Returning the Sword to the Stone I wanted to explore it.
That reminds me of how the vase/speaker “shattering” at the end of the poem “Humility” “feels awesome.” Is having the vase out with you, shaking rather than in a vault, a way of abdicating some responsibility as a poet to be “true” or correct, an abdication of precious judiciousness and instead choosing playful affirmation? Is there joy in the fragmentation and in loving the fact that sometimes things sound right, and that this happens more often and is maybe more important than things being right, or true forever? With so much of the energy here in the book being about poetry, ending on the image of a vase reminded me of the Grecian urn and the lines about beauty and truth there.
All of those interpretations ring true to me. If we all must shatter anyway, we might as well see if it is possible to like it. When you feel shattered by life, you certainly feel a reduction in judgment, in self-righteousness, in the egocentric longing to control events around you or feelings inside you. When someone is dying, for instance, and you’re at their bedside and don’t know what to say, there may be this artificial pressure to say “the right thing,” but instead you sputter nonsense that you’re not even sure is authentic to how you feel. But if you could see that moment with emotional distance, maybe you would see that there was joy and truth in its fragmentation, and the sputtered sounds you made were the sincerest sounds you’ve ever made, and the sentiment did indeed find the “right” form of expression after all. It wasn’t language that saved the dying person from their death or their feelings, but that is because they did not need saving from those things. But you couldn’t have fathomed that at the time. In moments of total devastation, the best thing to say becomes whatever it is that you end up saying or not saying, as long as you are present with your whole being. If only one could have that perspective in the moment, it truly would feel awesome, to know you are in touch with your truest self when you are so broken that your speech and action become as unselfconscious and sincere as they have ever been. When you are simply an unprotected heart.
The self always feels like a Keatsian vase to me. A hallowed object inscribed with scripture or idealized images that are half understood and which we ache to understand more of. Then life comes along, challenging it, knocking it over, moving it around, and ultimately shattering it. We can curse life for doing that, or we can enjoy the shattering as a part of the fabric of meaning the universe weaves, and see if there is any solace in that. I find more than solace, personally. I find in acceptance a vast freedom, as you say, from fear, from judgment, from ambition, from envy, and from other sources of anxiety. What is joy if not that.
The bit about there being some joy and truth in that moment of someone dying rings really true; it’s like those Yeats lines from “Vacilation”:
Man runs his course;
A brand, or flaming breath,
Comes to destroy
All those antinomies
Of day and night;
The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right
What is joy?
What was the context of someone quoting that Eliot line to you? Is he a particular favorite of yours, given the shared attention to fragmentation?
I had to look up the full poem after reading that excerpt. I’d never read it before and really love it. I’ll need to read it again.
My friend quoted me that Eliot line when I was going through a difficult depression. The idea that “humility is endless” stuck with me because it gave me a way to see all loss — whether self-inflicted or externally imposed — as somehow connected to the grandeur of the universe (as opposed to being merely insignificant without a connection to any more meaningful whole).
For me, the endlessness of humility, when I can remember it that way, is similar to the relief I feel when I look at the stars and am confronted with their jaw-dropping scale. There’s liberation in knowing it’s not about you, nor even close to being about you. It’s entirely likely that it’s not even about us, i.e., the human race or the Earth itself, considering the extreme enormity of creation. Obviously, an abdication of responsibility is part of this feeling — that one can simply let all things pass away, as Yeats goes on to say in “Vacilation.” I don’t think abdicating responsibility is always appropriate. Often, taking more responsibility is appropriate. But in the depths of debilitating despair, surrendering control of events and emotions and letting it all pass away, if you can, is, I believe, necessary and wise. My dad’s version of the same idea used to be, “Whatever you can’t carry, let go of it, and let God carry it for you.”
I do love the little of Eliot that I’ve read. I guess most modernists tend to frame reality through fragments. I always feel like Eliot’s fragments are just some of the most evocative. Frankly, I never really liked modernist poetry or art until I grew up enough to see that I too saw the world as a paradox of fragmentation and unity. I suppose it took depressions and deaths and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” to learn that I was not different from the poets I was so suspicious of. Now I think that the poetic fragment aptly representative of life itself. All we get is one fragment of eternity. We don’t get the whole thing. And yet, if you cherish the fragment that is your own life deeply enough, you may indeed find it to be an entire universe, or you may see that within you are infinite nested fragments, a form of endlessness, a form of eternity, and so on.
I have a poem I’ve been working on for a long time with a line in it that goes something like: “Luckily at some point / someone invented the fragment / which in its naked incompletion conveys more of whatever this is / than any whole ever could.” I don’t know if the poem will ever see the light of day, but the line represents something I think I believe. The fragment is the whole, in some sense. Or, it is truer to what the whole of reality is, because the whole of reality is incomplete, too. It is not over yet. It may only be beginning. So how could any perspective that purports to be “complete” and “sealed off” be true in the widest sense? Books are endlessly retranslated. Plays are endlessly reperformed. Every poem that will ever be read someday will be read, if not by new readers entirely, by old readers in new situations, remaking the meaning of the poem. So even the meaning made by poem that has been done for thousands of years is not yet complete.
I love that line. How long have you been working on that poem?
Two or three years. The poem is a list of fragments waiting for the right form or opportunity to come along and free it from its primordial state. Sometimes someone will ask me to submit some poems to a magazine, and I’ll scroll through old drafts and see if any of them come alive with a quick revision. It’s in that pile.
