May 3–9, 2021
Lesléa Newman is the author of seventy-five books for readers of all ages, including the memoirs-in-verse I Carry My Mother and I Wish My Father; the novel-in-verse October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard; the short story collection A Letter to Harvey Milk; and the children’s books Sparkle Boy, Heather Has Two Mommies and Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, two National Jewish Book Awards, two Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Book Awards, two American Library Association Stonewall Honors and the Massachusetts Book Award. From 2008–2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, MA. Currently she teaches at Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing.
Author photo by Mary Vazquez
THERE ARE SO MANY CHILDREN
with hearing problems,” my father
marvels, as we sink into scratchy
orange seats in the audiologist’s
office. He is used to seeing
only alterkockers like himself
when he visits the pulmonologist,
cardiologist, retinologist, ophthalmologist
proctologist, dermatologist, endocrinologist
“my friends, the ologists,”
he calls them with a wry smile.
But here, there are children
darting around like fish
being caught by their mothers
and plopped onto laps, only
to wriggle free again. A little boy
sporting a big hearing aid
sprawls on the floor in front
of us piecing together
a jigsaw puzzle. “I did it!”
he crows, throwing his hands
up in the air, before dumping
out the pieces and starting
over again. My father chuckles, hears
himself and stops. “Listen to me
laughing,” he mutters in amazement
and disgust. My mother has only
been gone a month and already
he’s laughing? “Life goes on,”
I remind my father. He sighs,
and picks up a copy of Good
Housekeeping, a magazine
my mother has subscribed to
since 1953; there are issues
scattered all over the house
like tattered takeout menus
from restaurants that closed
long ago. Now my father thumbs
through glossy pages of diets
and recipes, then returns
the magazine to the coffee table
and pushes it away with the tips
of his fingers as if it is too
repulsive to touch. “Your mother
and I had a plan, you know,”
he says. I look up from last
week’s New Yorker. “What
was it?” I ask, as this is news
to me. “I was supposed to die
first,” my father jabs a finger
into the bony hollow above
his heart. “And then your mother
would have taken care
of everything.” He sighs
once more and picks up
a copy of Field and Stream
which he can’t even pretend
to be interested in. If you want
to make God laugh, tell God
your plans, my mother told me
at least a hundred times.
Are you happy now? I want
to ask God who really should
have left my mother down here
with me to remind my father
to turn right not left into
the doctor’s parking lot,
to push “3” not “4”
in the medical building’s
elevator, to help him hand
his driver’s license, not his Macy’s
charge card to the receptionist,
and to finally drop down
into a seat beside him
to wait and wonder
when on earth he’ll be called.
—From I Wish My Father, Headmistress Press, 2021.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
“There Are So Many Children” is part of a book-length series of poems that make up the collection I Wish My Father. The title of the poem does double duty, also working as the first line of the poem, and then the body of the poem is told in tercets. The poems are narrative; each one tells of an experience I shared with my father after my mother died and I became my father’s primary emotional support (my parents were married for sixty-three years). As I wrote, I heard my father’s voice in my ear, I felt him sitting beside me. And that was a great comfort. Though I have to say, finishing the book was very difficult; I felt like I was losing him all over again.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, inspired by Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, in which she personified Hurricane Katrina, I am working on a series of poems about the pandemic; in some of them, “Corona” speaks. I am curious about what the virus has to say to us.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day is waking up, sitting down on my writing couch—without turning on the computer!—picking up my pen and notebook and scribbling words across those endless blue lines (yes, I still write with pen and paper). A good day contains an “aha!” moment when something unexpected happens on the page. After that, everything is gravy. A good day may also contain finishing the New York Times crossword puzzle, sharing a delicious meal with my beloved, playing with my cat, receiving some good writing news such as an acceptance, receiving a grant, etc. (hope springs eternal!), but first and foremost, if I have a good day of writing, or even a fair day of writing, or even a bad day of writing, as long as I put in the effort, that’s a good day. As the poet Molly Peacock says, “The attempt is the success.”
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I was born in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital, so I would say that literally, my mom brought me there!
