There are many things you don’t know about lesbian poets. The poetry establishment—major literary journals, male poets, poetry professors—cannot hear, see, recognize or value lesbian poetry. Lesbian poetry is largely ignored. Headmistress Press is determined to make a change in this status quo. In this special Ms. series, the brilliant, lively, lesbian poets of Headmistress Press will be bringing you their conversations with each other, in a sort of online lesbian poetry conference.
This week, Gail Thomas interviews Lesléa Newman about her book I Carry My Mother, and Newman interviews Thomas about her book Odd Mercy, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize.
Thomas: As a writer who has published many well-known children’s books and adult short stories, what inspires you to shift into poetry gear?
Newman: Poetry is my first love; I began writing poems when I was an adolescent and never looked back. I am always writing poems to make sense of the world outside myself, the world inside myself, and the relationship between the two. I know you have been writing poems for a long time as well. Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?
Thomas: When I was about 15, I wrote a poem about my beloved grandmother’s death, although I did not refer to her specifically. That was followed by “Loneliness” which was a list poem of metaphors that expressed my feeling of being an outsider, even to those closest to me. When it was published in my school newspaper, I used a pseudonym because I didn’t want to expose my deepest fears. Do you think about your readership when you’re writing? As a “mid-life poet” are there any new approaches you’re using?
Newman: In the past decade or so, inspired by Marilyn Hacker, Stanley Kunitz, Richard Wilbur, and others, I have turned to formal poetry. Especially in times of intense emotion, I find it necessary to have an already existing container in which to pour unwieldly emotions that I am trying to express through language. The poems in I Carry My Mother are all written in formal verse; though I don’t think about my readership as I write, I am of course always pleased when people are moved by my work. I know that you also write formal poems. Tell me about The “Little Mommy Sonnets” which I so admire, and what brings you joy as a writer.
Thomas: I wrote the crown of sonnets six years after my mother’s death from Alzheimer’s. The form lent itself to going back and forth in time, just as the last line of each sonnet becomes the first of the next. As with the title, Odd Mercy, being with my mother during her last years allowed us a closeness that we hadn’t always felt. It’s important to find joy, even when writing difficult material. I love reading my work to diverse audiences, especially outside academia. I’m delighted when someone says, “I didn’t think I liked or understood poetry, but your poems really moved me.” What are you working on now, Lesléa, and what advice do you have for poets trying to publish their first book?
Newman: As far as advice goes: Read as much as possible. Write your best work. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Show your work to trusted colleagues. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Offer your work to journals you admire. When your work is accepted, rejoice. When your work is declined, send it out again. Be a literary citizen of the poetry community. All this will help you when you are ready to send a book-length manuscript out. Right now I am working on a series of poems about the last year of my father’s life, which will hopefully turn into a book—perhaps a companion I Carry My Mother? What advice would you give emerging poets? And what are you working on?
Thomas: Spend time researching contests and presses to find a good match, and don’t let the rejections overwhelm you. Keep revising, re-ordering, re-titling and reading. Find perceptive readers to give you feedback. Be persistent! Right now I’m researching and writing “rust belt poems” about growing up close to the coal, steel and cement industries, and I’m working on some overt political poems. You advise reading lots of poetry, so let’s name five poets who have influenced us. Mine are: Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn, Olga Broumas and Lucille Clifton.
Newman: Great idea! I was greatly influenced by my mentors Allen Ginsberg and Grace Paley. Current poets whom I admire and learn from are Patricia Smith, Danez Smith and Ross Gay. I have heard all three read recently and was blown away. And so back I go to my writing desk.