Lovely, A New Collection from Lesléa Newman
Review and interview by Lauren McCormick
Lovely is out now from Headmistress Press and available for purchase.
In her new collection, Lovely, Lesléa Newman takes the reader from childhood through adulthood, paving the way with charm and the perfect amount of gravity. The poems in this collection stir the reader’s emotions; they come to life through shared experiences and flowing, lucid imagery. It feels as if you’re sitting right next to Lesléa and she is sharing wonderfully frank, funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching secrets with you. After reading the first few poems, I couldn’t put this book down. I wanted to know what came next in a way I don’t usually associate with poetry collections. It has the perfect amount of narrative to draw the reader in and encourage them to stay awhile. By the end, you’re left with a startlingly vast experience, one full of life and love and loss.
Please enjoy the following interview with Lesléa and be sure to listen to her read one of the poems from her new collection, linked just below.
Lauren McCormick: How did you navigate the process of bringing all of these poems together for this collection? They vary in time, style, and subject while still working together to create this mosaic autobiographical collection.
Lesléa Newman: I started collecting all the poems I’ve written since publishing my last poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, to see what was there. Then I looked through old files for poems that had never been published in a book of mine. I began to see themes emerging, such as mother/daughter relationships, childhood experiences, political poems, love poems, poems about aging, grief, loss, letting go. It was interesting to see how the poems spoke to one another and how the 49th voice emerged (there are 48 poems in the collection; the 49th voice is the collective voice of the book). I hope that the poems work together well and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
LM: How did you go about grouping the poems into sections?
LN: I looked for similar themes (see above) and tried to have the book tell a story from beginning to end.
LM: Do you have any creative routines or rituals?
LN: I try to write every morning, first thing in the morning before the business of the day intrudes. I write with a pen in a spiral notebook, and I try to write at least 3 pages without stopping. Then I will go back to something I am working on, or look for an image, thought, or idea within those 3 pages that has potential to be developed. If there is nothing there and I am not in the midst of working on/revising something, I will read poetry written by others for inspiration.
LM: How does a poem come to life for you—through images, form/structure, an idea?
LN: The poem comes to life through the writing of it. I rarely, if ever, start with an idea. I often begin with an image, or a phrase that I hear in my head. When I’m stuck, I will often pick a form, any form, and start to write just to exercise my poetry muscles. That’s how “Ode to Chocolate” came about. I decided to write a ghazal, which I find very challenging. And I am also intrigued by imitations. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard” actually came from a typo!
LM: Two of my favorite poems in the collection are Maidel and My Mother Cups Her Hand. The process of reading these together, since they're nestled next to each other in the collection, had me laughing and tearing up. Do you have any advice for other poets trying to capture personal relationships in their poems?
LN: For me, spending time sitting quietly and thinking about the person I want to capture in words is part of the process. I am a big fan of the “I remember” exercise, which is a form of meditation for me. I write the words “I remember” and then a person’s name—in this case, “I remember Mom” and then write whatever pops into my head. When that memory runs out, I go back to “I remember Mom” (like returning to your breath while meditating) and see what appears on the page next. Eventually that leads to something.
LM: Mourning Song is one of the few poems in this collection that features rhyme and it’s incredibly effective, showing how grief permeates everything. How did you come to the decision to make this a rhyming poem?
LN: The content of the poem dictates the form. Mourning my mother is such an emotional experience, I needed a tight “container” to contain all my unwieldy feelings. “My Mother Cups Her Hand” is also told in form—a villanelle—which contains rhyme. As does “Paradise Found,” “Seduction in Red,” “Ode to a Knish,” and others. I am a big fan of rhyme and form. Which is ironic in a way because my one of my mentors, Allen Ginsberg always encouraged me to break away from form and write in long, loose lines. He was very amused that I became a formalist.
LM: What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
LN: “Write what you know you don’t know about what you know,” told to me by Grace Paley, who was also one of my mentors.
LM: What are you currently reading?
LN: I have four new poetry books I am very excited about:
Kin by Crystal Williams
Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith
Arrival by Cheryl Boyce Taylor
Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang
Lesléa Newman has published 70 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections I Carry My Mother which was named a “Must Read” title by the Massachusetts Center For The Book and October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard which received an American Library Association Stonewall Honor. Other titles include the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies and the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk. Ms. Newman has received poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. From 2008 -2010 she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she is a faculty member of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program.