Poetry with Don Draper

by Jen Doll

Leah Umansky is the author of the Mad-Men inspired chapbook, Don Dreams and I Dream (Kattywompus Press, 2014). As a poetry subject, perhaps not surprisingly, Don is rife with possibility; more surprisingly, he’s a little bit like poetry himself. In “In My Next Life, I Want to Be an Ad Man,” Umansky writes, “Make me look good; the world is dangerous”; in “The Times,” she explains, “I thought I’d hate Don, like everyone else, but I don’t. I long for him the way kids long for the turning of the Ice Cream Man.” Season 7 premieres this Sunday night. Here’s a little aperitif with which to whet your palate.

Clearly, you’re a fan of the show. When did you start watching and why?

I didn’t start watching until last spring ( I know!), and then I basically binged on all the seasons on Netflix. A friend of mine, on Twitter, kept talking about Mad Men and I said I didn’t understand the big deal about the show. I said that Don seemed like a real misogynist and that I had no interest in watching it. I thought he would make me feel nauseated. I was SO not into him. All of that is actually in the chapbook — that line, “I thought I’d hate Don…” It’s true, but oh was I wrong.

How did the poetry emerge?

After the first few episodes, I noticed I was pausing the DVD a lot and writing down notes in a notepad. I was compelled by Don’s mysterious past and intrigued by his power. I was really interested in his interactions with Peggy and with Joan. One day, I sat down to write and had writers block. I looked at that little notepad and well, before I knew it I had three new poems: Mad Men-inspired ones. Soon, those three poems turned into 15.

What do you love about Mad Men?

What I love about the show, other than the fashion, and the strong women, is that it’s a really smart show. It truly makes you think about our 21st century world and how far we’ve come and how much we are still living in the past. The characters are complex and real — you can see parts of yourself in almost every character — but you also really feel like you know them (at least I do).

And Don?

I love Don, naturally, but that’s because I feel for him. Yes, he’s a scoundrel. And, a bad husband. And, a bad father. Geez, he’s sort of a shitty boss, too, but he is also a genius (not to mention sexy). He puts on a good act, so to speak, but he’s really just looking for some kind of satisfaction. He’s looking for understanding, and no matter where he goes, he can’t find it. He’s very lost and well, now at the end of Season 6, he’s sort of just dead in the water.

How is poetry like advertising?

As a poet, you’re always sort of selling yourself as well; we’re marginalized in the writing world. We have to push ourselves into the world because fear is a powerful deterrent. People are afraid of poetry. We’re stigmatized.

But, hey, Don reads poetry, so should you.

Simple Enough for a Woman

Love is just an advertisement…
 — Mad Men (season 1)

It’s a madmadmadmad world.
Everything can be manufactured, sold and bought, but love,
love is the mold. You sure could have a lot of fun with this.
In the material world, objects are marked up from face value.
The confusion of client services is merely based on articles,
like he and she. You can find anything on the internet:
even beauty. Advertising is based on happiness.
Be happy.

Which of the poems in your chapbook is your favorite and why?

Oh, this is tough. I want to say it’s the title poem, “Don Dreams and I Dream,” because the speaker is in dialogue with Don. It’s an emotional poem and Don and the speaker are aligned, there, in their longing and in their despair. It’s sort of a fantasy poem if you will. The speaker is comforted by Don. There is a sense of belonging.

I also really love the last poem, “The Times,” as Season 5 of Mad Men was one of my favorites so far, and Don really stepped up to the plate for Joan. I admired that. The scene I describe with Peggy leaving the firm stayed with me for days. I love the grayed relationship Don has with Peggy. There’s this unspoken truth there. They’re like literary doubles. That fact sort of just hangs in the air.

Why do you think it’s important (and how does it inspire your poetry) that Don’s name is a verb? (don, drape)….

As a poet, I really love wordplay. I didn’t realize I loved wordplay until I started thinking about, well, marketing my work — maybe when I first started writing my writer’s bio, and I think I came to terms with the fact that I love language. I make up words, I repeat words, and it really adds to the rhythm, the lyricism, and the musicality of my poems.

You’re referring to “In My Next Life, I Want To Be An Adman,” and that’s the first poem I wrote in this series. Again, it goes back to my love for Don. I had a lot of fun thinking about what Don would drape himself in or have donned and I realized he is a real force of nature. I mean he is flanked by verbs, and they are strong active verbs. This poem is about power and masculinity, but it’s not just that Don is an alpha male, he’s also incredibly smart. When clients meet him in meetings, they get everything that they’ve heard. It’s almost epic. He’s a legend, sure, but his wit and mastery of language — well, that’s poetry.

What are you looking forward to most with regard to the upcoming season?

I’m really looking forward to see what happens with Don and Peggy. I think they’re my favorite. I think Don is going to be really lost. He’s hit the bottom and needs to get his life back on track. As the previous season ended with Peggy standing in Don’s office, I’d like to see Peggy take the reins. Maybe Don returns to the firm and Peggy’s calling the shots, but that may be a bit too much for me to assume. Peggy is a match for Don, without a doubt, but I also think she hates to admit that she needs him. I’d love to see their friendship fleshed out more. The writers haven’t really discussed anymore of what Don did for her, and they should. We haven’t even seen that baby grow up.

Will it inspire more poetry?

It will definitely inspire new poetry. It always has.

How are your poems like Don Draper?

My poems are very direct, like Don. There’s no bullshit. I’m the one doing the selling. I mean, Don’s helping, of course, but as a poet, and a female poet at that, I have to sell myself. I’m in the advertising business. Poetry is hard work.

In My Next Life, I Want to Be an Ad Man

I want to be donned in somehow. Donned in
everything. Donned in the forgotten and the
ecclesiastics of sex. Drape me in the charged. Drape
me in the raptured. Drape me in meaning and keep
it private. I want two lives: one in the city and one
in the country. Two women: a blonde and a redhead.
Drape me in wealth. Drape me in booze. Don me in
diamonds and fur. Drape a secretary, here, and then,

[Executive is the word that comes to
the lips and they smile for you, sister.]

Don me in designer suits. Don me in new age. Don
me in what’s coming. Drape the future round my
shoulders. Drape the next life across my lap. Drape
me in the madness. Don me in the twoness of passion.
Don me in pieces of last, of force; pieces of shaken
and possible then drape me in manhood. Drape me
in machinery and steel. Don me in utterly and plush
utterings and, [Do I sound like I’m stuttering?] Make
me look good; the world is dangerous.

Previously: A Conversation With Pamela Ribon

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.