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
I lived in Brighton Beach on Brighton 4th St until I was eight years old, at which time my family moved to Long Island. I missed Brooklyn so much! In Brooklyn I walked to school, walked to the park, walked up and down the boardwalk, walked to Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes for a nosh, walked everywhere. My grandmother lived across the street on Brightwater Court and I saw her every day. I loved living in an apartment house and knowing all my neighbors. Our Long Island suburban neighborhood was so strange to me. I had to take a bus to school, and there was nowhere to walk. My father took the train into the city to go to work and my mother didn’t drive, so when I got home from school, I was basically stuck in the house. And it was so quiet. Eventually I grew used to it, but I was very sad. In fact, right after we moved, I started writing poetry in a little black-and-white notebook to express all the sorrow I was feeling. So even though the move was devastating, it propelled me to become a poet.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
When I was about six years old, I was in the park with my father. He went off to play baseball with my brother, jumped up to catch a ball, fell down on the concrete and broke his leg. I remember being very frightened because my daddy was hurt. He was taken away in an ambulance and when he came home later that night, he had a huge, heavy plaster cast on his leg. I can still see his toes sticking out from the bottom of that cast, which he wore for a long time. As a child, I thought my father was invincible; seeing him hurt made me see the whole world in a completely different way. If my father, who was my protector, was vulnerable, then I was vulnerable, too.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
Since I left Brooklyn at an early age, obviously, I did not find a poetry community there. I now live in Western Massachusetts where there is a huge, thriving, nurturing poetry community. We are very lucky to have the Boutelle-Day Poetry Center at Smith College here, along with several independent literary bookstores, the Emily Dickinson Museum, etc. From 2008–2010, I was honored to serve as the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, and my self-appointed mission was to bring poetry to the people and the people to poetry. In other words, to create community. It is very important to me to be a good literary citizen. I initiated many projects including “Poetry to Wait By” (placing books written by local poets in doctors’ waiting rooms); “Hear A Poet/There a Poet” (editing a poetry column featuring local poets in our local newspaper); and “Thirty Poems in Thirty Days” (local poets wrote a poem a day during November and found sponsors to pledge a monetary amount per poem). We raised $14,000 for the literacy program of the Center for New Americans, and I am proud to say that thirteen years later, the project still happens every November, raising thousands of dollars to support programs that help new Americans learn English.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Richard Michelson, who is also a Brooklyn transplant living here in Western Massachusetts, is the only other person I know, who, like me, is equally committed to writing poetry and creating children’s literature, so we have bonded very deeply. His latest book, More Money than God, totally knocked me out. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor is a Brooklyn poet whose work I have admired for decades. Her newest collection, Mama Phife Represents—a tribute to her son, the legendary musician Phife Dawg—is, in a word, gorgeous. I also love the work of D. Nurkse, with whom I taught for a period of time. And then there’s Kim Addonizio, JP Howard, Martín Espada, so many others. And Walt Whitman, of course.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My mentors were Allen Ginsberg, with whom I worked at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and Grace Paley, with whom I worked at the Cummington Community for the Arts. Allen was the first person who took me seriously as a poet. He said, “Just do the work. The rest will follow.” He also drilled into me, “First thought, best thought.” This doesn’t mean the first thing I put down on paper is brilliant. It means that as I revise, I need to keep returning to that first thought which excited me enough to start a poem in the first place. Grace encouraged me to write in my authentic voice and not to worry whether or not others understood the Yiddish words / expressions. They are part of my native tongue (“mamaloschen”) and a vital part of my vocabulary. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said, “Language is the only homeland.” Since my grandparents all came from Jewish shtetls in the “Old Country” (Eastern Europe), which were completely destroyed, my family really has no homeland to return to except for language (and, I would argue, food). When I use Yiddish in my writing, it comes from a very deep place within my heart and that can’t be conveyed on the page in any other way.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I recently read Holy Moly Carry Me by Erika Meitner and absolutely loved it. The first poem, “HolyMolyLand” is worth the price of admission in and of itself. The poems explore our devastating history and disturbing present times without flinching, and at the same time, they are filled with compassion for our broken world and all who inhabit it. I also love reading themed poetry collections, including novels-in-verse. A stunning book I recently read and highly recommend is Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe by Carole Boston Weatherford. All I can say about this book is: WOW!
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Dare I admit that I have never read The Iliad or The Odyssey?
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I like to really do a deep dive, so I read one book at a time, cover to cover. I assume the poet put a great deal of thought into the order of the poems and wants them to be read in the order in which they appear. I always have a tall stack of poetry books at the ready, many written by poets whom I know. I have never read a book on a device. Books are objects; for me, I need to hold them, smell them, feel them in my hand. I sometimes take notes, but never in the book itself.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I would like to try to write a crown of sonnets. I have always admired them, especially “A Wreath for Emmett Till” by Marilyn Nelson. Perhaps, now that I’ve said this out loud, I’ll find the courage to attempt it.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love to read and write on trains, planes and buses, and in hotel rooms, where I know I won’t be disturbed. Before COVID, I traveled a great deal to give readings from my work and I always spent my downtime reading and writing (never turning on the TV). One can be very productive on the road!
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
My favorite place when I was growing up was Gussie’s Candy Store, where I could buy my favorite treat: a chocolate egg cream stirred with a pretzel rod. I also loved Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes (kasha was my favorite, with potato being a close second). And I loved walking up and down the boardwalk, which was so lively. And of course there was always the beach. I can still hear those gulls calling overhead and feel the hot sand beneath my feet. As a child, I could hear the ocean from my fifth-floor bedroom window, which lulled me into a blissful sleep.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate our lovely love,
And what I share you shall share,
For everything that belongs to me is only as good as it belongs to you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
My 90-year-old father,
still a Brooklyn boy at heart
loved all things sports,
especially the Dodgers
and always kept his eye on the bullpen
along with his friend Jack
who once robbed him of his seat
at a World Series Game, a sin akin
to the biggest Biggie, unforgiven even now.