Category Archives: LGBTQ

A Virtual Interview with Lesléa Newman

Thursday, May 13, 2021 7:15 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.

Event registration at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-leslea-newman-tickets-148942524099

For more information, contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com

Background

Lesléa Newman will read from her most recent book of poetry, I Wish My Father, a memoir in verse. Newman is the author of 75 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections Nobody’s MotherOctober Mourning: A Song for Matthew ShepardStill Life with Buddy, and the companion memoir-in-verse to I Wish My Father,  I Carry My Mother.  She is also the author of many children’s books including Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island StoryKetzel: The Cat Who ComposedHere Is The World: A Year of Jewish Holidays, and the groundbreaking Heather Has Two Mommies. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, the National Jewish Book Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, and the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award. From 2008 – 2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA.

The Interview

CH: What is your earliest memory of reading and of writing?

LN: Reading: My dad used to read us Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss and then he would lie down on the floor and we would literally hop on him!

Writing: When I was 8 years old, we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island and I was miserable. I wrote very sad poems in a black and white composition notebook and somehow that made me feel better.

CH: What were your ambitions as you grew up? Did you always want to be a writer?

LN: I always wanted to be a writer; I never had any other aspirations. Everyone said I had to have a day job, but I didn’t listen to them. My role model was Barbra Streisand. I read somewhere that she never learned to type because, as she said, if she learned how to type, she’d wind up typing (and how could she type with those nails anyway?). If you have a fallback plan, you’re going to fall back on it. My plan was to be a writer and it was my job to figure out how to make that happen.

CH: When did you first begin to identify yourself as a writer?

LN: I have identified as a poet since I was a teenager, and that identify was validated in 1976 when I had several poems published in Seventeen Magazine, and even got paid well for them!

CH: You’ve had success in poetry, children’s books, novels, and have had your work adapted for the stage, publishing an astounding. seventy-five books to date. how would you describe yourself as an author?

LN: Restless! I like to move from genre to genre, though poetry was and always will be my first love.

CH: Tell us a bit about the rhythm of your working life. On how many projects do you typically work contemporaneously? What inspires you and renews you?

LN: I usually work on one project at a time. I have a hard time coming up with ideas (most people are surprised to hear that) but once I do have an idea, I become obsessed and can’t think about anything else. I am inspired by reading wonderful writing, poetry in particular. I often get ideas while driving (I don’t listen to music or news for that reason) or while gardening or in the shower. Ideas come from dreams, from observing life, from personal experience, from everywhere.

CH: Many readers I’m sure are familiar with the groundbreaking Heather Has Two Mommies. How has that book’s success impacted your career? What other books have acted as milestones for you?

LN: Some people advised me to publish Heather under a pseudonym so as not to ruin my career. I’ve certainly had the last laugh about that! Ironically, Heather, a book that my friend Tzivia Gover and I published on our own with ten dollar donations from hundreds of people because no traditional publisher would touch it, is now my claim to fame. Other books I am known for are the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, one of the first books about Jewish lesbians ever published, and my Jewish children’s books such as Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story and Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail, both of which won the National Jewish Book Award.

CH: Tell us a bit about your memoirs in verse I Carry My Mother and I Wish My Father. What was similar and different in the writing of these two books? How do they converse with one another?

LN: My book about my mom consists of poems written in traditional forms: sestina, villanelle, ghazal, sonnet, etc. My grief was so enormous, I needed a container in which to pour all my messy, unwieldly feelings. Formal poetry gave my grief some structure, some elegance. The poems about my dad are constructed as narratives and they have humor woven into them. My dad appears in the book about my mom, and my mom appears in the book about my dad. They are inseparable in these two companion volumes just as they were in life. They were married for 63 years and I like to think they’d be pleased to know they are now a “boxed set.”

CH: I was fortunate to see an off-Broadway production of Letter to Harvey Milk, based on your short story. How involved were you in the process of translating the story to theater? What was it like to see the work staged?

LN: I was not involved in the adaptation at all. I did have a chance to give the creators some feedback after an early staged reading. It was very emotional to see the show, which is partly about a lesbian whose family doesn’t accept her and is obviously autobiographical. It was especially emotional when I saw it in 2012 sitting between my parents. My mother was very ill at the time and died three weeks later. It took everything she had to feel well enough to schlep into Manhattan and sit through a show. But she did it and said it was one of the best days of her life.

CH: What one piece of advice would you give someone who’s starting out as a writer, regardless of their chosen genre?

LN: I have three pieces of advice: write, write, write. Come up with a writing schedule and stick to it. Read, read, read. Read everything and if you don’t know where to begin, start with the award winners (National Book Awards, Newbery Medalists, etc.). Find or start a writers group and listen to what others say about your writing. Bonus bit of advice: be kind to yourself and other writers. We’re all in this together.

CH: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?

LN: Favorite authors: my mentors, Allen Ginsberg and Grace Paley. My literary mothers, Patricia MacLachlan and Jane Yolen. My heroes who paved and continue to pave the way: Jacqueline Woodson, Alison Bechdel, Alex Gino, Joan Nestle, Sappho, Chrystos, so many others.

Reading: at this very moment, I am reading an interesting novel called BROOD by Jackie Polzin, which is about the art of raising chickens and what that can teach you about life. I recently finished the middle grade novel FIGHTING WORDS by Kim Brubaker Bradley and it broke my heart and healed it at the same time, something which is very hard to do. In the poetry department, I have  just read Mama Phife Represents by the amazing Cheryl Boyce Taylor. The book chronicles the life and death of her son, famed musician Phife Dawg and how she grieves that loss. And finally, I am very excited about the new picture book Two Grooms on a Cake by my good friend Rob Sanders.

A Virtual Interview with Robin Carstensen

Robin Carstensen will be the featured reader Thursday, August 8, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Robin Carstensen’s chapbook, In the Temple of Shining Mercy received the annual first-place award by Iron Horse Literary Press in 2016, and published in 2017.  Poems are also published in BorderSenses, Southern Humanities Review, Voices de La Luna, Demeter Press’s anthology, Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland, and many more. She directs the creative writing program at Texas A&M University-CC where she is the senior editor for The Windward Review: literary journal of the South Texas Coastal Bend, and is co-founding, senior editor of the Switchgrass Review: literary journal of health and transformation in partnership with the Coastal Bend Wellness Medical Center.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? As a young person, what about poetry engaged you? 

RC: Cat in the Hat books, nursery rhymes, jumping-rope rhymes, school yard rhymes, and songs.  I think the pleasure in sumptuous language engaged me.

CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? A poet?

RC: In my early memory scenes, I am writing short letters to my mother. With as much flair as I can conjure, I am asking for something, inviting some reconciliation. Early on, I felt the power of the written word on my livelihood, on gaining parental favor. I wrote stories, plays, and poems well into the night as my parents and little brother slept. That’s when I knew I was a writer. In middle school, I wrote stories by the light of a tall lamp post shining through the fourth story window of our brick quarters in Germany where my father was stationed. At various jobs in my young adult life, I felt compelled to write lyrical exposés of working conditions or real material lives of the people around me who needed better care, or poetic eulogies for the residents and cohorts at a residential care facility who had passed on. People seemed uplifted or comforted by my arrangement of words, and by my mid to late 20s my clear role as a poet was emerging.

CH: What role has your formal education played in your development as a poet?

RC: Very important role in appreciating and developing my craft, and embracing the depth, breadth, wisdom, and teachings of our diverse poetic roots and influences.  My formal education as an undergrad in the mid 90s, after five years in the Air Force and two years at Del Mar college, brought me a dear professor who would become my writing mentor for many years: Vanessa Jackson at Texas A&M University-CC. She introduced me to a luscious sensory world where I fell in love with the Romantics and Wordsworth’s riveting stories in verse in “The Ruined Cottage.” Through other wonderful professors who were expanding the literary canon, I studied poetry. Elizabeth Mermann introduced me to the mind-blowing heart-healing work of Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera, which resonated with my life on the borderlands of heteronormative society.  In another class, I was introduced to Audre Lorde’s poetry, essays, and biomythography, Zami, a New Spelling of my Name. Her lyric, sensual description of her childhood and her mother’s embodied force in her community held me from the beginning. I felt a kindred spirit with these writers and many others, and I felt their welcoming me and my unique voice and thoughts.

My doctoral program at Oklahoma State University where I concentrated in poetry was a rich, invaluable time in my life to study widely, deeply, intensely the history and traditions, theory, movements, and authors influencing our diverse contemporary poetry. I learned the joy in received forms, in reaching for and discovering pleasure in the unexpected through structure and pattern. The pantoum and ghazal in their use of recurring lines and refrain enchant me, as well the bending and fusing of received form with our 21st century concerns and expanded imaginations, consciousnesses.

CH: You teach a variety of topics at the college level, including environmental studies, borderland cultures, and gender and women’s studies. How does this work influence your writing life? How has your writing been influenced by the process of teaching and mentoring others?

