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Interview with Nathaniel Rosenthalis

Updated: Sep 5, 2023

Author of The Leniad


Nathaniel Rosenthalis

When did you write the book, and what was the inspiration behind it?

I wrote the book in pieces over several years, starting in 2017 and finishing in late 2021. The book grew out of my obsession with Homer's Odyssey.


How would you summarise this book in 100 words or fewer?

The Leniad is about the longing for home. In it, a young man looks for himself in the arms of many a man. He looks for himself in literature, in the work of Sappho, Shakespeare, Ovid, Virgil, Dante, and Homer. He looks for himself by any means he can think of and ultimately ends up writing a book of love poems that is The Leniad itself.



During the writing of this book, did you learn anything new? either about yourself as an author or about the crafting of the work itself?

Yes, I did. The Leniad taught me how to live in the present tense in a new way. It taught me how to go big and go home.


Can you list some of your main influences? Feel free to include writers, literary movements, but also any influences outside of the literary sphere that have had an impact?

Yes, I can.

Ann Lauterbach.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan.

Brandy (the whole "b7" album),

Bernadette Mayer (yes "Midwinter Day" but also really "Works and Days" and "Two Haloed Mourners")

Celine Dion.

Charmed.

Dante.

Donna Tart ("The Goldfinch").

Ellie Goulding (the meditation album remix of "Brightest Blue").

Fucker Mate (any of their scenes, really).

George Herbert ("The Forerunners").

Henry Cavil. Ivy (their album "In the Clear").

Jeff Clark ("The Little Door Slides Back").

Jana Prikryl (her book "No Matter")

Kylie Minogue (the "Body Language" album, especially "Slow" and "Loving Days").

Lost in Translation (the film directed by Sophia Coppola as well as the long poem by James Merrill).

Madonna ("Confessions on a Dance Floor").

Moshe Rosenthalis (my Saba, my grandfather -- I grew up with his paintings all around me, and his sense of painterly line, his attention to sensuality, plus a tendency toward the abstract).

Monica de la Torre (her series of chapbooks "Four").

Middlemarch.

Niagara Falls (where I visited as a kid -- see a sense of scale, a blueness, memories of traveling, and one of the last family trips we took before my dad died when I was eight).

Opera ("Norma" with Sondra Radvanovsky, which I saw with my friend James Scales who also has done some collage illustrations of The Leniad, published in Denver Quarterly's sister magazine).

Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (I'd page through it when bored during this period of my life, writing this book).

Sophie Robinson (her book of poems, Rabbit).

QueerMeNow.net Rimbaud ("Illuminations," translated by John Ashbery).

Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the original sitcom as well as the Netflix remake).

Tory Dent (her books "HIV, Mon Amour" and "Black Milk").

Utada Hikaru (her song "Sanctuary").

V...yeah nothing.

Wayne Koestenbaum (his series of painterly videos I remember seeing a lot of on Instagram).

XY Magazine was a gay teen magazine that I'd buy in a Borders far from my house in my hometown when I was a teenager. To get there, I had to take the public bus a good hour and a half, with all the stops. I remember all the nerves and embarrassment I'd feel when approaching the register with a slick magazine with two intertwined shirtless guys on the cover.

Y...let's just say this counts for XY as well. Zadie Smith ("Grand Union" and "Feel Free").


Please can you list some stylistic or technical elements contained within your work, and why you feel that these are important?

Some of the standout technical elements of The Leniad that excited me in making it were the abcedarius, heroic similes, intertextuality, and alliteration. These were new elements to me, so the desire to explore them drove me to new territory.

Abcedarius -- the connection to ancient Hebrew poetry, the way it helps children memorize and learn even today. This element was a way to tap into what my underlying theme was, as I knew it while writing: childhood, trying to understand where I came from and where I was going, through the lens of an invented character.

Heroic similes excite me because of their loose economy. Instead of writing in a super-compressed, oblique way, poets using heroic simile took their time to really spell out a comparison for a reader. This generous, gorgeous way of writing caught my attention in both Homer and in Dante, and so The Leniad has plenty of places where I try my hand at it. It felt awesome to be more descriptive and full, rather than lean and lyric in the typical sense we might expect of high lyric, experimental poets (which is what I was wholeheartedly in my first book, I Won't Begin Again).