On the note of fragmentation, I was wondering about your relationship to poetry versus the short story versus the tweet – all forms associated with giving little glimpses of bigger things. How do you know when you’re in the mood to write one versus the other (versus the other)? What was it like to work on that collection of stories? And have you even given thought to trying a novel?
Usually I start the day writing a longer form like a novel or screenplay or freelance work. When my brain is fried, I’ll switch to poems, tweets, etc. Short stories are fun to write, but I rarely write them because they are so hard to finish and publish. I’ll spend months or years on a short story knowing it will probably be rejected by every magazine, or be too long to read even if it is accepted, and I often won’t even like the final version enough to want to publish it. So they are the most risky in terms of losing all the time pour into them. The only reason I was even able to complete the stories in Under the Sea was because I had a generous publisher (rest in peace Gian) who would let me publish basically whatever I wanted. That enabled me to let go and not worry about trying to publish them in magazines (or write stories that could be published in magazines, which may be above my skill level), and that’s one reason why the best stories in that book are so long (or too long, as some reviewers have said). In some way I feel like my short stories were “never meant to be,” but they found the perfect publisher, so they got to be born.
Novels take the longest but they have the clearest potential payoff, so it’s easier to endure the hundreds of hours of drafting and revisions. People actually seem to want to read and publish them.
Screenplays are sometimes more fun and faster to write, because they are more compressed and formulaic, but they are probably the least likely to be published, i.e., made into a movie, so they are kind of like short stories in that way, at least for my skill level. On the other hand, screenplays can pay off in indirect ways, i.e., getting you other jobs or connections, if people like what they read. But taking advantage of those opportunities seems to require a more serious participation in the film industry than I’m suited to give.
I’ve thought about writing novels for a long time and am almost always working on one. Unfortunately, I tend to give up on them about 80K words in for reasons I don’t always understand. When I was a kid, my favorite video game series was Final Fantasy. I played them constantly, racking up hundreds and hundreds of hours. Yet I don’t think I ever finished any. I would get close to the final villain, then lose interest and not understand why. Hopefully, that won’t happen with the novel I’m working on now. I don’t think it will. This time it’s different.
Which final fantasy did you play? I really only know the seventh one, but always found the titles funny. The *final* fantasy: 7. Then 8. Then 9, etc. Each “final.” And each basically its own stand-alone world with the only throughline being the wildlife or horses (which in FF were giant yellow birds I think).
I played all the FFs released in America — 1 and 2 for the Nintendo, then 3 for the Super Nintendo, then 7, 8, 9 and Tactics (my favorite) for Playstation. I think that’s where I stopped. I forget what number it’s on now, and it’s confusing because more titles released were in Japan with different numbers there. There’s some mildly interesting lore about the reasons for the “final” in the title. I’ve always liked that the fantasy is “final” but there’s never not another sequel, and that each game is more or less unique.
Do you have a favorite comedian?
Jack Handey and David Letterman were the most influential on my writing, I’d say. Letterman’s top ten lists and Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts gave me hours of entertainment (and unintentional education) on long car rides, and those forms imprinted on me in ways I wouldn’t really understand until a million lifetimes later. I don’t have a favorite comedian, I don’t think. They’re all funny to me. On Twitter Rob Delaney comes to mind because his jokes often rely on unexpected (-ly gross) language and self-deprecation, and I also find his political outspokenness sincere and genuinely challenging. I admire anyone who can entertain lots of people yet not get so sucked into the machine that they can never say what they feel about the world. I wish I was more like that. My favorite type of comedy to see live is amateur comedy, like at an open mic, or an improv show. I don’t really know why. More blistering humanity on display, I suppose. There’s something more glorious in watching unpolished performers truly risk bombing. It’s almost like any joke that isn’t funny becomes even more hilarious because it’s funny that anyone would think such a joke would be funny.
Where are you from? Who were your parents?
I currently live in northern California, but I grew up in a small town in south Georgia. My dad was an ag journalist who worked for lots of different magazines and covered lots of different agricultural sectors. Agriculture is constantly changing. New technology and innovative cultivation practices are constantly evolving to meet challenges posed by new diseases, pests, and environmental and market hazards. My dad was a reservoir of knowledge regarding those changes, and his articles helped many a farmer stay informed as they tried to grind out a living.
My mom served as a conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which is part of the U.S.D.A. She was an expert in many areas of ag land management. One way she helped farmers was by designing irrigation ponds that accounted for the contour of the landscape and rainfall/runoff patterns to hold the right amount of water, prevent flooding, and preserve or reclaim any disrupted wetlands. She was often out in some blazing field surveying slopes and doing back-of-the-envelope calculus and planting flags for bulldozers and excavators to follow. Or doing a post-mortem on a pond that keeps flooding or a busted drain and helping the farmer find the best solution for the problem. At her funeral an old farmer came up to me and told me that you could look at any pond in the region and know instantly if she’d designed it. If it was beautiful, it was one of hers.
Both of my parents have passed, and both were respected and admired by the farmers, extension agents, and other ag people who relied on them and who they got to know.
Do you have any siblings? Do they read your work?
I have a brother and sister. They read most but not all of my writing. When I send them drafts, it’s usually for something important, like I really need feedback before I send something out to an important person. They let me know what does and doesn’t work. We are lucky in that we get along so well. The best thing in the world is hanging out and cooking food and drinking beer and joking around. Heaven on earth.
Mark Leidner is the author of two feature films: the sci-fi noir Empathy, Inc. (2019) and the relationship comedy Jammed (2014). He is also the author of the story collection Under the Sea (Tyrant Books, 2018), the poetry collection Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow, 2011), and the book of aphorisms The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator, 2011).
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