Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lesléa Newman On Poetry, Mentoring, and Writing For Adults, Teens and Kids

Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books and recipient of more than 110 awards and honors, including being named the Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. Here's our interview...

Lee: Hi Lesléa!

Lesléa: Hi Lee!

Lee: So you have a new book of poems out, I CARRY MY MOTHER. Tell us a little about it.

Lesléa: The book explores my experience of losing my mom, starting with her diagnosis and ending with the one year anniversary of her death (yarzheit). The poems are all written in form, which helped me tame my out-of-control emotions.

Lee: It's beautifully done.

Lesléa: Thank you! I worked really hard, as I wanted to do my mom justice.

Lee: Can we share one of the poems to give readers a taste?

Lesléa: Absolutely! Maybe "My Mother Is" which is an alphabet poem? Or something more lyrical such as "My Mother Has My Heart" which is an imitation poem?

Lee: Let's do both, okay?

Lesléa: Sure!


Angry at God for her terrible suffering
Bitter because no one knows how to save her
Cold all the time even under three blankets
Dead set on living as long as she’s able
Eager to have all this over and done with
Frightened to die though she’ll never admit it
Grumpy from pain that she says feels like labor
Hungry for foods she can no longer stomach
Insisting she’s fine and needs no one to help her
Joylessly sipping the juice that I serve her
Kinked up from sitting for hours and hours
Longing to smoke cigarettes like she used to
Mourning her life which is fast disappearing
Nervous she’ll drop dead with no one beside her
Offended whenever I use the word hospice
Pissed off she needs help to go to the bathroom
Quiet whenever I tell her I love her
Refusing her pain meds for fear of addiction
Scornful of doctors who say not to worry
Trying to make it through just one last summer
Unhinged at the thought of forsaking my father
Vain even now, eighty-four years and counting
Weary of being a burden to others
X-ing out names of dead friends in her phone book
Yearning to be with her mother in heaven
Zeroing in on her day of departure

“My Mother Is” copyright © 2015 Leslea Newman from I CARRY MY MOTHER (Headmistress Press, Sequim WA).


My mother has my heart and I have hers,
We traded on the day that she gave birth.
Each passing year the line between us blurs,
Until the day I lay her in the earth.
My heart in her now cracked and split in two,
Her heart in me now wound down like a clock,
As she and I turn into something new,
The love between us hardens into rock.
My heart in her a newborn mourning dove,
Still safely tucked inside its sheltered nest.
Her heart in me a letter signed with love,
A treasure I keep deep within my chest.
From this day forth whatever else occurs,
My mother has my heart and I have hers.

“My Mother Has My Heart” copyright © 2015 Leslea Newman from I CARRY MY MOTHER (Headmistress Press, Sequim WA).

Lee: I loved "My Mother Has My Heart."

Lesléa: It's actually an imitation of an imitation! It was inspired by a poem by my former teacher, Anne Waldman, who wrote "Two Hearts," inspired by the poem, "My True Love Hath My Heart" which was written by Sir Phillip Sydney in the 1500's.

Lee: Your previous title was a YA book of poems, OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD, which was a novel in verse about the real-life murder of a young gay college student. Two books about loss, and grief, yet with a different target audience - did that difference (writing for adults versus writing for teens) factor in the creation process?

Lesléa: Actually I did not write OCTOBER MOURNING with a teen audience in mind. I wrote it simply as a poetry collection. I also did not think of it as a "novel-in-verse." I actually tried to sell OCTOBER MOURNING as a poetry collection for adults but I couldn't find a publisher.

I was invited to give a talk at a high school for Gay Awareness Week and I read from the book. The students had such a strong response that I decided to publish the book as a YA. So I don't think there was much difference in terms of thinking about audience when I wrote both books.

However, in terms of content, it was a vastly different experience. Both books center on a death, but there are big differences. Matt Shepard's death was a tragedy. My mom's death was not a tragedy. It was sad, but she got to live a full life, which Matthew Shepard did not get to do. Also my mom's death did not involve violence. And of course losing my mom was a personal loss in a different way than the loss of Matt Shepard whom I did not know personally, but whose death affected me very deeply, nonetheless. And of course with OCTOBER MOURNING I had to do a tremendous amount of research, which I didn't have to do with I CARRY MY MOTHER.

Lee: So it's more of the publishing world wanting to categorize things YA or Adult, and you're just writing from your heart?

Lesléa: That's exactly it! My writing business is actually called Write from The Heart, so I'm glad you made that connection.

