Project PoetSpeak on hiatus

The project will be on hiatus until this fall. In the meantime, please feel free to peruse the archives and send submissions to poetspeak.com@gmail.com.

Poet Speak: Interview with Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman is a veritable jack-of-all-trades when it comes to writing. She’s published poetry, children’s books, novels, young adult books, erotica and nonfiction. She served as the Poet Laureate of Northampton, Mass., from 2008-2010. Her impressive history and excerpts from her books are available at http://www.lesleanewman.com/ and http://www.lesleakids.com/.

She chatted over the phone with Project PoetSpeak Editor Tara Cavanaugh about her love of poetry, how to make it an accessible art form, and her mentor Allen Ginsberg.

TC: What does a Poet Laureate do? It kind of sounds like the best job ever.

LN: It really was the best job ever. Basically the job of a poet laureate is to bring poetry to the people, and bring the people to poetry. So however the poet laureate wants to do that is up to the poet laureate.

I edited a biweekly column in the local newspaper, which featured local poets. I had a reading series called Lunch with the Laureate. For National Poetry Month I blew up posters with poems on them and plastered them on storefronts on Main Street in Northampton. My big project was called 30 poems in 30 days, where I corralled 75 poets to write a poem a day during the month of November, and collect pledges per poem. We raised $13,000 and gave it to a literacy organization. Then we published an anthology of poems and had big celebratory readings.

Another project I did that I was particularly fond of was called Poetry to Wait By. I had a poetry book drive during the month of April, National Poetry Month, and distributed them in waiting rooms around the city, like in dentists’ offices and lawyers’ offices, places like that.

TC: It sounds like you worked hard to make poetry accessible for people.

LN: Poetry is my first love. It’s really my heart art form. I studied poetry with Allen Ginsberg and I’ve been writing poetry since I was about 8 years old. And there’s just something about poetry that kind of cuts through and gets right to the heart of the matter, right to the emotion. And people can really seem to respond to poetry, poetry can be very healing, very soothing during hard times – it can even be funny. It’s just something that belongs to the people. So many people get turned off of poetry, in school, when they have to read poetry and dissect it in a really dry way. So I really try to show that there is a poem for everyone. You just have to dig deep enough to find it.

TC: What about your poetry?

LN: My poetry, I make it a point for it to be as accessible as possible. I’m not of the ilk that the harder a poem is to understand, the higher esteem it’s held in. Which is not to say that it has to be simple, not complex. But I really do think that it has to be easily understood for me.

TC: A lot of people say that poetry suffers from being seriously unpopular. What do you say to that?

LN: Well, I think poetry is making a comeback. There’s a ton of slam poetry going around. There is also poetry on the page that I think people are turning to. Poetry can be a real solace. We live in hard times. And we live in very connected and technological times. And sometimes it’s all overwhelming. And to just sit in a quiet peaceful place with a poem can just be very soothing.

TC: So tell us about Allen Ginsberg, whom you call a mentor. What did he do for you as a writer?

LN: He took me very seriously as a poet. And that was the biggest gift that he gave to me. We would sit and discuss my poems. And we would sit and discuss his poems. He really treated me like an equal. He was just a phenomenal teacher and human being and he was very, very kind to me.

China by Harry Newman

seek wisdom the Sufi saying goes even as far as China
and I think of that because you’re on your way again
though they meant a China of the mind the farthest reaches

beyond maps unknowable where silence is the only language
or more the silence within silence so far from words sound
any sense of its opposite the great ocean of thought and breath

we carry within that carries us not the actual China
where you’re heading though that too exists beyond itself
seen only as reflections glimpses when the smog clears

I’ve been thinking lately about oceans their surfaces
changing so quickly never staying still how they remain
essentially unmappable except at coastlines the boundaries

defining what they are not yet even these keep shifting
eroding and building up how little they resemble lines
on the map when we see them only approximation

our feeble dreams of stasis but I’m thinking too
of the oceans around us daily the endless lap
of language of being in new countries like being

under the sea swells of sounds washing over and
around you only with time resolving into currents
waves wavelets crests words phrases sentences

we hold onto to keep from drowning piecing together
a lexicon of our own senses meanings repetitions
we hope will carry us these are maps of a kind

personal longitudes internal navigations changing
constantly all we have as we drift from border to border
dreaming of nearer Chinas always beyond our reach

Previously published in The New Guard

Architects of Air by Anne Coray


Here is the pitch and swirl of winter:
the raw north wind, the bloodless thorn.
Water in its wake churns to jagged slate,
snow keels upward from the mountains.

I’m staying in. No sense shouldering out
against this weather, when my cabin,
my quiet ship—built of two-by-sixes
and twelve-inch siding—grants me cover.

Best time to take custody of love,
having all I need, though never all
I want. Husband, give me your hand.
What we have left to build with

isn’t wood, but air—
this space resting between our fingers
like absent stone
of the ancient temples;

our fingers in column and frieze
as if holding the morning’s fervent storm
in pale illumination; half-gift,
this portico, this life

more beautiful for the surrounding ruin.

(From Violet Transparent, FutureCycle Press, 2010)

Dedication by Michael Meyerhofer

In our house, not once did we hear
someone say you’re welcome
in answer to thanks. Instead—it’s all right,
backhanded reminder of the sacrifice
this or that Dollar Store trinket
cost folks well below the poverty line.
This is a hard habit to break.
Don’t worry, it’s fine when you thank me
for helping you move furniture
or coming to your reading,
your wedding, your beloved’s funeral.
Oh, it’s all right, to students
when they thank me for margin comments,
for letting them turn in assignments
half a semester late. It’s all right
the door held open a few second longer
for the jock on crutches,
for the blue-eyed girl breathing
into the straw fixed to her wheelchair.
I want to thank the moon for tilting
in time to highlight the rain
spilling off a parked windshield,
my body for keeping itself free
so far from cancer, diabetes, suicide.
I want to thank my fear of death
for melting whenever a beautiful woman
bends to drink from a fountain.
I want to thank the crows for mating
on any windowsill but mine.
And their answer, rising in chorus
with each day’s rusty sunset:
It’s all right. It’s all right. It’s all right.

A Confused Grandmother Places Child through Airport X-ray by Martin Ott

The plastic bin must have felt like a bassinet
to the baby, tiny feet kicking, no place to roll.
Two months out of the womb, enclosures
can seem comforting until the conveyor whirs.

Even this movement is no distress as the family
places him in the car seat and idles four cylinders
when he’s too fussy to sleep. The curtain parts
and darkness blankets him. Sleepy attendants

view skull, ribs and hip bone once confused
with the baby’s penis during ultrasound.
The boy’s gurgle filters up to the crowd
The belt halts. “Oh God?” his grandmother

whimpers and the mother drops the stroller
she’s been fighting to close. Time halts.
A mother’s terror is not seeing her baby,
but his irradiated insides softly glowing.

His first lonely cry inside the aperture
makes her nipples weep and she hums
one of Beethoven sonatas, her pregnancy
music. The x-ray beams a toothy smile.

The machine pushes him through its womb.
This time, the first to see him emerge
head first, his mother cradles him gently
in a world scared of tiny, exploding monsters.

Previously Published in Connecticut Review

Room Tone by KC Trommer