Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Last year, Lang Leav had two birthdays. One in Australia, and another one in the United States. She was on a book tour, she says. And as she signed hundreds of her best-selling books — which include, among others, the poetry collections “Love & Misadventure” (2013), “Memories” (2015), and the novel “Sad Girls” (2017) — her partner, the author Michael Faudet, casually strolled around the bookstore, looking for the perfect gift.
The gift came in the form of a beautiful hardcover book by Robert Frost, one of Leav’s favorite poets. She opened the book to a random page and immediately found her favorite Frost poem, “Love and a Question.”
In the poem, there is a happy couple in a firelit house. Newlyweds. All of a sudden, a beggar knocks on their door, seeking shelter from the cold. Frost — in full elegance — poses a question for the reader: How are we to practice love in such a horrible, literal, and figurative winter?
Frost’s masterpiece asks a formidable question for both his time and ours. And it is a question we keep trying to ask and answer. In his magnificent poem “A Brief for the Defense,” the poet Jack Gilbert writes: “If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction / we lessen the importance of their deprivation.” In the music video for “This is America,” Childish Gambino performs a skillful, alluring dance as dead bodies in the background are dragged off-screen.
Actually picking Leav’s brain leaves me with a suspicion: that she herself might be endeavoring, in her own way, to eventually take on the Frost dilemma.
But perhaps I should stop putting the end of the story where the beginning should be. In the beginning, I was waiting. This is one thing you learn once you interview enough people: how to wait. The tactics are plenty. For instance: Study your surroundings. Look for poetic coincidences that could enrich your narration. In this case, I — a writer — happened to be waiting in the Writers Bar at Raffles Makati to interview a famous writer.
Lang Leav’s poetry is famously easy to read. But Lang Leav the person somehow calls for a little more close reading — almost as if she exists exclusively in contrast to her accessible writing. Eventually, my turn arrives. I shake her hand, we sit down, and the interaction is maybe a little antiseptic. We talk about my deadline for this article, the rigors of touring, and how she has grown accustomed to leaving her “quiet little life” in New Zealand so that she can go on the road. But when we begin talking about poetry, Leav lights up, talks a bit faster, and reveals more of her Australian accent.
Leav talks about the beginning. Her family didn’t have a lot of money for books, so some of the first poems she ever read were in encyclopedias. In school in Australia she studied poets like Emily Dickinson, Bruce Dawe, and Kenneth Slessor. And soon enough, the inevitable happened: She fell in love with poetry and found comfort in it.
“When we got to the later years, I was writing Shakespeare fanfiction,” she says. “You find a lot of poets at a certain time in your life — and they become your comfort poets, if that makes sense. For me, it’s Dickinson and Frost. And [Haruki] Murakami as well. When I first started reading his work, I felt like, wow. I really connect with this.”
It’s always tempting to think that people more successful than you lucked out. I, a poet myself, would like to believe so. But that’s probably the envy speaking. Another lesson from interviewing successful people: It’s often the case that any magnificent-seeming luck is accompanied by something else — a healthy obsession, a willingness to hustle, or a well-nurtured connection to one’s readers.
“When I was a kid at school I was passing around notebooks of my poetry,” says Leav. “I guess that was something I reverted to when my poetry started to go viral on Tumblr. I just did what I was naturally inclined to do: put out a self-published book. But instead of it being in a schoolyard, it was out into the world.”
Within a span of a week, she hit best-seller charts, signed with a big-time literary agent, and got a publisher on board. She calls it many things. Magical. An amazing response. A perfect storm of everything coming together. A crazy and weird week that she will always remember.
In an old tweet, Leav says her name is pronounced ‘lee-yav’ and not ‘leave’. In other words, her name does not sound like the English for departure; it more closely resembles the Filipino verb for when a fire blazes. And that is precisely what took place. Her work caught fire, and the next thing she knew, she was a public figure.
On the plane ride to her book signing in the Philippines, Leav was watching ABC’s wholesome hit show “Modern Family.” She lands on an episode where Manny, the show’s sweet adolescent with artistic inclinations, encounters a famous scriptwriter.
“There was this scene,” Leav recounts. “Manny — an aspiring playwright — sees his hero in a café. He goes up to the writer, and the writer is this pretentious, terrible person using all this flowery language. I’m thinking: That’s what it is. It’s the preconception of what a writer is.”
She talks about this after I point out how our venue, The Writers Bar, has a funny name for a hotel bar, seeing as only very few Filipino writers would actually be able to afford a beer there. I strike a nerve, probably because Leav herself was a starving artist at one point. She begins speaking about the flawed public image of what a writer is and how we may be romanticizing our profession a little too much.
“I don’t think it’s a Filipino thing. I think it’s a worldwide thing,” she begins. “Writing has always had these ideas projected onto it that have been completely unfair. But I think there’s this whole generation of young writers who are breaking all the misconceptions on what it means to be a writer.”
“Being a writer doesn’t have to define you. It’s something that you carry with you in your life, but you don’t have to dress a certain way. You don’t have to have a certain lifestyle that’s synonymous with being a writer.”
In a way, Leav’s advice echoes canonical wisdom from almost every field. Authenticity is king, say the digital marketers. Keep it 100, say the rappers. Write what you know, say the poetry workshop panelists.
