The Whole Megillah (TWM): How does the Lovely collection differ from your previous collections?
Lesléa Newman (LN): Each of my two most recent collections, I Carry My Mother and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard consists of a book-length series of poems with a narrative arc that tells a story. In fact, I Carry My Mother can be considered a memoir-in-verse and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard can be considered a historical novel-in-verse. Lovely is different in that the poems do not tell a single story; they tell many stories. There are poems about childhood, poems about family relationships, political poems, love poems, poems about loss and grief, you know the usual poetic topics.
TWM: The poems for Mary Grace Newman Vazquez are just, to borrow from the title of this collection, lovely. You dedicate the book to her. Has this collection then been a labor of love?
LN: All poetry is a labor of love. Poetry is my first love and my longest lasting love. I started writing it when I was about 8 years old and have never stopped.
TWM: The poems here represent a wide variety of forms, including ghazal and villanelle. Which comes first to you–the content or the form? Do you have any preferences for form? Do you experiment with form before deciding on a final version?
LN: The content definitely dictates the form. When I start a new poem, it is formless. Often I have no idea what I am going to write about. Eventually, if I am lucky, something interesting starts happening on the page. I absolutely love formal poetry. The forms are in my blood, as I have been reading them and writing in them for decades. It’s a pretty organic process. While I am exploring a particular subject, a particular form just makes sense. For example, in “My Mother Cups Her Hand,” I am writing about one of the last days of my mother’s life. The emotions are so enormous, they needed to be reeled in by the constraints of the villanelle. Otherwise they’d be too overwhelming. In “To Have And To Hold” I chose the triolet with its repeating lines because I kept coming back to the importance of the date, May 17, 2004, when same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts. I wanted to repeat that fact again and again and again because it is so important.
TWM: In her back cover blurb, poet Molly Peacock comments on your use of repetition. Can you comment on that? You not only use repetition as dictated by certain forms, but use it freely in other poems.
LN: I grew up on Dr. Seuss, a true master of repetition. I use repetition in both my children’s books and my poetry. Some things bear repeating! I pay particular attention to rhythm and meter in my poetry, which are both close relatives of repetition. Repetition is the perfect way to emphasize the important matters of a poem.
TWM: When did you start writing poetry? Who inspires you?
LN: I started writing when I was very young, about eight years old. I got serious when I was in high school (or as serious as a teenager can get). I started sending out my work very early, and when I was 19, I received my first acceptance from Seventeen Magazine. I have been greatly inspired by my mentors, Grace Paley and Allen Ginsberg, may they both rest in peace, as well as contemporary poets including Patricia Smith, Ellen Bass, Nikki Finney, Richard Wilbur, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Tim Seibles, and too many others to name.
TWM: Several poems in this collection demonstrate playfulness. How did you come up with the idea for “My Mother’s Stories,” using the names of soap operas? My mother called them her stories, too. I’m wondering, too, about “According to Bread.” How did that come to be?
LN: It’s funny that you should ask about those two poems. “My Mother’s Stories” was written at the request of a friend, Elizabeth Searle, who was editing an anthology about soap operas. I did a search of soap operas and the titles were so great, they begged to be included in a found poem. “According to Bread” was written because when I was serving as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA I was asked to read a poem at the annual “Bread Festival” which is put on by Hungry Ghost Bakery (who by the way bakes the best bread ever). I started playing around with puns, and the poem is the result. I do my best to honor all requests!
TWM: So many of your poems, while personal, speak to the universal experience. One of these for me is “Maidel.” I could just hear my own mother saying the exact same things. It’s a prose poem. In your drafts, was it always a prose poem?
LN: Yes, this particular piece, though considered by some to be a piece of flash fiction or a short-short story, is, to my mind, a prose poem. It came about on a day when I had just finished a piece of writing and had no idea what to write next (which happens to me more than one would think; my biggest writing challenge is coming up with ideas). I just started scribbling in a notebook and my mother’s voice appeared in my head. It was great fun to remember all the things she used to say. At the time (during my turbulent adolescence) I found her words annoying, and sometimes even enraging. Now I find them endearing and amusing. Oh, how I miss her!
TWM: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
LN: Read as much as possible, as widely as possible. Study formal poetry, even if it’s not your thing. As I tell my students (and myself) “If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for you.” Write every day. Go to as many readings as possible. Become an active member of your literary community. Don’t submit your work; instead offer it. That way it can never be rejected; though it may be declined. Find or start a writer’s group and listen to what others have to say about your work. Revise, revise, revise. Fall in love with language and it will fall in love with you.
Congratulations on the new book, Lesléa, and thank you, Barbara, for sharing this with the Jewish Book Carnival.