RC: Radical feminism intensely influenced my work before and during my studies in Oklahoma. A few in this long list include June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Mary Daly, Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Chin, Lisa Lewis, Ai, and the lyric poetry in the novels of Jeanette Winterson. They teach me through their poetry, teaching, and lives to be daring and speak my truths. I learned that to create and expand knowledge is to demand and imagine better lives for everyone. It’s worth it to reach for the images, sounds, tone, the shape, pause, space, and breath of a poem to precisely convey our demands as well as our celebrations, to stand up for decency and create momentum that dissolves the rhetoric of fear. It’s worth our lives to know that if language can be used to breed the hate and violence that we see daily manifested in tragic forms, we also have language to imagine and manifest life-giving force. In the poetry of witness and resistance, especially in these borderland regions as we experience harmful political policy and rhetoric, I feel myself a part of a gathering force that is creating urgent change and that will not allow the pendulum to swing into full madness. In the meditative poems and poems of eros, in poems that soothe and poems that disturb, I also find love letters to humanity and am moved to write my own that might comfort, inform, shake someone up, help someone, including myself, connect to loving energy, community, and possibilities.

Teaching college courses and editing two journals especially brings me close to work from new, emerging, and established writers. I find much wisdom and inspiration in students, and am moved by their poems and narratives, which speak to our intersecting lives and complex challenges on a planet heaving through radical changes. I’m encouraged by their higher consciousness, daring affirmation in themselves and faith in better worlds to come, in the beauty they uncover and the love and fulfillment they envision and create.

CH: Tell us a little about In the Temple of Shining Mercy. Over what period of time were these poems written?

RC: These are semi-autobiographical poems that explore the landscape, culture, and history of Oklahoma and Texas. Intimate friendships and solitude help the speakers in these poems confront violence and embrace wild uncertainty. I’d been writing and publishing these poems in individual journals for over a decade, between 2004-2015. Since the full-length poetry manuscript had not found a publisher yet, I decided to try sending a much shorter version to two admirable chapbook series. The 30-page limit pushed me to discover a tighter shape of intertwining themes.

CH: What was your process in selecting and ordering the poems of In the Temple of Shining Mercy?

RC: Finding a story, a thread to pull them together, and which poems seem to speak to one another, and roll into the next pairing, unfolding a new conversation. (Really, sometimes it’s a mess trying to arrange, but in the end, after arranging and rearranging, something comes together that feels whole, and it’s a mystery and a relief!)

CH: What was your journey in getting this book published?

RC: Long journey over a decade. In sending the full length to many presses, I learned to embrace rejection, and to find strength and resolve from that space. I’m learning from wise poets, such as Ire’ne Lara Silva and Odilia Galván Rodriguez, who reminded me during one of her stirring workshops, to keep focused on our writing and not become preoccupied with the fame or status of publication or become disheartened by comparing ourselves with those winning the accolades. From wisdom, I’m encouraged to stay steady on my course. And I learned there are many ways to share our work, which is the whole point of “getting published.” We all want to share our thoughts and ideas, stories, and emotions. In the process, I have joined poets all over Texas and Oklahoma at writing conferences, readings, and festivals. I help coordinate the People’s Poetry Festival in Corpus, with our fearless leader and talented Tom Murphy. I enjoy helping writers find a place for their work in a journal that I co-founded, Switchgrass Review:  A Literary Journal of Health and Transformation.  I also enjoy leading a team of students to publish a journal of voices from South Texas and the Coastal Bend, the Windward Review. Along this community of energy and collaboration, I gathered the sustenance to continue working on and submitting my book, believing it would eventually speak to an editor who would want to help bring it to a wider audience.

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?  

RC: I’m fortunate to have a circle of close friends who are my family and who are each uniquely artistic, kind, and encouraging. I’m also nourished through road trips, reading, music, swimming, watching clouds, movies, meditating in many forms, being with my community of poets who are my extended family, and the beautiful island campus where I get to create new curriculum, and be inspired by students and colleagues.

CH: What three things would you tell someone who is starting out as a poet? 

RC: Remember to enjoy doing your art. Be fearless in your writing, leap across chasms. Read other poets and writers across the spectrum.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

RC: Michael + Josephine: A Novel in Verse by Jo Reyes-Boitel. An inventive, enthralling lyrical love story, gorgeously written, offering an expansive vision for the many shapes and possibilities of love.

A Virtual Interview with Lilli Hime

Lilli Hime and Abe Louise Young will be the featured readers Thursday, March 14, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Lilli Hime is an undergraduate at St. Edward’s University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English Writing. She has served on the submission review board for the school’s award winning creative arts journal, Sorin Oak Review, for two years. She believes art is the bedrock for empathy and understanding, and seeks to utilize it for social change by creating spaces where lesser heard voices can be heard. Her work stems from her identity as an immigrant, a woman of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, and a fellow person.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you to writing? What does writing give to you?