Leav, by her own account, is writing what she knows. Her poetry is clear, direct, and passionate. It’s authentic. To an extent, the poet, her work, and her fans are posing a tough question to the traditional poetry establishment: So what if it’s too easy? So what if it doesn’t risk anything? And, paraphrasing the poet Billy Collins, isn’t clarity the greatest risk? Because it’s easier to criticize something you can understand?
But Leav expresses these radical questions in the most positive of tones.
She says it’s important for writers to present who they really are to their readers, that she loves the idea of surprising people with her un-writerly behavior. She tells me that we need to dispel the idea that writers are “horrible, unapproachable, and miserable” people. At this point, I tell her: “Some of them are, though!” To which she just smiles and says: “Well, I’ve been to a lot of writer’s festivals…” before letting the rest of the sentence dangle.
Beyond that, she does not engage. What she does talk about, though, is breaking the writerly life’s destructive marriage with elitism.
“It’s not a healthy attitude to have towards literature,” says Leav. “I think literature belongs to everyone. Having accessibility to literature is very important. No one owns it.”
Leav’s work is admittedly not my personal cup of tea, but the importance of her success is undeniable. It’s difficult for me to fathom the level of anger displayed by some poets… at the fact that more people are reading poems!
A favorite poet of mine, Dean Young, once wrote: “Let us suppose that everyone in the world wakes up today and tries to write a poem. It is impossible to know what happens next but certainly we may be assured that the world will not be made worse.” In the same book, Young contends, the last line in all caps: “Some people try to convince you that poetry is so important you have no business trying to write it without severe indoctrination. But POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT.”
You don’t need to be a fan of Leav to admit that she has learned to do something that a lot of poetry institutions have forgotten to do a long time ago: get people to read poetry. A painful possibility to contend with: a single Lang Leav poem — by healing emotional wounds via social media and getting people to read more — may have brought the world more good than most books from less accessible poets — my own book included.
The night before my interview with Leav, I was cramming in my room, re-reading her latest book “Love Looks Good on You,” highlighting lines and dog-earing pages. Some of them were lines I liked; the others were things I wanted to ask about.
This is when I turned the page to a poem called “My Mother,” which stands out. The poem, in a word, is touching. Leav writes about how she inhabited her mother’s womb as her mother fled a country that had them “marked for death.” She ends the poem by sharing how her mother “fought a war / to show me wars can be won.”
“I think literature belongs to everyone. Having accessibility to literature is very important. No one owns it.”
Leav is referring to the conflict surrounding and caused by the Khmer Rouge — a regime that perpetrated the Cambodian Genocide in the 1970s, and a movement that remained active until 1999.
“I cried writing that one,” she says. “My mother was pregnant with me when she was running in the jungles from the Khmer Rouge.”
She wrote it during the Sydney Writers Festival, Leav says, before reading it onstage while her mother was in the audience.
“It was hard to keep from crying when I read that poem out, because it’s so true,” she continues. “In one of the most violent wars in history, there was a little baby in [my mother’s] womb. There was an oasis of calm there. She carried me to safety to the other side. That’s how you win wars.”
I wasn't planning on asking about politics. But after that story, there seemed to be no choice. These days, many artists in the Philippines are rightfully asking: What is all this for? How can art help us in times of crisis and turmoil? In her latest collection, Leav somehow conjured her own refreshing oasis of calm in a desert of old longing. What is it, I ask, that artists should do in times like these?
“That’s an interesting question,” she says. “I’m often asked, you’re a refugee. When are you going to write a book about refugees? I feel that, as a minority, as a woman, there are certain pressures that are put on me. But as a writer, you write what you want. You don’t have to be pressured into writing about things that people tell you you should write. The internal voice that you’ve got, that’s the one that you draw from. That’s the one you listen to.”
But perhaps it is unfair to read that as dismissal, because it does happen that Leav’s internal voice is telling her to devote more focus to social issues. While she occupies a space in the public consciousness wherein she writes straightforward poems about love, she fully intends to do a deep dive into her mother’s refugee story one day. She is just waiting for the right time. Or more accurately, she is waiting for the right version of herself.
“That’s a story I absolutely want to tell one day, from beginning to end, when I can do it justice,” she says. “I feel I’m still growing as a writer. And one day, that’s a story I do want to give to the world. It’ll probably be the most important book of my life.”
Leav writes in many places. She writes mostly in the morning, in her upstairs kitchen, which overlooks the forest and the sea. She writes in her studio desk, which has a view of the trees and tiny, occasional parrots. She writes on vacation in places like Bali, which offers a temporary escape from the “domesticity of her life.”
But one day, she might find herself — oddly — writing during a cold evening. There may be the crackle of a fireplace, and Michael may be in bed. Leav needs absolute silence when she writes, so we will call this evening silent.
She will begin by inhabiting a younger, more sorrowful persona. She will contend with the many forms of sadness she’s accumulated over the years, before eventually finding herself in the middle of another poem about love or loss or longing. Then perhaps there will be a banging on their door. A stranger asking — with the eyes more than the lips — to be sheltered from the frost. Then Leav will look at the long road ahead, and then back at the stranger, and decide what to answer.
Lang Leav's books are available at National Book Store.