Thursday, May 13, 2021 7:15 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
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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 Mother, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, Still 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 Story, Ketzel: The Cat Who Composed, Here 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.
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.