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.

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