LH: My earliest memory was in 5th grade, Mrs. Irwin’s class. After school one day, I had shown her this story I was writing. I don’t even remember what it was about but I remember the image I made in the first sentence: light dancing across the floor of this moving train. In my head, I imagined paper cut out like beings doing a waltz and I thought that was a cool way to start the story. She asked if she could read it to the class the next day. I remember watching everyone listen to my words and the world I tried to make. I think that was it, knowing the worlds I saw as this hyperactive kid with an overactive imagination, could be shared with others.

Writing, and the larger business of storytelling, has given me an endless source of empathy. As a medium, it fulfills the ability to do one of the most basic human functions, and that’s to understand and to be understood. Writing allows me to figure out and process my story and my identity in the context of the world around me, and listen and empathize with others and how they are maneuvering through their world. From that connection, I think compassion naturally emerges to help us see others as made in our same image. There’s also power in that.

CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

LH: It was just coming to the realization that, at the base of it, a writer is someone who writes. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be some tortured poet in a cabin in the woods or someone who’s published three books and won two national book awards. Taking some of the pressure off the title of “writer” makes it easier, in my opinion. I was a writer when I was in 5th grade and the only one reading my stories was Mrs. Irwin; I’m a writer today when I’ve only been published at my school, and I’ll still be a writer wherever I am in the future, so long as I just keep writing.

CH: How did you decide to pursue a writing degree at St. Edward’s University?

LH: Even though I came into college undecided, I think the English major was almost inevitable. I did so many things to try to figure out my capital p Passion – went to the career center, asked friends and family for advice, googled “how to decide your major,” all that good stuff. But when I took a moment to reflect without all the external noise, it was really just an act of recollection for me – remembering that since I was a kid, what I loved to do and always had was writing and stories. And since then, the lessons I’ve learned have only served as proof that was the right choice.

CH: How has your experience as a member of the submission review board for Sorin Oak Review influenced your views of publication? of writing?

LH: I’ve learned that the work doesn’t stand alone. When I’m reading a piece, I can’t ask the writer what their intentions were, when they wrote it, what it’s about. I can only try to figure it out in my own interpretation which comes with my own biases, ideas, understanding of craft, etc. So the work never stands alone but it must withstand whatever interpretations I project onto it. I think knowing that makes me a more empathetic reader, trying to not only understand the poem but understand the reader and the environment they wrote it in and really get as close as I can to their intentions, knowing I will never reach it.

CH: How do you see your evolution as a writer since entering university?

LH: In trying to figure out my place as a writer, I’ve had the opportunity at St. Ed’s to really get a taste of different fields of writing – journalism, poetry, playwriting, academic, and advocacy. Each one has taught me important lessons but I think the common thread woven throughout is the idea that stories and the empathy they inspire wield power.

CH: The current political environment of the United States is full of enflamed rhetoric and distrustful discourse about immigration, and anti-LGBTQ groups here continually attempt to nullify gains towards equal rights. How does your experience as an immigrant and a member of the LGBTQ community shape your writing life?

LH: I mean, when you’re part of a community, you naturally feel upset and hurt when y’all are under attack, especially by the very nation that should be claiming you. But I’ve learned from my experience at St. Ed’s that the best remedy to that hurt is action. And for me as a writer, my most effective action is telling stories of our community. So there’s a responsibility there to amplify those voices but there’s also a pressure when representing an underrepresented community that I think is important to address. There’s a pressure to make sure we’re perfect, we’re appealing, we’re respectable if we’re to gain respect but that shouldn’t be.

CH: Among the authors you’ve encountered during your education so far, who are some of your favorites?

LH: Sasha West, not necessarily because of her poetry though I do love it, but because she’s been such a mentor to me. She’s an extraordinary educator in the way she is willing to sit with her students in office hours and sit with the questions they have, helping them unravel these complexities together as well as acknowledging the ones she’s still figuring out. I think that speaks volumes to who she is and her understanding of poetry, to be able to create spaces to foster up and coming poets.

CH: Where do you see yourself / your work in 5 years?

LH: I’m graduating this spring, so I think the future is very lucid right now. It’s a little scary even to say any plans for the future for fear of them changing. I will say, writing and storytelling will be part of my life no matter what. Now, whether it will be my day job or my second job, whether I’ll be writing articles as a journalist full time or as a poet after the work day ends or whatever, that I’ll see.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

LH: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen