Laura Eve Engel is a writer, a poet and a teacher. Her work has appeared in respected publications such as Black Warrior Review, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, The Southern Review and elsewhere. Laura Eve studied English and Creative Writing as her B.A. at the University of Virginia, and would go on to obtain her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Laura Eve Engel’s work has lef to fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. On top of all of that, Laura Eve is also the Residential Program Director of the University of Virginia Young Writers Workshop. Please enjoy my interview with Laura Eve Engel…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I usually tell whoever’s asking what it is I do for money, since that seems to be what’s meant by the question. These days, I say I’m a summer camp director, because that’s what I am; I work full time for a summer program for young writers. When I’m teaching, I say I’m a teacher. I hardly ever say I’m a writer, let alone a poet, since that doesn’t pay the bills (although it does occasionally supplement them). It’s unfortunate that it can be difficult to make money as a writer—and poetry as a genre seems to have the lowest earning potential of all. Most writers I know juggle lots of various and interesting careers alongside their writing, related or unrelated to the writing work they’re doing. I’ve come to accept that this will probably always be the case for me as well.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade and The Bed Moved by Rebecca Schiff. I’ve been reading short story collections lately. I love the short story as a form, and both of these were sensitive and smart collections with compelling, vibrant and funny female characters, which I dug. Also, Night at the Fiestas mainly takes place in New Mexico, which is where I’m living currently. Though the book is vivid and engaging on its own, reading it here felt extra special.
So many. Maybe even more than when I think about my adulthood…
The Phantom Toll Booth by Norton Juster.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats.
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold.
From the Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.
Love That Dog by Sharon Creech.
Dr. Seuss’s The Sleep Book by Dr. Seuss.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A writer. I remember when I wrote it down in one of the many notebooks I kept compulsively as a kid. Always a writer. And, for about two weeks one summer, a football player. We’d just visited the College Football Hall of Fame. I don’t know what I was thinking. I didn’t even like sports.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
My high-school-aged self would be relieved to know that my SAT scores didn’t presage a life of total failure. Although there’s still plenty life left to live, hopefully, so we’ll see how that plays out. She’d also probably be excited about all the places she’d get to live and traveling she’d get to do because she hitched herself to the weird writing life. And she’d definitely be pumped to know that she has glasses now, which she always wanted.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
I don’t, really. I read when and where I can. I definitely get the best reading done on trains and planes. There’s nothing else to do, nowhere else to go, and that experience of being physically trapped is sometimes what’s necessary for me to focus.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far?
I don’t know about my career, but I rely heavily on Manifestoes of Surrealism by Andre Breton as a reminder that to exercise the imagination is a human and therefore political imperative. I revisit this text often, and share it whenever I have the opportunity. In it, he quotes Pierre Reverdy, who says “The Image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison, but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be—the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.” I think about this all the time. I talk about it all the time. To me, this description (and others in the Manifesto) points toward a definition of what people are trying to get at when they talk about duende, or soul, or whatever ineffable quality some piece of art can have that is paradoxically magical and real. I love it.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
Tons. Among the most meaningful to me are the ones I associate with my mom, who read to me often when I was a kid. I was a lucky kid. She’s an incredible reader. I can hear so many books in her voice. I probably have Dr. Seuss’s The Sleep Book by Dr. Seuss memorized, all in her inflection. There are also a number of poems I hear in my grandmother’s voice, who would recite them from memory. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” is one of those. My grandmother is the first writer I ever knew.
When I was in high school I lent out my copy of Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk so many times it turned a weird green color. Everything about that is a little embarrassing.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
I used to work in a bookstore, and I’d giggle to myself whenever people asked me where they could find our non-fiction section. Because I was a smart-ass who still somehow miraculously kept not getting fired, I’d often find myself telling people that our fiction section is to the left; everything else in the store is non-fiction. Which is to say, I like fiction and everything else pretty equally. And poetry, which oddly falls into neither &/or both categories.
Do you think reading is important?
Absolutely. I learned to write by reading. With the exception of one heroic teacher I had in ninth grade, no one ever bothered to teach me English grammar. And I guess I never bothered to learn it. But because I read, I’ve been able to fake it pretty good so far. To say nothing of the fact that my own lived experience accounts for very little of what’s important about or taking place in the world; everything else, I encounter through reading. I don’t know if there’s anything more important than encountering perspectives and voices outside of one’s lived experience. Reading for pleasure is a luxury afforded by time and education. But reading in a wider sense—and here, I mean attentiveness to language, whether it’s written or spoken, in whatever manner one is capable—is essential to empathy, to understanding, to civic participation, and to being a human in a world full of humans.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I read that whole Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante in the last six months which, as I’m a slow reader, doesn’t leave room for a whole lot else. And I loved that series. But I’ll go with another utterly uncontroversial response and admit that I only just read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson a few months ago, and it was incredible. Somebody get that woman a Pulitzer! On the poetry side of things, because poetry deserves its own side, I recently read [insert] Boy by Danez Smith, which is as beautiful as it is urgent.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
I’m not such a fan of a reading mandate. But every American human should have to read the Constitution.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
I don’t know quite why I’m finding this such a difficult question to answer, but I am. I could easily rattle off a list of albums or movies that fit this category. But for some reason books seem to blur together for me in some ways, and have more of a cumulative effect that I find harder to sort out into a hierarchy. Maybe I’m intimidated by the question. I remember a picture book I encountered as a child, which I’ve searched for since and can’t find, in which a Jewish family is getting ready for—I think—Pesach. The grandmother and granddaughter are peeling apples and the granddaughter says she’s hungry. The grandmother says something kind and wise about how most of the time when people say they’re hungry they’re not actually hungry, they just want to eat; that most people never really know hunger. I think about that if not daily then at least once a week. It’s shaped a lot of my understanding of the difference between want and need, and the importance of acknowledging the truth of each. If anybody out there can tell me what the name of this book is, I’d be really grateful.
So many. But I’ll just add one more: What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford by Frank Stanford. That dude is an incredible poet, and this collection came out fairly recently. It’s exciting and earnestly surreal and I recommend it to people all the time. It’s one of the books I return to when I’m feeling discouraged about poetry.
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
Matt Taibbi’s articles in Rolling Stone have been the highlight of this election cycle for me, so I’m planning to dive into his books soon, beginning with The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Because who doesn’t love a book with a strong, thesis-y subtitle. Poetry-wise, Play Dead by Francine J. Harris is next up on my list. I’ve read some poems from the book on the world wide internet, and her work is so exciting and muscular.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Laurie, Lauren, Larry: Life as a Girl With a Twofer First Name. Either that, or And She Died As She Lived, Texting “And She Died As She Lived” Jokes While Driving.