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The Art of Understanding: Leah Wasilewski on Poetry, Mental Illness, and Wintertime Holly

All photos (C) Victoria Smith.

By Lola Kelleher

Leah Wasilewski is a multi-talented burgeoning poet whose zine, Wintertime Holly, was released about two months ago. At just 20 years old, Leah is already a trained actor, model, and writer. She originally went to school for acting, but dropped out this past year and instead decided to move to New York City. Ever since she left acting school, she has been more exposed to art than when she was enrolled in class. Art affects every facet of her life; as she put it, “art mimics life and life mimics art.”

While Wintertime Holly is available online, it is meant to be viewed in person. Leah initially approached Hauser and Wirth, a gallery she frequents often, and they gave the zine its premiere New York display for a couple of months. According to Leah, a lot of people have been really supportive of the zine, and she is in the process of making a website to release more writing.

LOLA KELLEHER: How did it all begin, your life as a poet?

LEAH WASILEWSKI: I’ve always been writing.  When I was in school for acting, I took a screenwriting class, and being involved in the arts my whole life through acting, dancing, writing, modeling, it just all influences each other. Poetry has always been my thing. I think Wintertime Holly was just me revealing it to the world for the first time. I’ve been writing poetry for a very long time. One of the poems in Wintertime Holly is from years ago. I started writing poetry when I was 14, in high school.

What is your writing process?

Sometimes I write my poetry on the subway; I always bring a notebook wherever I go. You’re so inspired by the things affecting you. For example, I cannot just shut myself in my room and tell myself I am going to write a poem today. I don’t have any rituals, but if I am inspired I won’t hesitate to hone that and let something out. I am bipolar, so sometimes I feel inspired when I am having a  manic episode, or experiencing a low I do get inspired differently. However, I don’t have a set schedule for when I write.

Was the option of being a professional poet modeled for you, if not how did it come into the realm of possibility for you as a young adult?

I come from a family who is very appreciative of the arts. My brother is an actor, my sister is a dancer, and my mom always encouraged me to pursue whichever art I was drawn to. I still don’t think I am a poet, and I never really did think that way. My parents have always just been very supportive to pursue it as a hobby and eventually it can turn into something more.

Who do you write for? Who is your audience?

I write for people I know that understand what I’m talking about, for them to feel understood. And  I write for people who don’t understand, in hopes they can understand a little more. Even in skimming the surface of, for example, mental illness. It’s never my exact experiences I’m writing about, it’s the concept of my experience and  letting that be ambiguous and letting people ask questions. I think that makes it more relatable, that’s who I write for. I use my writing as a medium to convey things that are important. Naturally, subconsciously, I write with others in mind, even if I don’t want to admit it to myself because it makes it harder. But definitely sometimes I write something so my Dad can see it, if we just got in a fight and I want to clear things up.

Do you ever give readings of your poetry?  Statistically, the rate of poetry readings has declined exponentially. So much has changed in the past few centuries, especially with the rise of capitalism in the twentieth century.

It’s definitely not more online. I love spoken word. This world is so technology-based that it’s scary. Having that in-person experience is very beautiful. I’ve never done spoken word, but  am very interested.

Who is your favorite erotic or romantic poet?

I really like erotic art, so sometimes I think it’s cool to look at a painting and not try to mimic it in a photograph, but be inspired by it. I have this really cool book called Erotic Art. It’s an amazing book of paintings and really beautiful. It’s cool to look at all forms of art, whether it’s writing [or] painting, and utilize it all for your own work.  I don’t know about a favorite poet, but I love Haruki Murakami. He’s my guy.

How do you distinguish between eroticism and romanticism?

I wrote an essay in college entitled ‘What is Love?’ I went to the Metropolitan Museum and sat in a room of sketches and paintings of nude women, and realized love is the same thing as sex and life. I don’t necessarily think I can’t differentiate romanticism and eroticism. The root of our want and desire because it’s  love, even in domination and lack of tenderness – it’s still such a main component of what we do and want, even if it’s being taken advantage of, or dominated. It comes from a place of tenderness.

Themes of incest, domination, and submission, powerlessness oscillating with empowerment through sexuality are rife throughout your work. What do these themes signify for you?

I think my own experience being in high school and college with my mental health and struggling to be an independent young woman. Self-destruction is such an easy thing to surrender to when times are hard and I think exploiting myself and my weaknesses can be a very easy thing to do, but I’m trying not to do as much. I think everyone relates to this, which is why I incorporate this in my writing.

There is a lot of repetition and rhythm in your poetry. Would you describe your poetry as musical, you even include lyrics from one of the most iconic Joy Division songs. Are you a musician with words?

I would say so, yes. I’m a huge music lover. Before I put anything together these poems or short stories I read out loud to hear the musicality of it.

How does your work push the boundaries of sex-positive feminism?

As a female that’s putting herself out there, whether  through nudity in photographs or being very sexual in my writing, it scares people and makes people uncomfortable. I don’t know why it does, it’s just part of life. People need to get over that. It’s important to stress [that] it’s not supposed to be pornographic or hyper-sexual. It doesn’t mean I’m exploiting it for the hell of it. 

Your work reads to me as confessional. A few moments resonated with readings I have done of Sylvia Plath’s confessional work. How do you see your work being in conversation with this tradition?

Confessional poetry, do you mean? My writing actually comes from the concepts of my experiences. Some of the seemingly personal things I wrote come from concepts, rather than writing these secrets from my life. It’s just me elaborating on a feeling I’ve had and illustrating it as something else. It may come across as confessional, but it’s not.  I like to leave things ambiguous.

Why is it important that your speaker reveals that which is inherently deemed “shameful” by our society?

I want my writing to be relatable and authentic, even if that is scary and  potentially uncomfortable for people to read… I want those who don’t understand to skim the surface of mental illness so perhaps one more safe space can be created. I don’t have a lot of shame with sex. I have had a lot of bad experiences in the past that told me to be the opposite. I was not in tune with myself sexually, even though I am only twenty; once I took that into consideration, once I allowed myself to be a sexual animal because people need to see and hear it… when I see art that’s sexually liberated, that’s what I gravitate toward.

Why do you incorporate photographs in the work? I see a lot of (self?) portraiture and melancholic, barren landscapes. Are these supposed to be read as poems in themselves or as an archive for your inspiration?

My girlfriend took the photographs. The work definitely speaks for itself, the photos as well. I was going for a certain mood. I wanted them to possess a certain amount of melancholy and honesty and imperfection.  I like that when photos aren’t just showing the perfect human. I hate perfection in images so much. I just want to be myself.

How does the male-gaze influence your writing?

I was a little self-conscious at first putting my writing into this together as well as incorporating nude photographs of myself. I was skeptical people would say, “You’re exploiting your sexuality; you just want attention,” all that common talk by males. It influences me to throw it back in their face and say “Fuck you.” I’m a woman and I am showing my body. I’m not sexualizing about my body. If you’re sexualizing my body, that’s your problem; that is not sexual in my eyes. I think it’s a “fuck you” because I present it as art and as something beautiful, and I think it’s necessary for women to put their bodies out there.

For more information about Wintertime Holly and to access copies of the zine, contact Leah Wasilewski on Instagram at @leahwasilewski_ or via email at leah0423@gmail.com.

If you or someone you know is struggling with these issues, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Check out this article for more great resources on reconnecting with your loved ones: https://www.regain.us/advice/counseling/top-10-reasons-why-you-may-need-family-counseling/

Lola Kelleher was born in New York City, from a young age she discovered art and writing as means of expression. Studying at ICP and Cooper Union as an adolescent, she then earned her Bachelor’s degree at Barnard College with a degree in Art History and a minor in Psychology. She continues to live in New York and enjoys underground music, contemporary art, and critical theory. 

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