My fascination with alliteration grew out of my reading of the translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. Using it allows me to partake of that long tradition and keep myself echoing in a single line. When one word works, its neighbor nods, as it were.

Intertextuality. Texts have feelings too and don't want to be lonely, even if they're used to being alone. Writing in response, sometimes in anger, sometimes in exasperation, sometimes in homage, to Shakespeare, Ovid, Sappho, Homer, Dante, I found myself breaking a rule I'd held onto for much of my writing life: Don't write poems about poetry. Don't write poems where you name poets or texts. My fear of being seen as too literary or narrowing my audience kept me keeping a lot of my interests outside the boundaries of a poem. This rule fell apart for me after I had really exhausted every strategy I'd gotten comfortable with in my first book. So I found myself trying to do everything I'd told myself I could never do. And that's how The Leniad was born.



Can you give some commentary around the book’s central themes and why these are so important to you?

The Leniad is about grief. It's about not knowing where you come from or where you are going. It's about the rocky journey of coming to terms with who you are and how far that person is from who you wanted to be or who you thought yourself to be. For the people in The Leniad, this means it's about facing a fatherless, promiscuous life. It's about feeling alone in the presence of other people, and sometimes most enlivened in the presence of the dead. It's not a theme that I'd be able to talk about directly in my own life, but using a series of characters I invented and a set of texts I could talk back to, and thorugh, elaborated a sort of arc of the rocky journey that only now am I able to see, and recognize, and appreciate. It's the most unlikely way to write an autobiography of the imagination. I'm not very much like Leni or Dan or Dennis or Dario, the recurring characters in The Leniad, in most ways, but there are shadow selves of them in me, and me in them. And that's freedom.


For someone who enjoys your work, which other authors do you think would also be appealing to them?

Aditi Machado, Sara Nicholson, Emily Skillings, Jana Prikryl, Sophie Robinson, Michael Earl Craig, are some contemporary poets who do work that I admire, so I hope anyone who likes my work will support these great poets by buying their books.


Is there a personal story or inspiration relating to this book? If you feel comfortable, please feel free to share!

The Leniad feels like a miraculous phoenix of a book, to me, because it arose out of the ashes of failed poems. Of course, this isn't evident in the book itself in an obvious way, but maybe sharing the story of how this book came to be might inspire you, the reader, if you like to write.


All the small shape-shifting poems I wrote, the poems that come before the title poem and after it, were experiments that arose in a six week period, where I'd grown tired of writing in serial form and in sequences. So I sat at the table under an umbrella in the backyard of my family house during the pandemic, listening to music, and taking notes on the books I was reading and splicing the notes and quotes with observations of where I was and where I wasn't and all that I wanted so badly in my life. Each poem had to find its own shape, with nary a pre-existing shape to take. I'd start each day by bringing a pile of books out to the table and play some music on my little black speaker, and start fooling around with text.


And you might better understand what I mean when I say I'd grown tired of writing in serial form and sequences if you know for how long I'd been obsessed with them and how hard I tried to be admittedly monumental.


The title poem, "The Leniad," came from two efforts--both I abandoned only to come back to them later to see how they fit together.


First effort: in 2017, I'd made an exhaustive catalog of every metaphor and every simile in Emily Wilson's translation of the Odyssey; I got obsessed with the vivid and simple and strange ways Homer makes comparisons as well as the elaborated syntax of heroic similes ("Just as...so does..."--this windy way of wording something felt refreshing to me, as I'd been stuck, in my poems, in making really compact comparisons). So I made this 30+page document where every time I'd see a metaphor in the translation, I'd paraphrase it and write it down in the order in which it appeared, sectioned off by book number. Putting this catalog together was exciting but then I didn't know what to do with it, so I set it aside for three years.


