When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
My first exposure to poetry was the children’s book, HOP ON POP by Dr. Seuss. I fell in love with the bouncy rhythm of the text and asked my parents to read it over and over and over. I started writing poems when my family moved from Brooklyn to Long Island which made me very sad. I missed my school, my neighborhood, my grandmother who had lived across the street from us and was now a 40-minute drive away. I started writing very sad poetry, about dogs getting run over, and things like that. I think it’s very interesting that as an 8-year-old I knew had to find a way to express my sadness, and without anyone’s encouragement or prodding, I chose poetry to do so.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
My goal is to write every morning. I am an early riser and I like to write when the house is quiet. I am very lucky that I have a writing studio in my home. I sit on my couch with a cup of tea in front of me, a notebook in my lap (yes, I still write with pen and paper) and if I’m lucky, a cat curled up beside me.
Where do your poems most often “come from”—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I actually struggle with coming up with an idea, though people are always surprised to hear that since I have created 75 books. I find inspiration everywhere: my own experience and observations and imagination, stories other people tell me (watch out—being related to or a friend of a poet can be dangerous!) the newspaper, dreams. Once I was inspired to write a poem based on a short interview of a Jeopardy contestant (thank you, Alex Trebek!). When I am really stuck, which happens more often than I’d care to admit, I pick up a book of poetry. There’s nothing like reading a good poem to get the creative wheels turning.
Which writers (living or dead) have influenced you the most?
My mentors Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and Grace Paley greatly influenced my writing and I feel so privileged to have worked with them. Other poets whose work I admire and have studied are Patricia Smith, Tim Seibles, Crystos, Ellen Bass, Molly Peacock, Marilyn Hacker, Marge Piercy, Frank O’Hara…..the list goes on and on and on.
What excites you most about your new collection?
I am very excited to have written a pair of memoirs-in-verse: I CARRY MY MOTHER (published in 2015) and the recently published I WISH MY FATHER. I worked hard to capture both my parents on the page. Each of them was smart, funny, wise, generous, stubborn, frustrating, exasperating, and at times infuriating. In other words, they were complicated people who taught me a lot about life and a lot about myself as I moved into a caretaking role for both of them. I am really excited to share my parents with the world through my poetry. Each of them was very proud of “my daughter the writer.” I hope I did them justice.
HEAVAN CAN REPLY ON YOU
sings a chorus of strapping young
men in sweet, deep voices
that blend inside my father’s head.
“Don’t you hear them?” he asks,
then shrugs, unconcerned about being
the sole witness to this tender serenade.
He holds up a single finger, signaling
wait, wait, the men have stopped
but then they start up again.
Gouda, gouda, gouda, my father sings along.
“Like the cheese?” I tease, trying
to make light of this newest delusion.
My father frowns –it isn’t funny—
and cocks his head, like a puzzled puppy
trying to make sense of what’s being said,
the sound—any sound—a precious gift
since he doesn’t hear much these days,
not the telephone’s startled and startling shriek,
not the blasting TV’s blathering newscaster,
not the neighborhood dog’s insistent sharp bark
not the hard rain’s hammer against the sliding glass door
and not a peep from the little boy
who appears at the foot of his bed
night after night, his eyes as blue
as my father’s before the cataracts floated in
two puffy clouds across his morning sky.
“Who is he, Dad?” I ask. My father shrugs
then lifts his finger again. “Yes dear,”
he says, “I will, dear.” He looks towards
my mother’s chair, and out of nowhere
I hear her, too, her voice the weak whisper
of that terrible last day. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,”
she cupped my cheek with her worn, withered hand.
“There’s no problem so terrible
that it can’t get worse.” Gouda gouda gouda
sings my father, happily off-key,
his ancient voice cracking
like a young Bar Mitzvah boy’s.
Deedle deedle deedle Zuzza zuzza zuzza
Lesléa Newman has created 75 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; I Carry My Mother; and I Wish My Father. She is also the author of many children’s books including Heather Has Two Mommies, Sparkle Boy, and Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the Massachusetts Book Award, the National Jewish Book Award, two American Library Association Stonewall Honors, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award. From 2008 – 2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she teaches at Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing.