Celebrating Steven Leyva’s new poetry collection

Anyone who has been involved in the Little Patuxent Review in the past several years knows Steven Leyva. He has been the journal’s editor and fiercest advocate.

Steven recently stepped down as LPR‘s editor after seven years, and we’ll miss him very much. But now he has more time to promote his new poetry collection, The Understudy’s Handbook, coming on October 15 from Washington Writers Publishing House. The book is already making a splash—it won the 2020 Jean Feldman Poetry Award and Politics & Prose calls it a collection full of “gorgeous poems [that] sweep the reader as into a parade, of memory, sensation, rhythm, protest.”

Before embarking on a tour of virtual promotion events, Steven was kind enough to answer some questions about the collection and his time at LPR.

Steven reads some of the poems in “The Understudy’s Handbook” at The Writer’s Center

Q: Congratulations on The Understudy’s Handbook! What does it mean to you to have this collection out in the world?

A: I am overjoyed and overwhelmed and feeling quixotic and feeling humbled. After seven years of working on the poems in this book, the broken levees of emotion have flooded every area of my life. Practically, the publication of this book was a professional milestone, but more importantly, it allows me to be a part of the conversation happening in American Arts and Letters in a new way.

But, it’s also like a deep sigh in the imagination. What comes next feels nebulous among the uncertainties of 2020. I can’t help but mourn the loss of in-person celebrations for the book, and the loss of being able to tour. Zoom can feel like tilting at windmills, but the dream, the impossible dreams, to quote Man of La Mancha, must be honored. So I guess having this collection in the world means I must both honor and reassess what my dreams are and will be. 

What was the publication process like for you?

Working with Washington Writer’s Publishing House has been a wonderful experience all around. The press is a co-op, so everyone who did work on the book—setting up readings, giving editorial feedback, coordinating the printing—all of those folks are also authors published by the press. I enjoyed that communal spirit and sense of being in the service of one another. It also allowed me to have a different kind of autonomy in the design process. I was able to select my own book designer, and I am just floored at the outstanding work Andrew Sargus Klein did in coming up with a cover concept that felt both intriguing and fitting for the book’s aesthetics. 

Do you have any favorite poems in the collection? Can you even ask a poet to choose his favorite(s)?

I am partial to the poems “When I Feel a Whoop Comin’ On,” perhaps because it was selected for Best American Poetry 2020, but also because its capacity to delight remains strong whenever I read it. There are a few sonnets in the book that feel Creole enough that I hope they make my family in New Orleans proud, but if I had to pick a favorite poem it would probably be “Anti-Confessional III,” which is the last poem in the book. A few lines from that poem read, “… I have failed / to love with the patience of hibiscus root / whose bud bloom with no thought / of being tea.” I am proud of those lines, their pathos and pleasure. 

What did you learn through bringing this collection to fruition?

I am not sure. Maybe it’s that any lessons I might learn from the process are still being learned. Certainly, I learned there is the no armor against the thousand mosquito bites of rejection, but also that to cultivate openness is one way to persist. What I mean is, I found the narrative of “I did it all on my own,” pretty useless after a while. I learned to ask for help, whether that meant feedback on the manuscript or advice regarding where to send the book. When mentors offered to put in good words with editors, I stopped demurring and learned to accept their belief in the poems. It was their way of saying, “Keep going,” which was all I really needed to hear. 

Looking back over your tenure as editor of LPR, what are you most proud of?

Oh, I am proud of so many instances where LPR was the author’s first publication. I am also proud of the friendships I made with the staff and board. LPR allowed me to develop professionally in a safe way over seven years. Not everything was perfect, and I still regret some missed opportunities where I didn’t move fast enough on a story or allowed a typo to slip in, but what a fantastic family of artists and readers LPR is. The journal grew in the number of copies printed and sold. The journal became more diverse in who and what we published. These are worthy accomplishments, sure, but mostly I hope that I did right by the committed readers who showed up to every reading, and the steadfast volunteers who allowed the journal to be excellent. 

… I have failed / to love with the patience of hibiscus root / whose bud bloom with no thought / of being tea.

What’s next for you?

Lots of Zoom readings, and promotion for the book. And I’ll start work on the next book. I want to do some academic writing, as well. I think I can offer some scholarship on the relationship between comics and animation and poetry.

What’s something your colleagues at LPR might be surprised to learn about you?

I think folks would be surprised to learn how much I enjoy film adaptations of Jane Austen. I am a sucker for them all.

Order your copy of The Understudy’s Handbook!

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