The Accidental Memoirist: Leigh Stein Goes Beyond the Babysitter’s Club With New Collection of Poems

stein leigh c2a9 hattie stein The Accidental Memoirist: Leigh Stein Goes Beyond the Babysitters Club With New Collection of Poems

Ms. Stein

Dispatch from the Future, the new collection of poetry by Leigh Stein, out this month from Melville House, is a compendium of styles and influences, ranging from the Choose Your Own Adventure paperback series to 90s pop culture ephemera to, perhaps most of all, Ms. Stein herself. This gives her poetry a strange mix of infantilism and deadpanned morbidity. She will toss off a joke line like “Are you there God? It’s me, Mary Jane,” but she will also include the abrupt sadness at the heart of the closing image in “Epistolaphobia,” a poem that is, to that point, ostensibly a composite retelling of several children’s fairy tales: “In the desert they dream of water/and snow-capped volcanoes. I dream of amnesia.”

“I feel like my poetry is autobiographical, but I cover everything up with allusions,” Ms. Stein, 27, told The Observer in a recent interview. “And then there are some poems that are like, ‘I want to fake my death on Facebook.’” Some of her strongest lines reflect this kind of adolescent darkness. “If You See Them Tell Them I’m Stranded” opens with:

In the play everyone thought he was a Croat
because he said his girlfriend bled to death

in his arms, but when they re-enacted her death
it was a convenience store robbery. Can you imagine

being so disheartened? I can imagine bleeding to death
in someone’s arms.

Ms. Stein has been promoting her book as “poetry for people who hate poetry.” In conversation, she expresses a distrust for M.F.A. programs and believes the poetry community “is based on pretentiousness and arrogance that they’re in some sort of elite.”

These words might come across as strange, given that Ms. Stein’s bios often note her status as a former New Yorker staffer, and her work can be found on the “Book Bench” blog. Yet she says she hated the year she spent working there as art editor Françoise Mouly’s assistant.  “I was just a secretary, and no one even knew my name,” Ms. Stein said. She now works for Ms. Mouly as a deputy editor at TOON Books, a children’s comic book publisher advised by Art Spiegelman—work she says she much prefers.

But Ms. Stein seems eager to prove herself. This is her second book in six months—her first novel, The Fallback Plan, came out from Melville House in January.  Dubbed “a masterwork of the post-collegiate babysitting genre” by New York, the novel received positive reviews from Nylon, Elle and The Rumpus, and also made Oprah’s list of “Books to Watch For.” Though it was published first, The Fallback Plan was written after Dispatch from the Future. Ms. Stein said she wrote the novel because she “wanted to be a ‘real writer.’” Her book of poetry secures her position as one.

“I think poets get a bad rap,” she said. “It just seems kind of petite and quaint and old fashioned, whereas a novel is like, I want to be in the boys’ club.”

Originally from the Chicago suburbs, Ms. Stein dropped out of high school when she was 17. “I had depression, I hated school, and I didn’t have a lot of friends,” she said. She began taking community college courses in her town, and two years later moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

“I think I thought I was too stupid to go to real college,” she said. Yet it was while she was studying acting that Ms. Stein first considered writing as a career. Around the same time, she had her first story—about a woman who keeps her aborted fetus in a terrarium in her house—published in the online journal Small Spiral Notebook, and, after a year at AADA, returned to her hometown to live with her parents.

Ms. Stein has had cause to move back in with her parents more than once since initially fleeing the nest—bouncing between New York, her Illinois hometown and New Mexico throughout her early twenties. The Fallback Plan is reminiscent of this, recounting the now all too familiar trope of the boomerang generation—the college graduate moving back home. Ms. Stein notes that she hadn’t seen Lena Dunham’s debut film Tiny Furniture until a few months ago, but admitted that sometimes while watching Girls she feels compelled to wonder, “Is Lena Dunham reading my word docs?”

Still, she feels that her inclusion in the pantheon of so-called “post-collegiate” artists is only “timely by accident.” Nor is it necessarily accurate, given that Ms. Stein is currently enrolled in courses at Brooklyn College.

“I wanted to write a book about babysitting,” Ms. Stein said coyly. The choice to have her protagonist, Esther, move home after graduating college was simply the easiest way to engineer this.

Ms. Stein initially had a difficult time finding a publisher, until she suddenly found herself writing about the topical problems of an entire generation of disillusioned graduates from humanities departments. An estimated 85% of the class of 2011 moved back home, a statistic often cited by critics when introducing her novel. She was then able convince Melville to take on Dispatch from the Future as well, which they had previously rejected in 2007, informing her that they “don’t publish a whole lot of poetry.”

Though she is quick to deny many similarities between herself and her protagonist, Ms. Stein writes the au courant coming of age struggle of her character with honesty. Esther’s voice is direct, capturing a generational confusion stemming from a simultaneous desperation and entitlement:

I had applied at PetCo and Starbucks, but neither was hiring so I made flyers to advertise my services as a dogwalker. They remained in a stack on my desk. Whenever I looked at them I either got lost in an invalid fantasy or I thought, Jesus, Esther, you were tested as gifted and talented in first grade, you were a Lilac Princess in the Lilac Parade, and you starred in a student film called Russian Bride Zombies from hell. You shouldn’t have to walk dogs or suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. Sofia Coppola should hire you as her personal assistant. You should get paid to update her website and remember to bring a bag of her favorite snack foods when you two have to fly to international film festivals together.

“Esther? Did you hear what I just said?” my mom said.

“What?”

“I said, ‘Do you want to help me plant wildflowers in the front?’ I’ll pay you eight dollars an hour.”

When The Fallback Plan first came out, critics and readers were quick to assume that, as a young writer originally from the Midwest, Ms. Stein’s experiences were largely synonymous to those of Esther. “Everyone was like, so you went to Northwestern,” Ms. Stein recounts, noting the school of her protagonist.

As far as autobiography goes, Ms. Stein said that the book is loosely based on a babysitting experience she had in Brooklyn in her twenties. (“I finally realized [the mother] was just paying me to be her friend. I had to quit by basically leaving the state.”)

When people asked her if The Fallback Plan was based on her life, she initially would say “partly,” though she has since come to admonish the label entirely, in part because “I never had an affair with the dad of the kids I was babysitting,” but also because she finds “autobiographical” to be a “dirty word.” This helps account for all the allusions to fairy tales and pop culture in her otherwise very personal poems. She did mention, however, that she’s abandoned the novel she’s been working on in favor of a memoir.

eschwiegershausen@observer.com