Second effort: in late 2018, I embarked upon a three-month writing project, where everyday I'd write an observational piece that started in prose and then every four lines would break into smaller quatrains, until I'd end up with a tiny, often strange quatrain at the very bottom of the page. I never managed to figure out how to turn each entry into an independent poem, which was frustrating to me. Fast forward to late 2019 and I'd copied all of the often zingy final quatrains of these observational pieces onto separate note cards, and then I alphabetized the notecards. Standing up, having laid these notecards all out on the floor, for I lived in a big room at the time so I had plenty of floor space, I saw that when I grouped three or four cards at a time, in this alphabetical order, I'd landed on incidentally interesting sonnets of a sort, that moved between image and argument. I started editing accordingly. Lots of sonnets that sort of worked in a lean, weird interrupted way. I rearranged the letters of my nickname to come up with a persona, Leni, and bam, I had an abcedarius sonnet sequence I'd collaged with a character in it.


It only occurred to me sometime in late 2020 to pick up the catalog of metaphors from the Odyssey, probably out of boredom and having a sense that there was something missing from the sonnet sequence, and couldn't I please reuse one of the many, many texts I'd generated? Pretty please? It turned out that I could. Seeing that my sonnets mentioned eyes, men, mind, wind, sleep, grief, and so on, I remembered that those words and images were familiar to me, and I remembered the catalog I'd made from Homer.


A similar trial and error process happened for the second major work in this book, "Machoville." Long story short: I copied striking passages from three different types of works I kept reading onto notecards, and then would draw three notecards randomly, always a notecard with a quote from an epic pre-modern work, a notecard with a quote from a nonfiction book of some kind (Susan Sontag, the history of color in abstract painting), and a notecard with a quote from an interview with a music or visual artist. Once I had three notecards in hand, I'd sit down to write a freewheeling improvisational poem. This method was easy to do -- I could always write down passages as I was reading every day anyway, and by having something outside of myself to respond to, it was easy to write a slapdash poem. The tricky part was that when I'd done this process over and over and had a 200+ page manuscript of first drafts of messy, exhilarated poems, I had to figure out how to edit them into strong logical clear poems that bore some relationship to each other. I had to figure out how to write an epic that was readable and clear. Once I realized these drafts worked better in prose, in the sense that they didn't need lineation to make their points clear and palpable and resonant, I let out all the seams, as it were, and making them prose poems made much of the work fall into place.


I write this all out all to say that there are lots of ways to make poems, but I found myself drawn to a way of working that was daily, doable, disciplined, and most importantly low-stakes. The stakes come later.



Is there a particular audience you had in mind when writing this book? How did this impact the writing process?

I'm not sure I did have a particular audience in mind, except in the sense that I wanted the poems, however wild and weird, to always be clear to readers. I have a history, as does everyone, of often feeling misunderstood. For me, this misunderstanding took the form of writing poems for well over a decade and being told, in different contexts, that my work was interesting but sort of difficult; riddling; challenging; sarcastic; opaque. This feedback frustrated me. It took a long time and the help of some great teachers at Sarah Lawrence, especially Dennis Nurkse and Suzanne Gardinier, and at Washington University in St. Louis, principally Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang. Trying for so long to write poems that were clear and interesting and mysterious and rereadable, I'd internalized a lot already in terms of what I sensed a reader might likely need from me. So in some way, while editing and shaping the text, I felt like I had a second pair of eyes that I could just put on that make me press a little harder on the foggy parts of the poems to clarify. Anything foggy I'd strip away until I met a bare, inarguable minimum.


What are you working on now and how does it differ from The Leniad?

Right now I’m working primarily on my singing and acting career, and I’m also getting my creativity coaching service off the ground (https://www.nathanielrosenthalis.com/creativity-coaching) which I’m very excited about. I’m also working on a feature piece for the Common Reader about the status of epic in today’s poetry landscape.



Nathaniel Rosenthalis is an actor, singer, poet, and critic. He is the author of three full-length collections, including The Leniad (August 2023, Broken Sleep Books) and Works and Days (February 2024, Broken Sleep Books). His poems have appeared in Granta, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Lana Turner, the Harvard Advocate, and his criticism has appeared in Boston Review, the Kenyon Review, the Common Reader, and the Poetry Project Newsletter. His chapbooks include 24 Hour Air (PANK). He lives in New York City, where he works as an actor and singer, having made his Off-Broadway debut in 2021. www.nathanielrosenthalis.com.

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