Lee: Kwame Alexander mentioned in his presentation at the 2015 Winter Conference that he worked with you on THE CROSSOVER - which just won the 2015 Newbery Medal! It was cool to think of someone with so many books already published seeking out a mentor.

Lesléa: Yes, I was his mentor and we worked on that manuscript together for about a year. I sent him several 25-page single spaced letters. I could see the book's potential from the first draft, but he had a ways to go. Kwame worked extremely hard. I'm very proud of him. And I think we all need mentors, no matter how experienced we are. I consider Jane Yolen and Patricia MacLachlan my mentors; they are in my writers group. And I had the good fortune, early on, to work with Allen Ginsberg and Grace Paley.

Lee: So ideally we're always mentored and mentoring, wherever we are in our journeys?

Lesléa: I think that is ideal. One always can learn more, and one can always give back to writers with less experience.

Lee: That's lovely. I want to get back to the idea of thinking of a whole book as a poem. When you're working on a board book, like your MOMMY, MAMA, AND ME, are you conceptualizing it as a poem in board-book form?

Lesléa: I was actually asked by Tricycle Press to write a board book for very young children that centered on a child with 2 moms (and another book about a child with 2 dads). I decided to write it as a poem, because poetry is my first love and it's easiest for me. It's the way I think.

Lee: So with larger works, like I CARRY MY MOTHER and OCTOBER MOURNING, they're built up of individual poems but the total vision, for you, is of one large poem?

Lesléa: Yes, that's it. I started writing in this form with my book, STILL LIFE IN BUDDY, which has also been marketed as a novel-in-verse. Writing a book-length series of poems with a narrative arc is my favorite way to tackle a subject (STILL LIFE WITH BUDDY also deals with a death -- of a gay man living with and then dying of AIDS). And I also wrote a short series of poems about Hachiko, (the same dog featured in my novel, HACHIKO WAITS) called I REMEMBER: HACHIKO SPEAKS. There's something about the form, it allows me to use my experience as a poet as well as a fiction writer and a nonfiction writer. The books contain poetic form, a story with a beginning/middle/end (plot) and in most cases research. I adore the challenge!

Lee: Let's talk about what's arguably your most famous picture book. 25 years ago, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES was published, and it was a watershed moment in children's literature. There's a new edition coming out?

Lesléa: Yes, the new edition is coming out March 24, 2015 from Candlewick Press. I was able to edit the text, and there are brand new illustrations. The book has a more contemporary look, plus the illustrations are in full color.

Lee: What was it like to go back into that text and change things? Were you hyper-aware of the book's place in history, or did you think of it as if it was a totally new story you wanted to tell?

Lesléa: I wasn't really thinking of the book as a historical artifact, though it seems that it has become that. I just was thinking about the text and how to make it a better story. I like to think that I've become a better writer in the last 25 years. It was really great to be able to go back and re-visit the text. Not many writers get that opportunity.

I find it interesting that even though I am not a mother, I seem to write a lot about the subject of motherhood! I CARRY MY MOTHER, HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES, JUST LIKE MAMA, NOBODY'S MOTHER, MOMMY, MAMA, AND ME, and THE RELUCTANT DAUGTHER....

Lee: I think of how "mother" is a noun, yes, but it is also a verb. To mother. I'm a gay dad, but there's a lot of "mothering" to being a parent of any gender.

Lesléa: Oh, that's absolutely true. Remember that old commercial, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's?" (they were speaking about rye bread). You certainly don't have to be a mother in order to mother. I'm not a mother, and I've done my share of mothering myself.

Lee: Yes! Absolutely. And in a way, I'm thinking that the act of writing from the heart, and then our voices being heard by readers, is another form of mothering, of mentorship. It's as if our books are saying to our readers, "Come, I'll tell you a story, and it will unfold in your mind and in your heart..."

Lesléa: I love that! Some of my students have told me that they appreciate the way I have "mothered" them. And when a student of mine publishes a book, I think of that book as my grandchild!

Lee: To wrap things up, we have an audience of writers and illustrators -- any advice you'd like to share?

Lesléa: Read every day. Write every day. Do at least one thing every day to promote your career. And find people who care about you enough to tell you the truth about your writing.

Lee: Lovely. Thank you so much, Lesléa!

Lesléa: Thank you, Lee!

You can find out more about Lesléa and her books at her website here.

Illustrate and Write On,


Carol Coven Grannick said...

Thanks for this excellent interview, Lee.

Jacqueline Jules said...

Great Interview. I loved the poetry and the perspectives shared. Thank you!